If all the combinations and modifications of matter can be supposed to be traced up to one general and comprehensive law, from which every visible form, both in the organic and inorganic world flows, as the necessary consequence of the first impression of that law upon matter, it might seem to follow that Fate or Necessity governs all things, and that the world around us may not be the result of a contriving mind working for a benevolent purpose.
Such, possibly, may be the first impression [50/51] of this view of the subject; but it is an erroneous view,—one of those, perhaps, through which it is necessary to pass, in order to arrive at truth. Let us, in order to obtain more correct views upon this point, briefly review the labour which the human race has expended, in attaining the limited knowledge we possess. For about six thousand years man has claimed the earth as his heritage, and asserted his dominion over all other beings endued with life; yet, during a large portion of that period, how small comparatively has been his mental improvement! Until the invention of printing, the mass of mankind were in many respects almost the creatures of instinct. It is true, the knowledge possessed by each generation, instead of being the gift of Nature, was derived from the instruction of their predecessors; but, how little were those lessons improved by repeated communication ! Transmitted most frequently by unenlightened instructors, they might lose, but could rarely gain in value. [51/52]
Before the invention of printing, accidental position determined the opinions and the knowledge of the great mass of mankind. Oral information being almost the only kind accessible, each man shared the opinions of his kindred and neighbours; and truth, which is ever most quickly and most surely elicited by discussion, lost all those advantages which diversity of opinion always produces for it. The minds of individual men, however powerful, could address themselves only to a very small portion of their fellow men; their influence was limited by space and restricted by time; their highest powers were not stimulated into action by the knowledge that their reasonings could have effect where their voices were unheard, by the conviction that the truths which they arrived at, and the discoveries they made, would extend beyond their country and survive their age.
But, since the invention of printing, how different has been the position of mankind! [52/53] the nature of the instruction no longer depends entirely on the knowledge of the personal instructor. The village schoolmaster communicates to his pupils the power of using an instrument by which not merely the best of their living countrymen, but the greatest and wisest men of all countries and all times, may become their instructors. Even the elementary writings through which this art is taught, give to the pupil, not the sentiments of the teacher, but those which the public opinion of his countrymen esteems most fit for the beginner in knowledge. Thus the united opinions of multitudes of human minds are brought to bear even upon seemingly unimportant points. If such is the effect of the invention of printing upon ordinary minds, its influence over those more highly endowed is far greater. To them the discussion of the conflicting opinions of different countries and distant ages, and the establishment of new truths, present [53/54] a field of boundless and exalted ambition. Advancing beyond the knowledge of their neighbours and countrymen, they may be exposed to those prejudices which result from opinions long stationary; but encouraged by the approbation of the greatest of other nations, and the more enlightened of their own,— knowing that time alone is wanting to complete the triumph of truth, they may accelerate the approaching dawn of that day which shall pour a flood of light over the darkened intellects of their thankless countrymen—content themselves to exchange the hatred they experience from the honest and the dishonest intolerance of their contemporaries, for that higher homage, alike independent of space and of time, which their memory will for ever receive from the good and the gifted of all countries and all after ages.
Until printing was very generally spread, civilisation scarcely advanced by slow and languid steps; since this art has become [54/55] cheap, its advances have been unparalleled, and its rate of progress vastly accelerated.
It has been stated that the civilisation of the Western World has resulted from its being the seat of the Christian religion: but however much the mild tenor of its doctrines is calculated to assist in producing such an effect, that religion cannot but be injured by an unfounded statement. It is to the easy and cheap methods of communicating thought from man to man, which enable a country to sift, as it were, its whole people, and to produce, in its science, its literature, and its arts, not the brightest efforts of a limited class, but the highest exertions of the most powerful minds among a whole community;—it is this which has given birth to the wide-spreading civilisation of the present day, and which promises a futurity yet more prolific. Whoever is acquainted with the present state of science and the mechanical arts, and looks back over the inventions and civilisation which the fourteen [55/56] centuries subsequent to the introduction of Christianity have produced, and compares them with the advances made during the succeeding four centuries following the invention of printing, will have no doubt as to the effective cause.
