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Authors: J. W. v. Goethe

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But what must be held firmly in mind is that this idea of a living entity is not applied at once to an individual organism, but that the entire universe is conceived as such a living being.
The initial incitement in this case is certainly to be found in the alchemistic work with Fraulein von Klettenberg and in the reading of Theophrastus Paraceleus after Goethe's return from Leipzig (1768-69.) The endeavor was made through
some sort of experiment to lay hold upon the Principle permeating the entire universe, to exhibit it in a substance.
Yet, this way of reflecting about the world, bordering upon the mystical, constituted only a transitory episode in Goethe's development and yielded very soon to a more wholesome and objective manner of thinking.
The view of the entire universe as a great organism, as we find this indicated in the passages cited from
, was still maintained, however, approximately until 1780, as we shall later see from the essay on
It appears still once more in
, in the passage where the Spirit of the Earth is represented as that Life Principle interpenetrating the All-Organism:

In tides of life, in storms of action

Up and down I wave

Weave I hither and yon

Birth and the grave

A sea without bound

A changeful weaving

A radiant living.

While definite views were thus developing in Goethe's mind, there came into his hand in Strassburg a book which sought to establish a world view precisely opposite to his own.
This was Holbach's
Systeme de la nature.
If he had until then to complain only that the living entity was described like a mechanical heap of individual things, he became acquainted in Holbach with a philosopher who actually looked upon the living creature as a mechanism.
What was due in the other cases only to a lack of capacity for recognizing life down to its roots led in this instance to a dogma which inflicted death upon life.
Dichtung und Wahrheit
, Book II, Goethe says in regard to this: “Matter was assumed to have existed from eternity, to have been in motion from eternity, and to have brought forth with this motion, right and left in all directions, the endless phenomena of existence.
With all this, we should have been contented if the author had actually built the world up before our eyes out of this matter in motion, but he was able to know just as little about nature as we; and, while he hammered in some generalizations, he abandoned these immediately in order to transform that which is higher than nature, or which appears as a higher nature within nature, into a heavy, material nature—in motion, indeed, yet without direction or form—and believed that he had thus achieved a good deal.”
In all of this Goethe could find nothing except “matter in motion,” and in opposition to this his own concepts of nature took ever clearer form.
We find these brought together and presented in the essay
, which
was written about 1780.
Since all of Goethe's ideas about nature which we have thus far found only scatteringly indicated are gathered together in this essay, it gains a special significance.
The idea here confronts us of a Being which is in a state of constant change and yet ever remains the same: “All is new and always the old.”
“She [nature] is forever changing and in her there is nothing standing still a single moment,” but “her laws are unchangeable.”
We shall see later that Goethe sought in the endless multitude of plant forms for the one archetypal plant (
Even this idea we find here already indicated: “Each of her [nature's] works has an essential nature of its own, each of her manifestations a most isolated concept; and yet all comprises only one.”
Indeed, the position which he later took in reference to exceptional cases—that is, not to consider them simply as defective formations, but to explain them on the basis of natural laws—is here quite clearly affirmed: “Even the most unnatural is nature,” and “her exceptions are rare.”

We have seen that, even before Goethe went to Weimar, he had already developed a definite concept of an organism.
For, even though the essay
belongs to a much later period, it contains for the most part earlier views of Goethe.
He had not yet applied this concept to a definite genus of natural objects, to individual creatures.
For this purpose he required the concrete world of living entities in immediate actuality.
The reflection of nature which had passed through the human mind was never the element which could stimulate Goethe.
The conversations on botany in the company of Hofrat Ludwig in Leipzig were without any deeper influence than the table conversations with medical friends in Strassburg.
As regards scientific studies, the young Goethe appears to us like Faust deprived of the freshness of the direct beholding of nature, as Faust expresses his longing for this in the words:

Oh, could I to the mountain height

Ascend in thy most blissful light

With spirits hover by mountain caves

On meadows wander thy twilight laves.

It seems like a fulfillment of this longing when, upon his arrival in Weimar, he was permitted “to exchange the air of a room in the city for the atmosphere of the country, the forest, and the garden.”

We must consider as a direct incentive to the study of plants the poet's engrossment with the planting of the garden given to him by the Archduke Karl August.
The acceptance of the garden by Goethe took place on April 21, 1776, and his diary, edited by Keil, informs us frequently from this time on about his work in this garden, one of his favorite occupations.
An added area of activity in this direction was afforded him by the Thuringian forest, where he had the opportunity to
acquaint himself also with the life phenomena of the lower organisms.
He was especially interested in the mosses and lichens.
On October 31, 1777, he requested of Frau von Stein mosses of all sorts, damp and with roots whenever possible in order that they might be propagated.
It must needs appear to us highly significant that Goethe was occupying himself here already with these organisms of a very low order, and yet traced the laws of plant organization later from the higher plants.
This circumstance should not be attributed, as is done by many, to an underestimating of the significance of the less highly evolved entities but to a clearly conscious purpose.

