Note: A Lecture delivered at the Royal Institution.
I said, that Superstition was the child of Fear, and Fear the child of Ignorance; and you might expect me to say antithetically, that Science was the child of Courage, and Courage the child of Knowledge.
But these genealogies–like most metaphors–do not fit exactly, as you may see for yourselves.
If fear be the child of ignorance, ignorance is also the child of fear; the two react on, and produce each other. The more men dread Nature, the less they wish to know about her. Why pry into her awful secrets? It is dangerous; perhaps impious. She says to them, as in the Egyptian temple of old–“I am Isis, and my veil no mortal yet hath lifted.” And why should they try or wish to lift it? If she will leave them in peace, they will leave her in peace. It is enough that she does not destroy them. So as ignorance bred fear, fear breeds fresh and willing ignorance.
And courage? We may say, and truly, that courage is the child of knowledge. But we may say as truly, that knowledge is the child of courage. Those Egyptian priests in the temple of Isis would have told you that knowledge was the child of mystery, of special illumination, of reverence, and what not; hiding under grand words their purpose of keeping the masses ignorant, that they might be their slaves. Reverence? I will yield to none in reverence for reverence. I will all but agree with the wise man who said that reverence is the root of all virtues. But which child reverences his father most? He who comes joyfully and trustfully to meet him, that he may learn his father’s mind, and do his will; or he who at his father’s coming runs away and hides, lest he should be beaten for he knows not what? There is a scientific reverence, a reverence of courage, which is surely one of the highest forms of reverence. That, namely, which so reveres every fact, that it dare not overlook or falsify it, seem it never so minute; which feels that because it is a fact it cannot be minute, cannot be unimportant; that it must be a fact of God; a message from God; a voice of God, as Bacon has it, revealed in things; and which therefore, just because it stands in solemn awe of such paltry facts as the Scolopax feather in a snipe’s pinion, or the jagged leaves which appear capriciously in certain honeysuckles, believes that there is likely to be some deep and wide secret underlying them, which is worth years of thought to solve. That is reverence; a reverence which is growing, thank God, more and more common; which will produce, as it grows more common still, fruit which generations yet unborn shall bless.
But as for that other reverence, which shuts its eyes and ears in pious awe–what is it but cowardice decked out in state robes, putting on the sacred Urim and Thummim, not that men may ask counsel of the Deity, but that they may not? What is it but cowardice, very pitiable when unmasked; and what is its child but ignorance as pitiable, which would be ludicrous were it not so injurious? If a man comes up to Nature as to a parrot or a monkey, with this prevailing thought in his head–Will it bite me?–will he not be pretty certain to make up his mind that it may bite him, and had therefore best be left alone? It is only the man of courage–few and far between–who will stand the chance of a first bite, in the hope of teaching the parrot to talk, or the monkey to fire off a gun. And it is only the man of courage–few and far between–who will stand the chance of a first bite from Nature, which may kill him for aught he knows–for her teeth, though clumsy, are very strong–in order that he may tame her and break her in to his use by the very same method by which that admirable inductive philosopher, Mr. Rarey, used to break in his horses; first, by not being afraid of them; and next, by trying to find out what they were thinking of. But after all, as with animals, so with Nature; cowardice is dangerous. The surest method of getting bitten by an animal is to be afraid of it; and the surest method of being injured by Nature is to be afraid of it. Only as far as we understand Nature are we safe from it; and those who in any age counsel mankind not to pry into the secrets of the universe, counsel them not to provide for their own life and well-being, or for their children after them.