Historical and Scientific Society of Manitoba Inaugural Address - 1879 *
by Chief Justice Edmund Burke Wood
MHS Transactions, Series 3, 1957-58 season
The labours of the Association, which we are endeavoring to inaugurate, is to be devoted to History and Science in their widest acceptation.
We are not vain enough to suppose that we shall, for many years at least, be able to add much to that mountain of history which has in the ages that are past, been piled up, and to that temple of Science whose pinnacles are lost in the clouds; still, situated as we are in the midst of a virgin continent, we may reasonably expect to be able to add a few pebbles to the former and to polish, it may not add, a column, supporting a lofty dome of the latter.
The influence of the Society will be rather subjective than objective; and this consideration, it seems to me, should be the strongest possible inducement to every intelligent person in the community becoming an active and enthusiastic member of the association.
As a rule we are not predisposed to severe mental toil. We need every stimulant that can appropriately be applied to repel mental indolence and inactivity and to induce the vigorous activity necessary to advancement and success in any department of literature.
There is no excellence without labor. Mental labor depends upon the will. The will is as the greatest motive. If our association does nothing more than furnish motive power determining the will in leading on the intellect to diligent study and inquiry into the general history of the world and the exploration of those sciences which demonstrate the relations of things, of man to his Maker, of the apprehension and appreciation of those moral laws whose seat is the bosom of God, and whose voice is the harmony of the universe, it will have accomplished much and will have richly rewarded any sacrifices of its founders.
No member should, therefore, shrink from any little self-denial the successful working of the Society may require at his hands; and he should embrace with eagerness every occasion presented for the exercise of his intellectual faculties upon some one of the vast range of subjects falling within history and science; if not in instruction to others, at least in furtherance of self-culture. Much may be learned from lectures and the speeches and conversation of others, but knowledge thus acquired is apt to be superficial and evanescent; but, depend upon it, if any one will master a department or branch of history or science, he must collate, compress, expend and sift for himself until he has become an actor in the history and a discoverer in the Science. Macaulay in his history of England, is an illustration of the one, and Kepler in his discovery of the laws of motion of the heavenly bodies, when in his ecstasy he exclaimed: "I may well wait in contentment for a hundred years for man to appreciate my discovery, since the Almighty has waited six thousand years for a discoverer," is an illustration of the other. Knowledge, to be of advantage, must be subjective. It can only be subjective when appropriated and made one's own by ourselves transcribing and chiselling it upon the marble of the mind. I need scarcely say that the exercise of putting fragments of history into writing, and of giving a written exposition of any problem in science, tend greatly to self-culture and subjective knowledge. No excuse must, therefore, be offered by or accepted from any member of the Society; but, as I have already said, each must be ready as opportunity offers or as occasion requires, to slip boldly forward and, if not for the instruction of others, at least for the education of himself, make his contribution to the intellectual entertainment of the association.
Having made these general remarks, I will now proceed to say a few words in respect of history.
Our English word history is the Greek word, historia. History is the science which embraces all the objects of external experience, including the present and the past; that is all the phenomena which occur in space or in time. The representation of the present is description; the representation of the past, relation. This definition comprises natural history. From this view of history is derived the phrase historical sciences, by which is meant all those branches of science whose objects are derived from experience or from the external world, and are perceived by the senses, in contradiction from the abstract sciences as mathematics and metaphysics. Perhaps this view of history is large enough to comprise within its circle biographies of distinguished characters who were representatives of a class and great factors in the transactions and events of their time - as the history of Napoleon - the history of Cromwell. In modern times, the designation of history has now a much more extended meaning than it had in the literature of Greece and Rome. It is now popularly understood to signify that science which treats of man in all his relations, social, political, commercial, religious, moral and literary, as far as they are the result of general influences extending to large masses of men, and embracing both the past and the present - including therefore, everything which acts upon men, considered as members of a society; its object is to represent the relations in which man exists, and the influences to which he is subject, with truth and clearness. In investigating these relations, and dispersing the clouds which often envelop truth, history is a science; in exhibiting its treasures of truth, it is an art. Individuals, events, actions, discoveries, measures are historical, as far as they have a bearing upon the many, in their relations to each other; or as far as they disclose a truth, important with respect to the relations I have mentioned. The history of the Israelites necessarily involves the biography of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, of Moses, of Joshua; of Athens, that of Aristides, Themistocles, Aristotle, Socrates and Plato; that of Sparta, Sycurgus and Agessilaus; of Thebes, that of Pindar, Epaminondas and Pelopidas; of Rome, that of Cato, Caesar, Brutus and Cicero; of Carthage, that of Hannibal; of France, that of Voltaire, Mirabeau, Robespierre, Carnot and Bonaparte; of Prussia, that of Frederick William, Frederick the Great and Bismarck; of England, that of Sidney, Russell, Hampden, Milton, Cromwell, Shakespeare, the Duke of Wellington, and the long roll of the great names which adorn her history. Man in society is the maker and the subject of history.
In this view of history, natural history is excluded. History is neither chronicles nor annals, although both these be involved in, and form part of, history. There may be chronicles of empires and histories of cities. All history is correlated to man, and is valuable only as developing his true character. Man is the sphinx - the riddle; history, the phenomena whence through ages efforts have been made to understand and comprehend this incomprehensible being. Whence is he - what are the accidents of his being - what is he - and whither doth he go? The history of a man is, in miniature, the history of his race. What light have the history of China, of India, of Egypt, of Greece, of Rome, of the Middle Ages, of the Reformation and more modern history, cast upon the mysteries of life, death and immortality?
