The men who made a constellation of genius at the court of Weimar served as an intellectual anchor for the wits of Germans during the unsettling impact of the Revolution and Napoleon. Duke Charles Augustus himself was a volatile mixture of talents and moods. He inherited the duchy at the age of one, and became its actual ruler at eighteen (1775). He derived his general education from a tutor, and further instruction from the responsibilities of administration, the whims of a mistress, the dangers of war and the hunt. Not the least of his schools was the salon of his mother. There he met poets, generals, scientists, philosophers, divines, and men of affairs, together with some of the most cultivated but undenatured women of Germany, who seasoned their ancestral wisdom with wit and charm, and counted that day lost which had not been warmed with some discreet amour. “Ah, here we have women!” reported Jean Paul Richter. “Everything is revolutionarily daring here; that a woman is married signifies nothing.”3

In 1772 the Duchess (herself a model of cheerful virtue) invited the scholar, poet, and novelist Christoph Wieland to come and tutor her sons Charles Augustus and Konstantin.*He fulfilled his duties with modesty and competence, and remained at Weimar till his death. He was fifty-six when the Revolution came; he welcomed it, but (in a “Cosmopolitan Address” of October, 1789), he asked the National Assembly of France to guard against mob rule:

The nation is suffering from liberty fever, which makes the Parisians—the politest people in the world—thirst for the blood of aristocrats…. When the people, sooner or later, comes to itself, will it not see that it is led by the nose by 1,200 petty tyrants, instead of being governed by a king?… Yet you cannot be more deeply convinced than I that your nation was wrong to bear such misgovernment so long; that the best form of government is the separation and equilibrium of the executive, legislative, and judiciary; that every people has an indefeasible right to as much freedom as can coexist with order; and that each must be taxed in proportion to his income.4

In 1791 he wrote that he had never expected his dream of political justice to be so nearly realized as in the person of Louis XVI.5 The execution of the King in January, 1792, turned him against the Revolution; the Terror sickened him. Later in that year he published “Words in Season,” which reached some modest conclusions: “One must go on preaching, till men listen, that mankind can grow happier only by becoming more reasonable and more moral. … Reform must begin not with constitutions but with the individual. The conditions of happiness are in our own hands.”6

Johann Gottfried von Herder—the last of the Weimar quartet to settle there and the first to die—commended the Revolution till the Queen was guillotined; thereafter he renounced the Revolution as a cruel abortion of humane ideals. In his final years he recovered hope; despite its dementia praecox the Revolution, he felt, marked an advance only second to the Reformation in the history of modern Europe; it would end feudal ownership of bodies as the Reformation had ended papal power over minds; now men would lay less stress on birth and rank; ability, wherever born, would be free to develop and create. The advance, however, would cost Europe dearly, and Herder was glad that the experiment had been made in France rather than in his beloved Germany, where men did not so soon take fire and burn up, but where quiet labor and patient scholarship would guide the growth of youth with a mild but steady and spreading light.

Friedrich Schiller—the Romantic soul fondly guarded by the classic three—had come to Weimar (1795) after exciting ventures in drama, poetry, history, and philosophy. Romantically imaginative, painfully sensitive, he had found little to love in the Württemberg of his youth. He responded to oppression by worshiping Rousseau, and writing a revolutionary play. Karl Moor, hero of Die Räuber (1781), denounced the exploitation of man by man with an ardor that left nothing for Marx to add but scholarship. Still more revolutionary was Schiller’s third play, Kabale und Liebe (Cabal and Love, 1784); it exposed the corruption, extravagance, and fierce tenure of unearned privilege, and praised the steady, patient, and productive life of the German bourgeoisie. In the best of his pre-Revolution dramas, Don Carlos (1787), Schiller, now twenty-eight, appealed less to the wrath of the poor than to some potential nobility in power; he put into the mouth of Marquis Posa lines summoning Philip II to be the “father of his people,” to “let happiness flow from your horn of plenty,” to “let man’s mind ripen in your vast empire, to become, amid a thousand kings, a king indeed.”7

