Davy Connects Science to Hope

But Davy wished to make even bigger, philosophical claims for the scientific spirit and imagination. Drawing on his previous exchanges with Coleridge about the ‘hopeful’ nature of scientific progress, he put before his audience a vision of human civilisation itself, brought into being by the scientific drive to enquire and create. Science had woken and energised mankind from his primal ignorance and ‘slumber’. This was in effect Davy’s version of the Prometheus myth: ‘Man, in what is called a state of nature, is a creature of almost pure sensation. Called into activity only by positive wants, his life is passed either in satisfying the cravings of the common appetites, or in apathy, or in slumber. Living only in moments he calculates little on futurity. He has no vivid feelings of hope, or thoughts of permanent and powerful actions. And unable to discover causes, he is either harassed by superstitious dreams, or quietly and passively submissive to the mercy of nature and the elements.’

But once woken by science, man is capable of ‘connecting hope with an infinite variety of ideas’. He can provide for his basic needs, and anticipate future enjoyments. Above all science enables him to shape his future, actively. ‘It has bestowed on him powers which may almost be called creative; which have enabled him to modify and change the beings surrounding him, and by his experiments to interrogate nature with power, not simply as a scholar, passive and seeking only to understand her operations, but rather as a master, active with his own instruments.’

Davy announced to his spellbound audience that they were witnessing the dawn of ‘a new science’, and it would be wonderful: ‘The dim and uncertain twilight of discovery, which gave to objects false or indefinite appearances, has been succeeded by the steady light of truth, which has shown the external world in its distinct forms, and in its true relations to human powers. The composition of the atmosphere, and the properties of gases, have been ascertained; the phenomenon of electricity has been developed; the lightnings have been taken from the clouds; and lastly, a new influence has been discovered, which has enabled man to produce from combinations of dead matter effects which were formerly occasioned only by animal organs.’

Davy was deliberately proposing a revolutionary view of science, and for a moment his audience must have believed that the wild young man from Bristol was going to propose political revolution as well. Banks, and others in the front row of the theatre, held their breath when Davy launched into the following declaration: ‘The guardians of civilization and of refinement, the most powerful and respected members of society, are daily growing more attentive to the realities of life; and, giving up many of their unnecessary enjoyments in consequence of the desire to be useful, are becoming the friends and protectors of the labouring part of the community.’ What French, insurrectionary sentiment would follow from Beddoes’s erstwhile protégé?


Science did not deal in extravagant republican dreams, utopian nonsense, or dangerous French political abstractions. It was plain, reasonable, empirical, patriotic: ‘In this view we do not look to distant ages, or amuse ourselves with brilliant, though delusive dreams concerning the infinite improveability of man, the annihilation of labour, disease, and even death. But we reason by analogy with simple facts. We consider only a state of human progression arising out of its present condition. We look for a time that we may reasonably expect, for a bright day of which we already behold the dawn.’

But this was not quite all. Davy’s final claim for science was an extra ordinary one, and must have much struck Coleridge. Science was psychologically, even spiritually, therapeutic. ‘It may destroy diseases of the imagination, owing to too deep a sensibility; and it may attach the affections to objects, permanent, important, and intimately related to the interests of the human species.’ The value of science was, in this sense, universal, ‘even to persons of powerful minds’, whose primary interests were ‘literary, political or moral’. It strengthened the habit of ‘minute discrimination’, and encouraged a language of ‘simple facts’. But perhaps Coleridge would have felt that Davy was on less certain ground when he added that science tended ‘to destroy the influence of terms connected only with feeling’.


Science is Hope according to the former President of the Royal Society.

Folksonomies: science virtue hope

/science (0.723387)
/health and fitness/disorders/mental disorder/panic and anxiety (0.316949)
/society/unrest and war (0.208122)

Davy Connects Science (0.970072 (positive:0.422870)), wild young man (0.764971 (neutral:0.000000)), dead matter effects (0.760467 (neutral:0.000000)), extravagant republican dreams (0.755753 (negative:-0.473456)), Hope Science (0.705235 (positive:0.422870)), future enjoyments (0.676083 (positive:0.329189)), new science (0.674347 (positive:0.599987)), human civilisation (0.672761 (positive:0.206883)), ’ nature of scientific progress, he put before his audience a vision of human civilisation itself, brought into being by the scientific drive to enquire and create. (0.669690 (neutral:0.000000)), scientific spirit (0.667589 (positive:0.214647)), Royal Society (0.666992 (positive:0.422870)), unnecessary enjoyments (0.666844 (neutral:0.000000)), scientific drive (0.666175 (positive:0.471577)), previous exchanges (0.664842 (neutral:0.000000)), common appetites (0.664249 (negative:-0.414929)), philosophical claims (0.662008 (positive:0.214647)), primal ignorance (0.661350 (positive:0.226587)), scientific progress (0.658852 (positive:0.478411)), superstitious dreams (0.657520 (negative:-0.640984)), Prometheus myth (0.654528 (neutral:0.000000)), positive wants (0.653367 (negative:-0.396076)), basic needs (0.653266 (positive:0.262371)), insurrectionary sentiment (0.651886 (neutral:0.000000)), indefinite appearances (0.651873 (negative:-0.380162)), vivid feelings (0.651821 (negative:-0.232377)), spellbound audience (0.651163 (positive:0.599987)), pure sensation (0.650834 (negative:-0.391128)), infinite variety (0.650799 (positive:0.383361)), steady light (0.648830 (neutral:0.000000)), true relations (0.646995 (positive:0.424592))

Davy:Person (0.937518 (positive:0.033725)), Coleridge:Person (0.416771 (negative:-0.140326)), President of the Royal Society:JobTitle (0.263293 (positive:0.422870)), Bristol:City (0.228268 (neutral:0.000000)), Beddoes:Person (0.218036 (neutral:0.000000))

Science (0.959876): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Human (0.623688): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Scientific method (0.494360): dbpedia | freebase
Mathematics (0.480021): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Religion (0.442335): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Nature (0.423900): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Infinity (0.398403): dbpedia | freebase
Civilization (0.397396): dbpedia | freebase

 The Age of Wonder
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Holmes , Richard (2010-03-02), The Age of Wonder, Vintage, Retrieved on 2012-01-02
  • Source Material [books.google.com]
  • Folksonomies: history enlightenment science


    01 JAN 2010

     Scientific Virtues

    Memes that define the virtues of science and behaviors that we should emulate.
    09 JAN 2013

     Be Optimistic

    Science is making the world better. Keep your chin up and look forward to the exiting adventures it's bringing you.
    Folksonomies: enlightenment optimism
    Folksonomies: enlightenment optimism