A Scientist’s Mind, A Poet’s Soul

On the unified cosmic vision of Alexander von Humboldt, the nineteenth century’s great naturalist-adventurer
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The presiding scientific genius of the Romantic age, when science had not yet been dispersed into specialties that rarely connect with one another, Alexander von Humboldt wanted to know everything, and came closer than any of his contemporaries to doing so. Except for Aristotle, no scientist before or since this German polymath can boast an intellect as universal in reach as his and as influential for the salient work of his time. His neglect today is unfortunate but instructive.

Humboldt (1769–1859) undertook to disseminate the knowledge he acquired as rapidly and widely as possible, and initiated a network of correspondents among the world’s principal scientific specialists. Thus, Humboldt’s prodigious achievement ironically made it impossible for his scientific descendants to have a career so wondrously varied as his. Taking the entirety of nature and culture as his province, through the gathering and arrangement of all the particulars that one extraordinary mind could hold, he sought “a scheme comprehending the whole material creation” — “perhaps too bold a plan.” So he declared in his 1845 summa, Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe. The advancement of learning, in which his own vast accumulation and inspired synthesis of knowledge played a key role, had made possible, he believed, or at any rate would make possible, the reasoned comprehension of Nature all told:

The aspect of external nature, as it presents itself in its generality to thoughtful contemplation, is that of unity in diversity, and of connection, resemblance and order, among created things most dissimilar in their form; — one fair harmonious whole. To seize this unity and this harmony, amid such an immense assemblage of objects and forces, — to embrace alike the discoveries of the earliest ages and those of our own time, — and to analyse the details of phenomena without sinking under their mass, — are efforts of human reason, in the path wherein it is given to man to press towards the full comprehension of nature, to unveil a portion of her secrets, and, by the force of thought, to subject, so to speak, to his intellectual dominion, the rough materials which he collects by observation.

Yet the science of our time has no place for Humboldt. The overwhelming majority of workaday practitioners focus exclusively on their areas of professional expertise, and the rare figures who operate outside the bounds of their appointed bailiwicks tend to draw their colleagues’ derision. E. O. Wilson, the world’s most renowned specialist on ants, is the exceptional scientist in quest of a theory of everything. In Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), he professes his belief that human understanding shall be of a piece one day, now that recent discoveries in the brain sciences and evolutionary biology have made possible revelatory insights in the social sciences and humanities. All questions one might ask can be answered, and will be, as science advances.

The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics…. that culture and hence the unique qualities of the human species will make complete sense only when linked in causal explanation to the natural sciences.

When Wilson traces the historical background of his master idea, he takes in Bacon, Descartes, Newton, Kant, Rousseau, Goethe, Schelling, Darwin, Carnap, Ryle, Derrida, Foucault, and others. Conspicuous by his absence is Humboldt, excluded not because he was wrong — several of those whom Wilson includes he considers seriously wrong — but because Humboldt is now insignificant, irrelevant, forgotten. Possibly Wilson has not even read him. He has ceased to matter. Reductionism and mathematizing, not to mention the astronomical proliferation of sheer fact, have carried the scientific project so far from Humboldt that no sight of him remains. Historians of science may still find him of interest. For practicing scientists he is a dead letter.

A portrait of Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1806)
Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin / Wikimedia
The Unity We Have Lost

In his day, Humboldt was not only the most famous scientist in the world but one of the most famous men tout court, outshone only by Napoleon, and among intellectuals rivaled only by Goethe. Political and social historians speak of the Napoleonic Era, but the Emperor’s star crashed and burned at Waterloo in 1815, and he was dead a few years later. Intellectual historians speak of the Age of Goethe, but he died in 1832. Historians of science for their part identify the Age of Humboldt, which outlasted them both, and whose momentous consequences, after long neglect in the English-speaking world, has recently been elucidated by a cohort of brilliant biographers, commentators, and editors of new translations.

Goethe would be proud to share the distinction of an age named for both himself and Humboldt, who was his cherished and admired friend. The intimate encounter of their two minds, which nobly enriched each other, was the archetype of contemplative Romantic friendship, as the invaluable Andrea Wulf shows in The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2017). Goethe may have loved Friedrich Schiller more, but he would have thrived even had the two poets never met; however, he really owed the development of crucial aspects of his many-sided nature to Humboldt, whose thrilling conversation fed his scientific enthusiasm. The acknowledged master of the European literary world recognized Humboldt’s own singular mastery of pretty much whatever interested him, and humbly accepted instruction in botany, chemistry, geology, comparative anatomy, and “animal electricity.” “In eight days of reading books,” Goethe said, “one couldn’t learn as much as he gives you in an hour.”

Schiller, perhaps jealous, feared the young man’s charm would prompt Goethe to scatter his energies unprofitably. To Schiller, Humboldt’s innumerable interests forecast a career of dilettantism, in the strictly pejorative sense of that word: Humboldt was no natural philosopher but at best a natural historian, an undiscriminating collector of facts with no overarching theme or theory. Goethe could not have disagreed more. He and Humboldt speculated boldly together on the phenomena that united all life: the Bildungstrieb, or developmental drive, and the Lebenskraft, or life force, which define the living organism whose parts are useful only as long as they function in concert. As Goethe wrote in 1807, “Every one thing exists for the sake of all things and all for the sake of one; for the one is of course the all as well. Nature, despite her seeming diversity, is always a unity, a whole … a relationship to the rest of the system.” Like every living creature, Nature in its entirety, the friends reasoned, is vastly more than the sum of its parts. Reductionism misleads.

The current of intellectual friendship ran in both directions: Inspired by Goethe, Humboldt was ablaze with feeling for nature; electrified by Humboldt, Goethe was alight with ideas about nature. T.S. Eliot famously deplored “the dissociation of sensibility” that divorced thought from feeling beginning with seventeenth-century poets. But both Humboldt and Goethe felt their thoughts and thought their feelings. This rare wholeness of being would become the hallmark of Humboldt’s science as of Goethe’s art and his own scientific work. Humboldt’s vital energies encompassed the mechanistic Newtonian conception of nature and the holistic appreciation of organic nature by poetic hearts that love her. He would join lyric incandescence to observational precision and analytic rigor.

Andrea Wulf writes that Humboldt was widely seen as the prototype for the hero of Goethe’s dramatic masterpiece, Faust: the polymath who strikes a deal with the devil not only to transcend all available knowledge but to experience incomparable adventure. “Like Humboldt, Faust was trying to discover ‘all Nature’s hidden powers.’ When Faust declares his ambition in the first scene, ‘That I may detect the inmost force / Which binds the world, and guides its course’, it could have been Humboldt speaking.”

In The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America (2009), Laura Dassow Walls argues with eloquent vehemence that Humboldt’s cosmic vision is of more than antiquarian interest, but instead represents a living alternative to current science, and especially to the intellectual fragmentation that has made the sciences and the humanities phantoms to each other. Walls contends that Humboldt presents “a usable insight into the interrelationship of mind and nature, intellect and feeling, environmental and social justice.”

Before modernity could come into being it had to kill and dismember Humboldt’s Cosmos. Now that modernity has fallen away into the past and the cheap thrills of postmodernity have worn thin, could remembering Cosmos help us forge a path to our uncertain future?

‘Strong Emotions and Imaginings’

Alexander von Humboldt was born to wealth and aristocratic rank, and grew up in and around the Prussian capital, Berlin. His father was a military officer and a court chamberlain, his mother the daughter of a rich industrialist. Alexander lost his father when he was nine, and his relations with his mother were icy. As Andrea Wulf writes, “Instead of maternal warmth, she provided the best education then available in Prussia, arranging for [her two sons] to be privately tutored by a string of Enlightenment thinkers who instilled in them a love of truth, liberty and knowledge.”

