Tuesday, 30 July 2019

"What Ernst Haeckel means in my life" (Walther May 1914)

Walther May's second autobiographic article occurred in a collection of articles published in order to honor Ernst Haeckel on the occasion of his 80s birthday:


[For further posts on Walther May click on his name in the menu of labels above.]

In this article, May replicates much of his earlier autobiographic article honoring Darwin, which I have translated in an earlier post. That earlier post also gives some context concerning Walther May and why I translate his articles. (My hope to get any further insight into the question how May came to write the first article containing biographic information about Patrick Matthew (1790-1874) was in vain, unfortunately.)  

I will not replicate my translation in like fashion below but refer you to the earlier blog post for the identical sections. The interesting part comes after the departure of this article from its predecessor, anyway: when May dissents Haeckel's monistic ideology and contradicts his plant to organize a German Monistenbund. This seems to be a juicy detail, given that the article was published in a volume sponsored by that very Deutsche Monistenbund (apparently Haeckel had succeeded and the detractors of his plan failed) and meant to honor and thank Haeckel. 

The first few paragraphs of the earlier article are not reproduced by May in his current one. May picks up at the passage:

"My mother used to hold the Daheim, not because she would pay homage to its religious direction, but because it contained nice novels and pictures."

Daheim means "at home," but here refers to a periodical: Daheim. Ein deutsches Familienblatt mit Illustrationen. You can imagine this to be the German equivalent of English periodicals like the Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, an educational outlet with an agenda to enlighten the wider public (lower ranks) and foster their (self-)improvement while maintaining a conservative perspective.

The current article continues to replicate the earlier one until:

"Darwin now seemed to be the absolute character of the naturalist researcher, as the hero of scientific method."

Thereafter, the text departs from the earlier as follows:

"His agnosticism concerning the final questions, his tentative defense of his own theories, influenced me in a way similar to my earlier studies of Goethe and made me cautious



---[p. 282]---
cautious in judgement. I increasingly saw the difficulties confronting every scientific generalization, I increasingly saw myself surrounded by problems with which the human mind will struggle forever and in vain. I confronted the old question of Pilatus: "What is truth?" and I could not answer it. Haeckel's "Welträtsel" [Riddles of the Universe], which occurred in the same year that I got the assistant job in Karlsruhe, encountered me in this mood. The work left me cold, it did not offer me anything to overcome my skepticism. I knew Haeckel too much by rote already, whose previous works I had all studied, for this compilation of his ideas, which have been proclaimed for more than 30 years, to affect me. And as I now read the powerful refutations of Paulsen and Adickes, as I now made the whole literature on world-riddles my subject of study, my already shaken belief in the truth and infallibility of Haeckel's monism collapsed. The "Welträtsel" meant my renunciation of the philosophy that I had ingested with the "Natürliche Schöpfungs-geschichte."
    Of course this renunciation was no return to the church belief from which the "Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte" had liberated me. I am as far from all ecclesiastical essence today as I was before. Since the age of 23 I am a dissident and always call myself such. But I have realized that the alternative between church belief and monism does not exist, that a multitude of philosophies/ideologies exist besides naturalistic monism that can also be aligned with the scientific evidence. I do not see any of these forms as the sole salvation, but I now take the idealistic systems as more credible than materialistic ones, systems that assume a mental/spiritual original/first cause and a rational sense/meaning in the world's hustle and bustle rather than systems that deny goals and aims of the world and reduce all events to a blind mechanism. 
    This did not stop me from aggregating a small band of my colleagues and 

---[p. 283]---
students in Karlsruhe, on the occasion of Haeckle's 70s birthday, where three orators honored Haeckel as human, philosopher, naturalist and artist, where the Haeckel statuette by Herold has been unveiled, where Jena has been praised as a Palladium of free science, where a commemorative with Haeckel's motto "Impavidi progrediamur" [impavid we progress] has been read, and where some jolly song from Reymond's "Laienbrevier des Haeckelismus" [Laity brevier of Haeckelism] has been such with enthusiasm. I also drew a parallel between Haeckel and Darwin back then, that has been published in my book "Goethe, Darwin, Humblodt, Haeckel" (Berlin 1904) and ended with the words: "The admirers of the aged savant from Jena will always regard as one of the brightest and most glorious phenomena that the great struggle of Darwinism has produced in the 19th century, the deep concurrence of these two minds [Darwin and Haeckel] that were so fundamentally different in character." 
    Two years later, however, I had to refuse signing a petition for the foundation of a German union of monism. Such a foundation goes against my convictions as I see the danger of dogmatization in every formal organization of a philosophy/ideology/ Weltanschauung. Kronenberg took the words right out of my mouth in his article in "Das Freie Wort" [periodical: "Das Freie Wort: Frankfurter Halbmonatsschrift für Fortschritt auf allen Gebieten des geistigen Lebens," Vol. 4, p. 785 (1905)]  about the dangers of the organization of monism that Haeckel strove for.
    "One cannot entirely fend off pessimistic forebodings on seeing an astute scholar and important researcher, again, give in to the deceptive illusion that has for centuries been the most dangerous threat to the liberal development of culture. Did history not yet teach us  well enough that Weltanschauungen [philosophies/ideoloiesd] have no socializing power and the less so the maturer, more comprehensive, differentiated and thoroughly educated they are? The socializing power of a Weltanschauung is so weak that, in the best case, some community-building results from it only after it has been rendered sapless and feeble, torpid in dogmata. And even then the damage is a double one: for the philosophy that had to increasingly degenerate inwardly, for the practical social life that increasingly stagnated and got impoverished. It cannot

