Such expressions as that famous one of Linnæus, and which we often meet with in a more or less concealed form, that the characters do not make the genus, but that the genus gives the characters, seem to imply that something more is included in our classification, than mere resemblance. I believe that something more is included; and that propinquity of descent,—the only known cause of the similarity of organic beings,—is the bond, hidden as it is by various degrees of modification, which is partially revealed to us by our classifications (Darwin, 1859, p. 413f).

Monday, 14 July 2008

Goethe's Philistines

The Sturm und Drang movement of the 18th and 19th centuries not only produced Romantic literature and Naturphilosophie but also a nemesis - the philistine.

The typical materialistic bourgeois, content with all the pleasures without delving in or appreciating culture, art and nature, was labeled a philistine. They had no interest in nature, no compassion or pity. The philistine also favored a life dedicated to industry, profit and security, rather than a life devoted to following ones dreams. Where those of the Strum und Drang movement, for instance, would applaud a devoted artist, whose self sacrifice has led to a life of hardship in order to follow the pursuit of happiness, the philistine would dismiss it as thoughtless and naive. Imagine the reaction of Mr. Potter of a Wonderful Life, to the self sacrifice of van Gogh.

Goethe also made the philistine his nemesis. Those who considered Goethe the greatest living poet and dramatist did not appreciate him for his obsession and devotion to natural history. During his life time he was criticized for his work on the Theory of Colours. A living legend, one that presents all things German, was, it seems, forbidden to make any contribution outside his own area of 'expertise'. These were the philistines speaking.

Today they still exist, each with their own copy of Werther, gathering dust, prominently in their book cases. The German middle class, obsessed with success and measuring history, culture, art and nature as expendable commodities, dismiss Goethe's scientific contributions. Goethe is unsellable to future generations as a natural historian. Leave that to the English who had Newton, Darwin and Wallace. Germany had the poets, composers and philosophers. These are the philistines speaking.

The philistines have the power and industry to rewrite or edit history. Goethe's work on color was misguided and his ideas on morphology naive. Darwin discovered evolution and provided the means to do biogeography. French are all Gallic and the Germans are all Huns. Non-Greeks are barbarians and people in the middle ages thought the Earth was flat. These are the philistines speaking.

No wonder Goethe thought that:
It is laughable when Philistines praise themselves for possessing the greatest knowledge and enlightenment of their age and call those of the past barbarians. Reason is as old as the world! (Goethe to Riemer May 10, 1806).
The philistines have there point of reference in history, theory, culture, art and natural history. These are simply markers, to give unappreciated things meaning in the form of measurement, value and commodity. Before Darwin there was no evolutionary biology; before Aristotle, no science and before Adam, no people. These are the philistines speaking.


Wills Flowers said...

Goethe had the same problem that Nabokov would have later. Literary mavens generally are unable to get their heads around Nobokov's work in entomology, especial the fact that he made solid contributions to both art and science.

Malte Ebach & David Williams said...

Thanks for the interesting insight into Nabokov. The International Herald Tribune has interesting article about Nabokov's scientific endeavors. Kurt Johnson and Steve Coates have also written the book Nabokov's Blues: The Scientific Odyssey of a Literary Genius.