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Selling the Universe

ISSUE:  Autumn 1930

Man and His Universe. By John Langdon-Davies. New York: Harper and Brothers. $5.00.

Many years ago a friend of mine remarked to me that everything in this world had four dimensions: length, breadth, thickness,—and cost. Quite apart from the fact that he anticipated Einstein by nearly, a decade (since, after all, time is money), my respect for his profundity has grown with the years; for it is only by including this economic aspect of anything human that we can see it, teres atque rotmdnis, in its place in the world of men.

Books are a case in point. A book is not only something written; it is something published, and the fact of its publication is evidence of that other dimension, To cover paper with a series of marks, more or less meaningful, is one thing; to extract from these sheets bread and butter and tobacco and motor cars is quite another. The dollars which you distill from them must have been written into them; only by virtue of that added dimension can your words fight their way in the world in competition with all the other robust contestants for your neighbor’s pocket-book. This dual aspect of a book, as something written and as something published, must be kept clearly before us if we would keep our feet in the path of reality,. The critic who takes this to heart will find a new freedom in the cosmic outlook which he acquires. The work which casts its shadow on the stars is less suited as a measure of present day man than the best seller, free from all taint of high originality; for this derives its significance from the public demand. It is thick in that other dimension, measured in dollars that might have been spent for silk socks, gas, or bootleg gin. It is true that books of this sort rarely compete with necessities. George Gissing might go without food to possess a cherished volume, but that volume would be very slim in its fourth dimension.

The minds of most critics being only three dimensional, they make the mistake of assuming that all commonplace books are alike, noting only the deficiency in the qualities I they can comprehend. The best seller may be dull, but it is 1 a kind of superlative dullness which is a very positive quality, to which the common man responds instinctively. It is only recently that we have come to recognize the significance of the dime novel as a literary species. This extra dimension enters our consciousness only, on the instinctive level; it thus escapes the intellectualized processes of the critic, who sees only the banality. Further, I agree with the late Frank Moore Colby in believing that great gifts are rarely prostituted in the writing of such books. Those , who succeed eminently in popularity are not usually ca-’ pable of anything more original. Genius nearly always separates a man from his fellows; W. H. Hudson could no more do a Zane Grey story than Elihu Root could be Calvin Coolidge. Sincerity of effort is a part of the picture. Those who will may deplore the popular taste,

but, still following Mr. Colby, I prefer to disavow my personal responsibility for the state of the universe as a whole. We still have with us Mr. H. G. Wells to attend to any matters in which God seems negligent. It is an age of specialization, and I feel free to enjoy the spectacle without a pang of conscience. The point of all this is in its application to a particular | literary genre, popular science, and to the book under re-[ view. For I found “Man and His Universe” so bad, so I incredibly bad, according to any standards that I could apply, that I was at first inclined to treat it as negligible. Further reflection, however, showed me that in this I was wrong. Behind those meaningless generalizations, that

It’s human nature sir, I know, But then, ain’t human nature low?

woolly logic, those uninspired prophesyings, lies something discernible to an astute publisher, something convertible into dollars. Small as it is in those three dimensions which are all I can directly perceive, it extends far in that invisible and intangible direction whose existence is assured me by the observable facts. Of course, I may be wrong in assuming that it will have a wide sale; there merely seems no reason why it should not. And it is as a type that it derives its importance.

First of all, let me try to give some idea of how bad it is. The central theme of the book is interesting enough, though it cannot carry, the load which has been put upon it. Mr, Langdon-Davies tries to tell the story of man’s shifting religious conceptions as influenced by his intellectual progress. As the author states his thesis:

The whole history of science has been a direct search for God; deliberate and conscious, until well into the eighteenth century, and since then unconscious, for the most part, because so much had been discovered about God by then that scientists began to think fit to change the name of the object of their search. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Leibnitz and the rest did not merely believe in God in an orthodox sort of way, they believed that their work told humanity more about God than had been known before. Their incentive in working at all was a desire to know God, and they regarded their discoveries as not only proving his existence, but as revealing more and more of his nature. If men had not wanted to know about God, it is highly doubtful if they would have worried to know about nature.

