Thursday, March 19, 2009

Louis Pasteur

For today, the Feast of St. Joseph, I have chosen one of the greatest of scientists - a man whose name is so common, so well-known, one can find it countless times in any supermarket or grocery store - a deeply religious man, and a man who was also a devoted father. There are vast quantities of material available for me to select quotations, but I shall be very sparse.

The first is one of the most touching. I read it years ago in a little inspirational magazine. I've not yet located its source, or its authenticity, but it is certainly true to character...


A young man entered the coach of a train in a small university town in France. The ink was scarcely dry on his newly acquired diploma.

As the train sped off for Paris, he took his seat in the rear of the coach near an elderly gentleman who seemed to be dozing. As the train suddenly lurched, a string of rosary beads fell from his hand. The young man picked up the rosary and handed it to the elderly gentleman with the remark, "I presume you are praying, sir?"

"You are right. I was praying."

"I am surprised," said the young fellow, "that in this day and age there is someone who is still so benighted and superstitious. Our professors at the university do not believe in such things," and he proceeded to "enlighten" his elderly fellow-passenger.

The old man expressed surprise and amazement.

"Yes," continued the young man, "today enlightened people don't believe in such nonsense."

"You don't say!" replied the old man.

"Yes, sir, and if you wish, I can send you some illuminating books."

"Very well," said the old man, preparing to leave as the train came to a stop. "You may send them to this address." He handed the young man a card, which read:

Louis Pasteur
Director of the Institute of Scientific Research

[Key To Happiness, October 1986]
Yes, Louis Pasteur (1822-1895) an exceedingly great scientist, a devout Catholic, a Frenchman, a of the great heroes of humanity.

Here is a tiny glimpse of him by Chesterton:
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the Bolshevist Minister of Education were bitten by a mad dog. Some would say that there would not be much to choose between the combatants; or that, as the poet says, it is the dog that would die. But surely the Minister would agree, in that case at least, that it is "serving humanity" to save it from hydrophobia. He would probably go in for the Pasteur treatment; that is, he would put himself under the direction of a scientist and technician who not only believed in angels and devils, but who proudly declared that his beliefs were identical with those of a Breton peasant.
[GKC Aug 20 1921 CW32:224]
One source suggests that the allusion to the "Breton peasant" is legendary, and another gives a citation - I cannot settle the issue here and now - but, like the ancedote of the rosary on the train, it is true in character if not in detail.

But I... (you cannot sense the pause there was here, but I tell you of it.)

I find myself finger-tied (the typing version of being tongue-tied) in trying to speak of this great man. In Kneller's work you will find that all the praises which the Common Man attributes to Pasteur for his work in Medicine are doubled - indeed, yes - by the chorus from Chemistry for his work in revealing that some chemicals (like sugar) have "chirality" - they come in right-hand or left-hand forms... or from all his advances in Biology, with vast practical applications: from the Silk industry of France, rescued by his work - or from the Brewers and all who make Beer - or from the Vintners and all who make Wine - and then we must add the world of Dairy - milk and cheese and all related things. Is this not enough to be overwhelming?

And his faith? Let us hear Father Kneller...
Pasteur's place among the masters of science is certain beyond cavil, and equally certain is it that he was till the end a faithful and fervent Catholic. In his later years he was in the habit of approaching the sacraments very frequently: "He gave up his soul to God at the last, clasping in his hands his little copper cross, and repeating fervently a confession of faith and hope." It is related that a student once asked him how it was that, after so much reflection and research, he could remain a believer. "It is just because I have thought and sought so much" replied Pasteur, "that I believe with the faith of a Breton peasant. If I had thought more and studied more I would have come to believe with the faith of the Breton peasant's wife."
[Kneller Christianity and the Leaders of Modern Science 327; he gives a citation for that quote about the Breton peasant.]

Did he say really say that? It is of no matter. Hear, instead, just a portion of Dr. Walsh's chapter on Pasteur:
Above the entrance of this chapel-tomb, and immediately beneath the words "Here lies Pasteur," is very fittingly placed his famous confession of faith:

"Happy the man who bears within him a divinity, an ideal of beauty and obeys it; an ideal of art, an ideal of science, an ideal of country, an ideal of the virtues of the Gospel."

When we turn to the panegyric of Littré in which the words occur we find two further sentences worth noting here: "These are the living springs of great thoughts and great actions. Everything grows clear in the reflections from the infinite."

These words are all the more striking from the circumstances in which they were uttered. When a vacant chair (fauteuil) in the French academy is filled by the election of a new member of the Forty Immortals, the incoming academician must give the panegyric of his predecessor in the same chair. Pasteur was elected to the fauteuil that had been occupied by Littré. Littré, who by forty years of unceasing toil made a greater dictionary of the French language than the Academy has made in the nearly two hundred years devoted to the task, was the greatest living positivist of his day. He and Pasteur had been on terms of the greatest intimacy. Pasteur's appreciation of his dead friend is at once sincere and hearty, but also just and impartial. Littré had been a model of the human virtues. Suffering had touched him deeply and found him ever ready with compassionate response. His fellow-man had been the subject of his deepest thoughts, though his relationship to other men appealed to him only because of the bonds of human brotherhood. Pasteur called him a "laic" saint. For many of us it is a source of genuine consolation and seems a compensation for the human virtues exercised during a long life that the great positivist died the happy death of a Christian confident in the future life and its rewards.

