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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/May 1904/The Royal Prussian Academy of Science and the Fine Arts: Berlin III

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 65‎ | May 1904



III. From the death of Frederick the Great to the death of Frederick William III., 1786-1812.

NOTHING was of more importance to the academy during this period than its change from a French to a German institution. This change was brought about in part under Frederick William II. (1786-1797) by his minister Hertzberg who had long been a member of the academy, and who under the new king became its curator and so remained till his death in 1795. The change was made complete, in form at least, by the adoption, in 1812, of what is known as the Humboldt brothers' statute. At this time the academy was ruled by a new spirit. It was under the control of men like the Humboldts, Niebuhr and Schleiermacher, who sought to realize through it the aims of Leibniz, its founder. The new spirit was manifest in all its departments; in those of philosophy, history and philology, as well as in those of science. Together with a growing respect for the ability of German writers and thinkers there was an increasing love for the fatherland, a conviction that patriotism was as worthy of cultivation as the new fields of learning which were opening on every side.

Hertzberg, though somewhat arbitrary in his methods, saved the academy from threatened dissolution. He was in many respects a very remarkable man. As a statesman he sought to carry out the views of Frederick the Great. A true son of his century, a scholar of no mean rank, skillful as a historical student in the use of original* documents and deeply interested in the work of the academy, he determined to reorganize it on the basis of the old German spirit. If he cared little for Goethe and his cosmopolitanism and failed to appreciate Herder at his true worth, he did not fail to see what an opportunity the academy might have for directing the thought and life of the German people. In his hands the curatorship became an office of power. In order to weaken French influence in the academy during his first year as curator he added fifteen Germans to its eighteen active members, and secured for foreign membership men of the first rank like Gasse of Breslau, Eberhard of Halle, Kant of Königsberg, Magellan, Volta, Wieland, Heyne and Herder. His only mistake was in not bringing these men to Berlin and associating them with the resident German element in the work of the academy. If the French element regretted its loss of power in the academy, it made the best of it and continued to contribute to its publications. Ceasing to be minister in 1791, Hertzberg continued to work for the academy until his death. In some of his political views he was a liberal, and in papers read at the regular sessions of the academy, and afterwards printed, he did not hesitate to compare the advantages and disadvantages of monarchical and republican forms of government. After the French Revolution it is not strange that kings and their sympathizers became suspicious of his opinions. Subsequent to his death, during the remainder of the king's life the academy did very little. In this reign only three volumes of 'Memoires' were published. In 1795 the French language was again made the medium of discussion in the academy. It was voted also that for five years no new members should be received. Alexander von Humboldt as 'a hospital in which the sick slept better than the well.' For the indifference of the German members there is little excuse. They were silent when they ought to have spoken, cowardly when they should have been brave. Greatly indebted to Hertzberg for the influence he had exerted in the days of his power on behalf of the academy, its members took no notice of his death, nor made any reference to him in official publications. It sank so low as to countersign an order of the cabinet against Kant, and ceased to be a center for free thought and free speech. It seemed to be more at home in exercising the duties of censorship than in increasing and diffusing knowledge. It is not strange that men who sympathized with Mendelssohn united with him in organizing the Philosophical Society, which soon became a center for the new thought and life of the time, where men who cared to discuss questions of the day could meet in safety. From 1783 to 1798 this society filled a great place in the Prussian capital.

Under Frederick William III. the academy was managed by the Humboldts and Niebuhr. At the beginning of his reign the new king was supposed to be in favor of progress and freedom in thought and speech. But after his first year on the throne he became a reactionary, and was not unwilling to exercise his prerogative as censor. He wished the academy to confine itself to studies and investigations which would be of use to the nation. Neither he nor any of his ministers would aid it on other conditions. The cultus minister desired its assistance in improving the public schools. There were protests against the old rules introduced by Hertzberg. An order of April 9, 1798, cut deep into the life and privileges of the academy. The presidential office was left vacant. Only such work as was of immediate advantage to the people was approved. Borgstede was put into the academy by the king, as his representative and to look after its interests. Fortunately he had a real desire for the growth of the academy and did what he could for it. Its membership was reduced by order of the king to six and a director for each of the four classes, or twenty-eight in all. From 1799 to 1806 there were no important changes in either the constitution or the by-laws of the academy. But while wars were waging and political storms were brewing its members led a quiet and peaceful life and made some contributions of real value to the learning of the world. The French Academy at this time was far in advance of that in Berlin in scientific work.

