The Pleasures of Life
By Sir John Lubbock

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    “To what then may we not look forward, when a spirit of scientific
    inquiry shall have spread through those vast regions in which the
    progress of civilization, its sure precursor, is actually commenced
    and in active progress? And what may we not expect from the exertions
    of powerful minds called into action under circumstances totally
    different from any which have yet existed in the world, and over an
    extent of territory far surpassing that which has hitherto produced
    the whole harvest of human intellect.”


There are two lines, if not more, in which we may look forward with hope to progress in the future. In the first place, increased knowledge of nature, of the properties of matter, and of the phenomena which surround us, may afford to our children advantages far greater even than those which we ourselves enjoy. Secondly, the extension and improvement of education, the increasing influence of Science and Art, of Poetry and Music, of Literature and Religion,–of all the powers which are tending to good, will, we may reasonably hope, raise man and make him more master of himself, more able to appreciate and enjoy his advantages, and to realize the truth of the Italian proverb, that wherever light is, there is joy.

One consideration which has greatly tended to retard progress has been the floating idea that there was some sort of ingratitude, and even impiety, in attempting to improve on what Divine Providence had arranged for us. Thus Prometheus was said to have incurred the wrath of Jove for bestowing on mortals the use of fire; and other improvements only escaped similar punishment when the ingenuity of priests attributed them to the special favor of some particular deity. This feeling has not even yet quite died out. Even I can remember the time when many excellent persons had a scruple or prejudice against the use of chloroform, because they fancied that pain was ordained under certain circumstances.

We are told that in early Saxon days Edwin, King of Northumbria, called his nobles and his priests around him, to discuss whether a certain missionary should be heard or not. The king was doubtful. At last there rose an old chief, and said:–"You know, O King, how, on a winter evening, when you are sitting at supper in your hall, with your company around you, when the night is dark and dreary, when the rain and the snow rage outside, when the hall inside is lighted and warm with a blazing fire, sometimes it happens that a sparrow flies into the bright hall out of the dark night, flies through the hall and then flies out at the other end into the dark night again. We see him for a few moments, but we know not whence he came nor whither he goes in the blackness of the storm outside. So is the life of man. It appears for a short space in the warmth and brightness of this life, but what came before this life, or what is to follow this life, we know not. If, therefore, these new teachers can enlighten us as to the darkness that went before, and the darkness that is to come after, let us hear what they have to teach us.”

It is often said, however, that great and unexpected as recent discoveries have been, there are certain ultimate problems which must ever remain unsolved. For my part, I would prefer to abstain from laying down any such limitations. When Park asked the Arabs what became of the sun at night, and whether the sun was always the same, or new each day, they replied that such a question was foolish, being entirely beyond the reach of human investigation.

M. Comte, in his Cours de Philosophie Positive, as recently as 1842, laid it down as an axiom regarding the heavenly bodies, “We may hope to determine their forms, distances, magnitude, and movements, but we shall never by any means be able to study their chemical composition or mineralogical structure.” Yet within a few years this supposed impossibility has been actually accomplished, showing how unsafe it is to limit the possibilities of science. [1]

It is, indeed, as true now as in the time of Newton, that the great ocean of truth lies undiscovered before us. I often wish that some President of the Royal Society, or of the British Association, would take for the theme of his annual address “The things we do not know.” Who can say on the verge of what discoveries we are perhaps even now standing! It is extraordinary how slight a margin may stand for years between Man and some important improvement. Take the case of the electric light, for instance. It had been known for years that if a carbon rod be placed in an exhausted glass receiver, and a current of electricity be passed through it the carbon glowed with an intense light, but on the other hand it became so hot that the glass burst. The light, therefore, was useless, because the lamp burst as soon as it was lighted. Edison hit on the idea that if you made the carbon filament fine enough, you would get rid of the heat and yet have abundance of light. Edison’s right to his patent has been contested on this very ground. It has been said that the mere introduction of so small a difference as the replacement of a thin rod by a fine filament was so slight an item that it could not be patented. The improvements by Swan, Lane Fox, and others, though so important as a whole, have been made step by step.

