|A video of Goethe's "On Nature" (c.1781), based on the Christopher Bamford translation (c.1990), narrated by Brain Saxton, with music from Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 5 (c.1810), 2nd movement, and various noted works of art.|
In famous publications, On Nature (LH:1), aka Die Natur (German), or "The Nature", is an anonymous 1783 fragment, aka “Goethe-Tobler fragment” (Kistler, 1954), published in issue 32 of the secret Tiefurter Journal, which circulated in the Weimar circle, surrounding Goethe, and his views of nature, which outlines a pantheistic eternal changing model of nature.
In c.1770, Goethe, age 20-ish, had arrived at the a view of there being something in nature; which he reflects on as follows:
- “I perceived something in nature (whether living or lifeless, animate or inanimate) that manifested itself only in contradictions and therefore could not be expressed in any concept, much less any word. It was not divine, for it seemed irrational; not human, for it had no intelligence; not diabolical, for it was beneficent; and not angelic, for it often betrayed malice. It was like chance, for it laced continuity, and like providence, for it suggested context. Everything that limits us seemed penetrable by it, and it appeared to dispose at will over the elements necessary to our existence, to contract time and expand space. It seemed only to accept the impossible and scornfully to reject the possible.”
- — Johann Goethe (1831), From My Life: Poetry and Truth, Part Four (§20, pg. 597)
In Aug 1771, Goethe, aged 22, received his law degree, after successfully defending 55 thesis, the first of which being:
- “Natural law is what nature has taught all creatures.”
- — Johann Goethe (1771), Positions on Rights (thesis #1 of 56)
In early 1780s, Goethe, age 30, had only increased his views “On Nature” to many people in discourse.
In 1781, Anna Amalia, the German duchess, initiated the Tiefurter Journal, named after Tiefurt Castle, the advertisement for the new journal read was the following:
- “A society of scholars, artists, poets, and statesmen, beyderley sexes, have come together, and have resolved to produce what politics, wit, talents, and understanding, in our dermally so remarkable times, produce, in a periodical pamphlet in the eyes of one themselves to the chosen audience.”
In 1784, when it ended, it had produced 49 issues, all written anonymously, and copied, and distributed in the Weimar inner circle. The famous “Nature” fragment appeared in issue 32. The following summarizes how Amalia grew the journal from her connection to Goethe's mother, and hence to Goethe's circle:
- “The Tiefirter Journal is a product and part of the upscale entertainment that the Weimar Musenhof enjoyed at the end of the 18th century so as not to become bored. How such unfortunate influences can be warded off is asked in the first part of this magazine in August 1781 and a price is offered for the answer. In a kind of academy, ‘a society of scholars, artists, poets and statesmen, beyderley sex’, came together to ‘produce everything that poliricky, wit, talents and understanding, in our current so remarkable times, in a periodical publication to the eyes of a self-chosen audience’, so the Advertisement. An exclusive group around the duchess mother Anna Amalia drilled in the courtly milieu, what is called the bourgeois public after Jurgen Habermas. The Chamberlain von Einsiedet took on the role of the editor, the Fraulein von Göchhausen assisted him, while the decision on the incoming contributions, how could it be otherwise, lay with the Duchess before hard-working copyists produced the eleven handwritten copies. The Journal der amateurs 2 appeared until June 1784 with minor interruptions. A particular attraction was that the articles were published anonymously. The incognito of the otherwise well-known authors puzzled and provided additional topics of conversation. ‘The authors are Hätschel-hanz, Wieland, Herder, Knebel, Kammerher Seckendorff and Einsiedet’, wrote Anna Amalia to Goethe's mother in November 1781, relying on her ‘world-famous connoisseur’ who ‘easily reads the plays of every author ‘let guess’.”
- — Holger Dainat (2004), “Goethe’s Nature: What is an Author?” (pg. 101)
In 2004, Holger Dainat, in his “Goethe's Nature: What is an author?”, summarized the 220+ years of historical research on the question of the authorship of the On Nature fragment.