But there were thoughts of a university in Berlin even in the dark days of the French invasion, and as early as 1800. The observatory was rebuilt at the expense of the academy. Wulff of Halle was induced to come to Berlin and work in it. In 1800 Humboldt, then absent in South America, was made an honorary member, and on his return to Berlin in 1805 he became an active member. Kotzebue was received in 1800, and Thaer was induced to leave Hannover for Berlin in order that he might join the physical class of the academy. He was the author of a system of law which proved of great value for Prussia. Professor Thalles of Bonn, a famous mathematician, was also brought to Berlin and received into the academy. As early at 1788 Johannes von Müller, the well-known historical writer, became a foreign member, though afterwards he made friends with Napoleon and turned his back on his country. Perhaps it was on account of aversion to philosophical opinions which their author deemed epoch-making, as well as to dislike of the man, that Fichte, though brought forward by very influential persons, was rejected as a member of the academy. But he was permitted to deliver his lectures in the winter of 1804—5 in its hall. These lectures were a kind of negative preface to the 'Reden,' or addresses to the German people, made a year or so later, which did so much to arouse and unite them in their struggle for liberty. Alexander von Humboldt proposed and secured the election of Ermann, the physicist, and of von Busch, the geologist, as extraordinary members of the academy. Not long after Buttmann, the grammarian, became an active member, and with him, by order of the king, Count Lahndorff, the poet. Before the war began on July 31, 1806, i. e., prior to the disaster at Jena, Goethe, Cuvier, Brooks and Hendenberg were made honorary members.

The proceedings of the academy the next six years were fundamental for its future life and activity. In the two Humboldts it seemed as if the spirit of Leibniz had revived, as if they possessed his extensive general knowledge, his love for the sciences, his power of organization, his leadership and his ability to meet and overcome difficulties. There were other able men in the academy, but at this time the two Humboldts were its leaders. The defeated king was at Königsberg, whence he made known his wish that Prussia seek to recover what had been lost materially through improvement in methods of education and a deeper and truer spiritual life. Neither he nor his advisers would admit that there was no future for their suffering country. In spite of losses of territory and of the choicest specimens of art and sculpture in the museums, in spite of the fact that even the academy had been robbed of its most valuable treasures, it was in this period that the University of Berlin was founded and men of the highest attainments obtained as professors and also as members of the academy. King and people seemed to be determined to prove to the world that the spirit and pride of Frederick the Great still ruled the Prussian heart. There were some who desired a union of the university and the academy, but of this plan the king did not approve, although he was not averse to a very close connection between them. So far as they had ability for it, he wished professors to work in the academy as well as in the university.

Upon the whole, the king favored the academy, and although he did not relieve it as it requested from the burden of Lambert's presidency, he gave it the four secretaries it asked for, one for each class, and allowed them to direct its work. Before the royal decree establishing the university had been issued, Schleiermacher, Wulff, Schmalz and Fichte, through their lectures, had really laid its foundations and begun its work. At about this time (1810) Alexander von Humboldt proposed a good many changes in the constitution and rules of the academy, most of which were adopted. These changes sought to promote equality among the members and favored the reception of men of high attainments rather than of large wealth or political influence. All the desired changes, however, were not adopted until they were incorporated in the constitution of 1812.

William von Humboldt became an honorary member of the academy in 1806, when he was serving the government as ambassador in Borne, and an active member in 1810. His entrance speech, limited to a few words, is said by those who heard it to have been delivered in such words as he only could use. As minister of instruction he had rare opportunity, which he did not fail to embrace, to work for the interests of the academy. It needed all the aid he could give. Financially it was in great straits. Although Napoleon offered to send plaster casts of the objects of art the French, army had carried away, there was no money with which to pay the cost of transportation. Expenses as planned by its members would have been nearly $25,000 a year. The request for a grant to this amount, though some of the older members looked grave and shook their heads, was not at all extravagant, considering the salaries the academy had to pay and the fact that it had to provide for the support of the library, the observatory, the botanic garden, the scientific collections, the care of the buildings, as well as to meet many unexpected miscellaneous expenses. At this time it was asked to turn over to the government the 'Calendar' monopoly it had so long enjoyed. This it was not inclined to do until the order of the king rendered it imperative.

