Teetering On The Brink Of Idiocy

… speculation continued to flourish in Germany, where a group of young writers, gathered at the University of Jena, began to explore the philosophical ideas of Friedrich Schelling, and what he called Naturphilosophie. This doctrine, perhaps best translated as ‘science mysticism’, defined the entire natural world as a system of invisible powers and energies, operating like electricity as a series of ‘polarities’. According to Schelling’s doctrine, the whole world was indeed replete with spiritual energy or soul, and all physical objects ‘aspired’ to become something higher. There was a ‘world-soul’ constantly ‘evolving’ higher life forms and ‘levels of consciousness’ in all matter, animate or inanimate. All nature had a tendency to move towards a higher state.

So carbon for example ‘aspired’ to become diamond; plants aspired to become sentient animals; animals aspired to become men; men aspired to become part of the Zeitgeist or world spirit. Evolutionary, idealist, electrical and Vitalist ideas were all evidently tangled up in this system, which had an obvious appeal to imaginative writers in the Jena circle like Novalis, Schiller and Goethe, as well as experimental physiologists like Johann Ritter. It had its attractions, not least in its optimism and its sense of reverence for the natural world. But it also constantly teetered on the brink of idiocy. One of its wilder proselytisers, the Scandinavian geologist Henrick Steffens, was said to have stated that ‘The diamond is a piece of carbon that has come to its senses’; to which a Scottish geologist, probably John Playfair, made the legendary reply: ‘Then a quartz, therefore, must be a diamond run mad’.

Richard Holmes, The Age Of Wonder : How The Romantic Generation Discovered The Beauty And Terror Of Science (2008). In some ways the joys of this book are encapsulated in a single brief sentence on page 273:

The Anti-Jacobin magazine made a more general link between radical politics, inhaling gas, flying balloons and mesmerism.

One thought on “Teetering On The Brink Of Idiocy

  1. I believe that the link between inhaling things and radical politics is as strong as ever, though largely limited to those below the age of 30 as it ever was.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.