Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 17.djvu/334

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.



region of mechanical conceptions that Goethe failed. It was on this side that his sphere of capacity was sliced away. He probably was not the only great man who possessed a spirit thus antithetically mixed. Aristotle himself was a mighty classifier, but not a stringent physical reasoner. And, had Newton attempted to produce a "Faust," the poverty of his intellect on the poetic and dramatic side might have been rendered equally manifest. But here, if not always, Newton abstained from attempting that for which he had no capacity, while the exuberance of Goethe's nature caused him to undertake a task for which he had neither ordination nor vocation, and in the attempted execution of which his deficiencies became revealed.

One task among many—one defeat amid a hundred triumphs. But any recognition on my part of Goethe's achievements in other realms of intellectual action would, I fear, be regarded as impertinent. You remember the story of the First Napoleon when the Austrian plenipotentiary, in arranging a treaty of peace, began by formally recognizing the French Republic. "Efface that," said the First Consul; "the French Republic is like the sun; he is blind who fails to recognize it." And were I to speak of recognizing Goethe's merits, my effacement would be equally well deserved. "Goethe's life," says Carlyle, "if we examine it, is well represented in that emblem of a solar day. Beautifully rose our summer sun, gorgeous in the red, fervid east, scattering the specters and sickly damps, of both of which there were enough to scatter; strong, benignant in his noonday clearness, walking triumphant through the upper realms—and now mark also how he sets! ‘So stirbt ein Held’; so dies a hero!"

Two grander illustrations of the aphorism "To err is human" can hardly be pointed out in history than Newton and Goethe. For Newton went astray not only as regards the question of achromatism, but also as regards a vastly larger question touching the nature of light. But though as errors they fall into the same category, the mistake of Newton was qualitatively different from that of Goethe. Newton erred in adopting a wrong mechanical conception in his theory of light, but in doing so he never for a moment quitted the ground of strict scientific method. Goethe erred in seeking to ingraft in his "Farbenlehre" methods altogether foreign to physics on to the treatment of a purely physical theme.

We frequently hear protests made against the cold mechanical mode of dealing with aesthetic phenomena employed by scientific men. The dissection by Newton of the light to which the world owes all its visible beauty and splendor seemed to Goethe a desecration. We find, even in our own day, the endeavor of Helmholtz to arrive at the principles of harmony and discord in music resented as an intrusion of the scientific intellect into a region which ought to be sacred to the human heart. But all this opposition and antagonism has for its essential cause the incompleteness of those with whom it originates. The