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

views updated May 23 2018

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

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

views updated May 14 2018


Poet, dramatist, philosopher, scientist, and statesman; b. Frankfurt am Main, Aug. 28, 1749; d. Weimar, March 22, 1832. Goethe grew up in an atmosphere of enlightened, refined cosmopolitan culture. His father, a well-to-do Frankfurt lawyer who bore the honorary title of imperial councilor and who lived in self-imposed retirement, was a well-educated man of a serious and rational bent. From his mother Goethe inherited a "gaiety of spirit and delight in story-telling." He received his early education from his father, later from private tutors, concentrating on humanistic studies, chiefly French and Latin literature, but enjoying enough freedom to pursue his own intellectual and spiritual interests.

Early Work. At the age of 16 Goethe went to Leipzig to study law but he had little motivation to acquire systematically an abstract body of knowledge. He enjoyed Leipzig's society and its enlightened rococo style that was fashioned after Parisian patterns. His early lyrics were some elegant Anacreontic poems with little originality. A delirious love affair with an innkeeper's daughter, Käthchen Schönkopf, inspired a short pastoral play, Die Laune des Verliebten (1767), a collection of songs titled Annette, and later another play with moralistic overtones, Die Mitschuldigen (1769). His earliest lyrical diction was distinguished by a striking visual quality; Goethe was aware that "it was particularly the eye with which I conceived the world." He gained a number of lasting impressions of Greek art from A. F. Oeser, who taught drawing and etching at the Leipzig art academy. In 1768 Goethe returned to Frankfurt gravely ill and exhausted. During a long period of recovery he was influenced by a pietistic circle headed by Susanne von Klettenberg, an intimate of his mother. He also became interested in mystical philosophers, including Paracelsus, swedenborg, and Giordano bruno. (see pietism.)

New Perspectives. A new period of life began in 1770 with his departure for Strassburg to complete his juridical studies. Goethe shook off the influence of the artificial social conventionalism of rococo culture, encountered the beauty of nature, and found grandeur in simplicity of life and the direct appeal of art. He wrote an enthusiastic essay praising the Gothic architecture of the Strassburg minster as characteristic German style. Of lasting consequence was his friendship with J. G. von herder, a young theologian and budding literary critic. Herder's aesthetic and historical writings were rooted in the Sturm und Drang reforms, were directed against the arid enlightened rationalism of his time, and pleaded for genuine expression of feeling and the truly human creative forces. Herder acquainted Goethe with the more realistic and effective concepts of art; these Herder recognized in the religious and poetic creativity of the human soul whose expression he found in history, in the symbolic language of folk songs, and in the works of great genius, such as Homer, Ossian, Sophocles, and Shakespeare. Under these influences and inspired by his affection for Frederike Brion, a pastor's daughter from the village of Sesenheim, Goethe created a new lyric diction that united the expression of strong personal feelings with an intense experience of the immediate situation. Among these early poems, Willkommen und Abschied and Mailied are notable.

Goethe concluded his legal studies, was awarded the licentiate, and returned to Frankfurt to practice law, but devoted insufficient time to develop his practice. Instead, he worked on the dramatization of the autobiography of the 16th-century knight Götz von Berlichingen, whom he portrayed in a series of dramatic pictures. Götz von Berlichingen (1771) reflects the revolt of the young Goethe against stagnant institutionalism and courtly egotism, against inhuman betrayal, suppression, and anarchy. As such, and as the first drama with a national subject matter and a penetrating ethical spirit, it was enthusiastically received by the younger generation when it appeared anonymously in 1773. Other similar works, with such titles as Caesar, Mahomet, and Prometheus, remained fragments. Goethe was quite aware of the historical and social necessities that prevented him from idealizing self-centered individualism and demonic heroism. The motif of the wanderer, the man in search of an immediate and formative experience as the central principle of his creativity, recurs frequently in the large hymnic poems of these years. This seeker does not simply strive to assert his ego but to liberate the true impulses of his soul in response to all operative natural and cosmic forces, through which he tries to share the rapture of creative enjoyment. Here lie the beginnings of Faust, which were "stormed out" in these months: a compulsive yearning for growth within his boundless urge to be active and creative, an attempt to embrace the totality of existence through restless aspiration and to fuse knowledge and feeling, nature and spirit.

