Approaching a Great Spirit
It is one of those strange coincidences in history that we can commemorate the two greatest scientists of the 19th century in one year: Charles Darwin, whose 200th birthday was in 2009, and Alexander von Humboldt, who pre died 150 years ago. Both have revolutionized the natural sciences in their own way, one as the creator of one of the most important scientific theories of modern times, the other as an explorer of the cosmos, reaching beyond all the boundaries of the individual sciences. And both made the experiences that shaped their work on long voyages: Darwin on board the "Beagle", Humboldt on his famous voyage to America.
But this is where the parallels between the two scientists end: While Darwin withdrew to the seclusion of rural life in southern England, Humboldt's desire to travel remained unbroken. Tirelessly, the restless man worked on plans to explore Asia, as a kind of antithesis to exploring the West he wanted to explore the East. A dream that Humboldt was only able to fulfill later, with his trip to Russia in 1829 – even if his excursion, which had been meticulously planned by the Tsar's court, had little in common with the adventure of the trip to America.
Between the two trips there were years of viewing and evaluating, which is reflected in numerous publications, starting with the "Views of Nature" published in 1808, which immediately became a bestseller. His writings combine geographical, ethnological, geological and biological knowledge in a unique way up to the late work "Kosmos", which according to the will of its author is to represent "the whole material world (…) from the nebulous stars to the geography of the mosses on the granite rocks"..
Approaching this body of work in an appropriate manner is no small challenge. This edition, annotated by the renowned Humboldt expert Hanno Beck, succeeds perfectly. It unites the writings which, according to Humboldt's self-image, form his essential life's work. The editor summarizes individual thematic complexes from the writings into his own focal points. So we find our own work on Cuba or a work on Mexico – which Beck knows how to explain in the detailed comments on the individual volumes.
The result of Beck's many years of work is a Humboldt for the 21st century: If you want to get closer to the man today, for whom the often strained image of the polymath applies without reservation, you will hardly find a better approach than this Darmstadt edition. For the anniversary year, an approach to a great spirit that is also attractive in terms of price.