Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/December 1883/Alexander von Humboldt
|←Notes||Popular Science Monthly Volume 24 December 1883 (1883)
Alexander von Humboldt
By Emil du Bois-Reymond
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PROPERLY to appreciate Alexander von Humboldt's life-work, one must form a conception of the intellectual atmosphere from which he issued. The opinion may not unfrequently be found among laymen that there was no real German naturalist before Humboldt. They are accustomed, as if to a Hercules, to ascribe all deeds to him. It is not necessary to say that this is all a mistake; but even professional naturalists frequently remember too little of our older history. I do not speak of the almost ancient figures of Copernicus, Kepler, and Otto von Guericke; nor of Leibnitz, who had as clear a comprehension of the fundamental ideas of nature as we; but the eighteenth century displays names worthy of the highest degree of respect, almost as brilliant as these.
The Bernoullis developed analytic mechanics, Euler recognized the feasibility of achromatic glasses, Tobias Mayer reformed the theory of the moon, Lambert laid the foundation of photometry, Kant conceived the nebular hypothesis, and William Herschel, whom we count among our own, enlarged our knowledge of the starry heavens almost as if the telescope had just been discovered. Had the Dutch physicists left him time, the Canon of Camin would have certainly possessed a perfect title to have the Leyden-jar called by his name. Volta's electrophore is really Wilcke's discovery. Segner's water-wheel, Leidenfrost's and Sulzer's experiments, became the germs of important discoveries and applications. Stahl's phlogiston, even if it was a false conception, and Haller's elementa, in the long run, made chemistry and physiology German sciences. Herr Hofman has very lately taught us how to appreciate Marggraf's services in technical chemistry. Vater and Lieberkühn are still mentioned in the finer anatomy, and the first part of Sömmering's classical activity belongs to the same category. Caspar Frederick Wolf reformed the development-history and outlined the doctrine of the metamorphosis of plants. As early as 1785 Blumenbach, the founder of physical anthropology, led a class in comparative anatomy. In natural history, Rösel earnestly advanced the labors of Swammerdam and Réaumur; Ledermüller described the creatures which he called infusoriæ. Gleditsch performed the experimental demonstration of the sexuality of the phanerogams by fertilizing the palms in our botanical gardens with pollen from Leipsic. Even in classification, in which the rivalry of the seafaring nations with the Germans was so arduous, a few, like the creator of our fish-collection, Bloch, won imperishable fame. Germans also approved themselves as scientific travelers: the two Forsters, Cook's companions around the world; and in connection with the Russian expedition for observing the second transit of Venus, our Pallas, as a student of the Siberian fauna. Finally, in geognosy had Werner secured the uncontested leadership for the Germans as the pre-eminently mining people, among whom Agricola had previously created mineralogy.
This enumeration, which might be considerably extended, shows what good progress German natural science had made in the last century. Indeed, it is doubtful whether any other people can boast of a greater richness of notable achievements during the same period. But, toward the end of the century, the aspect was changed, to our disadvantage, and not without our fault.
After its early bloom in the middle ages, and the activity of the Reformation, the German mind, disturbed in its development by the Thirty Years' War, remained, as respects literary production, in the background. At most, it trifled a little in a tasteless way. Then, all at once, in the second half of the century, it rose to so mighty a flight that it not only recovered its lost rank, but placed itself, in some kinds of poetic creation, at the head of modern mankind. A constellation of talent arose, the like of which the ages of Augustus and Louis XIY did not see, nor the fifteenth century, except in other fields. Who can describe the intoxication of the nation, when immortal songs announced that the king's son had come whose kiss was to awaken the thorn-rose of German poetry out of its half a thousand years' slumber? At the same time there pressed upon us the new naturalism and emotionalism from England, and enlightenment 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, younger than Goethe by twenty, than Schiller by ten years, and yet welcomed by both as if he were their peer in age.
