Snowballs, Sleds, and Cultures, with Some Thoughts from Goethe and the Kaiser

A 9-year-old boy lobbied successfully to get his town’s ban on snowball fights overturned.

Reminded me again of some comments by Goethe, circa 1828, which were the subject of a post here several years ago. He observed that when Englishmen came to town, they were invariably a hit with the local women. Indeed, when one of them came to visit, Goethe found it necessary to brace himself for the inevitable female tears upon the visitor’s departure. His friend Eckermann objected that Englishmen were not “more clever, better informed, or more excellent at heart than other people.”

“The secret does not lie in these things, my good friend,” returned Goethe. ““Neither does it lie in birth and riches; it lies in the courage which they have to be that for which nature has made them. There is nothing vitiated or spoilt about them, there is nothing halfway or crooked; but such as they are, they are thoroughly complete men. That they are also sometimes complete fools, I allow with all my heart; but that is still something, and has still always some weight in the scale of nature.”

Goethe goes on to contrast the upbringing of English boys with that typical in his own country:

“In our own dear Weimar, I need only look out of the window to discover how matters stand with us. Lately, when the snow was lying upon the ground, and my neighbour’s children were trying their little sledges in the street, the police was immediately at hand, and I saw the poor little things fly as quickly as they could. Now, when the spring sun tempts them from the houses, and they would like to play with their companions before the door, I see them always constrained, as if they were not safe, and feared the approach of some despot of the police. Not a boy may crack a whip, or sing or shout; the police is immediately at hand to forbid it. This has the effect with us all of taming youth prematurely, and of driving out all originality and all wildness, so that in the end nothing remains but the Philistine.

It’s not obvious to me why Goethe didn’t take up this issue of excessive policing with his very good friend Karl August, who as Grand Duke was pretty much the absolute ruler of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Still, an interesting remark, given the increasing constraints on childhood in our own present culture.

What is also very interesting is that almost a century later, former Kaiser Wilhelm II made some rather similar observations in his memoirs:


Another thing that struck me, in addition to the one-sidedness of the education in the schools, was the tendency, among youths planning their careers in those days, to turn their attention to becoming Government officials, and always consider the profession of lawyer or judge the most worthy goal…As long as the state consisted, so to speak, of government and administration, this tendency among German youths in the shaping of their lives was understandable and justified; since we were living in a country of officials, the right road for a young man to select was the service of the state. British youths of that time, self-reliant and made robust by sports, were already talking, to be sure, of colonial conquests, of expeditions to explore new regions of the earth, of extending British commerce; and they were trying, in the guise of pioneers of their country, to make Great Britain still stronger and greater, by practical, free action, not as paid hirelings of the state.


To be sure, there were even then enterprising men in Germany—brilliant names can be cited among them—but the conception of serving the fatherland, not by traveling along a definite, officially certified road, but by independent competition, had not yet become sufficiently generalized. Therefore I held up the English as an example, for it seems to me better to take the good where one finds it, without prejudice, than to go through the world wearing blinkers.

And skipping forward almost another century and moving westward to the United States: the suppression of youthful high spirits, which Goethe observed, is sadly too often observable here, as is the pressure to travel along a “definite, officially certified road” which the Wilhelm observed and (somewhat surprisingly) deprecated.

See also  this piece at Quillette, which talks about the moral culture of “safetyism” and the factors that have brought it about…including that loss of play in childhood and the effects of overprotection and social media.

There are good comment threads at both the earlier posts about Goethe’s observations and those of the ex-Kaiser. Goethe fans may also enjoy Goethe, the Original Gretchen, and the Hackers of 1764.

(also posted at Ricochet, but thus far it’s just in the members-only section)

24 thoughts on “Snowballs, Sleds, and Cultures, with Some Thoughts from Goethe and the Kaiser”

  1. I’m not a member at Ricochet after they suspended me for two days for a[using the term “TDS” for a common term who has a bad case of it.

    Ricochet is an example of the intolerant right, as I got into a nasty dispute about evolution with a young earth creationist and his defenders.

