Back Emerson, Agassiz, and the mind of God

Guest blog post by Christoph Irmscher, professor of English at Indiana University, Bloomington, and author of the recently published biography John James Audubon: Writings and Drawings.

Louis Agassiz (seated) and the Harvard mathematician Benjamin Peirce contemplating the location of Cambridge, Mass., on the globe, c. 1870. (Photograph by Antoine Sonrel/Collection of Christoph Irmscher)

In one of his lesser-known poems, Ralph Waldo Emerson confessed that while he admired the outfit worn by priests, such masquerade was not for him:

I like a church; I like a cowl;
I love a prophet of the soul;
And on my heart monastic aisles
Fall like sweet strains, or pensive smiles;
Yet not for all his faith can see
Would I that cowled churchman be.
—Emerson, “The Problem”

Emerson’s clipped lines reveal the dilemma in which he found himself, an ex-minister who had quit his job because he didn’t want to lose the substance of his faith while he was “seeking the shadow,” as he said, beautifully, in the last sermon he ever gave. Emerson was convinced that the human mind was equipped to understand “the substance” of the universe; priestly vestments or rituals (such as the Lord’s Supper) were nothing but a distraction in his quest for such understanding. And while Emerson’s “unchurchy religiousness” (to use a phrase from one of Max Eastman’s essays) needed no ministry, he gladly accepted help from one of his closest allies, the scientist Louis Agassiz, whose biography I have just published.

Agassiz was a minister’s son, as Emerson was. Born in Switzerland in 1807, Agassiz grew up under his father’s ever-watchful eye. Science was not among the career choices Pasteur Agassiz, a meticulous, exacting, unforgiving man, had in mind for his son. Like the smug Calvinist parson in “The Wonderful ‘One-Hoss-Shay,’” a satirical poem by Agassiz’s friend, Oliver Wendell Holmes, the Rev. Rodolphe Agassiz would obsess about the smallest details, with the crucial difference that his project wasn’t a minister’s carriage but his son’s life. However, just as the carriage of Holmes’s parson eventually collapsed, so did Rodolphe Agassiz’s plans for Louis. The son rebelled against his father and obtained a doctoral degree in natural history from the University of Munich. Even if Louis’s first real teaching position was in Neuchâtel, close to where he had been born and close to his father’s vicarage, the seeds of discontent came to fruition when he left Europe for the United States in 1846. Louis never returned. And while his ideas on race, evolution, and taxonomy—hopelessly misguided, from a modern perspective—have eliminated him from the pantheon of truly great scientists, Professor Agassiz’s legacy nevertheless lingers, and in no small degree through the influence he had on the Transcendentalists.

After his arrival, the Bostonians did notice that Louis Agassiz, now a new professor at Harvard University, was not of the “churchgoing kind,” as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow noted in his journal. But he had something else to offer. Just what that was (and how much it would have resonated with someone like Ralph Waldo Emerson) is clear from a small text I found, a few years ago, among Agassiz’s papers in Harvard’s Houghton Library. It is one of the few Agassiz manuscripts not concerned with scientific matters, an explication of Psalm 8, lines 3-4: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained, what is man, that thou art mindful of him?”

We do not know what had induced his hand at biblical exegesis; nor do we know why he had chosen this particular passage. But it is evident that he cared deeply about his subject. His writing is intense, at times lyrical, at times delirious: phrases pile upon phrases, sentences stretch to the length of entire paragraphs. When it comes to the point he wants to make, though, Agassiz doesn’t waste time. For him, the psalmist’s humility before God was a thing of the past, the distant past. Thanks to the revelations of modern science, the skies to us don’t look the way they did to King David. “We cannot if we would, we would not if we could, put out of mind the knowledge which the intervening centuries of study and observation have established.” Astronomy, for example, had made the universe seem more glorious than ever before: “There is now seen an order more extensive and perfect in the positions and motions in the heavenly bodies than the Psalmist could have dreamed of.” If God’s wisdom is infinite, so is that of man who comprehends it all, and when Agassiz says “man,” he really means “scientist”: “The mind of man profoundly considered is as vast and stupendous a creation as an outward firmament of worlds.” The stars in the skies cannot understand the nature of their own existence; the scientist, however, can.

