restricted access Life-Force, or the Genius of Rhodes
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Life-Force, or the Genius of Rhodes
Translated by Leif Weatherby (bio)

Translator’s Preface

The legendary naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) contributed the literary text below to Friedrich Schiller’s Classicist organ Die Horen (The Horae) in 1795, the same year in which Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man appeared. Humboldt’s text—as he states in explanatory notes to later editions of his Views of Nature, in which the text was anthologized—presented the development of his idea of nature in “half-mythical garb.” The narrative does not seem to thematize “nature,” however, but instead a “life-force” depicted symbolically in a painting, and interpreted by the philosopher Epimarchus. The latter’s division of forces between the “anorganic” and the chemical and organic was the result of a century’s worth of methodological debate between Newtonian physics and the emergent life sciences (called ‘biology’ for the first time in 1800). Because the Principia mathematica (1687) had no obvious way of explaining biological phenomena (especially embryogenesis), the status of the living was a methodological problem throughout the 18th century. The postulation of organic forces of various kinds became the scientific fashion. One such solution was proposed in a flurry of treatises on a so-called “life-force” that appeared in Germany in the mid-1790s; among them was Humboldt’s own Flora fribergensis (1793), in which he included an appendix of “Aphorisms from the Chemical Physiology of Plants.” Epimarchus’ doctrinal points in the final paragraphs of the text are partly Humboldt’s translations of his [End Page 163] own Latin, as his later notes make clear. These notes also display his later rejection of “life-force” as the “hidden cause” from the Aphorisms, preferring a new model in which observable relationships between the organic and the anorganic define their distance from each other: “one organ determines the state of the other, one gives the other its temperature, as it were, its mood, in which this and no other affinities has an effect. Thus everything in the organism is alternatingly means and end.” This statement presents the author’s interpretation of the philosophical question of the Genius of Rhodes in the context of a new methodology of science that arose in the middle of the 19th century: the comparative and experimental methods of what was now indeed called ‘biology.’ Humboldt’s text thus narrativizes a moment in the history of the concept of nature which Humboldt himself had both established and later rejected. This moment stands between the Enlightenment and positivism, and marks a watershed in the cultural history of life’s role in nature. [End Page 164]

The Syracusans had their painted stoa just like the Athenians. The colorful halls of the portico were covered by representations of gods and heroes, Greek and Italian artworks. One could see the people unceasingly streaming in that direction: the young warrior, to luxuriate in the deeds of his forefathers, the artist, in the brushstrokes of the great masters. Among the countless paintings the assiduous zeal of the Syracusans had gathered from the motherland, there was only one that had, for more than a century, attracted the attention of all passersby. Even when the Olympian Jupiter, the city-founder Cecrops, the hero’s courage of Harmodius and Aristogeiton lacked admirers, the people always stood crammed in mobs around this image. Why this bias? Was it a salvaged work of Apelles or did it come from the school of Callimachus? No: charm and grace, to be sure, radiated from the image, but in terms of the mixing of colors, character, and the style of the composition as a whole, it couldn’t measure up to many others in the stoa.

The populace will gawk and wonder at that which it does not understand, and this type of behavior includes several classes [und diese Art des Volks begreift viele Klassen unter sich]. The image had been exhibited for a century but—though Syracuse contained within its narrow walls more artistic genius than all the rest of sea-encircled Sicily—the meaning of the image nevertheless remained a riddle. It was not even known in...