In 1811 William von Humboldt was sent as ambassador to Vienna, but his views and plans for the academy were left with his friend Nocolovinus, who secured their adoption and their incorporation into the constitution and by-laws of 1812. This was the last year in which the reports of the academy appear in French. The income actually obtained was a little less than $7,000, but the expenses of the institutions which it had previously met were now met from other funds. The new statute was confirmed by the king on January 24, 1812, and the next year the last volume of the 'Memoires,' bearing the date of 1801, was published. In offering prizes Latin and French were still used, but henceforward the language of the academy, for its publications as well as its discussions, was German.

In its management there was now neither president, curator, nor director. The management of its work was in the hands of four secretaries. There were the usual classes of members, active, foreign or honorary, and corresponding. It was decided that only twenty-four foreign members should be chosen, eight for each of the scientific classes and four for each of the other two classes. There was no limit to the number of corresponding members. Regular sessions were henceforth held every Thursday afternoon, and every fourth Monday each class had an extra meeting in order to render its special work more effective. There were to be three public meetings each year, one of them in July in honor of Leibniz, another on the king's birthday, the third on January 24, or Frederick's day. Each member was required to read at least one paper every year until he had been in the academy twenty-five years; after that time, at his own pleasure. The subjects were to be assigned by the class to which the member who was to write belonged. Each class was permitted to choose its own members, subject to the approval of the entire academy and of the king. Each volume of the proceedings or transactions, was to be divided into four parts, so that reports of the work of each class might appear together.

In 1811-12 twenty-four foreign members were chosen, among them William von Humboldt, now residing in Vienna, Jacobi, the philosopher, and Professor Dugald Stewart of Edinburgh. There were twenty-one honorary members and ninety corresponding members, forty-eight of them in the scientific classes. More than half the entire number was German. Up to this time the academy had given more attention to reports of what had been done by others than to original research and the diffusion of knowledge. In scientific work it was at least a generation behind the academies of England, France and Sweden. All this was now changed. Under the new order each secretary became in a measure responsible for the work of his class, the nature and amount of which he determined. In addition to presiding at the meetings of his own class, each secretary in turn presided for a period of three months at the general meetings of the academy. Treatises receiving the prize were regarded as the property of the academy and those deemed worthy of favorable mention could be printed by it if it desired. But no paper could be printed except by a two thirds' vote of the whole academy. Out of the income of $7,000, the sum of $650 was set aside for emergencies and $700 for scientific purposes. Though cramped for means the academy was now better organized than ever. It had proved its right to live. In fact it had made a place for itself among the learned societies of the world. It had gained the respect and confidence of German scholars and was beginning to enjoy, as it had done in the time of Frederick the Great, the favor of the reigning sovereign and of his ministers of state. How this had gradually been done will be seen in a brief account of the work accomplished during the period under review.

This consisted to a very large extent in offering prizes and in deciding upon the merits of the treatises which these offers secured. The subjects discussed indicate the thought of the period. But the academy did more than read learned papers and determine their respective merits. In the sentiment it created, and by means of the topics it selected for consideration, it directed the thought of the time. Some of these topics may here be given. In 1786-87 the question to be answered was 'shall the mythology of the Greeks and the Romans be retained in modern poems, or that oldest German and northern doctrine of the gods, or the miracles of the Christian religion?' Such a question indicates unrest and dissatisfaction in the minds of some of the older poets of the time. Four years later Gedike asked the academy, 'what reason is there in the present condition of learning to look upon the ancient languages as the foundation of a liberal education, and would it be advantageous or disadvantageous for science to treat them no longer as a part of official instruction, but confine their study to a limited class of scholars?' Teachers, it was agreed by all, must learn them, but there were many, then as now, who doubted the value for all classes of pupils of training in the classical languages.

The king desired the discussion of what he was pleased to term more practical questions. For example: 'Was Brandenburg before the thirty years war better off or more populous than about 1740?' 'What was the influence of authors in the time of Louis XIV. upon the spirit and culture of the European nations?' The academy, however neutral it might desire to be, could not prevent its members from discussing the philosophy of Kant. Anxious as it was to be impartial, as a matter of fact not many of its members accepted the principles of Kant. They treated them as the suggestions of a very able man indeed, but as suggestions in winch men of sound mind would soon lose their interest.