He figured as the friend of Willdenow, Georg Forster, and Leopold von Buch, as the pupil of Blumenbach, Lichtenberg, and Werner, already known by minor writings in which his industrious manysidedness had early displayed itself, already a much-traveled man according to the ideas of the day, and, although of independent means, a servant of the state, on the way to the highest honors. In what was he not interested, and what did he not take up? Ancient weaving, subterranean flora, basalt, meteorological phenomena, the theory of logarithms, had engaged him; but, when it was worth while, he knew how to concentrate his strength upon a single point. Galvani's discovery had recently stirred naturalists and physicians to effort. “In the fall of 1792, having become acquainted with it in Vienna, Humboldt, traversing Germany in every direction as a miner, physicist, and botanist, ‘wandering upon desolate and remote mountains where he was sometimes cut off from all literary intercourse,’ already revolving the plan of his tropical journey in his head, had still found time to make thousands of most delicate experiments. Even on horseback, besides hammer, glass, and compass, he was never without ‘his galvanic apparatus, a pair of metal rods, pincers, a glass stand and an anatomical knife,’ and the curse which the Bolognan anatomist had invoked upon the poor race of batrachians overtook them under Humboldt's hand, even in places in which they had previously been secure from it.” Now he had talked with Alessandro Volta, in his villa on the Lake of Como, of the crucial experiment in animal electricity, Galvani's convulsion without metals, and was preparing to collect the results of his investigations in the book on “Excited Muscular and Nervous Fibers.” He must confirm his own researches with experiments on frogs' legs, and he opportunely called not only his brother, but also “Herr von Goethe,” to be his witnesses.
Among the various individualities which were united in him into a complicated whole, and which we meet in analyzing this being, is first of all an artist. The “Rhodian Genius,” the “Views of Nature,” the address at the opening of the assembly of naturalists, are art-works. That work of Humboldt's which, like Goethe's “Faust,” contemplated from youth, was completed with an astonishing energy only in an advanced old age, may certainly claim to be an artist's production. We shall for the present leave unanswered the question of the utility of this kind of mingling of the poetic element with the scientific, in which we may recognize a return to the models of Plato and Lucretius. Aside from his native propensity, Humboldt was led toward it by the æsthetic manner of thinking then prevailing in Germany, which had become a second nature to him, and especially by his intercourse with our great poets. It must not, however, be forgotten that something of the same kind had been observed a little while before in France. Buffon's “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. While German science was involved in the enervating network of æsthetic speculations, his own energy and happy skill enlisted Humboldt in wider spheres of healthy activity for its salvation. Even in our fast-living age, it is hard to conceive that only two years after he had been enjoying in the Saal Valley those visions, short indeed, but in a certain sense, like a young love, decisive as to his life, he was observing in Cumana the first periodical shower of stars, and discovering the electric folds in the brain of the torpedo-eel; was exploring the caves of Caripe resonant with the cries of the guachero; was threading in a pirogue, environed with alligators, the stream-net of the Rio Negro and the Cassiquiare between the Orinoco and the Amazon; and in Esmeralda, on the upper Orinoco, was observing the concoction by the natives of the weird arrow-poison, curare, which owes its name to him. Nothing was wanting to raise the fantastic charm of these journeys, from which, nevertheless, Humboldt brought back a greater sum of acute, distinct observations in every conceivable field of science, in geography and anthropology, than any single observer ever collected either before him or after him. No! The world will “never see his like” in comprehensive, restless activity, combined with lofty thought; in dauntless venture for ideas, with the wisest saving of means and strength; in soaring height of feeling, the expression of which frequently, in view of the sad contentions of mankind or of the horrors of slavery, for instance, has an elegiac tone, as in a similar way a delicate haze adorns his sketches of the giant heights of the Cordilleras.
It is essential to the success of a scientific journey, first of all, that the traveler return. But, besides threatening him with physical dangers, which Humboldt's apparently not very strong body resisted wonderfully, long journeys in wild regions have other inconvenient consequences. Habituation to perfect freedom in solitude, to constant change and external stimulation, even excitement, the diversion from accustomed literary occupations, render it very hard for travelers to feel themselves at home again, to give themselves up to the complicated demands of cultivated society, and to be satisfied to make the most of the treasures they have brought with them. They seem to prefer to such allegiance a return to the wilderness, so that it is said of African travelers that the greatest danger that threatens them is the unconquerable propensity, when they have once escaped the perils of the journey, to try them again. Thus it was with Humboldt's fellow-traveler, Bonpland, who was drawn back to South America, where it was his fate, not to perish, but to be lost to science, a prisoner to Dr. Francia. He left to Humboldt, in whom no trace of such weakness could be found, the fruit of many of their common labors.
