Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/July 1880/Editor's Table


GOETHE, the German poet, was the author of a work, in two volumes with an atlas, on the subject of colors, in which he put forth an elaborate theory of his own upon that subject. It appears that fragments only of this treatise have been translated into English, and, as its views have never attracted much attention or become generally known, Professor Tyndall has done well in recently devoting a lecture to an account of them. We print this admirable address, which our readers will be sure to find entertaining and instructive. For, though the doctrines put forth by Goethe on chromatics are not in themselves important and have no rank as contributions to the science of color, yet they have an interest as the products of a genius now everywhere confessed, though as yet but imperfectly interpreted by the critics. That he was a man of a many-sided nature, of perfected culture, and in various lines of a lucid insight, is not to be denied; and these traits give great importance to the problem of the workings of his mind in whatever direction it was systematically exercised. The poet Bayard Taylor, the successful translator of "Faust," declared that he considered Goethe "to have had the most grandly-proportioned and full-orbed intellect that has yet appeared among men"; but Professor Tyndall is inclined to rank him, on the contrary, among those who may be described as mental "hemispheres; or, at least, spheres with a segment sliced away—full-orbed on one side, but flat upon the other." In what this incompleteness consisted is clearly shown in Professor Tyndall's address. Goethe's mental pre-eminence was on the æsthetic, imaginative, and literary side, and this so pre-dominated as to disqualify him from entering into the true scientific method of the study of Nature. He held to the competency of poetic and artistic insight alone to discern the truth in natural things; he tried it, and achieved a partial success, which naturally confirmed the idea. He then undertook to carry out his method systematically in a chosen field, and failed so conspicuously as not only to settle the question against him, but to make his failure a landmark of modern intellectual history. The chief interest of the subject is, therefore, by no means the question of the status of Goethe; it is a question of the claims of antagonist methods in the views to be taken of the surrounding world.

The view ineffectually maintained by Goethe by no means fell with his failure; it had been too long and too firmly established. The poetic and artistic method of regarding Nature was the earliest; and it was inevitable that the mental procedures it involved should become the universal habit and the basis of culture. It was the all-accepted and all-sufficient mode of viewing the natural order. The poet and the painter pictured the world as presented to the senses and the feelings. Philosophy worked out, and theology enforced, the first rude interpretations of natural objects and events, as they were open to the observation of the senses. Literature, of course, embodied those current modes of thought which were occupied merely with the external aspects of things, and such interpretations as were possible with only this surface-knowledge.

This method was satisfactory for many ages; but there at length began to grow up a curiosity or desire to pry into things and see what would come of it. Men began to penetrate beneath the superficial show to the subtiler structures and underworking forces by which all appearance is determined. Thus science arose. It began in dissatisfaction with the shallowness of the knowledge of Nature and the insufficiency of its current explanations; and it began at the outset to devise new means of arriving at truth. Instruments of scrutiny, instruments of analysis, experiment, and dissection, were devised, and, by their diligent application, curious and startling revelations were made of the inner workings, the finer constitution, and the deeper harmonies of the surrounding universe.

This new procedure of science the poets and artists have ever been inclined to resent as a violence and desecration. Accepting Nature as disclosed to the senses, and interpreted by immediate intuitions, they oppose science as a heartless agency, inappreciative of beauty, and destructive of poetry and art. Goethe strongly shared this jealousy of science as an intrusive rival of the great arts that have enriched the life of man. He was not only a representative poet, powerfully dominated by aesthetic feeling and artistic sentiment, but he was also a philosophic thinker, and not without some scientific aptitude, and with these qualifications he was ambitious of becoming the champion of artistic and poetic ideals against the cold and ruthless processes of experimental science. He chose a branch of optics as the field of conflict, and Newton as his antagonist, with what result Professor Tyndall's paper sufficiently indicates. Professor Helmholtz, some years ago, gave a lecture "On Goethe's Scientific Researches," in which he treats his character and labors from the point of view here taken. We subjoin some passages from this instructive discourse:

Goethe, though he exercised his powers in many spheres of intellectual activity, is nevertheless, par excellence, a poet. Now, in poetry, as in every other art, the essential thing is to make the material of the art, be it words, or music, or color, the direct vehicle of an idea. In a perfect work of art, the idea must be present and dominate the whole, almost unknown to the poet himself, not as the result of a long intellectual process, but as inspired by a direct intuition of the inner eye, or by an outburst of excited feeling.

