« AnteriorContinuar »
about thc same time by Mr Priestley, Mr Scheele, and my• self.' To which vague and slippery assertion we shall oppose the precise and simple statement of Priestley. In a pamphlet, « The Doctrine of Phlogiston Established,' published in 1800 by this truly eminent philosopher, then in America, and irr a great measure retired from science, and from Europe, he says, ' Having made the discovery (of oxygen gas) o some time before I was in Paris, in the year 1774, I mention• ed it at the table of Lavoisier, where most of the philosophical 6 people in the city were present, saying that it was a kind of "air in which a candle burnt much better than in common air; « but I had not yet given it any name. At this, all the com? pany, and Mr and Madame Lavoisier, as much as any, ex• pressed great surprise.' This occurred in 1774. In 1775, Lavoisier, of course, was in readiness to communicate his own discovery of oxygen to the Academy. Taking in all the circumstances of the case, and all collateral evidence, together with the too frequent practice of the French, at least since the days of Des Cartes, we must say that we implicitly believe Dr Priestley.
The great object of the French was to take away the merit of all Modern Chemistry from the English, and to bestow it on theinselves. Who the sharers in the spoil should be, was a secondary question, provided France was the theatre of glory. No person could have been more judiciously selected to wear the robes of triumph than Lavoisier. He had a princely for. tune; and, almost alone in the class of opulence in which he stood, he was busied upon science. He was respected in the financial world of Paris; he enjoyed the confidence of Government; in private life, he was beloved; and his mind was fraught with method and discernment. His house then became the temple of the new science. In it was erected the altar on which, while solemn dirges sung a requiem to defunct Phlogiston, the Fundamenta of Stahl were offered up as a holocaust to the vanity of French philosophers. Neither has the spirit of moncpoly diminished in proportion as the science has gained strength ; and in the Report made by Cuvier to Bonaparte, in 1808, the same injustice prevails. It is in that respect, too, that we may behold the melancholy spectacle of a man of eminent talents boving with this phrase before usurpation and despotism- A word from your Majesty can create a work which
shall surpass that of Aristotle (Hist. of Animals), as much as ' your actions surpass in splendour those of the Macedonian § conqueror.'
Upon sụmming up the evidence on both sides of the question, it appears, then, from the irrefragable testimony of dates, that a very great proportion of thre chemical facts and theories ascribed to Lavoisier, is not his. The nature of carbonic acid; the acquisition of weight by metals during calcination; the nature of the atmosphere; the composition and analysis of water; the whole theory of caloric, were well known, before he had ever written upon these subjects. Yet these are the great fundamental points upon which the chemical theory of the last cenitury chiefly rests; and every one of these is English. The just claims and merits of Lavoisier are the following, and no more. 1st, He proved the diamond to be charcoal; but he was mistaken in supposing those two substances to be identical. Besides, this is a mere insulated fact, very interesting, it is true, with regard to those two substances, but wholly independent of any general theory. 2d, From the experiments of Priestley, in which nitrous gas was evolved from nitric acid, and nitric acid again formed when nitrous gas was mixed with oxygen, he drew the obvious conclusion, that nitric acid was composed of nitrous gas and oxygen. 3d, He overthrew the influence of phlogiston in chemical phenomena, and ascribed to the new substances, and their combinations, the effects which had till then been attributed to an imaginary agent. 4th, He united in one single work the experiments and deductions of others, with so much order and perspicuity, that his “ Elements of Chemistry' will ever remain a model of logical composition, whatever be the modifications which the science may undergo. 5th, He devised many new and ingenious experiments; he diversified those which had before been executed; he imagined some new instruments, the whole with great sagacity; and he was indefatigable in the pursuit of science. His assumption of oxygen, however, as the universal acidifying principle, has been proved to be erroneous. It was, indeed, admitted too lightly, and in despite of too many contradictions then known, and to which further experiments have added many more; and it is remarkable, that the only branch of the general system really appertaining to Lavoisier is now fast mouldering into dust; while all that has been devised by our own great countrymen is daily growing to greater strength and solidity.
Until Lavoisier had become acquainted with the new truths elicited in Britain, he had given no earnest of his future fame, though surely of an age to show much more than promise. Then, indeed, his mind was fired, and his intellect, or his ambition, expanded. In original experiment he always remained inferior to Black, Cavendish, Priestley, and many others. In powers of induction Black was his superior, aud much more sa
Cavendish; and we think we are acting with great liberality, nay with tenderness to his past fame, when, taking an average of fact and theory, we admit that the labours of any one of the three British philosophers above named, have contributed much more to the progress of Chemistry, than all the experiments and conclusions of Lavoisier taken together; and consequently, that more than three-fourths of that science, in its modern state, are British, and one-fourth is his. We have dilated upon this subject, because it is recent, striking, and characteristic of both nations; the one of which is always encroaching, and the other too indifferent to fame. At least, it may help to make them better known to each other, and to the world.
Among the last surviving contemporaries of Lavoisier is Mr Berthollet, a native of Savoy, but claimed by the French; and who has added more philosophical investigations to the science, than any of his adopting countrymen, during near thirty years; and who is not less distinguished by his talent, than by the candour and rectitude with which he champions scientific justice.