Humboldt had lived in Paris before his journey. He now permanently fixed his place of labor there, as the only place where he could perfect the literary undertakings he had planned; and as with curious facility he had become a Spaniard in New Spain, so, without denying his German, he made the Parisian academicians forget that he was not a Frenchman. In this, that gift of ready wit with which, while a student at Frankfort, he had troubled the more serious William, and which he used as a powerful weapon in his subsequent court-life, was of much advantage to him. Associated with Gay-Lussac and Provençal in labors which are still instructive, he was received into that small circle of learned men that gathered around the venerable Berthollet at Arcueil. All of these and numerous other friendships of Humboldt's are thrown into the shade by the life-long connection he formed with Arago, to which the contrast of their natures lent a peculiar charm.
Humboldt was at first sight of insignificant, flattering, and pliant appearance, Arago of imposing bearing, a type of fiery Southern manhood; Humboldt of encyclopedic mind and knowledge, Arago an astronomer and mathematico-physicist of so sharply limited a scope and so strict a school that, while he analyzed according to three axes the modifying effects which neighboring masses of metals exercise upon magnetic deflections, he left it to Faraday, who could not square a binomial, to find out their causes. Like Humboldt, Arago was a master of comprehensive scientific description; but, while Humboldt inclined to melting pathos, the dazzling polish of Arago's keen language becomes a tiresome mannerism. Sympathy in political views was a bond between them. Arago was a republican, Humboldt called himself a democrat of 1789. Probably this was the reason of the contemptuous condescension with which Napoleon I, among whose faults was not want of respect for science, used to meet him.
In connection with Arago, Humboldt, as he was fond of telling, ruled for twenty years what was then the first scientific body in the world. If not of his fame, this period was the climax of his life. As in the primitive forest he had watched through nights undisturbed by the murmur of the cataracts, the humming of the mosquitoes, the near roaring of the jaguars, and the fearful cry of the beasts in the tree-tops above him, so now were the confusing pressure of the world's metropolis, the thousand personal demands daily thrust upon him, the brilliant society of the salon, the intrigues of academical lobbies, to him only a pleasant, stimulating life-element. He found gratification in this mental tumult, which, busy with the air and matter of life, overlooked him while he built up the gigantic coral structure of the many-membered story of his travels. More and more consumed with an inextinguishable enthusiasm for science; in unlimited devotion to knowledge, neglecting domestic fortune; drawing into the line of his activity hosts of learned men and artists, and skillfully utilizing their talents for his own objects; not, indeed, teaching ex cathedra, but inspiring youth by his example and continually encouraging them — he was at that time in Paris, as afterward in Berlin, a central figure, from which force radiated on every side, and in which numerous threads ran together.
That was the time when he, sometimes with an essay only a few pages long, created new studies, like that of plant-geography; or by some suggestive medium of graphic representation, such as the isothermal curves, revealed the law hidden in formless masses of single facts. As the whole real world waved before his inner vision, so “swelled before him also the historical flood of floods,” only that he festooned the bare scaffold of civic history with the fruit and flower garlands of the history of civilization, of discovery, and of art. As Uhland composed some of his finest romances in Paris, there likewise originated the “Views of Nature,” Humboldt's favorite work.
While the reminiscences of Jena were thus revived in him, his mind was nevertheless permanently purified from much dross that had clouded it in those days. In the interval that separates Humboldt's labors after the journey to the tropics from the “Experiments on Excited Muscular and Nervous Fibers,” we recognize the influence of his intercourse with the Parisian academicians, of their always careful, frequently exaggeratedly skeptical views. In one point, excelling through the greater depth of German thought, he left his masters behind him. While a kind of shallow vitalism was prevailing in France, Humboldt had long passed the position he had once sustained in the “Rhodian Genius,” and had explained the process of life as a result of the physical and chemical qualities of the matters combined in the organic texture.
It is perhaps less known that Humboldt was a pre-Darwinian Darwinian. He gave me the “Essay on Classification,” sent him by Louis Agassiz, in which, only three years before the appearance of the “Origin of Species,” a book Humboldt did not live to see, the doctrine of periods of creation and teleological views were portrayed with unblunted sharpness, and supported by numerous plausible arguments. Humboldt's expressions on this occasion left me no doubt that he, far from sympathizing with Agassiz's views, was a believer in mechanical causation, and an evolutionist. If we may credit certain Parisian traditions, Humboldt and Cuvier were not on the best footing with each other. Perhaps Humboldt was more inclined toward the doctrines of Lamarck and Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.
