Goethe's Attitude To Naturalism
The most instructive example we can take is Goethe: his veneration for
nature on the one hand, and on the other his pronounced opposition to the
naturalism both of the materialists and of the mathematicians. Modern
naturalists are fond of seeking repose and mental refreshment in Goethe's
conception of the world, under the impression that it fits in best and
most closely with their own views. That they do this says much for their
mood and taste, but not quite so much for their powers of discrimination
or for their consistency. It is even more thoughtless than when the
empiricists and sensationalists acclaim as their hero, Spinoza, the
strict, pure rationalist, the despiser of empiricism and of knowledge
acquired through the senses. For to Goethe nature is far from being a
piece of mechanism which can be calculated on and summed up in
mathematical formulae, an everlasting "perpetuum mobile," a magnificent
all-powerful machine. In fact, all this and especially the word "machine"
expresses exactly what Goethe's conception was most directly opposed to.
To him nature is truly the "Goddess," the great Diana of the Ephesians,
the everlasting Beauty, the artist of genius, ceaselessly inventing and
creating, in floods of Life, in Action's storm--an infinite ocean, a
restless weaving, a glowing Life. Embracing within herself the highest and
the humblest, she is in all things, throughout all change and
transformation, the same, shadowing forth the most perfect in the
simplest, and in the highest only unfolding what she had already shown in
the lowliest. Therefore Goethe hated all divisions and rubrics, all the
contrasts and boundaries which learned analysis attempts to introduce into
nature. Passionately he seized on Herder's idea of evolution, and it was
towards establishing it that all his endeavours, botanical, zoological,
morphological and osteological, were directed. He discovered in the human
skull the premaxillary bone which occurs in the upper jaw of all mammals,
and this "keystone to man" gave him, as he himself said, "such joy that
all his bowels moved." He interpreted the skull as developed from three
modified vertebrae. He sketched a hypothesis of the primitive plant, and
the theory that all the organs of the plant are modifications and
developments of the leaf. He was a friend of Etienne Geoffroy St. Hilaire,
who defended "l'unite de composition organique" in the forms of nature,
and evolution by gradual stages, and he was the vehement opponent of
Cuvier, who attempted to pick the world to pieces according to strictly
defined architectural plans and rigid classes. And what the inner impulse
to all this was he has summed up in the motto to his "Morphology" from the
verse in Job:
Lo, he goeth by me, and I see him not;
He is transformed, but I perceive him not.
He further declares it in the introductory verse to his Osteology:
Joyfully some years ago,
Zealously my spirit sought
To explore it all, and know
How all nature lived and wrought:
And 'tis ever One in all,
Though in many ways made known;
Small in great, and great in small,
Each in manner of its own.
Ever shifting, yet fast holding;
Near and far, and far and near;
So, with moulding and remoulding,--
To my wonder I am here.
In all this there is absolutely nothing of the characteristic mood and
spirit of "exact" naturalism, with its mechanical and mathematical
categories. It matters little that Goethe, when he thought of evolution,
never had present to his mind the idea of Descent which is characteristic
of "Darwinism," but rather development in the lofty sense in which it is
worked out in the nature-philosophy of Schelling and of Hegel. The chief
point is, that to him nature was the all-living and ever-living, whose
creating and governing cannot be reduced to prosaic numbers or
mathematical formulae, but are to be apprehended as a whole by the
perceptions of genius rather than worked out by calculation or in detail.
Any other way of regarding nature Goethe early and decisively rejected.
And he has embodied his strong protest against it in his "Dichtung und
"How hollow and empty it seemed to us in this melancholy, atheistical
twilight.... Matter, we learnt, has moved from all eternity, and by means
of this movement to right and left and in all directions, it has been
able, unaided, to call forth all the infinite phenomena of existence."
The book--the "Systeme de la Nature"--"seemed to us so grey, so Cimmerian,
so deathlike that it was with difficulty we could endure its presence."
And in a work with remarkable title and contents, "Die Farbenlehre,"
Goethe has summed up his antagonism to the "Mathematicians," and to their
chief, Newton, the discoverer and founder of the new
mathematical-mechanical view of nature. Yet the mode of looking at things
which is here combated with so much labour, wit, and, in part, injustice,
is precisely that of those who, to this day, swear by the name of Goethe
with so much enthusiasm and so little intelligence