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Alexander von Humboldt: Excerpts from Cosmos (1845-58)

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Man can not 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 rise and sink 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 unfrequently 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.

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 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.

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 aegis 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."*

* Pseudo-Plato.—Alcib., xi., p. 184, ed. Steph.; Plut., Instituta Laconica, p. 253, ed. Hutten.

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