Skip to main content

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

(b. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 28 August 1749; d. Weimar, Germany, 22 March 1832)

zoology, botany, geology, optics.

Born of middle-class parents—his father, Johann Kaspar Goethe, was a lawyer—Goethe obtained a degree in law at Strasbourg in 1771. He was summoned in 1775, on the basis of his literary fame, to the court of Weimar, where his duties soon included the supervision of mining in the duchy. He was raised to the nobility in 1782. After a sojourn in Italy (1786-1788) which constituted a decisive break with his turbulent youth, Goethe returned permanently to Weimar and established a lasting reputation as Germany’s greatest poet. In religion he was never orthodox, although he did not deny God or immortality. Much of his theorizing in biology was based on belief in a Spinozistic God as Nature and on the conviction that his own mind could come to know the mind of this deity.

Goethe’s first scientific paper (1784) claimed to demonstrate the presence of the intermaxillary (premaxillary) bone in man. It was published first in 1820, with a long postscript on the history of research on the problem and the controversy the manuscript had evoked. Long before Goethe it had been noted that, of the three sutures—external (facial), nasal, and palatal—which delimit the bone when it is present in the vertebrate upper jaw, the palatal is sometimes visible in human skulls, is more distinct in children than in adults, and can best be seen in embryos. Goethe was struck by the fact that in some mammals (for example, ruminants) the premaxilla is indisputably present even though the upper incisor teeth, which it normally supports, are absent. He inferred that if present even in such cases, it is unlikely to be absent in man, in whom upper incisors are well developed; and so he sought and found traces of the nasal and palatal sutures in human skulls.

J. C. Loder, the Jena anatomist, and later J. B. Spix accepted Goethe’s inference that man has the bone, whereas Peter Camper, S. T. Sömmerring, and J. F. Blumenbach maintained that the inference would be justified only if the sutures were clearly visible. In fact the facial suture is never seen, and the two others are indistinct or absent. This rebuff led Goethe to regard the physicists’ later rejection of his optical theories as yet another example of the impatience of the professional scientist with the amateur. His erroneous belief that Sömmerring and Blumenbach eventually accepted his findings arose because in his old age he no longer had clear memories of the controversy of the 1780’s.

Goethe believed that to deny man the premaxilla would be to impugn the unity of nature. “Morphology” was his term for tracing out the unity underlying animal and plant diversity. He did not argue that similarities between genera are due to descent from common ancestors, for he understandably lacked the modern concept of specialization. Thus characters in apes and in sloths which are today attributed to a high degree of adaptation to arboreal conditions appeared to him as sheer lack of proportion. In botany Goethe found it difficult to divide some genera into distinct species with no transitional forms, since the classification was based on characters (particularly leaf structures) which were highly variable. This diversity suggested to him that species were in some way flexible, and he even allowed (following Georges Buffon) that differences in climate and food could lead to the evolution of one plant or animal species from another within the same genus. Thus he regarded an extinct species of bull, fossils of which were found near Stuttgart in 1820, as possibly the ancestor of the modern European and Indian bull. But to account for the unity of type pervading different genera he supposed that nature, regarded as a kind of creative artist, used a single archetype in constructing them; thus plants derive from “a supersensuous archetypal plant” (Urpflanze), which he thought of as an idea in the mind of nature, individual genera being modifications in one direction or another of this type.

Goethe thought that the biologist, by comparing a large number of plant and animal forms, can obtain a clear idea of the underlying archetypes. Having found at least traces of the premaxilla in cetaceans, amphibians, birds, and fishes, he inferred that a structure so widely distributed must be part of the vertebrate archetype and must therefore be represented in all vertebrates, including man.

Goethe also constructed his idea of the archetype from a study of function. A bone which is not only present in most vertebrates but also obviously serves an important feeding function (both when it supports upper incisor teeth which have a nipping action against the incisors of the lower jaw, and when it forms a toothless, hard pad against which the lower incisors bite) is likely, for both these reasons, to belong to the archetype. He stressed the stability of function and thought that a bone or organ which performs a function in one animal will be present to perform the same function in another—although he realized that in some few cases an organ functional in some animals may occur as a rudiment in others; and he emphasized that a functional organ may be drastically reduced if other structures are extended. This theory is in accordance with the principle of compensation that he derived from Aristotle, a loi de balancement (then being independently stated by Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire) which Goethe illustrated with the recession of the premaxilla in the walrus, whose canines are elongated into tusks.

The best-known of Goethe’s examples illustrating the principle of compensation is the inverse development of horns and front teeth in the upper jaw. He said, for instance, that the lion, with upper incisors and canines, cannot have horns. Fossil evidence has since shown that there is no incompatibility, since some extinct horned ungulates have the full eutherian dentition. The connection between Goethe’s principle of compensation and his idea of a vertebrate archetype appears in his criticism from his teleological standpoint of the grosser teleology of his day: that of the so-called physicotheologians, who supposed that all the organs of an animal were designed to be useful to it, for example, the horns of the ox for defense. Goethe countered by asking why Providence did not supply the sheep with horns, or, when they have horns, why they are curled round their ears so as to be useless. His view was that ruminants, with no upper incisors or canines, have horns because horns, or some alternative to them consistent with the principle of compensation, belong in the mammalian archetype.

Goethe extended his idea of unity of type to cover not only vertebrates but all animals. He pointed out, for instance, that insects, as well as vertebrates, have bodies consisting of three major divisions, each with its appropriate organs. He welcomed Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire’s arguments that all animals are built upon a common plan, that all existing forms are modifications of a nonexistent être abstrait.

Goethe’s views on the relationship between allegedly similar parts in different organisms are paralleled in his thought concerning the different parts of one and the same organism. Just as organisms consist of variations of a single type, so the type itself consists of a number of parts or segments, each of which is identical with the others. This, he said, is particularly clear in the case of plants: cotyledons, inflorescence, stamens, and pistils are all, he said (having observed transitional forms), variations of the foliage leaf. He did not mean that they develop from leaves during the growth of the plant or that they have evolved from leaves during the history of plants, but that an “ideal leaf” is the essential scheme which underlies them all. He attempted to give the metamorphosis a physical basis by arguing that forms more delicate than foliage leaves are produced by elaboration of the sap as it passes upward.

Goethe argued that the vertebral column preserves some indication of the underlying identity of the units which go to form the vertebrate archetype, and that the skull is really a series of bones which can be seen to be variations of vertebrae. Although Lorenz Oken was the first to publish such views, Goethe could prove that he had adumbrated them earlier in extant letters to friends. He summed up his services to morphology by saying that the recognition that man, too, possesses the premaxilla secured the admission that a single osteological type pervades all forms, and that the construction of the skull from vertebrae establishes the identity of all the segments of this osteological type.

The attribution of the premaxilla to man never attained the popularity of the vertebral theory of the skull (also closely connected with archetypal thinking), although Oken and Goethe were committed to both. After F. S. Leuckart’s well-documented account of 1840 it was hardly possible to dispute that in man the premaxilla is eliminated during ontogeny. And so Richard Owen, who retained the premise of the vertebrate archetype—which he imagined as consisting of a number of modified vertebrae—did not find it necessary for the purpose to credit man with a premaxilla. The vertebral origin of the skull was finally refuted on an embryological basis by T. H. Huxley in 1858.

What Goethe sought in botany and zoology was nothing less than a theory that would explain all living forms. He had no interest in details for their own sake and undertook detailed study only because of his consciousness that he was working toward wide generalizations which far outran his observations. Although his theory posits “the original identity of all plant parts,” he ignored the root and stem and studied only the lateral appendages of the annual herbs. This premature generalization was due neither to personal arrogance nor to an a priori method but to a conviction, religious in character, that he had penetrated to the mind of nature. This aspect of his work endeared Goethe to the Naturphilosophen of the early nineteenth century; and when they were discredited, his scientific reputation remained unaffected largely because Ernst Haeckel quite unjustifiably stamped him as one of the foremost precursors of Darwinism.