Alexander is a notable member in the long list of geniuses who showed no promise young; his earliest tutors feared he would prove subnormal. In Alexander von Humboldt: How the Most Famous Scientist of the Romantic Age Found the Soul of Nature (2019), Maren Meinhardt suggests the problem was that his early schooling was pitched more to his brother’s strengths than to his. The bookish Wilhelm, two years older, breezed through Greek and Latin, while Alexander faltered and wished he were free to roam the woods and fields around the family estate. Alexander didn’t want to grow up to be like his brother, with a big brain and small heart; he feared “the knack that logical reasoning has to kill off the spirit and the imagination.” Wilhelm would become a master scholar of linguistics, a Prussian political minister and ambassador, and the founder of the University of Berlin, which would be renamed Humboldt University in both brothers’ honor.

Alexander would remember an abrupt transformation from dunce to prize student, when “much later in my boyhood … all of a sudden the light in my head got switched on.” To his mother’s chagrin, his emerging interests and talents included none that “could be channelled into a profitable career,” Meinhardt writes. Alexander was habitually drawing pictures, and after a series of art lessons, at seventeen he turned out a drawing good enough to be exhibited at the Berlin Academy. Collecting insects and plants became a hobby, though he demonstrated no interest in the Linnaean taxonomy of classifying organisms, which Wilhelm absorbed with effortless superiority.

What he really longed for was a life of daring in wild places. As he later wrote, he ached “to travel to faraway countries little visited by Europeans. This yearning is characteristic of a time in one’s life when it lies before like an endless horizon, where nothing is more attractive to us than strong emotions and imaginings of physical danger.” The seas, and the mysterious lands beyond, beckoned, and when the opportunity came to fulfill his craving for perilous adventure, he would spring into action.

In the meantime, however, his mother compelled him to pursue a course of study leading to an acceptable line of work: how to manage states and estates. This academic option was geared to the needs of aristocratic mental laggards, but Alexander made what he could out of what he called “the necessary evil,” which provided him with fundamental knowledge of “assorted natural sciences, such as forestry, chemistry, and mineralogy,” as Meinhardt writes. After a dismaying year at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder, he happily transferred to Göttingen, the finest German university, and a scholarly powerhouse in his chosen discipline, which is to say, the discipline chosen for him.

But first he would spend another year at home, studying privately. He roamed the botanical garden in quest of cryptogams, the asexual plants such as mosses and ferns, whose strangeness, Meinhardt writes, made them an ideal subject of study for scientists with a Romantic turn of mind. He was using the new guidebook on the plant life of Berlin by Karl Ludwig Willdenow, who worked at the botanical garden, and Humboldt introduced himself to this local expert. The encounter was fateful, as he would write in 1801 on an expedition through South America: “What consequences did this visit have for the rest of my life! Would I, without it, be writing these lines in the kingdom of New Grenada? In Willdenow, I found a young person who at that time infinitely harmonized with my being.”

Under the influence of the resident authority, who was only four years older, Humboldt became a zealot for living greenery. That so few of his townsmen shared their enthusiasm was cause for heated remonstration: “Among all the 145,000 people in Berlin, you can hardly count four who practice this branch of the natural sciences, even as a hobby.” Passion, and the confident powers of intuition it begot, propelled Humboldt in his newfound enterprise, while the rational faculty trailed behind. As he matured, these various capacities and tendencies of his would eventually be reconciled in a happy equilibrium.

‘Wide and Unknown Things’

Humboldt’s professors at Göttingen included the leading eminences in their fields. Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, anatomist and anthropologist, had introduced the term “Caucasian” to the vocabulary of race and formulated the idea of the Bildungstrieb or developmental drive, after studying a polyp’s ability to regenerate the tentacles that the curious professor had cut off to see what would happen. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, the physics professor, conducted breakthrough experiments in electricity. Christian Gottlob Heyne was not only a formidable classical historian and philologist but also the father-in-law of George Forster, who had accompanied Captain James Cook on his famous South Sea voyage. Forster was the sort of man Humboldt wanted to be, and the two became fast friends. Humboldt dedicated to Forster his first book, Mineralogical Observations on Some Basalts of the Rhine (1790), and traveled with him to England. There they met the naturalist Joseph Banks, who had also sailed with Captain Cook and was president of the Royal Society, and Captain William Bligh of H.M.S. Bounty, who had survived the notorious mutiny. The intercourse with these legendary figures aroused Humboldt’s “longing for wide and unknown things,” as he would call his wanderlust and compulsive study in the autobiographical book From My Life.

Sadly, he was still constrained within the narrow and familiar. “My unfortunate situation … always forces me to want what I can’t do, and to do what I don’t like,” he confided to a fellow botanist. The desire to flee the known world for some blank space on a map was so intense it threatened his psychic well-being. He desperately wanted out. But his miserable destiny pointed to the lifelong confinement of a civil service career. Humboldt seized upon a vocation that both satisfied his mother’s demands for a profession that could lead to a lofty perch in the Prussian administration and fulfilled his own need for extraordinary experience. He sent a copy of the newly published Mineralogical Observations to Abraham Gottlob Werner, professor at the Mining Academy in Freiberg, along with a letter of fulsome praise for the distinguished geologist. Werner was the leading advocate of Neptunism, the theory that the surface of the earth had once been submerged in a global sea, and that dry land had been formed by sedimentary deposits left when the waters receded. Some pious Neptunist adherents found evidence for their scientific belief in the story of the flood in Genesis 6–10. Humboldt offered as further proof of Werner’s theory his own discovery of pockets of water in the dense rock of basalt caves. Neptunism would eventually be discredited and superseded by Plutonism, also known as Vulcanism, which attributed the shaping of the earth’s surface to violent upheavals such as volcanic eruptions. But for Humboldt’s current purposes, Neptunism would serve him well: He was accepted as a student in the school of mines, as preparation for a job as mining inspector for the state.

Maren Meinhardt sketches the attraction the mines had for Romantic writers. Scores of poems and a short story by E. T. A. Hoffmann were written about the discovery of the perfectly preserved corpse of a miner killed in an accident forty-two years earlier, whose identity only his fiancée, by then an old woman, could establish. Among Goethe’s numerous duties at the duke’s court, he was an inspector of mines. Heinrich Heine described his own descent into a mine just to see what went on down there: “There was a continual roaring and rushing, an uncanny moving of machinery, a trickling of subterranean springs, water dripping everywhere and vapors rising like fog, while the mining lamp flickered ever more weakly into the lonely night.” Meinhardt understands the Romantic underground calling as a quest “to discover nature’s deepest secrets. The centrality of the mining motif to German Romanticism seems intuitive. To gain true knowledge what is needed is a turn to the inside, to subjective experience.” To give legitimacy to subjective impressions and incorporate them in the panoply of scientific observations would be Humboldt’s distinctive strength. And the eerie, claustrophobic, menacing atmosphere of the underworld would suit Humboldt. Here was life unlike any the daylight world offered.

One week after the completion of his course of study, which he knocked off in a whirlwind nine months, he was working as an inspector of mines in “a geologically rich but badly neglected area where a number of different ores were mined, ranging from coal to gold,” as Gerard Helferich explains in Humboldt’s Cosmos (2004). “Seizing this opportunity to put his geology training into practice, Humboldt became an outstanding mine inspector, winning the confidence of the men, dramatically increasing production, inventing safety equipment such as a new type of lamp and a gas mask, and even financing out of his own salary the country’s first training program for miners.” Well-deserved promotion soon followed, but when in 1795 he stood to rise still higher in the state service, he informed his superiors that he had other plans. His interlude in the mines, he declared, had been a means to an end, useful preparation for the work he was really made for: roving the world in the name of science. The authorities convinced him to remain for two more years; he agreed probably in large part because he lacked the funds to finance the voyages of exploration he had in mind.

