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estimates by land or water, we are unfortunately without
any means of distinguishing among these assigned positions,
above 2500 in number, the nature of the foundation on
which each rests, or the relative probability which may be
ascribed to them according to the itineraries then existing.

The entire ignorance of the polarity of the magnetic needle,
and of the use of the compass, which 1250 years before the
t^me of Ptolemy, under the Chinese emperor Tschingwang,
had been employed in the construction of '^ magnetic cars^'
furnishing an index to the road to be followed, rendered
the most detailed itineraries of the Greeks and Bomans
extremely uncertain, from a want of knowledge of the direc-
tion or angle with the meridian. {^

In the better knowledge which has recently been ob-
tained of the Indian and ancient Persian (or Zend) Ian-
guages, we are struck by the fact that a great part of
the geographical nomenclature of Ptolemy may be regarded

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as an Idstoric monument of the commercial relations
between the West and the most distant regions of southern
and central Asia. (297) One of the most important geographical
results of these relations was the correct opinion of the
insulation of the Caspian Sea, which was restored by Ptolemy
after the contrary error had lasted five hundred years. The
truth on this subject had been recognised both by Herodotus
and by Aristotle, the latter having fortunately written his
Meteorologica before the Asiatic campaigns of Alexander.
The Olbiopolites, from whose lips the father of history had
gathered the account which he followed, were familiar with
the northern shores of the Caspian between the Kuma, the
Volga (Rha), and the Jaik (Ural) ; and there was nothing
there which could give them an idea of an outlet to the Icy
Sea. Very different reasons produced the erroneous im-
pression received by the Macedonian army, when, passing
through Hecatompylos (Damaghan), they descended into
the humid forests of MazaAderan, and, at Zadracarta, a little
to the west of the present Asterabad, saw the apparently
boundless expanse of the Caspian in the northern direction.
Plutarch tells us in his Life of Alexander that this sight first
caused the hypothesis that the sea thus seen was a gulf of
the Euxine. (29®) The Macedonian expedition, although
it was upon the whole very favourable to the progress of
geographical knowledge, yet gave rise to particular errors
which long maintained themselves. The Tanais was con-
founded with the Jaxartes (the Araxes of Herodotus), and
the Caucasus with the Paropanisus (the Hindoo Coosh).
Ptolemy, during his residence at Alexandria, was able to
obtain certain accounts from countries immediately adjoining
the Caspian,(from Albania, Atropatene, and Hyrcania), of the

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caravan roads of the Aorsi^ whose cameb jcarried Indian and
Babyloniangood8totheDonandtotheBlackSea(299). lf,con.
trary to the joster knowledge of Herodotus, Ptolemy believed
the length of the Caspian to be greatest in the east and west
direction, he may perhaps have been thus misled by some
obscure knowledge of the former greattar extent of the
Scythian Gulf (Karabogas) ; and the existence of Lake Aral,
the first decided notice of which we find in a Byzantine au-
thor, Menander, who wrote a contmuation of Agathias, {^^)
It is to be regretted that Ptolemy, who reclosed the
Caspian Sea, (which the hypothesis of four gulfe sup-
posed to be the reflections or counterparts of similar ones in
the disk of the moon (^oi) had long kept open), did not at
the same time give up the faUe of the ^^ unknown southern
land'^ connecting Cape Prasum with Cattigara and Thin®,
(Sinarum metropolis) ; therefore connecting eastern Africa
with the land of Tsin, or China. This myth, which would make
the Indian Ocean an inland sea, was derived from views
which may be traced back from Marinus of Tyre to Hip-
parchus, Seleucus the Babylonian, and even to Aristotle, (^o^)
In these cosmical descriptions of the progressive advance of
the knowledge and contemplation of the Universe, it is suffi-
cient to recal by a few examples how in successive fluctuations
the aheady half recognised truth has often been again
obscured. ' The more the in(»*eased extent both of navigation
and of trafiic by land seemed to render it possible to know
the whole of the earth^s surface, the more actively, especially
in the Alexandrian period under the Lagidse, and under the
Eoman empire, did the never slumbering Hellenic imagina-
tion seek by ingenious combinations to blend all previous
. conjectures with the ne^ly added stores of actual knowledge.

