January 18

Jacob Bronowski (1906)

It was on this date, January 18, 1906, that British mathematician Jacob Bronowski was born in Lodz, Poland. Fleeing the Russian conquest of Poland in World War I, the Bronowski family emigrated to Germany, then in 1920 moved to London. Bronowski was known to his friends as "Bruno," and studied mathematics at Jesus College, Cambridge, but by 1928 Bruno had discovered a love for poetry and literature. By 1933, when he received his doctorate and British citizenship, Bruno had already begun a melding of literature and science that was uniquely humanistic.

The next year (1934), he was appointed lecturer in mathematics at University College, Hull, and five years later his first book, The Poet's Defense (1939) "wrestled with the relation between the truth of science and that of poetry," as he put it.

His career achievement, however, was an 18-month project for BBC television called "The Ascent of Man." It was broadcast in 13 parts in 1973 and carried Bruno's philosophy of science and literature to a much wider audience than his books could reach. In it, he said, "Man masters nature not by force but by understanding. This is why science has succeeded where magic failed: because it has looked for no spell to cast over nature."*

Perhaps the clearest statement of Bruno's religion was this:

Dissent is the mark of freedom. And as originality and independence are private needs for the existence of a science, so dissent and freedom are its public needs. The safeguards which it must offer are apparent: free inquiry, free thought, free speech, tolerance. These freedoms of tolerance have never been notable in a dogmatic society, even when the dogma was Christian. Has there ever been a society which has died of dissent? Several have died of conformity in our lifetimes.**
Sadly, the stresses of the "Ascent of Man" series damaged his health. Bruno died of a heart attack on Long Island, New York. It was Jacob Bronowski who said, "You will die but the carbon will not; its career does not end with you. It will return to the soil, and there a plant may take it up again in time, sending it once more on a cycle of plant and animal life."

* Jacob Bronowski, "Ascent of Man," BBC-TV, 1973.
** Lecture, March 19, 1953, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "The Sense of Human Dignity," sect. 5, Science and Human Values (1961).

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Baron de Montesquieu (1689)

It was also on this date, January 18, 1689, that French jurist and nobleman Charles de Secondat, Baron de la Brède et de Montesquieu was born in Bordeaux of a wealthy family. He was educated in science, history and law, and came into his fortune in 1716. He came into fame at age 32 with his Persian Letters (Lettres Persanes, 1721) — in which he wrote, "No kingdom has ever suffered as many civil wars as the kingdom of Christ." — so the clerics whose lifestyles and liberties he criticized called him notorious.

Montesquieu resigned the presidency of the Bordeaux Parlement in 1726, traveled Europe studying law and the people, and penned his famous Spirit of the Laws (L'Esprit des Loi, 1748), which did much to prepare the way for the legal reform of the French Revolution — and which the Pope honored by placing it on the Index of Prohibited Books. Montesquieu was a Deist, and did not directly criticize the Church, but was quietly critical. For example,

Churchmen are interested in keeping the people ignorant. I call piety a malady of the heart. The false notion of miracles comes of our vanity, which makes us believe we are important enough for the Supreme Being to upset nature on our behalf.*
As he lay dying, on 10 February 1755, Montesquieu reluctantly allowed a priest to administer the sacrament, so the Catholic Encyclopedia claims him — even while admitting he was publicly indifferent to religion his entire life.

* Ira D. Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion, 1945, repr., 1972.

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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