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Goethean Science

Goethean Science: II: How Goethe's Theory of Metamorphosis Arose

On-line since: 16th February, 2002

II
How Goethe's Theory of Metamorphosis Arose

If one traces the history of how Goethe's thoughts about the development of organisms arose, one can all too easily be come doubtful about the part one must ascribe to the early years of the poet, i.e., to the time before he went to Weimar. Goethe himself attached very little value to the natural-scientific knowledge he had in that period: “I had no idea what external nature actually means and not the slightest knowledge about its so-called three kingdoms.” On the basis of this statement, one usually thinks that his natural-scientific reflections began only after his arrival in Weimar. Nevertheless, it seems advisable to go back still further if one does not want to leave the whole spirit of his views unexplained. The enlivening power that guided his studies in the direction we want to describe later already manifests itself in earliest youth. When Goethe entered the University of Leipzig, that spirit was still entirely dominant in natural-scientific endeavors which is characteristic of a great part of the eighteenth century, and which sundered the whole of science into two extremes that one felt no need to unite. At one extreme there stood the philosophy of Christian Wolff (1679–1754), which moved entirely within an abstract element; at the other stood the individual branches of science that lost themselves in the outer description of endless details, and that lacked any effort to seek out a higher principle within the world of their particular objects of study. Wolff's kind of philosophy could not find its way out of the sphere of his general concepts into the realm of immediate reality, of individual existence. There the most obvious things were treated with all possible thoroughness. One discovered that a thing is a something that has no contradiction in itself, that there are finite and infinite substances, etc. But if one approached the things themselves with these generalities, in order to understand their life and working, one stood there completely at a loss; one could find no application of those concepts to the world in which we live and which we want to understand. The things themselves, however, that surround us were described in rather non-principle terms, purely according to their looks, according to their outer features. On the one hand, there was a science of principles that lacked living content, that did not delve lovingly into immediate reality; on the other hand, a science without principles, lacking all ideal content; each confronted the other without mediation; each was unfruitful for the other. Goethe's healthy nature found itself repelled in the same way by both kinds of one-sidedness 3 ]; in his opposition to them, there developed within him the mental pictures that later led him to that fruitful grasp of nature in which idea and experience comprehensively interpenetrate each other, mutually enliven one another, and become one whole.

The concept, therefore, that those two extremes could grasp the least emerged for Goethe as the very first: the concept of life. When we look at a living being according to its outer manifestation, it presents itself to us as a number of particulars manifesting as its members or organs. The description of these members, according to form, relative position, size, etc., can be the subject of the kind of extensive exposition to which the second of the two sciences we named devoted itself. But one can also describe in this same way any mechanical construction out of inorganic parts. One forgot completely that the main thing to keep in mind about the organism is the fact that here the outer manifestation is governed by an inner principle, that the whole works in every organ. That outer manifestation, the spatial juxtaposition of its parts, can also be observed after its life is destroyed, because it does still remain for a time. But what we have before us as a dead organism is in reality no longer an organism. That principle has disappeared which permeated all the particulars. In opposition to that way of looking at things which destroys life in order to know life Goethe early on established the possibility and need of a higher way. We see this already in a letter of July 14, 1770 from his Strassburg period, in which he speaks of a butterfly: “The poor creature trembles in the net, rubs off its most beautiful colours; and even if one captures it unharmed, it still lies there finally stiff and lifeless; the corpse is not the whole creature; something else belongs to it, a main part, and in this case as in every other, a most major main part: its life ...” The words in Faust [Part I, Study] also have their origin, in fact, from this same view:

Who'll know aught living and describe it well,
Seeks first the spirit to expel.
He then has the component parts in hand
But lacks, alas! the spirit's bond. 4 ]

As one would fully expect from a nature like Goethe's, however, he did not stop with the negation of a view, but rather sought to develop his own view more and more; and we can very often find already in the indications we have about his thinking from 1769–1775 the germs of his later works. He was developing for himself the idea of a being in which each part enlivens the other, in which one principle imbues all the particulars. We read in Faust [Part I, Night]:

Into the whole how all things blend,
Each in the other working, living!

And in Satyros [Act 4]:

How from no-thing the primal thing arose,
How power of light through the night did ring,
Imbuing the depths of the beings all;
Thus welled up desiring's surge.
And the elements disclosed themselves,
With hunger into one another poured,
All-imbuing, all-imbued.

