AN ABSTRACT OF MR. EMERSON’S REMARKS MADE
AT THE CELEBRATION OF THE CENTENNIAL ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH OF ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT, SEPTEMBER 14, 1869
“If a life prolonged to an advanced period bring with it several inconveniences to the individual, there is a compensation in the delight of being able to compare older states of know-ledge with that which now exists, and to see great advances in knowledge develop themselves under our eyes in departments which had long slept in inactivity.”
HUMBOLDT, Letter to Ritter.
HUMBOLDT was one of those wonders of the world, like Aristotle, like Julius CÃ¦sar, like the Admirable Crichton, who appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind, the force and the range of the faculties, – a universal man, not only possessed of great particular talents, but they were symmetrical, his parts were well put together. As we know, a man’s natural powers are often a sort of committee that slowly, one at a time, give their attention and action ; but Humboldt’s were all united, one electric chain, so that a university, a whole French Academy, travelled in his shoes. With great propriety, he named his sketch of the results of science Cosmos. There is no other such survey or surveyor. The wonderful Humboldt, with his solid centre and expanded wings, marches like an army, gathering all things as he goes. How he reaches from science to science, from law to law, folding away moons and asteroids and solar systems in the clauses and parentheses of his encyclopÃ¦dic paragraphs ! There is no book like it ; none indicating such a battalion of powers. You could not put him on any sea or shore but his instant recollection of every other sea or shore illuminated this.
He was properly a man of the world ; you could not lose him ; you could not detain him ; you could not disappoint him, for at any point on land or sea he found the objects of his re-searches. When he was stopped in Spain and could not get away, he turned round and interpreted their mountain system, explaining the past history of the continent of Europe. He belonged to that wonderful German nation, the foremost scholars in all history, who surpass all others in industry, space and endurance. A German reads a literature whilst we are reading a book. One of their writers warns his country-men that it is not the Battle of Leipsic, but the Leipsic Fair Catalogue, which raises them above the French. I remember Cuvier tells us of fossil elephants ; that Germany has furnished the greatest number ; – not because there are more elephants in Germany, – oh no; but because in that empire there is no canton without some well-informed person capable of making re-searches and publishing interesting results. I know that we have been accustomed to think they were too good scholars, that because they reflect, they never resolve, that ” in a crisis no plan-maker was to be found in the empire ; ” but we have lived to see now, for the second time in the history of Prussia, a statesman of the first class, with a clear head and an inflexible will.