One of those who Goethe interacted with was Georg Tobler (1757-1812), then aged 25 or 26, a newly ordained Swiss pastor and translator, who was visiting Weimar. Tobler, after being ordained in 1779, then having gone on long journeys through France and Germany, stayed in Weimar in the summer of 1781 as a guest of Karl Knebels, where he associated with Goethe and Johann Herder at the Weimar court. During these conversations, is where, as has been surmised, the composed the "On Nature" fragment arose in late 1782 or early 1783. Tobler translated works on Sophocles (1781), Prometheus of Aeschylus (1782), Argonauts (1784), among other pieces from Greek anthology. In Apr 1783, Charlotte Stein is said to have announced that Tobler was the author of the anonymous fragment, written when he was visiting Weimar in 1782. If Tobler did writer the anonymous fragment, it is doubtful that the logic of the essay was his own idea, per reason that it is difficult to see how someone, aged 22, gets ordained as a minister, then three years later, pens an essay, directly at odds with Christianity, that would go on to be championed by so many famous agnostics and atheists, e.g. Thomas Huxley, Ernest Haeckel, Sigmund Freud, to name a few? Possibly, if Tobler did pen the fragment, it was but a Greek philosophy to German translation, upgraded with the new views on nature, brewing in the Weimar circle, i.e. Goethe's views on nature.
Shaftesbury | Orphic hymn
In 1894, Wilhelm Dilthey, in his “From the Time of Goethe’s Spinoza Studies”, argued that the pantheistic ideas incorporated in the fragment ‘Die Natur’ were not so much influenced by Spinoza, as had been previously assumed, but were taken largely from the writings of Anthony Shaftesbury. Dilthey proved his point by setting up columns in which parts of Goethe's essay were placed side by side with pertinent quotations taken from Shaftesbury.
In 1909, Oskar Walzel, in his “Shaftesbury and the German Intellectual Life of the 18th Century”, agreed with the investigations of Delthey.
In 1909, Ernst Beutler, in the appendix to his doctoral dissertation on the Greek epigram in German literature of the eighteenth, conjectured that the primary source of the On Nature fragment, was an ancient Orphic hymn to nature.
In 1916, Christian Weiser, in his Shaftesbury and the German Spiritual Life, demonstrated that the pantheistic ideas of young Goethe could be traced to Shaftesbury.
In 1938, Franz Schultz, in his “The Pseudo-Goethe Hymn to Nature”, building on Beutler, argued further along the lines of the On Nature fragment, being an ancient Orphic hymn.
In 1939, Franz Dornseiff, in his “The ancient source of Goethe-Tobler's essay Die Natur”, made the first detailed investigation, wherein he made fourteen comparisons with the Orphic hymn and succeeded in convincing the reader of a definite relationship.
In 1954, Mark Kistler, in his “The Sources of the Goethe-Tobler Fragment Die Natur”, building on Beutler, Schultz, Dornseiff, and others, summarized things up to this point by stating that, according to the evidence, the fragment was a product of Goethe's mind, possibly dictated by Tobler's pen:
- “It should be noted here parenthetically, in the light of modern information, the hymnic fragment is considered a product of Goethe's mind and thought even though it may have been written with Tobler's pen. The question now arises as to how Goethe became interested in this ancient hymnic material. What were the sources through which Orphic hymns became known in Germany at the time; were men of letters be-sides Goethe interested in them; if so, what was the attraction that hymnic literature held for them?”
- — Mark Kistler (1954), “The Sources of the Goethe-Tobler Fragment Die Natur” (pg. 383)
Kistler points out that in Shaftesbury’s “The Moralists: a Philosophical Rhapsody”, the character Philocles, while on an early morning walk with Palemon, in the midst of a beautiful countryside, bursts int an “eloquent apostrophe to nature”, themed on the Mystical Hymns of Orpheus (c.300BC). Kistler the analyzed the two hymns and found eleven points of agreement in content:
- “On placing the ancient Orphic hymn to Nature side by side with this rhapsody, an immediate parallelism is observed. At least eleven instances of agreement in content can be noted. The most striking resemblance, however, is that of the symbolical presentation of the ‘nature of things’. In both Shaftesbury's rhapsody and the ancient hymn, Nature appears in the image of a vast ocean of swirling waters in a continual circular motion. The two ‘hymns’ close with a supplication imploring divine guidance. To be sure, there are differences too. For instance, the ornate and flowery language, the preponderance of descriptive words, and the enthusiastic ring of the Shaftesburian rhapsody were peculiar to the eighteenth century in England, and make the mildly dithyrambic verse of the Orphic hymns seem pale. To give freer rein to his feeling, Shaftesbury preferred prose to the Greek hexameter. In addition, Shaftesbury incorporated thoughts which have a strong rationalistic flavor. He also contemplated Nature in a real and concrete sense in contrast to the abstract and aloof manner of the Orphic hymn. And in the ancient poem, Nature is not always considered kind and benevolent, but she can dispense evil to those who deserve it. In an allied sense, Nature not only creates and grows, but also decays and dissolves. With Shaftesbury, Nature is at all times a positive force which works for the benefit of mankind and”
- — Mark Kistler (1954), “The Sources of the Goethe-Tobler Fragment Die Natur” (pg. 384)
Hence, according to Kistler, Goethe read Shaftesbury's version of the Orpheus hymns, and that this is where the famous "On Nature" essay fragment stems, whether verbally stated in discussion, in dialogue, or dictated by Tobler, or written by Goethe himself.
