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Science, Learning, And The Claims Of Nationalism

June 2024
9min read

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.

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. …

The new United States in turn drew upon European artists and architects for her needs. Consider the creation of our national Capitol, and indeed of the capital city itself. Was there ever a more cosmopolitan enterprise? The particular name of the city was Washington, but the generic name was Latin, and, as it turned out, the architecture was Roman and the art almost entirely Italian. The work of laying out the capital was originally entrusted to a Frenchman, Major L’Enfant, who had come to America with Lafayette and made himself part of the New World even while remaining French. Soon L’Enfant was joined by James Hoban, who was born and trained in Ireland. He was chiefly responsible for the White House, for he rebuilt it after the disastrous fire of 1814. Next, Stephen Hallet took over. He was born and raised in France and had come to America in 1789 to set up a school of art in Richmond; alas, it never materialized, but some of his other plans did. More valuable was William Thornton—the architect most responsible for the original design of the Capitol building, with all its drawbacks. Born in the Virgin Islands—his father had been governor of Tortola—he studied medicine at Edinburgh and architecture in Paris; then, ever restless, he travelled on the Continent with the naturalist Count Audriani. Only after this varied career did he come to America, where he joined forces with poor John Fitch in making the first steamboats to float on American rivers; onetrf Fitch’s steamboats was named The Thornton . It was while he was on his honeymoon in the West Indies that he submitted the winning design for the national Capitol; not content with that (and after the original decision, few were), he also designed the Octagon House, which still stands, and probably Homewood in Baltimore. One of his coworkers on the Capitol was George Hadfield from England. He was actually born in Italy, had studied painting with the American Benjamin West, and was brother-in-law to Maria Cosway, who had so charmed Thomas Jefferson.

Most colorful of all was Benjamin Latrobe, a product of Huguenot France and Moravian Germany, though born in England. Trained to the ministry in Germany, he had happily turned to art, practiced briefly in England, and then migrated to Virginia, where he was an instant success. He designed a penitentiary, surprised that the New World should need one; he helped with the construction of the state capital in Richmond, which won him Jefferson’s esteem; he helped improve the navigation of the James; he designed a new city water system for Philadelphia—what did he not do? Jefferson brought him to Washington and soon he was in charge of almost everything, for he was a man of cascading energy and endless resourcefulness. With the aid of Thornton—and of Jefferson’s old friend Philip Mazzei—he imported a small army of sculptors and decorators from Italy. …

Or consider those two remarkable presidents of the Royal Society, itself dedicated to the pursuit of science and learning for the benefit of all mankind: Sir Hans Sloane and Sir Joseph Banks. What an international figure was the first great president, Hans Sloane. Born in Ireland, he studied medicine under the German Nicolaus Staphorst; then off to France for his formal training at Paris and Montpellier and, just to even things up, at the long-defunct Protestant University of Orange. He sailed for the West Indies and botanized there, and the whole scientific world rejoiced when he brought back a cargo of botanical specimens from Jamaica. At his handsome mansion in London, Sloane kept open house, just as his successor, Sir Joseph Banks, was to do. … Sloane corresponded with botanists everywhere in the Western world, not least with Americans, who sent over thousands of specimens to the royal gardens; with William Byrd of Dividing Line; with Mark Catesby, who wrote A Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands , duly printed in English and French, in German and Latin; and with the elder Bartram, who presided over the most famous botanical garden in English America.

But Dr. Sloane did not confine himself to America; he had his agents everywhere. He acquired the Cunningham botanical collection from China, the Kamel collection from the Philippines, the Herman collection from South Africa, and from Engelbert Kaempfer a collection of specimens and of manuscripts on Japanese medicine and history. How well that story illuminates the workings of the community of science in the eighteenth century. Here is young Dr. Kaempfer, with nothing to do in the little town of Lemgo, in Westphalia. He had studied at Danzig and at Cracow and at Königsberg; he was a man of learning, and he was restless. He betook him to Uppsala, where Olof Rudbeck—he had “proved” that Plato’s Atlantis was located in Sweden—had created the first botanical garden in the Kingdom. Soon he was secretary to the Swedish embassy in Persia; then on to Arabia Felix, to Ceylon, to Batavia, where he took service with the Dutch East India Company and was thereby able to get to Japan. He learned Japanese; he studied Japanese medicine, with due attention to acupuncture and moxabustion;∗A medical treatment based on cauterizing the skin with burning leaves of Chinese wormwood. he collected botanical specimens and manuscripts and books. He returned to Germany with his collection, and a sixteen-year-old bride, and settled down to write a voluminous history of Japan. One of Dr. Sloane’s agents bought the manuscript and the specimens for eighty pounds; a scholar from Zurich translated the history into English; it was published in London and soon in a dozen other places; and it all went, eventually, to Sloane’s creation, the British Museum.