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and thns to complete at once the yet scarcely sketched map
of the earth.

We have abeady briefly noticed that Claudius Ptolemseus
by his optical researches (which have been preserved to us,
although in a very incomplete state, by the Arabians) be-
came the founder of a branch of mathematical physics ;
which, indeed, according to Theon of Alexandria, pos)
had already been touched upon, so far as relates to the re-
fraction of rays, in the Catoptrica of Archimedes. It is »
Tery important step in advance, when physical phenomena,
instead of being simply observed and compared with each
other,— of which we find memorable examples in Grecian
antiquity in the pseudo- Aristotelian problems, which are full
of matter, and in Eoman antiquity in the writings of Seneca, —
are produced at will under altered conditions, and measured.
p04j The process thus referred to characterises Ptolem/s
researches on the refraction of rays of light when made to pass
through media of unequal density. He caused the rays to pass
from air into water and glass, and &om water into glass, under
different angles of incidence. The results of these " physical
experiments^' were collected by him into tables. This
measurement of a physical phenomenon purposely called
forth, of a natural process not reduced to a movement of
of the waves of light (Aristotle assumed a movement of the
medium intervening between the eye and the object seen),
is a solitary occurrence in the period of which we are
treating, (^o^) In the investigation of inorganic nature,
this period offers in addition only a few chemical experiments
by Dioscorides, and, as I have elsewhere observed, the
technical art of collecting fluids when passing over in distilla-

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tion. (^ As chemistiy first begins when men have learnt
to employ mineral acids as powerfdl solvents, and as means of
liberating substances, the distillation of sea-water, described
by Alexander of Aphrodisias, in the reign of Caracalla, is
deserving of great attention. It indicates the path by which
men gradually arrived at the knowledge of the heterogeneity
of substances, their combination in chemical compounds, and
their reciprocal attractions or affinities.

We can only dte, as having advanced the knowledge of
organic nature, the anatomist Marinus, Bufos of Ephesus
who dissected apes and distinguished between nerves of
sensation and of motion, and Galen of Pergamos who ecUpses
all other names. The natural history of animals by .£lian of
Prseneste, and the poem treating of fishes written by Oppianus
of CiUcia, do not contain facts based on the author^s own
examination, but only scattered notices derived from other
sources. It is hardly conceivable how tlie enormous multi-
tude (307) of rare animals, which, during four centuries, were
massacred in the Soman circus, — elephants, rhinoceroses,
hippopotamuses, elks, Uons, tigers, panthers, crocodiles, and
ostriches, — should never have been rendered of any use to
comparative anatomy. I have already spoken of the merits of
Dioscorides in regard to the knowledge of collected plants :
his works exercised a powerful and long-enduring influence
on the botany and pharmaceutical chemistry of the Arabians.
The botanical garden of the £oman physician Antonius
Castor (who lived to upwards of a hundred years of age),
imitated, perhaps, from the botanical gardens of Theo-
phrastus and Mithridates, was probably of no greater scien-
tific use than the collection of fossil bones of the Emperor

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Aiigustus, or the assemblage of objects of natural history
which has been ascribed on very feeble grounds to Appuleius
of Madaura. pos)

Before we close the description ot what the period of
the Boman empire contributed towards the advancement
of cosmical knowledge, we have still to mention the grand
essay towards a description of the Universie which Cains
Plinius Secundus endeavoured to comprise in thirty-seven
books. In the whole of antiquity nothing similar had been
attempted; and although in the execution of the tirork
it became ' a kind of encyclopaedia of nature and art
(the author in his dedication to Titus not scrupling to
apply to his work the then more noble Greek expression
myKVKkoiraihia), yet it cannot be denied that, notwithstanding
the want of an internal connection and coherence of parts,
still the whole presents a plan or sketch of a physical
description of the Universe. '