From a Boring Life to a World of Marvels

In 1796 he was suddenly rich. His mother died of breast cancer at fifty-five and left her sons a fortune. Humboldt’s yearly income increased sixfold. “I have so much money that I can get my nose, mouth, and ears gilded.” The money seemingly more than compensated for any grief he felt at the loss. “My heart could not have been much pained by this event,” he would write, “for we were always strangers to each other.” Yet for a long time his mother haunted his dreams, and perhaps not only his dreams. Wulf mentions the scuttlebutt disseminated by Schiller — which may have been a malicious rumor — that Humboldt had attended séances to summon his mother’s spirit. Even reasonable men may depart from conventional views of what death means when dead mothers are concerned.

Finally free, Humboldt joined his friend Leopold von Buch, who would become the leading expert on volcano formation, on an excursion to the Tyrolean Alps. Hiking the mountains increased Humboldt’s strength and stamina, which years of grinding overwork had depleted, and he also sharpened “his astronomical, topographical, and meteorological measuring skills, all in preparation for a career in scientific exploration,” as Helferich writes. Then it was off to Paris in 1798, where he met the zoologist Georges Cuvier and the mathematician and astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace, who showed him the new method of determining altitude by measuring barometric changes — an invaluable skill for his travels.

And it was above all to make travel arrangements that Humboldt came to Paris. Plans were hatched and promptly fell through. Lord Bristol offered him a place on his Egyptian expedition, but then Napoleon invaded that country and the English peer was arrested as a conspirator against the French empire. Next, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the first Frenchman to circumnavigate the earth and Humboldt’s particular hero, asked the young man along on another spin around the world, perhaps to include an excursion to the South Pole; but the septuagenarian captain proved too old for such an outing and the possibility was foreclosed. Bad luck proliferated. A proposed Algerian venture came to nothing when the ship they were to take was damaged in an Atlantic storm. At last Humboldt and his new friend Aimé Bonpland were all set to head for Tunis, but then were told that they, and more importantly their voluminous and expensive scientific equipment, would be billeted with farm animals.

But Humboldt’s luck was only apparently bad, for all the missed opportunities cleared the way for his momentous life-altering voyage to the New World. Humboldt and Bonpland went to Madrid, hoping to arrange transport to Africa. What Humboldt arranged instead, with the aid of a Saxon political envoy whose brother he happened to know, was an audience with Spain’s King Carlos IV, whom he convinced to allow him to conduct an expedition of scientific discovery to the Spanish American empire. During the previous three hundred years, Helferich notes, only six scientific teams, most of them Spanish, had been permitted to explore Spain’s American colonies. Humboldt was granted unrestricted access and was offered all the help he might need from colonial authorities. With royal passports, Humboldt and Bonpland (designated his secretary) were licensed “to freely use [their] physical and geodesical instruments … [to] make astronomical observations, measure the height of mountains, collect whatever grew on the ground, and carry out any task that might advance the Sciences.” The trust that the notoriously xenophobic and ferociously Roman Catholic Spanish Crown placed in a little-known Prussian Protestant was unprecedented and startling. But then Humboldt was paying for the adventure with his newfound wealth; and the Spaniards believed that his mineralogical expertise promised the discovery of more imperial gold and silver, which had become the mainstay of Spanish prosperity. The corvette upon which he would sail was the Pizarro, a name sonorous with conquistador avarice and rapacity. It looked like a fine arrangement for all concerned.

The instruments the scientists brought on their journey give one an idea of what they proposed to do. Malcolm Nicolson, in the historical introduction to the one-volume Penguin Classics abridgement of Humboldt’s 30-volume Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent, provides a list:

They took with them, among other things such as books and notebooks, chronometers, telescopes, sextants, theodolites, quadrants, a dipping needle, compasses, a magnetometer, a pendulum, several barometers, several thermometers, hygrometers, electrometers, a cynometer (for measuring the blueness of the sky), eudiometers (for measuring the quantity of oxygen in the atmosphere), an apparatus to determine the temperature at which water boils at different altitudes, a rain gauge, galvanic batteries, and reagents for chemical analysis…. Everything that could be measured was to be measured.

This superabundant apparatus represented the aspect of Humboldt’s project that stemmed from the Enlightenment: the quest to become unfailingly accurate in observation and exacting in reasoning. But the Romantic side to his character was also allowed to flourish on this journey as never before. Two years into the expedition he would write, “I was spurred on by an uncertain longing for what is distant and unknown, for whatever excited my fantasy: danger at sea, the desire for adventures, to be transported from a boring daily life to a marvellous world.” Marvels to be beheld in a rapture of aesthetic bliss were also to be examined and explained by painstaking analysis. Humboldt felt intensely the allure of the exotic, the thrill of seeing things he would never see at home, yet he approached every novel creature or plant or landscape with the passionate disinterest of a natural philosopher who wanted to understand everything, for even the apparently ordinary was extraordinary. As Aristotle wrote in On the Parts of Animals, “Every realm of nature is marvellous, … so we should venture on the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.”

Adventure stirred Humboldt’s soul, and an essential part of the adventure was Aristotelian (not to mention Newtonian) excitement at the proliferation of knowledge. To appreciate fully Nature’s glory, Humboldt wrote, one must be conversant with her laws:

Nature herself is sublimely eloquent. The stars as they sparkle in the firmament fill us with delight and ecstasy, and yet they all move in orbit marked out with mathematical precision.

The richest intellectual delight and ecstasy come from realizing the splendor with which all coheres. Humboldt expressed his most ardent wishes for this rarest scientific insight as he prepared to leave on his voyage: “I shall try to find out how the forces of nature interact upon one another and how the geographic environment influences plant and animal life. In other words, I must find out about the unity of nature.” And the one who truly understands, who joins mental synthesis to his wonderstruck love of beauty, has to be more than a conventional scientist. Humboldt aspired to be a visionary for whom the analytical mind, however remarkable and revelatory, is insufficient to register the magnificence of nature. “What speaks to the soul escapes our measurements,” he exulted.

Most scientists prefer to leave the soul out of serious discussion. Humboldt restored the full complement of human capacities to a scientific enterprise that was increasingly becoming a mathematical affair. The Enlightenment could take someone with Humboldt’s exorbitance of being only so far. From his vocation he required complete spiritual satisfaction. In the New World he would conceive the world anew.

The Canary Islands: Seeing Feelingly

The marvels begin on the way to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, off the west coast of Africa, as Humboldt describes in his Personal Narrative. The sight of flying fish provokes reflections on animal life beset by the ever present danger of death, yet not without the sheer pleasure of existence that occasionally erupts into exuberance. “They pass much of their time in the air, although flying does not make them less wretched. If they leave the sea to escape from the voracious dolphin they meet frigate-birds, albatrosses and other birds in the air, which seize them in mid-flight.” Yet Humboldt suspects that these fish take to the air not only to save their skins but also sometimes from pure joy in their ability to soar.

Like swallows they shoot forward in thousands in straight lines, always against the waves. In our climate, by a clear-water river struck by the sun’s rays, we often see single fish, with no reason to fear anything, leap into the air as if they enjoyed breathing air. Why aren’t these games more frequent and prolonged with flying fish who, thanks to their pectoral fins and extreme lightness, fly easily in the air?

