The important thing is to know how to take all things quietly… Michael Faraday


Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed nonage. Nonage is the inability to use one’s understanding without another’s guidance. This nonage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one’s mind without another’s guidance. Sapere Aude! Dare to Know! Have the courage to use your own understanding is therefore the motto of the Enlightenment.. Immanuel Kant

A group of ants was walking down a rope and arrived at the end. Their leader told them, “See! if you follow any man-made item you will arrive at the end of your rope!” Our last review about J. Robert Oppenheimer, a disciple of Kant if ever there was one, seems to embody the proof of this statement.

Faraday would say, “Nothing is too wonderful to be true if it be consistent with the laws of nature,” however metaphysics transcends the phenomena of nature and therefore cannot be verified by observation. Discarding metaphysics also means discarding a theory of knowledge believed, tested and accepted  between Plato and Descartes. Another way of putting this is that 2000 years of philosophic thought was  abandoned and the industrial age had been sired out-of-wedlock by enlightenment consorting with money. Two centuries of war in Italy would give of Hugo Grotius [“A man cannot govern a nation if he cannot govern a city; he cannot govern a city if he cannot govern a family; he cannot govern a family unless he can govern himself; and he cannot govern himself unless his passions are subject to reason”] where two centuries of  industry in Switzerland would give us the cuckoo clock.

In terms of religion, only some of the “enlightened” were atheists – most were deists and a handful clutched the security blanket of what the 18th century called “reasonable Christianity,” while others professed skepticism, reluctant to accept either atheist dogma or Christian revelation. A few, like Faraday, were literalists but even their world was disenchanted – they were willing to believe almost anything but a miracle.

For all of his genius Faraday still operated in a vacuum – believing the Bible literally – but never understanding that its greatest truths, though literal, transcend nature as we understand it. Although he seems sane by comparison Faraday also is a father for Oppenheimer and the modern world. This is an excellent biography even if it does miss that architectonic truth.

A life of discovery : Michael Faraday, giant of the scientific revolution    New York : Random House, c 2002 James Hamilton Physicists Great Britain Biography, Faraday, Michael, 1791-1867 Hardcover. Originally published: Faraday. London : HarperCollins, 2002. 1st. American ed., later printing. xxii, 465 p. : ill. ; 25 cm. Includes bibliographical references (p. 447-449) and index. Clean, tight and strong binding with clean dust jacket. No highlighting, underlining or marginalia in text. VG/VG

Born in 1791, Faraday was the son of a blacksmith with a thin education, yet he was gifted with a rare intelligence and intuition. He was a devout member of a small Christian sect that believed in the Bible’s literal word, yet he was open to all that humankind could invent from earthly knowledge. He was ambitious and savvy about spreading news of his work, yet he patented nothing and received no personal gain. In short, Faraday personified all the paradoxes of the early nineteenth century, a landscape in which class, faith, and desire clashed.

As apprentice to the esteemed Humphrey Davy of the Royal Institution, he helped discover the miner’s safety lamp, which revolutionized the search for and accumulation of coal, then went on to make a landmark study of induction, the connection between electricity and magnetism, and the idea of the electromagnetic field. From electric motors to precision-made eyeglass lenses to steel razors to liquid chlorine, his inventions – often designed with self-created instruments – have become staples of civilized society, the “roots of modern life.”

While rising in society, Faraday steered clear of politics and the seamy machinations of the material world, staying obedient to a higher authority. Though disdainful of “useless passion” and devoted to his wife, he found a confidante in the bright, liberated, and flirtatious daughter of Lord Byron. Trying to reconcile his severe religion and his demanding work, he eventually suffered a mental collapse.

An acclaimed biographer of artists, James Hamilton captures the entire fascinating story of this individual and his era. A Life of Discovery is the definitive account of a remarkable man who merged intuition and logic, prayer and deduction.

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