Superstition vs. Investigation
June 1890 — Graduation speech, Red Cloud High School, Red Cloud, NE
All human history is a record of an emigration, an exodus from barbarism to civilization; from the very outset of this pilgrimage of humanity, superstition and investigation have been contending for mastery. Since investigation first led man forth on that great search for truth which has prompted all his progress, superstition, the stern Pharoah of his former bondage, has followed him, retarding every step of advancement.
Then began a conquest which will end only with time, for it is only the warfare between radicalism and conservatism, truth and error, which underlies every man’s life and happiness. The Ancient orientals were highly civilized people but were dreamers and theorists who delved into the mystical and metaphysical, leaving the more practical questions remain unanswered, and were subjected to the evils of tyranny and priestcraft. Those sacred books of the east we today regard as half divine. We are not apt to think as we read those magnificent flights of metaphor that the masses of people who read and believed them knew nothing of figures. It is the confounding of the literal and the figurative that has made atheists and fanatics throughout the ages.
All races have worshipped nature, the ruder as the cause, the more enlightened as the effect of one grand cause. Worship as defined by Carlyle is unmeasured wonder, but there are two kinds of wonder, that born of fear and that of admiration; slavish fear is never reverence.
The Greeks, lacking the intense religious fervor of the Orient, entertained broader views. Their standard of manhood was one of practical worth. They allowed no superstition, religious, political, or social, to stand between them and the truth and suffered exile, imprisonment, and death for the right of opinion and investigation.
Perhaps the strongest conflict ever known between the superstitious and investigative forces of the world raged in the dark ages. Earth seemed to return to its original chaotic state, and there was no one to cry, “Fiat lux.” The old classic creed fell crashing into the boundless path, and the new church was a scene of discord. All the great minds were crushed, for men were still ruled by the iron scepter of fear, and it was essential that they should remain ignorant. Superstition has ever been the curse of the church, and until she can acknowledge that since her principles are true, no scientific truth can contradict them, she will never realize her full strength. There is another book of God than that of the scriptural revelation, a book written in chapters of creation upon the pages of the universe bound by mystery. When we are morbid enough to say that the world degenerates with its age we forget that the heroes and sages of history were the exceptions and not the rule; what age since the world’s foundation can leave such a record upon the pages of time as the nineteenth century? What is it that characterizes our age and gives the present its supremacy? Not skill in handcraft, for the great masses of art lie sleeping among the tombs of Hellas and Italy; not in clearness or depth of thought, for our literary and philosophical lights are gleams from the fires of the past. In the Elizabethan age, a book was written asserting that nature is the only teacher, that no man’s mind is broad enough to invent a theory to hold nature, for she is the universe. With the publication of the Novum Organumcame a revolution in thought; scientists ceased theorizing and began experimenting. Thus we went painfully back to nature, weary and disgusted with our artificial knowledge, hungering for that which is meat, thirsting for that which is drink, longing for the things that are. She has given us the universe in answer.
It is the most sacred right of man to investigate; we paid dearly for it in Eden; we have been shedding our heart’s blood for it ever since. It is ours; we have bought it with a price.
Scientific investigation is the hope of our age, as it must precede all progress; and yet upon every hand we hear the objections to its pursuit. The boy who spends his time among the stones and flowers is a trifler, and if he tries with bungling attempt to pierce the mystery of animal life he is cruel. Of course if he becomes a great anatomist or a brilliant naturalist, his cruelties are forgotten or forgiven him; the world is very cautious, but it is generally safe to admire a man who has succeeded. We do not with-hold from a few great scientists the right of the hospital, the post mortem, or experimenting with animal life, but we are prone to think the right of experimenting with life too sacred a thing to be placed in the hands of inexperienced persons. Nevertheless, if we bar our novices from advancement, whence shall come our experts?
But to test the question by comparison, would all the life destroyed in experimenting from the beginning of the world until today be as an atom to the life saved by that one grand discovery for which Harvey sacrificed his practice and his reputation, the circulation of the blood? There is no selfishness in this. It came from a higher motive than the desire for personal gain, for it too often brings destitution instead. Of this we have the grand example in the broken-down care-worn old man who has just returned from the heart of the Dark Continent. But perhaps you still say that I evade the question, has any one a right to destroy life for scientific purposes? Ah, why does life live upon death throughout the universe?
Investigators have styled fanatics those who seek to probe into the mysteries of the unknowable. This is unreasonable. The most aspiring philosopher never hoped to do more than state the problem; he never dreamed of solving it. Newton did not say how or why every particle of matter in the universe attracted every other particle of matter in the universe. He simply said it was so. We can only judge these abstract forces by their effect. Our intellectual swords may cut away a thousand petty spiderwebs woven by superstition across the mind of man, but before the veil of the “Sanctum Sanctorum” we stand confounded, our blades glance and turn and shatter upon the eternal adamant. Microscopic eyes have followed matter to the molecule and fallen blinded. Imagination has gone a step farther and grasped the atom. There, with a towering height above and yawning death below even this grows sick at soul. For over six thousand years we have shaken fact and fancy in the dice box together and breathlessly awaited the result. But the dice of God are always loaded, and there are two sides which never fall upward, the alpha and omega. Perhaps when we make our final cast with dark old death we may shape them better.
Source: Red Cloud Chief, 13 June 1890.
Also: Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters, ed. L. Brent Bohlke (Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press), 1986, pp. 141-143.