This being is conceived of as subject to continuous changes in time, but in all the stages of these changes only one being is always manifesting itself, a being that asserts itself as what endures, as what is constant within the change. About this primal thing (Urding), it is further stated in Satyros:

And rolling up and down did go
The all and one eternal thing,
Ever changing, ever constant!

Compare with this what Goethe wrote in 1807 as an introduction to his theory of metamorphosis: “But if we look at all forms, especially the organic ones, we find that nowhere is there anything enduring, anything at rest, anything complete, but rather it is far more the case that everything is in continuous motion and flux.” Over against this flux, Goethe there sets up the idea — or “a something held fast in the world of experience only for the moment” — as that which is constant. From the above passage from Satyros, one can see clearly enough that the foundation for Goethe's morphological ideas had already been laid before he came to Weimar.

But we must firmly bear in mind that this idea of a living being is not applied right away to any single organism, but rather the entire universe is pictured as such a living being. What moves Goethe to this view, of course, is to be sought in his alchemistic studies with Fräulein von Klettenberg and in his reading of Theophrastus Paracelsus after his return from Leipzig (1768–69). Through one experiment or another, one sought to hold fast that principle which permeates the entire universe, to make it manifest within a substance. 5 ] Nevertheless, this way of looking at the world, which borders on the mystical, represents only a passing episode in Goethe's development, and so on gives way to a healthier and more objective way of picturing things. But his view of the entire world as one great organism, as we find this indicated in the passages from Faust and from Satyros cited above, still stands until about 1780, as we shall see later from his essay on Nature. This view confronts us once more in Faust, at that place where the earth spirit is represented as that life principle which permeates the universal organism [Part I, Night]:

In the tides of life, in actions' storm,
Up and down I wave,
To and fro weave free,
Birth and the grave,
An infinite sea,
A varied weaving,
A radiant living.

As definite views were thus developing in Goethe's mind, there came into his hand in Strassburg a book that sought to propound a world view that was the exact antithesis of his own. It was Holbach's Systeme de la Nature. 6 ] Whereas until then he had only had to censure the fact that one described what is alive as though it were a mechanical accumulation of individual things, now he could get to know, in Holbach, a philosopher who really regarded what is alive as a mechanism. What, in the former case, sprang merely from an inability to know life down into its roots here leads to a dogma pernicious to life. In Poetry and Truth, Goethe says about this: “One matter supposedly exists from all eternity, and has moved for all eternity, and now with this motion supposedly brings forth right and left and on all sides, without more ado, the infinite phenomena of existence. We would indeed have been satisfied with this, if the author had really built up the world before our eyes out of his moving matter. But he might know as little about nature as we do, for as soon as he has staked up a few general concepts, he leaves nature at once, in order to transform what appears as something higher than nature, or as a higher nature in nature, into a nature that is material, heavy, moving, to be sure, but still without direction or shape, and he believes that he has gained a great deal by this.” Goethe could find nothing in this except “moving matter,” and in opposition to this, his concepts about nature took ever clearer form. We find these brought together and presented in his essay Nature, written about 1780. Since, in this essay, all Goethe's thoughts about nature — which until then we only find in scattered indications — are gathered together, it takes on special significance. The idea here confronts us of a being that is caught up in constant change and yet remains thereby ever the same: “All is new and ever the old.” “She (nature) transforms herself eternally, and there is within her no moment of standing still,” but “her laws are immutable.” We will see later that Goethe seeks the one archetypal plant within the endless multitude of plant forms. We also find this thought indicated here already: “Each of her (nature's) works has its own being, each of her manifestations has the most isolated concept, and yet all constitute one.” Yes, even the position he took later with respect to exceptional cases — namely, not to regard them simply as mistakes in development, but rather to explain them out of natural laws — is already very clearly expressed here: “Even the most unnatural is nature,” and “her exceptions are rare.”