Goethe’s concern with geology sprang from his superintending the reopening of the copper slate mines at Ilmenau in 1784. At that time most rocks were regarded as chemical precipitates from saline seas. Mountain chains such as the Harz, the Thuringian forest, and the Alps all have central cores of granite, which was therefore interpreted as an Urgebirge, a foundation against which all later deposits, precipitated from a universal ocean, rest: the granite is flanked by “transition rocks,” believed to have been formed when the ocean had receded sufficiently to expose the highest granite. The steep inclination or dip of these transition strata was considered original, not the result of postdepositional tilting, and they were made partly of detritus (scree from the granite peaks) and partly of further chemical precipitate from the ocean; the chemical ingredients were believed sufficient to consolidate the gathering sediment with steep original dip on the submerged slopes. When the waters had retreated still further, the Flöz, or layered rocks, were deposited—steeply inclined where they rest against the mountain core but elsewhere mainly horizontal. The final retreat of the waters to their present level was accompanied by the deposition of recent gravels, often rich in mammalian remains.

Such a scheme underlies Goethe’s geological thinking. In the Harz he saw granite in close contact with “transition” rock of an entirely different type (hornfels), and he envisaged the two as attracting each other as they crystallized. It is characteristic that whereas the modern geologist explains the facts by positing a long sequence of events (deposition of clay, intrusion of liquid granite, baking, cooling, and solidification), Goethe preferred to think in terms of events occurring more or less simultaneously.

It is an important part of his theory of rock origin that the joint planes which divide granite masses into blocks were original, not shrinkage cracks due to cooling or drying. Each block was, for Goethe, an original precipitated “crystal”; and the mountain mass was formed by piling them. Since an extra crystal would give an uneven top to this basement rock, later rocks would locally acquire a steep dip as they wrapped themselves around it. Goethe thus believed that the steep dip of the rocks leaning against the basement was original. If they had been originally horizontal, they could have become steeply inclined only as a result of considerable crustal dislocation; and he believed that nature produces her effects without violent disturbances, since there was no evidence in his day that cataclysms or catastrophes were then occurring. His geological thinking clearly lacked the crucial concepts of time and uplift.

Actual proof of relationships posited by the above theory seemed to be provided by the Ilmenau mines. We know that the commercial copper bed and parallel seams are there strongly upfolded by the contact with the Thuringian granite and porphyry. But to Goethe the steep inclination was original, the seam wrapping against an Urgebirge cliff. In explaining the vertical position of the strata without supposing any dislocation of the rocks, Goethe was, in 1785, in agreement with most professional geologists, although by the early nineteenth century they had revised this opinion and he had not.

If the steep limbs of Flöz beds were deposited in this steep position, then it was easier to regard the whole Flöz as a crystalline precipitate from water rather than as fragments carried and deposited (for particles in water tend to settle in horizontal layers). And so Goethe regarded nearly all Flöz horizons—limestones, sandstones, shales, and even conglomerates—as chemically deposited. Many quartz grains in the Thuringian Bunter sandstones are angular, which seemed to suggest that they had not been transported. These sandstones were also so thick that enormous periods of time would have been required to derive them by erosion of preexisting granites. And before the development of the polarizing microscope in the mid-nineteenth century, there was no decisive way of distinguishing the groundmass of a porphyry from the cement of a detrital rock. Field relationships encouraged Goethe to link the Thuringian porphyry with local red conglomerates, for as we now know, both are of Rotliegendes age.

Goethe’s repugnance for theories involving terrestrial violence sometimes led him to pioneer a correct path. The most notable instance is his glacial interpretation of erratic blocks at a time when violent and catastrophic movement was being invoked to explain their remoteness from their parent rocks. He explained the Swiss erratics by arguing that the glaciers had extended to the lakes of Geneva and Lucerne at a time when the general sea level reached these lakes. The glaciers transported the boulders to the lakes, and they completed their journey on floating ice. He realized that the theory implied a cold climate, giving an ice sheet over most of northern Germany and floating ice when it melted. His failure to appreciate the time factor is well illustrated by this explanation of phenomena confined to the present-day land surface in terms of a change in sea level of 1,000 feet, which would point back to what he saw as the earliest stage of the earth’s geological history. But his stress on the importance of glacier transport of the erratics was correct, and in 1841 Johann de Charpentier mentioned John Playfair and Goethe as pioneers of the idea.

Goethe’s whole approach to rocks reflects the insistence on types which distinguishes his biological thinking. He could relate a conglomerate to a granite because he had in his mind an idea of a rock type of which the two were variations. His biological ideas proved useful because the likenesses he perceived could later be understood not in an archetypal way, but as genetic relationships, as due to common ancestry. But his rock analogies could not serve as a pointer to future development, since he linked rocks which are not genetically related at all.

Goethe’s first publications on optics (1791) culminated in his Zur Farbenlehre (1810), his longest and, in his own view, best work, today known principally as a fierce and unsuccessful attack on Newton’s demonstration that white light is composite. Goethe supposed that the pure sensation of white can be caused only by a simple, uncompounded substance. Not until 1826 did Johannes Müller establish that any nervous receptor, no matter how stimulated, can excite only a characteristic sensation peculiar to it.

Goethe propounded the ancient idea that colors arise from mixing light with darkness. He was aware that these normally mix to form gray but held that the intervention of a turbid medium produces color; that all bodies are to some extent turbid and hence may appear colored in daylight; and that even transparent refracting media are comparable with turbid ones. (This attempt to bring the color phenomena produced by prisms under the theory was further developed by Arthur Schopenhauer in 1816 but was designated “senseless” by Ernst Mach.) In 1827 H. W. Brandes pointed out that the color phenomena Goethe alleged are not shown by such turbid media as steam or water-saturated mist; and in 1852 Ernst Wilhelm von Brücke showed, in terms of the wave theory of light and on the basis of long-forgotten work by Thomas Young, that whether colors are produced depends on the size of the particles in the medium. But for Goethe the color effects of turbid media were an Urphänomen, an ultimate which cannot itself be explained—which is in fact not in need of explanation—but from which all that we observe can be made intelligible.

Goethe’s chapter on physiological colors (those which depend more on the condition of the eye than on the illumination) is the most successful and also typifies his psychological approach to color. Color vision involves an exciting stimulus and a conscious sensation. Goethe was concerned with the latter, and he posited three primary sensations—yellow, blue, and purple (for him, the purest red). In his color circle these three primaries alternated with orange, violet, and green, each of which, he claimed, could be seen to be compounded of the two adjacent primaries. He admitted, however, that the eye can see no trace of another color in pure green, which he classed as mixed presumably because blue and yellow pigments together give green. The distinction between additive and subtractive mixing was not properly understood before Hermann von Helmholtz, and Goethe’s color circle certainly confused a subjective or psychological classification with an objective one.

Violet was positioned in the circle above blue, as its intensified form, and orange likewise above yellow; purple was placed highest of all, as the fusion of these intensified forms of his two other primaries. By “purple” Goethe meant the color seen through a prism when spectral red and spectral violet are superposed by viewing a thin black strip on a white background. Although this purple was thus compounded, it was, Goethe insisted, as a sensation pure (facts which undermine his principal reason for rejecting Newton’s view of white!); whereas spectral orange and violet—designated “pure” by the physicist in terms of wavelength—are impure sensations (the eye can see red and yellow in orange, and red and blue in violet). Later authorities have agreed with Goethe in taking purple in his sense as psychologically the purest red and in finding spectral red distinctly yellowish in comparison.

Goethe supposed that the eye, by virtue of its own vital activity, is impelled to change a given condition into its opposite. It cannot, he said (explaining the phenomena of simultaneous and successive contrast), remain for a moment in a specific state that has been evoked by an object presented to it; when offered one extreme, or one mean, it spontaneously posits the other. He extended this doctrine to all living substance and was convinced that reality must ultimately be explained in terms of polar opposites—a view which endeared him to F. W. J. Schelling and G. W. F. Hegel, and to the Naturphilosophen in general. He posited no neural mechanism to explain simultaneous and successive contrast and thought them sufficiently explained by reference to his principle of polarity. The phenomena are in fact to a large extent polar and have since been attributed by Ewald Hering to a neural mechanism which functions in a polar fashion.

The terms in which Goethe explained colors (light, darkness, and turbidity) can be readily visualized, and for him explanation was never adequate unless the explicans fulfilled this condition. He thus had no sympathy with mathematical physics. He insisted that concrete phenomena can be represented in numerical form only if some of their essential conditions are ignored, and that if we reason from such abstractions, we are bound to err. He argued that the student of nature must not transmute what he sees into concepts and these concepts into words, but must think only in terms of what he sees. A physicist would today find it quite impossible to implement such an injunction. Goethe’s adherence to it explains why he was so much less successful with physical than with physiological optics.


