A Man Who Doesn’t Deserve To Be Forgotten: Alexander Von Humboldt
The name Alexander von Humboldt sounded familiar when I first heard it, but the more I read about him, the more I realized I had no idea who this extraordinary man was. It’s a shame I didn’t know who he was and it’s a shame that our general population couldn’t place his name because he is one of the coolest guys I’ve ever read about. I think that our current world population, I’m talking global, would benefit greatly from a re-introduction of Humboldt.
I am not a big science girl. I never liked science class that much mostly because I thought it was hard and boring. Reading the few articles about Humboldt made me change my mindset and be more open to discovering new things. Humboldt seemed to have this amazing positive attitude that is so contagious and shows through his work. It is crazy to me how open-minded he was and that really helped him make connections with nature and humanity.
He also was really adamant about acknowledging the fact that science is always changing with new research and new discoveries. I think this is a very advanced thought for the time period when science was starting to become more and more popular and challenge religion more. It seemed like he could find appreciation for every single thing the Earth had to offer, from the tallest mountains to the smallest pebbles. The simple grass growing in a field held some sort of answer and reason for being there. I think he does a great job of creating this balance and appreciation for just plain beauty as well as science and making new discoveries. He says in Cosmos,
“Apprehension that nature may lose a portion of its secret charm by an inquiry into the internal character of its forces, and that the enjoyment of nature must necessarily be weakened by a study of its domain” (33-54).Cosmos Alexander von Humboldt
Once we know so much about something it loses that mystery that might be an agent of making something seem so beautiful, acknowledging that when you start thinking of nature in a scientific way and making discoveries about it, it will never look the same as when your uneducated eye saw it for the first time.
Alexander von Humboldt seemed to really understand how everything in nature is connected. We categorize rocks and plants differently, for instance, but there are all a part of the same big picture and are connected in some sort of way. It may not be a direct connection, but our world is an ecosystem where every living and non-living thing plays a role. He is very poetic when talking about nature and I think that is what makes his work so interesting. It is very knowledgeable and scientific, but also very artistic and engaging to read. For example, he describes,
“In the uniform plain bounded only by a distant horizon, where the lowly heather, the cistus, or waving grasses, deck the soil; on the ocean shore, where the waves, softly rippling over the beach, leave a track, green with the weeds of the sea; every where, the mind is penetrated by the same sense of the grandeur and vast expanse of nature, revealing to the soul, by a mysterious inspiration, the existence of laws that regulate the forces of the universe” (23).Cosmos Alexander von Humboldt
He shows the reader how the sights of nature, what would seem like a normal existence to the common goer, does something to our soul and is this mysterious world with its own laws we know very little about. Humboldt made science incredibly readable to the general and an emotional experience. Laura Dassow Walls states in her essay “Introducing Humboldt’s Cosmos,”
“Cosmos was not an accomplishment but a prospect—a viewpoint from which Humboldt could sustain a critique of a Western civilization that had, for good or ill, inherited the legacies of hundreds of nations across the millennia of cosmic progress. To reach that prospect, the Cosmos needed every one of Humboldt’s many readers.”“Introducing Humboldt’s Cosmos” Laura Dassow Walls
He wanted to bring science to people in a way to get them to understand that the world is bigger than just them. Their actions as humans affect ecosystems all over the globe! He subtly was trying to make the world a better place and propose acceptance and uniqueness in the 19th century. In addition, he was trying to get the Europeans to sympathize with different perspectives of people all over the world. I think he was so ahead of his time in trying to get humans to think selflessly about the environment and the fact that they play a role in the environment and don’t own the environment. Colonialism and conquistadors were very popular at this time as countries were grabbing parts of the world to make their own, and Humboldt didn’t agree that the “New World” should be the Europe version two. It is also important to remember at this time, only a few people really saw different parts of the world. They didn’t have the internet or cars or planes to take them to different places easily so they are stuck in a town or city and that’s all they really know. It’s hard to imagine what the rest of the world looks like and appreciate the nature and ecosystems that keep the whole world healthy when you’ve hardly left your hometown.
I truly applaud his humbleness and desire to explore (so much so he literally went broke doing it). Humboldt was so ahead of his time and had this mission to make the human race more appreciative of each other and the world around him. His lessons and the life he lived should be an example that all of us live by to become a kinder and more humble human race.
Von Humboldt, Alexander. COSMOS: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe. Vol. 1, Project Gutenberg, 2005.
Walls, Laura Dassow. “Introducing Humboldt’s Cosmos.” Center for Humans & Nature, 2009, www.humansandnature.org/introducing-humboldt-s-cosmos.