Here is a photo of one of the lamps that frame the entrance to the Defiance Public Library, designed by the Wing & Mahurin architectural firm in 1904. Accompanying the hand holding a torch are the supposed last words of Goethe in German, “Mehr Licht,” or “More Light.” (As @JoshLipnik explains, “It’s common to see tributes to Goethe at American libraries, especially in states like Ohio which had many immigrants from Germany at the time.”)
“More light” is a near-perfect motto to put on the side of a public library, but it’s even more meaningful when you know something about Goethe, who is not only seen as a giant of the German en-light-enment, but also spent decades of his life literally investigating light, culminating in his work, Theory of Color.
Goethe’s big idea, as far as I understand it, was that light is pure and doesn’t contain color, but rather that our perception of color is the result of light colliding with various mediums of darkness, and that the spectrum of colors we see is the result of a “polarity” between light and dark. So, unlike Newton, Goethe didn’t think of darkness as the absence of light, but polar to it, something for light to interact with. (More on the difference between Newton and Goethe.)
According to Goethe: Life as a Work of Art, Goethe sought refuge in his color studies in times of personal and political struggle. (Apparently he had a “large paper sack” made to fit all of his manuscripts, color charts, and sketches.) Many people were angry at Goethe that he was wasting his time on color when he should be speaking up about more pressing cultural matters. When Goethe finally published his book, scientists mostly mocked it or ignored it.
But his color studies colored his understanding of life. He wrote in his diary on May 26, 1807:
Love and hate, hope and fear are also only different conditions of our murky inner life through which our spirit looks either toward the light or toward the shadows. If we look through those murky organic surroundings toward the light, then we love and hope; if we look toward the darkness, then we hate and fear.
As for his last words, “more light,” while they are poetic and symbolic, what he actually said to his doctor on his deathbed was probably a little more down-to-earth: “Do open the shutter of the bedroom so that more light may enter.”
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Filed under: light