I. Original Works. Goethe’s scientific writings are available in Goethes Werke, pt. 2, 13 vols. (Weimar, 1890-1904), edited by order of the Grand Duchess Sophie of Saxony. Another valuable (but as yet incomplete) ed. is Goethe: Die Schriften zur Naturwissenschaft, G. Schmid et al., eds., pt. 1, text, 11 vols. (Weimar, 1947-1970); pt. 2, supplements and commentaries (Weimar, in progress). Details of other eds. are in Goethes Werke, Dorothea Kuhn et al., eds., XIII (Hamburg, 1955), 598-600, 638-639.

II. Secondary Literature. The principal bibliographies are K. Goedeke, Grundriss zur Geschichte der deutschen Dichtung aus den Quellen, IV, pt. 5 (Berlin, 1960), 363-382, covering 1912-1950; H. Pyritz, Goethe Bibliographie (Heidelberg, 1965), pp. 483-528; M. Richter, Das Schriftum über Goethes Farbenlehre (Berlin, 1938); and G. Schmid, Goethe und die Naturwissenschaften (Halle, 1940).

Critical studies include A. Arber, “Goethe’s Botany,” in Chronica botanica, 10 (1946), 63-126; B. von Freyberg, Die geologische Erforschung Thüringens in älterer Zeit (Berlin, 1932); M. Gebhardt, Goethe als Physiker (Berlin, 1932); H. von Helmholtz, “Über Goethes naturwissenschaftliche Arbeiten,” in Populäre wissenschaftliche Vortäge (Brunswick, 1876), I, 31-54; J. H. F. Kohlbrugge, “Historischkritische Studien über Goethe als Naturforscher,” Zoologische Annalen, 5 (1913); R. Magnus, Goethe als Naturforscher (Leipzig, 1906); W. Ostwald, Goethe, Schopenhauer und die Farbenlehre (Leipzig, 1918); M. Semper, Die geologischen Studien Goethes (Leipzig, 1914); C. S. Sherrington, Goethe on Nature and Science, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, 1949); R. Trümpy, “Goethes geognostisches Weltbild,” in Eidgenüssische technische Hochschule, kultur und staatswissenschaftliche Schriften, no. 127 (1968), 1-37; J. Walther, ed., Goethe als Seher und Erforscher der Natur (Halle, 1930); and G. A. Wells, “Goethe’s Geological Studies,” in Publications of the English Goethe Society, 35 (1965), 92-137; “Goethe’s Scientific Method and Aims in the Light of His Studies in Physical Optics,” ibid., 38 (1968), 69-113; “Goethe and Evolution,” in Journal of the History of Ideas, 28 (1967), 537-550; and “Goethe and the Intermaxillary Bone,” in British Journal for the History of Science, 3 (1967), 348–361.

George A. Wells

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (April 23, 2017).

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who embraced many fields of human endeavor, ranks as the greatest of all German poets. Of all modern men of genius, Goethe is the most universal.

The many-sided activities of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stand as a tribute to the greatness of his mind and his personality. Napoleon I's oft-quoted remark about Goethe, made after their meeting at Erfurt—"Voilàun homme!" (There's a man!)—reflects later humanity's judgment of Goethe's genius. Not only, however, does Goethe rank with Homer, Dante Alighieri, and William Shakespeare as a supreme creator, but also in his life itself— incredibly long, rich, and filled with a calm optimism— Goethe perhaps created his greatest work, surpassing even his Faust, Germany's most national drama.

Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main on Aug. 28, 1749. He was the eldest son of Johann Kaspar Goethe and Katharina Elisabeth Textor Goethe. Goethe's father, of Thuringian stock, had studied law at the University of Leipzig. He did not practice his profession, but in 1742 he acquired the title of kaiserlicher Rat (imperial councilor). In 1748 he married the daughter of Frankfurt's burgomaster. Of the children born to Goethe's parents only Johann and his sister Cornelia survived to maturity. She married Goethe's friend J. G. Schlosser in 1773. Goethe's lively and impulsive disposition and his remarkable imaginative powers probably came to him from his mother, and he likely inherited his reserved manner and his stability of character from his stern and often pedantic father.

Early Life

Goethe has left a memorable picture of his childhood, spent in a large patrician house on the Grosse Hirschgraben in Frankfurt, in his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit. He and Cornelia were educated at home by private tutors. Books, pictures, and a marionette theater kindled the young Goethe's quick intellect and imagination.

During the Seven Years War the French occupied Frankfurt. A French theatrical troupe established itself, and Goethe, through his grandfather's influence, was allowed free access to its performances. He much improved his knowledge of French by attending the performances and by his contact with the actors. Meantime, his literary proclivities had begun to manifest themselves in religious poems, a novel, and a prose epic.

In October 1765 Goethe—then 16 years old—left Frankfurt for the University of Leipzig. He remained in Leipzig until 1768, pursuing his legal studies with zeal. During this period he also took lessons in drawing from A. F. Oeser, the director of the Leipzig Academy of Painting. Art always remained an abiding interest throughout Goethe's life.

During his Leipzig years Goethe began writing light Anacreontic verses. Much of his poetry of these years was inspired by his passionate love for Anna Katharina Schönkopf, the daughter of a wine merchant in whose tavern he dined. She was the "Annette" for whom the collection of lyrics discovered in 1895 was named.

The rupture of a blood vessel in one of his lungs put an end to Goethe's Leipzig years. From 1768 to the spring of 1770 Goethe lay ill, first in Leipzig and later at home.

It was a period of serious introspection. The Anacreontic playfulness of verse and the rococo manner of his Leipzig period were soon swept away as Goethe grew in stature as a human being and as a poet.

Study in Strasbourg

Goethe's father was determined his son should continue his legal studies. Upon his recovery, therefore, Goethe was sent to Strasbourg, the capital of Alsace and a city that lay outside the German Empire. There his true Promethean self and his poetic genius were fully awakened. One of the most important events of Goethe's Strasbourg period was his meeting with Johann Gottfried von Herder. Herder taught Goethe the significance of Gothic architecture, as exemplified by the Strasbourg Minster, and he kindled Goethe's love of Homer, Pindar, Ossian, Shakespeare, and the Volkslied. Without neglecting his legal studies, Goethe also studied medicine.

Perhaps the most important occurrence of this period was Goethe's love for Friederike Brion, the daughter of the pastor of the nearby village of Sesenheim. Later Goethe immortalized Friederike as Gretchen in Faust. She also inspired the Friederike Songs and many beautiful lyrics. Kleine Blumen, kleine Blätter and Wie herrlich leuchtet mir die Natur! heralded a new era in German lyric poetry.

During this Strasbourg period Goethe also reshaped his Alsatian Heidenröslein. His lyrical response to the Gothic architecture of Strasbourg Minster appeared in his essay Von deutscher Baukunst (1772). Goethe also probably planned his first important drama, Götz von Berlichingen, while in Strasbourg. In August 1771 Goethe obtained a licentiate in law, though not a doctor's degree. He returned to Frankfurt in September and remained there until early 1772.

"Sturm und Drang" Period

From spring to September 1772 Goethe spent 4 months in Wetzlar in order to gain experience in the legal profession at the supreme courts of the empire. However, Goethe found a more genial society in a local inn among the "Knights of the Round Table," calling himself "Götz von Berlichingen."

Goethe's passionate love for Charlotte Buff—who was the daughter of the Wetzlar Amtmann (bailiff) and was engaged to Johann Christian Kestner, the secretary of legation and a member of the Round Table—created a crisis. Out of its agony—Goethe's obsession with Charlotte led him almost to suicide—the poet created the world-famous novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774). A Rhine journey in the autumn of 1772 and intense preoccupation with his literary projects on his return to Frankfurt brought partial recovery to Goethe.

Goethe remained in Frankfurt until the autumn of 1775, and these were years of fantastic productivity. Götz von Berlichingen was finished in 1773. This play established the Shakespearean type of drama on the German stage and inaugurated the Sturm und Drang movement. Another play—Clavigo—soon followed. A tragedy, Clavigo marked considerable advancement in Goethe's art.

Die Leiden des jungen Werthers appeared in 1774. This novel, written in the epistolary style, brought Goethe international fame and spread "Werther fever" throughout Europe and even into Asia. A sentimental story of love and suicide, Werther utilized the private and social experiences of its author's months in Wetzlar, molding them into one of the most powerful introspective novels of all time. Its psychological impact upon Goethe's contemporaries and its influence on German literature can scarcely be exaggerated.

