johann wolfgang von goethe | outside of the gate | Faust I.

22 03 2008

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Poetry Dispatch No. 222 | March 23, 2008

HAPPY EASTER

~ Outside of the Gate ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I

From the ice they are freed, the stream and brook,
By the Spring’s enlivening, lovely look;
The valley’s green with joys of hope;
The Winter old and weak ascends
back to the rugged mountain slope.
From there, as he flees, he downward sends
An impotent shower of icy hail
Streaking over the verdant vale.
Ah! but the Sun will suffer no white,
Growth and formation stir everywhere,
‘Twould fain with colours make all things bright,
Though in the landscape are no blossoms fair.
Instead it takes gay-decked humanity.
Now turn around and from this height,
Looking backward, townward see.
Forth from the cave-like, gloomy gate
Crowds a motley and swarming array.
Everyone suns himself gladly today.
The Risen Lord they celebrate,
For they themselves have now arisen
From lowly houses’ mustiness,
From handicraft’s and factory’s prison,
From the roof and gables that oppress,
From the bystreets’ crushing narrowness,
From the churches’ venerable night,
They are all brought out into light.
See, only see, how quickly the masses
Scatter through gardens and fields remote;
How down and across the river passes
So many a merry pleasure-boat.
And over-laden, almost sinking,
The last full wherry moves away.
From yonder hill’s far pathways blinking,
Flash to us colours of garments gay.
Hark! Sounds of village joy arise;
Here is the people’s paradise,
Contented, great and small shout joyfully:
“Here I am Man, here dare it to be!”

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Vor dem Tor

Vom Eise befreit sind Strom und Bäche
Durch des Frühlings holden, belebenden Blick,
Im Tale grünet Hoffnungsglück;
Der alte Winter, in seiner Schwäche,
Zog sich in rauhe Berge zurück.
Von dort her sendet er, fliehend, nur
Ohnmächtige Schauer körnigen Eises
In Streifen über die grünende Flur.
Aber die Sonne duldet kein Weißes,
Überall regt sich Bildung und Streben,
Alles will sie mit Farben beleben;
Doch an Blumen fehlts im Revier,
Sie nimmt geputzte Menschen dafür.
Kehre dich um, von diesen Höhen
Nach der Stadt zurück zu sehen!
Aus dem hohlen finstern Tor
Dringt ein buntes Gewimmel hervor.
Jeder sonnt sich heute so gern.
Sie feiern die Auferstehung des Herrn,
Denn sie sind selber auferstanden:
Aus niedriger Häuser dumpfen Gemächern,
Aus Handwerks- und Gewerbesbanden,
Aus dem Druck von Giebeln und Dächern,
Aus der Straßen quetschender Enge,
Aus der Kirchen ehrwürdiger Nacht
Sind sie alle ans Licht gebracht.
Sieh nur, sieh! wie behend sich die Menge
Durch die Gärten und Felder zerschlägt,
Wie der Fluß in Breit und Länge
So manchen lustigen Nachen bewegt,
Und, bis zum Sinken überladen,
Entfernt sich dieser letzte Kahn.
Selbst von des Berges fernen Pfaden
Blinken uns farbige Kleider an.
Ich höre schon des Dorfs Getümmel,
Hier ist des Volkes wahrer Himmel,
Zufrieden jauchzet groß und klein:
Hier bin ich Mensch, hier darf ichs sein!

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, born 28 August 1749(1749-08-28) Free City of Frankfurt Died 22 March 1832 (aged 82) Weimar, Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. Occupation Poet, Novelist, Playwright, Natural Philosopher, Diplomat. Nationality: German. Writing period: Romanticism. Literary movement: Sturm und Drang; Weimar Classicism. Notable work(s) Faust; The Sorrows of Young Werther; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship Spouse(s) Christiane Vulpius Influences

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832) was a German writer. George Eliot called him “Germany’s greatest man of letters… and the last true polymath to walk the earth.” Goethe’s works span the fields of poetry, drama, literature, theology, humanism, and science. Goethe’s magnum opus, lauded as one of the peaks of world literature, is the two-part drama Faust. Goethe’s other well-known literary works include his numerous poems, the Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and the epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Goethe was one of the key figures of German literature and the movement of Weimar Classicism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; this movement coincides with Enlightenment, Sentimentality (Empfindsamkeit), Sturm und Drang, and Romanticism. The author of the scientific text Theory of Colours, he influenced Darwin with his focus on plant morphology. He also served as the long-serving Privy Councilor (“Geheimrat”) of the duchy of Weimar.