As a case in point, Agassiz mentions the astronomer Urbain Le Verrier (1811–1877), who in 1846 had, through the power of mathematical deduction alone, predicted the existence of Neptune, a planet that can contain up to sixty Earths. Listen to how Agassiz sets up the story as if he had film treatment in mind:

A young astronomer in Paris sits down with his slate and pencil. He ascertains just the amount of various Irregularities in the motions of Uranus, not accounted for before et [and] then he reckons by a process which to the common and uneducated mind is utterly incomprehensible and amazing, reckons by figure and algebraic operations how large must that disturbing body be, how distant its orbit, and just where it ought to be found on any given day and hour.

Le Verrier hadn’t spent a minute peering at the sky, concentrating instead on the sheet of paper before him. Yet, once he did look up from his work, his prediction was found to be entirely accurate, as Agassiz insists: “The wondrous tube is pointed to the spot and so there it is a little twinkling star, yet a world, one of our family, and compared with which for vastness of size and orbit, this earth is but a child’s bauble.” Agassiz is unstoppable by now, the words pouring out of him like a veritable meteor shower, his prose tipsily soaring to the heights his text seeks to capture on the page. I am telling you, he continues, addressing his readers or listeners, straining to give his insights all the emphasis he can muster, “this mind of man, perverted, dwarfed and misused as it is, is a higher creation, a more astonishing display of God’s power and skill, a more signal expression of his attributes than the material worlds with which that mind deals.”

God’s skill? The great Protestant theologian Jean Calvin (1509–1564) had used that very same word, in his commentary on Psalm 8, or rather the Latin equivalent of it: those who are proud of their excellent intellects they possess, as if they had earned them by their own skill (industria) or merit (merito), forget that all they know or think they know has been gratuitously conferred upon them. Humans are miserable worms, squirming upon the earth: vile, contemptuous creatures all, utterly unworthy of receiving anything from God. For Calvin, Psalm 8 was, above all, an illustration of how wholly undeserved God’s grace was. Louis Agassiz couldn’t have agreed less. His unconventional biblical exegesis is an unashamed prayer not to God but to the power of scientific industria, a virtue Louis considered divine and which he, giving lectures all over the country and filling his museum to the brim with specimens, exemplified like no one else.

Decades after his father’s death, Louis Agassiz was still waging war against his meticulous father’s plans for his life. And he was giving the Unitarians what they needed—proof taken from the history of science that the human mind really was divine. Louis’s concept of the divine intellect was not at all like the God Rodolphe had told him about, a God who, like Rodolphe himself, micromanages the lives of others. Rather, Louis’s God was a skillful scientist—of the kind Louis had become. Professor Agassiz was not a humble man. Even death, the ubiquitous subtext of Calvin’s exegesis, did not faze him. Given the power of the scientific intellect, the end of human life to him was at most an inconvenience, an interruption, a brief eclipse. But it is not the end of the process of understanding, not the moment captured in one of Emily Dickinson’s gloomier poems when you can no longer “see to see.” The mind that tracks God cannot just be cast aside, like a withered leaf, after sixty or seventy years: “To fear annihilation of the human mind on account of death,” asked Louis Agassiz, “is it not as weak and puerile as the error of these simple children of nature, who thought the sun was extinct, when they saw the moon pass over and hid his face at midday?” Louis Agassiz was now taking on any number of passages in the Bible that he would have heard his father quote, perhaps most prominently Psalm 90.10: “The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labour and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.” Louis Agassiz’s “devotion,” a term his contemporaries often applied to his tireless attempts to infuse science with morality, was not blind reverence. If it opens a way to understanding the secrets of nature, the keys to the door were, he believed, firmly lodged in the hands of the scientist, the King David of the nineteenth century.

Ralph Waldo Emerson would have agreed, except that for him Agassiz’s scientist was, of course, the poet: two names, really, for the same thing.

Bibliographical note: Louis Agassiz’s autograph essay “VIII Ps. 3.4. When I consider Thy heavens . . .” is in the Louis Agassiz Papers at Houghton Library, Harvard University, MS Am 1410 (142). Houghton Library’s permission to quote from Agassiz’s unpublished papers is gratefully acknowledged.

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