- Richard Rodriguez at the Sesquicentennial symposium on "Migration: Past, Present, and Future" (pg. 26)
- "Fellow citizen," one freshman's journey to a naturalization ceremony (pg. 32)
- Scenes from the naturalization ceremony (pg. 32)
- "The Future of Catholic Periodicals"—a panel of editors discusses (pg. 40)
- Bishop Robert McElroy's talk on "The Challenge of Catholic Teaching on War and Peace in the Present Moment" (pg. 42)
- Peter Fallon at the Greater Boston Intercollegiate Undergraduate Poetry Festival (pg. 48)
- "Mile 21: The day after," scenes from the April 16 Mass for Healing and Hope (pg. 10)
- "Anniversary moments," capturing the range of Sesquicentennial events (pg. 32)
- Close-ups of early diplomas (Holy Cross's and Boston College's) and the University's current one (pg. 13)
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On May 7, 1959, Sir Charles Percy Snow delivered himself of Cambridge University’s Rede Lecture, since 1858 an esteemed platform for intellectuals with something of importance to say to an educated public. A former (unsuccessful) research physicist and a successful novelist, Snow spoke on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” He made these arguments: 1) Worldwide problems such as hunger could be eradicated through science. 2) University education in Great Britain needed to be reformed so that science was particularly valued and nourished. 3) Science and literature had developed distinctive and mutually isolating anthropologies that impoverished both realms. 4) “Literary intellectuals were natural luddites” while scientists had “the future in their bones,” were more “moral” than other intellectuals, and supported a culture that “contains a great deal of argument, usually more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level, than literary persons’ arguments.”
In all, Snow was declaring victory for science in a tussle that had perturbed England since the early 17th century, when Francis Bacon claimed intellectual eminence for “natural philosophy,” maintaining, in a foreshadowing of some of Snow’s views, that “knowledge is the rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man’s estate.” In the following century, while the “divine clockmaker” of the Enlightenment ticked His tocks and England basked in the reflected glory of Isaac Newton’s genius, William Blake fired back from the literary side of the cultural divide:
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of light
Are sands upon the Red sea shore,
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright.
Allied with Blake were the Luddites, who rose up to destroy the “dark Satanic mills,” and Mary Shelley, who in Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus—a book partly inspired by Galvani’s reports on his use of electric current to make frogs’ legs dance after they were detached from the frog—expressed the fears that many Britons brought to the contemplation of natural philosophers run rampant. (The word “scientist” would be deliberately invented a few decades later—by scientists—as a precise counterweight to “artist.”)
The battle went on through the 19th century, with Wordsworth, Coleridge, and the rest of the Romantics gang cheering on one side (“Sweet is the lore which Nature brings/ Our meddling intellect/ Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—/ We murder to dissect”)—while admirers of evolutionary theory, such as the obstreperous T.H. Huxley (best known for his nickname “Darwin’s bulldog”), righteously boosted for the other. It was Huxley who, in 1880, in another public lecture, declared that science had become a more important component of culture than literature. This brought the poet and literary critic Matthew Arnold to the Rede platform in 1882. Aiming directly at Huxley—”the question is raised whether, to meet the needs of our modern life, the predominance ought not now to pass from letters to science”—Arnold said absolutely not, as science and art were simply separate literatures, with science necessary for collecting raw materials, and literature necessary for refining those materials into rich cultural wisdom.
Some 80 years later, when Snow ascended the podium, his vision of science and literature spinning away from each other in cultural space, the former a sun of stupendous and growing power, the latter a cooling, dying star, the distance between them already unbridgeable, made newspaper headlines and propelled the published version of his essays through seven editions in three years. For a society raised on stories of the Tree of Knowledge and the Tower of Babel, and lately having had to come to terms with death factories, atomic bombs, and Sputnik, the implications were clear and frightening.
And they remain so, the balance of power between “the two cultures” ever more unbalanced. Pfizer or Knopf? Wired or New York Review of Books? Hawking or DeLillo? MIT or Amherst? Is there any doubt about which among these entities would have first priority for stowing in the hold of the ship carrying colonists toward Alpha Centauri?
Snow is pretty much a forgotten man today, his science lost and his novels forgotten (his 11-book “Strangers and Brothers” sequence was once compared with Remembrance of Things Past). Of his Rede lecture, much has, with justice, been discredited, particularly his praise of Russia’s industrial competence, and rhetorical stupidities such as assigning modernist writers a responsibility for “bringing Auschwitz that much nearer.” But “two cultures” lives on.
In one of the more recent explorations of the theme, the University of Virginia’s Paul Cantor writes (in reference to the Frankenstein story) that “science can tell us how to do something, but it cannot tell us whether we should do it.” That imagining of “should” or “should not” is the responsibility and gift of “literary culture,” Snow would say—and all else aside, that’s a pretty fair lesson to take home from an old lecture.
Our cover story on knowledge whole and fractured begins here.
Read more by Ben Birnbaum