The Pleasures of Life
By Sir John Lubbock

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    “Happy is he that findeth wisdom,
    And the man that getteth understanding:
    For the merchandise of it is better than silver,
    And the gain thereof than fine gold.
    She is more precious than rubies:
    And all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared unto her.
    Length of days is in her right hand,
    And in her left hand riches and honor.
    Her ways are ways of pleasantness,
    And all her paths are peace.”


Those who have not tried for themselves can hardly imagine how much Science adds to the interest and variety of life. It is altogether a mistake to regard it as dry, difficult, or prosaic–much of it is as easy as it is interesting. A wise instinct of old united the prophet and the “seer.” “The wise man’s eyes are in his head, but the fool walketh in darkness.” Technical works, descriptions of species, etc., bear the same relation to science as dictionaries do to literature.

Occasionally, indeed, Science may destroy some poetical myth of antiquity, such as the ancient Hindoo explanation of rivers, that “Indra dug out their beds with his thunderbolts, and sent them forth by long continuous paths;” but the real causes of natural phenomena are far more striking, and contain more true poetry, than those which have occurred to the untrained imagination of mankind.

In endless aspects science is as wonderful and interesting as a fairy tale.

  “There are things whose strong reality
    Outshines our fairyland; in shape and hues
  More beautiful than our fantastic sky,
    And the strange constellations which the Muse
    O’er her wild universe is skillful to diffuse.” [1]

Mackay justly exclaims:

  “Blessings on Science! When the earth seemed old,
  When Faith grew doting, and our reason cold,
  ’Twas she discovered that the world was young,
  And taught a language to its lisping tongue.”

Botany, for instance, is by many regarded as a dry science. Yet though without it we may admire flowers and trees, it is only as strangers, only as one may admire a great man or a beautiful woman in a crowd. The botanist, on the contrary–nay, I will not say the botanist, but one with even a slight knowledge of that delightful science–when he goes out into the woods, or into one of those fairy forests which we call fields, finds himself welcomed by a glad company of friends, every one with something interesting to tell. Dr. Johnson said that, in his opinion, when you had seen one green field you had seen all; and a greater even than Johnson–Socrates–the very type of intellect without science, said he was always anxious to learn, and from fields and trees he could learn nothing.

It has, I know, been said that botanists

  “Love not the flower they pluck and know it not.
  And all their botany is but Latin names.”

Contrast this, however, with the language of one who would hardly claim to be a master in botany, though he is certainly a loving student. “Consider,” says Ruskin, “what we owe to the meadow grass, to the covering of the dark ground by that glorious enamel, by the companies of those soft, countless, and peaceful spears of the field! Follow but for a little time the thought of all that we ought to recognize in those words. All spring and summer is in them–the walks by silent scented paths, the rest in noonday heat, the joy of the herds and flocks, the power of all shepherd life and meditation; the life of the sunlight upon the world, falling in emerald streaks and soft blue shadows, when else it would have struck on the dark mould or scorching dust; pastures beside the pacing brooks, soft banks and knolls of lowly hills, thymy slopes of down overlooked by the blue line of lifted sea; crisp lawns all dim with early dew, or smooth in evening warmth of barred sunshine, dinted by happy feet, softening in their fall the sound of loving voices.”

My own tastes and studies have led me mainly in the direction of Natural History and Archaeology; but if you love one science, you cannot but feel intense interest in them all. How grand are the truths of Astronomy! Prudhomme, in a sonnet beautifully translated by Arthur O’Shaugnessy, has pictured an Observatory. He says–

  “’Tis late; the astronomer in his lonely height,
  Exploring, all the dark, descries afar
  Orbs that like distant isles of splendor are.”

He notices a comet, and calculating its orbit, finds that it will return in a thousand years–

  “The star will come. It dare not by one hour
    Cheat Science, or falsify her calculation;
  Men will have passed, but, watchful in the tower,
    Man shall remain in sleepless contemplation;
  And should all men have perished in their turn,
  Truth in their place would watch that star’s return.”

Ernest Rhys well says of a student’s chamber–

  “Strange things pass nightly in this little room,
  All dreary as it looks by light of day;
  Enchantment reigns here when at evening play
  Red fire-light glimpses through the pallid gloom.”

And the true student, in Ruskin’s words, stands on an eminence from which he looks back on the universe of God and forward over the generations of men.

Even if it be true that science was dry when it was buried in huge folios, that is certainly no longer the case now; and Lord Chesterfield’s wise wish, that Minerva might have three graces as well as Venus, has been amply fulfilled.

