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Robert Ingersoll On Humboldt

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On Humboldt

Robert Green Ingersoll

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The Universe is Governed by Law.

Great men seem to be part of the infinite, brother of the
mountains and the seas. Humboldt was one of these. He was one of
those serene men, in some respects like our own Franklin, whose
names have all the lustre of a star. He was one of the few, great
enough to rise above the superstition and prejudice of his time,
and to know that experience, observation, and reason are the only
basis of knowledge.

He became one of the greatest of men in spite of having been
born rich and noble -- in spite of position. I say in spite of
these things, because wealth and position are generally the enemies
of genius, and the destroyers of talent.

It is often said of this or that man, that he is a self-made
man -- that he was born of the poorest and humblest parents, and
that with every obstacle to overcome he became great. This is a
mistake. Poverty is generally an advantage. Most of the
intellectual giants of the world have been nursed at the sad and
loving breast of poverty. Most of those who have climbed highest on
the shining ladder of fame commenced at the lowest round. They were
reared in the straw-thatched cottages of Europe; in the log-houses
of America; in the factories of the great cities; in the midst of
toil; in the smoke and din of labor, and on the verge of want. They
were rocked by the feet of mothers whose hands, at the same time,
were busy with the needle or the wheel.

It is hard for the rich to resist the thousand allurements of
pleasure, and so I say, that Humboldt, in spite of having been born
to wealth and high social position, became truly and grandly great.

In the antiquated and romantic castle of Tegel, by the side of
the pine forest, on the shore of the charming lake, near the
beautiful city of Berlin, the great Humboldt, one hundred years ago
to-day, was born, and there he was educated after the method
suggested by Rousseau, -- Campe, the philologist and critic, and
the intellectual Kunth being his tutors. There he received the
impressions that determined his career; there the great idea that
the universe is governed by law, took possession of his mind, and
there he dedicated his life to the demonstration of this sublime

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He came to the conclusion that the source of man's unhappiness
is his ignorance of nature.

After having received the most thorough education at that time
possible, and having determined to what end he would devote the
labors of his life, he turned his attention to the sciences of
geology, mining, mineralogy, botany, the distribution of plants,
the distribution of animals, and the effect of climate upon man.
All grand physical phenomena ware investigated and explained. From
his youth he had felt a great desire for travel. He felt, as he
says, a violent passion for the sea, and longed to look upon nature
in her wildest and most rugged forms. He longed to give a physical
description of the universe -- a grand picture of nature; to
account for all phenomena; to discover the laws governing the
world; to do away with that splendid delusion called special
providence, and to establish the fact that the universe is governed
by law.

To establish this truth was, and is, of infinite importance to
mankind. That fact is the death-knell of superstition; it gives
liberty to every soul, annihilates fear, and ushers in the Age of

The object of this illustrious man was to comprehend the
phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to
represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal

For this purpose he turned his attention to descriptive
botany, traversing distant lands and mountain ranges to ascertain
with certainty the geographical distribution of plants. He
investigated the laws regulating the differences of temperature and
climate, and the changes of the atmosphere. He studied the
formation of the earth's crust, explored the deepest mines,
ascended the highest mountains, and wandered through the craters of
extinct volcanoes.

He became thoroughly acquainted with chemistry, with
astronomy, with terrestrial magnetism; and as the investigation of
one subject leads to all others, for the reason that there is a
mutual dependence and a necessary connection between all facts, so
Humboldt became acquainted with all the known sciences.

His fame does not depend so much upon his discoveries
(although he discovered enough to make hundreds of reputations) as
upon his vast and splendid generalizations.

He was to science what Shakespeare was to the drama.

He found, so to speak, the world full of unconnected facts --
all portions of a vast system parts of a great machine; he
discovered the connection that each bears to all; put them
together, and demonstrated beyond all contradiction that the earth
is governed by law.

He knew that to discover the connection of phenomena is the
primary aim of all natural investigation. He was infinitely

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Origin and destiny were questions with which he had nothing to

His surroundings made him what he was.

In accordance with a law not fully comprehended, he was a
production of his time.

Great men do not live alone; they are surrounded by the great;
they are the instruments used to accomplish the tendencies of their
generation; they fulfill the prophecies of their age.

Nearly all of the scientific men of the eighteenth century had
the same idea entertained by Humboldt, but most of them in a dim
and confused way. There was, however, a general belief among the
intelligent that the world is governed by law, and that there
really exists a connection between all facts, or that all facts are
simply the different aspects of a general fact, and that the task
of science is to discover this connection; to comprehend this
general fact or to announce the laws of things.