    The pseudo sympathy: Mike, frankly, you never had them straight in the first place. The entire thread, you thought you were fending off attacks from a group of Young Earth Creationists, but there was only one YEC among them. The rest of them were believers in one form of evolution of another, and just upset with your attitude.

    This began when I posted a comment that I would not write a letter of recommendation for a student applying to medical school who did not believe in evolution.

    Taleb’s “Antifragile” is of value. Trump was a “Black Swan” to use Taleb’s term. I fear he may fail after which we may find ourselves in Kurt Schlicter’s world.

  2. That quote about kids playing and the police really hits home. In far too many places now you can’t let your kids step foot beyond your yard, for fear that the neighbors will call the police. You’ll search in vain for kids playing outside, even in small towns. It’s quite inexplicable how this happened. I think something changed with Etan Patz and the reaction that followed–kids on milkboxes, etc. And then Columbine put the fear into overdrive, social media came along, and now we’ve got an entire generation of young adults who have been permanently traumatized and are emotionally broken. All in a world that’s never been safer. Kids will tell you that they live in constant fear of school shootings. It’s madness. Literally.

  3. Yet which is the cart and which is the horse – or chicken and egg, if you prefer. It could be that the English are descended from the more adventurous, and thus built a society which tolerated such things more. I don’t think the society makes the man so much as the other wa around. A difference in temperament is the work of generations, not a few years of childhood.


    I’m not sure how Mike K got to YEC out of this, except perhaps a reflexive need to rail against Ricochet. I never go there myself, don’t know if they deserve it. I will point out that while Six-Day Creationists may be annoying, they don’t actually do much harm. One might think it destroys the ability to understand science, but that’s mostly just symbolic. It’s pretty much only genetics and geology that’s impaired. And if we make allowance for the more moderate non-evolutionists, they do even less harm. A lot of modern science was developed before Darwin was fully accepted.

  4. It is not just the children who are constrained by an excessive “safety” culture. And the England that once earned German respect has been lost to history.

    Remember the incident in England a few years ago where a gentleman fell into a shallow (wading depth) duck pond in a park, possibly following a stroke or heart attack? Perhaps he could have been saved by prompt intervention — and there was prompt arrival of emergency services, including even a helicopter ambulance. But then everyone was ordered to wait, because they did not have the proper official certification for water rescues. A policeman who arrived at the scene wanted to wade into the shallow pond and pull the man out — but he was forcibly restrained.

    The only silver lining is that this strange society which our Political Class has erected since World War II is financially unsustainable; collapse is inevitable. The collapse will be nasty, of course. But future generations may get back to a world in which a kid can climb a tree and a policeman can save a life … and not just in England.

  5. I will point out that while Six-Day Creationists may be annoying, they don’t actually do much harm.

    Oh, I don’t care about that. I knew a GP who did not believe in evolution and may have been a YEC.

    My point was that, in a discussion I can no longer recall, I commented that medical students need to accept evolution because so much Medicine in the future will be genetic and cannot be understood without understanding evolution. My example is mitochondria and their genes.

    Making that comment unleashed attacks that went on for days. People were posting examples, mostly spurious I expect, of physicians and biologists who did not believe in evolution.

    I quit Ricochet, which has some good posts that I still read, but joined again at the suggestion of a friend, then got suspended for the TDS comment.

    I don’t need to pay for that stuff.

  6. That’s an interesting comment by Goethe about the police. I’m sure that he didn’t bring up the issue with officials because Germany and Austria had increasingly turned into a police states that spied on their citizens and suppressed any dissent.

    The clampdown had its roots in the reforms of Emperor Joseph II during the previous century. The unfortunate idea was that if policing could be centralized it would be easier to create an enlightened liberal environment. As often happens, events turned against the central authorities, and the police proceeded to infiltrate society in order to protect the state.