Many unfinished fragments—some of them magnificent—also date from these years. Goethe worked on the dramas Caesar and Mahomet and the epic Der ewige Jude. A fragment of Prometheus, a tragedy, ranks among the poet's masterpieces. Perhaps the greatest work from these years was Goethe's first dramatization of the Faust legend.

During these years Goethe's poetic genius found its own unique self. The masterpieces of this great Sturm und Drang period include Wanderers Sturmlied (1771); Mahomets Gesang (1772-1773); An Schwager Kronos (1774); Prometheus (1774), a symbol of the self-confident genius; and Ganymed (1774), the embodiment of man's abandonment to the mysteries of the universe.

In 1775 Goethe fell in love with Lili Schönemann, the daughter of a Frankfurt banker. Goethe became formally betrothed to her, and Lili inspired many beautiful lyrics. However, the worldly society Lili thrived in was not congenial to the poet. A visit to Switzerland in the summer of 1775 helped Goetherealize that this marriage might be unwise, and the engagement lapsed that autumn. Neue Liebe, Neues Leben and An Belinden (both 1775) are poetic expressions of Goethe's happiest hours with Lili, while Auf dem See, written on June 15, 1775, reflects his mood after he broke the spell that his love for Lili had cast upon him. Goethe also conceived another drama during these Frankfurt years and actually wrote a great part of it. However, he did not publish Egmont until 1788. Graf Egmont, its protagonist, is endowed with a demonic power over the sympathies of both men and women, and he represents the lighter side of Goethe's vision—a foil to Faust—and his more optimistic outlook.

Career in Weimar

On Oct. 12, 1775, the young prince of Weimar, Duke Karl August, arrived in Frankfurt and extended an invitation to Goethe to accompany him to Weimar. On November 7 Goethe arrived in the capital of the little Saxon duchy that was to remain his home for the rest of his life. The young duke soon enlisted Goethe's services in the government of his duchy, and before long Goethe had been entrusted with responsible state duties.

As minister of state, Goethe interested himself in agriculture, horticulture, and mining, all fields of economic importance to the duchy's welfare. Eventually his many state offices in Weimar and his social and political commitments became a burden and a hindrance to his creative writing. Perhaps Goethe's most irksome responsibility was the office of president of the Treasury after 1782.

Goethe made his first long stay at Weimar from November 1775 until the summer of 1786. In 1782 Emperor Joseph II conferred a knighthood on him. During these 12 years Goethe's attachment for Charlotte von Stein, the wife of a Weimar official and the mother of seven children, dominated his emotional life. A woman of refined taste and culture, Frau von Stein was 7 years Goethe's senior and was perhaps the most intellectual of the poet's many loves.

The literary output of the first Weimar period included a number of lyrics (Wanderers Nachtlied, An den Mond, and Gesang der Geister über den Wassern), ballads (DerErlkönig), a short drama (Die Geschwister), a dramatic satire (Der Triumph der Empfindsamkeit), and several Singspiele (Lila; Die Fischerin; Scherz; List und Rache; and Jery und Bätely). Goethe also planned a religious epic (Die Geheimnisse) and a tragedy (Elpenor). In 1777 Goethe began to write a theatrical novel, Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung. In 1779 the prose version of his drama Iphigenie auf Tauris was performed.

Under Frau von Stein's influence Goethe matured as an artist as well as a personality. His course toward artistic and human harmony and renunciation was mirrored in several poems written during this period: Harzreise im Winter (1777); Ein Gleiches (1780), Ilmenau (1783), and Zueignung (1784).

Italian Journey

In September 1786 Goethe set out from Karlsbad on his memorable and intensely longed-for journey to Italy. He traveled by way of Munich, the Brenner Pass, and Lago di Garda to Verona and Venice. He arrived in Rome on Oct. 29, 1786, and soon established friendships in the circle of German artists. In the spring of 1787 Goethe traveled to Naples and Sicily, returning to Rome in June 1787. He departed for Weimar on April 2, 1788.

It would be almost impossible to overstate the importance of Goethe's Italian journey. Goethe regarded it as the high point of his life, feeling it had helped him attain a deep understanding of his poetic genius and his mission as a poet. No longer in sympathy with Sturm und Drang even before his departure from Weimar, Goethe was initiated into neoclassicism by his vision of the antique in Italy. Goethe returned to Weimar not only with a new artistic vision but also with a freer attitude toward life. He recorded this journey in his Italienische Reise at the time of his trip, but he did not publish this volume until 1816-1817.

Return to Weimar

Goethe returned from Italy unsettled and restless. Shortly afterward, his ties with Frau von Stein having been weakened by his extended stay in Italy and by lighter pleasures he had known there, Goethe took the daughter of a town official into his house as his mistress. Christiane Vulpius, although she could offer no intellectual companionship, provided the comforts of a home. Gradually, she became indispensable as a helpmate, although she was ignored by Goethe's friends and unwelcome at court. Their son August was born in 1789, and Goethe married her in 1806, when the French invasion of Weimar endangered her position.

Goethe had finished Egmont in Italy. Additional literary fruits of his trip were the Römische Elegien, which reflected Italy's pagan influences, written in 1788-1789; the iambic version of Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787); and a Renaissance drama, Torquato Tasso (1790). Goethe also planned an epic Nausikaa and a drama Iphigenie auf Delphos. Faust was brought an additional step forward, part of it being published in 1790 as Faust, Ein Fragment.

Meanwhile, two new interests engrossed Goethe and renewed his Weimar ties. In 1791 he was appointed director of the ducal theater, a position he held for 22 years; and he became increasingly absorbed in scientific pursuits. From his scientific studies in anatomy, botany, optics, meteorology, and mineralogy, he gradually reached a vision of the unity of the outward and inward worlds. Not only nature and art but also science were, in his view, governed by one organic force that rules all metamorphoses of appearances.

It is absolutely misleading, however, to suggest as some critics have that after his Italian journeys Goethe became a scientist and ceased to be a poet. In 1793 Goethe composed Reineke Fuchs, a profane "World Bible" in hexameters. He also took up his abandoned novel of the theater. His projected study of a young man's theatrical apprenticeship was transformed into an apprenticeship to life. Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, varying between realism and poetic romanticism, became the archetypal Bildungsroman. Its influence on German literature was profound and enduring after its publication in 1795-1796.

Goethe's unique literary friendship with Friedrich von Schiller began in 1794. To it Goethe owed in great degree his renewed dedication to poetry. Goethe contributed to Schiller's new periodical Die Horen, composed Xenien with him in 1795-1796, received Schiller's encouragement to finish Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, and undertook at his urging the studies that resulted in the epic Hermann und Dorothea and the fragment Achilleis. Schiller's urging also induced Goethe to return once more to Faust and to conclude the first part of it. Xenien, a collection of distichs, contains several masterpieces, and Hermann und Dorothea (1797) ranks as one of the poet's most perfect creations.

From Goethe's friendly rivalry with Schiller issued a number of ballad masterpieces: Der Zauberlehrling, Der Gott und die Bajadere, Die Braut von Korinth, Alexis und Dora, Der neue Pausias, and the cycle of four Müller-Lieder.

Goethe's classicism brought him into eventual conflict with the developing romantic movement. To present his theories, he published, in conjunction with Heinrich Meyer, from 1798 to 1800 an art review entitled Die Propyläen. Goethe also defended his ideals of classical beauty in 1805 in Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert. But the triumphant publication of the first part of Faust in 1808 defeated Goethe's own classical ideals. It was received as a landmark of romantic art.

Last Years

The last period of Goethe's life began with Schiller's death in 1805. In 1806 he published his magnificent tribute to Schiller Epilog zu Schillers Glocke. In 1807 Bettina von Arnim became the latest (but not the last) of Goethe's loves, for the poet soon developed a more intense interest in Minna Herzlieb, the foster daughter of a Jena publisher.

The publication of the first part of Faust in 1808 was followed by the issuance the next year of a novel, Die Wahlverwandtschaften, an intimate psychological study of four minds. The most classical and allegorical of Goethe's works, Pandora, was published in 1808. The scientific treatise Zur Farbenlehre appeared in 1810.

In 1811 Goethe published the first volume of his autobiography, Aus meinem Leben, Dichtung und Wahrheit. Volumes 2 and 3 followed in 1812 and 1814. The fourth, ending with Goethe's departure from Frankfurt in 1775 for Weimar, appeared in 1833, after his death. Additional materials for a continuation of Dichtung und Wahrheit into the Weimar years were collected in Tag und Jahreshefte (1830).