This is a characteristic Humboldtian passage, registering nature’s cruelty but also its munificence, admiring the spectacle of inhuman life that gives aesthetic pleasure to the human onlooker, noting the similarities in behavior that unite different animal species around the globe, remarking those physical attributes of this strange creature that nature has adapted to an unusual purpose, and raising a question about piscine instinct (or is psychology the word?) that has no clear answer. One is left marveling at the fish, and at their description by a man who has evidently wondered what it is like to be a flying fish. Which marvel is the greater?

Not only what one sees but also how one feels about the sight are essential to Humboldt’s science. Physical facts are not to be considered apart from the observer, for they have a telling effect upon human mental, moral, and emotional reactions. Transparent air conduces to mental acuity, Humboldt finds, and atmospheric gloom provokes a corresponding emotional overcast. Geography is destiny: climate helps determine culture. On Tenerife the air’s aridity, caused by prevailing easterly winds blowing from nearby African plains, “gives the atmosphere of the Canary Islands a transparency” that “may be one of the main reasons for the beauty of tropical scenery; it heightens the splendours of the vegetation’s colouring, and contributes to the magical effects of its harmonies and contrasts. If the light tires the eyes during part of the day, the inhabitant of these southern regions has his compensation in a moral enjoyment, for a lucid clarity of mind corresponds to the surrounding transparency of the air.” Here is a scientist thinking his feelings. The ever useful cyanometer, which registers shades of the sky’s blue, is thus the most sentimental of scientific instruments. Lord Byron in his masterpiece Don Juan lampoons what he considers Humboldt’s comical confusion of science and sentiment:

Humboldt, “the first of travellers,” but not
The last, if late accounts be accurate,
Invented, by some name I have forgot,
As well as the sublime discovery’s date,
An airy instrument, with which he sought
To ascertain the atmospheric state,
By measuring “the intensity of blue:”
O, Lady Daphne! let me measure you!

But Humboldt never really confounded the measurable physical world and the immeasurable soul. He just suggested, rightly, how each bears upon the other.

New Andalusia: Hostile Nature

Humboldt and Bonpland first landed on South American soil at Cumaná, the capital of the colonial province New Andalusia, in what is now Venezuela. The companions were giddy with delight. One night, Andrea Wulf writes, “they stood awed for hours as a meteor shower drew thousands of white tails across the sky. Humboldt’s letters home burst with excitement and brought this wondrous world into the elegant salons of Paris, Berlin, and Rome. He wrote of huge spiders that ate hummingbirds and of thirty-foot snakes. Meanwhile he amazed the people of Cumaná with his instruments; his telescopes brought the moon close to them and his microscopes transformed the lice in their hair into monstrous beasts.”

The sensations, however, were edged with fear of imminent death. Four months into their sojourn, an earthquake upended Humboldt’s lifelong confidence that the ground under his feet would always safely bear his weight. Buildings were flattened, and the townspeople who were lucky enough to escape them filled the streets and howled with terror. Yet as the earth bucked and heaved beneath him, Humboldt was busy recording the phenomena: “He timed the shocks, noted how the quake rippled from north to south and took electric measurements.” Humboldt was getting a full dose of the danger he longed for and clutching every opportunity to observe and explain Nature doing its worst.

As he took in everything he could, all Humboldt’s senses were engaged. In the Personal Narrative he writes, “The arid plain of Cumaná provides an extraordinary phenomenon after violent rainstorms. After being drenched with rain the earth is heated by the sun and gives off that musky smell common to many different tropical animals like the jaguar, the small tiger-cat, … the crocodile, viper, and rattlesnake. These gases seem to emanate from mould containing innumerable reptiles, worms, and insect remains. I have seen Indian children from the Chaima tribe pick out 18-inch millipedes from the earth and eat them.” He pulls off that final touch without condescension from an imposing civilized height; he is simply recording an observation of native habit that he finds striking. The homebound reader may wince, but Humboldt does not suffer from European presumptions about dietary taboos. However, nor does he apparently ask to join in the feast, just to find out in the interest of science what the bugs taste like. His investigatory inclinations have their limits.

Only rarely, though, did Humboldt balk at trying anything. An omnivore of adventure and knowledge, he traversed thousands of miles of jungle and mountain, theorizing about everything he saw and felt. When he and Bonpland left Cumaná for Caracas, they carried over four thousand botanical specimens, on their way to collecting some sixty thousand during their five-year expedition. From Caracas they headed south across vast dusty plains whose seemingly endless expanse “fills the mind with the feeling of infinity,” Humboldt wrote. The muddy bottom of a shallow pond held numerous electric eels, capable of delivering a lethal surprise to anyone foolhardy enough to test the animals’ powers.

Electricity had long fascinated Humboldt. With the help of locals, he and Bonpland herded thirty wild horses into the water, and as the eels surfaced and shocked the horses, killing some, the perilous electric charge was gradually depleted, though not voided entirely. Wulf describes the experiments in which the scientists did not spare their own bodies: “For four hours they conducted an array of dangerous tests including holding an eel with two hands, touching an eel with one hand and a bit of metal with the other, or Humboldt touching an eel while holding Bonpland’s hand (with Bonpland feeling the jolt)…. Unsurprisingly, by the end of the day Humboldt and Bonpland felt sick and feeble.” Yet Humboldt’s mind turned to general thoughts about electricity, lightning, and magnetism. “As so often, Humboldt started with a detail or an observation, and then spun out to the greater context. All ‘flow from one source,’ he wrote, and ‘all melt together in an eternal, all-encompassing power.’”

The next leg of their travels would be an ordeal: seventy-five days and 1,400 miles up the Orinoco River, the Casiquiare, and the Rio Negro. Humboldt proved that the Casiquiare joined the great Orinoco and Amazon River basins, and the map he made of the area made previous versions look like pure fantasy. Hazards abounded. Snakes, piranha, and crocodiles made it dangerous to so much as trail a hand in the water. Mosquito squadrons attacked relentlessly; a pilot told Humboldt that he would like to live on the moon, because it looked as though it must be free of mosquitoes. Fever and dysentery sapped the travelers. Humboldt had a face-to-face encounter with a jaguar that he was lucky to walk away from, as he did with the utmost circumspection. Human beings appeared to have no rightful place in this primordial wilderness of the New World, where vitality swarmed.

Crocodile and boa are the masters of the river; jaguar, peccary, the dante and monkeys cross the jungle without fear or danger, established there in an ancient heritage. This view of a living nature where man is nothing is both odd and sad. Here, in a fertile land, in an eternal greenness, you search in vain for traces of man; you feel you are carried into a different world from the one you were born into.

The sensation Humboldt has here is so strange it verges on the uncanny. Humboldt is almost the kind of man of whom one can say nothing human is alien to him; but there are times when he feels and thinks that nature is alien indeed.

Cuba: Why Slavery?

The travelers’ ambitious itinerary next took them to Cuba for three months, where Humboldt’s principal interest would be the all-too-human inhumanity of slavery. In his Political Essay on the Island of Cuba (1826), he examines a colonial society founded on an abomination that undermines every pretension to civilized decency. Conducting a strict accounting of human labor and agricultural products in the Americas, he skewers the argument for slavery as economic necessity:

Just examine the current state of Brazil’s industry! Calculate how many hands it takes to provide Europe with the sugar, coffee, and tobacco that leave Brazil’s ports! Visit Brazil’s gold mines, which are barely worked these days! And then ask yourself whether Brazil’s industry really requires the enslavement of 1,960,000 blacks and mixed-race people. More than three-quarters of these Brazilian slaves do not pan for gold; nor do they produce any colonial crops — the very crops that, one assures us with such seriousness, render the slave trade a necessary evil and an inevitable political crime.

