Goethe and Evolution

The Listener 42 (1 Dec. 1949): 945-946

If we say that Goethe looked on man as a part of nature, there is a deceptively familiar ring about the last part of the sentence. ‘So do I’, most people will reply. Neither a Darwinian, nor a Behaviourist nor a Marxist will have any quarrel with him on that score; and most Christians will reply agree after making the distinction between a state of nature and a state of grace.

Explorer and Observer

And yet there is a very great difference between what Goethe meant and what most people mean today when they speak, or think, of man as being a part of nature. When we say it, we have at the back of our minds – most of us – what I will call the outside of man, his flesh and his bones and his brain – all in fact that we can perceive of him through the senses during his life or after his death. And we think of all this as having developed by gradual process from a world in which there were once no men and at an earlier stage still no animals, and so forth. Whatever he thought about this process, Goethe also believed that the inside of man was a part of the inside of nature. There are of course those who contend, or appear to contend, that man has no inside, in the sense in which I am using the word. They say that his consciousness, including his thoughts, is a bodily process analogous to secretions. But I do not think I need pause to consider if they are right, because it follows, if they are not wrong, that there is no such thing as being right or wrong but only secretions and a making of noises. Our business is with Goethe.

If anyone entirely unfamiliar with Goethe’s outlook on man and nature asked us today how he could come at some notion of it, what should we tell him? I think I would begin by referring to a realm of experience with which most people nowadays have a nodding acquaintance, though it had not been heard of in Goethe’s day. I would tell him to think of the Unconscious. If he directed his mind to the whole vague network of thoughts and assumptions involved in such a phrase as Jung’s Collective Unconscious – and it is nothing to my immediate purpose whether Jung’s theories are true or not – I think the words ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ would begin to be clothed with meaning, and he might begin to appreciate the difference between ‘man’ – and nature too – as Goethe thought of them, and man and nature as the natural sciences investigate them.

Here I should like to observe that, whenever I myself begin to feel a bit uncomfortable with nature, there is always someone ready to hurry along and tell me that I am trying to get back, or am getting back, or have already got back, to the womb. I have heard this so often in one form or another that I am quite sure it must be true; and I am very sorry about it. May I however just point out that the first step usually taken by practical men engaged in a practical undertaking is to establish themselves in a thoroughly well-warmed headquarters.

Was Goethe then an introvert? Mainly interested in ferreting about among those half-formed emotions and impulses and huge creative forces which move in a mysterious way within us, we are told, as the forces of nature drive us and shape us from without? Not for a moment. He was the most exact and conscientious observer of plants and animals and the physical structure of man – especially his bones. Nothing delighted him more than the loan of an elephant-skull. He seems to have been about as good at borrowing other people’s bones as Coleridge was at borrowing other people’s books; and at least one rather aggrieved letter, which is still extant, suggests that he was not always much better at returning them. Incidentally I think Charlotte von Stein has been a little unfairly treated by some of Goethe’s biographers. The intellectual and active life of that lady between the years 1775 and 1786 must have been something of a marathon. When she was not mugging up Spinoza in Latin as well as German – or inspecting musty skulls, she was always liable to get an urgent request from Goethe for ‘mosses of all sorts, if possible with the roots – and wet’.

In the same letter Charlotte speaks of a new book which makes it probable that men were originally plants and animals. And this brings me to the hardest part of my task. For I have to try to describe the origin of something new in the world of thought. Or rather – which makes it still harder – something then new, but now very familiar to us all. I do not mean a theory. The absence of that is easy enough to look back on. No, I mean an image or construct, a meaning, a Vorstellung, a Bild, as the Germans say – whatever word or phrase you choose, as long as you grasp that it is not a theory I am talking about, but rather the raw stuff about which theories are formed.

What is it which, more than anything else, cuts us off mentally from the year 1749? It is the presence, implicit or explicit in practically all our thinking about everything, of this mental image of development, or evolution (for the two are really synonymous). I am not speaking of any particular theory of evolution; nor only of the evolution of species, but of ‘development’ in general, including the development of the individual from procreation to maturity. I am asking you to withdraw your mind from such things as arguments between Huxley and Wilberforce, or between Darwinians and Lamarckians and to direct it to the thing they were arguing about – this mental image, so familiar to us now, and yet, in itself, so strange, of one form gradually changing into another form and yet somehow retaining identity. This was the new thing that came into men’s minds between Goethe’s birth and his old age. This is still the important thing. By comparison with it the theory of, for example, natural selection, however true it may be, is little more than a stunt. For that was simply the transference to one set of observations of a well-established way in which men were already thinking about another. Whereas evolution simpliciter was a new way of thinking. And like all such new ways, its introduction was an act of man’s image-making faculty; sometimes called imagination. It sprang, not from theorising but from direct observation.

Creating the Idea of Evolution

What is the best way to get inside the skin of a man whose state of mind or feeling on some matter is quite alien to me – alien, because it lacks something which I take for granted? The best way is to find something else about which I feel as blank as he does about this. Jones’s emphatic refusal of all kinds of salad-dressing is so incomprehensible to my taste that I begin to feel he is an affected ass. I get irritated with him. But the moment I stop thinking about salad-dressing and concentrate on rice-pudding, I find myself standing open-eyed in his shoes, and he is once more a man and a brother. The same device may be used for slipping on the mental shoes of a bygone age. Do you want to imagine what the new idea of ‘development’ looked like to an age in which the word ‘evolution’ merely meant what Sam Weller called ‘swelling wisibly’? In which it meant what is now called emboîtement, the doctrine that the entire animal or, in man, an entire homunculus, is contained in miniature in the primary cell? If so, my advice would be to stop thinking about evolution and think, instead, about something which we regard as absurdly unscientific and romantic: Greek mythology, if you like. I believe Rossetti once told William Morris that it was absolutely impossible for him to feel any interest at all in anyone whose brother was a dragon. Perhaps you feel that the whole world of gods and furies and naiads and so forth is so remote and preposterous that you cannot take it seriously even as fiction? Well, if not, choose something else that you do find queer. What I am trying hard to suggest is the intellectual ferment which was required in order that what we call ‘evolution’, instead of being as unfamiliar to us as Greek mythology (or whatever else you have chosen), should become something we simply take for granted. For in that ferment Goethe, as is clear from his correspondence, was a very active ingredient indeed.