It is time to consider what had become of German science during this period. It had, in a certain sense, sunk deeper and deeper. Philosophical speculation had won ground at nearly all points, and in nearly all the universities its subtilties were announced as ready wisdom by professional philosophers as well as by naturalists and doctors, and were eagerly taken up by the misguided youth. Goethe's false theories and maxims, supported by his fame as a poet, increased the confusion. The wars of Napoleon did harm to German science, not only by external force, but also through the Christian-romantic reaction 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 it could also only indirectly contribute to the blossoming of art. But it became, in the pursuit of its work from the first, the most important center of German knowledge as a whole. In reality the general enlightenment which had so often comforted the nation in its divisions, still remained spread over Germany to its salvation. In some points Berlin saw itself surpassed by small universities like that of Giessen. Between these and Berlin there was, however, always the difference that, while now and then some one or another small university would blaze up like a variable star to the first magnitude in some branch or another, to sink in a little while back into comparative obscurity, the sum of the aggrregated mental forces in the Berlin University and Academy was the same, or rather increased, from the beginning.
Almost simultaneously with the blossoming of the university, in alliance with the national rising, and favored by the growth of the city and its prosperity, there had also been developed here a real German culture, and a perhaps not very productive but cleverly critical society had collected whose influence on German intellectual life was more perceptible because of the preponderance with which Berlin had come out of the war for freedom. As far as the habitual influence of so many older centers of learning and the independent spirit of the Germans, hostile to centralization, permitted, Berlin henceforth maintained the rank of intelligence appropriate to it as the capital of the state. That illustrious circle of writers, artists, and actively sympathizing women is now inconceivable without the background of the Berlin University; without Schleiermacher and Frederick Augustus Wolf, Savigny and Carl Ritter, Boeckh and Lachmann, Buttmann and Bopp, Hegel and Gauss; and in this sense we may say, that, through the foundation of the university, William von Humboldt elevated Berlin to be the intellectual capital of Germany.
While the University of Berlin fully represented science in nearly every direction, every mental phase of the nation was likewise reflected in it. Here was fought out in jurisprudence the battle between the historical and the philosophical schools; here was seen, in theology, dogmatic reaction to give way to rationalism. Here unrestrained speculation continued to have its way for a long time, natural philosophy blew its last party-colored bubbles, and Goethe's Farbenlehre was taught ex cathedra. Here it was, also, that that host of men arose who, in connection with many illustrious minds still adorning the Fatherland, repaired the faults of philosophical error, and gave to natural science an activity which was full of consequence for the world as well as for Prussia and Germany, and which still continues. Is it necessary to name them, when so many of them are looking down upon us from these walls — Eilhard Mitscherlich, Heinrich and Gustav Rose, Encke and Poggendorff, Weiss and Lichtenstein, Ehrenberg and Johannes Müller, Dove and Gustav Magnus, and besides them the mathematicians, Lejeune-Dirichlet and Steiner, and later still 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 numerous visits, notes, and letters, as well as to days and nights of continuous observations of magnetic terms; and, finally, a grace in intercourse that disarmed all contradiction — all of these things together made him a real power; and how frequently did he use his power for the good of this university!
At that time, when the limited means of the state made it harder to raise a couple of hundred thalers for scientific purposes than as many thousand marks now, no emergency arose for which Humboldt did not obtain the needed means by his personal intercession; and as now the Academy of Sciences will on satisfactory assurances advance money to young men engaged in merely prospective scientific enterprises, so was Humboldt then the earthly providence of all students. What matter is it that his zeal was sometimes mistaken, and that among the number of those to whom he opened the way was now and then one who came short of fulfilling the hopes set upon him? Even academicians are not infallible in the choice of their protégés. If he had a preference for travelers, for his own specialty, did he not also let his sun shine on philologists as well as on naturalists? Who would examine as with a psychological lens the secret motives that impelled him to such touching sacrifices for things quite remote from him? Of course, Humboldt had the faults of his virtues. Ambition is the source of all greatness, but it is hard to draw the line that separates it from vanity. Humboldt used his sharp tongue and pen not only as weapons of defense, but he frequently gave them freer license than was perhaps good. But what signifies the dread that some felt of his criticisms, in the face of such testimony as that of August Boeckh, that he never came away from Humboldt's presence without feeling exalted and inspired with new love for all that is good and noble? There is one other example of a personality which, like Humboldt's, reached such power by pure intellectual force that peoples on both sides of the great sea waited for his words, and kings listened to him: this was Voltaire, in the eighteenth century. The two men, notwithstanding the deep-reaching differences between them, afford many