(Letter not dated, article printed Jan 23)
This Editorial in Matthew’s local newspaper (the Dundee Advertiser) summarises the letters exchanged between Matthew and Baron Liebig as recently revealed in the Gardeners’ Chronicle. The Editorial does not say that Matthew is right in his “Vegetable Mould” theory, but heavily castigates Liebig for the manner, tone and illogic of his reply to Matthew. This Editorial is a good example of how the negative response to Liebig was not over his theory per se but over his attitude to Matthew. The Editorial recalls that Darwin has acknowledged Matthew’s claim to natural selection.
In our humble opinion, a scientific man should never forget that he is a gentleman. If he is hard pushed, he will find it more to his advantage gracefully to withdraw than to bespatter with verbal mud those whom he despairs of convincing by argument. We care not how high the name, or how eminent the reputation. No man, on account of his parts or services, can be allowed to treat with insolence those who may be as earnest and diligent in their pursuit after Truth as himself, but whose only misfortune is that they differ from the “great man.” There is far too much “hero-worship” — (save the mark!) now-a-days. Never was SHAKESPEARE’s contemptuous query, “What’s in a name” more sillily answered. Let a THACKERAY or a DICKENS but lend their names to periodicals in which there is scarcely a line of their own composition, and at once these ventures become successes, and their pages are devoured by eager thousands. Let a dogma be ever so foolish, or ever so unreasonable, if a notorious savan shall set his seal upon it, it straightway becomes immaculate, and few dare lift up their voices against it. Great names are being used as gags to stop the mouths of men equal to themselves in all but their notoriety — and their conceit. It is, however, one satisfaction to find that in this matter Scotland is, as ever, the great Iconoclast; the determined image-breaker and will not bow down to the sound of any name, however great. Some of her eminent sons have done good service in demolishing the literary and scientific idols for whom their worship has been demanded, and in proving their resemblance NEBUCHADNEZAR’s image in having feet of clay — the only point of difference being that their faces were of brass. Baron LIEBIG has before now been rather roughly treated by men in Scotland as acute though perhaps of less experience in some departments than himself; and on this hypothesis alone we can account for a recent piece of ill-natured snobbery to a Scotchman on his part, which, were the precious document not signed by his own name, we could scarcely have imagined it possible he would condescend to write. The Baron seems to be irritated because any one dare question his facts and theories. In that case it is to be feared his irritation must be chronic; for we observe that every now and then it has been a favourite amusement of that wicked fellow, Professor LEWES, to have a periodical pounding at the Baron’s theories in Blackwood, and to delight in showing how much empiricism is mixed up with them. Perhaps it is because LEWES has so frequently and remorselessly pricked the German wind-bag that it feels so sore at another operation of the same nature by one of his countrymen.
Mr PATRICK MATTHEW, of Gourdiehill — a man unquestionably with twenty times the agricultural experience of Liebig — some months ago addressed a communication to a friend in England on the value of Vegetable Mould, and the dependence of the continued fertility of our land on its maintenance. That letter was, without Mr MATTHEW’s knowledge, published in the Times, and of course attracted considerable notice. Baron LIEBIG, who is strongly opposed to this theory, and who holds that the Vegetable Mould is not the food of our cultivated plants, but that “all the materials constituting that food belong to the mineral kingdom,” had seen and was highly indignant at the letter; as Mr MATTHEW found in July last. That gentleman being on the Continent in June 1863, wrote a letter to LIEBIG, expressing his regret at not meeting him at the Hamburg International Show, as he had hopes of having some profitable discussion with him on the subject of Vegetable Mould. He had the greater hopes of learning more upon the subject when he considered “the Baron’s position with regard to chemistry — in which science he was the foremost, and of which he might almost call him the parent” — and “his own experience of 57 years in conducting agriculture in the Carse of Gowrie, once regarded as the garden of Scotland.” To this polite note he received an answer which, had it come from an uneducated man, would have been simply a piece of vulgarity; from a wealthy or titled man, an act of supreme discourtesy; but which, coming as it did from a scientific man, was one of the grossest acts of superciliousness and insolence we ever remember to have heard of. LIEBIG commences his answer by the ungraceful confession that he should hardly have made up his mind “to reply to your letter of June 23 were it not written by a man whose standing in society is such that his words