It is clearly unfair to demand of the author an exhaustive treatment, either of the facts of science or of its history. He has a right to “hit the high places” in science and history, and to avoid irrelevant detail. None the less it is an ambitious programme, demanding for its proper execution a rare combination of qualities: historical insight, a religious nature, and a thorough understanding of many, sciences, all welded by a philosophic outlook. It were hardly surprising if an author should be found deficient in some of these requirements, but a careful search fails to reveal that Mr. Langdon-Davies has any of them. His inability to enter sympathetically into medieval thought makes him misread history. The medieval monk or schoolman, slave of ancient authority, poring over Aristotle, is to him little better than a savage. It is easy to parody the Middle Ages by quoting Chassenee on the legal prosecution of animals, but what civilization or age has ever lacked its solemn asses? Even in enlightened 1930 some of these can command a wide hearing. In war-torn Europe learning could exist only in scattered oases; it was of necessity confined to men withdrawn from the world. These found in the ancient books, the fruit of a happier time, the unattainable perfection that they craved. Aristotle became for them what Clifford said of Euclid, “the purifier of the reasonable soul.” No schoolman’s picture of the universe is more childish than Mr. Langdon-Davies’ portrait of the schoolman. Nor was the church intolerant until the Reformation. The prosecution of Galileo by the Inquisition was anti-red hysteria born of crumbling political power. It is one thing to smile at the schoolmen—we may join Chaucer’s merry company or straddle the cask with Rabelais—; it is another to regard them as subhuman.

On the religious side, Mr. Langdon-Davies, for all his iteration of “religion” and “search for God” gives little impression of a hart panting for the water brooks. He does not define religion explicitly, but the word is for him pretty clearly a synonym for theology, of a very flat and arid species, plus a little emotion of the “ain’t Nature grand?” type. Even with this much diluted conception he makes: far too much, I think, of the idea that Copernicus and Kepler were primarily theologians. The admixture of theological matter in. their works seems to me rather a rationalization of their purely intellectual curiosity. For Galileo and Newton the case is still weaker. With them it is God as a scientific hypothesis, a convenient carryall for unsolved puzzles, which were unloaded on the divine omnip- f otence in much the same way that nineteenth century physics used the ether.

The rigid adherence to this formula as an explanation of the advance of science, leads our author still further astray when he reaches Darwin. For he waves aside, as quite sub- [ sidiary and irrelevant, the practical fruits of science in technology and medicine. But surely it was these that gave science its prestige with the multitude, and made possible the transmutation of Darwin’s purely biological theory of descent with modification into Evolution with a capital E, and the doctrine of human perfectibility.

For six chapters we are led through the story, of man’s upward struggle. Anyone who wishes may compare the naive lines of this picture with the scholarly and sympathetic account in Dr. J. H. Randall’s “The Making of the Modern I Mind.” All through these six chapters we are steeped in gloom, but here and there are thrown out hints of better times coming. The barbarism which succeeded the savagery of the middle ages, though mitigated by Darwin, lasted till the end of the century. Matter was becoming more material every day, while science had about petered out after taking away all human hope.

Then, “came the dawn,” and the concluding seventh chapter entitled “The New Renaissance.” A few years before there had been portents, such as Rontgen’s discovery. It adds not a little to our respect for our parents to be told j that they were not entirely steeped in savagery:

Imagine Rontgen describing his discovery in seventeenth century Pisa: he would have been indicted for sorcery and heresy. But by 1895, though humanity had not really advanced very far, it was able to accept the facts as Rontgen’s experiments revealed them.

But the true heralds of the new order were Freud and Einstein. We still await the coming of a third who will do for biology what Einstein has done for physics, though Mr. Langdon-Davies has his instructions ready for him when he arrives. But now our author swaps horses in mid-stream. He is obviously ill at ease in the intricacies of modern physics, and skips over embarrassing points with the hush-hush air of a Victorian mother expounding the stork theory to her young. But, he says airily, these are not really, important. What really matters is the effect of science on man’s “overbeliefs”; this in fact “really justifies science.” The distinction between Ueberglaube and Aberglaube is not always clear to me, but I probably demand too much of Mr. Langdon-Davies. Perhaps it is the age-old riddle of the ego and the non-ego.