We have seen that Goethe had already developed for himself a definite concept of an organism before he came to Weimar. For, even though the above-mentioned essay Nature was written only long after his arrival there, it still contains for the most part earlier views of Goethe. He had not yet applied this concept to any particular genus of natural objects, to any individual beings. In order to do this he needed the concrete world of living beings within immediate reality. A reflection of nature, passed through the human mind, was absolutely not the element that could stimulate Goethe. His botanical conversations with Hofrat Ludwig in Leipzig remained just as much without any deeper effect as the dinner conversations with medical friends in Strassburg. With respect to scientific study, the young Goethe seems altogether to be like Faust, deprived of the freshness of firsthand beholding of nature, who expresses his longing for this in the words [Part I, Night]:

Ah! Could I but on mountain height
Go onward in thy [the moon's] lovely light,
With spirits hover round mountain caves,
Weave over meadows thy twilight laves ...

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

We have to regard as the immediate stimulus to his study of plants the poet's occupation of planting the garden given him by Duke Karl August. The acceptance of the garden by Goethe took place on April 21, 1776, and his diary, edited by R. Keil, informs us often from then on about Goethe's work in this garden, which becomes one of his favorite occupations. An added field for endeavors in this direction was afforded him by the forest of Thüringen, where he had the opportunity of acquainting himself also with the lower organisms in their manifestations of life. The mosses and lichens interest him especially. On October 31, 1777, he requests of Frau von Stein mosses of all sorts, with roots and damp, if possible, so that they can propagate themselves. We must consider it as highly significant that Goethe was already then occupying himself with this world of lower organisms and yet later derived the laws of plant organization from the higher plants. As we consider this fact, we should not attribute it, as many do, to Goethe's underestimation of the significance of less.

From then on Goethe never leaves the plant realm. It is very possible that he took up Linnaeus' writings already quite early. We first hear of his acquaintance with them in letters to Frau von Stein in 1782.

Linnaeus' endeavour was to bring a systematic overview into knowledge of the plants. A certain sequence was to be discovered, in which every organism has a definite place, so that one could easily find it at any time, so that one would have altogether, in fact, a means of orientation within the unlimited number of particulars. To this end the living beings had to be examined with respect to their degree of relatedness to each other and accordingly be arranged together in groups. Since the main point to all this was to know every plant and easily to find its place within the system, one had to be particularly attentive to those characteristics which distinguish one plant from another. In order to make it impossible to confuse one plant with another, one sought out primarily those distinguishing traits. In doing so, Linnaeus and his students regarded external traits — size, number, and location of individual organs — as characteristic. In this way the plants were indeed ordered sequentially, but just as one could also have ordered a number of inorganic bodies: according to characteristics taken, not from the inner nature of the plant, but from visual aspects. The plants appear in an external juxtaposition, without any inner necessary connection. Because of the significant concept he had of the nature of a living being, Goethe could not be satisfied by this way of looking at things. No effort was made there to seek out the essential being of the plant. Goethe had to ask himself the question: In what does that “something” consist which makes a particular being of nature into a plant? He had to recognize further that this something occurs in all plants in the same way. And yet the endless differentiation of the individual beings was there, needing to be explained. How does it come about that that oneness manifests itself in such manifold forms? These must have been the questions that Goethe raised in reading Linnaeus' writings, for he says of himself after all: “What he — Linnaeus — sought forcibly to keep apart had to strive for unity in accordance with the innermost need of my being.”

Goethe's first acquaintance with Rousseau's botanical endeavors falls into about the same period as that with Linnaeus. On June 16, 1782, Goethe writes to Duke Karl August: “Among Rousseau's works there are some most delightful letters about botany, in which he presents this science to a lady in a most comprehensible and elegant way. It is a real model of how one should teach and it supplements Émile. I use it therefore as an excuse to recommend anew the beautiful realm of the flowers to my beautiful lady friends.” Rousseau's botanical endeavors must have made a deep impression on Goethe. The emphasis we find in Rousseau's work upon a nomenclature arising from the nature of the plants and corresponding to it, the freshness of his observations, his contemplation of the plants for their own sake, apart from any utilitarian considerations — all this was entirely in keeping with Goethe's way. And something else the two had in common was the fact that they had come to study the plant, not for any specific scientific purposes, but rather out of general human motives. The same interest drew them to the same thing.

