The greatest scientist you don’t know about (by Robert G. Ingersoll)

During his lifetime, Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most famous men in Europe. At the time of his death in 1859, he was the most famous scientist in the world.

Critics accused him of atheism, yet his funeral in Berlin was the largest ever given to a private German individual. Tens of thousands of mourners followed behind his hearse, pulled by the king’s horses. Newspapers eulogized him as the “most remarkable man ever born” and lamented the end of the “age of Humboldt.” More species are named after Humboldt than after any other human being.

The centennial anniversary of Humboldt’s birth was widely celebrated in 1869. Parades, concerts, and fireworks shows were held in Moscow, Buenos Aires, Mexico City, Melbourne and dozens of American cities. President Ulysses Grant joined a huge celebration in Pittsburgh, and 25,000 people assembled in Central Park to celebrate. The New York Times devoted its entire front page to the worldwide festivities.

Yet 250 years later, on the anniversary of his birth in September 1769, the mention of his name does not elicit immediate recognition. So, who better than the Great Agnostic, Robert G. Ingersoll, to describe Humboldt and his achievements. Ingersoll gave this lecture (edited for length) in 1869 as part of the festivities on the 100th anniversary of Humboldt’s birth.

By Robert G. Ingersoll

Robert G. Ingersoll

Baron Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859)

Great men seem to be a part of the infinite — brothers of the mountains and the seas.

Alexander von Humboldt was one of these. He was one of the few who were great enough to rise above the superstition and prejudice of his time, and to know that experience, observation and reason are the only basis of knowledge.

He became one of the greatest of men in spite of having been born rich and noble — in spite of position. I say in spite of these things because wealth and position are generally the enemies of genius, and the destroyers of talent.

It is often said of this or that man, that he is a self-made man — that he was born of the poorest and humblest parents, and that with every obstacle to overcome he became great. This is a mistake. Poverty is generally an advantage. Most of the intellectual giants of the world have been nursed at the sad and loving breast of poverty. Most of those who have climbed highest on the shining ladder of fame commenced at the lowest rung. They were reared in the straw-thatched cottages of Europe; in the log-houses of America; in the factories of the great cities; in the midst of toil; in the smoke and din of labor, and on the verge of want. It is hard for the rich to resist the thousand allurements of pleasure, and so I say, that Humboldt, in spite of having been born to wealth and high social position, became truly and grandly great.

In the antiquated and romantic castle of Tegel, by the side of the pine forest, on the shore of the charming lake, near the beautiful city of Berlin, the great Humboldt, 100 years ago today, was born, and there he was educated. There he received the impressions that determined his career; there the great idea that the universe is governed by law, took possession of his mind, and there he dedicated his life to the demonstration of this sublime truth.

He came to the conclusion that the source of man’s unhappiness was his ignorance of nature.

After having received the most thorough education at that time possible, and having determined to what end he would devote the labors of his life, he turned his attention to the sciences of geology, mining, mineralogy, botany, the distribution of plants, the distribution of animals, and the effect of climate upon man. All grand physical phenomena were investigated and explained.

From his youth he had felt a great desire for travel. He felt, as he says, a violent passion for the sea, and longed to look upon nature in her wildest and most rugged forms. He longed to give a physical description of the universe — a grand picture of nature; to account for all phenomena; to discover the laws governing the world; to do away with that splendid delusion called special providence, and to establish the fact that the universe is governed by law.

To establish this truth was, and is, of infinite importance to humankind. That fact is the death-knell of superstition; it gives liberty to every soul, annihilates fear and ushers in the Age of Reason.

Comprehending the world

The object of this illustrious man was to comprehend the phenomena of physical objects in their general connection, and to represent nature as one great whole, moved and animated by internal forces.

For this purpose, he turned his attention to descriptive botany, traversing distant lands and mountain ranges to ascertain with certainty the geographical distribution of plants. He investigated the laws regulating the differences of temperature and climate, and the changes of the atmosphere. He studied the formation of the Earth’s crust, explored the deepest mines, ascended the highest mountains, and wandered through the craters of extinct volcanoes.

He became thoroughly acquainted with chemistry, with astronomy, with terrestrial magnetism; and as the investigation of one subject leads to all others, for the reason that there is a mutual dependence and a necessary connection between all facts, so Humboldt became acquainted with all the known sciences.