Germany was full of thought, and her universities swarmed with
philosophers and grand thinkers in every department of knowledge.

Humboldt was the friend and companion of the greatest poets,
historians, philologists, artists, statesmen, critics, and
logicians of his time.

He was the companion of Schiller who believed that man would
be regenerated through the influence of the Beautiful; of Goethe,
the grand patriarch of German literature; of Weiland, who has been
called the Voltaire of Germany; of Herder, who wrote the outlines
of a philosophical history of man; of Kotzebue, who lived in the
world of romance; of Schleiermacher, the pantheist; of Schlegel,
who gave to his countrymen the enchanted realm of Shakespeare; of
the sublime Kant, author of the first work published in Germany on
Pure Reason; of Fichte, the infinite idealist; of Schopenhauer, the
European Buddhist who followed the great Gautama to the painless
and dreamless Nirwana, and of hundreds of others, whose names are
familiar to and honored by the scientific world.

The German mind had been grandly roused from the long lethargy
of the dark ages of ignorance, fear, and faith. Guided by the holy
light of reason, every, department of knowledge was investigated,
enriched and illustrated.

Humboldt breathed the atmosphere of investigation; old ideas
were abandoned; old creeds, hallowed by centuries, were thrown
aside; thought became contagious; the athlete, Reason, challenged
to mortal combat the monsters of superstition.

No wonder that under these influences Humboldt formed the
great purpose of presenting to the world a picture of Nature, in
order that men might, for the first time, behold the face of their

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Europe becoming too small for his genius, he visited the
tropics in the new world, where in the most circumscribed limits he
could and the greatest number of plants, of animals, and the
greatest diversity of climate, that he might ascertain the laws
governing the production and distribution of plants, animals and
men, and the effects of climate upon them all. He sailed along the
gigantic Amazon -- the mysterious Orinoco -- traversed the Pampas
-- climbed the Andes until he stood upon the crags of Chimborazo,
more than eighteen thousand feet above the level of the sea, and
climbed on until blood flowed from his eyes and lips. For nearly
five years he pursued his investigations in the new world,
accompanied by the intrepid Bonpland. Nothing escaped his
attention. He was the best intellectual organ of these new
revelations of science. He was calm, reflective and eloquent; haled
with a sense of the beautiful, and the love of truth. His
collections were immense, and valuable beyond calculation to every
science. He endured innumerable hardships, braved countless dangers
in unknown and savage lands, and exhausted his fortune for the
advancement of true learning.

Upon his return to Europe he was hailed as the second
Columbus; as the scientific discoverer of America; as the revealer
of a new world; as the great demonstrator of the sublime truth,
that the universe is governed by law.

I have seen a picture of the old man, sitting upon a mountain
side -- above him the eternal snow -- below, the smiling valley of
the tropics, filled with vine and palm; his chin upon his breast,
his eyes deep, thoughtful and calm -- his forehead majestic --
grander than the mountain upon which he sat -- crowned with the
snow of his whitened hair, he looked the intellectual autocrat of
this world.

Not satisfied with his discoveries in America, he crossed the
steppes of Asia, the wastes of Siberia, the great Ural range,
adding to the knowledge of mankind at every step. His energy
acknowledged no obstacle, his life knew no leisure; every day was
filled with labor and with thought.

He was one of the apostles of science, and he served his
divine master with a self-sacrificing zeal that knew no abatement;
with an ardor that constantly increased, and with a devotion
unwavering and constant as the polar star.

In order that the people at large might have the benefit of
his numerous discoveries, and his vast knowledge, he delivered at
Berlin a course of lectures, consisting of sixty-one free
addresses, upon the following subjects:

Five, upon the nature and limits of physical geography.

Three, were devoted to a history of science.

Two, to inducements to a study of natural science.

Sixteen, on the heavens.

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Five, on the form, density, latent heat, and magnetic power of
the earth, and to the polar light.

Four, were on the nature of the crust of the earth, on hot
springs earthquakes, and volcanoes.

Two, on mountains and the type of their formation.

Two, on the form of the earth's surface, on the connection of
continents, and the elevation of soil over ravines.

Three, on the sea as a globular fluid surrounding the earth.

Ten, on the atmosphere as an elastic fluid surrounding the
earth, and on the distribution of heat.

One, on the geographic distribution of organized matter in

Three, on the geography of plants.

Three, on the geography of animals, and

Two, on the races of men.