The Historia Naturalis of Pliny, — ^termed Historia Mundi
in the tabular view which forms what is now called the first
book, and in a letter of his nephew's to his friend Macer
more finely described as a Naturse Historia, — embraces the
heavens and the earth, the position and course of the
heavenly bodies, the meteorological processes of the atmo-
sphere, the forms of the earth's surface, and all terrestrial
objects, from the vegetable covering of the land and the
molluscse of the ocean up to the race of man. Mankind are
considered according to the variety of their mental disposi-
tions and intellectual powers, and to the cultivation and ex-
altation of these as manifested in the noblest works of art. I
have here named the elements of a general knowledge of nature
wliich lie scattered almost without order in the great work

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of which we are speaking. '* The path in which I propose
to walk/' says Pliny, with noble confidence in himself, " is
untrodden, (non trita auctoribus via) ; no one among
onrsekes, no one amo^g the Greeks, has undertaken to
treat as one the whole of nature (nemo apud Grsecos qui
unus omnia tractaverit). If my undertaking is not success-
ful, still it is something fair and noble (pulchrum atque
magnificum) to have attempted its accomplishment/'

There floated before the mind of Pliny a grand and
single image; but diverted from his purpose by specialities,
and wanting the living personal contemplation of nature^
he was unable to hold fast this image. The execution
remained imperfect, not merely from haste and frequent
want of knowledge of the objects to be treated, but also
from defective arrangement. We may judge thus from
those portions of work which are now accessible to us. We
recognise in the author a man of rank, full of occupation,
who prides himself on labour bestowed on his work in
sleepless nights, but who, whilst exercising the functions
of government in Spain, and those of superintendent of
the fleet in Lower Italy, doubtless too often confided to
imperfectly educated dependants the loose web of an
endless compilation. This fondness for compilation, t. ^.,
for a laborious collection of separate observations and
facts such as the state oi knowledge could then afford,
is, in itself, by no means deserving of censure ; the imper-
fection in the success of the result arose from the want
of capacity fully to master and command the accumu-
lated materials, — ^to subordinate the descriptions of nature
to higher and more general views, — ^and to keep steadily
^o the point of view from which the whole should be seen.

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viz., that of a comparative study of nature. Tbe germs of
such higher views, not merely orographic, but truly geo-
gnostic, were to be found in Eratosthenes and Strabo ; but
the works of the former were made use of by Pliny only in
one instance, and those of the latter not at all. Nor has he
learned from Aristotle's anatomical history of animals, either*
the division into great classes based upon the principal diver-
sities of internal organisation, or the method of induction,
the only safe means of generalisation of results.

Commencing with pantheistic contemplations and con-
siderations, Pliny descends froin the^ celestial spaces to
terrestrial objects. Eecognising the necessity of presenting
the powers and the majesty of nature (naturse vis atque
majestas) as a great* and concurrent whole, (I refer here to
tbe motto on the title of my work)^ he also distinguishes,
in the beginning of the third book, between general and
special geography ; but this distinction is soon again for-
gotten and neglected when he plunges into the dry nomen-
clature of countries, mountains, and rivers. The greater
part of books viii. to xxvii., xxxiii. and xxxiv., xxxvi. and
xxxvii. is filled with catalogues of the three kingdoms of
nature. The younger Pliny, in one of his letters, charac-
terises his uncle's work with great justness as ''a work
learned and full of matter; no less various than nature
herself (opus diffusum, eruditum, nee minus varium quam
ipsa natura).'' Much which has been made a subject of
reproach to Pliny as needless and extraneous admixture, I
am inclined to regard rather as deserving of praise. 1 view
with particular pleasure the frequent references which he
makes^ with evidait predilection, to the influence of nature

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on the civilization find mental development of mankind. His
points of connection, however, are seldom happily chosen
(vii, 24 to 47 ; xxv. 2 ; xxvi. 1 ; xxxv. 2 ; xxxvi. 2 to 4 ;
xxxvii. 1.) The nature of mineral and vegetable sub-
stances, for example, leads to a fragment of the history of
*the plastic arts; but this fragment has become in the
present state of our knowledge of greater interest and impor-
tance than almost ail which we can gather &om his work in
descriptive natural history.