necessarily exercise a certain influence over others.” He proceeds to state that Mr MATTHEW’s article on the “Vegetable Mould” caused him the “greatest astonishment” — which we do not doubt. Mr MATTHEW has astonished cleverer men than him — as Mr DARWIN knows — and the man who procured a written confession from that celebrated philosophist that he had anticipated by many years the so-called “Darwinian theory” need not care though LIEBIG displays the whites of his eyes. The Baron then goes on to express himself as utterly at a loss to comprehend how any one could utter “such opinions publicly” as those to be found in Mr MATTHEW’s paper. He evidently thinks Bedlam the place for airing them privately — only, considering they were published in the Times, and by a man of experience, and received with great consideration by many saeans in this country, they perhaps demanded and were worthy of a more serious reply. The Baron, of course, is at liberty to please himself with his arguments — but we scarcely think that the one above quoted will be convincing to a British public. Having thus demolished Mr MATTHEW’s position in a way that would do discredit Mrs PARTINGTON, or London costermonger, the learned LIEBIG next proceeds to put his ipse dixit against Mr MATTHEW’s facts, and to state that his twenty-three years’ experience of agriculture has been satisfactory in supporting his theories — to himself. That, in turning his attentions to agriculture, he was “not impelled by a desire for vain honours, in order to gain the favour of agriculturists,” he thinks “will be clear to Mr MATTHEW when he informs him that I am one of the six Foreign Members of the Academy of France, Foreign Member of the Royal Society, as well as, without exception, of all the Academies of Europe.” Evidently such a man is not to be trifled with by one who has only facts to put before him, and who wants an alphabetical tail to his name. But the most astonishing feature of the Baron’s assumption is yet come. After recapitulating his honours in the mass, he continues:— “Now, when a man has obtained the good opinions of the most distinguished individuals of all countries, as recognition of what he has done in science, this is certainly the highest fame it is possible for him to possess, and you may grant that for such a one the applause of a thoroughly ignorant crowd, as that of agriculturists, for example, must be absolutely indifferent to him.”
We do not wonder now at the Baron’s Continental reputation, considering that, according to his own confession, those who contribute to it and to extend his praise are thoroughly ignorant. A very pretty compliment to the farmers of Germany! — and one which leads us to suspect that, if, instead of being surrounded by them, LIEBIG had had the misfortune to be born in Scotland, his reputation would have scarcely stood so high. It is quite possible he would have met with many men, like Mr MATTHEW, who could give him “a thorough heckling” on matters of which we will not accuse him of being “thoroughly ignorant,” but regarding which he is only imperfectly informed. Let the Baron be content with analysing sour-krout, and setting Mechanics’ Institutes agape with an array of decimals, showing the constituents, with their proportions, of beer and alcoholic liquor. That is the unlearned province in which he has earned a cheap popularity. But when he meddles with practical farming, he is beginning to reap where he has not sown, and must take the consequences when detected. Abuse will not serve him; nor will the information conveyed by him to Mr Matthkw that “a decoration had been yesterday sent” him by “King JOHANN of Saxony,” in recognition of his “services to agriculture.” The Baron pompously adds:— “Those are words which a King only utters when about the truth of a doctrine no doubt any longer exists.” Well, seeing that the agriculturists in that quarter the world are so thoroughly ignorant, it occurs to one that no great degree of common sense may be required to do them a service in the way of putting them right; but surely LIEBIG has forgotten his logic when he adduces the fact of a trumpery German Kinglet sending him a “decoration” as a proof of the correctness of his theories! But all yet mentioned is nothing to the concluding sentence of his letter, in which he says that considers it “a sin against GOD and humanity” when such men [as Mr MATTHEW] in questions that concern them, “hinder that very progress which they are called upon to promote.” Well may Mr MATTHEW mildly state that his note Liebig “contrasted a little with the reply.” The arrogance of the man who considers it a “sin against GOD and Humanity” to differ from him is, after all, really more amusing than offensive. If to believe in the beneficial effects of Vegetable Mould upon the growth of plants be a mortal sin, then our hot-houses must be perfect sinks of iniquity, and our gardeners little else than fiends. Mr MATTHEW, in the Gardeners’ Chronicle of 23d January, publishes his reply to the vain-glorious German, in which he administers a well-deserved castigation, which will no doubt be fully endorsed by all who have read the correspondence.