    Since the year 1811, the 10,000 Nadlers or Pinners, as the secret spies of Vienna are called, have done their work. Taken from the lower classes of society, tradesmen, servants, mechanics, prostitutes, they form a confederacy in Vienna which winds like the red silk thread in the British navy through all the intricacies of social life. There is scarcely a word spoken in Vienna which they do not hear. There is no precaution possible, and even if you bring your own servants, if they be not staunch Englishmen, with a sufficient stock of pride and contempt towards the Viennese themselves, in less than a fortnight they will involuntarily prove you are traitors. The character of the Viennese has become what might be expected under such circumstances. As the Government has taken every care to debar them from serious or intellectual occupation, the Prater, the Glacis, the coffee-houses, the Leopoldstadt theatre, are the only objects of their thoughts and desires. These they must attain, and if they cannot accomplish this by honourable means, they enlist among the ten thousand nadlers, from whom they receive their weekly ducat.

  7. Grurray…I don’t claim to be an expert on pre-unification Germany, but Weimar was not part of Prussia and I don’t think it was subjec to the Habsburg monarchy. My impression is that Karl August, the Grand Duke, was basically an absolute ruler of his small territory, although he relied very much on the advice of his Privy Council, of which Goethe was a member.

  8. I as well know little about Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, but your Goethe quote seems to me to be confirmation that domestic spying networks that were prevalent in Prussia and Vienna had also been encroaching into Weimer. Maybe this blurb from his wikipedia is a clue

    Metternich dubbed him contemptuously der grosse Bursche for his patronage of the revolutionary Burschenschaften, and the celebrated festival held at the Wartburg by his permission in 1818, though in effect the mildest of political demonstrations, brought down upon him the wrath of the great powers. The grand duke was compelled to yield to the remonstrances of Prussia, Austria and Russia. The liberty of the press was again restricted in the grand duchy, but, thanks to the good understanding between the grand duke and his people, the regime of the Carlsbad Decrees pressed less heavily upon Weimar than upon other German states.

    Although with no citation that could be a bit of editorializing. It does seems like he tried to keep Weimer a safe harbor amidst the revolutionary turmoil that was gripping the rest of Central Europe.

    It’s also interesting that the Weimarians had a high regard for Brits. I remember from reading Carlisle’s Sartor Resartus, that the staid and proper English thought of Germany as somewhat exotic, even mystical. Perhaps it was because of the German political disunity and folklore.

  9. Our childhood snowball fights (mid-60s to early 70s) were knock-down, drag-out, and brutal. In other words, fun, exerting, and instructive, providing enjoyment, exercise, and lessons for living. The survival instinct will be bred-out of future populations. People will just lie down and die on command.

  10. Darwinian Evolution has little practical application in understanding genetics. Mendel was a monk, after all. Believing in a magic method of turning a worm into a horse has no more support than thinking God planted dinosaur bones.

  11. Christopher, Darwin lived until 1882. There are more recent examples of research on evolution.

    Genetics does not depend on Darwin but he and Mendel were on the right track.

    The ” magic method of turning a worm into a horse” sounds like a YEC claiming that we are not descended from baboons.

  12. Mike – This is not a thread on the Theory of Evolution, but since you brought it up, let’s spend a few moments on the Scientific Method.

    Newton’s theory on gravitation reigned supreme for a long time. But there were observations it could not explain (such as the motions of the planet Mercury). And the Scientific Method is based on the concept that a theory which fails a single test must yield to more complete theories (such as Einstein’s theory on gravitation). In Science, no theory is ever absolute and unchallengeable — a truth which the Anthropogenic Global Warming crowd ought to remember.

    On evolution — there is an overlooked Social Class element to Darwin’s theory. Out in the uneducated hinterlands, for thousands of years, ordinary farmers had been practicing selective breeding. Almost every living resource that humans depend on — from apples to horses — was the product of centuries or millenia of careful human-driven selective breeding. The upper classes had education, but had little exposure to something that was obvious to the hardy sons or toil. Thus, it was almost a trite observation by Darwin that changes in the natural environment could effect an analogous “natural selection”. (What? Changes in the natural environment, before SUVs? Global Warm-mongers face cognitive dissonance!)

