Vita in plantis est occulta
(Life is hidden in plants)
– Saint Thomas Aquinas1

I: The Light of the Leaf

On July 20th, 1794, Johann Wolfgang Goethe and Friedrich Schiller happened by chance to attend a meeting of the Jena Natural Research Society.  After they had left the lecture, Goethe and Schiller sparked a momentous conversation, which Goethe later called “die glückliche Begegnung” (“the happy encounter”). Schiller invited him to his house, and, afterwards, Goethe began to sketch the originary plant (die Urpflanze) which he had hoped to discover during his travels to Southern Italy and Sicily. Yet when Schiller saw Goethe’s sketch, he exclaimed: “Das ist keine Erfahrung, das ist eine Idee!” (“That is no observation, that is an idea!”)  Goethe responded: “Well, I’m rather fortunate that I have ideas without knowing it and can even see them with my own eyes.”2

This story points to the speculative heart of Goethe’s botany.  For Goethe insists that he had not only known but even seen this vision of the Urpflanze.  Yet what Goethe believed he had seen with his waking eyes, Schiller could, at this moment, only contemplate as an idea with his slumbering imagination.  How had Goethe seen and sketched the Urphlanze, as though it were growing within the world, and perhaps even perched somewhere on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius?  Why had Schiller protested that it was ‘no observation’ within the world but only ‘an idea’ of the mind?  And why had Goethe said that he had visibly seen with his own eyes that which Schiller could only contemplate in his invisible imagination?

Any legitimate answer to these questions must begin by taking Goethe at his word, in affirming both that the Urpflanze can be seen as an idea, and that it can also be discovered in the fullness of its reality and truth.3  The plant appears as the most material of living organisms, and yet its destiny also points to a higher ideal.  Yet, in his equivocal affirmation of both poles, Goethe appears before this sundering to presage forward, not only to the idealist origins of classical phenomenology, but also over it, to realism in metaphysics, and, as its principle, to a more richly metaphysical and theological botany.4 To see what lies hidden within the plant, we must look again to the source of its originary significance.

Before the first division of the plant from the animal, the plant had already drawn from its roots the spark of that life that moves the stars.  The Pythagoreans had first divided the plant as the abject other of the animal, even as they had also linked the plant in a chain of counting to the singular heavenly ‘hearth’ (hestia).5  Plato had then held this idea above its appearances, modelled the participation (methexis) of many in one on the sprouting structure of the plant, and relegated the plant to a passive observer of animals in motion.6 And Plotinus had later assimilated this idea of the plant as a moment of the divine Life (Zoe).7

We read, in Genesis 1:11-13, of the creation of the plant before the creation of the Sun, as it is illumined, not from a physical but, as it seems, from a hidden source.  Christian commentators have since read this primordial and originary plant as a seed of reason (logoi spermatikoi), which was spoken by the divine Logos before it ever came to be created in any particular plant species.8 Such a theological botany has, however, since come under increasing criticism: for natural scientists have found no evidence of a vital force (élan vital) behind the phenomena.9 And, following Heidegger and Deleuze, Michael Marder and Timothy Morton have argued that such a spectral presence of nature behind the plant must be fissured by the sheer exteriority of the plant among the anarchic cornucopia of living forms.

We may, however, discover in Goethe’s Urpflanze a momentous clue to a new reading of the plant for theology.  For the figure of the Urpflanze captures this most radical vegetal difference concentrated in an originary unity – always striving, yet ever the same.  The post-Hegelian ejection of difference from identity, in Schelling, as in Heidegger, is here anticipated, even as it is elided.  And the anarchic difference of Deleuze’s rhizomatic assemblage of virtual plateaus may, at this point, also be reversed at its roots, as a negative unity of nomadic relations.  As the flower ever turns its leaves to the Sun, we too must turn our thoughts to its hidden source, as we read Goethe against his critics to have written a mystagogical treatise, an initiation into the sacred mysteries, where the ‘light of the leaf” shines forth like a visible icon of an invisible spirit.

II: The Problematic of the Plant

In The Metamorphosis of Plants (1790), Goethe illustrates a mimetic repetition of plant forms.  He describes how there is a ‘hidden relationship’ among the external parts of the plant, between the visible exterior and the invisible interior, where the invisible interior can be seen through the visible exterior forms.10 The “ever-moving light”, he writes, “first bursts into light” from its infancy as it is repeated in an “infinite variety” of forms, where “each leaf elaborates” upon the last, adding from the former to the latter.11 The same organs ever fulfill natures laws throughout.  Each leaf exhibits a virtual recollection of the entire previous arc of the expansion and contraction of the plant: from seed to stem; from stem to leaf; and from the flower to the fruit.12 In every garden, we may stand witness to a portrait gallery of this same face of living nature as it is rendered differently among the diversity of its flowers and fruits.

