Letter Dated April 18, 1817

Weimar, 18 April, 1817

My Dearest Charlotte,
About a week ago Herr Eiseley and I spent the whole day roaming through my beloved Harz mountains. Like me, he has a desire for that sublime tranquillity which surrounds us when we stand in the solitude and silence of nature, vast and eloquent with its still voice. As we stood high atop a barren peak and surveyed the wide expanse below, I said:
"Here we stand upon ground which reaches right down into the deepest recesses of the Earth; no younger strata, no pile of alluvial debris comes between us and the firm foundation of the primal world. What we tread here is not the perpetual grave of those beautiful, fruitful valleys; these peaks have never given birth to a living being and have never devoured a living being, for they are before all life and above all life."
In this moment, when the inner powers of the Earth seemed to affect me directly with all their forces of attraction and movement, and the influences of heaven hovered closer about me, I was uplifted in spirit to a more exalted view of nature. The human spirit brings life to everything, and here, too, there springs to life within me an image irresistible in its sublimity.
"This mood of solitude,"
I said to Eiseley as we gazed down from the barren peak and glimpsed a faint patch of lowgrowing moss far below,
"this mood of solitude will overcome all who desire to bring before their souls only the deepest, oldest, most elemental feeling for the truth. ...My soul is exalted beyond itself and above all the world, and it yearns for the heavens which are so near."

Dr. Eiseley shared with me some future views on evolution; he mentioned one Charles Darwin who will publish a book called On the Origin of Species only some 30 years from now.
"We today know the result of Darwin's endeavors,"
Eiseley told me.
"The knitting together of the vast web of life until it is seen like the legendary tree of Igdrasil, reaching endlessly up through the dead geological strata with living and related branches still glowing in the sun. Bird is no longer bird but can be made to leap magically backward into reptile; man is hidden in the lemur, lemur in tree shrew, tree shrew in reptile; reptile is finally precipitated into fish. ...Darwin was looking back upon an increasingly remote and violent past, through spectacles few men had raised to their eyes before, and none before him so effectively. Cultural man was really a disturbing element in his system, an obstruction difficult to account for, and introducing strange vagaries into Darwin's own version of the Newtonian world machine."

I am no adherent of the evolutionary concepts of the last century which view development as revelation rather than a process of creation. When I published my work on the intermaxillary bone in 1784, it was to refute the assertion that the human being was completely different from the animal; that the separate bone in the jaw of an ape for example did not seem to be present in the human. It was then as now my conviction that nature is a continuum, fluid and dynamic. The view that nature had created a separate category for humanity is in my eyes a distortion and violation of nature's fundamental law, namely that it is a tapestry without gaps. As I have clearly shown, the intermaxillary bone is present in man as well as in animal; in our species, however, only some of its edges can be located because the others have grown together and fused with the upper jaw.

My own ideas on evolution rest on the concept of adaptation, which presupposes the presence of something which adapts itself. The developmental process results from a conversation between the inner "idea" of the natural phenomenon, and the outer environment in which it is placed. Will we not show more regard for the primal force of nature, for the wisdom of the intelligent being usually presumed to underlie it, if we suppose that even its power is limited, and realize that its forms are created by something working from without as well as from within? ...The existence of a creature we call "fish" is only possible under the conditions we call "water," so that the creature not only exists in that element, but may also evolve there. ...The structure in its final form is, as it were, the inner nucleus molded in various ways by the characteristics of the outer element. It is precisely thus that the animal retains its viability in the outer world: it is shaped from without as well as from within. ...Ultimately we will see the whole world of animals as a great element in which one species is created, or at least sustained, by and through another.

I found in Dr. Eiseley such an attentive listener that I warmed up, stating my ideas with a passion. He commented that I seemed to be prefiguring the modern concept of ecology, the meaning of which he had to explain to me. The next time I see you in person, I will describe his answer in detail.

Until then, I remain your loving friend
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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