These lectures are what is known as the Cosmos, and present a
scientific picture of the world -- of infinite diversity in unity
-- of ceaseless motion in the eternal grasp of law.

These lectures contain the result of his investigation,
observation, and experience; they furnish the connection between
phenomena; they disclose some of the changes though which the earth
has passed in the countless ages; the history of vegetation,
animals and men, the effects of climate upon individuals and
nations, the relation we sustain to other worlds, and demonstrate
that all phenomena, whether insignificant or grand, exist in
accordance with inexorable law.

Their are some truths, however, that we never should forget:
Superstition has always been the relentless enemy of science; faith
has been a hater of demonstration; hypocrisy has been sincere only
in its dread of truth, and all religions are inconsistent with
mental freedom.

Since the murder of Hypatia in the fifth century, when the
polished blade of Greek philosophy was broken by the club of
ignorant Catholicism, until to-day, superstition has detested every
effort of reason.

It is almost impossible to conceive of the completeness of the
victory that the church achieved over philosophy. For ages science
was utterly ignored; thought was a poor slave; an ignorant priest
was master of the world; faith put out the eyes of the soul; the
reason was a trembling coward; the imagination was set on fire of
hell; every human feeling was sought to be suppressed; love was
considered infinitely sinful; pleasure was the road to eternal
fire, and God was supposed to be happy only when his children were

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miserable. The world was governed by an Almighty's whim; prayers
could change the order of things, halt the grand procession of
nature, could produce rain, avert pestilence, famine and death in
all its forms. There was no idea of the certain; all depended upon
divine pleasure -- or displeasure rather; heaven was fall of
inconsistent malevolence, and earth of ignorance. Everything was
done to appease the divine wrath; every public calamity was caused
by the sins of the people; by a failure to pay tithes, or for
having, even in secret, felt a disrespect for a priest. To the poor
multitude, the earth was a kind of enchanted forest, full of demons
ready to devour, and theological serpents lurking with infinite
power to fascinate and torture the unhappy and impotent soul. Life
to them was a dim and mysterious labyrinth, in which they wandered
weary, and lost, guided by priests as bewildered as themselves,
without knowing that at every step the Ariadne of reason offered
them the long lost clue.

The very heavens were full of death; the lightning was
regarded as the glittering vengeance of God, and the earth was
thick with snares for the unwary feet of man. The soul was supposed
to be crowded with the wild beasts of desire; the heart to be
totally corrupt, prompting only to crime; virtues were regarded as
deadly sins in disguise; there was a continual warfare being waged
between the Deity and the Devil, for the possession of every soul;
the latter generally being considered victorious. The flood, the
tornado, the volcano, were all evidences of the displeasure of
heaven, and the sinfulness of man, the blight that withered, the
frost that blackened, the earthquake that devoured, were the
messengers of the Creator.

The world was governed by Fear.

Against all the evils of nature, there was known only the
defence of prayer, of fasting, of credulity, and devotion. Man in
his helplessness endeavored to soften the heart of God. The faces
of the multitude were blanched with fear, and wet with tears; they
were the prey of hypocrites, kings and priests.

My heart bleeds when I contemplate the sufferings endured by
the millions now dead; of those who lived when the world appeared
to be insane; when the heavens were filled with an infinite Horror
who snatched babes with dimpled hands and rosy cheeks from the
white breasts of mothers, and dashed them into an abyss of eternal

Slowly, beautifully, like the coming of the dawn, came the
grand truth, that the universe is governed by law; that disease
fastens itself upon the good and upon the bad; that the tornado
cannot be stopped by counting beads; that the rushing lava pauses
not for bended knees, the lightning for clasped and uplifted hands,
nor the cruel waves of the sea for prayer; that paying tithes
causes, rather than prevents famine; that pleasure is not sin; that
happiness is the only good; that demons and gods exist only in the
imagination; that faith is a lullaby sung to put the soul to sleep;
that devotion is a bribe that fear offers to supposed power; that
offering rewards in another world for obedience in this, is simply

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buying a soul on credit; that knowledge consists in ascertaining
the laws of nature, and that wisdom is the science of happiness.
Slowly, grandly, beautifully, these truths are dawning upon

From Copernicus we learned that this earth is only a grain of
sand on the infinite shore of the universe; that even where we are
surrounded by shining worlds vastly greater than our own, all
moving and existing in accordance with law. True, the earth began
to grow small, but man began to grow great.