Increasingly aloof from national, political, and literary partisanship in his last period, Goethe became more and more an Olympian divinity to whose shrine at Weimar all Europe made pilgrimage. In 1819 Goethe published another masterpiece, this one a collection of lyrics inspired by his young friend Marianne von Willemer, who figures as Sulieka in the cycle. Suggested by his reading of the Persian poet Hafiz, the poems that constitute Westöstlicher Diwan struck another new note in German poetry with their introduction of Eastern elements.

Meanwhile, death was thinning the ranks of Goethe's acquaintances: Wieland, the last of Goethe's great literary contemporaries, died in 1813; Christiane in 1816; Charlotte von Stein in 1827; Duke Karl August in 1828; and Goethe's son August died of scarlet fever in Rome in 1830.

In 1822 still another passion for a beautiful young girl, Ulrike von Levetzow, inspired Goethe's Trilogie der Leidenschaft: An Werther, Marienbader Elegie, and Aussöhnung. The trilogy is a passionate and unique work of art written in 1823-1824, when Goethe was approaching the age of 75. Between 1821 and 1829 Goethe published the long-promised continuation of Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre—Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, a loose series of episodes in novel form. His Novelle appeared in 1828.

However, the crowning achievement of Goethe's literary career was the completion of the second part of Faust. This work had accompanied Goethe since his early 20s and constitutes a full "confession" of his life. The second part, not published until after Goethe's death, exhibited the poet's ripe wisdom and his philosophy of life. In his Faust Goethe recast the old legend and made it into one of Western literature's greatest and noblest poetic creations. The salvation of Faust was Goethe's main departure from the original legend, and he handled it nobly in the impressively mystical closing scene of the second part.

Goethe died in Weimar on March 22, 1832. He was buried in the ducal crypt at Weimar beside Schiller.

Further Reading

Goethe reveals himself in Goethe's Autobiography: Poetry and Truth from My Life (trans. 1932) and Italian Journey, 1786-1788 (trans. 1962). An excellent introduction to Goethe the man is David Luke and Robert Pick, eds., Goethe: Conversations and Encounters (1966), a collection of writings by his contemporaries. Biographies of Goethe include John G. Robertson, The Life and Work of Goethe, 1749-1832 (1932), and Richard Friedenthal, Goethe: His Life and Times (1963; trans. 1965). Among the best introductions to Goethe's work are Barker Fairley, A Study of Goethe (1947); Henry Hatfield, Goethe: A Critical Introduction (1963); and Ronald Gray, Goethe: A Critical Introduction (1967). Georg Lukács, Goethe and His Age (1948; trans. 1968) analyzes him from a Marxist viewpoint. His writings and thought are examined in Barker Fairley, Goethe as Revealed in His Poetry (1932; rev. ed. 1963); Ronald Peacock, Goethe's Major Plays (1959); Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L. A. Willoughby, Goethe: Poet and Thinker (1962); and Hans Reiss, Goethe's Novels (1963; trans. 1969).

Contemporary scholars discuss Goethe in Victor Lange, ed., Goethe: A Collection of Critical Essays (1968). Specialized studies include Humphry Trevelyan, Goethe and the Greeks (1941); Adolf I. Frantz, Half a Hundred Thralls to Faust: A Study Based on the British and the American Translators of Goethe's Faust, 1823-1949 (1949); and Stuart Pratt Atkins, The Testament of Werther in Poetry and Drama (1949) and Goethe's Faust: A Literary Analysis (1958). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Johann Wolfgang von Goethe." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Johann Wolfgang von Goethe." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (April 23, 2017).

"Johann Wolfgang von Goethe." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von


(b. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 28 August 1749; d. Weimar, Germany, 22 March 1832),

color theory, morphology, zoology, botany, geology, history and philosophy of science, scientific administration. For the original article on Goethe, see DSB, vol. 5.

Since George Wells’s entry in the original DSB, Nicholas Boyle’s multivolume biography (only part of which has been published) has refashioned scholars understanding of the processes by which Goethe shaped his thought and work. Goethe was able to absorb the most diverse intellectual influences without compromising the individuality and integrity of his vision because he knew (at first instinctively, then consciously) how to trace the threads of law-governed activity in personal, social, and natural phenomena. After accepting the invitation of Duke Carl August of Saxe-Weimar to join his court (1775), he rapidly ascended from the role of court poet and intellectual to become the duke’s most trusted advisor and minister. Responsibility for ducal parks, roads, and the duchy’s silver mines caused him (shortly before 1780) to study botany, mineralogy, and geology, while his amateur’s passion for painting and drawing led him to anatomical studies. In all his scientific endeavors he strove to acquire experimental, observational, and theoretical comprehensiveness and drew on every professional resource, human and institutional, within his reach. This included the faculty and collections of the duchy’s university in nearby Jena, where in the 1780s he began building up the scientific faculty and its commitment to research.

From the beginning of his independent scientific efforts Goethe was attentive to method. In his botanical and zoological research he developed ways to articulate, sequence, ramify, and ultimately reunify the results of observation and experiment so that researchers might more easily recognize the typical stages and forms that appear in the phenomena. He articulated a conception of science conducted on multiple levels: a basis in accurately observed experience, followed by coordination, comparison, and organization of the phenomena, and finally by the use of hypotheses to relate the phenomena to more distant fields. In the mid-1790s, as he began to reconceive his botanical and zoological work as part of a more encompassing science of living forms, he proposed a plan that would draw together researchers in natural history, general physics, anatomy, chemistry, zoology, physiology, and morphology. Within a few years he was plotting an even more extensively multidisciplinary project for studying color. The circle of scientists, naturalists, philosophers, and distinguished visitors who assembled in Jena and Weimar gave him hope that a new era of comprehensive approaches to nature was dawning. But by the early years of the new century many had left, driven off by the fear of persecution for heterodoxy (after the Jena controversy over Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s putative atheism) or the advance of Napoléon Bonaparte’s army.

Studies since the 1970s have compelled a reassessment of two much-discussed historical issues. With respect to evolution, recent studies have shown that Goethe’s approach strongly supported the gradual change and emergence of species and that his morphology directly and indirectly influenced Charles Darwin. Although the older historiography regarding his color science (Farbenlehre) was dominated by the notion that Goethe’s poetic sensibility did not allow him to appreciate modern science, it has become clear that he was in fact inclined to accept the theory of the differential refrangibility of white light according to color. Defective explanations in German physics manuals probably gave him false expectations, however. In any case, he arrived at serious objections to the theory’s omissions and phenomenological misrepresentations by undertaking a comprehensive experimental investigation of prismatic phenomena, which led to two publications, under the title Contributions to Optics, with prism and display cards included. At the same time his investigation into contrast colors led him to recognize that there were profound physiological issues involved in color perception. As he investigated past optics and color science to understand better the rise of Isaac Newton’s theory, he began to grasp the complex historical character of science and scientific change. Immanuel Kant’s first and third Critiques and discussions with Friedrich von Schiller made him progressively more aware of phenomenological, methodological-conceptual, and historical issues.

After nearly two decades, this research, which Goethe considered to be more important than his literary production, culminated in the tripartite Zur Farbenlehre (1810). It consisted of a didactic part (a detailed presentation of the chief phenomena of color according to physiological, physical, and chemical causes, along with a discussion of major topics for future, multidisciplinary studies of color), a polemical part (an analysis and deconstruction of the methods and experiments of Newton’s Opticks), and a history (from antiquity to the early 1800s, with an approach that took both internalist and externalist perspectives and developed a quasi-Kantian theory of scientific change based on Vorstellungsarten, typical ways of conceiving and portraying phenomena).

Although he was a source of inspiration to Naturphilosophie and Romantic science, Goethe maintained a certain independence with respect to both. After Zur Farbenlehre he only occasionally did new scientific work. He edited and published some of his earlier scientific manuscripts and commented on developments in the contemporary sciences. He updated the Farbenlehre to incorporate interference colors (in the course of which he developed a qualified enthusiasm for the wave theory of light), encouraged younger researchers who showed an affinity to his own approaches (such as Arthur Schopenhauer, Johannes Peter Müller, and Jan Purkyn), and made a (disputed) claim to have anticipated Lorenz Oken’s theory of the vertebral construction of the skull. In the last year of his life he published a commentary on the Parisian dispute between Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire over the principles of animal morphology. Though his sympathy lay with the latter, he tried to work

out conceptual and empirical common ground that would capitalize on the strengths of both men’s approaches.