Or take again the discovery of anaesthetics. At the beginning of the century Sir Humphrey discovered laughing gas, as it was then called. He found that it produced complete insensibility to pain and yet did not injure health. A tooth was actually taken out under its influence, and of course without suffering. These facts were known to our chemists, they were explained to the students in our great hospitals, and yet for half a century the obvious application occurred to no one. Operations continued to be performed as before, patients suffered the same horrible tortures, and yet the beneficent element was in our hands, its divine properties were known, but it never occurred to any one to make use of it.

I may give one more illustration. Printing is generally said to have been discovered in the fifteenth century; and so it was for all practical purposes. But in fact printing was known long before. The Romans used stamps; on the monuments of Assyrian kings the name of the reigning monarch may be found duly printed. What then is the difference? One little, but all-important step. The real inventor of printing was the man into whose mind flashed the fruitful idea of having separate stamps for each letter, instead of for separate words. How slight seems the difference, and yet for 3000 years the thought occurred to no one. Who can tell what other discoveries, as simple and yet as far-reaching, lie at this very moment under our very eyes!

Archimedes said that if you would give him room to stand on, he would move the earth. One truth leads to another; each discovery renders possible another, and, what is more, a higher.

We are but beginning to realize the marvelous range and complexity of Nature. I have elsewhere called attention to this with special reference to the problematical organs of sense possessed by many animals. [2]

There is every reason to hope that future studies will throw much light on these interesting structures. We may, no doubt, expect much from the improvement in our microscopes, the use of new re-agents, and of mechanical appliances; but the ultimate atoms of which matter is composed are so infinitesimally minute, that it is difficult to foresee any manner in which we may hope for a final solution of these problems.

Loschmidt, who has since been confirmed by Stoney and Sir W. Thomson, calculates that each of the ultimate atoms of matter is at most 1/50000000 of an inch in diameter. Under these circumstances we cannot, it would seem, hope at present for any great increase of our knowledge of atoms by improvements in the microscope. With our present instruments we can perceive lines ruled on glass which are 1/90000 of an inch apart; but owing to the properties of light itself, it would appear that we cannot hope to be able to perceive objects which are much less than 1/100000 of an inch in diameter. Our microscopes may, no doubt, be improved, but the limitation lies not in the imperfection of our optical appliances, but in the nature of light itself.

It has been calculated that a particle of albumen 1/80000 of an inch in diameter contains no less than 125,000,000 of molecules. In a simpler compound the number would be much greater; in water, for instance, no less than 8,000,000,000. Even then, if we could construct microscopes far more powerful than any which we now possess, they could not enable us to obtain by direct vision any idea of the ultimate organization of matter. The smallest sphere of organic matter which could be clearly defined with our most powerful microscopes may be, in reality, very complex; may be built up of many millions of molecules, and it follows that there may be an almost infinite number of structural characters in organic tissues which we can at present foresee no mode of examining. [3]

Again, it has been shown that animals hear sounds which are beyond the range of our hearing, and I have proved they can perceive the ultra-violet rays, which are invisible to our eyes. [4]

Now, as every ray of homogeneous light which we can perceive at all, appears to us as a distinct color, it becomes probable that these ultra-violet rays must make themselves apparent to animals as a distinct and separate color (of which we can form no idea), but as different from the rest as red is from yellow, or green from violet. The question also arises whether white light to these creatures would differ from our white light in containing this additional color.

These considerations cannot but raise the reflection how different the world may–I was going to say must–appear to other animals from what it does to us. Sound is the sensation produced on us when the vibrations of the air strike on the drum of our ear. When they are few, the sound is deep; as they increase in number, it becomes shriller and shriller; but when they reach 40,000 in a second, they cease to be audible. Light is the effect produced on us when waves of light strike on the eye. When 400 millions of millions of vibrations of ether strike the retina in a second, they produce red, and as the number increases the color passes into orange, then yellow, green, blue, and violet. But between 40,000 vibrations in a second and 400 millions of millions we have no organ of sense capable of receiving the impression. Yet between these limits any number of sensations may exist. We have five senses, and sometimes fancy that no others are possible. But it is obvious that we cannot measure the infinite by our own narrow limitations.

