Whitehead on the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in Whitehead's Science and the Modern World
On the Romantic Revival The nature-poetry of the romantic revival was a protest on behalf of the organic view of nature, and also a protest against the exclusion of value from the essence of matter of fact. In this aspect of it, the romantic movement may be conceived as a revival of Berkeley’s protest which had been launched a hundred years earlier. The romantic reaction was a protest on behalf of value.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World (p. 94). Open Road Media. Kindle Edition.
On Percy Bysshe Shelley
Shelley’s attitude to science was at the opposite pole to that of Wordsworth. He loved it, and is never tired of expressing in poetry the thoughts which it suggests. It symbolises to him joy, and peace, and illumination. What the hills were to the youth of Wordsworth, a chemical laboratory was to Shelley.
It is unfortunate that Shelley’s literary critics have, in this respect, so little of Shelley in their own mentality. They tend to treat as a casual oddity of Shelley’s nature what was, in fact, part of the main structure of his mind, permeating his poetry through and through. If Shelley had been born a hundred years later, the twentieth century would have seen a Newton among chemists.
For the sake of estimating the value of Shelley’s evidence it is important to realise this absorption of his mind in scientific ideas. It can be illustrated by lyric after lyric. I will choose one poem only, the fourth act of his Prometheus Unbound. The Earth and the Moon converse together in the language of accurate science. Physical experiments guide his imagery. For example, the Earth’s exclamation,‘The vaporous exultation not to be confined!’ is the poetic transcript of ‘the expansive force of gases,’ as it is termed in books on science. Again, take the Earth’s stanza,
‘I spin beneath my pyramid of night, Which points into the heavens,—dreaming delight, Murmuring victorious joy in my enchanted sleep; As a youth lulled in love-dreams faintly sighing, Under the shadow of his beauty lying, Which round his rest a watch of light and warmth doth keep.’
This stanza could only have been written by someone with a definite geometrical diagram before his inward eye—a diagram which it has often been my business to demonstrate to mathematical classes. As evidence, note especially the last line which gives poetical imagery to the light surrounding night’s pyramid. This idea could not occur to anyone without the diagram. But the whole poem and other poems are permeated with touches of this kind.
Now the poet, so sympathetic with science, so absorbed in its ideas, can simply make nothing of the doctrine of secondary qualities which is fundamental to its concepts. For Shelley nature retains its beauty and its colour. Shelley’s nature is in its essence a nature of organisms, functioning with the full content of our perceptual experience. We are so used to ignoring the implication of orthodox scientific doctrine, that it is difficult to make evident the criticism upon it which is thereby implied. If anybody could have treated it seriously, Shelley would have done so.
Furthermore Shelley is entirely at one with Wordsworth as to the interfusing of the Presence in nature. Here is the opening stanza of his poem entitled Mont Blanc:
‘The everlasting universe of Things Flows through the Mind, and rolls its rapid waves, Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom— Now lending splendour, where from secret springs The source of human thought its tribute brings Of waters,—with a sound but half its own, Such as a feeble brook will oft assume In the wild woods, among the Mountains lone, Where waterfalls around it leap for ever, Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.’
Shelley has written these lines with explicit reference to some form of idealism, Kantian or Berkeleyan or Platonic. But however you construe him, he is here an emphatic witness to a prehensive unification as constituting the very being of nature. Berkeley, Wordsworth, Shelley are representative of the intuitive refusal seriously to accept the abstract materialism of science.
There is an interesting difference in the treatment of nature by Wordsworth and by Shelley, which brings forward the exact questions we have got to think about. Shelley thinks of nature as changing, dissolving, transforming as it were at a fairy’s touch. The leaves fly before the West Wind ‘Like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing.’ In his poem The Cloud it is the transformations of water which excite his imagination. The subject of the poem is the endless, eternal, elusive change of things: ‘I change but I cannot die.’
- Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, underlining added
Enjoy the Colors
The Chemistry Lab as Sacred Space
Whitehead's Science and the Modern World (originally published in 1925) takes readers through the history of modern science, showing how cultural history has affected science over the ages in relation to romanticism, relativity, quantum theory, religion, and movements for social progress.
In dealing with romanticism, Whitehead has the romantic poets of nineteenth century Western poetry in mind. He argues that the romantic reaction against scientific materialism was a healthy reaction, and that in fact, as romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Shelley emphasize, matter itself is alive with feeling, value, and energy.
Whitehead himself is not anti-scientific. He argues as that science can move beyond scientific materialism and adopt a more organic, aesthetically rich, understanding of nature, to the benefit of science itself. This, then, is the larger context in which he discusses Shelley's appreciation of science. The passage from offered above presents four key ideas: Nature is not reducible to the “abstract materialism” of science. It is not just numbers.