points of resemblance. Both were born in a capital — Voltaire in Paris, Humboldt in Berlin; Voltaire reaching out of the “grand century” into a new period which he had helped to introduce; Humboldt from the classical period of our literature to a new scientific period that had been partly prepared for by him; in both a poet was paired with a naturalist, but the poet predominating in Voltaire, the naturalist in Humboldt; both disappearing from the scene for a period in youth, Voltaire to return after his study-travel to England, Humboldt from his tropical journey, with great acquisitions; Voltaire afterward in Berlin, Humboldt, at least in his later abode in Paris, living near the throne; both occasionally intrusted with diplomatic business; both animated to the noblest exertions, but not above a well-directed jest; both regarding mankind as their family, without a domestic hearth; Voltaire powerfully grasping the tragic fate of Calas, Sirven, and De la Barre, Humboldt in happier times only summoning his force to obtain a salary for poor Eisenstein, or to prosecute Haupt's appeal; the fame of both suffering from the fact that their teachings and discoveries having long ago become common property, only a few know whom to thank for them; finally, both in extreme old age glowing “with that youth which never forsakes us,” and active to the latest breath; Voltaire busy with his “Irene” and the “Dictionnaire de l'Académie,” Humboldt with the “Cosmos.” What the “Experiments on Excited Muscular and Nervous Fibers” was for the youth Humboldt, and the “Travels” and “Views of Nature” for the man, the “Cosmos " was for the old man. We have already questioned the fundamental thought of this famous book from the point of view of theoretical natural history, and of the doctrine of the persistence of force. We have frequently entertained the query whether such a mixture of styles as rules in it is correct or not. It certainly is not becoming to the naturalist. But it is clear that it is exactly this form of representation that makes possible the immense influence of the book, that has over the whole inhabited earth prompted hundreds of thousands to join in asking questions they had not thought of before; that, particularly in Germany, lifted the ban under which natural science had lain in the ideas of the cultivated, as if it were a domain from which common men were excluded, and were accessible only to a few particularly qualified to enter it, and about which one need not be concerned unless he have some special inclination or calling for it. It has been remarked that by science the French understand only natural science, by Wissenschaft the Germans only mental science. Goethe's scientific efforts, in consequence of their semi-æsthetic character, their desultoriness, and the bitter hostility he showed to all associated research, could not change the case. If it is now different, and the state recognizes the full importance of science, it is, of course, immediately the result of the technical triumphs science has achieved. But the turn for the better we ascribe originally to the Cosmos-lectures, which, for the first time in Germany, led a cultivated German audience to imagine that there was something else in the world than belles-lettres and music, than the “Morgenblatt” and Henrietta Sonntag. And although Humboldt himself, as we have already said, did not rise to the very apex of science, it was, nevertheless, this less exalted height at which he stopped that permitted him to make himself comprehensible to the ordinary children of men.
While, indeed, he was not as sublime as Newton or Laplace, while he did not mirror one side of the world in absolute perfection like Gauss, he was able to make an entrance among the multitude for the truths discovered by those archangels of science. While he shared with them the universal human feeling for the beautiful in sublime things, he was incited to project a “picture of Nature,” at the risk that it would not give back the measure of the depth, and that no frame could inclose the infinity of the object. Having once come out from Heyne's philological school, and still, when sixty years old, with the college portfolios under his arm, taking his place in our audience-rooms among Boeckh's students, he was the man to lay the bridge between the old and the new time, between the philological-historical, æsthetic-speculative Germany, as the turn of the century saw it, and the mathematico-scientific, technical, inductive Germany of our days.
The German people, indeed the world, has remembered his loving, enthusiastic devotion. Not the thousands of well-observed, important, and new facts with which he has enriched single branches; not the happy and suggestive thoughts thrown out as seed-corns and sometimes grown up to new sciences; still less his historical and geographical works composed with ceaseless industry — furnish the reasons why he sits out there in a marble image. The composition of the whole world into an artistically harmonious figure attempted by him, the combination of the ideal with the real realized in him, of the poet with the naturalist, made him, in Emerson's sense, a representative man of science, and educated manhood in that statue has set up Alexander von Humboldt as a personification of a new phase of its own genius, of which it became conscious through him.
The custom of honoring the memory of a great man by a monument would have little significance if the monument had no other purpose than to keep up that memory; for, if the remembrance would be lost without the monument, it would not be worth keeping up. The monument should rather, calling back to thought the hero who has gone out from among us, lead us, in reflecting on his virtues, to renew the determination to emulate them. We should ask ourselves how the man to whom we look up in grateful admiration would judge us if he should return to us, and whether he would recognize us as worthy prosecutors of the work he had begun.
