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I have to thank you most sincerely for the honour you have conferred upon me in electing me to the office of President of the Literary and Philosophical Society. The chair which has been filled by Roscoe, Traill, and Yates, and since by many men of eminence still living, is a position which any one may well feel proud to occupy. Whatever may be my shortcomings, I can assure you that I bring with me a sincere and earnest desire to discharge the duties of the office in a satisfactory manner, and I trust to your kindness and good feeling to extenuate any involuntary deficiencies.
The history of this society has been so well elucidated on the recent occasion of its jubilee, that it would be superfluous in me to make any special reference to it on the present occasion, but there are certain aspects connected with its past history and present position to which it may be desirable to call your attention.
When the Literary and Philosophical Society was established about fifty-two years since, it was, I believe, the only one of its kind in the town, and was intended to embrace the whole circle of intellectual and scientific pursuits. At that period, when the population of the town was not more than one-fifth of the present, it could not be expected that there would be scope for the establishment of societies devoted to distinct and special studies, whether of literature, science, or art. It was, therefore, a wise and prudent step which was taken by the founders in giving to it as extensive and catholic a character as possible, and the success which attended its operations during so many years is the best justification of the course. Time, however, brings with it its usual changes; the fertilising stream of one age, if neglected, becomes the stagnant pool of the next. All institutions require perpetual adaptation to the changing aspects of the times ; or it may rather be said that the progress of events insensibly and necessarily moulds institutions according to the requirements of the day.
The great and manifold advantages of a society devoting itself exclusively to one particular science or pursuit are so obvious that it cannot be surprising that gradually there have grown into existence societies of this class. There is a certain esprit du corps, a common feeling, where the subjects are limited, and all the ideas, as it were, radiate from a common centre, which makes a society of this kind very attractive. Accordingly, we have witnessed the establishment of the Chemical, the Architectural and Archeological, the Polytechnic, the Geological, the Social Science, and, although more catholic in the sphere of its action, the Historic, Societies. These, all in their several departments, have done good service to the cause of science and literature, and we sincerely wish them to go on and prosper.
It may then be asked, if each department has its own representative society, labouring in its vocation with diligence and zeal, what remains for the Literary and Philosophical Society? Has it not answered its purpose in its day, and would it not be well to retire with dignity, and leave the field open to the special votaries of each particular science ? I wish to present a few reasons why, as it appears to me, not only would this be unadvisable, but that in the course which science and literature appear to be taking, societies occupying the extensive platform laid down by the Literary and Philosophical, are more than ever required.
As the boundaries of each science and art extend, they are found to touch at various points on other and kindred ones; the limits which divide them become fainter and fainter, until it is found impossible to determine where the one ends and the other begins. At the present period no science or study can stand alone ; its resources have to be drawn from a wider and ever extending field ; so that whilst the vast expanse of knowledge requires more and more a division of labour for its cultivation, the necessity of co-operation and mutual aid becomes continually more apparent. If we take the oldest and probably the sublimest of the sciences, that of Astronomy, we find involved with it, from the earliest period, mathematics and geometry; optics, and the construction of optical instruments, next came in aid, and of late, chemistry has most unexpectedly and opportunely contributed most powerfully towards the elucidation of the structure of the heavenly bodies, and to what may be called the “solidarity” of the solar system. I know of nothing more beautiful in the history of scientific progress than the application of the spectrum analysis to the discovery of the materials existing in the solar and stellar atmospheres. If from astronomy we turn to geology, we find this science assuming dimensions so large as almost to appropriate to itself the services of several other independent departments of inquiry. Botany, anatomy, vegetable and animal physiology, conchology, meteorology, chemistry, the nature and extent of dynamic forces—all pour in their several streams to swell the tide of progress, and latterly the boundary which formerly appeared intangible and unapproachable, connecting geological changes with the history of the human race, is beginning to be dimly defined and laid down.
Without going through the entire circle of the sciences, we find this communion and interpenetration everywhere taking place. Sometimes the coincidence and illustrations thus arising are of the most unexpected and striking character. Who could have supposed, for instance, that there was anything in common between the study of geology and the newlyestablished science of language, or that anything could be contributed by the one in elucidation of the other ? and yet such is demonstrably the fact. Geology shows, in examining the most recent deposits on the earth's surface, that the forests which once covered a great part of Europe have been successive in their development; that is, that the fir, and the oak, and the beech have prevailed at different periods, the date and continuance of which were unknown and without a clue. Professor Max Müller has recently shown by a comparison of the terms employed in each language traced to its earliest sources, the state of the respective countries in this respect at the time of their first occupation, and the order of precedence and succession, thus connecting in the most interesting manner the latest geological epochs with the earliest condition of prehistoric man. The connection of the physical sciences has been so amply illustrated by Mrs. Somerville, Sir John Herschel, and others, that it is unnecessary to dwell upon it; but every year it is receiving fresh developments. The recent calculations of Sir William Armstrong as to the probable duration of our coal-fields, to which England owes so much of her greatness and power, have naturally excited considerable alarm as to the future of our country; but just at this juncture the grand and noble theory of the identity of heat and motion, and the convertibility of the phenomena of the one into those of the other, points most opportunely in the direction from whence probably a solution of the difficulty may arise. Indeed, no discovery in any department of inquiry ever takes place without communicating an impulse, and giving either a practical application, or a stand-point for further progress in some other.
Nor is this mutual connection and support confined exclusively to scientific pursuits. We find it in literature of every class. History is no longer studied as a detail of battles and sieges, and a mere narrative of events. It brings to its aid illustrations drawn from climate, race, temperature, physical geography, mineral productions, and all the natural or adventitious circumstances which influence human habits and conduct. In this respect the late Mr. Buckle may be said to have founded a new school, which will no doubt stimulate others to follow in the same track, with less prejudice and greater impartiality. Even poetry and the ornamental arts have felt the influence of this expansive spirit. Any one who will carefully study the works of our Poet-Laureate, and the school of which he is the founder, will find a far greater breadth of illustration, and a far wider extent of resources, than are to be found in our older poets. I am, of course, not entering into their respective merits, but merely stating a fact. In Painting, the same influence is shown by a greater absence of conventionalism, and a far more extensive choice of subjects for treatment than formerly prevailed.
I have thus rapidly endeavoured to show that whilst every mental pursuit may be followed with ardour, for its own sake, there is at the same time a ground common to all, arising from the fact that the mind is one and undivided, however various its faculties may be. Like the rays of the sun when separated in the prismatic spectrum, each has its office to perform of usefulness and beauty, in the rich colouring of nature, in the quickening power of warmth and chemical influence, but it is only when united in the glorious rays of the fountain of light that they appear in all their splendour and brilliance.
A platform of this kind is, as it appears to me, provided by the Literary and Philosophical Society, and in this way I think its influence may be most beneficially exercised. The geologist and the classical scholar, the student of history and the mathematician, the natural philosopher and the poet, can here meet on common ground, and by mutual intercourse add to each other's stores of information, and contribute to the common cause of mental progress. It is desirable to see how our favourite speculations and studies appear in the eyes of others who look at them from a different point