A mere narrative of a long line of kings, or chronology of battles and a description of the marches and counter-marches of armies, are of themselves of no moment. Even the Pyramids of Egypt, the Lighthouse Pharos, the Temple of Diana at Ephesus, the Colossus at Rhodes, the Statue of Jove at Athens, the Mausoleum of Mausolus, and the Hanging Gardens and Walls of Babylon, have no more significance in themselves than the tent of the tartar or the pagoda of the Chinese. They are valuable only as they disclose the intellectual and moral nature of man. There is nothing too insignificant and nothing too magnificent for history, provided it tends to the illustration of man in his moral intellectual, social or moral relations. The beautiful and the repulsive, the sublime and the lowly, the genuine and the counterfeit, in mind, morals and matter in all ages, may photograph under a thousand forms, the diversified nature of man, and in a thousand voices speak to us of the centuries that are past.
There can be no doubt that Egypt was a cradle of Western Civilization. From thence sprang letters, arts and the religious worship of Greece and Rome.
The origin of the Egyptian nation and the source of its civilization are topics of the utmost interest.
The existence of caste, the controlling and dominant power of the priesthood, the essence of religious adoration and worship, stamp the character of its people as effectually and completely as if each member of its society had been cast in an iron mould. There was no diversity in the same caste; and there was no possibility of escaping from one caste to another. The consequence was here, as in all the eastern nations of antiquity and as still remains and for aught that appears to the contrary will yet continue to remain for thousands of years - an everlasting stagnation resting upon the human soul. The father is an exact autotype of the son - the son is an exact reproduction of the father - no change - an eternal similitude pervades the entire nation. Yet, as a necessary consequence, a high state of perfection in the arts, sciences, avocations and pursuits within the sphere of each caste, was attained. It was here that Homer nearly a thousand years before Christ, gathered materials for his immortal song, and having refined and expanded his sublime genius with Egyptian lore produced his undying poems. Here Solon and Sycurgus found the archetypes of their celebrated laws; the excellencies of which are borrowed from the Egyptian polity. Pythagoras drew from Egypt the principal tenets of his philosophy and the doctrine of meternpsechosis (sic) or the transmigration of souls was confessedly of the same origin. There Plato imbibed that religious mysticism, those beautiful illusions, and those captivating though fanciful theories, which characterize his works; and he was probably indebted to the priests of Memphis and Thebes for the knowledge which he displays of the Deity in his "Phaedon" and Alcibiades, which although obscure, is far above and superior to the vulgar conception of his age. Yet it does not appear with all those advantages, that the objective or the subjective influence of Egypt was sufficient to create and produce the average man. Notwithstanding it was so conversant with science, and so richly endowed with general knowledge, it was so grossly superstitious as to expose itself to the ridicule of nations greatly inferior in general intelligence. They not only worshipped Deity under the symbols of Isis, Osiris and Apis - symbols which had not lost all trace of their philosophical origin - but they made a cat, a dog, or a stork an object of adoration, and admitted into the list of their gods the very herbs of their gardens.
I had designed to glance at China with a population of 400,000,000 - 1/4 of the whole globe - at India proper with its millions of human beings, whose written chronicles run back over a thousand years beyond the Christian era where the art of printing, of the manufacture of gunpowder, of the circulation of the blood, of inoculation, and of most of the discoveries of the Western world were known thousands of years before we had any knowledge of them; of their eternal bloom, of their immemorial temples, their blood-spangled mists of superstition, idolatry, the caste which like a pall broods over the sweltering lands, the expansive and dense jungles, lighted up the eyes of tigers as with infernal stars, and sonant with the hiss of serpents, the Ganges, the lazy deity of the land creeping down reluctantly to the sea - here the heat encompassing the country like a sullen, sleepy hell - there the mountain covered with perennial snow with its look of serene eternity - the swift steps of tropical death, heard amid the sulphury silence - the ancient monumental look proclaiming that all things here continue as they were from the formation of the world, or seen in the hazy distance as the girdle of the land, the highest peak of earth soaring towards the sun, Serius, the throne of God, and Bramanism and Buddhism two systems of religion in name, though when analyzed, only one in fact, binding in idolatry and revolting superstitions in bands stronger than iron or prison house, cut in the solid mountain the minds and souls of two thirds of the inhabitants of this globe. So completely are they shut out from Western thought by the construction of their language and the despotism of caste, that fifty years of fact have scarcely made any impression on their habit of thought, or on their social status or the despotism of their religion - and the Indian and Chinese of today is the facsimile of what his ancestors were 2000 years ago. An everlasting intellectual miasma pervades these lands, and how and when a change is to be affected is a problem no one can solve.
It is of momentous consequence to the future of the human race to discover what causes have produced such an intellectual and moral sea, disturbed by no breeze nor ruffled by any storm - a perpetual catalepsy of the intellectual and moral faculties.
One lesson is learned which I stop to mention - the power of education over the human mind. He, who would revolutionize human thought, action and character, will find his proper base of operation upon the child - a fact well understood and acted upon by those who aim at propagandism in religion or politics.
For the present I must close with the remark that it is well for the human race that the Roman Empire was broken up and that, aside from all religious considerations, that the Reformation as it is called took its rise in the world. These events with others cognate thereto prevented a Chinese sameness and uniformity and stagnation from enshrouding the human mind in the Western World. Individual freedom of thought and action has ever acquired such potency that it is not only able to maintain itself, but is making assaults upon all forms of systems of despotism whether in Church or state, and we confidently expect in the history of our race the day will come when it will be triumphant not only in the Dominion of Canada, in the United States, in England and Europe but all over the Eastern continent.
* Editor's Note: On the occasion of the Society's eightieth anniversary, this interesting inaugural address serves both as an intimate glimpse of the past and as a reminder of the original purposes of the Society.
Page revised: 22 May 2010