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Art. I. Six Discourses, delivered before the Royal Society at their Anniversary Meetings, on the Award of the Royal and Copley Medals; preceded by an Address to the Society on the Progress and Prospects of Science. By Sir Humphry Davy, Bart., President of the Royal Society. 4to. pp. 148. London: Murray. 1827.
We opened this volume with excited curiosity; and we have read it with respectful attention. It is, therefore, not without considerable reluctance, that we find ourselves bound to declare the result of our examination. These discourses have miserably disappointed £^ery expectation which we had founded, either on the di^' mSt ashed name of their author, or the ambitious promise of hifsom,*s £cts. SUDDOrV s* The matter of the President's Discourses is of three kind' COinne* the characters and writings of deceased fellows of the sbeif the nature of the papers for which the medals were awarder himon general and particular questions of science. Upon the nrst head in this table of contents, we have little inclination to offer any comments. These panegyrics of the departed have originated, we presume, in the society's ancient custom of proclaiming from the chair, at each anniversary meeting, the names of fellows who have died during the year; and the president had, therefore, probably no option to omit an established practice. But certainly it is, except at least in the cases of a few, and a very few, men of real eminence, a custom more honoured in the breach than the observance. These characters of the recent dead thus ceremoniously delivered ex cathedra, must ever be extravagant estimates of ability and usefulness. Every feeling of friendship, vanity, courtesy, is likely to heighten their colouring: perhaps, the affectionate warmth of personal regard for the lost object of praise; perhaps, even the love of eloquent display in the orator; and always the unreasonable expectation of surviving friends, that " something handsome" shall be delivered upon the occasion. Hence, then, the notices of deceased fellows of the Royal Society differ in nothing from, and are not a whit more discriminating than, the unmeaning and Vol. v. NO. XXIII. Y
laboured eloges of the French academicians: their greater brevity is their only superiority; and their merit,
"Sure 'twould then be greater, if 'twere none at all."
For here, in the president's characters of the deceased, all is absolute, unrelieved eulogy: each departed fellow was conspicuous more or less for public genius and private virtue, all were alike amiable—all, " honourable men." There is, we know, nothing more difficult than to vary the eternal flow of compliment: but there is also nothing more digusting and ridiculous than unvaried eulogium; and we can only deprecate the absurdity of a custom, which imposes the necessity of praise, without admitting the power, or at least, without recognising the decorum, of impartial criticism. From these remarks we except, however, the following character of the late Sir William Herschel, whose services to the cause of astronomical science could scarcely be overrated.
'On the labours and discoveries of Sir William Herschel, it is unnecessary to dwell; they have so much contributed to the progress of modern astronomy, that his name will probably live as long as the inhabitants of this earth are permitted to view the solar system, or to understand the laws of its motions. The world of science—the civilized world, are alike indebted to him who enlarges the boundaries of human knowledge, who increases the scope of intellectual enjoyment, and exhibits the human min i in possession of new and unknown powers, by which it gains, as it we new dominions in space; acquisitions which are imperishable: not It' boundaries of terrestrial 'states and kingdoms, or even the great
» its of art, which, however extensive or splendid, must decay; but
iy the grandest forms and objects of nature, and registered er laws.
acuteness and accuracy of Sir William Herschel, as an astronomical observer, are demonstrated by his discovery of a new planetary systemV.and of a number of satellites before unknown. His genius for speculation, and his powers of inductive reasoning, are illustrated by his views of the stars and nebulee, composing what we know of the system of the universe; and his talents for physical research are shewn, by his important discovery of invisible rays in the solar spectrum.
'The moral qualities of this celebrated man are so well known, that 1 shall barely touch upon them. Raised entirely by his own merits, and by the powers of his own intellect, to the station he occupied in the world of science; honoured by the patronage and kindness of a most beneficent sovereign, he was spoiled neither by glory nor by fortune, and always retained the native simplicity of his mind. In all his domestic and social relations, he was most amiable. As his life had been useful and honourable, so was his death happy: and he had little left to wish for, except that expansion of intellect which can only belong to the mind in a higher state of existence. Every year of his life was distinguished by some acquisition or blessing; and when age no longer permitted him to make discoveries, he saw his son taking his place, and distinguishing himself in the same career.
* If the scientific world in general have cause to regret the loss of Sir
William Herechel, and to reverence his memory, the Royal Society, in particular, has a deeper sense of sorrow, and a higher motive for veneration. All his important papers were published in your Transactions; and no name in modern times has more contributed to your glory.'—pp. 38— 40.