The style of Pliny is rather spirited and lively than cha-
racterised by true grandeur; he seldom defines picturesquely J
and we feel, in reading his work, that the author had
derived his impressions from books, and not from the free
aspect of nature herself, although he had enjoyed that
aspect in various regions of the earth. A grave and melan-
choly colouring is spread over the whole, and with this ,
sentimental tone there is blended a degree of bitterness
whenever man and his circumstances and destiny are touched
upon. At such times (almost as in the writings of
Cicero, {^^) though with less simplicity of diction), the
view of the great universal whole of the world of nature is
described as reassuring and consolatory.

The conclusion of the Historia Naturalis of Pliny, the
greatest Boman memorial bequeathed to the literature of
the middle ages, is conceived in the true spirit of a descrip-
tion of the universe. As we now possess it, since 1831, (^^^)
it contains a cursory view of the con^parative natural history
of countries in different zones ; and a laudatory description .
of Southern Europe l)etwecn the natural boundaries of the
Mediterranean and the Alps, and of the serene heaven of

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Hesperia, ''where/' according to a dogma of the older
Pythagoreans, ''the soft and temperate dimate had early
hastened the escape of mankind from barbarism/'

Hie influence of the Soman dominion, as a constant
dement of union and fusion, deserves to be brought forward,
in a history of the contemplation of the universe, with the
more detail and force, because we can recognise its conse-
quences even at a period when the union of the empire had
been loosened, and in part destroyed, by the assaults and
irruptions of the barbarians. Oaudian, who, in a late and
troubled age, under Theodosius the Great and his sons^
came forward with new poetic productiveness in the dedine
of literature, still sings, in too laudatorv strains, of the Boman
sovereignty (^^i) : —

"HsBc est, in greminm victos qnsB Bola recepit^
Hnmanumque genus commoni nomine fovit
Matris, non dominse, ritn ; dyesqoe yooavit
Qnos domoit, neznqne pio longinqoa revinxit*
Higas padficis debemus moribos omnes
Quod yelati patriis regionibns utitor hospes" • • • • •

Outward means of constraint, skilfully disposed civil in-
stitutions, and long-continued habits of servitude, may
indeed produce union, by taking away separate national
existence ; but the feeling of the unityof mankind, of their
common humanity, and of the equal rights of all portionis
of the human race, has a nobler origin : it is in the inmost
impulses of the human mind, and in religious convictions^
that its foundations are to be sought. Christianity has pre-
eminently contributed to call forth the idea of the unity of
mankind, and has thereby acted beneficently on the " human-
izing*' of nations, in their manners and institutions. Deeply

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interwoven from the first with Christian doctrines, the i Jea
of humanity has nevertheless only slowly obtained its just
recognition. At the time when, from poUtical motives, the
new faith was estabUshed at Byzantium as the religion of
the state, its adherents were already involved in miserable
party strife, whilst intercourse with distant nations had been
checked, and the foundations of the empire had been shaken
by external assaults. Even the p^^sonal freedom of entire
classes of men long found no protection in Christian states,
and even among ecdesi^tjcal proprietors and corporations.
Such uimatural impediments, and many others which still
stand in the way of the intellectual and social advancement
and ennoblement of mankind, will gradually vanish. The
principle of individual and political freedom is rooted in the
indestructible conviction of the equal rights of the whole
homan race. Thus, as I have already said in another
place, (3^2) mankind, as one great brotherhood, advance
together towards the attainment of one common object, the
free development of their moral faculties. This view of
humanity, or at least the tendency towards the formation of
this view, — sometimes checked, sometimes advancing with
powerftd and rapid steps, and by no means a discovery of
modem times — ^by the universality of its direction, belongs
most properly to our subject, as elevating and animating
6osmical life. In depicting a great epoch in the history of
the world, that of the Empire of the Bomans and the laws
which they originated, and of the beginning of the Christian
religion, it was fitting that I should, before aU things, recal
the manner in which Chnstianil^ enlarged the views of man-
kind, and exercised a mild and enduring, although slowly
operating, influence on Intelligence and Civilization.