This unnecessary evil appalls Humboldt. He sadly concedes that slavery will likely not be expunged any time soon; civilized mores have a limited reach, and most people live according to brutal standards conceived in self-interest: “Wherever slavery is long established, civilization’s advance influences the treatment of slaves far less than one would care to admit. A nation’s civilization rarely extends to a large number of individuals. It did not reach those in workplaces who are in direct contact with black people.”

The human catastrophe of slavery takes up a large portion of Humboldt’s book, but his interests remain nearly universal, encompassing “nautical astronomy, climatology, cultural history, demography, economics, geology, philology, philosophy, plant geography, statistics, and zoology, to name but a few,” as Vera M. Kutzinski and Ottmar Ette write in the introduction to their edition of the book (a volume in the University of Chicago Press series “Alexander von Humboldt in English,” a much needed work in progress). Humboldt was truly one of those on whom nothing is lost, to borrow Henry James’s elegant formulation for intellect and sensibility fully alive.

The Andes: Everything Connected

The travelers intended to strike out for North America next — up to the Great Lakes, then down the Mississippi River, then off to Mexico, and eventually shipping out for the Philippines on their way to complete a journey around the world. But the Havana newspapers reported that Nicolas Baudin, who had replaced Bougainville as captain of the French circumnavigation expedition, was on his way to Peru. Humboldt and Bonpland planned to meet him there and join his crew, as they had originally wanted to do when plotting their future in Paris. In March 1801 they were back in South America, beginning an eight-month trek from Cartagena in what is now Colombia to Quito in what is now Ecuador, following roads over the Andes built by the Incas centuries before. The going was taxing in the extreme, but Humboldt preached that energy could conquer all difficulties. In Quito, however, they found that Baudin had begun his voyage by sailing around Africa, so he was going in the wrong direction for their globe-spanning plans.

Humboldt and Bonpland would spend five months in and around Quito, which was their staging ground for climbing the numerous volcanoes in the region. The volcanoes presented both a physical and an intellectual challenge: Humboldt wanted to get to the top of as many as he could in order to establish himself as the world’s greatest mountaineer, and he needed to determine whether they might hold the secret of earth’s creation. His Andean studies would convert him from Neptunism to Vulcanism. As Wulf writes, “The volcanoes he had climbed in the Andes were all linked subterraneously — it was like ‘a single volcanic furnace’. Clusters and chains of volcanoes across great distances, he said, bore testimony to the fact that they were not individual local occurrences but part of a global force.” Momentous volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that created new islands and devastated cities were episodes in a tumultuous chain reaction that took place over thousands of miles and a leisurely expanse of time. In the Essay on the Geography of Plants (1807), Humboldt speculated that the African and South American continents had once constituted a single land mass, and he would later declare that their rupture had been caused by “a subterranean force.” This insight, Wulf points out, anticipated by more than a century theories of continental drift and the massive displacements of tectonic plates with their terrifying creative destruction.

Humboldt’s botanizing also contributed to his understanding of geological upheaval. The geography of plants, the patterns of their distribution in different areas of the globe, he wrote, “can show how islands that were previously linked are now separated; it can show that the separation of Africa from South America occurred before the development of organized forms of beings.” Paleobotany can be considered a branch of geology. “In order to solve the great problem of the migration of plants, the geography of plants delves into the interior of the earth: it looks at the ancient monuments that nature has left behind in petrifications, in wood fossils, and in coal strata that are the tomb of the initial plant life of our planet.” He was beginning to comprehend how the sciences in their puzzling variety were all of a piece.

Humboldt’s cross-section of Chimborazo, with tables of elevation measurements and descriptions of soil and vegetation on both sides (1807)
Leibniz-Institut für Länderkunde, Leipzig / Wikimedia

After climbing Chimborazo, Humboldt, in a moment of heightened perspicacity, conceived his signature Naturgemälde — as Wulf puts it, “an untranslatable German term that can mean a ‘painting of nature’ but which also implies a sense of unity and wholeness.” Sketching a cross-section of the mountain, believed at the time to be the world’s highest, Humboldt diagrammed the distribution of the various plants he found from its base to the snow-line. He designed the chart “to help us understand the totality of our knowledge about everything that varies with the altitudes rising above sea level.” Linnaean taxonomy is out. “Unity in variety” replaces it, as Humboldt assorts plants and animals according to climatic zones that are the same in very different parts of the world. Wulf hails Humboldt’s presentation as “a radically new idea that still shapes our understanding of ecosystems today” — “nature as a web in which everything was connected.”

Tearing Nature’s Web

How people violate and permanently damage the web of nature is a recurrent theme of Humboldt’s. The conquest of nature, hailed by Bacon and Descartes as the ultimate human triumph, proves to have unforeseen consequences. In Loja, modern Ecuador, Wulf writes, Humboldt observes the despoiling of the cinchona forests, the trees from whose bark the anti-malarial agent quinine is harvested. Stripping the bark kills the trees, and the colonial Spaniards, in their eagerness to fight the deadly disease, were destroying this valuable resource that was their medical salvation.

Examples of similar ecological recklessness are plentiful in Humboldt’s works. Spanish engineers’ efforts at flood control on the Rio Apure in New Andalusia succeeded only in making the floods more devastating. To build a dam, they cut down the trees that had shored up the river banks, and now when the waters rose the floods sliced away more and more of the denuded earth. Also in New Andalusia, Humboldt laments the improvident cultivation of indigo, which yields a blue dye widely used to color clothing, but which also happens to “impoverish the soil” with matchless rapacity. This highly profitable cash crop has largely replaced subsistence crops in certain areas, and the ruthlessly exploited land will be infertile in due course, Humboldt fears. He sees similar pursuit of short-term gains in the region of Mexico City, where an extensive irrigation system had all but drained the lake that supplied it and had thereby parched adjoining land.

Wulf honors Humboldt as environmentalist and social justice warrior, the original progressive hero: “He debated nature, ecological issues, imperial power and politics in relation to each other. He criticized unjust land distribution, monocultures, violence against tribal groups and indigenous work conditions — all powerfully relevant issues today. As a former mining inspector, Humboldt had a unique insight into the environmental and economic consequences of the exploitation of nature’s riches…. All problems in the colonies, he was certain, were the result of the ‘imprudent activities of the Europeans.’”

Are the Civilized More Barbaric?

“The great problem of the physical description of the planet is how to determine the laws that relate the phenomena of life with inanimate nature,” Humboldt writes in his introduction to the Personal Narrative. The difficult associated question is how to determine the place of human civilization among the phenomena of life: what the relationship is of nature to culture, and of one culture to another. Helferich writes, “Just as his breakthroughs in the hard sciences would transform oceanography, volcanology, plant geography, magnetism, and other fields, Humboldt’s investigations of the native peoples of South America would revolutionize the study of anthropology…. Humboldt’s writings also began to chip away at the assumption of European racial superiority.”

The truth is more complicated. As Humboldt proceeds into the wilderness along the Orinoco and Casiquiare Rivers, he discovers that the natives do not share the basic premise of enlightened multiculturalism — “the unity of the human race, the bonds that link [man] to customs and languages which he does not know…. Indians who are at war with a neighbouring tribe hunt them as we would wild animals…. They recognize family and kin ties, but not those of humanity in general. No feelings of compassion prevent them from killing women or children of an enemy tribe. These latter are their favourite food after a skirmish or ambush.” Humboldt does appear to be distressed here, wounded in his tender-hearted confidence in the universal human brotherhood; yet rather than censure unequivocally, he attempts better to explain “why cannibalism is not so repugnant to Indians.” That they dine happily on roasted monkey, he reflects, makes eating people seem not at all unusual to them. “Roasted monkeys, especially those with very round heads, look horribly like children.” One can get used to most anything, and habit has eradicated any vestige of the horrifying from the natives’ daily fare. Humboldt, however, is still appalled. One can see that he labors to be all-accepting but can’t quite do it.

