Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749–1832)

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the German poet, pantheist, novelist, and scientist, was born in Frankfurt am Main and died in Weimar. Goethe's literary genius disclosed itself early. He wrote numerous lyric poems, invariably inspired by love affairs, while still in his teens. University studies in Leipzig and Strasbourg were less important to his development than were his extracurricular interests: occult philosophy, astrology, and religious mysticism while in Leipzig; and his friendship with Herder at Strasbourg, a friendship that evoked Goethe's passion for William Shakespeare, nature, and German folk poetry. The historical drama Götz von Berlichingen, written while Goethe was a law student in Strasbourg, marks the start of his Sturm und Drang ("storm and stress") period. Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The sorrows of young Werther, 1774), written to purge himself of the despair engendered by his love for Charlotte Buff, who married another man, marks the high point of this phase of Goethe's career. Werther, translated into numerous languages, made Goethe famous throughout Europe. Other works belonging to this period were the dramas Stella, Egmont, and the "Gretchen" episodes of Faust.

In 1775, at the invitation of Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, Goethe moved to the court at Weimar. Here, in addition to his work as chief of state and his continued literary activity, Goethe's interest in the sciences developed: His official duties involved such diverse matters as horticulture, mining, road inspection, and later the management of the state theater. In Weimar, Goethe's involvement with Frau Charlotte von Stein, an intellectual lady of refined tastes in the arts, lasted for twelve years. His writings during those years included some of his greatest lyrics. It is said that Stein exercised a humanizing, moral influence on Goethe.

Goethe's trip to Italy in 1786 was to his own mind the climax of his life. In his thinking about art and literature, the classical ideal of calm beauty replaced the representation of tempestuous emotion and rebelliousness characteristic of the Sturm und Drang movement. Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787), a verse reworking of an earlier play, and Torquato Tasso (1789) exemplify the new style.

Returning to Weimar, Goethe took a new mistress, Christiane Vulpius, who bore him a son in 1789 and whom he married in 1806. Many of Goethe's scientific studies were published in this period: Versuch, die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären (Essay on the metamorphosis of plants, 1790), Beiträge zur Optik (Contributions to optics; 1791 and 1792). Earlier he had published his discovery that a part of the human jawbone is analogous to the intermaxillary bone in apes (1784). Goethe returned to Italy in 1790 but did not find the excitement and inspiration of his earlier travels. In 1792 he accompanied Karl August in a battle against the French revolutionaries. In 1794 began Goethe's friendshipmore literary and intellectual than personalwith Friedrich Schiller, which lasted until Schiller's death in 1805. Schiller was a sympathetic critic and he encouraged Goethe's work on Faust. It has been thought that Schiller's Kantian background stimulated Goethe's interest in Immanuel Kant, but Goethe was familiar with Kant's writings even before 1794.

While the political and social tumult of the Napoleonic era dominated the minds of his contemporaries, Goethe calmly concentrated his attention on optics and plant morphology. Perhaps as a result of Goethe's indifference to the popular causes of nationalism and democracy, his reputation declined somewhat, but the appearance of Faust (Part I) in 1808 and the psychological novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective affinities) in 1809 served to restore his stature. Some of Goethe's subsequent works were Zur Farbenlehre (Toward the theory of colors; 1810), which contains an extended attack on Isaac Newton's theory of light; Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and truth, 1811, 1812, 1814, and, posthumously, 1833), a series of autobiographical essays; Italienische Reise (18161817), the record of his Italian travels; Zur Morphologie (18171824); and the second part of Faust, completed in 1831, just before his death. Goethe was buried in Weimar beside Schiller.


