Title: Thomas W. H. Rolleston to Walt Whitman, 26 December 1882
Date: December 26, 1882
Editorial note: The annotation, "'82," is in the hand of Walt Whitman.
Source: Transcribed from digital images or a microfilm reproduction of the original item. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the correspondence, see our statement of editorial policy.
Notes for this letter were derived from Whitman and Rolleston: A Correspondence, ed. Horst Frenz (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1951). The material appears here courtesy of Indiana University Press.
Location: Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
Whitman Archive ID: loc.05151
Contributors to digital file: Stefan Schöberlein, Nima Najafi Kianfar, Eder Jaramillo, and Nicole Gray
29 Lange Strasse
Your card of Dec. 10 received1—together with printed sheets of L. of G., from which I shall work in future. I have been reading your Specimen Days with great delight since it came.—I had not seen so strong an utterance as yours in S. D. on the subject of Hegel before, though of course I conjectured out of the L. of G. that you had appreciated him.2 I have not read anything of the man himself yet—though I find that my reading & thinking for long past has been, more or less consciously, of the nature of a gradual investment of his stronghold—preparation for a vigorous attack. You put the gradual but sure evolution of good out of evil as his keynote, and that must surely be the keynote of any sane philosophy. But what good? and when? and where? For suppose all the good (quâ, moral) imaginable, realized in the world, would there not be a blank still—would we not be inclined to say "and is that all"? I don't know whether the difficulty is an insurmountable one, but I cannot help feeling that the reign of universal virtue would not be any improvement on the present state of things, since so much of the beauty and power of virtue is only thinkable when existing in the midst of evil, & seen on that background. Here then is a strange frame of mind, yet common to us all—we feel it an imperious duty or a thrilling impulse to take part on the right side in the great conflict, and fight therein on the principle of 'No Surrender,' yet we think at the same time that the victory we strive for is never to be gained, is not even conceiveably gainable. What is the justification of this seeming absurdity! I suppose it must be this, that the Good we are really striving for transcends our powers of concrete imagination: in the strife we fix our minds on something definite and practical & make that our ostensible aim, while really working, unconsciously, perhaps, most of us, for a Good not to be expressed in terms of practical virtue. What private soldier of Frederick the Great, storming Torgau under the fire of 400 cannon, felt—or if he felt could have articulately said—that he was working for that most wonderful accomplishment, as yet not nearly gauged in its true significance, the establishment of a German nation. The ridge of a bushy hill, which he should leave tomorrow, never to see again, represented for him that great object.
Now that I am on speculative matters, I will tell you of an important judgment on Darwinism recently delivered by the highest European authority on such subjects, viz, Professor Virchow.3 He is a wide minded man, of strong character (a leader of the Radical politicians in Germany) & of immense knowledge in all domains of science, particularly anthropology. His judgment is that of a serious thinker, who will take 20 years to make up his mind rather than say an unconsidered word, and he is said to exercise, in scientific matters, a mind of absolute impartiality and clearness. Recently then, some 2 months ago, I think, he has delivered an address before the German Anthropological Soc. at Halle, which takes Darwinism as its subject, and utters an unqualified condemnation of that theory. He says it is an illustration of the pernicious 'Naturphilosophie' which tries to force theories on Nature, and supposes that scientific truth can be reached by mere speculation, instead of by patiently studying the facts of physical life. When the theory was first proposed he was not carried off his feet by the waves of enthusiasm around him. He was content to wait, taking the theory for what it was worth, for the proof or disproof which the researchers of the next few decades (dominated as they have been by the desire to find facts bearing on that theory) would certainly bring. Now he feels himself entitled to say that the proof has not been forthcoming, and the disproof has. And he is confirmed by seeing that a perceptible 'disillusionment' has already made its appearance among many who were the most vigorous supporters of Darwinism. It must be remembered that the 'Darwinism' here sentenced to death is not synonymous with evolution. The latter doctrine existed, of course, before D.—he only offered an explanation of it—& that explanation consisted in the putting forward of the merely mechanical law of 'Natural Selection of the (physically) Fittest' as the only cause needed to explain all the phenomena of organization. This cause does doubtless work, but V. denies that it accounts for all the facts, and if it does not account for all, it is by no means of the importance at first supposed. Such an utterance as this of Virchow's ought to go far towards abating the dogmatic intolerance with which most Darwinists regard all who refuse to take their doctrine as the central pivot for all thinking.
Perhaps you have already heard of Virchow's speech, in which case, pardon this Mittheilung. If you didn't know of it I expected it would interest you.
I hope you have had a pleasant Christmas and are well.
T. W. Rolleston.
1. Thomas William Hazen Rolleston (1857–1920) was an Irish poet and journalist. After attending college in Dublin, he moved to Germany for a period of time. He wrote to Whitman frequently, beginning in 1880, and later produced with Karl Knortz the first book-length translation of Whitman's poetry into German. In 1889, the collection Grashalme: Gedichte [Leaves of Grass: Poems] was published by Verlags-Magazin in Zurich, Switzerland. See Walter Grünzweig, Constructing the German Walt Whitman (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1995). For more information on Rolleston, see Walter Grünzweig, "Rolleston, Thomas William Hazen (1857–1920)," Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, ed. J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998). [back]
2. The importance of the Hegelian influence on Whitman has been recognized, though there are varying opinions as to the nature of the relationship: whether Hegel was a source for many of Whitman's ideas or whether Whitman simply paralleled his expressions of thought. In any event, such Whitman concepts as cosmic evolution, pantheistic "unity," and the synthesis of Good in which the antithesis, Evil, merges and disappears are part of the Hegelian philosophy. [back]
3. The eminent director of the Pathological Institute in Berlin, Dr. Rudolf Virchow, was an interested commentator on the controversial question of evolution and Darwinism. Dr. Virchow delivered an important lecture in Munich on September 22, 1877, which seems to parallel the later talk in its emphasis on the necessity of distinguishing between science in the state of hypothesis and science in the state of fact. For example, he writes in the preface to the English translation of his lecture: "Nothing was any further from his intention than any wish to disparage the great services rendered by Mr. Darwin to the advancement of biological science, of which no one has expressed more admiration than himself. On the other hand, it seems high time to him to enter an energetic protest against the attempts that are made to proclaim the problems of research as actual facts, and the opinions of scientists as established science" (Fragments of Science, ed. John Tyndall [6th edition, New York, 1905], 415). [back]