Goethe's next intensive observations in the plant world occur in the year 1784. Wilhelm Freiherr von Gleichen, called Russwurm, had published back then two works dealing with research of lively interest to Goethe: The Latest News from the Plant Realm 7 ] and Special Microscopic Discoveries about Plants, Flowers and Blossoms, Insects, and other Noteworthy Things. 8 ] Both works dealt with the processes of plant fertilization. Pollen, stamens, and pistil were carefully examined and the processes occurring there were portrayed in beautifully executed illustrations. Goethe now repeated these investigations. On January 12, 1785, he writes to Frau von Stein: “A microscope is set up in order, when spring arrives, to re-observe and verify the experiments of von Gleichen, called Russwurm.” During the same spring he also studies the nature of the seed, as a letter to Knebel on April 2, 1785 shows: “I have thought through the substance of the seed as far as my experiences reach.” For Goethe, the main thing in all these investigations is not the individual details; the goal of his efforts is to explore the essential being of the plant. On April 8, 1785, he reports to Merck that he “had made nice discoveries and combinations” in botany. The term “combinations” also shows us here that his intention is to construct for himself, through thinking, a picture of the processes in the plant world. His botanical studies now drew quickly near to a particular goal. To be sure, we must also now bear in mind that Goethe, in 1784, had already discovered the intermaxillary bone, which we will later discuss in detail, and that this discovery had brought him a significant step closer to the secret of how nature goes about its forming of organic beings. We must, moreover, bear in mind that the first part of Herder's Ideas on the Philosophy of History 9 ] was completed in 1784 and that conversations between Goethe and Herder on things of nature were very frequent at that time. Thus, Frau von Stein reports to Knebel on May 1, 1784: “Herder's new book makes it likely that we were first plants and animals ... Goethe is now delving very thoughtfully into these things, and everything that has once passed through his mind becomes extremely interesting.” We see from this the nature of Goethe's interest at that time in the greatest questions of science. Therefore his reflections upon the nature of the plant and the combinations he made about it during the spring of 1785 seem quite comprehensible. In the middle of April of this year he goes to Belvedere expressly for the purpose of finding a solution to his doubts and questions, and on June 15, he communicates to Frau von Stein: “I cannot express to you how legible the book of nature is becoming for me; my long efforts at spelling have helped me; now suddenly it is working, and my quiet joy is inexpressible.” Shortly before this, in fact, he wants to write a short botanical treatise for Knebel in order to win him over to this science. 10 ] Botany draws him so strongly that his trip to Karlsbad, which he begins on June 20, 1785 in order to spend the summer there, turns into a journey of botanical study. Knebel accompanied him. Near Jena, they meet a seventeen-year-old youth, Friedrich Gottlieb Dietrich, whose specimen box showed that he was just returning from a botanical excursion. We hear more in detail about this interesting trip from Goethe's History of my Botanical Studies 11 ] and from some reports of Ferdinand Cohn in Breslau, who was able to borrow them from one of Dietrich's manuscripts. In Karlsbad then, botanical conversations quite often afford pleasant entertainment. Back home again, Goethe devotes himself with great energy to the study of botany; in connection with Linnaeus' Philosophia Botanica, he makes certain observations about mushrooms, mosses, lichens, and algae, as we see from his letters to Frau von Stein. Only now, after he himself has already thought and observed a great deal, does Linnaeus become more useful to him; in Linnaeus he finds enlightenment about many details that help him forward in his combinations. On November 9, 1785, he reports to Frau von Stein: “I continue to read Linnaeus; I have to; I have no other book. It is the best way to read a book thoroughly, a way I must often practice, especially since I do not easily read a book to the end. This one, however, is not principally made for reading, but rather for review, and it serves me now excellently, since I have thought over most of its points myself.” During these studies it becomes ever clearer to him, that it is after all only one basic form that manifests in the endless multitude of single plant individuals; this basic form itself was also becoming ever more perceptible to him; he recognized further, that within this basic form, there lies the potential for endless transformation, by which manifoldness is created out of oneness. On July 9, 1786, he writes to Frau von Stein: “It is a becoming aware the ... form with which nature is always only playing, as it were, and in playing brings forth its manifold life.” Now the most important thing of all was to develop this lasting, this constant element this archetypal form with which nature, as it were, plays — to develop it in detail into a plastic configuration. In order to do this, one needed an opportunity to separate what is truly constant and enduring in the form of plants from what is changing and inconstant. For observations of this kind, Goethe had as yet explored too small an area. He had to observe one and the same plant under different conditions and influences; for only through this does the changeable element really become visible. In plants of different kinds this changeable element is less obvious. The journey to Italy that Goethe had undertaken from Karlsbad on September 3 and that gave him such happiness brought him all this. He made many observations already with respect to the flora of the Alps. He found here not merely new plants that he had never seen before, but also plants he knew already, but changed. “Whereas in lower-lying regions, branches and stems were stronger and thicker, the buds closer to each other, and the leaves broad, highest in the mountains, branches and stems became more delicate, the buds moved farther apart so that there was more space between nodes, and the leaves were more lance-shaped. I noticed this in a willow and in a gentian, and convinced myself that it was not because of different species, for example. Also, near the Walchensee I noticed longer and more slender rushes than in the lowlands.” 12 ] Similar observations occurred repeatedly. By the sea near Venice, he discovers different plants that reveal characteristics that only the old salt of the sandy ground, but even more the salty air, could have given them. He found a plant there that looked to him like “our innocent coltsfoot, but here it was armed with sharp weapons, and the leaf was like leather, as were the seedpods and the stems also; everything was thick and fat.” 13 ] Goethe there regarded all the outer characteristics of the plant, everything belonging to the visible aspect of the plant, as inconstant, as changing. From this he drew the conclusion that the essential being of the plant, therefore, does not lie in these characteristics, but rather must be sought at deeper levels. It was from observations similar to these of Goethe that Darwin also proceeded when he asserted his doubts about the constancy of the outer forms of genera and species. But the conclusions drawn by the two men are utterly different. Whereas Darwin believes the essential being of the organism to consist in fact only of these outer characteristics, and, from their changeability draws the conclusion that there is therefore nothing constant in the life of the plants, Goethe goes deeper and draws the conclusion that if those outer characteristics are not constant, then the constant element must be sought in something else that underlies those changeable outer aspects. It becomes Goethe's goal to develop this something else, whereas Darwin's efforts go in the direction of exploring and presenting the specific causes of that changeability. Both ways of looking at things are necessary and complement one another. It is completely erroneous to believe that Goethe's greatness in organic science is to be found in the view that he was a mere forerunner of Darwin. Goethe's way of looking at things is far broader; it comprises two aspects: 1. the typus, i.e., the lawfulness manifesting in the organism, the animalness of the animal, the life that gives form to itself out of itself, that has the power and ability — through the possibilities lying within it — to develop itself in manifold outer shapes (species, genera); 2. the interaction of the organism with inorganic nature and of the organisms with each other (adaptation and the struggle for existence). Darwin developed only the latter aspect of organic science. One cannot therefore say that Darwin's theory is the elaboration of Goethe's basic ideas, but rather that it is merely the elaboration of one aspect of his ideas. Darwin's theory looks only at those facts that cause the world of living beings to evolve in a certain way, but does not look at that “something” upon which those facts act determinatively. If only the one aspect is pursued, then it can also not lead to any complete theory of organisms; essentially, this must be pursued in the spirit of Goethe; the one aspect must be complemented and deepened by the other aspect of his theory. A simple comparison will make the matter clearer. Take a piece of lead; heat it into liquid form; and then pour it into cold water. The lead has gone through two states, two stages, one after the other; the first was brought about by the higher temperature, the second by the lower. Now the form that each stage takes does not depend only on the nature of warmth, but also depends quite essentially on the nature of the lead. A different body, if subjected to the same media, would manifest quite different states. Organisms also allow themselves to be influenced by the media surrounding them; they also, affected by these media, assume different states and do so, in fact, totally in accordance with their own nature, in accordance with that being which makes them organisms. And one does find this being in Goethe's ideas. Only someone who is equipped with an understanding for this being will be capable of grasping why organisms respond (react) to particular causes in precisely one way and in no other. Only such a person will be capable of correctly picturing to himself the changeability in the manifest forms of organisms and the related laws of adaptation and of the struggle for existence. 14 ]

