Such was that chaos of thought into which the discovery of Sanskrit suddenly threw its great light. Well does one of the foremost modern philologists say that this "was the electric spark which caused the floating elements to crystallize into regular forms." Among the first to bring the knowledge of Sanskrit to Europe were the Jesuit missionaries, whose services to the material basis of the science of comparative philology had already been so great; and the importance of the new discovery was soon seen among all scholars, whether orthodox or scientific. In 1784 the Asiatic Society at Calcutta was founded, and with it began Sanskrit philology. Scholars like Sir William Jones, Carey, Wilkins, Foster, Colebrooke, did noble work in the new field. A new spirit brooded over that chaos, and a great new orb of science was evolved.

The little group of scholars who gave themselves up to these researches, though almost without exception reverent Christians, were recognised at once by theologians as mortal foes of the whole sacred theory of language. Not only was the dogma of the multiplication of languages at the Tower of Babel swept out of sight by the new discovery, but the still more vital dogma of the divine origin of language, never before endangered, was felt to be in peril, since the evidence became overwhelming that so many varieties had been produced by a process of natural growth.

Heroic efforts were therefore made, in the supposed interest of Scripture, to discredit the new learning. Even such a man as Dugald Stewart declared that the discovery of Sanskrit was altogether fraudulent, and endeavoured to prove that the Brahmans had made it up from the vocabulary and grammar of Greek and Latin. Others exercised their ingenuity in picking the new discovery to pieces, and still others attributed it all to the machinations of Satan.

On the other hand, the more thoughtful men in the Church endeavoured to save something from the wreck of the old system by a compromise. They attempted to prove that Hebrew is at least a cognate tongue with the original speech of mankind, if not the original speech itself; but here they were confronted by the authority they dreaded most--the great Christian scholar, Sir William Jones himself. His words were: "I can only declare my belief that the language of Noah is irretrievably lost. After diligent search I can not find a single word used in common by the Arabian, Indian, and Tartar families, before the intermixture of dialects occasioned by the Mohammedan conquests."

So, too, in Germany came full acknowledgment of the new truth, and from a Roman Catholic, Frederick Schlegel. He accepted the discoveries in the old language and literature of India as final: he saw the significance of these discoveries as regards philology, and grouped the languages of India, Persia, Greece, Italy, and Germany under the name afterward so universally accepted--Indo-Germanic.

It now began to be felt more and more, even among the most devoted churchmen, that the old theological dogmas regarding the origin of language, as held "always, everywhere, and by all," were wrong, and that Lucretius and sturdy old Gregory of Nyssa might be right.

But this was not the only wreck. During ages the great men in the Church had been calling upon the world to admire the amazing exploit of Adam in naming the animals which Jehovah had brought before him, and to accept the history of language in the light of this exploit. The early fathers, the mediaeval doctors, the great divines of the Reformation period, Catholic and Protestant, had united in this universal chorus. Clement of Alexandria declared Adam's naming of the animals proof of a prophetic gift. St. John Chrysostom insisted that it was an evidence of consummate intelligence. Eusebius held that the phrase "That was the name thereof" implied that each name embodied the real character and description of the animal concerned.

This view was echoed by a multitude of divines in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Typical among these was the great Dr. South, who, in his sermon on _The State of Man before the Fall_, declared that "Adam came into the world a philosopher, which sufficiently appears by his writing the nature of things upon their names."

In the chorus of modern English divines there appeared one of eminence who declared against this theory: Dr. Shuckford, chaplain in ordinary to his Majesty George II, in the preface to his work on _The Creation and Fall of Man_, pronounced the whole theory "romantic and irrational." He goes on to say: "The original of our speaking was from God; not that God put into Adam's mouth the very sounds which he designed he should use as the names of things; but God made Adam with the powers of a man; he had the use of an understanding to form notions in his mind of the things about him, and he had the power to utter sounds which should be to himself the names of things according as he might think fit to call them."

