Three in One
Planting ideas on life.
Plants (Goethe's perspective)
Goethe's friend and neighbour, Schiller, expressed his reverence for plants with these words:
'Seeketh thee the highest, the greatest?
The plant can teach it thee.
What the plant is by nature,
This thou must be by intent and will!
He had a point. Examining plants may, at first thought, be a strange place to begin the search for this thing we call life. It is, however, a useful place to start. First of all, nearly everyone has a garden, or access to plants. Secondly, unlike animals, they remain in their fixed growing position. And, equally important, plants seem full of life. They abound with life and are actually quite difficult to kill. It seems more than coincidental that an example of one of the oldest known trees, Ginkgo biloba, a species that was once thought to be extinct, only later to be discovered in a remote part of Asia and now known to have been living at least 270 million years ago, survived while growing just a thousand metres from the epicentre of the Hiroshima bomb (Photo from: http://kwanten.home.xs4all.nl ) . Plants exhibit plenty of resilience to death and show huge reserves of lifefulness. One only has to have taken a small cutting of, say, a fuchsia plant, to have experienced this. Every part of a plant seems to have a propensity to live and grow.
Goethe was particularly taken with a plant called Kalanchoe pinnata, this is a relative of the red Christmas kalanchoe. The plant, which has become known as the 'Goethe Plant' is remarkable because many small, miniature versions of the whole leafy plant appear along the edges of each of its fully grown leaves. These tiny plants drop off and start to root into the surrounding soil. Goethe used to enclose a few of these small plantlets in the envelopes of letters to friends, and adding the words:
'You have received a small package which imposes upon you the pleasant duty of concerning yourself with the raising of plants. May these fertile leaves put down many roots and may they, in their abundant growth, preserve the memory of the sender.'
During a visit to Italy, Goethe was struck by the difference between the plants he observed there and those he was familiar with in his home town of Weimar, even though they were exactly the same variety. He was aware of the effect of the change in climate, but still questioned how he could recognise these plants as being the same, even though they looked so very different. This questioning attitude later extended to asking 'how do I know any plant is a plant?'. This is a very challenging observation when the huge variety of size and form of plants, from the thousand metre tall Great Wellingtonia Fir to the tiniest creeping alpine plant, is considered.
As a consequence of his investigations he declared 'a plant is all leaf'. What he was saying was that the organ we recognize as a leaf (with its node) is the same organ that we call a petal, as is a stamen etc. It is an organ that can appear in many forms. The organ that we call a petal is simply a metamorphosed leaf; conversely a leaf is simply a petal materialised in a different form. Leaves, petals, stamens etc are not different components of a plant in the same way as wheels, engine, steering wheel are components of a car. Hence the leaf, in these terms, does not exist in reality. It exists as an ideal form that bears within it the capability of taking on almost any form as a materialised leaf. It is an archetypal form that is 'seen' using our supra-sensible faculty of insight. I use the word supra-sensible to indicate a faculty, that we all have, which lies outside, and over, what we recognise as our normal way of 'sensing' the outside world. We use this faculty when we recognise, for example, the ideal concept 'triangle', which can materialise in a multitude of forms. It is notable how dynamic and flexible our thinking is when we start with such an idealised form and go on to 'produce' its countless variations.
Here we start with the one ideal form (leaf) that contains the many within the one; the whole contains all the particular cases. This is the very opposite of how we usually work when we consider, say, the many varieties of plants. Our tendency is to start by comparing and contrasting the many different actually existing forms, looking for features that are common. This approach inevitably eliminates any differences and hence has difficulty in coming to terms with all the differences that actually do exist in the one concept 'plant'; and any concept of unity among the many different forms of plants tends to be destroyed.
Herein lay the key to how Goethe could know that all plants are indeed plants. Unlike the analytical way in which we have come to see the natural world - starting with the particulars, the finished objects, Goethe realised that what he was seeing, as a reality, was the idealised all-embracing (archetypal) plant, using what we might call supra-sensible insight, as well as seeing each individual, materialised, form with his physical eyes.
It is now recognised that there are two modes of consciousness each one of us uses to perceive the world, the analytical mode and a holistic mode. In the analytic mode we focus on particulars, differences, individualise, and home in on the finished elements. In holistic mode, we intuitively and instantaneously grasp the whole, focussing on relationships rather than the particulars. Today's scientific methodology uses the analytic mode and this has become the dominant way. But we can all train ourselves to perceive the world around us in holistic mode - the predominant mode that Goethe used. It is thus important, when reading Goethe's scientific works, to bear in mind that Goethe is speaking from this perspective.
The concept of an inwardly idealised leaf-form which, when realised in outer material form, can take on any number of differing appearances in the dynamic process of growth forms the backbone of Goethe's important book 'The Metamorphosis of Plants'. It is hardly surprising that this approach has been received with scepticism by many strictly reductionist scientists, but the thrust of Goethe's arguments has, some would say by luck, been confirmed by geneticists. However he also pointed out that 'The living is indeed dismembered into its elements, but one cannot put it back together again and make it come alive'.
Incidentally, Goethe did not exactly coin the word, 'metamorphosis', but he is credited for doing so, because of his precise use of the word in many accounts of his systematic studies of plants and animals.