Goethe is the originator of the concept of Weltliteratur (“world literature”), having taken great interest in the literatures of England, France, Italy, classical Greece, Persia, Arabic literature, amongst others. His influence on German philosophy is virtually immeasurable, having major impact especially on the generation of Hegel and Schelling, although Goethe himself expressly and decidedly refrained from practicing philosophy in the rarefied sense.

Goethe’s influence spread across Europe, and for the next century his works were a primary source of inspiration in music, drama, poetry and philosophy. Goethe is widely considered to be one of the most important thinkers in Western culture and is generally acknowledged as the most important writer in the German language. Early in his career, however, he wondered whether painting might not be his true vocation; late in his life, he expressed the expectation that he would ultimately be remembered above all for his work in optics.

Goethe’s father, Johann Caspar Goethe (Frankfurt-am-Main, Hessen, 29 July 1710 – Frankfurt-am-Main, Hessen, 25 May 1782), lived with his family in a large house in Frankfurt am Main, then an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire. Goethe’s mother, Catharina Elisabeth Textor (Frankfurt-am-Main, Hessen, 19 February 1731 – Frankfurt-am-Main, Hessen, 15 September 1808), the daughter of the Mayor of Frankfurt Johann Wolfgang Textor (Frankfurt-am-Main, Hessen, 11 December 1693 – Frankfurt-am-Main, Hessen, 6 February 1771) and wife (married at Wetzlar, 2 February 1726) Anna Margaretha Lindheimer (Wetzlar, 23 July 1711 – Frankfurt-am-Main, Hessen, 18 April 1783, a descendant of Lucas Cranach the Elder and Henry III, Landgrave of Hesse-Marburg), married 38-year-old Johann Caspar when she was only 17 at Frankfurt am Main on 20 August 1748. All their children, except for Goethe and his sister, Cornelia Friderike Christiana, who was born in 1750, died at an early age

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Johann Caspar and private tutors gave Goethe lessons in all the common subjects of that time, especially languages (Latin, Greek, French and English). Goethe also received lessons in dancing, riding and fencing. Johann Caspar was the type of father who, feeling frustrated in his own ambitions by what he saw as a deficiency of educational advantages, was determined that his children would have all those advantages which he had not had.

Goethe had a persistent dislike of the church, characterizing its history as a “hotchpotch of mistakes and violence” (Mischmasch von Irrtum und Gewalt). His great passion was drawing. Goethe quickly became interested in literature; Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Homer were among his early favourites. He had a lively devotion to theatre as well and was greatly fascinated by puppet shows that were annually arranged in his home; a familiar theme in Wilhelm Meister.

Goethe studied law in Leipzig from 1765 to 1768. Learning age-old judicial rules by heart was something he strongly detested. He preferred to attend the poetry lessons of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert. In Leipzig, Goethe fell in love with Käthchen Schönkopf and wrote cheerful verses about her in the Rococo genre. In 1770, he anonymously released Annette, his first collection of poems. His uncritical admiration for many contemporary poets vanished as he became interested in Lessing and Wieland. Already at this time, Goethe wrote a good deal, but he threw away nearly all of these works, except for the comedy Die Mitschuldigen. The restaurant Auerbachs Keller and its legend of Faust’s 1525 barrel ride impressed him so much that Auerbachs Keller became the only real place in his closet drama Faust Part One. Because his studies did not progress, Goethe was forced to return to Frankfurt at the close of August 1768.

In Frankfurt, Goethe became severely ill. During the next year and a half which followed, because of several relapses, the relationship with his father worsened. During convalescence, Goethe was nursed by his mother and sister. Bored in bed, he wrote an impudent crime comedy. In April 1770, his father lost his patience; Goethe left Frankfurt in order to finish his studies in Strasbourg.