Anonymous | Die Natura
In 1783, Jan or Feb, an anonymous handwritten fragment entitled "Die Natur" or "The Nature" began to circulate in manuscript form, eventually appearing in the in the Tiefurter Journal and was printed a year later in the Pfalzischen Museum (Palatinate Museum) gedruckt. The actual author of the Nature fragment, seems to be an unknown Greek, related to an Orphic hymn, or Roman author, thematic to Ovid and his Metamorphosis, translated into German by Georg Tobler, as reported by Charlotte Stein (Apr, 1783), updated with the newer views or verbal dictations by Goethe, which he says his memory is blurry on, and possibly views of Shaftesbury (Curtius, 2013). The following are two summary views on the origin of this anonymous Nature fragment:
- “The small text ‘Die Natur’ appeared in handwritten form in 1783 under the title ‘Fragment’ in the Tiefurter Journal (32nd part) and was printed a year later in the Pfalzischen Museum (Palatinate Museum) gedruckt. It is attributed to Georg Christoph Tobler, a theologian from the Zurich Lavater Circle, whose hymn-like preaching style characterizes the text. Goethe denies authorship to Knebel in 1783; however, he said to Chancellor Muller in 1828: ‘In fact, I cannot actually remember the fact that I wrote these considerations, but they probably agree with the ideas that my mind had developed at that time.’ (Schriften zur Naturwissenschaft, Stuttgart, 1977 I, p. 32) ‘Die Natur’ can be seen as a reproduction of the young Goethe's conception of nature.”
- — Thomas Krusche (1987), Emerson’s Conception of Nature and its Philosophical Origins (note #31, pg. 337)
- “But what varied masks the Orphic Physis can assume! Among Goethe's writings on the natural sciences there is a celebrated ‘Fragment on Nature’, which first appeared anonymously in 1782 or 1783 in the ‘Tiefurter Journal’, which was circulated in manuscript. Goethe writes to Knebel (March 3, 1783), that he is not the author. A few weeks later Frau von Stein announces that the fragment is by Tobler, of Zurich, who had visited Weimar in 1782. In 1828, Goethe saw it again. On May 24 he wrote to Chancellor von Muller: ‘Although I cannot remember composing these observations, they are quite in accord with the conceptions to which my mind then soared.’ Georg Christoph Tobler (1757-1812), however, had translated the Orphic hymn into hexameters. The fragment which appeared in the ‘Tiefurter Journal’ is an analysis and amplification of this translation — with additional matter from Shaftesbury.”
- — Ernst Curtius (2013), European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages (pg. 107)
In May 1828, the "On Nature" fragment was found among the papers of Duchess Amalia (1739-1807), and returned to Goethe. Goethe, upon receiving this fragment, similar to what he said about it in 1783, commented, in a letter to his friend the Chancellor Muller, the following:
- “That essay was communicated to me recently from the post of the eternally venerated Duchess Anna Amalia; it is written by a well-known hand whom I used in my business in the eighties. In fact, I cannot remember that I wrote these reflections, but they probably agree with the ideas to which my mind had developed at that time. I would like to call the level of insight at that time a comparative that is forced to express its direction against a superlative that has not yet been reached. One sees the tendency to a kind of pantheism in which the world phenomena are fundamentally thought of as an inscrutable, unconditional, humorous, self-contradicting being, and may well be considered a game that is bitterly serious.”
- — Johann Goethe (1828), “Letter to Chancellor Muller”
Eventually, the essay was included into Goethe's posthumous collected works.
Given the theme of the essay, e.g. "nature creates new forms without end", being similar to Goethe's chemical morphology theory, based on Ovid's Metamorphosis, which is coded throughout his Elective Affinities, it was assumed that Goethe was the direct author. In the last years of Goethe's existence, the nature fragment seems to have been mixed into Goethe's collections of maxims.