Nearly the same objections which we have been urging against the unmeasured eulogy of the dead, apply to the florid strain of panegyric personally addressed from the chair to the gentlemen to whom medals had been decreed. All this, however, is perhaps unavoidable; and we looked only to find it relieved by the masterly analysis of the papers which had obtained the honours of the society. But we looked in vain; nor is there the slightest information to be gleaned from the very general way in which the resident has spoken of the scientific communications, that should ave formed the principal subjects of his discourses. His notices of the papers for which the medals were adjudged, as well as of the writings of the deceased members whom he eulogises, are extremely superficial. Regarding all these works, he gives little more than the bare statement of their titles, without precise observations upon their results, much less any special examination of their contents; nor does he in general offer discriminate opinions of his own on their particular merits and relative value. Indeed, upon all such occasions, with a single exception only, the president seems careful, so far as his own investigation and decision might be implied, to preserve a most discreet and guarded silence; and, sometimes (as in pp.21, 85), we even find him contented to support himself on the opinions of others, whom he declares to be ' competent judges.'
But uuder whatever restraints the president may have felt himself in speaking of individuals, or their immediate works, these shackles could in no degree impede such views as he should be disposed to take of general and particular subjects of science. His excursive mind, for illustration of every point of inquiry on which some notice was to be passed to his audience, was free to range through the widest bounds of knowledge, to gather the full stores of learning and research, and to prove in himself an originality of intellectual wealth, while appearing to dispense only the abundance of accumulated riches. Yet it is in his general dissertations upon the sciences, that the president has most deplorably failed to afford a becoming evidence of his ability. In those parts of his discourses, in which he professes to generalize, it is that he betrays most poverty of thought, and doles out principles and facts with most provoking parsimony. We have, in short, been exceedingly surprised by the meagre character of these pieces; for certainly never did we encounter a disproportion more strange and contradictory, than between the acknowledged powers of the president's mind, and this their feeble exhibition.
The paper in which the president, might have been expected to
put forth the utmost degree of his intellectual strength and learning, is that which stands foremost in his volume, and which formed his address to the fellows on taking the chair of the Royal Society for the first time. It professes to have taken a view of' the present state of that body, and of the progress and prospects of science;' and yet, it neither contains any abstract, however rapid, of the history of the various sciences, nor shews their present state, nor attempts to point out anything that remains to be done as a guide to future inquiries. It may possibly be pleaded, that the limits of a single discourse would scarcely afford room for such an historical and prospective sketch: but though the narrow restriction of space might have been an excuse for not undertaking the subject at all, it can be none for having treated it in a manner utterly useless in itself, and altogether unworthy of the author's reputation. When Sir Humphry informs us in his advertisement, that the discourses 'were intended to communicate general views on the particular subjects of science to which they relate, and not minute information,' we freely admit the sufficiency of the purpose: but we have nowhere been able to discover the definite promulgation of such 'general views;' nor can we imagine, in what manner the dry enunciation of a few truisms is calculated to promote another avowed object, of' keeping alive the spirit of philosophical inquiry.' In no respect, indeed, will these discourses bear comparison with the best papers of analogous design, which are to be found in the transactions of our learned bodies. How far inferior are they, for example, to the discourses of Sir William Jones:— those profound and elegant dissertations on the origin, laws, and philosophy of the nations of the East—which were addressed to the society over whose researches he presided! The conclusion only of this initiatory discourse of the president, is not undeserving of attention and praise, for its sensible and modest exhortation:
'Gentlemen,—To conclude, I trust in all our researches we shall be guided by that spirit of philosophy, awakened by our great masters, Bacon and Newton; that sober and cautious method of inductive reasoning, which is the germ of truth and of permanency in all the sciences. I trust that those amongst us who are so fortunate as to kindle the light of new discoveries, will use them, not for the purpose of dazzling the organs of our intellectual vision, but rather to enlighten us, by shewing objects in their true forms and colours; that our philosophers will attach no importance to hypotheses, except as leading to the research after facts, so as to be able to discard or adopt them at pleasure, treating them rather as parts of the scaffolding of the building of science, than as belonging either to its foundations, materials, or ornaments; that they will look where it be possible, to practical applications in science; not, however, forgetting the dignity of their pursuit, the noblest end of which is, to exalt the powers of the human mind, and to increase the sphere of intellectual enjoyment, by enlarging our views of nature, and of the power, wisdom, and goodness of the Author of nature.
'Gentlemen,—The Society has a right to expect from those amongst