In 1800, in order to meet and oppose romanticism, the theme discussed was 'Goths and Gothism.' A question which had been propounded several times without eliciting a satisfactory answer related to the advance in German metaphysics since the time of Leibniz and Wulff. The prize for the discussion of the theme which this question presented was finally divided between three men, Schwab of Stuttgart, receiving one half, Albricht of Erlangen one fourth, and another fourth going to Reinhold, the parish minister in Kiel. Although Kant wrote on this theme as early as 1791, for some reason he did not send in his paper to the academy, though some of his thoughts upon it were published by Einkin in 1804. In one of his incomplete essays he defines metaphysics as 'the science of advancing from the knowledge acquired through the senses, by means of reason, to the supersensuous. 'Such questions were also considered as 'What is the origin of all our knowledge?' 'Is there an immediate inner perception?' 'What is the relation of the faculty of the imagination to that of feeling?' 'What was the influence of Descartes upon Spinoza?' In 1796 a military man living in Kopenick left 10,000 thalers ($7,500), the interest to be given as a prize once in four years for the best treatment of some theme in speculative philosophy. In 1805 this prize was won by Franke for a treatise on analytic methods in philosophy.

Interesting themes in philology were also suggested. A prize was offered in 1794 for a satisfactory comparison of the chief languages of Europe, living or dead, in reference to wealth, regularity, strength, harmony or other advantages, the successful essay to show in what respect one language is superior to another, and which language, then existing or having existed, comes nearest perfection. The prize was won by Jenisch, a clergyman preaching in Berlin. There was great interest in the jubilee prize of 1800 which was won by Gebhard, another Berlin preacher, who sought to trace and estimate the influence which Frederick the Great had exerted on the spirit of his age, in reference to progress and freedom. In 1804 the academy asked, 'Why civilization has always proceeded from the east and has never developed originally in the west?'

The fact that no one of the treatises on ten different themes in mathematics, physics and astronomy was accounted worthy of a prize seems to show that these branches of study were not pursued in Germany to such an extent or with such thoroughness as in other European countries. The backward state of chemistry is indicated by the question for an essay, 'Has it been sufficiently demonstrated that there are only five species of elementary earths? Can these elements be transmuted into one another? If so, how is it done?' Practical matters, relating to roads, crops., agriculture, also received attention. In 1782 Cothenius left 1,000 thalers ($750), the income of which was to be used every alternate year for a prize on some economic, agricultural or horticultural topic. PSM V65 D085 Friedreich Wilhem I.png

It was in an era of empiricism in philosophy, or with some enlightened thinkers, of eclecticism, in a time when the influence of romanticism was showing itself in such men as Nicolai, the originator of Die allgemeine deutschen Bibliothek, and in an extensively circulated Berlin monthly magazine, that Kant's critiques appeared. Empiricism quailed before them. The eclectics were startled. The academy was compelled to recognize the appearance of a new and a great thinker. Some of the more eminent philosophers in the academy, like Merian, Ancillon and Selle, brought forward what they regarded as weighty objections to Kant's positions. A few, far from sympathizing PSM V65 D085 Friedreich Wilhem III.png with Kant, did not fail to perceive his power and hesitated to enter the field against him, while others, like Nicolai and his friends, were hostile and ready to fight from the first. The majority in the academy distrusted the a priori and the practical reason upon which Kant laid such stress. But in spite of the determination of the philosophical element in the academy to defend empiricism, a change in feeling toward it began to show itself as early as 1800. This change was due, certainly in part, to the mental attitude of those classes in the academy which devoted thought and time to other subjects than those that were metaphysical. Such men as Hufeland, Dr. Walter, the jurist, von Klein, the statesman, director Borgstede, friends of Goethe and influenced to some extent by his spirit, as well as men like Thaer, Tralles and Johannes von Müller could not fail to be dissatisfied with the empiricism of the day, and to demand a fair hearing for any system of thought which aimed at replacing it.