Much of this late work was undertaken in the hope of preserving and cultivating the legacy of his research and methods. Nineteenth-century scientists, more taken by positivism and mathematization, resisted these efforts. Despite a not inconsiderable influence on later work in morphology and in the physiology of color perception, Goethean scientific practice never achieved mainstream recognition.


The editions of Goethe, in the original German and in translation, are legion, and the secondary literature is vast. There are many hundreds of books and thousands of articles about his scientific writings alone. The selection listed here is intended tohelp the reader acquire only an introductory orientation in Goethe-s scientific work and in the historical and philosophical issues that work raises.


Scientific Studies. Edited and translated by Douglas Miller. Goethe Edition 12. New York: Suhrkamp, 1988. Includes new translations of the most frequently cited scientific and methodological essays, along with a brief selection from Zur Farbenlehre.

Goethe in the History of Science. Edited by Frederick Amrine. Vols. 29–30 of Studies in Modern German Literature. New York: Lang, 1996. The most complete bibliography of Goethe’s scientific writings and the scholarship about them, from 1776 to 1990.

Goethe in English: A Bibliography of the Translations in the Twentieth Century. Edited by Derek Glass. Modern Humanities Research Association bibliographies 2. Leeds, U.K.: Maney, 2005.


Amrine, Frederick, Francis J. Zucker, and Harvey Wheeler, eds. Goethe and the Sciences: A Reappraisal. Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science 97. Boston: Reidel, 1987. A collection of articles surveying, and revising the conception of, Goethe’s entire scientific production.

Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press, 1991–2000. The standard biography in any language, through 1803, with a third volume in preparation.

Cornell, John F. “Faustian Phenomena: Teleology in Goethe’s Interpretation of Plants and Animals.” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 15 (1990): 481–492. Explains the kind of developmental, evolutionary theory compatible with, and perhaps intended by, Goethe’s morphological science.

Engelhardt, Wolf von. Goethe im Gespräch mit der Erde: Landschaft, Gesteine, Mineralien und Erdgeschichte in seinem Leben und Werk. Weimar, Germany: Böhlau, 2003. An overview of Goethe’s geological and mineralogical interests, by one of the editors of the geological writings in the Leopoldina edition of his scientific works.

Krätz, Otto. Goethe und die Naturwissenschaften, 2nd ed. Munich, Germany: Callwey, 1998. First edition published 1992. A brief, accurate account of Goethe’s scientific studies.

Kuhn, Dorothea. Empirische und ideelle Wirklichkeit: Studien über Goethes Kritik des französischen Akademiestreites. Neue Hefte zur Morphologie 5. Graz, Austria: Böhlau, 1967. An account of Goethe’s intervention in the Cuvier-Geoffroy controversy, by one of the editors of the Leopoldina edition of Goethe’s scientific writings.

Mandelkow, Karl Robert. Goethe im Urteil seiner Kritiker: Dokumente zur Wirkungsgeschichte Goethes in Deutschland. 4 vols. Munich, Germany: Beck, 1975–1984. A survey of the reception and criticism of Goethe’s works from 1773 to 1982.

Nicolai, Heinz, and Hans Henning, eds. “Goethe-Bibliographie.” Goethe 14/15–33 (1952/53–1971) and Goethe-Jahrbuch 89ff. (1972ff.). The authoritative annual update of Goethe bibliography (both primary and secondary literature).

Richards, Robert J. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002. Explains in authoritative detail the scientific influence of German Idealism and Romanticism on nineteenth-century biology, with nearly a third of the work (pp. 325–508) specifically devoted to Goethe.

Seamon, David, and Arthur Zajonc, eds. Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998. Presents Goethe’s phenomenological approach to science.

Sepper, Dennis L. Goethe contra Newton: Polemics and the Project for a New Science of Color. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Explains the scientific background of the Farbenlehre, its critique of Newton’s color theory, and its anticipations of trends in later history and philosophy of science.

Tantillo, Astrida Orle. The Will to Create: Goethe’s Philosophy of Nature. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002. A deft combination of conceptual analysis and historical explanation.

Dennis Sepper

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (April 23, 2017).

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von (1749–1832; Elevated to the Nobility as von Goethe in 1782)

GOETHE, JOHANN WOLFGANG VON (17491832; elevated to the nobility as von Goethe in 1782)

GOETHE, JOHANN WOLFGANG VON (17491832; elevated to the nobility as von Goethe in 1782), German writer, scientist, and statesman. The dominant figure of the German Classicist-Romantic period, and for many still the most influential of all German writers, Goethe was often referred to as the last Renaissance man. He successfully cultivated a multitude of extraordinary talents, while his works, especially Faust and his novels, expressed and helped shape modern individualism. He brought radical subjectivity to German poetry and expressed a modern view of history: history revealed in the exceptional individual. The cult of Goethe as the eminent icon of German culture (in the much-lamented absence of a nation-state) and his canonization began during his lifetime, which also saw the beginnings of German philology and literary historiography. Recent scholarship has examined and reevaluated the diverse cultural production in Goethe's "shadow," especially the writing of Charlotte von Stein (17421827) and Marianne von Willemer (17841860), who had previously been of interest in numerous biographies of Goethe merely as his beloved and as the inspiration and models for his fictional characters.

Goethe was the first child of a patrician couple in Frankfurt am Main, the coronation city of the Holy Roman Empire. Retired imperial councillor Johann Caspar Goethe (17101782) and Katharina Elisabeth, née Textor (17311808), a major's daughter, led a cultured life and valued artistic endeavors. The only surviving son, Goethe enjoyed a privileged humanistic education at home together with his sister Cornelia (17501777). In 1765 Goethe was sent to study law at Leipzig University, where he also cultivated his interests in art and literature. He was exposed to Enlightenment thinkers and the new English literature of sensibility, and he wrote elegant erotic poetry and a pastoral play. After a severe case of tuberculosis in 1768 and a subsequent return to Frankfurt, he continued his studies in Strasbourg in 1770. There he met the young East Prussian writer Johann Gottfried Herder (17441803), later a theologian in Weimar. They shared criticism of rationalism and the prevailing French taste and enthusiasm for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, German folk song, and medieval architecture, and each found in Shakespeare and Homer models for original creativity. Goethe graduated in 1771 with a Lizentiat (doctoral degree) and became an attorney for the Frankfurt juridical court; increasingly, though, he devoted his efforts to writing and drawing. He initiated a radically subjective style, commonly referred to as "Sturm und Drang" (storm and stress), that marked the beginning of German Romanticism. He soon became famous across Europe through his love poems, his Shakespearean chronicle play Götz von Berlichingen (published 1773) based on the controversial knight of that name (c. 14801562) during the Peasants' War, and his scandalous epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774; The sufferings of young Werther). In the fall of 1775 young Carl August of Saxe-Weimar (17571828) invited Goethe to Weimar. Although his Thuringian duchy was small, it was nonetheless an important cultural center thanks to the endeavors of Carl August's mother, Anna Amalia (17391807; regent 17561775). In June 1776 Goethe became a member of the duke's cabinet and his privy councillor. Except for Goethe's "flight" to Italy from his many bureaucratic obligations (17861788), a journey to Venice (1790), the German campaign against revolutionary France, and shorter travels, he remained in the small province for the rest of his long life. In 1806 he married the lowborn Christiane Vulpius (17651816) with whom he had lived since 1788, much to the outrage of Weimar society.

Goethe, best known for his wide range of poetry, plays, and novels, was also a respected administrator, knowledgeable art collector, and successful director of the Weimar Hoftheater (court theater, including opera) from 1791 to 1813. He admired Napoleon and recognized the genius of Beethoven. His interest in the sciences ranged from osteology and botany to optics and mineralogy; he believed strongly in his theory of colors (Zur Farbenlehre; 1810), which contradicted Newton's.

Goethe's extensive correspondence is an endless resource for insights into his intense relationships with contemporaries. Most important was the friendship and collaboration with Friedrich Schiller (17591805) from 1794 to 1805, when both wrote in a Classicist style and theorized on the central function of art in human life and in society. Their rigorously pedagogical aesthetics met with resistance, and Goethe's own earlier works remained much more popular. Literary history, however, established Goethe's and Schiller's works from those years as Weimar Classicism.

