Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 24.djvu/161

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149
ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT.


“Epoques de la Nature,” his sketches, flowing in splendid word-waves, of men and animals, Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's magnificent pictures of tropical nature, were well fitted to spur Humboldt's literary ambition in emulation of them. If his style has lately been criticised, that shows that he had a style. Indulgence in the creation of beautiful forms of language was agreeable to the taste of his age; and why should I not tell how he, presuming upon a similar receptivity in myself, read to me from the proof-sheets of his “Cosmos” passages which particularly pleased him, such as the one in which he ingeniously summarizes all that the moon is to our earth; enlivening the firmament by its changes, comforting the heart with its mild luster, and in geological periods carving out continents through the erosive work of the tides?

More subject to criticism is the other influence which the dominating mind of Humboldt exercised over Germany in his ninetieth year. At nothing are laymen more surprised than when they hear that Humboldt did not stand on the extreme height as a naturalist, but that his situation in a mental respect was like that he found himself in on Chimborazo, when an impassable chasm separated him from the summit. The gap which opened between him and the topmost peak of natural science, was the want of physico-mathematical knowledge. Not that this was denied his talents. He had in his youth an inclination to pure mathematical research. But the taste, and later also the mental habit, of analyzing phenomena within a certain scope and tracing them to their ultimate recognizable principles, deserted him. He became satisfied with establishing and examining facts. The mere telling, even at large, of those things that occupied his vision, and which he comprehended to the most minute details, or could deduce at every instant, was tiresome to him. It was, indeed, the cosmos; only there is, in that highest sense, no scientific comprehension of the cosmos. Mathematical physics knows of no difference between cosmos and chaos. By blind natural necessity, by the central forces of atoms independent of time, or by some other equivalent hypothesis of the constitution of matter, it concedes that cosmos may have come out of chaos. The cosmos, the beautiful and harmonious aggregate of nature, is an æsthetic anthropomorphism. Humboldt explained the title “Cosmos” with the phrase, “Sketch of a physical description of the universe.” According to Herr Gustav Kirchhoff's definition of mechanics, one might easily place these words upon Newton's “Principia” or Laplace's “Mécanique céleste.” But, by description, Humboldt understood only a graphic, not a mechanical description, and there is the same difference between his description of the world and that of Newton or Laplace as between the description of a plant and the calculation of a disturbance. In that he adhered to his conception through his whole life, and attached the highest value to it, he showed himself a genuine child of a stage of discipline more fitted for artistic methods of view than for scientific analysis.