This echo of Gregory of Nyssa was for many years of little avail. Historians of philosophy still began with Adam, because only a philosopher could have named all created things. There was, indeed, one difficulty which had much troubled some theologians: this was, that fishes were not specially mentioned among the animals brought by Jehovah before Adam for naming. To meet this difficulty there was much argument, and some theologians laid stress on the difficulty of bringing fishes from the sea to the Garden of Eden to receive their names; but naturally other theologians replied that the almighty power which created the fishes could have easily brought them into the garden, one by one, even from the uttermost parts of the sea. This point, therefore, seems to have been left in abeyance.[[196]]

It had continued, then, the universal belief in the Church that the names of all created things, except possibly fishes, were given by Adam and in Hebrew; but all this theory was whelmed in ruin when it was found that there were other and indeed earlier names for the same animals than those in the Hebrew language; and especially was this enforced on thinking men when the Egyptian discoveries began to reveal the pictures of animals with their names in hieroglyphics at a period earlier than that agreed on by all the sacred chronologists as the date of the Creation.

Still another part of the sacred theory now received its death-blow. Closely allied with the question of the origin of language was that of the origin of letters. The earlier writers had held that letters were also a divine gift to Adam; but as we go on in the eighteenth century we find theological opinion inclining to the belief that this gift was reserved for Moses. This, as we have seen, was the view of St. John Chrysostom; and an eminent English divine early in the eighteenth century, John Johnson, Vicar of Kent, echoed it in the declaration concerning the alphabet, that "Moses first learned it from God by means of the lettering on the tables of the law." But here a difficulty arose--the biblical statement that God commanded Moses to "write in a book" his decree concerning Amalek before he went up into Sinai. With this the good vicar grapples manfully. He supposes that God had previously concealed the tables of stone in Mount Horeb, and that Moses, "when he kept Jethro's sheep thereabout, had free access to these tables, and perused them at discretion, though he was not permitted to carry them down with him." Our reconciler then asks for what other reason could God have kept Moses up in the mountain forty days at a time, except to teach him to write; and says, "It seems highly probable that the angel gave him the alphabet of the Hebrew, or in some other way unknown to us became his guide."

But this theory of letters was soon to be doomed like the other parts of the sacred theory. Studies in Comparative Philology, based upon researches in India, began to be reenforced by facts regarding the inscriptions in Egypt, the cuneiform inscriptions of Assyria, the legends of Chaldea, and the folklore of China--where it was found in the sacred books that the animals were named by Fohi, and with such wisdom and insight that every name disclosed the nature of the corresponding animal.

But, although the old theory was doomed, heroic efforts were still made to support it. In 1788 James Beattie, in all the glory of his Oxford doctorate and royal pension, made a vigorous onslaught, declaring the new system of philology to be "degrading to our nature," and that the theory of the natural development of language is simply due to the beauty of Lucretius' poetry. But his main weapon was ridicule, and in this he showed himself a master. He tells the world, "The following paraphrase has nothing of the elegance of Horace or Lucretius, but seems to have all the elegance that so ridiculous a doctrine deserves":

"When men out of the earth of old A dumb and beastly vermin crawled; For acorns, first, and holes of shelter, They tooth and nail, and helter skelter, Fought fist to fist; then with a club Each learned his brother brute to drub; Till, more experienced grown, these cattle Forged fit accoutrements for battle. At last (Lucretius says and Creech) They set their wits to work on _speech_: And that their thoughts might all have marks To make them known, these learned clerks Left off the trade of cracking crowns, And manufactured verbs and nouns."

But a far more powerful theologian entered the field in England to save the sacred theory of language--Dr. Adam Clarke. He was no less severe against Philology than against Geology. In 1804, as President of the Manchester Philological Society, he delivered an address in which he declared that, while men of all sects were eligible to membership, "he who rejects the establishment of what we believe to be a divine revelation, he who would disturb the peace of the quiet, and by doubtful disputations unhinge the minds of the simple and unreflecting, and endeavour to turn the unwary out of the way of peace and rational subordination, can have no seat among the members of this institution." The first sentence in this declaration gives food for reflection, for it is the same confusion of two ideas which has been at the root of so much interference of theology with science for the last two thousand years. Adam Clarke speaks of those "who reject the establishment of what, _we believe_, to be a divine revelation." Thus comes in that customary begging of the question--the substitution, as the real significance of Scripture, of "_what we believe_" for what _is_.