Humboldt and Bonpland with native people at the foot of Chimborazo, by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1806)
Wikimedia

Nevertheless, Humboldt’s aspiration to be perfectly tolerant is ever apparent. He is in distinguished company. Civilized people have long tried to think themselves out of the impulse to condemn as savage or barbarous those customs they find viscerally abhorrent and therefore morally intolerable. In his 1580 essay “Of Cannibals,” moved by the intellectual tempests that accompanied the opening of the New World, Michel de Montaigne sounds like the original multicultural relativist explaining away fundamental human antipathy: “I think there is nothing barbarous and savage in that nation, from what I have been told, except that each man calls barbarism whatever is not his own practice; for indeed it seems we have no other test of truth and reason than the example and pattern of the opinions and customs of the country we live in. There is always the perfect religion, the perfect government, the perfect and accomplished manners in all things.” When it comes to actual cannibalism, Montaigne recognizes “the barbarous horror of such acts,” but he weighs it against the punishments authorized by law or extemporized in religious civil war in so-called civilized nations, and he finds that the barbarians come off as rather more decent: “I think there is more barbarity in … tearing by tortures and the rack a body still full of feeling, in roasting a man bit by bit … , than in roasting and eating him after he is dead.”

Two centuries later, in his Supplement to Bougainville’s “Voyage,” the Enlightenment philosophe Denis Diderot employs as his mouthpiece a Tahitian who defends his nation’s sexual customs against the animadversions of a French chaplain: “But you cannot condemn the morals of Europe for not being those of Tahiti, nor our morals for not being those of Europe. You need a more dependable rule of judgment than that.”

Montaigne and Diderot represent the intellectual and moral prototype for the modern anthropologist, who, in the description of the vocational paragon Claude Lévi-Strauss, prefers to live in the company of primitive peoples rather than among his own kind. Humboldt saw enough of genuine savagery that he did not cant in its favor, but he recognized that peoples barbaric in some respects can be quite civilized in others. In Views of the Cordilleras and Monuments of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas (1813), he praises the “happy revolution” that the new century has seen “in our conception of the civilizations of different peoples.” No longer are the artifacts of Asian, Egyptian, and indigenous American peoples regarded as “unworthy of our attention” because they differ radically “from the style that the Greeks bequeathed to us through their inimitable models.” New criteria for aesthetic appreciation are called for, and although Humboldt is not the critical innovator who will introduce them, he prepares the way.

Intellectual absorption overcomes moral repulsion as he examines a painting of Aztec human sacrifice:

A priest, who is almost unrecognizable underneath his hideous disguise, rips the heart from the victim; he bears a club in his right hand…. I would not have had this revolting scene engraved had the sacrificer’s disguise not exhibited some remarkable and seemingly nonaccidental connections with the Hindus’ Ganesh…. Had the peoples of Aztlan, who originally came from Asia, preserved some vague notion about elephants, or (what seems far less likely to me) did their traditions date back to the time when the Americas were still peopled with these gigantic animals, whose petrified skeletons are found buried in marly ground on the very ridge of the Mexican Cordilleras?

In his boundless scholarly curiosity, Humboldt cannot resist speculating on comparative religion (or mythology), the migration of peoples, and paleontology. But he found the depiction loathsome enough that he thought at first that it was not worth reproducing in his book.

In the lengthy disquisition that follows, he wonders “whether these barbaric customs … would have ceased of their own accord if the Mexica had continued in their stride toward civilization without having any contact with the Spanish.” He goes on to suspect that such amelioration would have come very slowly, if at all. Religious fanaticism can be all but ineradicable, and he cites examples of human sacrifice to gratify the hungry gods even among highly civilized peoples: Egyptians, Indian Hindus, Carthaginians, Romans. Not even European modernity has been able to free itself of “the barbaric effects of religious intolerance.” And then there is the blight of racist slavery, the ultimate barbarism of the current high civilization: “It will be difficult for posterity to understand that in a civilized Europe and under the influence of a religion that, through the nature of its principles, promotes freedom and proclaims the sacred rights of humanity, there exist laws that sanction the enslavement of Blacks and permit the colonist to tear a child from its mother’s arms in order to sell it in a faraway land.” Europeans are capable of the most callous heartlessness when it suits their interests or flatters their superiority. It should be no surprise to find in other Aztec paintings examples of the atrocities European conquerors committed in the name of Christian civilization: “natives hung from trees, holding crosses in their hands; a number of Cortés’s soldiers on horseback setting fire to a village; friars who are baptizing unfortunate Indians at the very moment when the latter are put to death by being cast into the water. In these images, one recognizes the arrival of the Europeans in the new world.” The deadpan sardonic flourish with which Humboldt caps the passage is worthy of Jonathan Swift.

So now it is Humboldt who seems the true forebear of modern anthropologists — more experienced, less tendentious, and therefore wiser than Montaigne or Diderot — but also superior to Lévi-Strauss. In Tristes Tropiques (1955), Lévi-Strauss declares that the anthropologist’s “very existence is incomprehensible except as at an attempt at redemption: he is the symbol of atonement.” Although he is writing within living memory of the Second World War, he does not specify the original sin he is expiating; he seems to include under its rubric the multitudinous abominations he retails in his book of violent oppression, racist injustice, environmental degradation, and perhaps above all the designation of the vast majority of the human population as the odious fearsome Other. Lévi-Strauss continues:

But other societies too have been tainted with the same original sin; not very many perhaps, and they become increasingly few in number as we move down the scale of progress. I need only cite the example of Aztec culture, that open wound in the side of American history, whose maniacal obsession with blood and torture … puts it on a level with ourselves, not because the Aztecs were the only people wicked in this way but because, like us, they were inordinately so.

Like Lévi-Strauss, Humboldt saw the traveling student of mankind as a moral agent obliged to testify to the cruelty he observed: “It belongs to the traveller who has himself seen what torments or degrades human nature, to make the complaint of the unfortunate reach the ear of those by whom they can be relieved.” But to speak of symbolic atonement as the purpose of his vocation would have seemed a travesty of his true calling. The pursuit of knowledge was what he lived for. If by raising his voice in exhortation — a voice the European and American intelligentsia heeded with fascination and even with reverence — he could help the cause of liberty, equality, and fraternity, he was glad to do so. But he would never have said that the redemption of the accursed white race was his raison d’être. There is no evidence that Humboldt was filled with guilt on racial grounds. The scientific enterprise in which he employed all his powers was, after all, the shining product of European civilization. Of course, by Lévi-Strauss’s time the splendor of science had worn off considerably: he was writing in the shadow of industrialized genocide and the use of atomic knowledge to create a weapon of unprecedented destructiveness. Humboldt did enjoy the privilege of comparative innocence; his penchant for intense feeling might have been a liability under different circumstances, and had he lived in our day perhaps he would have partaken of the ashen disillusionment and despair of the master anthropologist.

Jefferson vs. Napoleon

In 1803 Humboldt sailed from Peru to Acapulco, noting on the way the stream of very cold Pacific water later known as the Humboldt Current. During the year he spent in Mexico, his activity was bookish to a surprising extent, as he explored the imperial archives in Mexico City, learning all he could hold of Aztec society, the Spanish conquest, and the colonial regime. He survived a hurricane at sea on his way from Havana to Philadelphia, and wrote admiring letters to President Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison, telling the latter that “having witnessed the great spectacle of the majestic Andes and the grandeur of the physical world I intended to enjoy the spectacle of a free people.”