It was during the presidency of Hans Sloane that the stirring drama of the baby elephant was played out. “Un éléphant en mignature” had been sent to the great Réaumur of Paris—his six-volume History of Insects was one of the capital works of its day—but was captured by a British man-of-war and brought to Portsmouth as a prize. Réaumur pleaded for his elephant, in vain it seemed, until Abraham Trembley of the Royal Society intervened. Trembley appealed to Fox, and eventually got permission to ship the baby elephant on to its destination. Meantime the creature had died. No matter. Trembley had him stuffed, the passports arrived, and in due time the baby elephant was delivered to Reaumur. What a triumph for science and for the baby elephant, who achieved immortality in the pages of Buffon’s great Histoire Naturelle .

Sir Joseph Banks continued the Sloane traditions and enlarged upon them: for forty years as head of the Royal Society he never permitted war or revolution to interfere with the beneficent role of science. As a youth he had sailed with Captain Cook, and it was he who had introduced the famous Tahitian, Omai, to England. He had botanized in Iceland, too, and later on, when the British were at war with Denmark, and Iceland was cut off from food and on the verge of starvation, he enlisted the sympathy of William Pitt and saved the island. It was Banks who arranged that gold medal for Franklin; it was he who intervened, again and again, during the war with France to enable the work of science to go forward. … “That the Science of two Nations may be at peace, while their Politics are at war,” he wrote George in, “is an axiom we have learned from your protection to Captain Cook, and surely nothing is so likely to abate the Rancour that Politicians frequently entertain against each other as to see Harmony and good will prevail among Brethren who cultivate science.” He enlisted the aid of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, and finally even of Napoleon himself, to obtain the release of Déodat de Dolomieu (the Dolomites bear his name) from the dungeon in Messina into which the Neapolitans had consigned him. At a time when Napoleon was threatening to invade England, Banks saw to it that the nautical almanacs, upon which safety at sea depended, were shipped over to France as usual.

Edward Jenner, he who had discovered inoculation against smallpox, was no less cosmopolitan than his colleague Banks. So great was his fame that he was almost a sovereign: a letter from him was more valuable than a passport; monarchs everywhere respected it. And it was Jenner who, in appealing for the release of the young Lord Yarmouth from captivity, penned the memorable phrase: “The sciences are never at war. Peace must always preside in those bosoms whose object is the augmentation of human happiness.”…

Almost two centuries ago Jefferson, who had himself given the whole of his energies to the struggle for American independence and the creation of American commonwealths, wrote from Virginia to his friend David Rittenhouse, then president of the Council of Safety of Pennsylvania:

Your time, for two years past has, I believe, been principally employed in the civil government of your country. Tho’ I have been aware of the authority our cause would acquire with the world from its being known that yourself and Doctor Franklin were zealous friends to it, and am myself impressed with a sense of the arduousness of government and the obligation those are under who are able to conduct it, yet I am also satisfied there is an order of geniuses above that obligation, and therefore exempted from it. Nobody can conceive that nature ever intended to throw away a Newton upon the occupations of a crown. It would have been a prodigality for which even the conduct of providence might have been arraigned, had he been by birth annexed to what was so far below him. Cooperating with nature in her ordinary economy, we should dispose of and employ the geniuses of men according to their several orders and degrees. I doubt not there are in your country many persons equal to the task of conducting government: but you should consider that the world has but one Ryttenhouse, and that it never had one before.

Here is the authentic note of the Enlightenment, and of the community of culture.

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