Only very few works from Goethe's rich œuvre can be mentioned here. His poetry was so innovative and is so rich and multifaceted that any mention of single titles does not do justice to it. It ranges from stormy nature and love poems, hymns, classical elegies and satirical epigrams, and ballads, to the idyllic epic poem Hermann und Dorothea (1797) and his adaptation of Oriental traditions in West-Östlicher Divan (1819). Numerous poems have been set to music by composers from Mozart and Schubert to contemporary ones. Dramas such as Egmont (1788), Iphigenia auf Tauris (1787; Iphigenia on Tauris), and Torquato Tasso (1790) draw on (literary) history and mythology for models and reinterpretations of harmonious and autonomous individuals; yet the emotional struggle is merely contained, not overcome, in an equilibrium. Thus the dichotomy between Classicist (recent research prefers this term over "classical" and its hierarchical implications) and Romantic writers is not as sharp as previously believed. The novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (17951796; Wilhelm Meister's apprenticeship years), long regarded as the exemplary German "Bildungsroman" (novel of individual organic development or self formation), was most influential for the Romantics and the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in general. Whether the protagonist achieves the alleged goal of character formation and a well-rounded education or whether the novel criticizes and undermines such a goal remains controversial.

Interpretation of Goethe's universal life work situates him within various tendencies of his time, a critical period in the development of the modern world, but also stresses that he anticipated modernist (and even postmodern) fractured structures, especially in his last novel Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, oder Die Entsagenden (1829; Wilhelm Meister's travel years, or the renunciants) where he wrote critically on developments such as industrialization and specialization. Goethe pursued a lifelong interest in the subject of Faust, the sixteenth-century alchemist, scholar, and magician, and rendered the pact-with-the-devil legend into an original tragedy of human striving and complex symbolism of human life, society, and politics. Goethe's Faust (fragment published 1790; Faust, Part I of the tragedy, 1808; Faust, Part II, posthumously 1832) is a masterpiece of world literature; Part II is a plethora of mythology and heterogeneity. Interpretations of it and its influence on literature and music are innumerable. In his autobiographical writings (Dichtung und Wahrheit [Poetry and truth], 18111814; Italienische Reise [Italian journey], 18161817, 1829, etc.), which were very influential for the genre of autobiography, he styled himself as a German classical writer and Olympian.

See also Drama: German ; Frankfurt am Main ; German Literature and Language ; Herder, Johann Gottfried von ; Schiller, Johann Christoph Friedrich von .


Primary Sources

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Collected Works. Edited by Cyrus Hamlin. Translated by Cyrus Hamlin, Walter Arndt, Michael Hamburger, Frank Ryder, et al. 12 vols. New York, 19831988 and 1994.

. Faust. Edited by C. Hamlin. Translated by Walter Arndt. New York, 2000. Excellent German/English edition in the Norton Critical Editions Series with extensive notes and introductory and supporting material.

. Sämtliche Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche. 39 vols. Frankfurt, 1985. The most inclusive edition in German available, edited by a wide range of scholars.

Secondary Sources

Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age. 2 vols. Oxford and New York, 1991 and 1999. Interpretative biography.

Boyle, Nicholas, and John Guthrie, eds. Goethe and the English-Speaking World: Essays from the Cambridge Symposium for His 150th Anniversary. Rochester, N.Y., 2002.

Sharpe, Lesley, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Goethe. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2002. Scholarly yet accessible chapters on his works by genre and on relations to the contemporary world as well as reception.

Wagner, Irmgard. Goethe. New York, 1999. Concise introduction to major literary works.

Waltraud Maierhofer

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von (1749–1832; Elevated to the Nobility as von Goethe in 1782)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von (1749–1832; Elevated to the Nobility as von Goethe in 1782)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . (April 23, 2017).

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von (1749–1832; Elevated to the Nobility as von Goethe in 1782)." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (yō´hän vôlf´gäng fən gö´tə), 1749–1832, German poet, dramatist, novelist, and scientist, b. Frankfurt. One of the great masters of world literature, his genius embraced most fields of human endeavor; his art and thought are epitomized in his great dramatic poem Faust.

Early Life and Works

Goethe describes his happy and sheltered childhood in his autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811–33). In 1765 he went to Leipzig to study law. There he spent his time in the usual student dissipations, which perhaps contributed to a hemorrhage that required a long convalescence at Frankfurt. His earliest lyric poems, set to music, were published in 1769. In 1770–71 he completed his law studies at Strasbourg, where the acquaintance of Herder filled him with enthusiasm for Shakespeare, for Germany's medieval past, and for the German folk song.

Goethe's lyric poems for Friederike Brion, daughter of the pastor of nearby Sesenheim, were written at this time as new texts for folk-song melodies. Among the lasting influences of Goethe's youth were J. J. Rousseau and Spinoza, who appealed to Goethe's mystic and poetic feeling for nature in its ever-changing aspects. It was in this period that Goethe began his lifelong study of animals and plants and his research in biological morphology.

Goethe first attracted public notice with the drama Götz von Berlichingen (1773; see Berlichingen, Götz von), a pure product of Sturm und Drang. Still more important was the epistolary novel Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774, tr. The Sorrows of Young Werther, 1957) which Goethe, on the verge of suicide, wrote after his unrequited love for Charlotte Buff. Werther gave him immediate fame and was widely translated. While the writing had helped Goethe regain stability, the novel's effect on the public was the opposite; it encouraged morbid sensibility.

The Weimar Years

In 1775, Goethe was invited to visit Charles Augustus, duke of Saxe-Weimar, at whose court he was to spend the rest of his life. For ten years Goethe was chief minister of state at Weimar. He later retained only the directorship of the state theater and the scientific institutions.

Italian and French Influences

A trip to Italy (1786–88) fired his enthusiasm for the classical ideal, as Goethe tells us in his travel account Die italienische Reise (1816) and in Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert [Winckelmann and his century] (1805). Also written under the classical impact were the historical drama Egmont (1788), well known for Beethoven's incidental music; Römische Elegien (1788); the psychological drama Torquato Tasso (1789); the domestic epic Hermann und Dorothea (1797); and the final, poetic version (1787) of the drama Iphigenie auf Tauris.

In 1792 Goethe accompanied Duke Charles Augustus as official historian in the allied campaign against revolutionary France. He appreciated the principles of the French Revolution but resented the methods employed. A reformer in his own small state, Goethe wished to see social change accomplished from above. Later he refused to share in the patriotic fervor that swept Germany during the Napoleonic Wars.

Novels and Poetry

His novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809, tr. Elective Affinities, 1963) is one of his most significant novels, but perhaps his best-known work in that genre is the Wilhelm Meister series. The novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre [the apprenticeship of Wilhelm Meister] (1796), became the prototype of the German Bildungsroman, or novel of character development. In 1829 the last installment of Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre [Wilhelm Meister's journeyman years], a series of episodes, was published.

His most enduring work, indeed, one of the peaks of world literature, is the dramatic poem Faust. The first part was published in 1808, the second shortly after Goethe's death. Goethe recast the traditional Faust legend and made it one of the greatest poetic and philosophic creations the world possesses. His main departure from the original is no doubt the salvation of Faust, the erring seeker, in the mystic last scene of the second part.

Many women passed through Goethe's life, with Charlotte von Stein probably the most intellectual of them. He married (1806) Christiane Vulpius (1765–1816), who had borne him a son. Goethe's unsuccessful marriage offer (1822) to young Ulrike von Levetzow inspired his poems Trilogie der Leidenschaft [trilogy of passion]. Westöstlicher Diwan (1819), a collection of Goethe's finest lyric poetry, was inspired by his young friend Marianne von Willemer, who figures as Suleika in the cycle. The Diwan strikes a new note in German poetry, introducing Eastern elements derived from Goethe's reading of the Persian poet Hafiz.

Other Accomplishments

Increasingly aloof from national, political, or even literary partisanship, Goethe became more and more the Olympian divinity, to whose shrine at Weimar all Europe flocked. The variety and extent of his accomplishments and activities were monumental. Goethe knew French, English, Italian, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and translated works by Diderot, Voltaire, Cellini, Byron, and others. His approach to science was one of sensuous experience and poetic intuition. Well known is his stubborn attack on Newton's theory of light in Zur Farbenlehre (1810). A corresponding treatise on acoustics remained unfinished.

