[Letter of John James Taylor to Francis William Newman.]
February 17th, 1848
The Quarternion of the Prospective, that met in solemn conclave last night, agreed in the expression of an earnest wish, that you would give us for our May number, a notice of such parts of Humboldt's Cosmos as have yet appeared. You will perhaps plead a want of time to examine with sufficient care, the scientific details on which the work is founded. May I anticipate any such objection by observing, that what seems to me wanted for the due appreciation of such a work as the Cosmos, is a philosophical spirit, based on general scientific culture, and capable of embracing the universal relations of the different branches of human knowledge, rather than a minute acquaintance with all the recent discoveries in any particular department! I have sometimes felt vexed, when I have heard men of mere science, whose views were limited to one field of observation, looking at what they called the deficiencies of Cosmos—as if utterly insensible of the value of the work, as a philosophic whole—of the grandeur of the mental effort which it displays, or the greatness of the want in the higher mental culture of the age, which it attempts to supply. May we not look on the Cosmos, as the first of a series of efforts that may be expected from this time forth to arise—not founded on arbitrary theory, but combining the positive results of actual knowledge—striving by successive approximations to embrace the idea of the Universe as a whole, and so tending to the restoration of that union between physical science and the deeper laws of psychology, which has so long been dissolved. I feel I am rather going out of my way in making these remarks; but as the subject was before me, I could not help indicating the point of view, from which, if you can find time, you might give us a very instructive article, quite in harmony with the objects which our Periodical has specially in view. You must forgive me, if I have at all touched on points, which should be left to your personal feeling. My object has been—with true Editorial eagerness—if possible, to secure the Article.—To turn to another topic. The announcement of your acceptance of the Headship of University Hall took many of your friends here quite by surprise. I was aware what the friends and promoters of the Institution were aiming at; but I had great fears whether they would be able to secure an appointment in every way so advantageous and honourable to themselves. Them I most heartily congratulate on their success: I trust the ensuing arrangements and final result may be such as to enable us equally to congratulate you. I am full of hope that it will be so. The appointment of a lay Head to any Academic Institution is a new thing in the history of that class of persons who will, in the first instance at least, principally avail themselves of the opportunities of University Hall. Such a change is, in many respects, in harmony with the altered spirit of the times, and will work, I am inclined to think, beneficially on the minds and characters of youth. Exercised with high moral aims and a reverential spirit, Lay Presidency must, in the present state of opinion in this country, be necessarily less sectarian, more catholic, and therefore, in every sense of the word, more religious, though less theological, than clerical could well be. The influence of such a Head, for religious and moral purposes, on the minds of Lay-Students must be greater than any which even the wisest and most judicial Minister of Religion could directly exercise. I cannot but feel that a crisis of some importance is at hand. The first step is taken; I hope and believe, everything will work out a happy result.