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Alexander von Humboldt: The Life Force, or The Rhodian Genius – A Tale

Alexander von Humboldt, a 1843 portrait by Joseph Karl Stieler.


We are delighted to share with you today, from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, an excerpt from Alexander von Humboldt’s ‘View of Nature’, chapter 6—”The Life Force, or The Rhodian Genius – A Tale“. From the 1850 English edition translated by E. C. Otte, and Henry G. Bohn.


THE Syracusans, like the Athenians, had their Poecile*, where representations of gods and heroes, the works of Grecian and Italian art, adorned the richly decorated halls of the portico. Incessantly the people streamed thither; the young warrior to feast his eyes upon the deeds of his forefathers, the artist to contemplate the works of the great masters. Among the numerous paintings which the active enterprise of the Syracusans had collected from the mother country, there was but one which for full a century had continued to attract the attention of every visitor. Even when the Olympian Jupiter, or Cecrops, the founder of cities, and the heroic courage of Harmodius and Aristogiton, failed to attract admirers, a dense crowd still pressed round this one picture. Whence came this preference? Was the painting a rescued work of Apelles, or did it bear the impress of the school of Callimachus? No! although it possessed both grace and beauty, yet neither in the blending of the colours, nor in the character and style of its composition, could it be compared with many other paintings in the Poecile.

The crowd-and how numerous are the classes included in this denomination–ever admires and wonders at what it does not understand! For more than a century had that painting been publicly exhibited, and yet, although Syracuse contained within its narrow limits more artistic genius than all the rest of sea-girt Sicily, the riddle of its meaning still remained unsolved. It was not even known to what temple it had formerly belonged, for it had been saved from a stranded vessel, which was only conjectured, from the freight it carried, to have come from Rhodes.

The foreground of the picture was occupied by a numerous group of youths and maidens, whose uncovered limbs, although well formed, were not cast in that slender mould which we so much admire in the statues of Praxiteles and Alcamenes. The fuller development of their limbs, which bore indications of laborious exercise, -the human expression of passion and of care stamped on their features, -all seemed to divest them of a heavenly or God-like type, and to fix them as creatures of the earth. Their hair was simply adorned with leaves and wild flowers. Their arms were extended towards each other with impassioned longing, but their earnest and mournful gaze was rivetted on a Genius, who, surrounded by a brilliant halo, hovered in the midst of the group. On his shoulder was a butterfly, and in his right hand he held aloft a flaming torch. His limbs were moulded with child-like grace; his eye radiant with celestial light. He looked imperiously upon the youths and maidens at his feet. No other characteristic traits could be distinguished in the picture. Some, however, thought they could perceive at his foot the letters ζ (z) and ς (s), and as antiquarians were then no less bold than they are now, they inferred, though far from happily, that the artist was called ‘ZenodoruS’, the same name borne at a later date by the builder of the Colossus of Rhodes.

‘The Rhodian Genius’, for so this mysterious painting was called, did not however stay without interpreters in Syracuse. Art experts, especially the younger of them, on their return from a brief visit to Corinth or Athens, would have deemed themselves deficient in all pretensions to connoisseurship, had they not immediately advanced some new explanation. Some regarded the Genius as the personification of spiritual Love, forbidding the enjoyment of sensual pleasure; others were of opinion that the dominion of Reason over the Passions was here signified. The wiser among them remained silent, and while they conjectured that the painting was intended to represent something of a sublimer character, they delighted to linger in the Poecile so to admire the simple composition of the group.

The question continued to remain undecided. Copies of the painting, with various additions, were sent to Greece, but without eliciting any explanation respecting its origin. At length, however, when at the early rising of the Pleiades the Aegean Sea was again opened to navigation, ships from Rhodes entered the port of Syracuse. They contained a treasure of statues, altars, candelabras, and pictures, which a love of art had caused the Dionysii (note: from the family and entourage of Dionysius of Syracuse, the Tyrant) to collect in Greece. Among the paintings there was one which was instantly recognised as the companion to the ‘Rhodian Genius’. It was of the same size, and exhibited a similar tone of colouring, although in a better state of preservation. The Genius stood as before in the centre, but without the butterfly; his head was drooping, his torch extin­guished and reversed. The group of youths and maidens thronged simultaneously around him in mutual embrace; their looks were no longer sad and submissive, but announced a wild emancipation from restraint, and the gratification of long-nourished passion.

The Syracusan antiquaries had already begun to accommodate their former explanations of the ‘Rhodian Genius’ to the newly arrived painting, when the Tyrant ordered it to be conveyed to the house of Epicharmus.

This philosopher of the school of Pythagoras dwelt in the remote part of Syracuse called Tyche. He seldom visited the court of the Dionysii, not but that learned men from all the Greek colonies assembled there, but because proximity to princes is apt to rob the most intellectual of their spirit and freedom. He occupied himself unceasingly in studying the nature of things and their forces, the origin of plants and animals, and those harmonious laws by which the celestial bodies on a large, and the snow-flake and the hail-stone on a small scale, assume a globular form. Decrepid with age, he caused himself to be carried daily to the Poecile, and thence to the harbour of Nasos, where, as he said, the wide ocean presented to his eye an image of the Boundless and the Infinite, which his mind strove in vain to comprehend. He was honoured alike by the lower classes and by the tyrant, but he avoided the latter, while he joyfully cultivated and often assisted the former.

