Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 24.djvu/159

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147
ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT.


ment and gushing philanthropy from France. German society now acquired a strong literary interest. But while that part of the educated world which was susceptible to the more tender emotions led an æsthetic dream-life, the stronger minds were chained to the contemplation of the antique, or were sunk in the profundities of the simultaneously ripened critical philosophy. Thus the thought of the nation was far removed from realities, and directed toward beautiful fancies and ideal truths. If this had had the result of only diverting some from research and observation, the loss might have been borne. But, with the thoroughness with which the German does everything, the damage went deeper. The distinctions between aesthetic and scientific demands were effaced from the universal comprehension. The intuitions of art usurped the place of induction and deduction. Even the critique of the reason, just achieved by Kant, was pushed aside as narrow-minded scholasticism. An arrogant speculation believed its synthetic judgments a priori had grown so strong that it could undertake to construct the world from a few delusive formulas, and it looked down with extreme insolence upon the unpretentious daily work of the empiric. In short, the day came of that false philosophy which redounded to the shame of German science for a quarter of a century, whose advocates threatened our own generation, and which the best heads, elevating vague fancy and taste above the practical, were least able to resist.

The recollection of this perversion of the German mind is the more mortifying because it occurred simultaneously with the brightest phases of science outside of Germany, especially in France. While under the first republic and the first empire the muses were hushed to silence, there was gathered in Paris a circle of learned men of whom not only has each one left a bright trace behind him, but also in which as a whole lived the comprehension of the true method to which the Academy of Sciences has always persistently adhered. Coulomb and Lavoisier, Laplace and Cuvier, Biot and Arago, were partly the forerunners, partly the coryphées of that great epoch from which is dated the leadership which, during the first half of this century, made Paris the scientific capital.

The period of this momentous transformation in Germany, when æsthetic contemplation of the world and overweening speculation were mutually crowning each other and pushing intelligent experiment, like Cinderella, into a corner — this period was that of Alexander von Humboldt's youth. A remarkable youth he must have been, exuberant of thought, and yet burning with the thirst for action; eloquent and enthusiastic like a poet, and yet devoted with all his mind to the study of Nature; in knowledge already a reflection of the Cosmos, and yet indefatigable in accurate examination and experiment; a born master of the German speech, yet at home in every idiom; in such guise he appeared in the intellectual center of the Germany of the day, in Jena,