Jefferson was a man after Humboldt’s own heart, a polymath whose interests ran from meteorology and horticulture to mathematics and mastodon fossils, who had read his way through a personal library of thousands of books, and who “had written his own, Notes on the State of Virginia, a detailed description about economy and society, about natural resources and plants, but also a celebration of the Virginian landscape,” as Wulf writes. When Humboldt accepted Jefferson’s invitation to the White House, the two men charmed each other on the spot; Humboldt would be the president’s guest for a week of thrilling conversation. Jefferson took full political advantage of the amply stocked mind of “the most scientific man of his age,” acquiring “treasures of information” about Mexico, whose border with the United States was a matter of contention, as the president coveted for his own country a large portion of Mexican territory.

Humboldt prudently chose not to disturb this congenial meeting of minds by bringing up a subject he cared deeply about: slavery. For Jefferson was a slave owner convinced of the inferiority of black people to white “in the endowments both of body and mind,” while Humboldt was a true believer in the equality of all, and that each was born to be free. Humboldt had learned the lesson of unity in variety that Nature teaches, and that is the foundation for righteous political institutions, while the famous Jeffersonian magniloquence papered over a profound wrong. In a thank-you note on parting that Helferich quotes, Humboldt resorted to undoubtedly sincere magniloquence of his own:

I have had the honor to see the First Magistrate of this great republic living with the simplicity of a philosopher, receiving me with such great kindness as I shall always remember…. I take leave in the consolation that the people of this continent march with great strides toward the perfection of a social state, while Europe presents an immoral and melancholy spectacle…. I sympathize with you in the hope … that humanity can achieve great benefit from the new order of things to be found here….

Returning to the old order in 1804 was a trial for Humboldt, although he was lionized in Paris as a topflight celebrity, paragon of high cerebration and Napoleonic audacity. Napoleon himself had little use for this foreigner who was stealing the spotlight from His Imperial Majesty. When the two men met at a reception celebrating Napoleon’s coronation, the Emperor observed, “I understand you collect plants, monsieur. So does my wife.” The encounter ended with that. Napoleon, believing Humboldt was a Prussian spy, ordered the secret police to tail him, and at one point even decided to have him removed from France. Only when a confidant assured the Emperor that Humboldt never mentioned politics but talked only about science did Napoleon relent.

Humboldt made Paris his new home. It was the center of European intellectual life, and he found there the editors, scientific collaborators, and artists he needed for the project of publishing his American researches. He wrote several of his most popular books in French. Berlin, he acidly remarked, was notable only for its potato fields. He assumed it would take him two years to complete his Personal Narrative; it took thirty. He depleted his considerable wealth in seeing the series into print. In 1827 the Prussian king virtually commanded him to abandon his redoubt among the enemy and return to Berlin; Humboldt found his duties as court chamberlain and later as privy councilor a bore and a weariness of the flesh. He plotted an expedition to Tibet; he studied Persian and Arabic; in 1829, at the request of the Russian finance minister, he undertook an eight-month Siberian journey, to study the land’s mineral wealth.

‘The Entire Material Universe’

All the while, he planned what he called the work of his life: Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe. In 1834 he announced his intention in a letter from which Helferich quotes:

I have the crazy notion to depict the entire material universe, all that we know of the phenomena of universe and earth, from spiral nebulae to the geography of mosses and granite rocks, in one work — and in a vivid language that will stimulate and elicit feeling…. But it is not to be taken as a physical description of earth: it comprises heaven and earth, the whole of creation.

The first volume appeared in 1845, in German, with four others to follow; by 1851 the work had been translated into nearly every other European language. Cosmos is an astonishing omnium gatherum, encompassing not only the current knowledge in a host of scientific fields but also the history of science, exploration, and the arts.

But Humboldt is not without humility. The human mind whose ambitions run to the grand, and perhaps grandiose, summation of “physical cosmography” will necessarily never realize them; even the combined efforts of scientific battalions cannot hope to fulfill such a design. “We shall never succeed in exhausting the inexhaustible riches of nature, and no generation of men will ever be able to boast of having comprehended all phenomena.” Nevertheless, Humboldt conceives an enterprise more comprehensive than standard-issue science, however brilliant that might be: he is pursuing the understanding of the universe as a whole.

Still, the accumulation of knowledge piecemeal is the indispensable basis of the universal understanding. The scientific individuation of the material world, the distinctions of substance in all their variety, overturn the ancient Platonic and Pythagorean dogma of overarching form and make possible genuine knowledge of matter. “The first foundation and earliest advances of the science of chemistry are of so much the greater importance in the history of the contemplation of the universe, because thereby the heterogeneity of substances, and the nature of forces or powers not manifested visibly by motion, were first recognized.”

Of some things one can only say that they are what they are and must leave it at that. Even the most inspired speculators on the cosmic scale must rely on undeniable brute fact that offers no explanation. The heavenly phenomena, like the earthly, could be accidental in origin. No necessity appears to govern them; they could have been different from what they are. “No general law in these respects is discoverable, either in the regions of space, or in the irregularities of the crust of the earth.” The crust of the earth remains ever volatile, and entirely unpredictable, except insofar as wrenching upheaval can be expected to continue as the natural order of things. The relative geological calm of today, he reasons, is not made to last, and the potentially devastating tumult will take place with no concern for human convenience: “the quiet which we now enjoy is only apparent.”

Mystery in a Purposeless World

That the human mind seems uniquely fitted to explore the cosmos does not mean that the universe takes account of our needs and wishes. Although Humboldt is characteristically exultant, reveling in his own mental powers and richness of feeling, he never forgets that human life is precarious and the world he loves ultimately indifferent to him. He refuses to credit the anthropocentric conceit that had been the predominant note of science, philosophy, and religion for millennia. As Wulf writes, Humboldt was repudiating the tradition that ran “from Aristotle, who had written that ‘nature has made all things specifically for the sake of man,’ to botanist Carl Linnaeus who had still echoed the same sentiment more than 2,000 years later, in 1749, when he insisted that ‘all things are made for the sake of man.’” Sources of wisdom as different as the Book of Genesis on the one hand and the writings of Bacon and Descartes on the other were united in this triumphalism.

Humboldt, for his part, was present at the creation of the godless, purposeless universe of nineteenth-century science, which is now the only cosmos acceptable to most men and women of science. The very exaltation of human reason was working to diminish human beings in their own sight. As intelligence was approaching an unprecedented degree of mastery, its very success served to dislodge the sense of unique privilege that blessed ignorance had permitted down the centuries. The bleak scrupulousness of the disinterested mind was the dispiriting obverse of the new understanding proud of its clarity.

Yet Humboldt so charms the reader with his energy and exuberance, his tireless mind and joyous heart, that one tends to overlook the hard chill of his teaching. He is himself the winning exemplar of humanity making itself at home in a world that offers cold comfort at best. The model of excellence, like Walt Whitman he convinces by his presence. And what he convinces one of is that the life of fully engaged intelligence and spirit makes even this godless, purposeless world a potential delight. Humboldt is the hero of his own book, as captivating as the most beautiful of the phenomena he describes. Here he is seeing — really seeing, as only a scientist of exquisite perception can — the aurora borealis, and not only explicating the sight but also registering his amazement at its gorgeousness:

The more intense the discharges of the Aurora, the more vivid is the play of colours, from violet and bluish-white through all gradations to green and crimson…. At one moment the magnetic streamers rise singly, and are even interspersed with dark rays, resembling dense smoke; at another they shoot upwards simultaneously from many and opposite points of the horizon, and unite in a quivering sea of flame, the splendour of which no description can reach, for every instant its bright waves assume new forms.

