Nonfiction > Ralph Waldo Emerson > The Complete Works
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882).  The Complete Works.  1904.
Vol. XI. Miscellanies
XXIV. Humboldt
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 knowledge 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 1 was one of those wonders of the world, like Aristotle, like Julius Cæsar, 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 encyclopædic 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 researches. 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 countrymen 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 researches 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.  2
Note 1. The Boston Society of Natural History celebrated the One Hundredth Anniversary of the birth of Humboldt. Dr. Robert C. Waterston presided at the Music Hall, where Agassiz made the address. In the evening there was a reception in Horticultural Hall. The occasion was made memorable by the Society by the founding of a Humboldt and Agassiz scholarship in the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy in Cambridge.
  Poems by Dr. Holmes and Mrs. Howe were read. Professor E. J. Young and Dr. Charles T. Jackson gave reminiscences of Humboldt; Colonel Higginson, the Rev. Dr. Hedge and others spoke. Mr. Emerson’s remarks are taken from an abstract given in the account of the celebration published by the Society. [back]

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