I am not well enough read in the works of eighteenth-century biologists throughout Europe to be able to assess with confidence the precise importance of the part played by his imagination in creating or realising the idea of evolution; and I rather wonder who is. My own guess would be that it was a pretty important part; but it is not my case that, but for Goethe, we should never have heard of evolution – or, as he called it metamorphosis. What I am concerned with is the form which the idea took, or rather retained, in his mind. For that is very different from most of the forms it has taken since. About as different, I would say, as a motor-car driven under its own power by one of the skilled workers who designed it is from the same motor-car hitched to a pair of oxen and used in the good old way as a luxury farm-waggon.

To understand Goethe’s view of nature one thing is needful and that is, to understand what he meant by Urphänomen. These archetypal ideas or phenomena, which realise themselves, he held, in the ever-changing forms of organic nature, are indeed the heart of the matter. They are the ‘inside’ of nature of which I spoke earlier; but – and this is all-important – they are as much inside man as they are inside nature. If therefore you call them, as Schiller did, ideas, you must remember that Goethe insists they are objective ideas. If you say, ‘Well then, they are not ideas but real entities’, then you must not forget that nevertheless they are subjective. Sinnlich – über sinnlich he said they were and he insisted that they were perceived rather than thought about, but perceived by the mind instead of by the senses. And this perception which depended on love and a devoted self-surrender as well as on accurate observation was a kind of communion.

It is not an easy notion and many people have regarded it as nonsense. I do not think so myself, and that is why I was at such pains to try to set before you the pure idea of evolution – or, as we had now better call it – metamorphosis. Because, if we have managed to hold in our minds the pure idea, or mental image, of metamorphosis itself, as distinct from the theories that have been woven round it, we have, I believe, taken the first step towards perceiving one of Goethe’s Urphänomene. For metamorphosis, so apprehended, is really the Urphänomen, the archetypal phenomenon, of the whole of organic nature, of life itself.

The scientific works of Goethe were fully edited and annotated at the end of the last century by Rudolf Steiner. If you are in doubt whether investigations based on any such principles could ever lead to practical results, you should acquaint yourself with the way in which they were subsequently developed both by Steiner himself and after his death by his followers in such matters as medicine, agriculture and elsewhere. Of course it is only a beginning, but I happen to have the best of reasons for adopting a respectful attitude to the medical side and you may have heard of the Bio-dynamic method in agriculture which is based on strictly Goethean principles.

The importance of the place you assign to Goethe in the history of western thought depends inevitably on the view you take of the true relation between man and nature. The place I claim for him is a very very high one for the following reasons. I believe that human consciousness, as we know it, has gradually evolved from a much older condition of what I can only call unity with nature into a more recent phase of detachment and sharp self-awareness. By nature, I mean in effect, the whole of what we perceive through our senses (including of course our own bodies), though I have been obliged to limit myself to organic nature. I believe moreover that we stand now on the threshold either of a great disaster or else of a first step forward to a third phase. This third phase must involve a reunion with nature, without loss of the self-awareness. So I hold; and I see in Goethe’s whole life and work one long struggle to take the step, on behalf of himself in the first place and incidentally on behalf of mankind.

There is always something a little sensational in pointing to particular moments in history; but perhaps you will meet me half way, if I say that, ideally, the dualism of man and nature on which our civilisation has been resting (if you can call it resting) began when the Hebrews were forbidden to make graven images and were enjoined to worship only the invisible God who named himself I AM; and that it closed when the communes all over France dethroned Him and set up a goddess of Reason in His stead. The older type of consciousness, wherein man felt an inner unity between himself and nature, and a kind of coming and going between them, remains mirrored for us in the mythologies; and in the Greek myths especially we find this sense of inner unity with nature associated with a ready faculty for grasping in images the startling business of changing from one form into another. It is not accident that the richest storehouse of these myths which has survived to us is a poem by Ovid called the ‘Metamorphoses’. Notice, too, that it was during his stay in Italy, when he was dividing his time between the study of classical antiquities and observation of nature, that Goethe himself first fully realised the implications of his own view. Something of this will be found in the essay on ‘Winckelmann’.

Just as it was an event of immense importance when, in the eastern Mediterranean, before and after the birth of Christ, there occurred a certain fusion of the Greek and Hebrew worlds of thought, so I venture to see in Goethe the herald of a new and equally intimate fusion of modern thought with – no, not with Greek mythology, but with what lay beneath it. I mean a unitary consciousness older and more living than anything that still lingered in the Greek mind and the Greek language of New Testament days. For by that time Greece in her philosophy had herself long felt the impact of the dualism. And just as at that time the Jew, who was directed to look, and did look, for the law of God inside himself, instead of without as formerly, found there something very different from Ten Commandments inscribed on two Stone Tables; so I believe that Goethe’s message to us is this: that if, instead of looking at nature only outwardly, only through the senses, as formerly, we begin to look for her at the same time within ourselves, then we shall find something very different from a couple of laws of thermodynamics and a struggle for existence. And yet as in the one case, so in the other, what we shall find will not be a denial of the laws of nature as we know them, but their fulfilment.

Owen Barfield
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