Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Macaulay's estimation of Ram Mohun Roy

This is from "A speech delivered at the opening of the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution on the 4th of November, 1846", by Macaulay.  This can be found in Volume 8 of The works of Lord Macaulay complete, 1897, page 380.  The speech is a toast to the literature of Great Britain which among other things, is "that literature before the light of which impious and cruel superstitions are fast taking flight on the banks of the Ganges" -  if only he had known, Macaulay could have composed an ode to the cruel fate that has dispelled the empire before dispelling those impious and cruel superstitions!  Maybe global warming will put paid to the glaciers of Tibet and thus to the Ganga, the "superstitions" live on, and Britannica turned to be an empire of tin.

Macaulay talks about men who "are haunted" "by an unreasonable fear of what they call superficial knowledge".  Knowledge, to be meaningful,  they think, must be profound.  But what little we know is very small compared to what remains to be known, and we are then always shallow.
"It is evident then that those who are afraid of superficial knowledge do not mean by superficial knowledge, knowledge which is superficial when compared with the whole quantity of truth capable of being known. For, in that sense, all human knowledge is, and always has been, and always must be, superficial.   What then is the standard?  Is it the same two years together in any country? Is it the same, at the same moment, in any two countries?  Is it not notorious that the profundity of one age is the shallowness of the next; that the profundity of one nation is the shallowness of a neighboring nation?  Ramohun Roy passed among Hindoos for a man of profound Western learning; but he would have been but a very superficial member of this institute.  Strabo was justly entitled to be called a profound geographer eighteen hundred years ago.  But a teacher of geography, who had never heard of America, would now be laughed at by the girls of a boarding-school.  What would now be thought of the greatest chemist of 1746, or of the greatest geologist of 1746? The truth is that, in all experimental science, mankind is, of necessity, constantly advancing.  Every generation, of course, has its front rank and its rear rank; but the rear rank of a later generation occupies the ground which was occupied by the front rank of a former generation."
It is evident to me that Einstein too, would be laughed at by the girls of a boarding-school, but perhaps because of his hair.  It is equally evident that what Rammohun Roy knew of Sanskrit and Arabic literature, was not considered to be knowledge of any kind.   Lastly, it does not appear to be available online, who was in the audience for this speech, except people mentioned in the footnotes to the speech itself (Lord Provost Mr. Adam Black, and Archbishop Whately) and so the above is superficial knowledge onlee.