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Goethe's Conception of the World

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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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Goethe's Conception of the World

Goethe's Conception: Chapter IX: Thoughts Concerning the Evolutionary History of the Earth

Thoughts Concerning the Evolutionary History of the Earth

Goethe's connection with the Ilmenau mine stimulated his observations of the kingdom of minerals, stones and rocks as well as the superimposed strata of the earth's crust. In July, 1776, he accompanied Duke Carl August to Ilmenau. The object of their journey was to see whether the old mine could be put into use again. Goethe gave further attention to this matter of the mine, and as a result he felt more and more the desire to know how Nature proceeds in the formation of stony and mountainous masses. He climbed high summits and crept into clefts in the earth in order “to discover the nearest traces of the great shaping hand.” He told Frau von Stein of his joy at learning to know creative Nature from this side also, writing from Ilmenau, 8th September, 1780: “I am now living with body and soul in stone and mountains and am overjoyed at the wide perspectives opening out before me. These last two days have revealed to me a new territory and may lead to important results. The world has now assumed for me a new, a gigantic aspect.” More and more there established itself in him the hope that he would succeed in spinning a thread which could lead through subterranean labyrinths and afford perspective amid the confusion. (Letter to Frau von Stein, 12th June, 1784.) Goethe gradually extended his observations over wider regions of the earth's surface. He believed that his travels in the Harz mountains had afforded him the knowledge of how great, inorganic masses were formed. He ascribes to these inorganic masses the tendency “to break in various directions, so that parallelepipeds arise which in their turn have the tendency to split diagonally” (Cp. The Formation of large Inorganic Masses. Kürschner. Nat. Lit. Bd. 34.). He thinks of the stony masses as being interwoven by an ideal, six-sided trellis-work. Cubic, parallelepiped, rhombic, rhomboidal, columnar and laminated bodies are thereby formed out of a basic mass. He conceives of forces at work within the basic mass which separate it in the way illustrated by this ideal trellis-work. Goethe seeks this active idea in the kingdom of stone as well as in organic Nature. Here also he investigates with the eye of the spirit. Where this separation into regular forms does not actually appear he conceives of it as existing ideally in the masses. On a journey to the Harz mountains which he undertook in 1784, he asks Councillor Kraus, who accompanied him, to execute chalk drawings in which the invisible ideal is elucidated and made perceptible through the visible. He is of the opinion that the real can only be truly represented by the draughtsman if he heeds the intentions of Nature, which do not often appear sufficiently clearly in the external phenomenon.

“In the transition from the soft to the solid state, this separation occurs, which either affects the entire mass or else is confined to its inner parts” (Essay on Mountain Formation: General and Specific. Kürschner, Nat. Lit. Bd. 34.). According to Goethe's view a sensible-supersensible archetype is livingly present in the organic forms; an ideal element enters into the sensible perception and permeates it. In the regular formation of inorganic masses, however, there is working an idea which does not enter the sensible form as such, but nevertheless creates a sensible form. The inorganic form is not sensible-supersensible in its appearance, but only sensible; it must, however, be understood as the effect of a supersensible force. The inorganic form is a transition between the inorganic process, the course of which is still dominated by an idea although it receives from the idea no finished form, and the organic process in which the idea itself becomes sensible form.

Goethe thinks that the formation of compound rocks is brought about by the substances, which originally existed ideally in a mass only, becoming actually separated from each other. In a letter to Leonhard, 25th November, 1807, he writes: “Thus I willingly admit that I often perceive simultaneous operations where others see only a succession. In many a rock which others regard as a conglomerate, as a heap of fragments gathered and cemented together, I think I see a rock, divided and broken out of a heterogeneous mass, and then held firmly together by consolidation.”