From this time on the poet never abandons the world of the plants.
He was probably occupied very early with Linne's
We learn first of his acquaintance with these from letters to Frau von Stein of the year 1782.

Linne's efforts tended in the direction of bringing into the knowledge of plants a systematic lucidity.
A certain system was to be discovered in which each organism would occupy its specific place, so that it could easily be located at any time—indeed, that there might be a means of orientation in the endless multiplicity of single entities.
To this end, the living entities would have to be studied with respect to the degrees of their kinship, and put together into groups corresponding to these grades of kinship.
Since the most important thing of all in this undertaking was to know every plant and to find readily its place in the system, it was necessary to pay special attention to those characteristics which differentiate the plants from one another.
In order to render impossible the confusion of one plant with another, special search was made for these differentiating marks.
In this regard, Linne and his students considered as characteristic such external differences as size, number, and position of individual organs.
In this way the plants were, indeed, arranged in a series, but just as a number of inorganic objects could have been arranged—according to differentiations which were based upon the external appearances, not the inner nature, of the plants.
They appeared in an external juxtapositon, without inner necessary connection.
Because of the significant concept which Goethe held of a living entity, this manner of reflection could not satisfy him.
There was no endeavor at all here to discover the true nature of the plant.
Goethe had to set before himself the question: Wherein consists the “something” which makes a particular entity in nature a plant?
Moreover, he had to recognize that this something appears in like manner in all plants.
And yet there were the endless differences among the individual entities, which
demanded explanation.
How is it that this
reveals itself in such manifold forms?
These may well have been the questions which Goethe raised as he read the writings of Linne, for he says of himself: “That which he [Linne] sought by force to hold apart had, according to the innermost urge of my nature, to strive toward union.”

At about the same time as the acquaintance with Linne came also that with the botanical efforts of Rousseau.
On June 16, 1782, Goethe wrote to Karl August: “In Rousseau's works there are the most charming letters about botany, in which he expounds this science to a lady in the most intelligible and elegant manner.
It is truly a model of how one should give instruction, and forms a supplement to
I take occasion, therefore, to recommend anew to my beautiful lady friends the beautiful kingdom of the flowers.”
Rousseau's efforts in the field of botany must have made a deep impression on Goethe.
The emphasis that we meet in Rousseau upon a nomenclature arising out of the nature of the plants themselves, the originality of observations, attention to the plants for their own sake, apart from any utilitarian principle—all of this was wholly in keeping with Goethe's attitude of mind.
They shared also in the fact that they had come to the study of plants, not through the development of a special scientific endeavor, but from a general human motive.
The same interest bound them to the same object.

The next thorough-going observations of the plant kingdom occurred in the year 1784.
Wilhelm Freiherr von Gleichen, called Russwurm, had at that time published two writings dealing with subjects of research which interested Goethe intensely—
Das Neueste aus dem Reiche der Pflanzen
(Nuremberg, 1764) and
Auserlesene mikroskopische Entdeckungen bei den Pflanzen

(Nuremberg, 1777-81).
Both writings dealt with the fertilization processes in plants.
The pollen, stamens, and pistils were thoroughly studied, and the processes connected with them were represented in beautifully produced plates.
Goethe now repeated these researches.
On January 12, 1785, he wrote to Frau von Stein: “My microscope has been set up for the purpose of repeating and verifying with the arrival of spring the researches of Gleichen, called Russwurm.”
During the same spring the nature of the seed was also studied, as we see from a letter of April 2, 1785, to Knebel: “The subject of the seed I have thought through so far as my experience renders possible.”
In all these researches, what Goethe was concerned with was not the detail; the goal of his efforts was to investigate the true nature of the plant.
He reported in regard to this to Merck on April 8, 1785, that he had made “nice discoveries and combinations.”
The expression
also shows that what he was aiming at was to outline in thought a picture of the processes in the plant kingdom.
The study of botany rapidly approached a definite goal.

Of course, we must bear in mind in this connection that Goethe had discovered in 1784 the intermaxillary bone, which we shall later discuss in detail, and had thereby made significant progress toward the mystery of nature's procedure in the forming of organic entities.
Moreover, we must recall that the fist part of Herder's
Ideen zur Philosophie der Geschichte der Menschheit
was completed in 1784 and that Goethe and Herder conversed frequently at that time on subjects pertaining to nature.
Thus Frau von Stein reported to Knebel on May 1, 1784: “Herder's new writing makes it seem likely that we were first plants and animals .
Goethe ponders now with abundant ideas about these things and what has first passed through his mind becomes extremely interesting.”
We see from this the character of Goethe's interest at that time in the greatest scientific questions.
Thus his reflections about the nature of plants and the combinations he made among them in the spring of 1785 must appear quite natural.

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