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William Herschel on Talking One’s Son out of Industry and Integrity

13 February 2010

Richard Holmes, in his fine book about the years following the British Enlightenment, Age of Wonder, describes a series of correspondence between the renowned astronomer William Herschel and his son, John (pp.387-390).  Even beneath his father’s enormous shadow, John had done pretty well for himself, becoming a Fellow at Cambridge University and achieving some advances in calculus that appeared to be supplanting Newtonian theory of fluxions. 

He wrote to his famous father in 1813, explaining that, out of a sense of obligation to acquire an independent livelihood, he would pursue either research in pure mathematics at Cambridge, or become a lawyer in London.  William Herschel took this news poorly, writing back that it would be “crooked, tortuous and precarious” to forsake the “superior” studies afforded John over his life.  Clearly these sciences were not nearly adventurous or practical enough in the mind of William. 

Surprisingly enough, William recommended in the place of mathematics or law a career in the Anglican priesthood.  This must have sounded ludicrous to John, as neither he nor his father had much interest in Christianity.  But according to William, “A clergyman… has time for the attainment of the more elegant branches of literature, for poetry, for music, for drawing, for natural history, for short and pleasant excursions of travelling, for being acquainted with the spirit of the law of his country, for history, for political economy, for mathematics, for astronomy, for metaphysics, and for being an author upon any one subject in which… [he is] qualified to excell.”

A bewildered John responded that he hardly believed any Anglican doctrine, but an inveterate William kept pushing.  Without concern for his son’s religious integrity, he again wrote, saying, “The most conscientious clergyman may preach a sermon full of sound morality, and no one will enquire into theological studies.” Unsurprisingly, John was horrified at this.  Was his father discouraging him from self-reliance in an occupation and encouraging him to live hypocritically? What manner of manhood was this?

Only after the threat of a total breach of relationship did William desist.  John did practice law in London after all, followed by a full Fellowship back in Cambridge.  But William would have the final victory, as John came back to the astronomical life in 1816, minding his father’s telescope. 

It hardly seems believable that a father would talk his son out of a life of industry and integrity, which were in other circles (and to this day are) marks of manhood.  For the new nobility of 19th century Great Britain, however, industry and integrity were hardly virtues.  They were the explorers, the speculators, the scientists and professors.  Such men were above mere labor or repose, religion or morality.  They were reaching for the stars – and no self-respecting father of this caliber would have it otherwise for his son.

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