In Alsace, Goethe blossomed. No other landscape has he described as affectionately as the warm, wide Rhine area. In Strasbourg, Goethe met Johann Gottfried Herder, who happened to be in town on the occasion of an eye operation. The two became close friends, and crucially to Goethe’s intellectual development, it was Herder who kindled his interest in Shakespeare, Ossian and in the notion of Volkspoesie (folk poetry). On a trip to the village Sesenheim, Goethe fell in love with Friederike Brion, but, after a couple of weeks, terminated the relationship. Several of his poems, like Willkommen und Abschied, Sesenheimer Lieder and Heideröslein, originate from this time.

Despite being based on his own ideas, his legal thesis was published uncensored. Shortly after, he was offered a career in the French government. Goethe rejected it; he did not want to commit himself, but to instead remain an “original genius”.

At the end of August 1771, Goethe was certified as a licensee in Frankfurt. He wanted to make the jurisdiction progressively more humane. In his first cases, he proceeded too vigorously, was reprimanded and lost the position. This prematurely terminated his career as a lawyer after only a few months. At this time, Goethe was acquainted with the court of Darmstadt, where his inventiveness was praised. From this milieu came Johann Georg Schlosser (who was later to become his brother-in-law) and Johann Heinrich Merck. Goethe also pursued literary plans again; this time, his father did not have anything against it, and even helped. Goethe obtained a copy of the biography of a noble highwayman from the Peasants’ War. In a couple of weeks the biography was reworked into a colourful drama. Entitled Götz von Berlichingen, the work went directly to the heart of Goethe’s contemporaries.

Goethe could not subsist on being one of the editors of a literary periodical (published by Schlosser and Merck). In May 1772, he once more began the practice of law at Wetzlar. In 1774 Goethe wrote the book which would bring him world-wide fame, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Despite the immense success of Werther, it did not bring Goethe much financial gain — copyright law at the time being essentially nonexistent. (In later years Goethe would bypass this problem by periodically authorizing “new, revised” editions of his Complete Works.)

In 1775 Goethe was invited, on the strength of his fame as the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, to the court of Carl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. (The Duke at the time was 18 years of age, to Goethe’s 26.) Goethe thus went to live in Weimar where he remained throughout the rest of his life, and where, over the course of many years, he held a succession of offices; becoming the Duke’s chief adviser.

Goethe was ennobled in 1782 (this being indicated by the “von” in his name).

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Goethe’s journey to the Italian peninsula from 1786 to 1788 was of great significance in his æsthetical and philosophical development. His father had made a similar journey during his own youth, and his example was a major motivating factor for Goethe to make the trip. More importantly, however, the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann had provoked a general renewed interest in the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome. Thus Goethe’s journey had something of the nature of a pilgrimage to it. During the course of his trip Goethe met and befriended the artists Angelica Kauffmann and Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, as well as encountering such notable characters as Lady Hamilton and Alessandro Cagliostro.

He also journeyed to Sicily during this time, and wrote intriguingly that “To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.” While in Sicily, Goethe encountered, for the first time genuine Greek (as opposed to Roman) architecture, and was quite startled by its relative simplicity. Winckelmann had not recognized the distinctness of the two styles.

Goethe’s diaries of this period form the basis of the non-fiction Italian Journey. Italian Journey only covers the first year of Goethe’s visit. The remaining year is largely undocumented, aside from the fact that he spent much of it in Venice. This “gap in the record” has been the source of much speculation over the years.

In the decades which immediately followed its publication in 1816 Italian Journey inspired countless German youths to follow Goethe’s example. This is pictured, somewhat satirically, in George Elliot’s Middlemarch.

In late 1792, Goethe took part in the battle of Valmy against revolutionary France, assisting Duke Carl August of Saxe-Weimar during the failed invasion of France. Again during the Siege of Mainz he assisted Carl August as a military observer. His written account of these events can be found within his Complete Works.

In 1794 Friedrich Schiller wrote to Goethe offering friendship; they had previously had only a mutually wary relationship ever since first becoming acquainted in 1788. This collaborative friendship lasted until Schiller’s death in 1805.

