Zeitgeist 1878

I thought this article from 1878 by R. A. Holland about the value of either the atom or the void between the atom would make interesting reading for someone so I put it here.


The Atom and the Void.—A Sphinx-Riddle


[We copy the following; passage from an address of Rev. Dr. R. A. Holland before the alumni of the St. Louis High School—June, 1878—the theme being “The Spirit of our Time,” or, as the Germans call it, the “Zeitgeist.”—Ed.]


Then came Oedipus himself, our own Zeit-Geist, and, seizing the Sphinx by the ear, jerked her proud head to one side and hallooed boldly, “No airs with me. I have read thy riddle. The universe is dust—nothing but dust. Dust gives to matter all the flexibility it needs. The smaller and more numerous the joints, the greater the capability of contortions; and, if its joints are almost points and numberless, Matter can writhe and wriggle into any shape of solid, liquid, or gas—can even take its tail into its mouth and prove itself to be without beginning or end. Besides, all bodies are resolvable into dust; feldspar, fungus, centipede, herring, snipe, bear-fat, and the brain of Goethe—all are resolvent into dust. Dust is as spry as Puck; dust is as familiar as the sight of a school-boy’s hand and face; and do not familiarity and serviceableness constitute the value of a theory?

Howbeit, I must admit that the dust of the universe is not common dust. To do its work it has to be too fine for vision. It must be imperceptible in order to explain perception. True imperceptibility in the abstract is mysterious; but the mystery in this case is too small for consideration—only an atom, nearly nothing.” Whereupon the Zeit-Geist crops the ear of the Sphinx and lets it go.

But the Zeit-Geist has forgotten that his little mysteries, his nearly nothings, added together make up the big mystery, or the universe. Though he has ground the worlds to powder, the powder remains in his mortar without the loss of a grain. The weight of the problem is exactly the same. This very fine dust—what is it? What moulds it into the wondrous form of earth and sea and air? Does it originate its own motion? How? By simple attraction?

Attraction alone would draw the universe into a solid impenetrable mass without possibility of motion. By simple repulsion? Repulsion alone would scatter the universe out of all possibility of form. Form implies bounds, and bounds imply a binding force. The diffusest gas must have some continuity to distinguish it as a gas. But simple repulsion would destroy all continuity, leaving not closeness enough for the encounters of a chaos. Naught could exist but independent and alien atoms. Nay, the atoms themselves could not exist, for they must exist in space and have their limit or bound which absolute repulsion would explode at once, hurling their contents to uttermost nowhere.

Moreover, if these two contradictory forces should inhere in the atom and yet remain equal and constant, the universe would have the same density throughout and forever—be everywhere solid, everywhere liquid, or everywhere gaseous, and not multiform and mobile as it now is. Hence every atom must have power to attract, power to repel, and a choice which of these powers to use, and in what degree to use it, so as to make now the granite crag, now the mosses that grow on its clefts, and now the cascade that breaks against its midway ledges to a downward breeze of mist.

Cunning atoms! they explain the mystery of the universe by easy condensation. They resemble the Norse ship Skidbladner, which could be folded to fit in a side-pocket or spread large enough to carry all the gods at once, raising whatever wind it needed by the mere set of its sails.

“Out and open, little atom,” says the Zeit-Geist, with a pat of his hand and a puff. “Out and open, big, bigger, biggest; a sail for heat, a sail for light, a sail for electricity; three sails for life, and now the jib, fore, main, mizzen, and spanker all a-flying, with the gods themselves at the ropes for a Shakespeare’s ‘Tempest’ or the rhyme of the ‘Ancient Mariner.'”

And yet the ship does not go, because it has no sea. Were the atoms in contact, they would, as we have seen, no longer be atoms, but a solid mass incapable of motion—dry ground everywhere. But if they are apart they have spaces between them, and these spaces are voids, and voids are nothings. Now, nothings cannot transmit, cannot undulate, have points of the compass or degrees of distance. It was to fill up such an abyss of nothing between the sun and the earth that the Zeit-Geist poured into it a sea of billowing ether, for heat and light to drift across. But the ether turns out to be no sea, for it, too, is composed of atoms, separated by voids.

And these voids need each to be filled with ether as much as did the great void between the earth and the sun; and should other seas of ether be poured into them, this ether would likewise prove to be atoms separated by voids, or nothings. Since, then, the least separative nothing is as large as the largest—nothing divided by ninety-five million miles being no less than nothing multiplied by the same amount —the nearest atoms are as wide apart as worlds, and the magic ship, with canvas and crew to circumnavigate the universe, lies high and dry aground in its own atomic insulation, unable to budge. Oh, befuddled Zeit-Geist, to rig a ship to sail without a sea!

“Not so quick,” replies the Zeit-Geist with some thickness of tongue.