An idea thus embodied in a work of art, and dressed in the garb of reality, does indeed make a vivid impression by appealing directly to the senses, but loses, of course, that universality and that intelligibility which it would have had if presented in the form of an abstract notion. The poet, feeling how the charm of his works is involved in an intellectual process of this type, seeks to apply it to other materials. Instead of trying to arrange the phenomena of Nature under definite conceptions, independent of intuition, he sits down to contemplate them as he would a work of art, complete in itself, and certain to yield up its central idea, sooner or later, to a sufficiently susceptible student. Accordingly, when he sees the skull on the Lido, which suggests to him the vertebral theory of the cranium, he remarks that it serves to revive his old belief, already confirmed by experience, that Nature has no secrets from the attentive observer. So, again, in his first conversation with Schiller on the "Metamorphosis of Plants." To Schiller, as a follower of Kant, the idea is the goal, ever to be sought, but ever unattainable, and therefore never to be exhibited as realized in a phenomenon. Goethe, on the other hand, as a genuine poet, conceives that he finds in the phenomenon the direct expression of the idea. He himself tells us that nothing brought out more sharply the separation between himself and Schiller. This, too, is the secret of his affinity with the natural philosophy of Schelling and Hegel, which likewise proceeds from the assumption that Nature shows us by direct intuition the several steps by which a conception is developed. Hence, too, the ardor with which Hegel and his school defended Goethe's scientific views. Moreover, this view of Nature accounts for the war which Goethe continued to wage against complicated experimental researches. Just as a genuine work of art can not bear retouching by a strange hand, so he would have us believe Nature resists the interference of the experimenter who tortures her and disturbs her; and, in revenge, misleads the impertinent kill-joy by a distorted image of herself.

Accordingly, in his attack upon Newton, he often sneers at spectra, tortured through a number of narrow slits and glasses, and commends the experiments that can be made in the open air under a bright sun, not merely as particularly easy and particularly enchanting, but also as particularly convincing!

We have seen that Goethe rebels against the physical theory just at the point where it gives complete and consistent explanations from principles once accepted. Evidently it is not the insufficiency of the theory to explain individual cases that is a stumbling block to him. He takes offense at the assumption made for the sake of explaining the phenomena, which seem to him so absurd, that he looks upon the interpretation as no interpretation at all. Above all, the idea that white light could be composed of colored light seems to have been quite inconceivable to him; at the very beginning of the controversy, he rails at the disgusting Newtonian white of the natural philosophers, an expression which seems to show that this was the assumption that most annoyed him.

To give some idea of the passionate way in which Goethe, usually so temperate and even courtier-like, attacks Newton, I quote from a few pages of the controversial part of his work the following expressions, which he applies to the propositions of this consummate thinker in physical and astronomical science: "Incredibly impudent"; "mere twaddle"; "ludicrous explanation"; "admirable for school-children in a go-cart"; "but I see nothing will do but lying, and plenty of it."

Thus, in the "Theory of Color," Goethe remains faithful to his principle that Nature must reveal her secrets of her own free will; that she is but the transparent representation of the ideal world. Accordingly, he demands, as a preliminary to the investigation of physical phenomena, that the observed facts shall be so arranged that one explains the other, and that thus we may attain an insight into their connection without ever having to trust to anything but our senses. This demand of his looks most attractive, but is essentially wrong in principle. For a natural phenomenon is not considered in physical science to be fully explained until you have traced it back to the ultimate forces which are concerned in its production and its maintenance. Now, as we can never become cognizant of forces as forces, but only of their effects, we are compelled in every explanation of natural phenomena to leave the sphere of sense, and to pass to things which are not objects of sense, and are defined only by abstract conceptions.

But this step into the region of abstract conceptions, which must necessarily be taken if we wish to penetrate to the causes of phenomena, scares the poet away. In writing a poem he has been accustomed to look, as it were, right into the subject, and to reproduce his intuition without formulating any of the steps that led him to it. And his success is proportionate to the vividness of the intuition. Such is the fashion in which he would have Nature attacked. But the natural philosopher insists on transporting him into a world of invisible atoms and movements, of attractive and repulsive forces, whose intricate actions and reactions, though governed by strict laws, can scarcely be taken in at a glance. To him the impressions of sense are not an irrefragable authority; he examines what claim they have to be trusted; he asks whether things which they pronounce alike are really alike, and whether things which they pronounce different are really different; and often finds that he must answer, no! The result of such examination, as at present understood, is that the organs of sense do indeed give us information about external effects produced on them, but convey those effects to our consciousness in a totally different form, so that the character of a sensuous perception depends not so much on the properties of the object perceived as on those of the organ by which we receive the information.

