V. THE PHILOSOPHER

As in science, so in philosophy he was a lover, not a professor—though it was he who secured the appointment of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel to chairs of philosophy at Jena. He had very little interest in the debates of the schools, but he was endlessly concerned with the interpretation of nature and the meaning of life. As he became older he grew through science and poetry into a sage. He found illumination about the whole from every object, moment, and part: “Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis”—everything transient is but a symbol.46 The Spr üche in Prosa, or incidental apothegms, which he left imprinted at his death, ooze wisdom on every page.

He offered no system of logic, but he suggested, pragmatically, that “that alone is true which is fruitful,”47 and that “in the beginning was [not the word but] the deed” (Im Anfang war die That48); we find truth in action rather than in thought; thought should be an instrument, not a substitute, for action. He did not take to Kant as Schiller did; he acknowledged that the ultimate nature of reality is beyond our ken, but he did not feel that this committed him to orthodoxy; on the contrary, he recommended ignoring the unknowable; “the unfathomable is of no practical value”; the perceived world is enough for our lives.49 He had no epistomological qualms about admitting the existence of an external world. After reading Kant and Schelling he wrote to Schiller: “I willingly concede that it is not nature [in itself] that we perceive, but that nature is comprehended by us merely according to certain forms and faculties of our mind. … But the appropriateness [adjustment] of our organic natures to the outer world … [indicates] adetermination from without, a relation toward things”50 “Many people resist acknowledging reality, only because they would collapse if they accepted it.”51

But Goethe rejected materialism as well as subjectivist idealism. D’Hol-bach’s Système de la nature “appeared to us [students at Strasbourg] so dark, . . . so deathlike, that we found it a trouble to endure its presence, and shuddered at it as at a specter.”52 That was in youth, but in old age he felt likewise, writing to Knebel, April 8, 1812:

A man who does not grasp the fact, nor rise to the vision, that spirit and matter, soul and body, thought and extension, … are the necessary twin ingredients of the universe, and will forever be; and that these two have equal rights, and may therefore be considered in their togetherness as the representatives of God: he who has not grasped this might as well employ his days with the idle gossip of the world.

This, of course, is Spinoza, and Goethe usually follows Spinoza into determinism—“We belong to the laws of nature, even when we rebel against them”;53 but at times he inclines to agree with Kant that “our lives, like the universe to which we belong, are mysteriously composed of freedom and necessity.”54 He felt a force of destiny working in him—of qualities compelling and determining his development; but he co-operated with it, like some free agent serving a cause that moves and includes him.

His religion was an adoration of nature, and a desire to collaborate with her creative forces—her multiform productivity and her obstinate perseverance; however, he took long to acquire her patience. He vaguely personified Nature, seeing mind and will in her, but a mind quite unlike ours, and a will indifferently neutral as between men and fleas. Nature has no moral feelings in our sense of the obligation of the part to co-operate with the whole, for she is the whole. In the poem “Das Göttliche” (1782) Goethe described nature as without feeling or mercy. She destroys as exuberantly as she makes. “All your ideals shall not prevent me [Goethe] from being genuine, and good and bad, like Nature.”55 Her only ethic is, Live and make live. Goethe recognized the need many souls have for supernatural support, but he felt no such need until his final years. “He has religion [enough] who has art or science; who has not art or science needs religion.”56 “As a poet and artist I am a polytheist [personifying the separate forces of nature], while in my role as scientist I incline to pantheism [seeing one God in everything].”57

“Resolutely pagan” in religion and morals, he had no sense of sin, felt no need of a god dying to atone for him,58 and resented all talk of the cross. He wrote to Lavater, August 9, 1782: “I am no anti-Christian, no un-Christian, but very decidedly a non-Christian. … You accept the Gospel, as it stands, as divine truth. Well, no audible voice from heaven would convince me that a woman bears a child without a man, and that a dead man arises from the grave. I regard all these as blasphemies against God and his revelation of himself in nature.”59 Lavater pressed him (Goethe tells us), and “at last came out with the hard dilemma, ‘Either Christian or atheist!’ Upon this I declared that if he would not leave me my own Christianity as I had hitherto cherished it, I could readily decide for atheism, especially as I saw that nobody knew precisely what either term meant.”60 Goethe thought that “the Christian religion is an abortive political revolution that turned moral.”61 There are in literature “a thousand pages as beautiful and useful” as in theGospels.62 “Yet I regard all four Gospels as quite genuine, for in them is evident the reflected splendor of the sublime power which emanated from the person of Christ and his nature, which was as divine as ever the divine has appeared on earth.... I bow before him as a divine manifestation of the highest principle of morality.”63 But he proposed to worship the sun as much as Christ, as equally a manifestation of divine power.64 He admired Luther, and praised the Reformation for breaking the shackles of tradition, but he regretted its relapse into dogma.65 He suspected that Protestantism would suffer for lack of inspiring, habit-forming ceremonies, and he thought Catholicism wise and beneficent in symbolizing spiritual relations and developments with impressive sacraments.66