The discoveries which of late years threaten the subversion of the chemical system, falsely called Lavoisier's, have altogether originated in Britain ; and any claim the French may urgc, except that of having repeated, confirmed, and slightly modified them, is unfounded. Those discoveries are owing principally to a more powerful engine than was before possessed; and to the brilliant imagination of Sir H. Davy, who has most successfully wielded it. We will not enter into the details of recent chemistry; but we confidently state that, most particularly in the philosophy of the science, Britain could produce a living list, twice as long as that of France, and of equally celebrated names. The atomic theory, the union of elements in definite proportions, expressible in integral numbers to form compound bodies, is a discovery wholly British.
This rapid sketch, which the unceasing assertion of the French, that they are the most scientific ot' nations, has induced us to give, and which we consider not as complete, but as just, must make the scientific superiority of Britain undoubted. "But what is still more gratifying, is, that our preeminence is greatest, and most indisputable, precisely in those branches of science which demand the highest powers of intellect, as well as in those whose applications are the most valuable to society-mathematics (excepting the present moment); astronomy; natural philosophy; medicine; consulting, and, at present, operative surgery-and chemistry;-while the French can pretend to rivality in those branches only which depend upon a smaller portion of less powerful mind. The grand combinations all are
perpetuall'ely for thent of thig to captivaanswers to their superior
ours-moral, intellectual and physical; and at this day, as two thousand years ago, we merit the preference which one of the ablest of the Romans, Agricola, as reported by his own son-inlaw, Tacitus, gave to British genius, over that of the Gauls. · We must now proceed to our second charge, the little diffusion of knowledge in France.
The ruling passion of the French nation, that to which they perpetually sacrifice, is always to appear to advantage; and, unfortunately for themselves, they too generally bound their views to the attainment of this single end. But, while the inordinate desire to dazzle and to captivate is militating against their true happiness and well-being, it answers the purpose of seducing unsuspecting nations into an opinion of their superiority. Thus it is that the splendour and brilliancy with which they have contrived to surround the know ledge of a few, has very generally diffused the belief, that the nation at large is particularly scientific and instructed. But, to judge soundly, it must be remembered, that, in France, glory is the condiment to the whole feast of life; and that the trumpet of fame is that which makes the sweetest music to their ears. Science, in the lands of the French, is like every thing else. It fills a page of history, and adorns their tale. But, for this end, there is no necessity that it should be general. A legion of well-informed men, but who make no discoveries, does not cut such a figure in the world as a single hero of the crucible, who forces nature in her entrenchments. We do not wish to depreciate either state of knowledge, for we rejoice to find it upon any terms; but we do think, that one thousand persons of moderate general instruction form a better, a wiser, and a happier community, than nine hundred and ninety-nine ignorant, and one discoverer. Nay more, it is probable, that, among one thousand persons of moderate general instruction, there will be more discoveries, than among ten, or twenty, or twice twenty, of the deeply learned.
The disparity between the learned and the unlearned, in France, is greater than in any other part of Europe; and forms one of the striking and characteristic features of that vivacious nation. In the countries which may be considered as her rivals in science, England, for instance, and many parts of Germany, plain homely instruction is much more general, an d more knowledge is diffused throughout society; consequently, a shorter interval divides the two conditions. In other nations, on the contrary, as Italy, Spain, &c. in which general knowledge and instruction are not so common, the sciences are far from being on the same brilliant footing as that which they have maintained
in France for nearly one century; and no scientific eclat induces a belief that those nations are learned. There is not any thing extraordinary in this proportion of learning to ignorance, in France. A similar condition of intellect is exemplified, in other nations not European; and to a much greater extent than it can be supposed to exist in this quarter of the globe, where the general state of society approaches nearer to equality of every kind, as well among nations, as among individuals. The Arabs, for instance, who highly honoured certain shades of intellect, were, with the exception of a very few, a nation of slaves, plunderers and banditti; ignorant of law or of justice; incapable of good government; living, judging, preaching by the sword; without a tincture of morality, and with little knowledge of the human heart. The hundred poets who accompanied the Caliph Aroun-el-Raschid in his pilgrimage to Mecca, did less to civilize and enlighten their countrymen, than did the disciples of Fobi or Confucius, to prepare the future wisdom of China, though the hundred poets may have dazzled with a brighter lustre.
We have often heard it asserted, even by our own countrymen, that the French have a greater taste for science than the English. We know not where this opinion could have had its source, except it be in the modesty, the despondency, or the ignorance, of some splenețic travellers, who prided themselves upon doing what they conceived a great act of justice, and gaining a notable triumph over prejudice, by thus untruly setting a rival nation above their own. But we would recommend to all such, still to keep some corner of their conscience for plain and simple truth. The French have indeed a greater taste for the splendour and renown of science, a more ambitious feeling of its fame and glory, than we have; but a less adequate sentiment of its real value of the enjoyments it procures, and of the blessings it diffuses. In France, one great emporium has been established, one brilliant focus, into which the whole light of the nation has been collected. The most distinguished men, in every branch of science were at all times to be found in that learned body, which, by the publicity of its meetings in a capital where all is show, by assuming the forms of a deliberating assembly, a supreme judicial council over the state of science, not merely in France, but in Europe, has raised itself to a degree of notice and celebrity, which no other modern academy bas aspired to possess, by the like means. But our Royal Society is not the only luninary for our learned world to gaze upon. There is nothing theatrical in its forms. Its sittings are short, cold and pithy. There is no discussing, no debating. Its long accu