    What this points to is the obvious recognition that Darwin’s theory is like Newton’s — OK as far as it went, but far from a complete explanation of the phenomenon of evolution as observed in the fossil records. Clearly, additional factors are necessary to explain how inanimate chemicals eventually became birds and elephants. This is good news for young people — we do not understand the complete story, and much remains to be discovered. If the human race manages to get through the inevitable destruction which the Political Class is bringing down on our heads, there will come a time when people will look back on the hold that Darwinism once had on public discourse … and shake their heads and smile.

  13. Clearly, additional factors are necessary to explain how inanimate chemicals eventually became birds and elephants.

    I guess I did “bring it up” as it related to problem;ems with Ricochet.

    Denial of evolution is now seen as much on the left as on the “cultural conservative” right.

    What is clear is that both the Catholic Church and well-intentioned social justice activists are guilty of gerrymandering evolutionary biology to make humans special, and keep the universal acid at bay.

    Despite there being zero evidence in favor of Blank Slate psychology, and a mountain of evidence to the contrary, this belief has entrenched itself within the walls of many university humanities departments where it is often taught as fact. Now, armed with what they perceive to be an indisputable truth questioned only by sexist bigots, they respond with well-practiced outrage to alternative views. This has resulted in a chilling effect that causes scientists to self-censor, lest these activists accuse them of bigotry and petition their departments for their dismissal. I’ve been privately contacted by close, like-minded colleagues warning me that my public feuds with social justice activists on social media could be occupational suicide, and that I should disengage and delete my comments immediately.

    The origin of life is an interesting topic of research. I wrote a bit about this over ten years ago.

    Protobionts are thought to be the precursors of living cells. Maybe the prion, which causes mad cow disease is actually the ancestor of all life. Because of the extreme conditions existing early in the Earth’s history, proteins may have been the original genetic material. Christian de Duve, a Nobel Prize winning biologist, has written a book on the subject. Until the discovery of DNA, proteins were thought to be the genetic material by most biologists. Frederick Griffith began the modern field of genetics when he discovered Transforming Material, which was DNA. DNA “melts” at 87 degrees centigrade, however, and RNA, which will tolerate higher temperature, does not seem to be able to replicate itself without DNA. The origins of life may involve self replicating proteins, like prions.

    What are “protobionts?”

    One theory.

    Scientists think that the protobionts are the evolutionary precursors of prokaryotic cells. Protobionts may be originated as an array of microspheres of diverse organic and inorganic compounds enclosed by lipidic membranes. Proteins, carbohydrates, lipids, and other organic substances were the most important autocatalytic organic compounds. Water was a very important factor in the assembly of the protobionts’ endoplasm. After this event, several microspheres could self-organize into organelles that were able to perform specific functions; for example, lysosomes, peroxysomes, vacuoles, etc.

    There are some interesting theories, but it is all informed speculation. I would like to see the Mars probe dig into the soil and look for signs of life, such as 16s fragments of RNA.

    Enough on evolution for today, I think.

  14. Clearly, additional factors are necessary to explain how inanimate chemicals eventually became birds and elephants.

    Lots and lots of time helps. It is hard to grasp just how long a billion years is, let alone four billion. Mountain chains erode and continents play musical chairs in less time than that.

  15. “Lots and lots of time helps.”

    Indeed. But we need to be very careful. Casually invoking time as an explanation is little different in principle from casually invoking the Archangel Gabriel. A distinguishing feature of science is the iron rigor of quantification — and the few bold souls who have tried to relate the pace of evolution to observed rates of random mutations in DNA molecules suspect that the numbers don’t work out. And then there is the further issue of Irreducible Complexity requiring simultaneous mutations. What good is “an array of microspheres of diverse organic and inorganic compounds enclosed by lipidic membranes” without the lipidic membrane? Or of the lipidic membrane without the hypothesized microspheres? Tom Wolfe’s book “The Kingdom of Speech” is very interesting in this regard.

    For the avoidance of doubt, I am not asserting Divine Creation — although I would not rule it out either. What I am asserting is Ignorance — there is much we do not yet understand. Those who treat Darwinism as the last word on the creation of life and evolution are much closer to Six Day Creationists than they would like.