Goethe's thought about the archetypal plant (Urpflanze) takes on ever clearer and more definite shape in his mind. In the botanical garden in Padua (Italian Journey, September 27, 1786), where he goes about in a vegetation strange to him, “The thought becomes ever more alive to him that one could perhaps develop for oneself all the plant shapes out of one shape.” On November 17, 1786, he writes to Knebel: “My little bit of botany is for the first time a real pleasure to have, in these lands where a happier, less intermittent vegetation is at home. I have already made some really nice general observations whose consequences will also please you.” On February 19, 1787 (see Italian Journey), he writes in Rome that he is on his way “to discovering beautiful new relationships showing how nature achieves something tremendous that looks like nothing: out of the simple to evolve the most manifold.” On March 25, he asks that Herder be told that he will soon be ready with his archetypal plant. On April 17 (see Italian Journey) in Palermo? he writes down the following words about the archetypal plant: “There must after all be such a one! How would I otherwise know that this or that formation is a plant, if they were not all formed according to the same model.” He had in mind the complex of developmental laws that organizes the plant, that makes it into what it is, and through which, with respect to a particular object of nature, we arrive at the thought, “This is a plant”: all that is the archetypal plant. As such, the archetypal plant is something ideal something that can only be held in thought; but it takes on shape, it takes on a certain form, size, colour, number of organs, etc. This outer shape is nothing fixed, but rather can suffer endless transformations, which are all in accordance with that complex of developmental laws and follow necessarily from it. If one has grasped these developmental laws, this archetypal picture of the plant, then one is holding, in the form of an idea, that upon which nature as it were founds every single plant individual, and from which nature consequentially derives each plant and allows it to come into being. Yes, one can even invent plant shapes, in accordance with this law, which could emerge by necessity from the being of the plant and which could exist if the necessary conditions arose for this. Thus Goethe seeks, as it were, to copy in spirit what nature accomplishes in the forming of its beings. On May 17, 1787, he writes to Herder: “Furthermore, I must confide to you that I am very close to discovering the secret of plant generation and organization, and that it is the simplest thing one could imagine ... The archetypal plant will be the most magnificent creation in the world, for which nature itself will envy me. With this model and the key to it, one can then go on inventing plants forever that must follow lawfully; that means: which, even if they don't exist, still could exist, and are not, for example? the shadows and illusions of painters or poets but rather have an inner truth and necessity. The same law can be applied to all other living things.” A further difference between Goethe's view and that of Darwin emerges here, especially if one considers how Darwin's view is usually propounded. 15 ] It assumes that outer influences work upon the nature of an organism like mechanical causes and change it accordingly. For Goethe, the individual changes are the various expressions of the archetypal organism that has within itself the ability to take on manifold shapes and that, in any given case, takes on the shape most suited to the surrounding conditions in the outer world. These outer conditions merely bring it about that the inner formative forces come to manifestation in a particular way. These forces alone are the constitutive principle, the creative element in the plant. Therefore, on September 6, 1787 (Italian Journey), Goethe also calls it a hen kai pan (a one and all) of the plant world.