Although Goethe was not a systematic thinker and even asserted that philosophy only ruined him for poetry, he was aware of the philosophical and scientific tendencies and controversies of his time; and while he admitted his lack of a "proper organ for philosophy," he did not hesitate to express himself on numerous philosophical and scientific questions. In addition to specific essays and pronouncements, his poems and novels were often vehicles for expressing his intellectual convictions concerning God, man, and nature.

spinoza and goethe

The influence of Benedict Spinoza on Goethe's overall Weltanschauung was considerable, although the importance of Kant, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Friedrich Schelling is also evident. Goethe first became slightly acquainted with Spinoza's philosophy while in Strasbourg, but it was in 1774 that his acquaintance with Friedrich Jacobi (who regarded Spinoza's views as the only rational philosophy) drew his full attention to Spinoza. Goethe's commitment to pantheism is often cited to show his agreement with Spinoza. Yet when Goethe himself spoke of his relation to Spinoza, he emphasized the ethical as much as the metaphysical doctrines of Spinoza and Spinoza's "all-harmonizing peace," which contrasted with his own restlessness. Spinoza's rejection of final causes and his defense of determinism and of the view that praise, condemnation, and regret are attitudes reflecting an inadequate understanding of inexorable natural processes were accepted by Goethe and given expression in Faust (especially in the opening scene of Part II). Goethe said that Spinoza's mathematical method was the opposite of his own poetic way of feeling and expressing, and that Spinoza's orderly treatment of moral questions made Goethe his passionate disciple and convinced admirer. He defended Spinoza against the charge of atheism and claimed (without slavish regard for accuracy) that Spinoza was the most theistic and Christian of philosophers, since for him all existence is God and thus no proof of God's existence is needed.

The central thesis of Spinoza's system, Goethe thought, was that the universe contains and expresses a creative force which appears as a duality (Zweiheit ) but is in fact a unity. God is not simply the cause but the indwelling spirit of the world, the allembracing actuality. Goethe, however, questioned Spinoza's contention that reason can attain an adequate knowledge of God-nature. We cannot comprehend this infinite whole, and when we attempt to do so, even in a limited way, we must use imagination and intuition, not the method of mathematics.

leibniz and goethe

While Goethe's view of nature was, like Spinoza's, deterministic and nonteleological, his mystical feeling for nature was more akin to Schelling, and he resembled Leibniz in maintaining that everything in nature is in some sense animate (Beseelt ). The universe consists of an infinite number of unique beingsLeibnizian monadseach alive and harmonious with all others. The essence of these individuals is activity and creativity. Goethe's knowledge of Leibniz was probably derived from Goethe's friend Johann Kaspar Lavater, the Swiss theologian who linked his theory of phrenology with the theory of Leibniz's monadology, and from the Earl of Shaftesbury, whose presentation of Leibnizian optimism involved the belief, so congenial to Goethe, that nature's physical beauty expresses the divine harmony.

kant and goethe

Goethe was inclined to take from philosophers whatever elements or fragments fitted his intuitions and feelings. Thus, while he found Leibniz's confident optimism appealing, he also praised Kant for destroying the popular optimistic teleology of commonsense philosophers who with Philistine wisdom sought to demonstrate that everything in nature exists to satisfy some human purpose. Goethe's enthusiasm for Kant was mainly based on Kant's Critique of Judgment. He was pleased with Kant's claim that nature and art both resemble purposive agents but pursue no external goal. He maintained also that art mediates between nature and freedom, since it is produced by the artist in conformity with principles that operate in nature as well.

Goethe, like many of Kant's contemporaries (including Moses Mendelssohn and Johann Gottfried Herder), had little understanding of the Critique of Pure Reason ; and while he praised Kant's ethics, he rejected most of Kant's central claims. In particular, he denied the opposition of duty and inclination, reason and sensuality, and regarded Kant's Calvinistic notion of a radical evil in human nature as a sad regression toward Christian orthodoxy. Goethe also took exception to Kant's view of knowledge. He insisted that imagination (Phantasie ) was an avenue to knowledge distinct from and supplementary to Kant's faculties of reason, understanding, and sensibility. Furthermore, Goethe held, men are capable of intellectual intuitions, and with such nonsensuous insights they may hope to penetrate the heart of nature.