Goethe’s views on immortality were a function of his years. On February 2, 1789, he wrote to Friedrich zu Stolberg: “For my own part I cling more or less to the teachings of Lucretius, and confine myself and all my hopes to this life.” But on February 25, 1824, he told Eckermann: “I would by no means dispense with the happiness of believing in a future existence; and indeed I would say, with Lorenzo de’ Medici, that those who hope for no other life are dead even in this one”; and on February 4, 1825: “I hold the firm conviction that our spirit is something altogether indestructible.”67 He read Swedenborg, accepted the conception of a spirit sphere,68 and played with hopes of transmigration. He studied the Cabala and Pico della Mirandola, and even drew an occasional horoscope.69More and more, as he aged, he admitted the rights of faith:

Strictly speaking, I can have no knowledge of God except such as I derive from the limited vision of my sensory perceptions on this single planet. Such knowledge is a fragment of a fragment. I do not admit that this limitation, which is applicable to our observation of nature, need be applicable in the exercise of faith. The contrary is the case. It may well be that our knowledge, necessarily imperfect, demands supplementation and perfecting through an act of faith.70

In 1820 he regretted that he had written the rebellious Prometheus in his youth, for the young radicals of the day were quoting it against him.71 He turned away from Fichte when Fichte was accused of atheism.72 “It is our duty,” he now held, “to tell others no more than they are able to receive. Man grasps only what is to his measure.”73

Like his views of religion, his conception of morality changed with age. Bouncing with youthful energy and pride, he had interpreted life as purely a theater for self-development and display. “This craving to raise as high as possible the pyramid of my life, the base of which has been given and established for me, outweighs all else, and scarcely permits of a moment’s relapse.”74 We have seen him hurting some tender souls in this process. As he matured through political office he perceived that human life is a co-operative process; that the individual survives by mutual aid, and that self-seeking actions, though still the basic force, must be limited by the needs of the group. Faust, in Part I, is individualism incarnate; in Part II he finds “salvation” health of soul, through working for the general good. Wilhelm Meister in the Lehrjahre seeks to educate and develop himself, though by nature and training he often aids his fellow men; in the Wanderjahre he seeks to further the happiness of the community. Goethe balked at the behest to love one’s enemies, but he defined nobility nobly in one of his greatest poems:

Edel set der Mensch,
Hülfreich und gut.
Denn das allein
Unterscheidet ihn
Von alien Wesen
Die wir kennen . . .
Denn unfühlend
1st die Natur:
Es leuchtet die Sonne
Ueber Bös’ und Gute,
Und dem Verbrecher
Glänzen, wie dem Besten,
Der Mond und die Sterne.
Wind und Ströme,
Donner und Hagel,
Rauschen ihren Weg,
Und ergreifen
Vorübereilend,
Einen und den Andern. . . .
Nach ewigen, ehrnen,
Grossen Gesetzen
Müssen wir Alle
Unseres Daseins
Kreise vollenden.
Nur allein der Mensch
Vermag das Unmögliche;
Er underscheidet,
Wählet und ricbtet;
Er kann dem Augenblick
Dauer verleihen.
Er allein darf
Den Guten lohnen,
Den Bösen strafen,
Heilen und retten,
Alles Irrende, Schweifende
Nützlich verbinden. . . .
Der edle Mensch
Sei hülfreich und gut.

Let man be noble,
Helpful and good.
For that alone
Marks him off
From all beings
That we know. . . .
Quite unfeeling
Is Nature:
The sun shines
Upon the base and the good;
And upon the lawbreaker
Gleam, as upon the best,
The moon and the stars.
Winds and streams,
Thunder and hail,
Roar on their way,
And snatch up
And sweep before them
One after another. . . .
By eternal, ironclad
Great laws
Must we all,
Of our existence,
Fulfill the round.
But man alone
Can do the impossible;
He distinguishes,
Chooses, and judges;
He can to the fleeting moment
Give duration.
He alone can
Reward the good,
Punish the bad,
Heal and save.
And to the erring and straying
Bring wise counsel.
Let the noble man
Be helpful and good.