The intended result, too, of this ecclesiastical sentence was simple enough. It was, that great men like Sir William Jones, Colebrooke, and their compeers, must not be heard in the Manchester Philological Society in discussion with Dr. Adam Clarke on questions regarding Sanskrit and other matters regarding which they knew all that was then known, and Dr. Clarke knew nothing.

But even Clarke was forced to yield to the scientific current. Thirty years later, in his _Commentary on the Old Testament_, he pitched the claims of the sacred theory on a much lower key. He says: "Mankind was of one language, in all likelihood the Hebrew.... The proper names and other significations given in the Scripture seem incontestable evidence that the Hebrew language was the original language of the earth,--the language in which God spoke to man, and in which he gave the revelation of his will to Moses and the prophets." Here are signs that this great champion is growing weaker in the faith: in the citations made it will be observed he no longer says "_is_," but "_seems_"; and finally we have him saying, "What the first language was is almost useless to inquire, as it is impossible to arrive at any satisfactory information on this point."

In France, during the first half of the nineteenth century, yet more heavy artillery was wheeled into place, in order to make a last desperate defence of the sacred theory. The leaders in this effort were the three great Ultramontanes, De Maistre, De Bonald, and Lamennais. Condillac's contention that "languages were gradually and insensibly acquired, and that every man had his share of the general result," they attacked with reasoning based upon premises drawn from the book of Genesis. De Maistre especially excelled in ridiculing the philosophic or scientific theory. Lamennais, who afterward became so vexatious a thorn in the side of the Church, insisted, at this earlier period, that "man can no more think without words than see without light." And then, by that sort of mystical play upon words so well known in the higher ranges of theologic reasoning, he clinches his argument by saying, "The Word is truly and in every sense `the light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.'"

But even such champions as these could not stay the progress of thought. While they seemed to be carrying everything before them in France, researches in philology made at such centres of thought as the Sorbonne and the College of France were undermining their last great fortress. Curious indeed is it to find that the Sorbonne, the stronghold of theology through so many centuries, was now made in the nineteenth century the arsenal and stronghold of the new ideas. But the most striking result of the new tendency in France was seen when the greatest of the three champions, Lamennais himself, though offered the highest Church preferment, and even a cardinal's hat, braved the papal anathema, and went over to the scientific side.[[200]]

In Germany philological science took so strong a hold that its positions were soon recognised as impregnable. Leaders like the Schlegels, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and above all Franz Bopp and Jacob Grimm, gave such additional force to scientific truth that it could no longer be withstood. To say nothing of other conquests, the demonstration of that great law in philology which bears Grimm's name brought home to all thinking men the evidence that the evolution of language had not been determined by the philosophic utterances of Adam in naming the animals which Jehovah brought before him, but in obedience to natural law.

True, a few devoted theologians showed themselves willing to lead a forlorn hope; and perhaps the most forlorn of all was that of 1840, led by Dr. Gottlieb Christian Kayser, Professor of Theology at the Protestant University of Erlangen. He does not, indeed, dare put in the old claim that Hebrew is identical with the primitive tongue, but he insists that it is nearer it than any other. He relinquishes the two former theological strongholds--first, the idea that language was taught by the Almighty to Adam, and, next, that the alphabet was thus taught to Moses--and falls back on the position that all tongues are thus derived from Noah, giving as an example the language of the Caribbees, and insisting that it was evidently so derived. What chance similarity in words between Hebrew and the Caribbee tongue he had in mind is past finding out. He comes out strongly in defence of the biblical account of the Tower of Babel, and insists that "by the symbolical expression `God said, Let us go down,' a further natural phenomenon is intimated, to wit, the cleaving of the earth, whereby the return of the dispersed became impossible--that is to say, through a new or not universal flood, a partial inundation and temporary violent separation of great continents until the time of the rediscovery" By these words the learned doctor means nothing less than the separation of Europe from America.

While at the middle of the nineteenth century the theory of the origin and development of language was upon the continent considered as settled, and a well-ordered science had there emerged from the old chaos, Great Britain still held back, in spite of the fact that the most important contributors to the science were of British origin. Leaders in every English church and sect vied with each other, either in denouncing the encroachments of the science of language or in explaining them away.

