One of the great things about my privileged life — I get to live in the High Doganate — is the library up here. The resident at a loss what to do — how, for instance, to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them — may reach blindly for a book, let it fall open at some page, and start reading. Soon he is a-raft on the sea of someone else’s troubles, and these are often preferable to one’s own; even when, as in the biography of Lavoisier I started reading, they end with “death in the afternoon,” strapped on that ultimate logic-chopping device, the guillotine.

As my little sister says, knowing you are going to die tomorrow afternoon is not so great an inconvenience as people think. (She learnt “always look on the bright side” from our mother.) “No need for all this heavy weather,” she told me once. “You can still do stuff in the morning.”

The book in question, published 1952, came into the High Doganate with a clump on “the history of science” that seemed to need rescuing from the local Salvation Army. It will now return there.

My mistake was to begin reading about page one. Had I dipped in later, my patience might not have been tried so quickly. For the book begins (as it ends) with a little hymn to Science and Progress. Did gentle reader know that science has changed, and is changing the way we live? That it is doing so faster and faster every day? That Newton came before Lavoisier, and Darwin after? Or that these gentlemen had nothing to do with one another, apart from being lionized as revolutionaries of Science? All but this last point are conveyed.

It was surprising how much I did not know about Lavoisier; and of how little importance it was. He is Saint George killing the dragon of Phlogiston in this account. Father of modern chemistry, &c. Student of heat and respiration; improver of gunpowder; hyper-efficient tax collector in the bureaucracy of the French Old Regime; academician; weekend geologist; dreamer in agriculture and economics; aristocratic gardener whose works around his Château de Frechines might plausibly be described as an experimental farm; social climber and assiduous self-promoter, whose fame could not hide him from the glinting blades of Robespierre.

A very clever man was our Lavoisier, the more charming the farther one got away from him (often I read between the lines); whose pleasure, once he took offices in the Arsenal at Paris, with a budget to do largely as he pleased, was to conduct violent experiments on anything that was lying around. His revolution in chemistry consisted of quantifying it all.

When a child, I had the evil of Phlogiston brought to my attention. It was, not from the Dark Ages as popularly supposed, but only from the end of the seventeenth century, the prevailing “settled science” on the combustible principle in the air, and other substances. It was pure theory, and surprisingly easy to kick over with a few methodical tests; notwithstanding the scientific establishment of the day kicked, screamed, and desperately resisted every attempt to displace it. Lavoisier (and Priestley in England) burnt or blew up one thing and another until Lavoisier had discovered and named Oxygen.

And so we advanced from Phlogiston to Oxygen, and incidentally to ascending in hot air balloons. Good show!

Everything interesting in Lavoisier’s career is passed over, in the course of “teaching the controversy.” What emerges, at least for me, from the author’s secular hagiography, is the dramatic irony in his subject’s fate. Here is one of the grandest limousine liberals in our interminable modern history: who, in the end, the real “liberals” put up against the wet stony wall in their dungeon. Science was their god from the beginning, and for as long as it could be used to undermine religious belief. But once in power they decided that empirical inquiries were an irrelevance and a bore.

Who needs Truth, when you have Power?

And all his life poor Antoine-Laurent de Lavoisier overlooked, with such brilliance, the actual consequences of what he was advancing — with the best will in the world, thoroughly admixed with the combustible principle of Vanity.