The scientific regeneration of Germany followed its moral regeneration. As Harnack points out, two great streams of thought were united in nearly the same men, Fichte, Schleiermacher, F. A. Wulff, Niebuhr, von Stein and William von Humboldt. Foremost among them all

PSM V65 D086 Alexander von Humboldt.png

Alexander von Humboldt.

was Schleiermacher, preacher, professor, philosopher. The spiritual life of the eighteenth century had been determined by its study of history and its devotion to reason. It had demanded clearness, immense learning, elegance in expression, the classicism of Cicero rather than that of Greece. French influence was everywhere felt. German authors were weakened by subserviency to forms of expression and methods of thinking suggestive of the narrowness of the schools in which they had been trained. Although Hume had little influence in Germany, the writings of Rousseau were very effective in shattering the old faith. If we also take into account the writings of Winckelmann on Grecian art, those of Herder, Kant, Wulff, Goethe, Schiller, William von Humboldt, to say nothing of scientific treatises which were constantly appearing and indicating the discovery of new fields of knowledge to be explored, it is easy to see that nothing could prevent the incoming of an era in which the largest liberty of thought and entire freedom in investigation would he demanded for every branch of study. If at first the academy

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Wilhelm von Humboldt.

was somewhat conservative, it soon became a regulative force in the discoveries to which its members devoted themselves with untiring enthusiasm.

Herder's 'Philosophy of History,' a remarkable work, exerted great influence on German thought as did Wulff's writings on Homer and especially his 'Science of Antiquity.' Schleiermacher's 'Reden' or addresses to the German nobility and the educated classes of the country produced a wonderful moral and religious effect. Niebuhr imparted a new spirit to the study of history through the publication of his 'Roman History,' raising it at once to the rank of a science. Schleiermacher, recognized in the academy as the clearest thinker in its membership, impressed himself on wide circles by his translation and study of Plato, his improvement of Kant and his powerful sermons in Trinity Church, of which he was pastor, while at the same time a professor in the university. By many he is thought to be second to no philosopher in Germany save Leibniz. As an interpreter of others' thought and in his ability to present it in new forms he had no rival. Through him Spinoza and Plato spoke directly to German scholars. But all his power was exerted in ethical and spiritual directions. Patriotic to the last degree, a lover of beauty in art and literature, deeply interested in the advancement of science, he was easily the most prominent man in Berlin, and though his energies were exercised in many fields he did not fail to direct the thought and determine the activity of the period

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Johann Gottlieb Fichte.

in which he lived. By his side and that of the noble group of men just named, should be placed Savigny, student and interpreter of law, who with Kant, Fichte and Schleiermacher introduced a new ethic into German life and gave a new character to the nineteenth century.

But this development, important and valuable as it was, was not altogether friendly to the development of purely scientific studies. The academy was chiefly interested in historical and literary, esthetic and ethical studies. At the same time it was not hostile to science. Only that did not have the first place in its thought. Nevertheless, during the period from 1786 to 1812 it numbered thirty-two mathematicians and naturalists among its members. Gerhard, mineralogist and chemist; the elder Walter, the anatomist; Achard, the chemist, were of Frederick the Great's time. Ferber, though in the academy only a short period, was the founder of modern geognosy. Some of these men did a great deal to increase the usefulness and fame of the academy. Yet there was no mathematician in its ranks equal to Euler or Lagrange. Willdenow, nephew of Gleditsch, in charge of the botanic garden, though dying at the early age of forty-seven, carried out and improved his uncle's plans. Bursdorf laid the foundations of the science of forestry, from which Germany has received such rich returns. Though Prussia was far behind in her knowledge of chemistry, Klaproth, through the academy, did a great deal for the science by introducing correct opinions in regard to its nature and by improving the methods of its study. As an independent analytical chemist he proved to be one of the most famous chemists of his time, inferior only to Berzelius of Sweden. He discovered four new elements. Alexander von Humboldt, traveler and scientist, an author of world-wide fame, Leopold von Buch, the first geognosist of the century, and hardly less famous than Humboldt, and Buttmann, the grammarian, belong to that group of scholars, thinkers, investigators and writers who laid the foundations upon which the fame of German scholarship in the last century largely rests. The change which had taken place in the spirit and aims of the academy within the period under review, typical as it was of the change which had taken place in the universities and in the nation, was that of a generation. A new era had dawned, an era which was ready to extend a hearty welcome to new men, new methods of studv and research, a new life, a new and more accurate scholarship.