His fame does not depend so much upon his discoveries (although he discovered enough to make hundreds of reputations) as upon his vast and splendid generalizations.

Humboldt was to science what Shakespeare was to drama.

He found, so to speak, the world full of unconnected facts — all portions of a vast system — parts of a great machine; he discovered the connection that each bears to all; put them together, and demonstrated beyond all contradiction that the Earth is governed by law.

He knew that to discover the connection of phenomena is the primary aim of all natural investigation. He was infinitely practical.

Origin and destiny were questions with which he had nothing to do.

Great men do not live alone; they are surrounded by the great; they are the instruments used to accomplish the tendencies of their generation; they fulfill the prophecies of their age.

Nearly all of the scientific men of the 18th century had the same idea entertained by Humboldt, but most of them in a dim and confused way. There was, however, a general belief among the intelligent that the world is governed by law, and that there really exists a connection between all facts, or that all facts are simply the different aspects of a general fact, and that the task of science is to discover this connection; to comprehend this general fact or to announce the laws of things.

The German mind had been grandly roused from the long lethargy of the dark ages of ignorance, fear, and faith. Guided by the light of reason, every department of knowledge was investigated, enriched and illustrated.

Humboldt breathed the atmosphere of investigation; old ideas were abandoned; old creeds, hallowed by centuries, were thrown aside; thought became courageous; the athlete, reason, challenged to mortal combat the monsters of superstition.

No wonder that, under these influences, Humboldt formed the great purpose of presenting to the world a picture of Nature, in order that men might, for the first time, behold the face of their Mother.

Traveled the globe

Europe becoming too small for his genius, he visited the tropics in the new world, where in the most circumscribed limits he could find the greatest number of plants, of animals, and the greatest diversity of climate, that he might ascertain the laws governing the production and distribution of plants, animals and men, and the effects of climate upon them all. He sailed along the gigantic Amazon — the mysterious Orinoco — traversed the Pampas, climbed the Andes until he stood upon the crags of Chimborazo, more than 18,000 feet above the level of the sea, and climbed on until blood flowed from his eyes and lips. For nearly five years, he pursued his investigations in the new world, accompanied by the intrepid Bonpland. Nothing escaped his attention. He was the best intellectual organ of these new revelations of science. He was calm, reflective and eloquent, filled with a sense of the beautiful, and the love of truth. His collections were immense, and valuable beyond calculation to every science. He endured innumerable hardships, braved countless dangers in unknown and savage lands, and exhausted his fortune for the advancement of true learning.

Upon his return to Europe he was hailed as the second Columbus; as the scientific discoverer of America; as the revealer of a new world; as the great demonstrator of the sublime truth, that the universe is governed by law.

In order that the people at large might have the benefit of his numerous discoveries, and his vast knowledge, he delivered at Berlin a course of lectures, consisting of 61 free addresses. 

These lectures are what is known as the Cosmos, and present a scientific picture of the world, of infinite diversity in unity,  of ceaseless motion in the eternal grasp of law.

These lectures contain the result of his investigation, observation, and experience; they furnish the connection between phenomena; they disclose some of the changes through which the Earth has passed in the countless ages; the history of vegetation, animals and men, the effects of climate upon individuals and nations, the relation we sustain to other worlds, and demonstrate that all phenomena, whether insignificant or grand, exist in accordance with inexorable law.

There are some truths, however, that we never should forget: Superstition has always been the relentless enemy of science; faith has been a hater of demonstration; hypocrisy has been sincere only in its dread of truth, and all religions are inconsistent with mental freedom.

Since the murder of Hypatia in the fifth century — when the polished blade of Greek philosophy was broken by the club of ignorant Catholicism — until today, superstition has detested every effort of reason.

Slowly, beautifully, like the coming of the dawn, came the grand truth, that the universe is governed by law; that disease fastens itself upon the good and upon the bad; that the tornado cannot be stopped by counting beads; that the rushing lava pauses not for bended knees, the lightning for clasped and uplifted hands, nor the cruel waves of the sea for prayer; that paying tithes causes, rather than prevents famine; that pleasure is not sin; that happiness is the only good; that demons and gods exist only in the imagination; that faith is a lullaby sung to put the soul to sleep; that devotion is a bribe that fear offers to supposed power; that offering rewards in another world for obedience in this, is simply buying a soul on credit; that knowledge consists in ascertaining the laws of nature, and that wisdom is the science of happiness. Slowly, grandly, beautifully, these truths are dawning upon humankind.