Epicharmus lay weak and exhausted on his couch, when the newly arrived work of art was brought to him by the command of Dionysius. He was furnished at the same time with a faithful copy of the ‘Rhodian Genius’, and the philosopher now caused both paintings to be placed before him. He gazed on them long and earnestly, then called together his scholars, and in accents of emotion thus addressed them:

Remove the curtain from the window, that I may once more feed my eyes with the sight of the richly animated and living earth. Sixty years long have I pondered on the internal springs of nature and on the differences inherent in matter, but it is only this day that the ‘Rhodian Genius’ has taught me to see clearly that which before I had only conjectured. While the difference of sexes in all living beings beneficently binds them together in prolific union, the crude matters of inorganic nature are impelled by like instincts. Even in the darkness of chaos, matter was accumulated or separated according as affinity or antagonism attracted or repelled its various parts. The celestial fire follows the metals, the magnet, the iron; amber when rubbed attaches light bodies; earth blends with earth; salt separates from the waters of the sea and joins it’s like, while the acid moisture of the styptiria (στυπτηρία alum) and the woolly-haired salt Trichitis, love the clay of Melos. Everything in inanimate nature hastens to associate itself with its like. No earthly element (and who will dare to class light as such?) can therefore be found in a pure and virgin state. Everything as soon as formed hastens to enter into new combinations, and only the discriminating art of humanity can depict separately that which you seek in vain within the interior of the Earth and in the moving ocean. In dead inorganic matter absolute repose prevails as long as the bonds of affinity remain unsevered, and as long as no third substance intrudes to blend itself with the others; but even after this disturbance unfruitful repose soon again succeeds.

Different, however, is the blending of the same substances in animal and vegetable bodies. Here vital force imperatively asserts its rights, and, heedless of the affinity and antagonism of the atoms asserted by Democritus, unites substances which in inanimate nature ever flee from each other, and separates that which is incessantly striving to unite.

Draw nearer to me, my disciples, and recognise in the ‘Rhodian Genius’, in the expression of his youthful vigour, in the butterfly on his shoulder, in the commanding glance of his eye, the symbol of vital force as it animates every germ of organic creation. The earthly elements at his feet are striving to gratify their own desires and to mingle with one another. Imperiously the Genius threatens them with upraised and high-flaming torch, and compels them, regardless of their ancient rights, to obey his laws.

Look now on the new work of art which the Tyrant has sent me to explain; and turn your eyes from the picture of life to the picture of death. The butterfly has soared up­wards, the extinguished torch is reversed, and the head of the youth is drooping. The spirit has fled to other spheres, and the vital force is extinct. Now the youths and maidens join their hands in joyous accord. Earthly matter again resumes its rights. Released from all bonds they impetuously follow their sexual instincts, and the day of his death is to them a day of nuptials. -Thus, dead matter, animated by vital force, passes through a countless series of generations, and perchance enshrines in the very substance in which of old a miserable worm enjoyed its brief existence, the divine spirit of Pythagoras.

Go, Polycles, and tell the Tyrant what thou hast heard! And now, my beloved Euryphamos, Lysis, and Scopas, come closer to me! I feel that the faint vital force within me can no longer retain in subjection the earthly matter, which now reclaims its freedom. Lead me once more to the Poecile, and thence to the wide sea-shore. Soon you will collect my ashes.”



By the editor:

Poecile*: Modeled on a Portico in Athens, containing a picture gallery painted chiefly by Polygnotus, with the assistance of Micon and Panaenus. Zeno taught his doctrines there, and in consequence, his doctrine was called ‘Stoic’ from ‘Stoa’ (a portico) and his school, the ‘Stoic’ school.

By the author:

‘In the preface to the Second and Third Editions of this work I have already noticed the republication of the preceding tale, which was first printed in Schiller’s ‘Horen’ (for the year 1793: –, part 6, pages 90-96). It embodies the development of a physiological idea in a semi-mythical garb. This idea, I have placed in the mouth of Epicharmus.’


I have faithfully adhered in the ‘Cosmos’ (Kosmos – Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung. 1845–1862), to the same mode of representing and considering the so-called vital force, and affinities, the formative impulse and the principle of organising activity. I there wrote as follows: ‘The mythical ideas long entertained of the imponderable substances, and vital forces, peculiar to each mode of organization, have com­plicated our views generally, and shed an uncertain light on the path we ought to pursue.

The most various forms of intuition have thus, age after age, aided in augmenting the prodigious mass of empirical knowledge, which in our own day has been enlarged with ever-increasing rapidity. The investigating spirit of man strives, from time to time, with varying success, to break through those ancient forms and symbols invented to subject rebellious matter to rules of mechanical construction.’ Further in the same work, I have said, ‘It must, how­ever, be remembered, that the inorganic crust of the earth contains within it the same elements that enter into the structure of animal and vegetable organs. A physical cosmo­graphy would therefore be incomplete, if it were to omit a consideration of these forces, and of the substances which enter into solid and fluid combinations in organic tissues, under conditions which, from our ignorance of their actual nature, we designate by the vague term of vital forces, and group into various systems, in accordance with more or less per­fectly conceived analogies.’’


Full work

in its original German


Our modern copy of the new edition of ‘Views of Nature’. Edited by Stephen T. Jackson and Laura Dassow Walls. Translated from the original German into English by Mark W. Person. University of Chicago Press, 2014.


Excerpt’s full English translation here: 🌿More about Alexander von Humboldt: 🌿 About Epicharmus of Kos:
Alexander von Humboldt: The Life Force, or The Rhodian Genius – A Tale

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