“The fault is not in the atom, but in the void; atoms are facts, but voids are metaphysical. I hate metaphysics. Give me facts—facts like atoms which a man can take hold of and verify. Independent of the problem of creation, facts or things are the only truths. What one sees, hears, tastes, smells, handles—that alone is credible. Ideas are abstractions, spooks of a mental dark seance whose tin horns cannot impose on inductive philosophers like myself and Comte and Mill and Macaulay and Buckle and Thomas Gradgrind. Gradgrind—you remember him? A man of cosmic intellect and my most intimate friend. I shall never forget with what oratorical force he used to declare, ‘Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon facts. Nothing else will ever be of any service to them. . . . Stick to facts, sir.'”

But, if a man stick to facts, how shall he advance in knowledge? Immediate observation is the only sort of knowing that sticks to facts. Reflection leaves them at once and strays off into ideas. The less the thought, the tighter the adhesion, and hence it were stickiest not to think at all. The child knows the flower in this way better than the botanist; the coon-hunting negro feels the sweet influences of the Pleiades more distinctly than the Smithsonian astronomer; and a fool, who can only see and remember, has the absolute genius of tar and feathers. For these simple minds are unbewitched by Science, who makes her living by dissolving facts into vaporous abstractions. Moreover, the mind that would stick to facts must never talk. As soon as its tongue begins to wag, that mind breaks loose and runs away. Language will lie.

Describe, O Zeit-Geist! in glutinous words, if possible, the “three black crows which sat on a tree,” as thou art wont to sing. They were “three”; but three is not a fact; nobody ever saw three; three applies to any other crows as well as to those that sat on a tree; three is an abstraction. They were “black”; but black is not a fact; no such thing exists; it is a metaphysical cheat which identifies my lady’s moire-antique with yon charcoal vender’s cheek.

They were “crows”; but many crows are dead and many yet unborn; among such as live, some are jackdaws, some are rooks, and some are known by their love of carrion, yet all are crows. Which were the three that sat on a tree? Certainly they were not all—the dead, the unborn, the living—jackdaws, rooks, and lovers of carrion. What is crow—pure crow? Nobody knows but a repentant politician, and he only by eating the words he has spoken. In the effort to describe his three black crows, the Zeit-Geist gets utterly bewildered. They vanish into birds, the birds into animals, the animals into organisms, the organisms into things, the things into blank being, which, without some other characteristic, is indistinguishable from nothing. If he tries to specialize them with properties, the properties lead him the same wild chase after phantoms that melt at last into nothing. Beaks, claws, feathers, are no more real than three and black and crow. The beaks, for example, are horn; horn is a compound of phosphate of lime and albumen; phosphate of lime is the combination of a certain acid with a certain base; acid is a substance that, under certain conditions, combines with bases, and bases are elements that, under conditions, combine with acids; but elements, substances, conditions, are metaphysics—the worst kind—what the Zeit-Geist calls “shadows of nonentity.”

Still our great sticker to facts does not despair. His crows may be torn to pieces by words which divide them into parts, elements, classes, but he insists that they do not exist as divisible compounds or anatomies. They are a relation of things rather than the things themselves. What, then, are these things of which they are relations but themselves the relations of other things which are also relations?

And what at last do all these relations relate to? To nothing? But a relation that relates to nothing were no relation. And is thy fact, O giddy Zeit-Geist! this one mesh of a net which unweaves the universe and yet has not a single strand?

Thinkest thou to catch crows and hold them in so loose a snare I Lift up its pouch and look. No crows are there. Instead of the jet gloss of plumage, with purple-blue reflections, thou seest transient hidings of the sun; what seemed the crooked feet are hills and valleys with their strength of forests and fruitful fields; and that semblance of wings was but a mock of the wind whose rush thou feelest between thy fingers in grasping where the phantoms last appeared.

When old Trior strove in Yotun-land to lift a cat which proved to be the Midgard serpent that coils around the world, and to drain at one swill a horn whose end lay open in the sea, the gods who heard of it laughed a laugh of thunder, and swore he was drunk. What, then, shall we think of thee and the three black crows flown through the meshes of thy strandless net of unrelenting relativities? O too confident Zeit-Geist!

Would not a swallow more of Pierian settle thy stomach and unkink thy brain? Might not one deep-drawn thought disclose to thee that a totality of relations which relates to nothing else must relate to itself; that self-relation differs from the relation of one thing to another by its independence amid dependencies, and its permanence under changes; that such a relation, at once both active and passive, both means and ends, both subject and object, exists only in mind which knows itself, in will which determines itself, in personality which throughout the passing phases of knowledge and volition abides, yesterday, to-day, and forever, the same; and that this all enfolding, all-upholding personality explains the universe in whole and every part infinitely better than thy very fine dust?


The Journal of speculative philosophy. v.19 (1885).

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