Moreover, looking at the question from the other side, we find in animals complex organs of sense, richly supplied with nerves, but the function of which we are as yet powerless to explain. There may be fifty other senses as different from ours as sound is from sight; and even within the boundaries of our own senses there may be endless sounds which we cannot hear, and colors, as different as red from green, of which we have no conception. These and a thousand other questions remain for solution. The familiar world which surrounds us may be a totally different place to other animals. To them it may be full of music which we cannot hear, of color which we cannot see, of sensations which we cannot conceive. To place stuffed birds and beasts in glass cases, to arrange insects in cabinets, and dried plants in drawers, is merely the drudgery and preliminary of study; to watch their habits, to understand their relations to one another, to study their instincts and intelligence, to ascertain their adaptations and their relations to the forces of Nature, to realize what the world appears to them; these constitute, as it seems to me at least, the true interest of natural history, and may even give us the clue to senses and perceptions of which at present we have no conception. [5]

From this point of view the possibilities of progress seem to me to be almost unlimited.

So far again as the actual condition of man is concerned, the fact that there has been some advance cannot, I think, be questioned.

In the Middle Ages, for instance, culture and refinement scarcely existed beyond the limits of courts, and by no means always there. The life in English, French, and German castles was rough and almost barbarous. Mr. Galton has expressed the opinion, which I am not prepared to question, that the population of Athens, taken as a whole, was as superior to us as we are to Australian savages. But even if that be so, our civilization, such as it is, is more diffused, so that unquestionably the general European level is much higher.

Much, no doubt, is owing to the greater facility of access to the literature of our country, to that literature, in the words of Macaulay, “the brightest, the purest, the most durable of all the glories of our country; to that Literature, so rich in precious truth and precious fiction; to that Literature which boasts of the prince of all poets, and of the prince of all philosophers; to that Literature which has exercised an influence wider than that of our commerce, and mightier than that of our arms.”

Few of us make the most of our minds. The body ceases to grow in a few years; but the mind, if we will let it, may grow as long as life lasts.

The onward progress of the future will not, we may be sure, be confined to mere material discoveries. We feel that we are on the road to higher mental powers; that problems which now seem to us beyond the range of human thought will receive their solution, and open the way to still further advance. Progress, moreover, we may hope, will be not merely material, not merely mental, but moral also.

It is natural that we should feel a pride in the beauty of England, in the size of our cities, the magnitude of our commerce, the wealth of our country, the vastness of our Empire. But the true glory of a nation does not consist in the extent of its dominion, in the fertility of the soil, or the beauty of Nature, but rather in the moral and intellectual pre-eminence of the people.

And yet how few of us, rich or poor, have made ourselves all we might be. If he does his best, as Shakespeare says, “What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! in form and movement, how express and admirable!” Few indeed, as yet, can be said to reach this high ideal.

The Hindoos have a theory that after death animals live again in a different form; those that have done well in a higher, those that have done ill in a lower grade. To realize this is, they find, a powerful incentive to a virtuous life. But whether it be true of a future life or not, it is certainly true of our present existence. If we do our best for a day, the next morning we shall rise to a higher life; while if we give way to our passions and temptations, we take with equal certainty a step downward toward a lower nature.

It is an interesting illustration of the Unity of Man, and an encouragement to those of us who have no claims to genius, that, though of course there have been exceptions, still on the whole, periods of progress have generally been those when a nation has worked and felt together; the advance has been due not entirely to the efforts of a few great men, but also of a thousand little men; not to a single genius, but to a national effort.

Think, indeed, what might be.

           “Ah! when shall all men’s good
  Be each man’s rule, and universal Peace
  Lie like a shaft of light across the land,
  And like a lane of beams athwart the sea,
  Thro’ all the circle of the golden year.” [6]

Our life is surrounded with mystery, our very world is a speck in boundless space; and not only the period of our own individual life, but that of the whole human race is, as it were, but a moment in the eternity of time. We cannot imagine any origin, nor foresee the conclusion.

But though we may not as yet perceive any line of research which can give us a clue to the solution, in another sense we may hold that every addition to our knowledge is one small step toward the great revelation.

Progress may be more slow, or more rapid. It may come to others and not to us. It will not come to us if we do not strive to deserve it. But come it surely will.

  “Yet one thing is there that ye shall not slay,
  Even thought, that fire nor iron can affright.” [7]

The future of man is full of hope, and who can foresee the limits of his destiny?

[1] Lubbock. Fifty Years of Science.

[2] The Senses of Animals.

[3] Lubbock. Fifty Years of Science.

[4] Ants, Bees, and Wasps.

[5] Lubbock. The Senses of Animals.

[6] Tennyson.

[7] Swinburne.



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