  16. I would not recommend using the term “Darwinism” around biologists. It marks you as something you may not want to be grouped with, since you deny you are a creationist. The term has no significance in biology.

    Craig Venter is working on synthetic living cells.

    I’ve met him and talked to him. He is pretty impressive.

  17. “I would not recommend using the term “Darwinism” around biologists. It marks you as something you may not want to be grouped with, since you deny you are a creationist. The term has no significance in biology.

    I am sure you did not intend for that to sound the way it does. No matter! In my life, I have met very few self-described creationists — and they have all been reasonable thoughtful sincere people who made no attempt to force their views on others. I have met many more Darwinists, numbers of whom have been viciously dogmatic and unscientifically certain about their beliefs (not unlike the Global Warm-Mongers). I am not a subscriber to either “group” — but I know which kind of person I would rather have a conversation over a beer with!

    It sounds odd to say that Darwinism has >”no significance in biology”. It is perhaps one of the most widely understood terms about biology among laymen. But every day is a school day — what is the appropriate term to use in biology?

  18. One notion i came across is a response to the “million monkeys typing” problem in terms or writing Shakespeare… You may need to wait for billions of years to get a full copy of Shakespeare’s works at a million monkeys and 1 key per second.

    BUT — if you have “autocorrect” on the typewriters — that is, the typewriter backs up and erases “the wrong key” when it’s pressed? Time cuts down massively.

    THIS is the way in which natural selection works with random chance and time.

  19. It sounds odd to say that Darwinism has >”no significance in biology”. It is perhaps one of the most widely understood terms about biology among laymen. But every day is a school day — what is the appropriate term to use in biology?

    Evolutionary biology is probably the most used term.

    Darwin introduced the concept of variation based on the environment. He had no idea how it worked.

    He lived around the same time as Cuvier, who realized that Geology was not evidence of creation but of history and billions of years of history.

    Cuvier’s work is considered the foundation of vertebrate paleontology, and he expanded Linnaean taxonomy by grouping classes into phyla and incorporating both fossils and living species into the classification.[2] Cuvier is also known for establishing extinction as a fact—at the time, extinction was considered by many of Cuvier’s contemporaries to be merely controversial speculation. In his Essay on the Theory of the Earth (1813) Cuvier proposed that now-extinct species had been wiped out by periodic catastrophic flooding events. In this way, Cuvier became the most influential proponent of catastrophism in geology in the early 19th century.[3] His study of the strata of the Paris basin with Alexandre Brongniart established the basic principles of biostratigraphy.

    “Social Darwinism” is used but has nothing to do with biology.

    As far as reading on evolution, a good place to start is “The 10,000 Year Explosion,” which suggests that evolution is still going on.

    More recent is “Blueprint” by Plomin and “Who We Are and How We Got Here,” by Reich, which explains ancient DNA and what it means for evolution.

    “Few subjects fascinate us as much as human origins. . . . If you want to understand our origins over the course of the last 100,000 years, this book will be the best up-to-date account for you.”
    —Jared Diamond, The New York Times Book Review

    “Blueprint” has a lot to do with evolutionary psychology.

  20. Thank you, Mike, for the term “evolutionary biology” — although I can’t really see any difference from the term “Darwinism”. Political Correctness is a horrible thing, one which we should all refuse to countenance. It is rather like the fad in some businesses to stop calling workers “employees” and instead call them “team members” — the name change does not alter anything of significance.

    Darwin may have had no idea how natural selection worked — rather in the same way that Newton had no idea how gravity worked, although he could calculate its effects with a reasonable degree of accuracy. Darwin did have the advantage of seeing around him the consequences of patient centuries of anthropogenic selective breeding on domesticated plants and animals — if he had chosen to look. Similar to Newton and gravity, the working men who dedicated their lives to improving their livestock knew how to do it and knew that it worked, although they had never heard of DNA.

    From the perspective of the interested layman, “evolutionary biologists” seem to have become overly focused on the leaves on the trees (admittedly an engrossing topic), and have not been paying much attention to the forest. Darwinian natural selection is fine as far as it goes … but it is almost certainly not the whole story on evolution. Much remains to be learned.

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