Goethe did not succeed in making these thoughts fruitful in regard to a large number of inorganic forms. It is in accordance with his mode of thinking to explain the arrangement of geological strata out of ideal formative principles which inhere in substances according to their nature. He could not agree with the geological views of Werner, which were very general at that time, because Werner did not recognise any such formative principles, but traced everything back to the purely mechanical action of water. Still more alien to Goethe was the Plutonic theory brought forward by Hutton, and maintained by Alexander von Humboldt, Leopold von Buch, and others, which explained the development of separate earth periods by revolutions brought about by material causes. According to this conception, great mountain systems may suddenly shoot up from out of the earth as the result of volcanic forces. Such colossal accomplishments of force seemed to Goethe contrary to Nature. He saw no reason why the laws of earthly evolution should suddenly change at certain times, and after a long period of graded activity should burst out through processes of “heaving, pressing, rolling, crushing, hurling and flinging.” Nature appeared to him consistent in all her parts, so that even a God could make no change in the laws innate in her. He regarded Nature's laws as unchangeable. The forces active to-day in the formation of the earth's surface must have worked at all times.

This point of view leads him to a natural conception of the way in which the masses of rock distributed in the neighbourhood of the Lake of Geneva have come into position, and which, to judge by their constitution, have been separated off from distant mountains. He was confronted by the opinion that these rocks had been thrown into their present position by the tumultuous rise of mountains lying far off. Goethe tried to discover forces which can be observed to-day and which are able to explain this phenomenon. He found such forces active in the formulation of glaciers. He only had now to assume that the glaciers, which to-day still move rock from mountains into the plains, were once immeasurably greater in extent than at present. At that time they removed rocks much further from the mountains than at present. As the glaciers receded these rocks were left behind. Goethe thought that the granite blocks lying around in the lowlands of North Germany must have reached their present abode in an analogous way. In order to imagine that the regions covered by these erratic masses were once covered by glacier-ice, he had to assume the existence of an epoch of intense cold. This assumption became the common property of science through Agassiz, who arrived at it independently, and in 1837 laid it before the Swiss Society for Natural Research. In recent times, this cold epoch which broke over the continents of the earth after a rich animal and plant life had already developed, has become the pet study of eminent geologists. The details which Goethe brings forward concerning the phenomena of this “Ice Age” are unimportant in the face of observations made by later investigators.

Just as Goethe was led by his general view of Nature to the assumption of an epoch of intense cold, so he was led to a correct view of the nature of fossils. It is true that earlier thinkers had already recognised, in these formations, relics of organisms of former ages. This correct view, however, was so long in becoming general that we find Voltaire still regarding the petrified shell-fish as freaks of Nature. After some experience in this sphere Goethe soon recognised that the petrified remains of organisms stand in a natural connection with the strata in which they are found. That means that these organisms lived in the epochs of the earth in which the corresponding strata were formed. He speaks about fossils in this sense in a letter to Merck, 27th October, 1782: “I am fully convinced that all the bony fragments of which you speak, and which are found everywhere in the upper sand of the earth, originate in the most recent epoch, but this, compared with our ordinary reckoning of time, is very ancient. In this epoch the sea had already receded; on the other hand streams still flowed in broad beds, yet comparatively at the level of the sea, not faster and perhaps not even so fast as now. At the same time the sand, mixed with lime, was deposited in all broad valleys, which gradually, as the sea sank, were forsaken by the water, the rivers digging only small beds in the middle of them. At that time the elephant and the rhinoceros had their home with us on the barren mountains, and their remains could easily have been washed down by the woodland streams into those great river valleys or lake plains where, permeated with rocky sediment, they were preserved to a greater or less degree and where we now dig them up with the plough, or accidentally in some way. I said before that in this way one finds them in the upper sand, that is to say in the sand that has been swept together by other rivers when the main crust of the earth was already fully formed. The time will soon come when fossils will no longer be mixed up together but will be classified in accordance with the corresponding epochs of the world.”

Goethe has often been called a precursor of the Geology founded by Lyell. Geology no longer assumes mighty revolutions or catastrophes in order to explain the origin of one earth period out of the other. It traces former changes of the earth's surface back to the same processes still occurring to-day. We must not, however, ignore the fact that modern geology applies merely physical and chemical forces to explain the formation of the earth. Goethe, on the contrary, assumes formative forces operative within the rocks, and which represent a type of formative principles higher than those recognised by physics and chemistry.

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