Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Cosmos and I

One comes across Goethe in the darndest place, as I have often discovered. My husband, Rick, taught physics and had a huge library of books on the history of science, his special interest. I have been going through these books and listing the more valuable ones on Amazon for sale. A few days ago I received a request for The Mechanization of the World Picture: Pythagoras to Newton, published in 1950 by the Dutch historian of science E.J. Dijksterhuis. (First English translation, 1960.) Paging through it I came across a footnote in section 108 in which appears the poem Goethe wrote after his ascent of the Brocken in 1783:

Wär' nicht das Auge sonnenhaft,
Die Sonne könnt es nie erblicken;
Läg nicht in uns das Gottes eigne Kraft,
Wie könnt' uns Göttliches entzücken?

 The poem comes up in Professor Dijksterhuis's discussion of astrology in the ancient world. Apparently, the Babylonian legacy of "star science" was systematized by the Greeks, especially by the Old and Middle Stoa.

 Stoicism, he writes, "taught people to view the world as a living being, endowed with reason and feeling. ... Man is a microcosm, a small-scale image of the whole, which he would not be able to know if he were not essentially akin to it. It is the thought which Maniliu was aferwards to express in the verses: Quis coelum possit nisi coeli munere nosse et reperire Deum nisi qui pars ipse Deorum est." There follows the footnote reference to Goethe's poem, which, he writes "voice[s] an essential elements of [Goethe's] natural philosophy."

Persian astrologer Mashallah ibn Athari
At the end of this chapter Dijksterhuis mentions a difference of opinion that divided the minds of ancient men, namely, "whether the celestial bodies themselves actually affect events on earth by their influence or whether they merely act as omens announcing those events." Many thinkers, after all, thought it incompatible with free will and responsibility "that men's characters and fortunes should be influenced by celestial bodies," even if they were unable to give up the theory of the relation between terrestrial and celestial events, "which was universally accepted and supported by the greatest authorities."

So, where did Goethe stand on this question?

Picture credits: Information is Beautiful; Who Guides; Staff Science

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