In 1806, Goethe was living in Weimar with his mistress Christiane Vulpius, the sister of Christian A. Vulpius, and their son Karl August. On October 13, Napoleon’s army invaded the town. The French “spoon guards”, the least-disciplined soldiers, occupied Goethe’s house.

The ‘spoon guards’ had broken in, they had drunk wine, made a great uproar and called for the master of the house. Goethe’s secretary Riemer reports: ‘Although already undressed and wearing only his wide nightgown … he descended the stairs towards them and inquired what they wanted from him … . His dignified figure, commanding respect, and his spiritual mien seemed to impress even them.’ But it was not to last long. Late at night they burst into his bedroom with drawn bayonets. Goethe was petrified, Christiane raised a lot of noise and even tangled with them, other people who had taken refuge in Goethe’s house rushed in, and so the marauders eventually withdrew again. It was Christiane who commanded and organized the defense of the house on the Frauenplan. The barricading of the kitchen and the cellar against the wild pillaging soldiery was her work. Goethe noted in his diary: “Fires, rapine, a frightful night … Preservation of the house through steadfastness and luck.” The luck was Goethe’s, the steadfastness was displayed by Christiane.

The next day, Goethe legitimized their relationship by marrying Christiane in a quiet marriage service at the court chapel. Christiane Vulpius and Goethe produced a son, Karl August von Goethe (25 December 1789 – 28 October 1830), whose wife, Ottilie von Pogwisch (31 October 1796 – 26 October 1872), cared for the elder Goethe until his death in 1832. They had three children: Walther, Freiherr von Goethe (9 April 1818 – 15 April 1885), Wolfgang, Freiherr von Goethe (18 September 1820 – 20 January 1883) and Alma von Goethe (29 October 1827 – 29 September 1844). Christiane Vulpius died in 1816.

By 1820, he was on amiable terms with Kaspar Maria von Sternberg. Post-1793, Goethe devoted his endeavour principally to literature. In 1832, after a life of vast productivity, Goethe died in Weimar. He is buried in the Ducal Vault at Weimar’s Historical Cemetery.

Eckermann closes his famous work, Conversations with Goethe, with this passage:

The morning after Goethe’s death, a deep desire seized me to look once again upon his earthly garment. His faithful servant, Frederick, opened for me the chamber in which he was laid out. Stretched upon his back, he reposed as if asleep; profound peace and security reigned in the features of his sublimely noble countenance. The mighty brow seemed yet to harbour thoughts. I wished for a lock of his hair; but reverence prevented me from cutting it off. The body lay naked, only wrapped in a white sheet; large pieces of ice had been placed near it, to keep it fresh as long as possible. Frederick drew aside the sheet, and I was astonished at the divine magnificence of the limbs. The breast was powerful, broad, and arched; the arms and thighs were elegant, and of the most perfect shape; nowhere, on the whole body, was there a trace of either fat or of leanness and decay. A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture the sight caused me made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode. I laid my hand on his heart – there was a deep silence – and I turned away to give free vent to my suppressed tears.

(p. 426, Da Capo Press edition, John Oxenford translation)

The most important of Goethe’s works produced before he went to Weimar were his tragedy Götz von Berlichingen (1773), which was the first work to bring him recognition, and the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which gained him enormous fame as a writer in the Sturm und Drang period which marked the early phase of Romanticism – indeed the book is often considered to be the “spark” which ignited the movement, and can arguably be called the world’s first “best-seller”. (For the entirety of his life this was the work with which the vast majority of Goethe’s contemporaries associated him.) During the years at Weimar before he met Schiller he began Wilhelm Meister, wrote the dramas Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), Egmont, Torquato Tasso, and the fable Reineke Fuchs.To the period of his friendship with Schiller belong the continuation of Wilhelm Meister, the idyll of Hermann and Dorothea, and the Roman Elegies. In the last period, between Schiller’s death, in 1805, and his own, appeared Faust Part One, Elective Affinities, the West-Eastern Divan (a collection of poems in the Persian style, influenced by the work of Hafez), his autobiographical Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From My Life: Poetry and Truth) which covers his early life and ends with his departure for Weimar, his Italian Journey, and a series of treatises on art. His writings were immediately influential in literary and artistic circles.