We see that science has arrived at an estimate of the senses very different from that which was present to the poet's mind. And Newton's assertion that white was composed of all the colors of the spectrum was the first germ of the scientific view which has subsequently been developed. For at that time there were none of those galvanic observations which paved the way to a knowledge of the functions of the nerves in the production of sensations. Natural philosophers asserted that white, to the eye the simplest and purest of all our sensations of color, was compounded of less pure and complex materials. It seems to have flashed upon the poet's mind that all his principles were unsettled by the results of this assertion, and that is why the hypothesis seems to him so unthinkable, so ineffably absurd. We must look upon his "Theory of Color" as a forlorn hope, as a desperate attempt to rescue from the attacks of science the belief in the direct truth of our sensations. And this will account for the enthusiasm with which he strives to elaborate and to defend his theory, for the passionate irritability with which he attacks his opponent, for the overweening importance which he attaches to these researches in comparison with his other achievements, and for his inaccessibility to conviction or compromise.

In conclusion, it must be obvious to every one that the theoretical part of the "Theory of Color" is not natural philosophy at all; at the same time we can, to a certain extent, see that the poet wanted to introduce a totally different method into the study of Nature, and more or less understand how he came to do so. Poetry is concerned solely with the "beautiful show" which makes it possible to contemplate the ideal; how that show is produced Is a matter of indifference. Even Nature is, in the poet's eyes, but the sensible expression of the spiritual. The natural philosopher, on the other hand, tries to discover the levers, the cords, and the pulleys, which work behind the scenes, and shift them. Of course, the sight of the machinery spoils the beautiful show, and therefore the poet would gladly talk it out of existence, and, ignoring cords and pulleys as the chimeras of a pedant's brain, he would have us believe that the scenes shift themselves, or are governed by the idea of the drama. And it is just characteristic of Goethe that he, and he alone among poets, must needs break a lance with natural philosophers. Other poets are either so entirely carried away by the fire of their enthusiasm that they do not trouble themselves about the disturbing influences of the outer world, or else they rejoice in the triumphs of mind over matter, even on that unpropitious battle-field. But Goethe, whom no intensity of subjective feeling could blind to the realities around him, can not rest satisfied until he has stamped reality itself with the image and superscription of poetry. This constitutes the peculiar beauty of his poetry, and at the same time fully accounts for his resolute hostility to the machinery that every moment threatens to disturb his poetic repose, and for his determination to attack the enemy in his own camp.

But we can not triumph over the machinery of matter by ignoring it; we can triumph over it only by subordinating it to the aims of our moral intelligence. We must familiarize ourselves with its levers and pulleys, fatal though it be to poetic contemplation, in order to be able to govern them after our own will, and therein lies the complete justification of physical investigation, and its vast importance for the advance of human civilization.


It is gratifying to note an obvious subsidence of alarm on the part of eminent divines in regard to the acceptance of evolution doctrines, accompanied by the bolder enunciation of rational views respecting religion. Dr. E. O. Haven, Chancellor of the University of Syracuse, and now a Methodist bishop, sends a communication to a leading religious journal under the above title, which is full of significant foreshadowings that are worthy of notice.

Dr. Haven utters a very important truth when he says: "Men are prone to associate their religion with its drapery. This becomes obsolete and must be changed, and the looker-on fancies that the very body and soul are gone." This is the view of science. Religion, like other things, is progressive, and proceeds from stage to stage, successively molting its integuments with increasing expansion and a higher life, or, by the figure of Dr. Haven, shedding its worn-out clothing as occasion requires. It is a great point gained in this matter to discriminate between the living body and its accidental and temporary wrappings—between perennial truth and its obsolete accompaniments. The credal habiliments are not the vital thing they invest, and to cling to them as if they were is superstition. Dr. Haven's point of view enables us to appreciate the triviality of denominational cuts, fits, and styles; and illustrates the futility of venerating theological rags and tatters instead of the essential religious ideas which require ever to be clothed anew as men grow in grace. And what a pitiful spectacle, moreover, it is to see people so confused and perverted in their notions as to actually worship the heaps of old clothes that have been long ago worn out and cast off!

We are glad to observe that Bishop Haven does not recoil from the conception of creation as a continuous, ever-unfolding work. He wisely accepts the view of God, compelled by evolution, as that of an eternally-creating Spirit. He says, "Is there any reason what-ever to believe that God at any past period, large or small, had any more or less to do than now with this earth and all that it contains?" And again: "Had we all been educated in a theory of gradualism and constancy and improvement, and thoroughly saturated with it, and yet aroused into a profound belief in God, as is certainly conceivable on that theory, and then, should the theory of a Deity sometimes awake and sometimes asleep be suggested, it would shock some feeble minds into atheism." But would not strong minds also be thus shocked, and justly so; and would not the atheism be real? When evolution has become an established and familiar idea in the religious world, and the Creative Power is conceived—as far as such conception is possible to finite faculties—as the mighty, ever-energizing spirit of which the boundless universe is but the manifestation, a reversion to present current notions of the method of creation will assuredly be regarded as a lapse into atheistic paganism, analogous to a present backward plunge into fetichism.