To become noble one must beware of debasing influences, and “all is influence except ourselves.”75 “Never mind studying contemporaries and those who strive with you; study the great men of the past, whose works have maintained their value and stature for centuries. A truly gifted man will naturally so incline, and the desire to delve into the great precursors is the very mark of a higher endowment.”76 Reverence libraries as the heritage left by these men. “Contemplating a library, one feels as though in the presence of vast capital silently yielding incalculable interest.”77 But intellect without character is far worse than character without intellect; “anything that liberates the mind without giving us dominion over ourselves is pernicious.”78 Plan your living—gedenke zu leben!— but seek a balance between thought and action; thought without action is a disease. “To know and practice a craft lends greater culture than half-knowledge a hundred times over.”79 “No blessing is equal to the blessings of work.”80 Above all, be a whole or join a whole. “Only mankind is the true man, and the individual can be joyous and happy only when he has the courage to feel himself in the whole.”81

So the young man who inherited comfort and security, and set the Strasbourg students laughing at his rich and fancy dress, learned, through the philosophers, the saints, and the experience of life, to think kindly of the poor, and to wish that the fortunate would share their wealth more generously. Nobles should be taxed in proportion to their income, and should let their dependents benefit from “the advantages which expanding knowledge and prosperity are bringing.”82 Even after attaining European fame, Goethe felt the bourgeois’ envy of noble birth. “In Germany no one except a nobleman has an opportunity for acquiring a well-rounded … personal culture.”83 He observed all the usual obeisances in his behavior toward his superiors. Everyone knows the story of Goethe and Beethoven at Teplitz, July, 1812; but its sole source is the unreliable Bettina Brentano von Arnim, who claimed to be quoting Beethoven’s account:

Kings and princes can indeed bestow titles and orders, but they cannot make great men, who therefore must be held in respect. When two come together, such as Goethe and I, then these highborn gentlemen must observe what it is that counts for great with such as we. Yesterday we met the whole Imperial Family [of Austria], and Goethe disengaged himself from my arm in order to stand aside. I pressed my hat down on my head and went through the thickest of the crowd with my arms hanging at my sides. Princes and courtiers drew up in a double line; the Duke of Weimar took off his hat to me, and the Empress greeted me first. Much to my amusement I saw the procession file by Goethe, who stood at one side, bowing with his hat in his hand. I took him roundly to task for it afterward.84

Our reaction to this story will vary with our age. Goethe felt than an aristocracy functioning actively and with public spirit provided the best government then possible in Europe, and deserved the respect required for social order and control. Abuses should be reformed, but without violence or precipitancy; revolutions cost more than they are worth, and usually end where they began. So Mephistopheles to Faust:

Alack! Away! Forbear of yonder squabble
’Twixt tyranny and slavery to babble!
It irks me. Scarce ‘tis ended when de novo
With the whole farce they start ab ovo.85

And so Goethe to Eckermann in 1824: “It is quite true that I was no friend of the French Revolution. Its horrors were too immediate, … while its beneficial effects were not yet visible. … But I was just as little a friend of the arbitrary rule that had preceded it. I was convinced even then that no revolution is the fault of the people, but always the fault of the government.”86 He welcomed Napoleon as a boon to order in France and Europe after a decade of convulsions. He distrusted democracy, for “nothing is worse than active ignorance”;87 and “it is unthinkable that wisdom should ever be popular.”88

He laughed at the oscillation of power between parties. “In politics, as on a sickbed, men toss from side to side in the hope of lying more comfortably.”89 He opposed freedom of the press on the ground that it subjected society and government to perpetual disturbance by immature and irresponsible writers. The cry for freedom seemed to him, in his declining years, to be merely the hunger of the unplaced for power and plums. “The sole object is for power, influence, and fortune to pass from one hand to the next. Freedom is the whispered password of secret conspirators, the clamorous battle cry of the avowed revolutionary, indeed the slogan of despotism itself as it leads its subjugated masses forward against the foe, promising surcease from external oppression for all time.”90

Goethe fulfilled to the maximum the obligation of the old to serve as a brake upon the energy of the young.

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