If we now enter in detail into this archetypal plant itself, the following can be said about it. The living entity is a self contained whole, which brings forth its states of being from out of itself. Both in the juxtaposition of its members and in the temporal sequence of its states of being, there is a reciprocal relationship present, which does not appear to be determined by the sense-perceptible characteristics of its members, nor by any mechanical-causal determining of the later by the earlier, but which is governed by a higher principle standing over the members and the states of being. The fact that one particular state is brought forth first and another one last is determined in the nature of the whole; and the sequence of the intermediary states is also determined by the idea of the whole; what comes before is dependent upon what comes after, and vice versa; in short, within the living organism, there is development of one thing out of the other, a transition of states of being into one another; no finished, closed-off existence of the single thing, but rather continuous becoming. In the plant, this determination of each individual member by the whole arises insofar as every organ is built according to the same basic form. On May 17, 1787 (Italian Journey), Goethe communicates these thoughts to Herder in the following words: “It became clear to me, namely, that within that organ (of the plant) that we usually address as leaf, there lies hidden the true Proteus that can conceal and manifest itself in every shape. Any way you look at it, the plant is always only leaf, so inseparably joined with the future germ that one cannot think the one without the other.” Whereas in the animal that higher principle that governs every detail appears concretely before us as that which moves the organs and uses them in accordance with its needs, etc., the plant is still lacking any such real life principle; in the plant, this life principle still manifests itself only in the more indistinct way that all its organs are built according to the same formative type — in fact, that the whole plant is contained as possibility in every part and, under favorable conditions, can also be brought forth from any part. This became especially clear to Goethe in Rome when Councilor Reiffenstein, during a walk with him, broke off a branch here and there and asserted that if it were stuck in the ground it would have to grow and develop into a whole plant. The plant is therefore a being that successively develops certain organs that are all — both in their interrelationships and in the relationship of each to the whole — built according to one and the same idea. Every plant is a harmonious whole composed of plants. 16 ] When Goethe saw this clearly, his only remaining concern was with the individual observations that would make it possible to set forth in detail the various stages of development that the plant brings forth from itself. For this also, what was needed had already occurred. We have seen that in the spring of 1785 Goethe had already made a study of seeds; on May 17, 1787, from Italy, he announces to Herder that he has quite clearly and without any doubt found the point where the germ (Keim) lies. That took care of the first stage c>f plant life. But the unity of structure in all leaves also soon revealed itself visibly enough. Along with numerous other examples showing this, Goethe found above all in fresh fennel a difference between the lower and upper leaves, which nevertheless are always the same organ. On March 25 (Italian Journey), he asks Herder to be informed that his theory about the cotyledons was already so refined that one could scarcely go further with it. Only one small step remained to be taken in order also to regard the petals, the stamens, and the pistil as metamorphosed leaves. The research of the English botanist Hill could lead to this; his research was becoming more generally known at that time, and dealt with the transformation of individual flower organs into other ones.