The moment the fact was established that other worlds are
governed by law, it was only natural to conclude that our little
world was also under its dominion. The old theological method of
accounting for physical phenomena by the pleasure and displeasure
of the Deity was, by the intellectual, abandoned. They found that
disease, death, life, thought, heat, cold, the seasons, the winds,
the dreams of man, the instinct of animals, -- in short, that all
physical and mental phenomena are governed by law, absolute,
eternal and inexorable.

Let it be understood that by the term LAW is meant the same
invariable relations of succession and resemblance predicated of
all facts springing from like conditions. Law is a fact -- not a
cause. It is a fact, that like conditions produce like results:
this fact is LAW. When we say that the universe is governed by law,
we mean that this fact, called law, is incapable of change; that it
is, has been, and forever will be, the same inexorable, immutable
FACT, inseparable from all phenomena. Law, in this sense, was not
enacted or made. It could not have been otherwise than as it is.
That which necessarily exists has no creator.

Only a few years ago this earth was considered the real center
of the universe; all the stars were supposed to revolve around this
insignificant atom. The German mind, more than any other, has done
away with this piece of egotism. Purbach and Mullerus, in the
fifteenth century, contributed most to the advancement of astronomy
in their day. To the latter, the world is indebted for the
introduction of decimal fractions, which completed our arithmetical
notation, and formed the second of the three steps by which, in
modern times, the science of numbers has been so greatly improved;
and yet, both of these men believed in the most childish
absurdities, at least in enough of them, to die without their
orthodoxy having ever been suspected.

Next came the great Copernicus, and he stands at the head of
the heroic thinkers of his time, who had the courage and the mental
strength to break the chains of prejudice, custom, and authority,
and to establish truth on the basis of experience, observation and
reason. He removed the earth, so to speak, from, the center of the
universe, and ascribed to it a two-fold motion, and demonstrated
the true position which it occupies in the solar system.

At his bidding the earth began to revolve. At the command of
his genius it commenced its grand flight mid the eternal
constellations round the sun.

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For fifty years his discoveries were disregarded. All at once,
by the exertions of Galileo, they were kindled into so grand a
conflagration as to consume the philosophy of Aristotle, to alarm
the hierarchy of Rome, and to threaten the existence of every
opinion not founded upon experience, observation, and reason.

The earth was no longer considered a universe, governed by the
caprices of some revengeful Deity, who had made the stars out of
what he had left after completing the world, and had stuck them in
the sky simply to adorn the night.

I have said this much concerning astronomy because it was the
first splendid step forward! The first sublime blow that shattered
the lance and shivered the shield of superstition; the first real
help that man received from heaven; because it was the first great
lever placed beneath the altar of a false religion; the first
revelation of the infinite to man; the first authoritative
declaration. that the universe is governed by law; the first
science that gave the lie direct to the cosmogony of barbarism, and
because it is the sublimest victory that the reason has achieved.

In speaking of astronomy, I have confined myself to the
discoveries made since the revival of learning. Long ago, on the
banks of the Ganges, ages before Copernicus lived, Aryabhatta
taught that the earth is a sphere, and revolves on its own axis
This, however, does not detract from the glory of the great German.
The discovery of the Hindu had been lost in the midnight of Europe
in the age of faith, and Copernicus was as much a discoverer as
though Aryabhatta had never lived.

In this short address there is no time to speak of other
sciences, and to point out the particular evidence furnished by
each, to establish the dominion of law, nor to more than mention
the name of Descartes, the first who undertook to give an
explanation of the celestial motions, or who formed the vast and
philosophic conception of reducing all the phenomena of the
universe to the same law; of Montaigne, one of the heroes of common
sense; of Galvani, whose experiments gave the telegraph to the
world; of Voltaire, who contributed more than any other of the sons
of men to the destruction of religious intolerance; of August
Comte, whose genius erected to itself a monument that still touches
the stars; of Guttenberg, Watt, Stephenson, Arkwright, all soldiers
of science, in the grand army of the dead kings.

The glory of science is, that it is freeing the soul --
breaking the mental manacles -- getting the brain out of bondage --
giving courage to thought -- filling the world with mercy, justice,
and joy.

Science found agriculture plowing with a stick reaping with a
sickle -- commerce at the mercy of the treacherous waves and the
inconstant winds -- a world without books -- without schools, man
denying the authority of reason, employing his ingenuity in the
manufacture of instruments of torture, in building inquisitions and
cathedrals. It found the land filled with malicious monks -- with
persecuting Protestants, and the burners of men. It found a world
full of fear; ignorance upon its knees; credulity the greatest

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virtue; women treated like beasts of burden; cruelty the only means
of reformation. It found the world at the mercy of disease and
famine; men trying to read their fates in the stars, and to tell
their fortunes by signs and wonders; generals thinking to conquer
their enemies by making the sign of the cross, or by telling a
rosary. It found all history full of petty and ridiculous
falsehood, and the Almighty was supposed to spend most of his time
turning sticks into snakes, drowning boys for swimming on Sunday,
and killing little children for the purpose of converting their
parents. It found the earth filled with slaves and tyrants, the
people in all countries downtrodden, half naked, half starved,
without hope, and without reason in the world.