But Pasteur himself rises above the merely positive. The spiritual side of things appeals to him and other-worldliness steps in to strengthen the merely human motives that meant so much for Littré. Higher motives dominate the life and actions of Pasteur himself. In the midst of his panegyric of the great positivist the greatest scientist of his age makes his confession of faith in the things that are above and beyond the domain of the senses - his ideals and his God.

There is said to exist a constant, unappeasable warfare between science and religion. Perhaps it does exist, but surely only in the narrow minds of the lesser lights. In no century has science developed as in the one that has just closed. Faraday the great scientific mind of the beginning of the century, said, at one of his lectures before the Royal Academy of Sciences of England, when the century was scarcely a decade old: "I do not name God here because I am lecturing on experimental science. But the notion of respect for God comes to my mind by ways as sure as those which lead us to physical truth." At the end of the century the monument of a great man of science is a chapel with an altar on which the sacrifice of Him that died for men is commemorated on Pasteur anniversaries.

The walls of the chapel are inscribed with the scientific triumphs of the master whose ashes repose here. It is a striking catalogue. Each heading represents a great step forward in science:

1848, Molecular Dissymmetry.
1857, Fermentations.
1862, So-called Spontaneous Generation.
1863, Studies in Wine.
1865, Diseases of Silk Worms.
1871, Studies in Beer.
1877, Virulent Microbic Diseases.
1880, Vaccinating Viruses.
1885, Prophylaxis of Rabies.
Apparently these various subjects are widely separated from one another. It might seem that Pasteur was an erratic genius. As a matter of fact, each successive subject follows its predecessor by a rigid logic. Pasteur's life-work can be best studied by a consideration of these various topics and an appreciation of the
advance made in each one.

It is not surprising, then, to find many other expressions of Pasteur's extreme interest in spiritual things, though they might have been little expected from a man so deeply immersed in scientific investigations as he was. After all, it must not be forgotten that his discoveries, by solving the mystery that surrounds the origin of disease, cleared some of the ways of Providence of that inscrutable character which is supposed in shallow minds to constitute the greatest part of their impressiveness. With epidemics explained, not as dispensations of Divine Providence, but as representing the sanction of nature for the violation of natural laws, one of the reasons for which mankind worshipped the Deity seemed to be gone. The man who had done most to make clear these mysterious processes of nature was, however, himself far from thinking that materialism offers any adequate explanation of the mysteries of life, or of the relations of man to man, and of man to his Creator. Impatient at the pretensions of such pseudoscientists, Pasteur once said: "Posterity will one day laugh at the sublime foolishness of the modern materialistic philosophy. The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator. I pray while I am engaged at my work in the laboratory."
[Walsh, Makers of Modern Medicine]
As you might expect, Dr. Walsh devotes an entire chapter to Pasteur. But Fr. Kneller reports part of this panegyric, which (as it is Pasteur's own words) I think is very important for us to hear. It also gives us some detail about the curious old thing called Positivism, which is still spreading its infection today:
[In that panegfyric Pasteur] censured Positivism for the open contradiction of its principles involved in its manner of dealing with the idea of God. Positivism professes to found itself on the actual undeniable facts of experience, but brushes aside this most positive and undeniable of all namely, that humanity as a whole has always believed in God and found its support in religion.
The great and obvious gap in the system is its refusal to give any recognition to that greatest of all positive ideas, the idea of the Infinite.
What exists on the other side of the starry heavens? New stars and new heavens. Be it so! And out beyond these, what is there? This is a question which the human mind finds itself drawn by an irresistible influence to formulate ¡ it will never cease to ask it. Do we imagine it possible to come to a final term in space or in time? But the stage at which we would come to a stop is merely a vast something, greater than anything that has gone before, but yet finite; the mind perceives this, and the perception raises at once the old riddle, which is neither to be solved nor ignored. It is of no use to say: Out beyond there, there is time, there is space, magnitude without limit. It is impossible to rest content with such phrases. The mind that confesses consciousness of the idea of the Infinite - and no mind can fail to be conscious of it - accepts more of the supernatural than is contained in all the miracles of all the religions. For the idea of the Infinite has two characteristics; it imposes itself on the mind, and it baffles the mind's effort to comprehend it. When this idea takes possession of the intellect, nothing remains but to go down humbly on one's knees In a mood of almost oppressive reverence and fear, one comes to beg forgiveness for reason: the whole mechanism of the mind threatens to leave its accustomed grooves; one comes near the sublime folly of Pascal. And this Positivist idea, this root-idea, Positivism brusquely dismisses without even assigning a reason...

[Kneller CATLOMS 328]
Listen, O Catholic Scientists! Hear this great man. Are you carrying - and using - your rosary? Are you ready to speak about this matter? Or have you been too devoted to your work to forget these words which Pasteur took to heart:
Seek ye therefore first the kingdom of God, and his justice, and all these things shall be added unto you. [Mt 6:33]
Perhaps if you do, your name too will be as ubiquitous as Pasteur.


At 08 July, 2009 00:26, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am simply amazed by the stature of the man : Louis Pasteur who, despite his fame, had the humility to acknowledge and turn to his Creator , the source of wisdom and of course life itself. It is indeed true"seeking the kingdom of heaven and all the rest will be added.." was manifested in his life. As for role models, our children only have to look into this great man's life as they are setting out into the world. And.. perhaps.. take a leaf out of his book. Praise GOD!!!!


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