The moment the fact was established that other worlds are governed by law, it was only natural to conclude that our little world was also under its dominion. The old theological method of accounting for physical phenomena by the pleasure and displeasure of the deity was, by the intellectual, abandoned. They found that disease, death, life, thought, heat, cold, the seasons, the winds, the dreams of man, the instinct of animals, in short, that all physical and mental phenomena are governed by law, absolute, eternal and inexorable.

Law is a fact, not a cause

Let it be understood that by the term “law” is meant the same invariable relations of succession and resemblance predicated of all facts springing from like conditions. Law is a fact — not a cause. It is a fact, that like conditions produce like results: this fact is law. When we say that the universe is governed by law, we mean that this fact, called law, is incapable of change; that it is, has been, and forever will be, the same inexorable, immutable fact, inseparable from all phenomena. Law, in this sense, was not enacted or made. It could not have been otherwise than as it is. That which necessarily exists has no creator.

The glory of science is, that it is freeing the soul — breaking the mental manacles, getting the brain out of bondage, giving courage to thought, filling the world with mercy, justice, and joy.

Science found agriculture plowing with a stick, reaping with a sickle — commerce at the mercy of the treacherous waves and the inconstant winds — man denying the authority of reason, employing his ingenuity in the manufacture of instruments of torture, in building inquisitions and cathedrals. It found the land filled with malicious monks — with persecuting Protestants, and the burners of men. It found a world full of fear; ignorance upon its knees; credulity the greatest virtue; women treated like beasts of burden; cruelty the only means of reformation.

The world is beginning to change because the people are beginning to think. To think is to advance. Everywhere the great minds are investigating the creeds and the superstitions of men — the phenomena of nature, and the laws of things. At the head of this great army of investigators stood Humboldt — the serene leader of an intellectual host — a king by the suffrage of Science, and the divine right of Genius.

And today we are not honoring some butcher called a soldier, some wily politician called a statesman, some robber called a king, nor some malicious metaphysician called a saint. We are honoring the grand Humboldt, whose victories were all achieved in the arena of thought; who destroyed prejudice, ignorance and error, not men; who shed light, not blood, and who contributed to the knowledge, the wealth, and the happiness of all humankind.

His life was pure, his aims lofty, his learning varied and profound, and his achievements vast.

We honor him because he has ennobled our race, because he has contributed as much as any man living or dead to the real prosperity of the world. We honor him because he honored us, because he labored for others, because he was the most learned man of the most learned nation, because he left a legacy of glory to every human being.

For these reasons he is honored throughout the world. Millions are doing homage to his genius at this moment, and millions are pronouncing his name with reverence and recounting what he accomplished.

We associate the name of Humboldt with oceans, continents, mountains, and volcanoes, with the great palms, the wide deserts, the snow-lipped craters of the Andes, with primeval forests and European capitals, with wildernesses and universities, with savages and savants, with the lonely rivers of unpeopled wastes, with peaks and pampas, and steppes, and cliffs and crags, with the progress of the world, with every science known to man, and with every star glittering in the immensity of space.

Humboldt adopted none of the soul-shrinking creeds of his day; wasted none of his time in the stupidities, inanities and contradictions of theological metaphysics.

He did not endeavor to harmonize the astronomy and geology of a barbarous people with the science of the 19th century. Never, for one moment, did he abandon the sublime standard of truth; he investigated, he studied, he thought, he separated the gold from the dross in the crucible of his grand brain. He was never found on his knees before the altar of superstition. He stood erect by the grand tranquil column of Reason. He was an admirer, a lover, an adorer of Nature, and at the age of 90, bowed by the weight of nearly a century, covered with the insignia of honor, loved by a nation, respected by a world, with kings for his servants, he laid his weary head upon her bosom — upon the bosom of the universal Mother — and with her loving arms around him, sank into that slumber called Death.

History added another name to the starry scroll of the immortals.

The world is his monument; upon the eternal granite of her hills he inscribed his name, and there upon everlasting stone his genius wrote this, the sublimest of truths: The universe is governed by law.