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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859)

BARON FRIEDRICH HEINRICH ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT, better known as Alexander von Humboldt, the scientist and author, was one of those rare scholars who, while devoting themselves to the pursuit of exact knowledge, and leaving works of moment in the advance of human thought, possess a general culture and a gift of expression which give their work distinct value to the student of literature.

Humboldt was born in Berlin, September 14th, 1769. His father was an officer of high rank in the Seven Years’ War, and afterwards a court chamberlain. The son first received private instruction, with his elder brother Wilhelm, the celebrated scholar and statesman, and then studied philology, history, and other branches, at Frankfort and Göttingen, making occasional trips to the Hartz Mountains or on the Rhine,—a result of these jaunts being a monograph on a geological subject. In 1790 came travel in Holland, Belgium, England, and France,—an experience which first suggested further travels in far-lying tropic lands; then came more study at a trades-school in Hamburg and at the well-known Mining School at Freiburg. His work won for him in 1792 the position of mining engineer; and tours in Switzerland and the Tyrol gave him material for several volumes in geological or chemical fields. The year 1799 marked a turning-point in his career; for he resigned his post in order to give himself unreservedly to the study of science. Some months were spent in Jena, where he enjoyed the society of Goethe and Schiller; starting in 1797, in company with Bonpland, the distinguished French botanist, upon a series of wanderings in Spain, Switzerland, Italy, and France. In 1799, still with his fellow scientist, he set out for South America, and spent five years in that country and in Mexico, engaged in various investigations; his adventures including the climbing of Chimborazo to an altitude higher than had hitherto been attained. Except for occasional visits to Berlin and other cities, he resided by permission of the German king in Paris, pursuing his researches, writing and preparing for the press his many treatises: but finally came back to Berlin for good and all in 1827, to begin his famous lectures at the University upon physical geography; holding too the position of court chamberlain, like his father before him. His natal city was his home until his death more than thirty years later.

In 1829, at the instigation of the Russian Emperor Nicholas, he undertook with other scientists a journey to Siberia and the Caspian Sea. During the next decade he executed several government missions in Paris; was instrumental in organizing observation stations, which led to the fine system of meteorological stations now obtaining in Germany; and completed the editing of one of his greatest works, the ‘Critical Examination of the History of Geography of the New Continent,’ written in the French tongue. With the exception of brief journeys to England and Denmark in 1841 and 1845, Humboldt remained in Germany, and with the zeal and enthusiasm of a young man carried on his labors as teacher and scholar in Berlin; the richest fruits of which are seen in his master work ‘Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Cosmography’ (1845–1858). This comprehensive study of the physical universe exhibits the rare union of qualities which makes Humboldt truly a genius in science. Of encyclopædic knowledge, a specialist pursuing technical analyses to their minutest details, the founder of meteorology and physical geography, a discoverer on the subjects of sea and plant life, a thinker who did original work in geology, astronomy, zoölogy, botany, and mineralogy,—he yet had the synthetic grasp, the insatiable desire for an all-embracing conception of the world of matter. He used his wonderful acquirements as a foundation upon which to rear a lofty structure whence all nature might be viewed and a sense of her as a living whole be gained. The ‘Cosmos,’ because of this broad outlook and nobility of spirit, is a unique work in scientific literature. Its general scheme embraces a fine introduction,—from which the selections below are chosen,—in which the author’s views on Nature as a vast organic unity are set forth with eloquence; a grand review of natural phenomena, sidereal and terrestrial, and including the study of man as an inhabitant of the planet; followed by a consideration of the incitements to nature’s study found in the literature of many lands; and concluded by a sweeping survey of the progress among mankind of natural conceptions with regard to the universe. There is nothing dry or repellently technical about the treatment, which is broad, profoundly ethical, and aglow with elevated feeling.

Humboldt, moreover, showed himself to be a man of wide human sympathy by presenting his theories and discoveries in lectures and popular articles, simply and plainly, so that those who ran could read and understand. It was natural that one who had this catholic sympathy, this feeling for the ideal significance of the natural world, this wish to put it before his fellow-men in the way of literature rather than of science, should have done writing of artistic worth.

A list of Humboldt’s works would be very long, and is necessarily omitted. He died May 6th, 1859, at the great age of ninety. He was, as a German critic remarks, the Nestor of scientific investigators in his own land, and indeed in Europe. As his statue is one of the proud ornaments of the stately entrance of Berlin University, so he himself is one of the proud intellectual adornments of his race,—a race conspicuous in the accomplishments of learning and genius.