Faust Part Two was only finished in the year of his death, and was published posthumously.

As to what I have done as a poet,… I take no pride in it… But that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours – of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many.

– Johann Eckermann, Conversations of Goethe

Although his literary work has attracted the greatest amount of interest, Goethe was also keenly involved in studies of natural science. He wrote several works on plant morphology, and colour theory.

With his focus on morphology he influenced Darwin. His studies led him to independently discover the human intermaxillary bone in 1784, which Broussonet (1779) and Vicq d’Azyr (1780) had (using different methods) identified several years earlier. While not the only one in his time to question the prevailing view that this bone did not exist in humans, Goethe, who believed ancient anatomists had known about this bone, was the first to prove its peculiarity to all mammals.

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Light spectrum, from Theory of Colours – Goethe observed that with a prism, colour arises at the edges, and the spectrum occurs where these coloured edges overlap.
Light spectrum, from Theory of Colours – Goethe observed that with a prism, colour arises at the edges, and the spectrum occurs where these coloured edges overlap.

During his Italian journey, Goethe formulated a theory of plant metamorphosis in which the archetypal form of the plant is to be found in the leaf – he writes, “from top to bottom a plant is all leaf, united so inseparably with the future bud that one cannot be imagined without the other.” .

In 1810, Goethe published his Theory of Colours, which he considered his most important work. In it, he (contentiously) characterized colour as arising from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light. After being translated into English by Charles Eastlake in 1840, this theory became widely adopted by the art world, most notably J. M. W. Turner (Bockemuhl, 1991. It also inspired the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, to write his Remarks on Colour. Goethe was vehemently opposed to Newton’s analytic treatment of colour, engaging instead in compiling a comprehensive description of a wide variety of colour phenomena. Although Goethe cannot necessarily be criticized for the accuracy and extent of his observations, scientists in general have found little use for his theory because not much can be predicted by means of it. Goethe was, however, the first to systematically study the physiological effects of colour, and his observations on the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his colour wheel, ‘for the colours diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. (Goethe, Theory of Colours, 1810. In this, he anticipated Ewald Hering’s opponent color theory (1872).

Goethe outlines his method in the essay, The experiment as mediator between subject and object (1772). In the Kurschner edition of Goethe’s works, the science editor, Rudolf Steiner, presents Goethe’s approach to science as phenomenological. Steiner elaborated on this in the books The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World-Conception and Goethe’s World View, in which he emphasizes the need of the perceiving organ of intuition in order to grasp Goethe’s biological archetype.

The short epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, recounts an unhappy romantic infatuation that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted that he “shot his hero to save himself”: a reference to Goethe’s own near-suicidal obsession with a young woman during this period, an obsession he quelled through the writing process. The novel remains in print in dozens of languages and its influence is undeniable; its central hero, an obsessive figure driven to despair and destruction by his unrequited love for the young Lotte, has become a pervasive literary archetype. The fact that Werther ends with the protagonist’s suicide and funeral — a funeral which “no clergyman attended” — made the book deeply controversial upon its (anonymous) publication, for on the face of it, it appeared to condone and glorify suicide. Suicide was considered sinful by Christian doctrine: suicides were denied Christian burial with the bodies often mistreated and dishonoured in various ways; in corollary, the deceased’s property and possessions were often confiscated by the Church. Epistolary novels were common during this time, letter-writing being a primary mode of communication. What set Goethe’s book apart from other such novels was its expression of unbridled longing for a joy beyond possibility, its sense of defiant rebellion against authority, and of principal importance, its total subjectivity: qualities that trailblazed the Romantic movement.

The next work, his epic closet drama Faust, was to be completed in stages, and only published in its entirety after his death. The first part was published in 1808 and created a sensation. The first operatic version, by Spohr, appeared in 1814, and was subsequently the inspiration for operas and oratorios by Schumann, Gounod, Boito, Busoni, and Schnittke as well as symphonic works by Liszt, Wagner, and Mahler. Faust became the ur-myth of many figures in the 19th century. Later, a facet of its plot, i.e., of selling one’s soul to the devil for power over the physical world, took on increasing literary importance and became a view of the victory of technology and of industrialism, along with its dubious human expenses. In 1919, the Goetheanum staged the world premiere of a complete production of Faust. On occasion, the play is still staged in Germany and other parts around the world.

