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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Study of the Natural Sciences
By Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859)
 
From ‘Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe’

AN EQUAL appreciation of all branches of the mathematical, physical, and natural sciences is a special requirement of the present age, in which the material wealth and the growing prosperity of nations are principally based upon a more enlightened employment of the products and forces of nature. The most superficial glance at the present condition of Europe shows that a diminution, or even a total annihilation, of national prosperity, must be the award of those States which shrink with slothful indifference from the great struggle of rival nations in the career of the industrial arts. It is with nations as with nature, which, in the happy expression of Goethe, “knows no pause in progress and development, and attaches her curse on all inaction.” The propagation of an earnest and sound knowledge of science can therefore alone avert the dangers of which I have spoken. Man cannot act upon nature, or appropriate her forces to his own use, without comprehending their full extent and having an intimate acquaintance with the laws of the physical world. Bacon has said that in human societies, knowledge is power. Both must sink and rise together. But the knowledge that results from the free action of thought is at once the delight and the indestructible prerogative of man; and in forming part of the wealth of mankind, it not infrequently serves as a substitute for the natural riches which are but sparingly scattered over the earth. Those States which take no active part in the general industrial movement, in the choice and preparation of natural substances, or in the application of mechanics and chemistry, and among whom this activity is not appreciated by all classes of society, will infallibly see their prosperity diminish in proportion as neighboring countries become strengthened and invigorated under the genial influence of arts and sciences.  1
  As in nobler spheres of thought and sentiment—in philosophy, poetry, and the fine arts—the object at which we aim ought to be an inward one, an ennoblement of the intellect, so ought we likewise, in our pursuit of science, to strive after a knowledge of the laws and the principles of unity that pervade the vital forces of the universe; and it is by such a course that physical studies may be made subservient to the progress of industry, which is a conquest of mind over matter. By a happy connection of causes and effects, we often see the useful linked to the beautiful and the exalted. The improvement of agriculture in the hands of freemen and on properties of a moderate extent, the flourishing state of the mechanical arts when freed from the trammels of municipal restrictions, the increased impetus imparted to commerce by the multiplied means of contact of nations with each other, are all brilliant results of the intellectual progress of mankind, and of the amelioration of political institutions in which this progress is reflected. The picture presented by modern history ought to convince those who are tardy in awakening to the truth of the lesson it teaches.  2
  Nor let it be feared that the marked predilection for the study of nature, and for industrial progress, which is so characteristic of the present age, should necessarily have a tendency to retard the noble exertions of the intellect in the domains of philosophy, classical history, and antiquity; or to deprive the arts by which life is embellished of the vivifying breath of imagination. Where all the germs of civilization are developed beneath the ægis of free institutions and wise legislation, there is no cause for apprehending that any one branch of knowledge should be cultivated to the prejudice of others. All afford the State precious fruits, whether they yield nourishment to man and constitute his physical wealth, or whether, more permanent in their nature, they transmit in the works of mind the glory of nations to remotest posterity. The Spartans, notwithstanding their Doric austerity, prayed the gods to grant them “the beautiful with the good.”  3
  I will no longer dwell upon the considerations of the influence exercised by the mathematical and physical sciences on all that appertains to the material wants of social life; for the vast extent of the course on which I am entering forbids me to insist further upon the utility of these applications. Accustomed to distant excursions, I may perhaps have erred in describing the path before us as more smooth and pleasant than it really is, for such is wont to be the practice of those who delight in guiding others to the summits of lofty mountains: they praise the view even when a great part of the distant plains lie hidden by clouds, knowing that this half-transparent vapory veil imparts to the scene a certain charm from the power exercised by the imagination over the domain of the senses. In like manner, from the height occupied by the physical history of the world, all parts of the horizon will not appear equally clear and well defined. This indistinctness will not, however, be wholly owing to the present imperfect state of some of the sciences, but in part likewise to the unskillfulness of the guide who has imprudently ventured to ascend these lofty summits.  4
 
 
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