Passing from youth to middle age, Schiller naturally passed from radicalism to liberalism. He discovered ancient Greece, and was deepened by its dramatists. He read Kant, and dulled his poetry with philosophy. In 1787 he visited Weimar, was excited by its women, and calmed by Wieland and Herder. (Goethe was then in Italy.) In 1788 he published Geschichte des Abfalls der Vereinigten Niederlande (History of the Revolt of the United Netherlands), and checked his philosophy with history. In 1789, on Goethe’s recommendation to the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Schiller was appointed professor of history at Jena. In October of that year he wrote to a friend: “It is a petty ideal to write for a single nation; and for a philosopher such a barrier is intolerable…. The historian can only kindle for a nation insofar as it is an essential element in the progress of civilization.”8

When the news of the Revolution reached Jena it found Schiller enjoying a middle-age spread of income and outlook, public acceptance, and tolerant understanding. His correspondence with Goethe, across the gaps of twelve miles in space and ten years in age, had helped the poet in Goethe to survive the prose of administration and the cautions of prosperity, and had helped Schiller to realize that human nature has changed too little in history to make political revolutions profitable for the poor. He sympathized with the King and Queen captured at Versailles in 1789, arrested in Varennes in 1791, and evicted from their prison palace in 1792. Shortly thereafter the revolutionary Convention unanimously conferred upon “le sieur Gilles” the title of citoyen français. A week later the September Massacres announced the sovereignty of an armed crowd; in December Louis XVI was put on trial. Schiller began to write a pamphlet in his defense; before he could finish it the King had been guillotined.

Goethe smiled at the vicissitudes of his friend’s political faith, but he himself had traveled far from the certainties of his youth. He had had an ample fling with women sweet and sour before being invited in 1775, aged twenty-six, to leave Frankfurt and live in Weimar as Duke Charles Augustus’ poet in ordinary and comrade in both forms of venery. During the next twelve years he absorbed economic and political realities, and grew apace; the Romantic author of Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774) disappeared in the privy councilor who saw a new age in European history take form at Valmy in 1792. The disorderly deterioration of the Revolution in that year led him to conclude that slow reforms under “enlightened despots” touched by philosophy—and under local rulers of education and goodwill like his own Duke of Weimar—would cost the people less than a sudden overturn in which the precarious bases and habits of social order might collapse into a decade of passion and violence. One of his Venetian Epigrams had expressed this fear as early as 1790:

Let our rulers take warning betimes from France’s misfortune;

But, men of little degree, you should take warning still more.

Great men go to destruction; but who gives the people protection

When the rough mob becomes tyrant over us all?

He applauded when Napoleon ended the chaos of the Revolution by seizing power and establishing a constitution that allowed the people to enjoy an occasional plebiscite without too much interference with a decisive and competent government. His appreciation of the Corsican was not diminished by Napoleon’s flattering reception of him at Erfurt in 1807; and the report of that interview shared considerably in giving the poet-councilor an international reputation.

Some Romantic tremors persisted beneath his developing classic steadiness of judgment and taste. Faust, Part I (1808) was a love story as well as a medieval “morality”; and Elective Affinities (1809) seemed to justify the rising cry of the new generation for mating by mutual attraction rather than by parental finance or legal bond. The councilor become philosopher continued to flutter about young women even after reaching threescore years and ten. But his studies of ancient art in Italy, his developing interest in science, his reading of Spinoza, and his declining physical vigor made for unhurried judgment and a wide-ranging view. The change was pronounced in his autobiography (1811), which looked upon its hero with remarkable objectivity. Romantic Germany—agitated by the emotional Wackenroder and Novalis, the free-love Schlegels, the insane Hölderlin, and the mercy-killer-suicide Kleist—resented his rising criticism of the French Revolution, and hardly noticed that he had belabored the ruling class too. During the German War of Liberation he found it hard to hate Napoleon and the French. He explained to Eckermann:

How could I, to whom culture and barbarism are alone of importance, hate a nation which is among the most cultivated on earth, and to which I owe so great a part of my own possessions? There is a stage where national hatred vanishes altogether, and where one stands to a certain extent above the nations, and feels the weal or woe of a neighboring people as if it were one’s own.9

His generation in Germany never forgave him, and seldom read him. It ranked Schiller above him,10 and preferred Kotzebue to either.11 Goethe’s plays were seldom performed at Weimar, and his publishers deplored the poor sale of his collected works. Nevertheless an Englishman, Lord Byron, in 1820, dedicated Marino Faltero to him as “by far the first literary character which has existed in Europe since the death of Voltaire.”12 He could not bear to read Kant, but he was the wisest man of his time.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!