Have been dipping into Max Adams equally fascinating and frustrating book The Firebringers – Art, Science and the Struggle for Liberty in nineteenth-century Britain (aka The Prometheans). The cast of heroes, rogues, and geniuses is startling in its breadth and diversity. It helps join some dots between all kinds of names and movements which perhaps linger at the back of the mind with little context. 

One of the frustrations (in true Enlightenment fashion) is the scant regard he gives to the religious worldviews and motivations of many, even at this turbulent and iconoclastic time. For example, the best he can say of the extraordinary prison reformer Elizabeth Fry is that she was “wearing the costume of the Quakers” while showing John Martin round Norfolk some ruins (p250) or that she was “now applying her Quaker credentials to the needy” (p35) whatever that might mean. Still, I was very intrigued to learn that she “had once openly worn a tricolour in the streets of Norwich” not long after the French Revolution! (p35)

Wilberforce is mentioned in a fleeting breath (p116), but of the influence of the Clapham Sect, Thomas Clarkson, Thomas Fowell Buxton and the deeply theological motivations of many of the slavery abolitionists, there is not a hint. To be fair, the book’s focus is the Prometheans, those enlightened pioneers who took inspiration from the fire-stealer Prometheus. But it’s a little disingenuous to imply (from the book’s silence about other groups and movements) that they were the only pioneers.

Still, I enjoyed much in the book, especially Adams’ unpacking and contextualising of the work of the artist John Martin. But a highlight was the occasional but limited interaction with Michael Faraday (1791-1867), who is granted a better press in the book. Naturally, there is no discussion of his Christian beliefs (for which it is worth checking out this brief paper). But he was a true great. His wiki page describes him “one of the most influential scientists in history” and says that Einstein kept a picture of him on his study wall.

I loved this description of him as a young man, but I loved even more what he already had the wisdom to grasp.

Michael Faraday, 1842, by Thomas Phillips

A handsome, tousle-haired 30-year-old with uncommon abilities and a mind of great precision, he had by now formulated his own version of Promethean perfectibility in a lecture to the City Philosophical Society in which he warned his fellow scientists of the follies of hubris:

Nothing is more difficult and requires more care than philosophical deduction, nor is there anything more adverse to its accuracy than fixity of opinion. The man who is certain he is right is almost sure to be wrong; and he has the additional misfortune of inevitably remaining so. All our theories are fixed upon uncertain data, and all of them want alteration and support. Ever since the world began opinion has changed with the progress of things, and it is something more than absurd to suppose that we can have a certain claim to perfection; or that we are in possession of the acme of intellectuality which as, or can result in, human thought.

This strong sense of realism and humility, of his place in a line of phlosophers who sat on the shoulders of giants, did not prevent Faraday from aspiring to the discovery and understanding of new phenomena. (pp158-159)

This is absolutely right for understanding more or less anything, as it happens. Faraday seems to be anticipating a form of ‘critical realism’ – crucial in this age of suspicion (and the subject of many posts on this blog over the years eg: here and here back in 2007.)

Incidentally, if you want to read an introduction to this period (and I really would encourage you to!), then I thoroughly recommend Richard Holmes’ simply wonderful The Age of Wonder. For more on that, read my review back in February 2010.

M_Faraday_Lab_H_Moore
Faraday in his laboratory, 1850s (by Harriet Jane Moore)

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