But a new epoch had come, and in a way least expected. Perhaps the most notable effort in bringing it in was made by Dr. Wiseman, afterward Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster. His is one of the best examples of a method which has been used with considerable effect during the latest stages of nearly all the controversies between theology and science. It consists in stating, with much fairness, the conclusions of the scientific authorities, and then in persuading one's self and trying to persuade others that the Church has always accepted them and accepts them now as "additional proofs of the truth of Scripture." A little juggling with words, a little amalgamation of texts, a little judicious suppression, a little imaginative deduction, a little unctuous phrasing, and the thing is done. One great service this eminent and kindly Catholic champion undoubtedly rendered: by this acknowledgment, so widely spread in his published lectures, he made it impossible for Catholics or Protestants longer to resist the main conclusions of science. Henceforward we only have efforts to save theological appearances, and these only by men whose zeal outran their discretion.

On both sides of the Atlantic, down to a recent period, we see these efforts, but we see no less clearly that they are mutually destructive. Yet out of this chaos among English-speaking peoples the new science began to develop steadily and rapidly. Attempts did indeed continue here and there to save the old theory. Even as late as 1859 we hear the emninent Presbyterian divine, Dr. John Cumming, from his pulpit in London, speaking of Hebrew as "that magnificent tongue--that mother-tongue, from which all others are but distant and debilitated progenies."

But the honour of producing in the nineteenth century the most absurd known attempt to prove Hebrew the primitive tongue belongs to the youngest of the continents, Australia. In the year 1857 was printed at Melbourne _The Triumph of Truth, or a Popular Lecture on the Origin of Languages_, by B. Atkinson, M. R. C. P. L.--whatever that may mean. In this work, starting with the assertion that "the Hebrew was the primary stock whence all languages were derived," the author states that Sanskrit is "a dialect of the Hebrew," and declares that "the manuscripts found with mummies agree precisely with the Chinese version of the Psalms of David." It all sounds like _Alice in Wonderland_. Curiously enough, in the latter part of his book, evidently thinking that his views would not give him authority among fastidious philologists, he says, "A great deal of our consent to the foregoing statements arises in our belief in the Divine inspiration of the Mosaic account of the creation of the world and of our first parents in the Garden of Eden." A yet more interesting light is thrown upon the author's view of truth, and of its promulgation, by his dedication: he says that, "being persuaded that literary men ought to be fostered by the hand of power," he dedicates his treatise "to his Excellency Sir H. Barkly," who was at the time Governor of Victoria.

Still another curious survival is seen in a work which appeared as late as 1885, at Edinburgh, by William Galloway, M. A., Ph. D., M. D. The author thinks that he has produced abundant evidence to prove that "Jehovah, the Second Person of the Godhead, wrote the first chapter of Genesis on a stone pillar, and that this is the manner by which he first revealed it to Adam; and thus Adam was taught not only to speak but to read and write by Jehovah, the Divine Son; and that the first lesson he got was from the first chapter of Genesis." He goes on to say: "Jehovah wrote these first two documents; the first containing the history of the Creation, and the second the revelation of man's redemption,... for Adam's and Eve's instruction; it is evident that he wrote them in the Hebrew tongue, because that was the language of Adam and Eve." But this was only a flower out of season.

And, finally, in these latter days Mr. Gladstone has touched the subject. With that well-known facility in believing anything he wishes to believe, which he once showed in connecting Neptune's trident with the doctrine of the Trinity, he floats airily over all the impossibilities of the original Babel legend and all the conquests of science, makes an assertion regarding the results of philology which no philologist of any standing would admit, and then escapes in a cloud of rhetoric after his well-known fashion. This, too, must be set down simply as a survival, for in the British Isles as elsewhere the truth has been established. Such men as Max Muller and Sayce in England,--Steinthal, Schleicher, Weber, Karl Abel, and a host of others in Germany,--Ascoli and De Gubernatis in Italy,--and Whitney, with the scholars inspired by him, in America, have carried the new science to a complete triumph. The sons of Yale University may well be proud of the fact that this old Puritan foundation was made the headquarters of the American Oriental Society, which has done so much for the truth in this field.[[204]]


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The content and opinions expressed on this Web page do not necessarily reflect the views of nor are they endorsed by the University of Georgia or the University System of Georgia.