395: Intellectual Development.

One might have expected Goethe to bring out the historical significance of what he had experienced. He had been present at the capture of Longwy and Verdun, he had witnessed the frightful effectiveness of the French artillery at Valmy, he had lived through the misery and confusion of the withdrawal to Trier. The intervening years had thrown into relief the momentous political consequences of what had then taken place. Yet as he looked back upon it all, the events themselves seemed less important to him than the manner in which they had impinged upon his personal equilibrium, the ways in which they had influenced his intellectual development. Even at the time, he had felt no particular commitment to the ideological issues at stake. He had been intrigued by the sound of the cannon-balls, which seemed to be “composed of the humming of tops, the gurgling of water, the whistling of birds”, he had been deeply touched by the sight of shepherds having “their woolly favourites slaughtered at their feet by the impatient and hungry soldiers”, but the legitimacy of Louis XVI’s administration and the republicanism of the sansculottes had left him largely unmoved. During the bombardment of Verdun, he had walked up and down behind some vineyard walls, protected by them from the cannon-balls, discussing his theory of colours with the Prince of Reuss. While in camp near Grandpré, barely sheltered from the wind and rain, he had dictated the basic principles of his theory to his secretary. During the withdrawal to Luxemburg and Trier, he made a close study of the third part of Gehler’s Dictionary of Physics. While travelling down the Moselle to Coblence, he made observations relevant to his conception of epoptic colours. […]

In describing these events, he brings out the contrast between the brutal objectivity of what he had encountered in France, and the cultivated inwardness of the milieux in which he moved as he made his way home.

(M.J. Petry, “Hemsterhuis on Mathematics and Optics.” In: The Light of Nature.  Dordrecht: Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 1985, p. 210).

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395: Intellectual Development.