The study of natural history indeed seems destined to replace the loss of what is, not very happily I think, termed “sport;” engraven in us as it is by the operation of thousands of years, during which man lived greatly on the produce of the chase. Game is gradually becoming “small by degrees and beautifully less.” Our prehistoric ancestors hunted the mammoth, the woolly-haired rhinoceros, and Irish elk; the ancient Britons had the wild ox, the deer, and the wolf. We have still the pheasant, the partridge, the fox, and the hare; but even these are becoming scarcer, and must be preserved first, in order that they may be killed afterwards. Some of us even now–and more, no doubt, will hereafter–satisfy instincts, essentially of the same origin, by the study of birds, or insects, or even infusoria–of creatures which more than make up by their variety what they want in size.

Emerson avers that when a naturalist has “got all snakes and lizards in his phials, science has done for him also, and has put the man into a bottle.” I do not deny that there are such cases, but they are quite exceptional. The true naturalist is no mere dry collector.

I cannot resist, although it is rather long, quoting the following description from Hudson and Gosse’s beautiful work on the Rotifera:–

“On the Somersetshire side of the Avon, and not far from Clifton, is a little combe, at the bottom of which lies an old fish-pond. Its slopes are covered with plantations of beech and fir, so as to shelter the pond on three sides, and yet leave it open to the soft south-western breezes, and to the afternoon sun. At the head of the combe wells up a clear spring, which sends a thread of water, trickling through a bed of osiers, into the upper end of the pond. A stout stone wall has been drawn across the combe from side to side, so as to dam up the stream; and there is a gap in one corner through which the overflow finds its way in a miniature cascade, down into the lower plantation.

“If we approach the pond by the gamekeeper’s path from the cottage above, we shall pass through the plantation, and come unseen right on the corner of the wall; so that one quiet step will enable us to see at a glance its whole surface, without disturbing any living thing that may be there.

“Far off at the upper end a water-hen is leading her little brood among the willows; on the fallen trunk of an old beech, lying half way across the pond, a vole is sitting erect, rubbing his right ear, and the splash of a beech husk just at our feet tells of a squirrel who is dining somewhere in the leafy crown above us.

“But see, the water-rat has spied us out, and is making straight for his hole in the bank, while the ripple above him is the only thing that tells of his silent flight. The water-hen has long ago got under cover, and the squirrel drops no more husks. It is a true Silent Pond, and without a sign of life.

“But if, retaining sense and sight, we could shrink into living atoms and plunge under the water, of what a world of wonders should we then form part! We should find this fairy kingdom peopled with the strangest creatures–creatures that swim with their hair, that have ruby eyes blazing deep in their necks, with telescopic limbs that now are withdrawn wholly within their bodies and now stretched out to many times their own length. Here are some riding at anchor, moored by delicate threads spun out from their toes; and there are others flashing by in glass armor, bristling with sharp spikes or ornamented with bosses and flowing curves; while fastened to a great stem is an animal convolvulus that, by some invisible power, draws a never-ceasing stream of victims into its gaping cup, and tears them to death with hooked jaws deep down within its body.

“Close by it, on the same stem, is something that looks like a filmy heart’s-ease. A curious wheelwork runs round its four outspread petals; and a chain of minute things, living and dead, is winding in and out of their curves into a gulf at the back of the flower. What happens to them there we cannot see; for round the stem is raised a tube of golden-brown balls, all regularly piled on each other. Some creature dashes by, and like a flash the flower vanishes within its tube.

“We sink still lower, and now see on the bottom slow gliding lumps of jelly that thrust a shapeless arm out where they will, and grasping their prey with these chance limbs, wrap themselves round their food to get a meal; for they creep without feet, seize without hands, eat without mouths, and digest without stomachs.”

Too many, however, still feel only in Nature that which we share “with the weed and the worm;” they love birds as boys do–that is, they love throwing stones at them; or wonder if they are good to eat, as the Esquimaux asked about the watch; or treat them as certain devout Afreedee villagers are said to have treated a descendant of the Prophet–killed him in order to worship at his tomb: but gradually we may hope that the love of Science–the notes “we sound upon the strings of nature” [2]–will become to more and more, as already it is to many, a “faithful and sacred element of human feeling.”

Science summons us

  “To that cathedral, boundless as our wonder,
     Whose quenchless lamps the sun and moon supply;
  Its choir the winds and waves, its organ thunder,
                       Its dome the sky.” [3]

Where the untrained eye will see nothing but mire and dirt, Science will often reveal exquisite possibilities. The mud we tread under our feet in the street is a grimy mixture of clay and sand, soot and water. Separate the sand, however, as Ruskin observes–let the atoms arrange themselves in peace according to their nature–and you have the opal. Separate the clay, and it becomes a white earth, fit for the finest porcelain; or if it still further purifies itself, you have a sapphire. Take the soot, and if properly treated it will give you a diamond. While, lastly, the water, purified and distilled, will become a dew-drop, or crystallize into a lovely star. Or, again, you may see as you will in any shallow pool either the mud lying at the bottom, or the image of the heavens above.