---[p. 284]---
well be different. Because the Weltanschauung is necessarily the blossom of the personality. Even if it rests on a maximally broad scientific base, its actual existence, its essential core can only be determined individually. Hence it runs contrary to the most important element of community-building."
    From this point of view, I would have refused to join the Deutsche Monistenbund even if I had still been standing on the ground of Haeckel's monism. The further development of the Monistenbund, which I observed closely, did not manage to change my mind on this point. Meanwhile, Haeckel did not get out of my mind. I tried to appreciate him historically as far as this is at all possible with the lack of temporal distance, and I made him the subject of my lectures at the Technische Hochschule zu Karlsruhe in several subsequent summer terms. From these lectures issued my work "Ernst Haeckel. Attempt at a chronicle of his life and work/effect" (Leipzig 1909). It puts the main emphasis on the objective description of the content of Haeckel's works and the movements effected by them, but it abstains from detailing the character of Haeckel's personality. I tried to give a balanced account of the pro and contra and, in particular, to represent all opinions concerning the fight over the Welträtsel. I deliberately abstained from a final judgement of Haeckel's significance, indicated the line, however, on which a future historian of science will move according to my opinion. Haeckel received the book approvingly, despite the fact that it gave consideration to his fiercest critics. "I cordially thank you," he wrote to me, "for the kind consignment of your chronicle of my laborious life and especially for the trouble you took to the tedious study of my works and the objective representation of their controversial reception. I hope that your book will complement the biographies of Bölsche and Breitenbach, Keller and Lang in a fortunate manner and remove many misapprehensions. Anyway, it will contribute to spread the basic idea of development/evolution [Entwicklung] to wider circles. I have dedicated my life to the extension of this idea."

---[p. 285]---
There was now still left for me to draw the conclusion of my Haeckel studies and to sketch an overall picture of Haeckel's personality with all its strengths and weaknesses. I tried to do this on the occasion of his 77th birthday in an essay in "Westermanns Monatshefte" [a periodical].
    "If I was asked what the soul of his life's work was," I said there, "the power that created it and renders it effective, I would answer: the enthusiasm for truth and beauty. His imposing lifework would be unthinkable without this breath of enthusiasm that pervades his personality and his works, and his far reaching impact would be incomprehensible. Only a researcher that was inwardly burning with this fire of enthusiasm for the grand idea could create a work like the General Morphology in such a short time. We stand in awe till this very day before this giant achievement of a man driven by spirit, who assigned himself no smaller task than to organize a whole science anew. Without the fire of enthusiasm with which Haeckel defended his views, the basically cold and mechanistic world view of the "Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte" would not have had its effect. Only through Haeckel's enthuisasm this most sober of all views of nature receives its poetic breeze, a religious character. This is the only way to understand the enormous impact of the Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte on wide circles of the educated and especially on the excitable youth."
    While I tried to explain the successes of Haeckel in this way through the character of his personality, I also conceded many main points to the critics of the "Welträtsel." But then I wrote:
    "Did all these critics spell the death sentence over Haeckel? Not at all! Haeckel acted as a powerful stimulating force in our time, he jolted the spirits into motion, he served as a role model by virtue of his idealism and his undaunted enthusiasm for a great idea. Nobody who read in his youth with a hot forehead and a glowing heart Haeckel's "Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte;" nobody who, through the combative writings of this man

---[p. 285]---

got elated for the freedom of research; nobody who found purest pleasure for the beauty-thirsty eye in Haeckels "Kunstformen der Natur" and his colorful "Wanderbilder;" nobody, eventually, who could ever get into personal contact with Haeckel even once, will dare to pick up a stone against noble-human."   
    That was my last word on Haeckel. Today, three years later, I have nothing to add. Haeckel, again, received in the kindest way this word, which left nothing to be desired in respect of sincerety concerning the "Welträtsel." Trhee weeks later I had the pleasure to congratulate him personally in Jena, on the occasion of his 77th birthday. May these lines convince him at the conclusion of his 80th year of life that I will always remain aware of the influence that he had on my intellectual life and that I look up with gratitude and awe to the man, who offered his saving hand to me, when I was doomed.   

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