Alexander von Humboldt died in a gloomy time. The reign of a king friendly to the muses, to whom he had personally stood closer than it is often allowed to a subject to stand, had fallen short of fulfilling expectations. The rule of Napoleon III, personally hateful to him, a friend of the house of Orleans, weighed upon France. A new and strong hand had taken the reins of Prussian state life; but it was sad to close his eyes at the instant when even to us a momentous decision seemed unavoidable.
With how deep satisfaction Humboldt would now see the imperial banners waving from the palace of the prince regent, and how the revolution in the fortune of the Fatherland, which we have witnessed since his death, would gratify him! But how deeply would it pain him to learn at what price the recovered power of the German Empire had to be bought! — that instead of the feeling of mutual esteem and friendship which during his life had bound Germany and France, and to the confirmation of which he had contributed so much, had come in on the side of the French vengeful hatred and unappeasable hostility. Humboldt, a son of the eighteenth century, was, like Goethe, cosmopolitan in his feelings, without being on that account any less a patriot. Nothing would have shocked him, who spent the best part of his life in Paris, in intercourse with the noblest men of the nation, more than the preponderance of Chauvinism; nothing would have troubled him more than to observe that mental disease suggesting a back-sliding into the barbarism of primitive society which is becoming epidemic over Europe, and more seriously threatens the progress of mankind than the rivalry of dynasties ever could do.
Among the articles of faith with which Humboldt was thoroughly permeated, was that of the unity of the human race. On it he theoretically based his abhorrence of slavery, the worser side of which in practice he had observed in its very home, and he spared no opportunity to make his convictions public. The Abolitionist party in the United States did not fail to make use of so desirable a confederate, and at many an anti-slavery meeting, besides “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” brought the “Cosmos” into the fight. Humboldt did not live to see the melancholy drama of the war of secession. The final defeat of the slave-holders and the abolition of slavery would have given him great joy. But how would we have stood before him, the friend of the house of Mendelssohn, who corresponded with Henrietta Herz in the Jewish current hand, if he had heard of the race-persecution we have instituted?
In science we could, however, point with peculiar pride to the insight into the unity of the forces of Nature which has become so clear: to spectrum analysis; to the recognition of the nature of comets, a sequel to his observations in Cumana; and to the establishment of the doctrine of descent, and the associated one of persistent natural selection. To-day, when the nebular hypothesis has, through the mechanical theory of heat, been combined with geology, and the hand of the doctrine of descent is reaching through paleontology over the hiatus of spontaneous generation; when we can so far survey the birth of cosmos out of chaos as to be able clearly to define the really doubtful points — now, perhaps, a “Cosmos” might be written, but no one longer thinks of doing it. Two qualities which Humboldt possessed in the highest degree, and would be missed by us with regret were necessary to it, and can no more be found — the view over the whole field of science, and the careful effort to create beautiful forms. Humboldt would also deeply lament the decay of the historical sense, which often in the growth of science first teaches us the true connection of things.
Since Alexander von Humboldt was a universal naturalist, and thought historically, while William, not less universal in the mental sciences, sometimes acted as a naturalist, the two brothers met at many points where the natural and mental sciences march upon each other, and together formed, in the measure of the enlarged condition of knowledge, a universitas liiteraria, as Leibnitz called it in his time. The statues of the two brothers, in whom, by the rarest coincidence, the various faculties of the human mind diverged and were again drawn together, as in a German university, are therefore the most significant ornament of our edifice, and lend it at once, by a speaking symbolism, the character of a palace of science. The situation of this building, opposite the palace of the ruling house, was a significant mark of the capital of the Hohenzollerns. The Humboldt statues confirm and perfect its significance. As fences and troops guard against marauders by night, so do the spirits of these brothers keep watch against the tricks of blockheads. Where William and Alexander von Humboldt are sentries, there will always be the seat of the noblest manly effort, of free investigation and free teaching.
- From a memorial address delivered in the hall of the university, August 3, 1883. The speaker began his address by referring to the custom of annually celebrating the foundation of the university and the memory of its founder, King Frederick William III of Prussia; he then related the history of the efforts to raise funds to erect the statues of the brothers William and Alexander von Humboldt, just placed in the grounds of the university. Following this account with a brief comparative estimate of the talents of the two brothers, he continued, speaking more especially of Alexander.