Nature is organic, including colors and feelings. The qualities in the human perceptual field, colors, for example, are part of nature; so are the human feelings of appreciating them.
Nature is transient: changing, dissolving, transforming. Process is part of its reality.
The chemistry lab can be a source of joy, peace and illumination. So can the practice of science.
As I read Whitehead and consider these ideas, I think of some of my chemist friends: research scientists, college students, chemistry professors. It seems to me that Whitehead is right: they do experience something like joy, peace, and illumination in the chemistry lab, and part of it is through the colors. For many of them, the colors of chemistry function like works of art; and for the more religious among them, as holy icons or stained glass windows through which holy light shines. The colors are aesthetically pleasing and, for many, spiritually pleasing.
Of course, there's more to life in the lab than an appreciation of colors. Chemists in the lab enjoy questioning; problem-solving; imagining; rigourous analysis; friendship with other chemists; focused attention (itself a form of mindfulness), and, for some, a sense that they are contributing to society.
Clearly, chemists can help the world. To be sure, chemists can and do harm the world as well. They make illegal drugs and biological weapons. They make things that we put into soil and water that harm life. Still, if guided by moral standards and care for others, their work and discoveries can be instruments of compassion, service, kindness, and love.
Nevertheless, if you are a chemist, it is important to keep in mind that the practice of chemistry includes, but is more than, service. Many of the qualities of heart and mind offered in the wheel of spirituality below are part of your experience: attention, beauty, connection, imagination, wonder, peace, silence, vision, and wisdom. There is no need to limit the word spirituality to ethics or service, important as they are. Let spirituality include moments when, in quiet ways, you have a sense of joy, peace, and illumination. Let the chemistry lab, too, be a kind of church.
And if, along with Whitehead, you believe that the universe has a divine Mind, an ordering principle or life, in whom many of the patterns of the world reside as potentials, then you can affirm that you are, in your way, exploring and discovering some of those patterns. You are exploring the Mind of God, and chemistry is a form of theology.
Perhaps it helps if you agree with the other three ideas in Whitehead: that nature is more than numbers, that it includes colors and feelings, and that it is dynamic and forever changing. And it may also help if you sense that, beneath, within, and beyond the chemicals, there is something divine and inclusive: God as the Mind of the universe.
In order to enjoy the spiritual side of science, is it necessary for a chemist to agree with Whitehead that nature is more than numbers and that it includes colors and feelings? Is it necessary to believe in a divine Mind? I don't think so. A die-hard mechanist, too, can enjoy the sense of awe and wonder, the pleasure of discovery and the sense of service, without adopting an organic view. I've seen it often.
The power of Whitehead is that he makes the case for a more organic view on the basis of science itself, especially quantum theory. But that's another topic. My aim here is simply to recognize that, for many a chemist, the laboratory is a sanctuary. In the diagrams below, I offer a larger Whiteheadian context for thinking of chemistry, followed by a few of Shelley's poems about the process of reality itself.
- Jay McDaniel, January 16, 2022
Spirituality, God, and a Process Worldview
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
Wilt thou forget the happy hours Which we buried in Love’s sweet bowers, Heaping over their corpses cold Blossoms and leaves, instead of mould? Blossoms which were the joys that fell, And leaves, the hopes that yet remain.
II. Forget the dead, the past? Oh, yet There are ghosts that may take revenge for it, Memories that make the heart a tomb, Regrets which glide through the spirit’s gloom, And with ghastly whispers tell That joy, once lost, is pain
I. We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon; How restlessly they speed and gleam and quiver, Streaking the darkness radiantly! yet soon Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:--
II. Or like forgotten lyres whose dissonant strings Give various response to each varying blast, To whose frail frame no second motion brings One mood or modulation like the last.
III. We rest—a dream has power to poison sleep; We rise—one wandering thought pollutes the day; We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep, Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:--
IV. It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow, The path of its departure still is free; Man's yesterday may ne'er be like his morrow; Nought may endure but Mutability. Source: The complete poetical works of Percy Bysshe Shelley: The text carefully revised by William Michael Rossetti, Volume 3 (John Slark, 1885)
by Percy Bysshe Shelley
I met a traveller from an antique land Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand, Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown, And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command, Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things, The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed. And on the pedestal these words appear -- "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
"Colour provides a vital enhancement to the world in which we live. Every day materials we use - textiles, paints, plastics, paper, and foodstuffs - are especially appealing if they are colourful. Nature too presents a kaleidoscope of colours around our lives. In India as summer approaches there is a wild burst of colourful flowers and new leaves of various shades of green on trees. Elsewhere in the world in autumn, the shedding of leaves is preceded by a spectacular colour show - green leaves turn to brilliant shades of yellow, orange, and red. In this article we focus on why things have colour and what causes them to change their colour. "