In 1809, Goethe, in his Elective Affinities, leaked some of his 1,000+ maxims, via the fictional journal of Ottilie; this is recounted as follows:
- “But whenever all or any of them were written, and whatever revision they may have undergone, none were published until 1809, when Goethe was sixty years of age. It was then that he brought out Elective Affinities [Die Wahlverwandschaften]. A few of the maxims on Life and Character were there inserted as forming two extracts from a journal often quoted in the earlier part of the story. ‘About this time’, writes Goethe, as he introduces the first of these extracts, ‘outward events are seldom noted in Ottilie's diary, whilst maxims and sentences on life in general, and drawn from it, become more frequent. But’, he adds, ‘as most of them can hardly be due to her own reflections, it is likely that some one had given her a book or paper, from which she wrote out anything that pleased her.’ A few more maxims appeared eight years later in Kunst und Alterthum, a magazine founded by Goethe in 1816 and devoted to the discussion of artistic questions; and a larger number first saw the light in the same publication at various dates until its extinction in 1828.”
- — Bailey Saunders (c.1893), “Preface” to Maxims and Reflections of Goethe (pg. 13)
In 1820s, Goethe, as reported by Saunders (c.1893), was told by his publisher that he had not provided enough maxims to fill some volume, after which Goethe retrieved a bundle of papers to fill three volumes, giving them to Johann Eckermann, with instructions on how they are to be published.
In 1860s, Thomas Huxley, being the first English person to "discover" this gem essay on nature by Goethe, did the first English translation of “On Nature”.
- “Goethe's wonderful rhapsody On Nature, has been a delight to me from my youth up. A better translation than mine and an interesting account of the very curious obscurity which hangs about the parentage of Die Natur are to be found in Bailey Saunders' recently published Goethe's Aphorisms and Reflections.”
- — Thomas Huxley (1894), “Past and Present”
In 1890s, following Huxley's popularization of the essay as being Goethe's verbatim words, research into the exact origin of the fragment began to increase.
Bailey | Translation
The following is the Bailey Saunders (c.1893) translation of Goethe's "On Nature":
Nature! We are surrounded by her and locked in her clasp: powerless to leave her, and powerless to come closer to her. Unasked and unwarned she takes us up into the whirl of her dance, and hurries on with us till we are weary and fall from her arms. She creates new forms without end: what exists now, never was before; what was, comes not again; all is new and yet always the old.
We live in the midst of her and are strangers. She speaks to us unceasingly and betrays not her secret. We are always influencing her and yet can do her no violence. Individuality seems to be all her aim, and she cares nought for individuals. She is always building and always destroying, and her workshop is not to be approached.
Nature lives in her children only, and the mother, where is she? She is the sole artist,—out of the simplest materials the greatest diversity; attaining, with no trace of effort, the finest perfection, the closest precision, always softly veiled. Each of her works has an essence of its own; every shape that she takes is in idea utterly isolated; and yet all forms one. She plays a drama; whether she sees it herself, we know not; and yet she plays it for us, who stand but a little way off.
There is constant life in her, motion and development; and yet she remains where she was. She is eternally changing, nor for a moment does she stand still. Of rest she knows nothing, and to all stagnation she has affixed her curse. She is steadfast; her step is measured, her exceptions rare, her laws immutable. She has thought, and she ponders unceasingly; not as a man, but as Nature. The meaning of the whole she keeps to herself, and no one can learn it of her.
Men are all in her, and she in all men. With all she plays a friendly game, and rejoices the more a man wins from her. With many her game is so secret, that she brings it to an end before they are aware of it. Even what is most unnatural is nature; even the coarsest Philistinism has something of her genius. Who does not see her everywhere, sees her nowhere aright.
She loves herself, and clings eternally to herself with eyes and hearts innumerable. She has divided herself that she may be her own delight. She is ever making new creatures spring up to delight in her, and imparts herself insatiably. She rejoices in illusion. If a man destroys this in himself and others, she punishes him like the hardest tyrant. If he follows her in confidence, she presses him to her heart as it were her child. Her children are numberless. To no one of them is she altogether niggardly; but she has her favorites, on whom she lavishes much, and for whom she makes many a sacrifice. Over the great she has spread the shield of her protection.
She spurts forth her creatures out of nothing, and tells them not whence they come and whither they go. They have only to go their way: she knows the path. Her springs of action are few, but they never wear out: they are always working, always manifold. The drama she plays is always new, because she is always bringing new spectators. Life is her fairest invention, and Death is her device for having life in abundance. She envelops man in darkness, and urges him constantly to the light. She makes him dependent on the earth, heavy and sluggish, and always rouses him up afresh.