Goethe’s poetic work served as a model for an entire movement in German poetry termed Innerlichkeit (“introversion”) and represented by, for example, Heine. Goethe’s words inspired a number of compositions by, among others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz and Wolf. Perhaps the single most influential piece is “Mignon’s Song” which opens with one of the most famous lines in German poetry, an allusion to Italy: “Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?” (“Do you know the land where the lemons bloom?”).

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is also widely quoted. Epigrams such as “Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him”, “Divide and rule, a sound motto; unite and lead, a better one”, and “Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must”, are still in usage or are often paraphrased. Lines from Faust, such as “Das also war des Pudels Kern”, “Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluss”, or “Grau ist alle Theorie” have entered everyday German usage. Although a success of less tasteful appeal, the famous line from the drama Götz von Berlichingen (“Er kann mich am Arsche lecken”: “He can lick my arse”) has become a vulgar idiom in many languages, and shows Goethe’s deep cultural impact extending across social, national, and linguistic borders.

It may be taken as another measure of Goethe’s fame that other well-known quotations are often incorrectly attributed to him, such as Hippocrates’ “Art is long, life is short”, which is found in Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister.

Many of Goethe’s works, especially Faust, the Roman Elegies, and the Venetian Epigrams, depict hetero- and homosexual erotic passions and acts. In Faust, having signed (the Devil insists on his signature in an actual contract) his deal with the devil, the very first use of his new power thus gained sees Faust ravishing a young teenage girl. In fact, some of the Venetian Epigrams were held back from publication due to their sexual content. However, Karl Hugo Pruys caused national controversy in Germany when his 1999 book The Tiger’s Tender Touch: The Erotic Life of Goethe tentatively deduced from Goethe’s writings the possibility of Goethe’s homosexuality. The sexual portraitures and allusions in his work may stem from one of the many effects of Goethe’s eye-opening sojourn in Italy, where men, who shunned the prevalence of women’s venereal diseases and unconscionable conditions, embraced homosexuality as a solution that was not widely imitated outside of Italy.Whatever the case, Goethe clearly saw sexuality in general as a topic that merited poetic and artistic depiction. This went against the thought of his time, when the very private nature of sexuality was rigorously normative, and makes him appear more modern than he is typically thought to be.

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Born into a Protestant (Lutheran) family, Goethe’s early faith was shaken by news of such events as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years’ War. His later spiritual perspective evolved among pantheism, humanism, and various elements of Western esotericism, as seen most vividly in Part II of Faust.

A year before his death he expressed an identification with the Hypsistarians, an ancient Jewish-pagan sect of the Black Sea region. After describing his difficulties with mainstream religion, Goethe laments:

…I have found no confession of faith to which I could ally myself without reservation. Now in my old age, however, I have learned of a sect, the Hypsistarians, who, hemmed in between heathens, Jews and Christians, declared that they would treasure, admire, and honour the best, the most perfect that might come to their knowledge, and inasmuch as it must have a close connection to the Godhead, pay it reverence. A joyous light thus beamed at me suddenly out of a dark age, for I had the feeling that all my life I had been aspiring to qualify as a Hypsistarian. That, however, is no small task, for how does one, in the limitations of one’s individuality, come to know what is most excellent?

– from a letter to Sulpiz Boisserée dated 22 March 1831

Goethe is remembered with special fondness by followers of 20th century esoteric figure Rudolf Steiner.

Goethe had a great effect on the changing dynamics of the 19th century. In many respects, he was the originator of—or at least the first to cogently express—many ideas which would later become familiar. Goethe produced volumes of poetry, essays, criticism, and scientific work, including a theory of optics and early work on evolution and linguistics. He was fascinated by minerals and early mineralogy (the mineral goethite is named for him). His non-fiction writings, most of which are philosophic and aphoristic in nature, spurred on the development of many philosophers, such as G.W.F. Hegel, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Cassirer, Carl Gustav Jung, Ludwig Wittgenstein and others, and of various literary movements, such as romanticism. The mystical philosopher Rudolf Steiner, founder of the anthroposophist movement, named two buildings after Goethe. In contemporary culture, he stands in the background as the author of the story upon which Disney’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is based.