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Inyasioa of the Arabians — ^Aptitude of this part of the Semitic
Race for InteUectual Cultivatioii— Influence of a Foreign Element
on the Development of European Civilization and Culture — ^Pe-
, culiarities of the National Character of the Arabians — ^Attach-
ment to the Study of Nature and its powers — Science of Ma-
teria Medica and Chemistry — ^Extension of Physical Geography
to the Interior of Continents, and Advances in Astronomy and.
in the Mathematical Sciences.

In my sketch of the history of the physical contemplation of
the universe, I have already ennmerated four leading epochs
in the gradual development of the recognition of the universe
as a whole. These included, firstly, the period when 'the
inhabitants of the coasts of the Mediterranean endeavoured
to penetrate eastward to the Euxine and the Phasis, south-
ward to Ophir and the tropical gold lands, and westward
through the Pillars of Hercules into the " all-surrounding
ocean ;" secondly, the epoch of the Macedonian expeditions
under Alexander the Great; thirdly, the period of the
Lagidse ; and fourthly, that of the Eoman Empire of the
World. We have now to consider the powerful influence
exercised by the Arabians, whose civilization was a new ele-
ment foreign to that of Europe, — and, six or seven centuries
later, by the maritime discoveries of the Portuguese and
Spaniards, — on the general physical and mathematical know-
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ledge of nature, in respect to fonn and measurement on the
earth and in the regions of space, to the heterogeneity of
substances, and to the powers or forces resident therein. The
discovery and exploration of the New Continent, with its
lofty Cordilleras and their numerous volcanoes, its elevated
plateaus with successive stages of climate placed one above
another, and its various vegetation ranging through 120
degrees of latitude, mark incontestably the period in which
there was offered to the human inind, in the smallest space
of time, the greatest abundance of new physical perceptions.

Thenceforward the extension of cosmical knowledge has no
longer been connected with political events acting within
definite localities. Prom that period the human intellect
has brought forth great things by virtue of its own proper
strength; and instead of being principally incited thereto by
the influence of extraneous events, it now works simul-
taneously in many directions: by new combinations of
thought it creates for itself new organs, wherewith to examinei,
on the one hand, the wide regions of celestial space, and, on
the other, the delicate tissues of animal and vegetable struc-
ture which form the substratum of life. The whole of the
seventeenth century, brilliantly opened by the great discovery
of the telescope and by the more immediate fruits of that
discovery, — ^from Grahleo's observations of Jupiter's satellites,
the crescent form of the disk of Venus, and the solar spots,
to Newton's theory of gravitation, — ^is distinguished as the
most important epoch of a newly created '^physical
astronomy.'' We here find, therefore, once more a marked
epoch, characterised by unity in the endeavours devoted to *
the observation of the heavens and to mathematical re-

^h; it forms a well-defined section in the great procei^ji

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of inteDectud development, which since that period has
advanced uninterruptedly forward.

Nearer to our own time it becomes so much the more
difficult to distinguish particular epochs, as the intellectual ac-
tivity of mankind has moved forward simultaneously in many
directions, and as with a new order of social and political
relations a closer bond of union now subsists between the
different sciences. In the separats studies the development
of which belongs to the ''history of the physical sciences,"
in chemistry and descriptive botany, it is still quite possible,
even up to the most recent time, to distinguish insulated
periods in which the greatest advances were made, or in
which new views suddenly prevailed; but in the " history of
the contemplation of the universe," — ^which, according to its
essential character, ought to borrow from the history of
separate studies only that which relates most immediately to
the extension of the idea of the Cosmos, — connection with
particular epochs becomes unsafe and impracticable, since
that which we have just termed an intellectual process of
development supposes an uninterrupted simultaneous ad-
vance in all departments of cosmical knowledge. Having
now arrived at the important point of separation, at which,
after the fall of the Eoman Empire of the World, there
appears a new and foreign element of cultivation received by
our continent for the first time direct from a tropical coun-
try, it may be useful to cast a general glance at the path
which yet remains to be travelled over.

The Arabians, a primitive Semitic race, partially dispelled
the barbarism which for two centuries had overspread the
fece of Europe, after it had been shaken to its foundations
by the tempestuous assaults of the nations by whom it was

Online LibraryAlexander von HumboldtCosmos, Volume 2 → online text (page 15 of 43)