Such was the condition of man when the morning of science
dawned upon his brain, and before he had heard the sublime
declaration that the universe is governed by law.

For the change that has taken place we are indebted solely to
science -- the only lever capable of raising mankind. Abject faith
is barbarism; reason is civilization. To obey is slavish; to act
from a sense of obligation perceived by the reason, is noble.
Ignorance worships mystery; Reason explains it: the one grovels,
the other soars.

No wonder that fable is the enemy of knowledge. A man with a
false diamond shuns the society of lapidaries, and it is upon this
principle that superstition abhors science.

In all ages the people have honored those who dishonored them.
They have worshiped their destroyers; they have canonized the most
gigantic liars, and buried the great thieves in marble and gold.
Under the loftiest monuments sleeps the dust of murder.

Imposture has always worn a crown.

The world is beginning to change because the people are
beginning to think. To think is to advance. Everywhere the great
minds are investigating the creeds and the superstitions of men --
the phenomena of nature, and the laws of things. At the head of
this great army of investigators stood Humboldt -- the serene
leader of an intellectual host -- a king by the suffrage of
Science, and the divine right of Genius.

And to-day we are not honoring some butcher called a soldier
-- some wily politician called a statesman -- some robber called a
king, nor some malicious metaphysician called a saint. We are
honoring the grand Humboldt, whose victories were all achieved in
the arena of thought; who destroyed prejudice, ignorance and error
-- not men; who shed light -- not blood, and who contributed to the
knowledge, the wealth, and the happiness of all mankind.

His life was pure, his aims lofty, his learning varied and
profound, and his achievements vast.

We honor him because he has ennobled our race, because he has
contributed as much as any man living or dead to the real
prosperity of the world. We honor him because he honored us --

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because he labored for others -- because he was the most learned
man of the most learned nation -- because he left a legacy of glory
to every human being. For these reasons he is honored throughout
the world. Millions are doing homage to his genius at this moment,
and millions are pronouncing his name with reverence and recounting
what he accomplished.

We associate the name of Humboldt with oceans, continents,
mountains, and volcanoes -- with the great palms -- the wide
deserts -- the snow-lipped craters of the Andes -- with primeval
forests and European capitals -- with wildernesses and universities
with savages and savants -- with the lonely rivers of unpeopled
wastes -- with peaks and pampas, and steppes, and cliffs and crags
-- with the progress of the world -- with every science known to
man, and with every star glittering in the immensity of space.

Humboldt adopted none of the soul-shrinking creeds of his day;
wasted none of his time in the stupidities, inanities and
contradictions of theological metaphysics; he did not endeavor to
harmonize the astronomy and geology of a barbarous people with the
science of the nineteenth century. Never, for one moment, did he
abandon the sublime standard of truth; he investigated, he studied,
he thought, he separated the gold from the dross in the crucible of
his grand brain. He was never found on his knees before the altar
of superstition. He stood erect by the grand tranquil column of
Reason. He was an admirer, a lover, an adorer of Nature, and at the
age of ninety, bowed by the weight of nearly a century, covered
with the insignia of honor, loved by a nation, respected by a
world, with kings for his servants, he laid his weary head upon her
bosom -- upon the bosom of the universal Mother -- and with her
loving arms around him, sank into that slumber called Death.

History added another name to the starry scroll of the

The world is his monument; upon the eternal granite of her
hills he inscribed his name, and there upon everlasting stone his
genius wrote this, the sublimest of truths:


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Files made available from the Bank of Wisdom may be freely reproduced and given away, but may not be sold.

Reproducible Electronic Publishing can defeat censorship.

Bank of WisdomThe Bank of Wisdom is a collection of the most thoughtful, scholarly and factual books. These computer books are reprints of suppressed books and will cover American and world history; the Biographies and writings of famous persons, and especially of our nations Founding Fathers. They will include philosophy and religion. all these subjects, and more, will be made available to the public in electronic form, easily copied and distributed, so that America can again become what its Founders intended --

The Free Market-Place of Ideas.

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