Scientific Theories

Goethe thought his scientific theories were as important as his literary works. The concepts of primal phenomena (Urphänomen ) and primal polarity (Urpolarität ) were central to his conception of the world and were the foundations for both his scientific studies and his conception of man and existence.

primal phenomena

Nature's secrets can only be understood by discovering, through intellectual intuitions, her ideal: ground phenomena. In optics the primal phenomenon is the opposition or antipathy of light and darkness. This Urphänomen (which in this instance is also an example of polarity) is the goal and limit of a scientific investigation of light. In mineralogy and geology the Urphänomen is granite, which Goethe believed to be the base of Earth's crust.

In the organic realm there are primal shapes and modes of development that nature repeatedly uses, like a theme and variations in music. The same organ is transformed manifoldly through metamorphosis. In plants the leaf is the organ that is varied to form all the parts of the plant. The study of the basic formations, morphology (Gestalten ), would disclose the secret principles according to which nature operates. Seeking the primal image or idea by observing and comparing the metamorphosis of organisms, Goethe conjectured that a primal plant (Urpflanze ), might be the basic model according to which all plants are patterned. This theory has sometimes been cited to show Goethe as a forerunner of the theory of evolution, but it is not at all clear that he believed in the historical evolution of species from a common ancestor. The doctrine of the Urpflanze is more Platonistic and, perhaps, mythical than Darwinian, Charles Darwin's reference to Goethe as a "path-maker" notwithstanding.


Goethe's distrust of mathematics and experimental instruments (such as prisms) was, unfortunately, great. He believed that numbers and equations only distort our vision of nature. Isaac Newton's physics was repellent to him; Newton's theory that white light contained the spectrum seemed to him absurd because light was an elemental entity, an inscrutable attribute of the world that could not be analyzed. Goethe attempted to explain the origin of color phenomena out of an original polar opposition of light and dark. If light and dark are mixed directly, the result is gray; but a "murky medium" (such as a prism, according to Goethe) produces a cooperation of the polar opposites, and this cooperation produces colors. The activity of the eye in color perception is explained by the rule that brightness is "demanded" when the eye encounters darkness. The perception of every color produces a "demand" for the complementary color.

Goethe used extensively the idea of polarity, of attraction and repulsion as basic cosmic forces. He explained the metamorphosis of plants in terms of the periodic alternation of contraction and expansion. Contraction (systole ) produces specific differentiation; expansion (diastole ) produces an "advance into the infinite." The importance of polarity is seen also in magnetismanother Urphänomen and in the activity of the heart, the rhythm of life, and in man's moral activity where the good is brought into play by its contrary, evil. Schelling had said that there is no life without opposites, and Kant had claimed attraction and repulsion to be the only essential forces of matter. Goethe adopted these principles in both his science and his art. The whole of existence is "an eternal parting and uniting."


Polarity is one of the driving wheels of nature, and while Goethe's use of this idea may suggest a cyclical view of life and history, his concept of gradation (Steigerung ) is that of a constantly striving ascent. This upward striving Goethe believed to be a universal characteristic of nature. It discloses itself in the "higher intention" of every heavenly body and in the variations of similar organisms developing from a basic form. What Goethe meant by this is not very clear, but in Faust the idea is applied to man. Every man, said Goethe, innately feels an urge to strive upwards. This striving involves all his capacities, his creativity in every sort of action and experience. Faust's insatiable love of life and hunger for new experience are expressive of this natural longing.


Goethe early rejected positive religion. With Spinoza, he came to regard creeds and dogmas as irrelevant to the veneration of God-nature. Although Goethe was on friendly terms with many ardent Christians and although he even spoke at times of a providential God, he opposed the dogmatism of churches and theologians and regarded the idea of miracles as a "blasphemy against the great God and his revelation in nature." Since Goethe maintained that no set of concepts could be adequate to the unfathomable infinity of the divine, it is not surprising that his pronouncements concerning God are somewhat ambiguous and inconsistent. While the remark on miracles seems to imply a distinction between God and nature, this is, of course, not Goethe's usual position.