Goethe embodied many of the contending strands in art over the next century: his work could be lushly emotional, and rigorously formal, brief and epigrammatic, and epic. He would argue that classicism was the means of controlling art, and that romanticism was a sickness, even as he penned poetry rich in memorable images, and rewrote the formal rules of German poetry.

His poetry was set to music by almost every major Austrian and German composer from Mozart to Mahler, and his influence would spread to French drama and opera as well. Beethoven declared that a “Faust” Symphony would be the greatest thing for Art. Liszt and Mahler both created symphonies in whole or in large part inspired by this seminal work, which would give the 19th century one of its most paradigmatic figures: Doctor Faustus. The Faust tragedy/drama, often called “Das Drama der Deutschen” (the drama of the Germans), written in two parts published decades apart, would stand as his most characteristic and famous artistic creation.

Goethe was also a cultural force, and by researching folk traditions, he created many of the norms for celebrating Christmas, and argued that the organic nature of the land moulded the people and their customs—an argument that has recurred ever since, including recently in the work of Jared Diamond. He argued that laws could not be created by pure rationalism, since geography and history shaped habits and patterns. This stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing Enlightenment view that reason was sufficient to create well-ordered societies and good laws.

Goethe’s influence was dramatic because he understood that there was a transition in European sensibilities, an increasing focus on sense, the indescribable, and the emotional. This is not to say that he was emotionalistic or excessive; on the contrary, he lauded personal restraint and felt that excess was a disease: “There is nothing worse than imagination without taste”. He argued in his scientific works that a “formative impulse”, which he said is operative in every organism, causes an organism to form itself according to its own distinct laws, and therefore rational laws or fiats could not be imposed at all from a higher, transcendent sphere; this placed him in direct opposition to those who attempted to form “enlightened” monarchies based on “rational” laws by, for example, Joseph II of Austria or, the subsequent Emperor of the French, Napoleon I. A quotation from his Scientific Studies will suffice:

We conceive of the individual animal as a small world, existing for its own sake, by its own means. Every creature is its own reason to be. All its parts have a direct effect on one another, a relationship to one another, thereby constantly renewing the circle of life; thus we are justified in considering every animal physiologically perfect. Viewed from within, no part of the animal is a useless or arbitrary product of the formative impulse (as so often thought). Externally, some parts may seem useless because the inner coherence of the animal nature has given them this form without regard to outer circumstance. Thus…[not] the question, What are they for? but rather, Where do they come from?

Suhrkamp ed., vol 12, p. 121; trans. Douglas Miller, Scientific Studies

This change later became the basis for 19th century thought; organic rather than geometrical, evolving rather than created, and based on sensibility and intuition, rather than on imposed order, culminating in, as he said, a “living quality” wherein the subject and object are dissolved together in a poise of inquiry. Consequently, he embraced neither teleological nor deterministic views of growth within every organism. Instead, the world as a whole grows through continual, external, and internal strife. Moreover, he did not embrace the mechanistic views that contemporaneous science subsumed during his time, and therewith he denied rationality’s superiority as the sole interpretation of reality. Furthermore, he declared that all knowledge is related to humanity through its functional value alone and that knowledge presupposes a perspectival quality. He also stated that the fundamental nature of the world is aesthetic.

His views make him, along with Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and Ludwig van Beethoven, a figure in two worlds: on the one hand, devoted to the sense of taste, order, and finely crafted detail, which is the hallmark of the artistic sense of the Age of Reason and the neo-classicistic period of architecture; on the other, seeking a personal, intuitive, and personalized form of expression and society, firmly supporting the idea of self-regulating and organic systems. Thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson would take up many similar ideas in the 1800s. His ideas on evolution would frame the question which Darwin and Wallace would approach within the scientific paradigm.

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