Journal Entry Dated Weimar, May 11, 1817

To cross the Alps in a horsedrawn carriage, as Goethe did in 1786, sounds like high adventure to the 20th- century traveler used to the amenities of cars, trains, and airplanes. A one-hour ride to Jena last week was just about all I could manage, and my body ached for days afterwards from being thoroughly shaken and knocked around. Goethe who was with me seemed used to the discomfort and took little notice of the countless potholes and uneven pavement. He told me about his trip to Italy, and the pleasant conversation distracted me somewhat from the physical inconvenience.

Due to his inquisitive, independent spirit, Goethe had his share of adventures on top of the unavoidable hardships of such a journey. Thus, he nearly got himself arrested as a spy when he was sketching some medieval ruins in an Italian village near the Austrian border. The rather dense police authorities saw nothing remarkable in the broken-down fortress they had known all their lives, and Goethe appeared to them as a clandestine secret agent sent from the hostile Austrian Empire.

In Naples, he barely escaped with his life when he climbed to the crater's edge of Vesuvius, an active volcano. He lost track of the time because of his fascination with the red-hot lava flow. When the volcano started to erupt, Goethe literally had to run for his life and was lucky to get away with minor bruises and burns.

Goethe told me about his trip to Italy in order to introduce the topics of color, light and darkness, and optics. The famous paintings by the masters of the Renaissance evoked not only aesthetic admiration, but also scientific curiosity within him. Why were certain colors chosen, he asked -- was it in mimicry of external appearance, was it the artistic convention of a certain period, was it the fancy of the individual artist? Or were there some deeper principles, some basic laws uniting the application of color? The artists he met in Rome and Naples were unable to satisfy his inquisitive mind. They knew about composition and perspective, but they could not tell him why certain colors appeared harmonious together, while others did not. Upon his return to Weimar, he read some books discussing the conventional Newtonian theory of light and color, but they did not answer his questions either. In particular, Newton's treatment of light as a dead substance consisting of particles or corpuscles was totally alien to Goethe for whom light is a living entity, a creative force. Lesser minds would have given up at this point. Not so Goethe: determined to uncover the truth he sought, he decided to conduct his own observations and experimentation. Like all of his scientific research, the exploration of color was influenced by the alchemical studies he had undertaken as a youth. He does not strike me at all as a 16th-century mystic; however, the underlying perceptions of the best alchemists seem somehow alive in him.
"Throughout my works many more or less esoteric confessions crop up, and I am sure these have not escaped your notice,"
he told me.
"The incredible discoveries of chemistry have already given powerful expression to the element of magic in nature, so that we need not be afraid to approach her in a higher sense, stimulating and encouraging a dynamic, inspired view in all men. We have no need to concern ourselves with atomistic, materialistic, mechanic approaches, for these ways of thought will never lack for supporters and friends."
His Theory of Color begins with a meticulous examination of the physiological response to colors. After extending his investigation from sensory perception to physical colors and even chemical colors (the most external and physical form of color), he returns to the human being, but on the higher level of feeling, esthetics, and symbol where color may become creative. The natural phenomenon reaches a certain culmination, both refining and refined in the inner life of the human being; macrocosm and microcosm are united in a way which is objective and also imaginative. An example for the relationship of the material aspect of color to the non-material inner nature of the human is found in Part Six of the Theory, where Goethe discusses the Sensory-Moral Effect of Color.

Goethe's methodology requires active participation instead of simply hearing or reading about the theory. In order for me to experience what he was telling me about light and color, he brought out some prisms. I was touched by his warning to gradually get used to the colors I would see; for some people, the colors can initially be painful to the eye, he said. Little does he know of the glaring, flashing artificial lights of neon and electricity which have numbed our eyes for nearly a century.

"I should like you to observe these phenomena long enough for you yourself to feel a desire to discover their laws and to find your way out of this brilliant labyrinth. Only then do I want you to undertake the following experiments and to follow the demonstration with attention. In that way we will make a serious occupation out of what to begin with was an entertainment."
After this pleasant warning which suited me perfectly, we spent a fascinating hour or two looking through our prisms at various cards, while Goethe elaborated on his thoughts.

The concept of polarity weaves through all of Goethe's scientific studies as one of the most fundamental structural elements of the created universe. A striking example is the polarity of light and dark which works in matter to create the array of colors. Light seen through darkness (the setting sun seen through the dense medium of the earth's atmosphere, for example) yields red, orange, and yellow. Darkness seen through light (the sun at noon illuminating the dark cosmos, for us, behind) produces blue and violet.
"Light and darkness are continually struggling with each other,"
Goethe explained;
"Colors are the deeds of light, what it does and what it endures."
He guided me from one type of phenomenon to the next; if one can muster the imaginative activity demanded by the phenomena, each step leads to a deeper insight into nature and its underlying ideal.

In Goethe's view, Newton's central experiment -- the ray of light breaking into the spectral colors with the use of a prism -- was only one minor variation of the fundamental phenomenon of light in front of darkness versus darkness in front of light. Although he handles other opponents with a fair degree of grace, Goethe has nothing good to say about the Newtonian school of physics.
"The battle with Newton is actually being conducted at a very low level. It is directed against a phenomenon which was poorly observed, poorly developed, poorly applied, and poorly explained in theory. He stands accused of sloppiness in his earlier experiments, prejudice in his later ones, haste in forming theories, obstinacy in defending them, and generally a half-unconscious, half-conscious dishonesty,"
he declared, a frown on his brow.

Goethe observes a basic unity between human perception and the universe which he stated to me in the following words:
"Insofar as he makes use of his healthy senses, man himself is the best and most exact scientific instrument possible. The greatest misfortune of modern physics is that its experiments have been set apart from man, as it were; physics refuses to recognize nature in anything not shown by artificial instruments, and even uses this as a measure of its accomplishments. Much is true that cannot be calculated, and much that cannot be shown in a definite experiment. But man occupies such a high position that things otherwise beyond depiction may be depicted in him."
His plant studies had shown that the same patterns reveal themselves, whether seen through the microscope or with the naked eye. I could not get myself to tell him about particle accelerators or gene technology. Obviously, Goethe's views will not and should not replace modern science, but would his attitude not be a healthy complement to our current methodology which often seems to have completely lost touch with human experience? I wonder how to implement what I have learned from him, when I return to my own century...

Go to Goethe's Letter I; Letter II
Go to Eiseley's First Journal Entry
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