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