The plant is thus a symbol of difference.  Difference had, since Parmenides and Plato, been predicated by an arborescent grammar of tree-branching relations drawn from the oldest water of its deepest source.  Once, however, this difference had been radicalized, in the ‘cision’ of Schelling’s Ages of the World, and the ‘Differenz’ of Heidegger’s Being and Time, it could also be laterally reinscribed to sever its relations.  Deleuze and Guattari could thus critique Goethe for having folded the immanent plane of nature in and for the ‘transcendental plane’ of the knowing subject.13 Against the spectral unity of nature, they illustrate, with the figure of the Rhizome, a laterally branching root-structure, which resists any arborescent logic that would divide the one into the many in and for the one.14 Rather, in its infinite negativity, vegetal difference laterally exceeds any anthropic identity; and a unified essence of the plant may be evacuated into a pulsating infinitude of disparate assemblages.

The figure of the plant has thus emerged as a critical symbolic frame of conflicting ontologies.  Critical Plant Studies has, following critical animal studies, come to read the plant as the key site of poetic resistance to biopolitical domination.15 And Michael Marder has, for this purpose, recommended a Derridean deconstruction of the polar subordination of the plant to the animal, as to the human.  In contrast to Goethe, the leaf is, for Marder, a symbol of contingent supplementarity.16 It is, he argues, radically egalitarian, the building block of the tree, the source and product of the miniature reproduction of vegetal being, from which it may always fall away.17 Plants, he says, are the “weeds of metaphysics.”18

Graham Harman has, furthermore, rejected this entire subject-object correlationist circuit of modern epistemology, and, following Martin Heidegger’s metaphor of the hammer, recentred all relationality, beyond the bounds of the subject, upon an aggregate of objects.19 And Timothy Morton has, following Harman, similarly argued, against Goethe as against his fetishization of a philosophia naturalis, that a genuinely speculative and object-oriented ecology should reject the spectral presence of nature held behind the outwardly objectified parts of the plants.20 Once this radicalization of difference has severed every relation, all relations may appear as little more than contingent supplements, destined to fall away during our wintry morning of metaphysical skepticism, until at last there remains neither leaf, nor plant, nor any semblance of nature hiding behind the outward spectacle of all ethereal objects.

III: The Urpflanze of Life

The life of the plant has been all but lost to recent ecological criticism.  For, as we may observe in Marder and Morton, this radicalization of vegetal difference has since resulted in the severance of all vegetal relations such that nothing of nature may any longer be seen from within the depths of the plant.  Yet as the leaves that once fall away will again return in the Spring, we may, with Goethe, once more search for the Urpflanze, the concentrated singularity of all possible plants, and a symbol of the Tree of life, which can, contrary to so many of the ecologies of difference, be communicated to shine forth in the light of every leaf.

As a lure to the beyond, the Urpflanze may be seen to break open the egocentric circuit of anthropomorphic nature under the rubric of the Anthropocene.  Against mechanical materialists, Goethe could contend that mechanism without life evacuates its matter into a cancerous multiplication without a pivotal termination of its growth. Against Derrida and Marder, Goethe could contend that the deconstruction of the polar subordination of the plant to the animal, as to the human, tacitly anthropomorphizes the plant, so as to transcribe an inversely vegetalised humanity over the other of nature.  And against Harman and Morton, we may, with Goethe, also argue that the spirit of Nature could not at last be constituted by simply combining one object to another within a ‘hyperobject’ that in total is ‘less than the sum of its parts’.  For, in this very act of combining objects, it also fissures one whole into many parts.  And, from such a fissure, Nature can be imagined to collapse into nothing more than an assemblage of atomic parts – an archipelago of islands floating without a sea.

Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants can thus be read against his critics as a mystagogical treatise, an initiation into the sacred mysteries, where the light of the leaf shines forth as a visible icon from the hidden hearth of invisible nature.21 We may find such traces of the plant among the writings of the Church Fathers.  For Origen, the Tree of Life (Zoe) appears as an angelic apparition of an attribute (epinoia) of Christ.22  For Basil, the logoi spermatikoi of the plant is created by Christ the Logos on the fourth day of creation before the Sun and Moon.23 And for Augustine, this consumption of the deathly fruit of the Tree of Knowledge also proleptically anticipates the reverse consumption of the saving fruit of the Tree of Jacob.24 The vegetal difference of the plant is thus for Christian theology more challenging as it is inscribed with this divine difference of Zoe in Christ, and of Christ in God as Trinity.

Semblances of the sacred may ever again be discovered beyond the enclosures of temples and altars. For Goethe’s archetype of the plant can be read as a transcendental reflection of the Platonic ideas, spoken by the Logos, as by the invisible angels in the shapes of visible nature. And Goethe’s search for the Urpflanze can be read, in a spiritual fulfillment of his erotic aspirations, as a search for the singularity of any plant, of the divine Life (Zoe), and, as with Nicholas of Cusa, of the maximum contractum of Christ who ever waits to be discovered in the light of every leaf.25 We may, he writes, “feel God’s hand” to “Spring forth” as it is “displayed about the consecrated altar”, where “the whole [is] reflected in each separate part”; “each plant thee heralds now the iron laws” of nature; and “love [is] sanctified” in this “same light”; so that “lovers may together in harmony seek out the higher world.”26