As the forces that organize the being of the plant come into actual existence, they take on a series of structural forms in space. Then it is a question of the big concept that connects these forms backwards and forwards.

When we look at Goethe's theory of metamorphosis, as it appears to us in the year 1790, we find that for Goethe this concept is one of calculating expansion and contraction. In the seed, the plant formation is most strongly contracted (concentrated). With the leaves there follows the first unfolding, the first expansion of the formative forces. That which, in the seed, is compressed into a plant now spreads out spatially in the leaves. In the calyx the forces again draw together around an axial point; the corolla is produced by the next expansion; stamens and pistil come about through the next contraction; the fruit arises through the last (third) expansion, whereupon the whole force of plant life (its entelechical principle) conceals itself again, in its most highly concentrated state, in the seed. Although we now can follow nearly all the details of Goethe's thoughts on metamorphosis up to their final realization in the essay that appeared in 1790, it is not so easy to do the same thing with the concept of expansion and contraction. Still one will not go wrong in assuming that this thought, which anyway is deeply rooted in Goethe's spirit, was also woven by him already in Italy into his concept of plant formation. Since a greater or lesser spatial development, which is determined by the formative forces, is the content of this thought, and since this content therefore consists in what the plant presents directly to the eye, this content will certainly arise most easily when one undertakes to draw the plant in accordance with the laws of natural formation. Goethe found now a bush-like carnation plant in Rome that showed him metamorphosis with particular clarity. He writes about this: “Seeing no way to preserve this marvelous shape, I undertook to draw it exactly, and in doing so attained ever more insight into the basic concept of metamorphosis.” Perhaps such drawings were often made and this could then have led to the concept we are considering.

In September 1787, during his second stay in Rome, Goethe expounds the matter to his friend Moritz; in doing so he discovers how alive and perceptible the matter becomes through such a presentation. He always writes down how far they have gotten. To judge by this passage and by a few other statements of Goethe's, it seems likely that the writing down of his theory of metamorphosis — at least aphoristically occurred already in Italy. He states further: “Only in this way — through presenting it to Moritz — could I get something of my thoughts down on paper.” There is now no doubt about the fact that this work, in the form in which we now have it, was written down at the end of 1789 and the beginning of 1790; but it would be difficult to say how much of this latter manuscript was a mere editing and how much was added then. A book announced for the next Easter season, which could have contained something of the same thoughts, induced him in the autumn of 1789 to take his thoughts in hand and to arrange lot their publication. On November 20, he writes to the Duke that he is spurred on to write down his botanical ideas. On December 18, he sends the manuscript already to the botanist Batsch in Jena for him to look over; on the 20th, he goes there himself in order to discuss it with Batsch; on the 22nd, he informs Knebel that Batsch has given the matter a favorable reception. He returns home, works the manuscript through once more, and then sends it to Batsch again, who returns it to him on January 19, 1790. Goethe himself has recounted in detail the experiences undergone by the handwritten manuscript as well as by the printed edition. Later, in the section on “The Nature and Significance of Goethe's Writings on Organic Development,” we will deal with the great significance of Goethe's theory of metamorphosis, as well as with the detailed nature of this theory.




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