She creates wants, because she loves movement. How marvelous that she gains it all so easily! Every want is a benefit, soon satisfied, soon growing again. If she gives more, it is a new source of desire; but the balance quickly rights itself. Every moment she starts on the longest journeys, and every moment reaches her goal. She amuses herself with a vain show; but to us her play is all-important.
She lets every child work at her, every fool judge of her, and thousands pass her by and see nothing; and she has her joy in them all, and in them all finds her account. Man obeys her laws even in opposing them: he works with her even when he wants to work against her. Everything she gives is found to be good, for first of all she makes it indispensable. She lingers, that we may long for presence; she hurries by, that we may not grow weary of her.
Speech or language she has none; but she creates tongues and hearts through which she feels and speaks. Her crown is love. Only through love can we come near her. She puts gulfs between all things, and all things strive to be interfused. She isolates everything, that she may draw everything together. With a few draughts from the cup of Love she repays for a life full of trouble.
She is all things. She rewards herself and punishes herself; and in herself rejoices and is distressed. She is rough and gentle, loving and terrible, powerless and almighty. In her everything is always present. Past or Future she knows not. The present is her eternity. She is kind. I praise her with all her works. She is wise and still. No one can force her to explain herself, or frighten her into a gift that she does not give willingly. She is crafty, but for a good end; and it is best not to notice her cunning.
She is whole and yet never finished. As she works now, so can she work for ever. To every one she appears in a form of his own. She hides herself in a thousand names and terms, and is always the same. She has placed me in this world; she will also lead me out of it. I trust myself to her. She may do with me as she pleases. She will not hate her work. I did not speak of her. No! what is true and what is false, she has spoken it all. Everything is her fault, everything is her merit.
Goethe, we note, did not feminize "nature". He did, however, speak of unnatural being in nature. Much of this, unceasing change philosophy, seems Thales themed.
In c.1910, Rudolf Steiner, in his The Riddles of Nature, published some translation of Goethe’s “On Nature”, stating that Goethe penned this at the same time that Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason (1781), but on opposite in conception to Kant's view of nature:
- “In all essential points, Goethe arrived at the opposite to Kant's conception of the world. Approximately at the same time that Kant published his Critique of Pure Reason, Goethe laid down his creed in his prose hymn, Nature, in which he placed man completely into nature and in which he presented nature as bearing absolute sway, independent of man: Her own and man's law-giver as well. Kant drew all nature into the human mind. Goethe considered everything as belonging to this nature; he fitted the human spirit into the natural world order.”
- — Rudolf Steiner (c.1910), The Riddles of Nature (§6: the Age of Kant and Goethe, pg. #)
In 1873, Freud, attended a public lecture which evoked the On Nature fragment, and was so stirred by it, that he cited it as the reason he decided to go to medical school at University of Vienna, owing to Goethe's views on nature.
- “The lecture of Goethe's beautiful essay 'Die Natur' in a popular lecture shortly before my final exams led to the decision that I should enroll in medicine.”
The following are related quotes:
- “Notwithstanding this declaration, the essay is now claimed as the production of a certain Swiss friend of Goethe's, by name Tobler, on external evidence which need not be examined here, and on the internal evidence afforded by the style, which is certainly more pointed and antithetic than is usual with Goethe. But master of language who attempted every kind of composition may well have attempted this; and even those who credit an otherwise unknown person with the actual writing of the essay candidly admit that it is based upon conversations with Goethe. It is so clearly inspired with his genius that he can hardly be forced to yield the credit of it to another.”
- — Bailey Saunders (c.1893), “Preface” to Maxims and Reflections of Goethe (pg. 13)
- “The last section in this book requires a word of explanation. It is a little essay on Nature which is to be found with a variety of other fragments in the last volume of Goethe's collected works. Too short to stand by itself, if it appears at all, it must be in company with kindred matter; and as a series of aphorisms, presenting a poetic view of Nature unsurpassed in its union of beauty and insight, it is no inappropriate appendage to the maxims on Science. It is little known, and it deserves to be widely known. I venture to think that even in Germany the ordinary reader is unaware of its existence. For us in England it was, so to speak, discovered by Professor Huxley, who many years ago gave a translation of it as a proem to a scientific periodical. Perhaps that proem may yet be recovered as good salvage from the waters of oblivion, which sooner or later overwhelm all magazines. Meanwhile I put forward this version.”
- — Bailey Saunders (c.1893), “Preface” to Maxims and Reflections of Goethe (pg. 13)
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