An accomplished amateur musician, Goethe conducted instrumental and vocal ensembles and directed opera performances in Weimar. His search for an operatic composer with whom he could collaborate failed; although many of his operetta librettos were composed, none achieved lasting fame. Goethe's exquisite lyrical poems, often inspired by existing songs, challenged contemporary composers to give their best in music, and such songs as "Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt" [only the lonely heart], "Kennst du das Land" [know'st thou the land], and Erlkönig were among the song texts most often set to music.

Goethe's aim was to make his life a concrete example of the full range of human potential, and he succeeded as few others did. The friendship of Friedrich von Schiller and his death (1805) made a deep impression on Goethe. He is buried, alongside Schiller, in the ducal crypt at Weimar. The opinions of Goethe are recorded not only in his own writings but also in conversations recorded by his secretary J. P. Eckermann and in extensive correspondence with the composer Zelter and with Schiller, Byron, Carlyle, Manzoni, and others. It would be difficult to overestimate Goethe's influence on the subsequent history of German literature.


The bulk of Goethe's work is immense; the most recent complete edition is the so-called Weimar edition (133 vol. in 140, 1887–1919). Most of his works have been translated into English, notably by T. Carlyle. Biographies include those by G. H. Lewes (1855), J. Sime (1888), F. Gundolf (1916, in German), J. G. Robertson (1927), and N. Boyle (Vol. I, 1991; Vol. II, 2000); see also L. Lewisohn, ed., Goethe: The Story of a Man (1949). Among well-known studies are essays by Carlyle, Emerson, C. Thomas, G. Santayana, A. Gide, A. Schweitzer, and T. Mann. See studies by K. Viëtor, Goethe, the Thinker (tr. 1950); R. Peacock, Goethe's Major Plays (1959, repr. 1966); R. Gray, Goethe: A Critical Introduction (1967); E. C. Mason, Goethe's Faust (1967); E. A. Blackall, Goethe and the Novel (1976); M. A. Carlson, Goethe and the Weimar Theater, (1978); and K. M. Wheeler (1984).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (April 23, 2017).

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832)

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832)

Probably the most celebrated of all German writers. Goethe had strong interest in mysticism and occult subjects. He was born at Frankfurt-on-Main, August 28, 1749. His father was a lawyer of some eminence. At an early age the boy showed a persistent fondness for drawing and learned with surprising ease. In 1759 a French nobleman of aesthetic tastes came to stay with the Goethes, and a warm friendship developed between him and the future author. The friendship accelerated young Goethe's intellectual development.

Shortly after this, a French theater was founded at Frankfurt, and there Goethe became conversant with the plays of Racine; he also made some early attempts at original writing and began to learn Italian, Latin, Greek, English, and Hebrew.

He soon moved from his native town to Leipzig, where he entered the university, intending to become a lawyer. At Leipzig, Goethe showed little affection for the actual curriculum; instead he continued in essay writing and drawing and even took lessons in etching. He also found time for a love affair, but this was cut short in 1768 when he developed a serious illness. On his recovery he decided to leave Leipzig and go to Strasbourg.

There he became friendly with Jung-Stilling (see Johann Heinrich Jung ), and his taste for letters was strengthened, Homer and Ossian being his favorites among the masters. Although he continued to appear indifferent to the study of law, he succeeded in becoming an advocate in 1771 and returned to Frankfurt.

Goethe had already written a quantity of verse and prose, and he began to write critiques for some of the newspapers in Frankfurt. At the same time he started writing Goetz von Berlichingen and Werther. These works were soon followed by Prometheus, and in 1774 the author began working on Faust.

The following year saw the production of some of Goethe's best love poems, written for Lilli Schönemann, daughter of a Frankfurt banker. Nothing more than poetry, however, resulted from this new devotion. Scarcely had it come and gone before Goethe's whole life was changed, for his writings had become famous. As a result the young duke Carl August of Weimar, anxious for a trusty page, invited the rising author to his court. The invitation was accepted. Goethe became a member of the privy council; subsequently he was raised to the rank of Geheimrat (privy counselor) and then ennobled.

Goethe's life at Weimar was a very busy one. Trusted implicitly by the duke, he directed the construction of public roads and buildings, attended to military and academic affairs, and founded a court theater. As occupied as he was, he continued to write voluminously. Among the most important works he produced during his first years at the duke's court were Iphigenie and Wilhelm Meister.

In 1787 he had a lengthy stay in Italy, visiting Naples, Pompeii, Rome, and Milan. Returning to Weimar, he began writing Egmont. In 1795 he made the acquaintance of poet and dramatist Friedrich von Schiller, with whom he quickly became friendly and with whom he worked on the Horen, a journal designed to elevate the literary tastes of the masses.

About this period, too, Goethe wrote his play Hermann und Dorothea and also began translating Voltaire, Diderot, and Benvenuto Cellini.

(For an account of a strange psychic experience at Weimar, when Goethe saw the projected double of a friend, see double. )

The year 1806 was a significant one in Goethe's life, marked by his marriage and also by the entry of Napoleon into Weimar. The conquering general and the German poet found much in each other to admire, and Napoleon decorated Goethe with the cross of the Legion of Honour.

In 1811 Goethe wrote Dichtung und Wahrheit, Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre; in 1821 he began working at a second part of Faust. During this time he had two famous visitors Beethoven from Vienna and Thackeray from London. Although the composer thought himself coldly received, the novelist spoke with enthusiasm of the welcome accorded him. Goethe was then well advanced in years, however, and his health was beginning to fail. He died March 22, 1832.

Few great writersnot even Disraeli or Sir Walter Scott had fuller lives than Goethe. His love affairs, besides those mentioned here, were many, and his early taste for the graphic arts continued to the end of his days, resulting in a vast collection of treasures.

His interest in mysticism manifested itself in various forms besides the writing of Faust. With a temperament aspiring to the unattainable, Goethe's mind was essentially a speculative one. During his childhood at Frankfurt he did symbolic drawings of the soul's aspirations to the deity, and he later became immersed in the study of the Christian religion. Eventually he grew skeptical on this subject, his ideas being altered not only by his own ruminations but by reading various iconoclastic philosophers, especially Rousseau. Later his intellect was seemingly less engaged by Christianity than by ancient Eastern faiths, as demonstrated by some of his works, notably Westöstliche Divan.

One of his notebooks shows that, while a young man at Strasbourg, Goethe made a close study of Giordano Bruno and other early scientists. As a boy he was a keen student of alchemy, reading deeply in Welling, Jean Baptiste van Helmont, Basil Valentine, and Paracelsus, and even fitting up a laboratory where he spent long hours in arduous experiments. No doubt it was while thus engaged that Goethe first conceived the idea of writing a drama on the subject of Faust, and his alchemistic and other scientific research certainly proved advantageous when he was composing that work.

The story's main outlines are visible in Calderon's and Marlowe's versions, as well as in the operas of Gounod, Schumann, and Berlioz. It is mainly because of Faust that Goethe is considered a great mystic, for his rendering of the immortal theme is acknowledged as among the finest in the whole of mystical literature.


Cottrell, Alan P., ed. Goethe's Faust: Seven Essays. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1976.

Davidson, Thomas. Philosophy of Goethe's Faust. Boston, 1906. Reprint, Haskell, 1969.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Autobiography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975.

Gray, Ronald D. Goethe, the Alchemist: A Study of Alchemical Symbolism in Goethe's Literary & Scientific Works. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, 1979.

Lewes, George H. The Life of Goethe. London, 1864. Reprint, Norwood Editions, 1979.

Reed, T. J. Goethe. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984.

Steiner, Rudolph. Goethe's Conception of the World. Reprint, Brooklyn: Haskell, 1972.

. The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception. Hudson, N.Y.: Anthroposophic Press, 1978.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . (April 23, 2017).

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832)." Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749–1832) German poet, dramatist, novelist, and statesman. While studying law at Strasbourg, Herder inspired him to appreciate Shakespeare. Goethe's first play, Götz von Berlichingen (1773), was in the tradition of Sturm und Drang. His epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774) won him international fame. His visits to Italy (1786–88, 1790) fired his enthusiasm for classicism, evidenced in the historical drama Egmont (1788). Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1796) became the model for the German bildungsroman. Goethe's most enduring work, the dramatic poem Faust, was published in two parts (1808, 1832). See also German literature

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von." World Encyclopedia. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von." World Encyclopedia. . (April 23, 2017).

"Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from