Letter 398a

398a. Lorenz Oken to Schelling in Würzburg: Göttingen, 18 November 1805 [*]

Göttingen, 18 November 1805

I cannot hold out much longer, and have let matters reach their utmost limit before deciding upon turning to you with a request. And to whom could I really do this with more confidence than to yourself? Hitherto I have always managed to struggle on by means of some assistance from home; but since the war has broken out, I have obtained no further help, and nothing now remains for me to do but to return home.

At present, however, I stand upon the very verge of supporting myself, and having struggled towards this with so much sacrifice and effort, am I now doomed, I would ask, to abandon the goal that lies clearly before me, provided I can only manage to remain here some time longer? Besides, I am tied to this place; and am obligated to lecture — what a disgrace, to be obliged to go away in the middle of the year. A publisher was always my consolation in monetary difficulties. I continued hoping from week to week, but Göbhard will not honour my draft, and until I have another, things must go on as they can until Shrove Tuesday. [1]

Among the students here I manage to maintain a tolerable amount of confidence. I have in a private lecture eleven pupils, which is a very goodly number for Göttingen, where there are only fifty medicals. Osiander has only twelve, Richter sixteen, and Himly only twenty-four in the hospital. Just imagine such a small number of medical students, and you must see that one has but a poor chance of making one’s fortune. One great advantage, however, is that I am known here, and, since Göttingen has acquired a good reputation abroad, I am quite glad at having made my start in life here, for doing which I have to thank you in following your good advice.

Beyond, however, the fact of one’s becoming known here and the advantages of its library, Göttingen has nothing more to give. In public I have a great audience, but as they only come out of curiosity and get nothing from it, it is easy to see that they will soon disappear. On all occasions the most lively Protestant feeling prevails here — which all amounts to observing economy in the kitchen: no one will meddle with anything which he cannot put into his mouth — such is the case both in the upper and lower grades of society; and no student has any higher notion of science.

Meanwhile my eleven seem to be contented with me; but I stroke them, so to speak, under the chin, and avoid as much as possible all reasoning, for if I were to attempt to do this, their mouths would stand agape. I must only dictate to them like every Göttingen professor, or the students would do nothing. If they have no lecture in their hands when they leave, they learn nothing.

Among my eleven I have got five gratis-pupils, and the rest wait for remittances; meanwhile the victualler must always be paid beforehand and other tradesmen also. Engraving my copper-plates has also cost me no trifle; [2] in short, for some weeks I have been without any money. Could you give me an advance upon my signature and word of honor to repay you as soon as lies in my power? I shall feel myself everlastingly obliged. If the sum were to amount to only fifty florins that would be something towards helping me. If you can but comply with my request, do not leave me long in uncertainty; the best plan will be to send the money by the postal waggon. [3]



[*] Source: Alexander Ecker, Lorenz Oken. Eine biographische Skizze. Durch erläuternde Zusätze und Mittheilungen aus Oken’s Briefwechsel vermehrt (Stuttgart 1880), 188–90; idem, Lorenz Oken. A biographical Sketch. With explanatory notes, selections from Oken’s correspondence, and a portrait of the professor, trans. Alfred Tulk (London 1883), 101–2, whence also the translation of this letter, slightly altered; German text also in Fuhrmans 3:280–81.

After the voluminous and not always flattering material demonstrating Schelling’s often difficult personality and precipitate inclination toward intemperance and hurtfulness in academic feuds and even personal matters (e.g., with Carl Joseph Windischmann), this letter demonstrates that others in the field had a different impression of him, not least his students, of whom Oken was one of the most faithful.

The letter also demonstrates a different side to Schelling himself (see final footnote below). Oken, whose productive and cordial correspondence with Schelling is accessible in the translated volume above, was at the time working as a private lecturer in Göttingen, where he had just done his Habilitation (qualification for lecturing) and begun his academic career. Back.

[1] Joseph Anton Göbhardt (also Goebhart), Bamberg publisher of Oken’s Die Zeugung (Bamberg, Würzburg [“Wirtzburg” in original] 1805), and also of the forthcoming Beiträge zur vergleichenden Zoologie, Anatomie, and Physiologie, ed. Lorenz Oken and Dietrich Georg Kieser, which began publication in 1806. Concerning the copper engravings whose cost Oken himself had initially had to cover, see below. Back.

[2] The engravings were for Oken’s forthcoming Beiträge zur Vergleichenden Zoologie, Anatomie und Physiologie. In a letter to Schelling on 8 September 1805 (Lorenz Oken. Eine biographische Skizze, 185; Lorenz Oken. A biographical Sketch, 98, whence also the following translation, slightly altered), Oken remarks that “[i]f Göbhardt pays me sooner than Michaelmas [29 September] for the plates that are to be engraved here, it will be a considerable help, as the latter have already picked a hole in my economies.”

The three copper engravings appear at the end of the book (T. I = Tafel I = “Plate I” etc.):





[3] Schelling seems indeed to have helped Oken, who wrote back to Schelling on 20 December 1805 (Lorenz Oken. Eine biographische Skizze, 190; Lorenz Oken. A biographical Sketch, 102 [whence also the translation]; Fuhrmans 3:282):

Göttingen, 20 December 1805

My dear Herr Professor,

I know not how to thank you: for words fail me as you will readily understand. Still it is my hope that a humble individual like myself may frequently recompense a benefactor by some very slight token of feeling, and such as it is this must at present serve in place of thanks.

Yours gratefully,
Oken Back.

Translation © 2017 Doug Stott