Nay, even if we imagine beauties and charms which do not really exist; still if we err at all it is better to do so on the side of charity; like Nasmyth, who tells us in his delightful autobiography, that he used to think one of his friends had a charming and kindly twinkle, and was one day surprised to discover that he had a glass eye.

But I should err indeed were I to dwell exclusively on science as lending interest and charm to our leisure hours. Far from this, it would be impossible to overrate the importance of scientific training on the wise conduct of life.

“Science,” said the Royal Commission of 1861, “quickens and cultivates directly the faculty of observation, which in very many persons lies almost dormant through life, the power of accurate and rapid generalization, and the mental habit of method and arrangement; it accustoms young persons to trace the sequence of cause and effect; it familiarizes them with a kind of reasoning which interests them, and which they can promptly comprehend; and it is perhaps the best corrective for that indolence which is the vice of half-awakened minds, and which shrinks from any exertion that is not, like an effort of memory, merely mechanical.”

Again, when we contemplate the grandeur of science, if we transport ourselves in imagination back into primeval times, or away into the immensity of space, our little troubles and sorrows seem to shrink into insignificance. “Ah, beautiful creations!” says Helps, speaking of the stars, “it is not in guiding us over the seas of our little planet, but out of the dark waters of our own perturbed minds, that we may make to ourselves the most of your significance.” They teach, he tells us elsewhere, “something significant to all of us; and each man has a whole hemisphere of them, if he will but look up, to counsel and befriend him.”

There is a passage in an address given many years ago by Professor Huxley to the South London Working Men’s College which struck me very much at the time, and which puts this in language more forcible than any which I could use.

“Suppose,” he said, “it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or other, depend upon his winning or losing a game of chess. Don’t you think that we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn upon the father who allowed his son, or the State which allowed its members, to grow up without knowing a pawn from a knight? Yet it is a very plain and elementary truth that the life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and more or less of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players in a game of his or her own. The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the Universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of Nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know to our cost that he never overlooks a mistake or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well the highest stakes are paid, with that sort of overflowing generosity which with the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated–without haste, but without remorse.”

I have elsewhere endeavored to show the purifying and ennobling influence of science upon religion; how it has assisted, if indeed it may not claim the main share, in sweeping away the dark superstitions, the degrading belief in sorcery and witchcraft, and the cruel, however well-intentioned, intolerance which embittered the Christian world almost from the very days of the Apostles themselves. In this she has surely performed no mean service to religion itself. As Canon Fremantle has well and justly said, men of science, and not the clergy only, are ministers of religion.

Again, the national necessity for scientific education is imperative. We are apt to forget how much we owe to science, because so many of its wonderful gifts have become familiar parts of our everyday life, that their very value makes us forget their origin. At the recent celebration of the sexcentenary of Peterhouse College, near the close of a long dinner, Sir Frederick Bramwell was called on, some time after midnight, to return thanks for Applied Science. He excused himself from making a long speech on the ground that, though the subject was almost inexhaustible, the only illustration which struck him as appropriate under the circumstances was “the application of the domestic lucifer to the bedroom candle.” One cannot but feel how unfortunate was the saying of the poet that

  “The light-outspeeding telegraph
  Bears nothing on its beam.”

The report of the Royal Commission on Technical Instruction, which has recently been issued, teems with illustrations of the advantages afforded by technical instruction. At the same time, technical training ought not to begin too soon, for, as Bain truly observes, “in a right view of scientific education the first principles and leading examples, with select details, of all the great sciences, are the proper basis of the complete and exhaustive study of any single science.” Indeed, in the words of Sir John Herschel, “it can hardly be pressed forcibly enough on the attention of the student of Nature, that there is scarcely any natural phenomenon which can be fully and completely explained in all its circumstances, without a union of several, perhaps of all, the sciences." The most important secrets of Nature are often hidden away in unexpected places. Many valuable substances have been discovered in the refuse of manufactories; and it was a happy thought of Glauber to examine what everybody else threw away. There is perhaps no nation the future happiness and prosperity of which depend more on science than our own. Our population is over 35,000,000, and is rapidly increasing. Even at present it is far larger than our acreage can support. Few people whose business does not lie in the study of statistics realize that we have to pay foreign countries no less than L140,000,000 a year for food. This, of course, we purchase mainly by manufactured articles. We hear now a great deal about depression of trade, and foreign, especially American, competition, which, let me observe, will be much keener a few years hence, when the United States have paid off their debt, and consequently reduced taxation.