  1. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologiæ of St. Thomas Aquinas, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York NY: Benziger Brothers) 1911, Pt. I, Q. 69, A 2.
  2. Goethe recounts this ‘happy encounter’ in the first number (1817) of his Zur Morphologie. See Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe: Die Schriften zur Naturwissenschaft, 21 vols. 1st division, vol. 9: Morphologische Hefte, ed. Dorothea Kuhn (Weimar: Boehlaus Nachfolger) 1954, pp. 79-83; quoted in Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (University of Chicago Press) 2010, pp.1-2.
  3. Robert J. Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe (University of Chicago Press) 2010, pp. 395-6, 401-2, 414-5. See also Thomas Pfau, “All is Leaf”: Difference, Metamorphosis, and Goethe’s Phenomenology of Knowledge”, Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 49, No. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 3-41.
  4. Rudolf Steiner, Nature’s Open Secret: Introduction to Goethe’s Scientific Writings, trans. John Barnes and Mado Spiegler (Great Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic Press) 2000, pp. 42-54, 75-81. 
  5. Leonid Zhmud, Pythagoras and the Early Pythagoreans (Oxford: Oxford University Press) 2012, pp. 380-5.
  6. Plato, Timaeus, 77a-c, 90a-d, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, Including the Letters, eds. Edith Hamilton & Huntington Cairns (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press) 1987.
  7. Plotinus, The Enneads, ed. Lloyd P. Gerson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) 2018, 3.8. pp. 354-68.
  8. Basil of Caesarea, The Hexaemeron, in Nicene & Post-Nicene Series 2 Vol 8: Basil: On The Holy Spirit, Select Letters, eds. Philip Schaff & Henry Wace (Edinburgh: T&T Clark) 1996, 5.1, 5.5.-6, 8.1, pp. pp. 76-9, 94-5; See Andrew Louth ed. Genesis I-II (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press) 2001, pp 13-6.
  9. See also Henri Bergson, Creative Evolution, trans. Arthur Mitchell (Mineola NY: Dover Publications, Inc.) 1998; Giles Deleuze, Bergsonism, trans. Hugh Tomlinson & Barbara Habberjam (New York NY: Zone) 1991.
  10. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Metamorphosis of Plants, ed. Gordon L. Miller, (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press) 2009, p. 6.
  11. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Metamorphosis of Plant (Poem)”, in The Metamorphosis of Plants, ed. Gordon L. Miller, (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press) 2009, p. 2.
  12. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, The Metamorphosis of Plants, pp. 100-2.
  13. Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press) 1987, p. 269, fn. 52.
  14. Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, pp. 3-25, 505-6.
  15. Jeffrey T. Nealon, Plant Theory: Biopower and Vegetable Life (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press) 2016; See also the Critical Plant Studies book series, beginning with Randy Laist ed., Plants and Literature: Essays in Critical Plant Studies (Amsterdam, Netherlands: Brill, Rodopi) 2013.
  16. Michael Marder, “Vegtal Anti-Metaphysics: Learning from Plants”, Continental Philosophical Review, vol. 44 no. 4 (2011) p. 483.
  17. Michael Marder, “Vegtal Anti-Metaphysics: Learning from Plants”, p. 485.
  18. Michael Marder, “Vegtal Anti-Metaphysics: Learning from Plants”, p. 487.
  19. Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (Chicago and La Salle, IL: Open Court) 2002, pp. 1-49.]
  20. Timothy Morton, Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (Harvard MA: Harvard University Press) 2007, pp. 1-21.
  21. For a mystagogic reading of Goethe, see Rudolf Steiner, Knowledge and Initiation and Knowledge of Christ through Anthroposophy, trans. George Kaufmann, ed. H. Collison (London: Anthroposophical Publishing Co.) 1922, pp. 25-48.
  22. Ronald E. Heine, “The Testimonia and Fragments Related to Origen’s Commentary on Genesis”, ZAC, vol. 9 (2005) p. 141. See also Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles, ed. John Behr (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 2019, 1.2.4., p. 45.
  23. Basil of Caesarea, The Hexaemeron, 5.1, 5.5.-6, 8.1, pp. pp. 76-9, 94-5.
  24. Augustine of Hippo, Saint Augustine On Genesis: Two Books on Genesis Against the Manichees, and On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis: An Unfinished Book, trans. Roland J. Teske, S.J. (Washington DC: The Catholic University of America Press) 1991, I.13, I.23, II.9, II.23, II.27, pp. 66-8, 83-8, 107-9, 131-2, 137-8.
  25. Nicholas of Cusa, On Learned Ignorance (De Docta Ignorantia), 2nd ed., trans. Jasper Hopkins (Minneapolis, MN: Banning Press) 1990, 1.2-6, pp. 7-12.
  26. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “The Metamorphosis of Plant (Poem)”, in The Metamorphosis of Plants, ed. Gordon L. Miller, (Cambridge MA: The MIT Press) 2009, pp. 1-3.

Ryan Haecker is a PhD candidate at Peterhouse in the Faculty of Divinity of the University of Cambridge.  He has previously studied history, philosophy, and theology at the University of Texas, the University Würzburg, and the University of Nottingham. His research investigates theological interpretations of logic.