Our debt to Freud is rather briefly appraised. The over-beliefs which our author credits to him may not unfairly be regarded as the legitimate offspring of Freud’s ideas.

. . . the overbeliefs which Freud has made possible may be wise or foolish, correct or mistaken, it does not alter the fact that they have captured our imaginations and altered our attitude toward life. And the chief effects are to be found in the most practical parts of our everyday philosophy, in questions of conduct and behaviour. The picture of the universe which includes a Freudian tinge can never inspire the same attitude towards moral questions as a picture without it.

There is no need to describe these overbeliefs in detail. The public idea of Freud as the man who first gave science sex-appeal, is not a bad summary of them. But what of Einstein? You have probably thought of Relativity as a dull, technical term of good philosophic standing and long lineage. You were mistaken; it is magic, like abracadabra. It induces the overest kind of overbeliefs:

Relativity has the great advantage over evolution as a magic word in that it is more mysterious: the number of people who know that relativity theory is vastly important and vastly beyond their grasp adds to the strength of the desire to use relativity as a symbol; to get a vicarious pleasure by way of analogy. Nor is this an altogether regrettable thing, for, as we have seen again and again, it is the overbelief that science gives mankind that really justifies science.

Let us look at some of these overbeliefs. First, there is the Economic Man, “the idea that in all times and in all places men will work only to gain their daily bread.” Relativity killed him. The task was doubly difficult as he was already as dead as Rousseau’s Noble Savage, so he had to be revived first. The revival is accomplished thus: Hitherto the economic man had only been killed by facts, hence he was not really dead, for “There are always sufficient facts lying about to prove or disprove anything about human conduct.” Only when the facts are selected by the appropriate over-belief, when they go into battle with the magic word on their lips, have they any value as evidence. The author finds the appropriate facts lying around in the Trobriand Islands, off the coast of New Guinea:

The Trobrianders are great cultivators of gardens in which they produce yams. The believer in the economic man will assume that in this task each man will cultivate the garden in the most labour-saving way known to him; that he will work to produce only, as much as he requires for his family to eat; that in order to do his work well he must have the inducement of enjoying the fruits of his labour; in short, that he works, rather than idles, from motives of enlightened self-interest.

In actual fact none of these assumptions is correct: the gardener spends much time on unproductive labour, decorating his garden and using better quality materials than are needed for the proper growth of the plants; he grows far more yams than he can use, and cheerfully leaves half the harvest, if it is abundant, to rot; and finally he is content with a social convention which allows him only one quarter of his harvest for his own use, and makes him give away the rest chiefly to his relations-in-law.

The ways of the Trobriander must indeed seem strange to the perspiring suburbanite as he pushes his lawn-mower, or digs among his tulips.

Again, take poor Othello. “Nothing seems so absolute and unchanging as sexual jealousy,” but in Nigeria

. . . if a girl betrothed to one man has a child by another, her betrothed does not break the engagement; far from it, he claims the infant as his own property into the bargain.

Facts like these lay around unnoticed until Einstein wrote “Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Korper.” Now we understand them. It’s relativity. Half a century ago Walter Bagehot said it was Evolution, but the word wasn’t magic enough. For it made us think of such things as primitive customs, instead of seeing the beautiful broad-mindedness of it all. As the last chapter draws to a close we are led from height to height. Down go the mores of a dead age before the conquering onrush of relativity, “and the name of a physical theory becomes a dogma which alters that part of religion which is concerned with a man’s duty toward his neighbour.” It obviously needed altering, for here is the final triumph, selected from the text as the most appropriate epigraph for Einstein’s portrait:

Thus it comes about, fantastic though it may sound, that men lie with their neighbours’ wives denuded of the last shred of a guilty conscience, because observations of the changes of Mercury’s perihelion enabled Einstein to alter our ideas about space-time!

This, then, is what “really justifies science.” If only it had been Venus instead of Mercury, it would have justified astrology as well; for surely we touch here on some obscure planetary influence on human destiny. Thus the sun rises in glory on the new day, “the last of life, for which the first was made.”

“And so to bed.”


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