- Historic Sites
Science, Learning, And The Claims Of Nationalism
We have come a long way from the philosophy of the Enlightenment...a shift that represents a retreat rather than an advance, argues the noted historian.
April 1972 | Volume 23, Issue 3
We think of our own time as an Age of Enlightenment, but it flouts and even repudiates two essential principles of the Enlightenment: first the priority of the claims of science and culture over those of politics, and second the cosmopolitan and even universal nature of science and culture.
The philosophes of the eighteenth century—it is a word that embraces not only philosophers but scientists and statesmen, men of letters and critics—did not worship at the altar of nationalism; they were a fellowship bound together by common devotion to Reason in all of its manifestations, and they were sure that its primary and its most pervasive manifestation was in the realm of science, art, and learning. They believed in the universality of morals and of art. When they wrote history it was world history, as with Voltaire; when they studied religion it tended to be comparative religion, as with Christian Wolff; when they celebrated law it was the Spirit of the Laws, as with Montesquieu; when they contemplated art they sought the Universal in art, as with Winckelmann or Sir Joshua Reynolds; and their most characteristic poem was called quite simply An Essay on Man . Their scientists and men of learning were cosmopolitan, at home in every country, and moving easily from country to country and from university to university—or more often than not, from academy to academy, for the universities of that day were, most of them, in the doldrums. They knew that the commonwealth of learning was older than the commonwealth of political nations. …
We have come a long way from this philosophy of the Enlightenment … and it is increasingly clear that our shift in position represents a retreat rather than an advance.
Consider some of the characteristics of that world where “the sciences were never at war,” not even in time of war. It was an age when the United States speaking through Benjamin Franklin, and the French government speaking through Jacques Necker, could proclaim immunity in time of war for Captain Cook because he was “engaged in work beneficial to humanity”; when a Hessian officer about to put to flame the house of Francis Hopkinson—one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence—was so impressed by the library and scientific apparatus that he ordered the flames extinguished, writing in the flyleaf of a book: “This man is clearly a traitor but he is a man of learning and science and must be protected.” It was a time when—again in the midst of the Revolutionary War—the Royal Society could present Harvard College with a volume of Astronomical Observations and when a British officer could permit Professor Williams of Harvard College to conduct astronomical observations on a Britishheld island in Penobscot Bay. It was a time when Frederick the Great could retain French as the language of his Court while fighting France; when Napoleon’s mother could safely put her money into British consols; when Goethe could receive the retreating general of the Allied armies, after Leipzig, with his French Legion of Honor insignia across his chest; when in time of war the Royal Society could confer its gold medal on Franklin, and the Institute in Paris could give its gold medal to Sir Humphrey Davy. The same Napoleon who arranged that, arranged to spare the university city of Göttingen out of respect for the great classical scholar Heyne; it was fitting that Sir Charles Blagden should recommend in 1808 that the Emperor be made a member of the Royal Society.
The world of art, like the world of science, was cosmopolitan, and how fortunate that was for the rising Republic of the United States. There is no more charming chapter in the history of American art than that which recounts how George III, even in time of war, patronized young painters from America. A group of benefactors had sent the young Pennsylvanian Benjamin West over to Rome to study painting; he served his apprenticeship there and went on to London, where one of his paintings, typically a scene from the classical past, caught the fancy of George III. In 1772 West was appointed painter to the Court, a position he held with George’s friendship throughout the Revolution and long after. It was during the years when the American colonies were fightiner for independence that West received in his studio a succession of American apprentices—among them Charles Willson Peale, John Trumbull, and Gilbert Stuart—all of whom were allowed to return to America, though Trumbull did manage to get himself imprisoned for six months. …