But let us look forward a hundred years–no long time in the history of a nation. Our coal supplies will then be greatly diminished. The population of Great Britain doubles at the present rate of increase in about fifty years, so that we should, if the present rate continues, require to import over L400,000,000 a year in food. How, then, is this to be paid for? We have before us, as usual, three courses. The natural rate of increase may be stopped, which means suffering and outrage; or the population may increase, only to vegetate in misery and destitution; or, lastly, by the development of scientific training and appliances, they may probably be maintained in happiness and comfort. We have, in fact, to make our choice between science and suffering. It is only by wisely utilizing the gifts of science that we have any hope of maintaining our population in plenty and comfort. Science, however, will do this for us if we will only let her. She may be no Fairy Godmother indeed, but she will richly endow those who love her.

That discoveries, innumerable, marvellous, and fruitful, await the successful explorers of Nature no one can doubt. What would one not give for a Science primer of the next century? for, to paraphrase a well-known saying, even the boy at the plough will then know more of science than the wisest of our philosophers do now. Boyle entitled one of his essays “Of Man’s great Ignorance of the Uses of Natural Things; or that there is no one thing in Nature whereof the uses to human life are yet thoroughly understood"–a saying which is still as true now as when it was written. And, lest I should be supposed to be taking too sanguine a view, let me give the authority of Sir John Herschel, who says: “Since it cannot but be that innumerable and most important uses remain to be discovered among the materials and objects already known to us, as well as among those which the progress of science must hereafter disclose, we may hence conceive a well-grounded expectation, not only of constant increase in the physical resources of mankind, and the consequent improvement of their condition, but of continual accession to our power of penetrating into the arcana of Nature and becoming acquainted with her highest laws.”

Nor is it merely in a material point of view that science would thus benefit the nation. She will raise and strengthen the national, as surely as the individual, character. The great gift which Minerva offered to Paris is now freely tendered to all, for we may apply to the nation, as well as to the individual, Tennyson’s noble lines:–

  “Self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control:
  These three alone lead life to sovereign power,
  Yet not for power (power of herself
  Would come uncalled for), but to live by law;
  Acting the law we live by without fear.”

“In the vain and foolish exultation of the heart,” said John Quincy Adams, at the close of his final lecture on resigning his chair at Boston, “which the brighter prospects of life will sometimes excite, the pensive portress of Science shall call you to the sober pleasures of her holy cell. In the mortification of disappointment, her soothing voice shall whisper serenity and peace. In social converse with the mighty dead of ancient days, you will never smart under the galling sense of dependence upon the mighty living of the present age. And in your struggles with the world, should a crisis ever occur, when even friendship may deem it prudent to desert you, when priest and Levite shall come and look on you and pass by on the other side, seek refuge, my unfailing friends, and be assured you shall find it, in the friendship of Laelius and Scipio, in the patriotism of Cicero, Demosthenes, and Burke, as well as in the precepts and example of Him whose law is love, and who taught us to remember injuries only to forgive them.”

Let me in conclusion quote the glowing description of our debt to science given by Archdeacon Farrar in his address at Liverpool College–testimony, moreover, all the more valuable, considering the source from which it comes.

“In this great commercial city,” he said, “where you are surrounded by the triumphs of science and of mechanism–you, whose river is ploughed by the great steamships whose white wake has been called the fittest avenue to the palace front of a mercantile people–you know well that in the achievements of science there is not only beauty and wonder, but also beneficence and power. It is not only that she has revealed to us infinite space crowded with unnumbered worlds; infinite time peopled by unnumbered existences; infinite organisms hitherto invisible but full of delicate and iridescent loveliness; but also that she has been, as a great Archangel of Mercy, devoting herself to the service of man. She has labored, her votaries have labored, not to increase the power of despots or to add to the magnificence of courts, but to extend human happiness, to economize human effort, to extinguish human pain. Where of old, men toiled, half blinded and half naked, in the mouth of the glowing furnace to mix the white-hot iron, she now substitutes the mechanical action of the viewless air. She has enlisted the sunbeam in her service to limn for us, with absolute fidelity, the faces of the friends we love. She has shown the poor miner how he may work in safety, even amid the explosive fire-damp of the mine. She hits, by her anaesthetics, enabled the sufferer to be hushed and unconscious while the delicate hand of some skilled operator cuts a fragment from the nervous circle of the unquivering eye. She points not to pyramids built during weary centuries by the sweat of miserable nations, but to the lighthouse and the steamship, to the railroad and the telegraph. She has restored eyes to the blind and hearing to the deaf. She has lengthened life, she has minimized danger, she has controlled madness, she has trampled on disease. And on all these grounds, I think that none of our sons should grow up wholly ignorant of studies which at once train the reason and fire the imagination, which fashion as well as forge, which can feed as well as fill the mind.”

[1] Byron.

[2] Emerson.

[3] H. Smith.



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