He explains one of the most mysteriously beautiful natural phenomena without explaining away its mystery. To recognize where mystery remains, despite keen observation and accurate measurement — this too is essential to “the recognition of nature as a whole.”

‘The Progress of Cosmical Knowledge’

Although Humboldt does not say so, he appears to think of himself as the rightful successor to the most capacious and discerning intelligences of the past, whose individual knowledge of the whole of nature could not rival the communal knowledge of nineteenth-century science, but who nevertheless represent the apex of intellectual striving in their attempts to grasp the whole. “It was reserved to the powerful genius, and to the at once profoundly philosophical and practical mind of Aristotle, to enter equally deeply and successfully into the world of abstract ideas, and into that of the rich diversity of material substances, of organised beings, and animated existence,” Humboldt writes in Cosmos. Similarly, Leonardo da Vinci was “the greatest physicist of the 15th century, who combined distinguished mathematical knowledge with the most admirable and profound insight into nature.”

Julius Schrader (1859) / Metropolitan Museum of Art (public domain)

Leonardo’s genius was characteristic of “the age of Columbus.” As people perceived the truth about nature for the first time, unclouded by a priori conjectures amounting to fantasy, the social and political ramifications of the new clarity were transformative:

Where, in the history of nations, can we point to an epoch similar to that in which events so fruitful in consequences, as the discovery and first colonisation of America, the navigation to India by the Cape of Good Hope, and Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the globe, coincided with the highest and most flourishing period of art, with the attainment of intellectual and religious liberty, and with the sudden enlargement of the knowledge of the heavens and of the earth?

Yet Humboldt cannot overlook the enormities that the Europeans inflicted on their brave new world: “The progress of cosmical knowledge was purchased by all the violence and all the horrors which conquerors, the so-called extenders of civilisation, spread over the earth.” But to condemn this age of discovery as merely that of avaricious brutality or religious bloody-mindedness, he goes on, fails to reckon with the complicated and as yet indeterminate course of human destiny, which people of his own time cannot understand sufficiently to arrive at definitive judgment. And insofar as one is bound to judge, it is best to err in the direction of generosity and appreciation for the noblest human striving.

Colossal Wreck

Humboldt’s influence on scientists and writers alike was momentous. His admirers were legion, and his descendants — one cannot really speak of successors, for he was a nonpareil — renowned. Laura Dassow Walls provides the most comprehensive account of Humboldt’s following. Disbursing his collections among a wide circle of scientific specialists, he “became the de facto center of an entire research front.” The most distinguished physicists, botanists, geologists, evolutionary theorists, and painters were among his closest friends. Chateaubriand, Gustave Flaubert, Honoré de Balzac, and Victor Hugo all professed their esteem. The intrepid submariner Captain Nemo in Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea possessed Humboldt’s complete works.

Humboldt took pains to improve and to promote the work of the young and promising people who sought him out. His protégés left their own telling imprints on the world of knowledge. “Adolphe Quetelet, for instance, built on Humboldt’s … work to found the science of statistics; Justus Liebig founded organic chemistry and claimed he owed his career to Humboldt; Charles Lyell … likely derived from him the concept of dating rocks from fossils; Louis Agassiz was about to give up on his scientific career when Humboldt took him under his wing.” Darwin claimed direct descent from Humboldt: “my whole course of life is due to having read & reread as a youth his ‘Personal Narrative.’”

Some of America’s greatest literary figures shared in the enthusiasm. Ralph Waldo Emerson called Humboldt “the encyclopedia of science,” and was glad to be living during “the Age of Humboldt.” W. H. Prescott, historian of the conquistadors’ adventures in Mexico and Peru, wrote to Humboldt, “I have been very often guided by the light of your researches.” Edgar Allan Poe dedicated to Humboldt Eureka, an intellectually vertiginous, wild-and-woolly prose-poem cum scientific-theological dissertation that promotes the congruence of universe and human mind Humboldt-fashion: “The Earth would be considered in its planetary relations alone. A man, in this view, becomes mankind; mankind a member of the cosmical family of intelligences.” Walt Whitman, in his poem “Kosmos,” had Humboldt’s teaching very much on his mind:

Who, constructing the house of himself or herself, not for a day but for
all time, sees races, eras, dates, generations,
The past, the future, dwelling there, like space, inseparable together.

Henry David Thoreau read extensively in Humboldt’s works as he was conceiving Walden, writing in his journal, “I think that the man of science makes this mistake, and the mass of mankind along with him: that you should coolly give your chief attention to the phenomenon which excites you as something independent on you, and not as it is related to you.” Merely reading Humboldt was not enough for John Muir: “How intensely I desire to be a Humboldt,” he wrote as a young man. Founder of the Sierra Club, Amazonian traveler late in life, the foremost American nature writer of his day, Muir made Humboldt’s method of penetrating vision his own, as in this passage: “Comprehended in general views, the features of the wildest landscape seem to be as harmoniously related as the features of a human face. Indeed, they look human, and radiate spiritual beauty, divine thought, however covered and concealed by rock and snow.”

In Cosmos, Humboldt directed artists to explore the tropics and thereby introduce “a new and hitherto unknown brilliancy” to landscape painting. Frederic Edwin Church heeded the call so faithfully that he traveled to the Andes in the 1850s, followed the route that Humboldt had taken, and painted masterpieces unlike any others, embodying Humboldt’s credo in their precise observation of detail that serves a magnificent luminous unity. A contemporary critic called Church “the very painter Humboldt so longs for in his writings,” and Walls describes Church’s artistry in terms that evoke Humboldt’s gift and the painter’s generous reciprocity: “His mountains are studies in geology, his clouds are meteorologically exact, his plants and birds are rendered with the fidelity of the scientific illustrator. Yet these details are governed by the impression of the sublime whole to which they variously contribute, a whole visible only through the details that compose it.”

In the days after Humboldt’s death in 1859, one learns from Wulf, New York crowds lined up patiently for hours to pay a quarter and view Church’s The Heart of the Andes; the box office allure was Humboldt’s doing as much as the painter’s. Berlin held a state funeral for Humboldt, with pomp befitting the death of royalty, and the procession through the streets numbered in the tens of thousands. In 1869, on the hundredth anniversary of Humboldt’s birth, as Helferich notes, the New York Times devoted its entire front page to celebrating the great man. All the major American cities and many lesser ones held festivities in his honor. In Boston, Louis Agassiz delivered a two-hour memorial address to a packed house that included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. In Germany, Mexico, Australia, Humboldt’s achievements were venerated.

Today Humboldt’s glory is long gone. The recent scholarly effort to restore it has produced books of great general interest but has not enhanced his standing among scientists, for whom he is at best an antiquarian curiosity. He is the scientific Ozymandias, his splendor crumbled to dust, only pitiable fragments of his excellence remaining. His project of cosmic understanding, dazzling though it is, will never move future scientists in their boldest undertakings, as the works of Galileo, Newton, Darwin, and Einstein still have the power to do. And yet to read him is to enjoy the presence of an extraordinary scientific mind joined to a poet’s soul, and to delight in the rapturous being of a man complete as so few are.

The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Edwin Church (1859)
Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia
Algis Valiunas, “A Scientist’s Mind, A Poet’s Soul,” The New Atlantis, Number 63, Winter 2021, pp. 94–125.
Header image: Cotopaxi by Frederic Edwin Church, Detroit Institute of Arts via Wikimedia

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