It is during these last three or four centuries, that man, considered as a species, has commenced the development of his intellectual faculties—that he has emerged from a position in which he was almost the creature of instinct, to a state in which every step in advance facilitates the progress of his successors. During the first period, arts were discovered by individuals, and lost to the race; in the latter, the diffusion of thought has enabled the reasoning of one class to unite with the observations of another, and the most advanced point of one generation to become the starting post of the next. It is during this portion of our history that [56/57] man has become acquainted with his real position in the universe—that he has measured the distance from that which is to us the great fountain of light and heat—that he has traced the orbits of earth's sister spheres, and calculated the paths of all their dependent worlds— that he has arrived at the knowledge of a law which appears to govern all matter, and whose remotest consequences, if first traced by his telescope, are found to have been written in his theory; or, if first predicted by his theory, are verified by his observations.
Simple as the law of gravity now appears, and beautifully in accordance with all the observations of past and of present times, consider what it has cost of intellectual study. Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Euler, Lagrange, Laplace, all the great names which have exalted the character of man, by carrying out trains of reasoning unparalleled in every other science; these, and a host of others, each of [57/58] whom might have been the Newton of another field, have all laboured to work out, the consequences which resulted from that single law which he discovered. All that the human mind has produced—the brightest in genius, the most persevering in application, has been lavished on the details of the law of gravity.
Had that law been other than it is—had it been, for example, the inverse cube of the distance, it would still have required an equal expense of genius and of labour to have worked out its details. But, between the laws represented by the inverse square, and the inverse cube of the distance, there are interposed an infinite number of other laws, each of which might have been the basis of a system requiring the most extensive knowledge to trace out its consequences. Again, between every law which can be expressed by whole numbers, whether it be direct or inverse, an infinity of others can still be [58/59] interposed. All these might be combined by two, by three, or in any other groups, and new systems might be imagined,1 submitted to such combinations. Thus, another infinity of laws, of a far higher order—in fact, of an infinitely higher order — might again be added to the list. And this might still be increased by all the other combinations, of which such laws admit, besides that by addition, to which we have already alluded, thus forming an infinity itself of so high an order, that it is difficult to conceive. Man has, as yet, no proof of the impossibility of the existence of any of these laws. Each might, for any reason we can assign, be the basis of a creation different from our own.
It is at this point that skill and knowledge [59/60] re-enter the argument, and banish for ever the dominion of chance. The Being who called into existence this creation, of which we are parts, must have chosen the present form, the present laws, in preference to the infinitely infinite variety which he might have willed into existence. He must have known and foreseen all, even the remotest consequences of every one of those laws, to have penetrated but a little way into one of which has exhausted the intellect of our whole species.
If such is the view we must take of the knowledge of the Creator, when contemplating the laws of inanimate matter—laws into whose consequences it has cost us such accumulated labour to penetrate—what language can we speak, when we consider that the laws which connect matter with animal life may be as infinitely varied as those which regulate material existence? The little we know, might, perhaps, lead us to infer a far more unlimited field of choice. The chemist has reduced all [60/61] the materials of the earth with which we are acquainted, to about fifty simple bodies; but the zoologist can make no such reductions in his science. He claims for one scarcely noticed class — that of intestinal parasites — about thirty thousand species; and, not to mention the larger classes of animals, who shall number the species of infusoria in living waters, still less those which are extinct, and whose scarcely visible relics are contained within the earth, in almost mountain masses.2 In absolute ignorance of any — even the smallest link of those chains which bind life to matter, or that still more miraculous one, which connects mind with both, we can pursue [61/62] our path only by the feeble light of analogy, and humbly hope that the Being, whose power and benevolence are unbounded, may enable us, in some further stage of our existence, to read another page in the history of his mighty works. Enough, however, and more than enough, may be gathered even from our imperfect acquaintance with matter, and some few of its laws, to prove the unbounded knowledge which must have preceded their organization.