Goethe rejected asceticism and the tendency to devalue the physical in favor of a supernatural world. To Johann Kaspar Lavater he wrote that he could find a thousand pages of various books as lovely, useful, and indispensable to humankind as the Gospels. He claimed that he was unchristian rather than anti-Christian but declared the crucifix to be "the most repugnant thing under the sun." Although at one time he spoke of the Gospels as messages from God, he clearly did not intend this in the ordinary sense, since he held that God, being the inexorable order of nature, cannot have any personality or be in any sense outside the natural world. Thus God does not cause or control the world in the way that theists have believed. "What sort of God would it be, who only pushed from without?" (Was wär' ein Gott, der nur von aussen stiesse?, in Weltanschauliche Gedichte, 1815). The ambiguity (or richness) of Goethe's theology may be seen in what is perhaps his most famous remark on this topic: "We are pantheists when we study nature, polytheists when we poetize, monotheists in our morality" (Wir sind naturforschend Pantheisten, dichtend Polytheisten, sittlich Monotheisten, in Maximen und Reflexionen, No. 807).

Since every man is part of nature and, hence, of the divine, he shares the basic impulses of all natural thingsspecifically, as already noted, the urge to develop upward and outward, the striving for an ideal. Action and striving are not only means to some static goal but are also ends in themselves. Since there is no goal for man apart from his life, man struggles, like Faust, with the fear of life (Lebensangst ) and is tempted by care (Sorge ). Some have argued that Goethe saw man's fulfillment in activity itself, but perhaps it would be more accurate to say that there is no fulfillmentcontentment means annihilationso that man is destined to be dissatisfied, unfulfilled, no matter what he achieves.

See also Darwin, Charles Robert; Herder, Johann Gottfried; Jacobi, Friedrich Heinrich; Kant, Immanuel; Lavater, Johann Kaspar; Leibniz, Gottfried Wilhelm; Mendelssohn, Moses; Newton, Isaac; Pantheism; Pantheismusstreit; Schelling, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von; Schiller, Friedrich; Shaftesbury, Third Earl of (Anthony Ashley Cooper); Spinoza, Benedict (Baruch) de; Spinozism.


Goethe's writings are available in many editions, one of the standard being K. Burdach and others, eds., Jubiläums-Ausgabe, 40 vols. (Stuttgart and Berlin, 19021907). Goethe's most important works, except Zur Farbenlehre and Beiträge zur Optik, have been translated into English. Goethe's Botanical Writings were translated by Bertha Mueller (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1952) and by Agnes Arber as Goethe's Botany; the Metamorphosis of Plants (Waltham, MA, 1946). Of the dozens of English translations of Faust, recent versions by Bertram Jessup (London, 1958) and by Walter Kaufmann (New York: Doubleday, 1961) are sensitive. Kaufmann's version includes sections of Part II and has the German text facing the English.

For an account of Zur Farbenlehre and Beiträge zur Optik, see Rudolf Magnus, Goethe als Naturforscher (Leipzig: Barth, 1906), translated by Heinz Norden as Goethe as a Scientist (New York: H. Schuman, 1949), a very sympathetic account. A more critical discussion of Goethe's contributions to science is found in C. S. Sherrington, Goethe on Nature and on Science (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1942).

Many philosophers have written on Goethe (Wilhelm Dilthey, Georg Simmel, Max Wundt, Heinrich Rickert, and Fritz-Joachim von Rintelen, to name only a few), and some may be read in English: Ernst Cassirer, "Goethe and the Kantian Philosophy," in his Rousseau, Kant, Goethe, translated by James Guttmann and others (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1945); Benedetto Croce, Goethe (Bari: Laterza, 1919), translated by Emily Anderson (London, 1923); and the beautiful and perceptive chapter on Faust in George Santayana, Three Philosophical Poets (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1922). Thomas Mann's essays on Goethe, which include discussions of Goethe's political views, are in his Freud, Goethe, Wagner, translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter (New York: Knopf, 1937) and in his Essays of Three Decades (New York: Knopf, 1947). Karl Viëtor, Goethe the Thinker, translated by B. Q. Morgan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1950), discusses Goethe's science and philosophy comprehensively. See also Fritz-Joachim von Rintelen, Der Rang des Geistes (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1955).

Arnulf Zweig (1967)

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