Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 24.djvu/167

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155
ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT.


Jacobi; and finally, yet remaining among us, the last of his race, Herr Peter Riess? It was a glorious time for German science, little as a precocious and spoiled youth is wont to esteem the men who, themselves almost without teachers, trained their teachers; a time to write whose connected history, the materials for which lie at hand in numerous memorial addresses, would be a thankful task and a patriotic duty; for it was the time when the German nationality, to which so much importance is now attached, grew strong in science also, to proud independence. But the crowning was reserved for the epoch in which Alexander von Humboldt exchanged his former residence in Paris for Berlin. The Italian double-entry book-keeping, which he had learned when young in the trade-school at Hamburg, enabled him, as he told me, to observe how his originally quite considerable means were wasting away in the sums which the publication of his travel-work consumed. When this occasion compelled him, in obedience to the wish of King Frederick William III, much against his inclination, to remove to Prussia, we can only see in this turn of fortune the fulfillment of his high calling, and in the epos of his “much-moved life” admire the remarkable concatenation by means of which, during Alexander's long absence, his brother William, by the foundation of the Berlin University, had prepared a suitable location for his continued activity.

It is hard in this all-leveling time to give an idea of the dominant position that spontaneously fell to him here. In consequence of the long depression of science in Germany and its contemporaneous bloom in France, Paris was endowed in the eyes of German naturalists with a luster of which the present generation knows nothing. We learned from French text-books, we worked with instruments made in Parisian shops, and a long residence in Paris was considered an indispensable finish to a good scientific education. We may conceive, from this consideration, what a halo would surround the head of a man who had played such a part in Paris as Humboldt had done. He returned home as a king comes back to his kingdom after a long campaign of conquest, and was received by the circle of Berlin naturalists, which had grown up in the mean time, as a prince is received by his magnates.

We can more easily represent to-day the favorable circumstances that assured to the brother of William von Humboldt his familiar place in the highest circles of society and his relations to the court. The Cosmos-lectures, the meeting of the German naturalists at Berlin in 1828, the journey into Central Asia, made under the commission of the Czar of Russia, pressed Alexander von Humboldt's figure before the German public far in advance of that of any other scientific man. His peculiar dependent-independent position between the court and ministry; the impregnable footing of scientific fame and unselfish exertion on which he stood; his profound knowledge of men and affairs, and his perfect tact; a power for work that was equal to numer-