Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 24.djvu/165

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153
ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT.


against the Hellenistic classicism of the preceding period that came in with the national rising.

Not that there were wanting voices to protest against the disorder, or men who knew better, but who disdained to engage in contention with persons talking like madmen. Germany could still boast of one of the first mathematicians and mathematico-physicists of all time. On his return, Humboldt had found the academy at Paris full of the fame of the youthful author of “Disquisitiones Arithmeticæ.” Besides Humboldt, there were then in Paris to save the reputation of German science our Paul Erman, who received from the academy the prize in galvanism founded by Napoleon, and whose anatomy of the Echinoderms was also crowned by it, and pre-eminently Gauss. But even Gauss illustrates how small a place science and mathematics had in German ideas. Our pleasure in the dainty jest which Heinrich Heine, in his “Reisebildern,” utters against the scientists of Göttingen, in the sportive parallel between Georgia Augusta and Bologna, is somewhat troubled when we remember that among those scientists was the immortal Gauss. Never on a similar occasion would a young French poet have overlooked the existence of Laplace.

Finally, the revolution approached. “The brilliant and brief saturnalia of a purely ideal natural science,” as Humboldt mildly described it, was drawing toward an end. Natural philosophy had fulfilled none of its glittering promises; its draught, foaming and pungent at first, had grown stale. And just as, two generations before, a race of poets and thinkers had been produced all at once, so it happened, by a coincidence so remarkable that we guess a law in it, that there arose at this time a healthy and strong crop of genuine naturalists. There was, however, another element by which the external fortune of German science was henceforward materially affected. Frederick the Great had kept the eyes of the world turned toward the capital of his monarchy for half a century. By the calling of such men as Maupertius, Euler, and Lagrange, he had given the Academy of Sciences, recently founded by him, a temporary high luster, partly borrowed from abroad. A seat of German intellectual life, Berlin did not become, under him. The center of culture in Berlin lay in the French colony. If we abstract Lessing's brief residence, Moses Mendelssohn, the prototype of his Nathan, the correct, frigid Ramler, and the author of “The Joys of the Young Werther,” Berlin had, in the last century, hardly attained any importance in German literature.

That since then Berlin, having become the political capital of Germany, has also pushed into the advance of the other German cities in an intellectual respect, was not the effect of a single cause, nor the work of any one man. Chief in the succession of circumstances that contributed to it was unquestionably the creation of the University of Berlin. The university could, indeed, not raise a new German Parnassus, even if the Berlin of that time had been the place for it; and