John William Draper’s “Metaphysical Pathos” in his A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe

I have been reading Donald Fleming’s John William Draper and the Religion of Science (1972) today and came to a remarkable discovery. In Chapter VIII, Fleming makes some brief comments on Draper’s A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe (1862). In Draper’s preface to this work, he says:

In the Preface to the second edition of my Physiology, published in 1858, it was mentioned that this work was at that time written. The changes that have been since made in it have been chiefly with a view of condensing it. The discussion of several scientific questions, such as that of the origin of species, which have recently attracted public attention so strongly, has, however, remained untouched, the principles offered being the same as presented in the former work in 1856.

According to Fleming, “this is clearly designed to meet the challenge that [Draper] cribbed from Darwin….[and] may, or may not, be intended to show also that [he] had finished his book before the appearance of the first volume of H.T. Buckle’s History of Civilization in 1857,” which Joseph Hooker, after the Oxford debate of 1860, had accused him of copying without its seasoning.

Also fascinating, Fleming claims that “Draper tried to sketch the pattern of his history after the manner of Aguste Comte,” where nations have passed from theology through metaphysics to positive, scientific thought. But Draper provides a nuance. He “explored the relation of the environment of peoples to their history, and made of enveloping Nature the compulsive force behind all of history.” “Naturalistic evolution is a substitute for the anthropomorphic God who laid down orderly decrees; and the law of [Comte’s] three stages is a secular version of these decrees.”

Furthermore, Fleming sees three distinct traditions “mingling and dissevering” in Draper’s intellectual, European history. Here I note the first, which is a Christian theology, in which Draper substitutes the God the father and God the judge for a God the engineer. “Among the Christian dogmas transmitted by Draper full-strength,” Fleming writes, “was the comprehension of the world at a gulp. He crammed his zest for scientific innovation well within the bounds of basic security about the nature of things. From change and confusion he pointed to stability and order.” Like Darwin, Draper rejected special creation because it robbed God of his integrity:

…it is a more noble view of the government of this world to impute its order to a penetrating primitive wisdom, which could foresee consequences throughout a future eternity, and provide for them in the original plan at the outset, than to invoke the perpetual intervention of an ever-acting spiritual agency for the purpose of warding off misfortunes that might happen, and setting things to rights.

To operate by expedients is for the creature, to operate by law for the Creator; and so far from the doctrine that creations and extinctions are carried on by a foreseen and predestined ordinance—a system which works of itself without need of any intermeddling—being an unworthy, an ignoble conception, it is completely in unison with the resistless movements of the mechanism of the universe, with whatever is orderly, symmetrical, and beautiful upon earth, and with all the dread magnificence of the heavens.

Indeed, there is a “metaphysical pathos” in Draper’s history. “God has been emptied out upon ‘nature,'” and in ways similar to John Tyndall, Draper’s Intellectual Development displays a “strong, if not rigorous, strain of pantheism.”

This attitude is part and parcel of a tradition within nineteenth-century Protestant theology, which “drew back from describing God’s form.” While Draper has nothing but contempt for “antropoid conceptions” of God, he also sees science as providing mankind with much needed humility.

Is the earth the greatest and most noble body in the universe, round which, as an immovable centre, the sun, and the various planets, and stars revolve, ministering by their light and other qualities to the wants and pleasures of man, or is it an insignificant orb—a mere point—submissively revolving, among a crowd of compeers and superiors, around a central sun? The former of these views was authoritatively asserted by the Church; the latter, timidly suggested by a few thoughtful and religious men at first, in the end gathered strength and carried the day.

Behind this physical question—a mere scientific problem—lay something of the utmost importance-the position of man in the universe.

The result of the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo was thus to bring the earth to her real position of subordination and to give sublimer views of the universe.

If we ignore the obvious mythological character in this account, it should not deter us from seeing that, for Draper, it was the glory of science that gave man a properly low estimate of his own importance. As Fleming observes, “it is hard to escape the conclusion that this view of science springs from the flagellation of man and the denigration of earthly existence in the Christian tradition.”

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