Fame with Werther. While spending a few months in Wetzlar at the imperial court, Goethe fell in love with Charlotte Buff, the fiancée of his friend Kestner; a similarly confusing infatuation with Maximiliane Brentano, together with the suicide of a Wetzlar colleague, gave the impetus to his first novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (1774). This epistolary novel, written in the manner of Richardson and Rousseau, but more intensely personal and psychological, reflects the painful contrast between sentiment and the reality of life, between inner vitality and the moral principles of society. This book made him at 25 the most popular author in Europe. Such powerful emotional impulses, such vibrating interrelations between internal and external forces had never before been depicted in a language so succinct and emotionally saturated. Goethe was admired by his younger contemporaries, and especially by the writers of the Sturm und Drang movement. He won new friends, such as the theologian Johann lavater, the pedogogical writer Johann Basedow, the philosopher Friedrich jacobi, and the brothers C. and F. Stolberg. He was greatly attracted by the philosophy of spinoza, with whom he believed that one could "visualize God in nature, nature in God." Closer to lessing's ideas of dramaturgy were the two plays Goethe completed at Frankfurt, Clavigo (1774) and Stella (1775), both of which reflect the conflict between individual freedom and middle-class morality.

Two Tragedies. More significant, however, than these pieces were the beginnings of the two tragedies, Faust (1790) and Egmont (1787). The old moralistic legend of Faust's sin and damnation, which Goethe knew through the chapbook of 1725 and a popular puppet play on this theme, was now converted into a symbolic drama of man's inner struggle toward light and his restless search for a greater creativity. Faust's urge to comprehend "what holds this world together in its in-most fold" leads him to tragic error and destruction; this striving for the highest stage of human perfection, however, transcends mere titanic self-assertion and appears in Goethe's metaphysical perspective as an essential development toward a superior form of capability, finally achieved through love and grace. (see faust legend.) The tragedy Egmont shows a significant transition in the hero's development from youthful individualism to self-sacrificing altruism within the context of the historical and political reality that is characteristic of Goethe's classical style. Egmont realizes a truly creative mission by defending the rights of his Dutch people against the increasing suppression by the Spanish duke Alba. Egmont's attitude culminates in an inner struggle to convert his zest for life into the highest ethical activity of committing himself uncompromisingly to the principle of freedom and human integrity that alone justifies and impels his people's liberation.

Public Offices. Goethe developed such idealistic concepts and images of personal fulfillment during his first decades in Weimar. The young duke Carl August (17571828) had in 1775 invited the author whom he admired so greatly to his small provincial residence, where the duke and his mother had gathered a group of intellectuals. This chance companionship with the duke soon grew into a more serious relationship when Goethe accepted a series of administrative responsibilities. He became a member of the minister's council, was put in charge of the departments of mining, military affairs, and public improvements, and later was given charge of the financial affairs of the state. He received his patent of nobility in 1782. In conjunction with his offices he engaged in various scientific studies, which finally led to important morphological treatises. Of great significance for his personal development was his friendship with Charlotte von Stein, the wife of the court equerry; she helped him establish a more mature perspective and to appreciate inner beauty and social decorum. Being convinced that "we all have to complete our life's circle according to eternal, unchangeable, and all-encompassing laws," Goethe became increasingly receptive to universal problems and social demands that transcend personal initiative. His lyric poems began to reflect a new sense for classical simplicity and beauty as well as a genuine feeling for all fundamental forms of human destiny. The drama Iphigenie auf Tauris (1786) is conceived in the idealistic and ethical spirit of these years. Its climax is Iphigenie's decision to choose personal sacrifice to atone by her "pure humanity" for her family's guilt rather than expediently abandon her moral integrity. The tragedy of the passionate, oversensitive artist in Torquato Tasso (1789) also originates in these productive years, indicating Goethe's own inner danger in his attempt to practice restraint and achieve his proper place in the social and ethical order. The geniuslike exuberance and demonic drive of the young poet, whom Goethe later called an "exaggerated Werther," tragically disrupts the context of life at court but also reveals the stagnant limitation of an unproductive formalism imposed upon a creative mind.

Italian Experience. Overwhelmed by the suppression of his literary and scholarly pursuits under his mounting official duties and the demands of personal relationships, Goethe secretly departed for Italy. "I count a true rebirth from the day I entered Rome," he wrote in 1786. He acquired a new and immediate relationship with the objective world as he visualized an identity between the human mind and the intrinsic principles of nature. He not only gained a more tangible appreciation of antique beauty but also found an intensive perceptiveness of the fundamental forms of life. Realizing that "one should seek nothing behind the phenomenathey themselves are the theory," he conceived the idea of "Urphänomene" or symbolic principles that contain all developmental possibilities of any given species. Close to nature, to the simplicity and grandeur of classical art, and to the unpretentious life of the people, he developed firmer concepts of humanity and aesthetic perspectives.

A unique precipitate of the Italian experience were the Römische Elegien (1788), which combine classical plasticity and sensual fullness of life, spiritual rigor and realistic feelings. These distichs also reflect the new love for Christiane Vulpius, whom he took into his home shortly after his return to Weimar in 1788. She became the mother of his son August, and Goethe married her in 1806. The following years were marked by a period of social isolation. With the consent of the duke, he devoted more time to cultural than to administrative functions and also assumed the directorship of the Weimar theater. He felt keenly the spreading unrest caused by the French Revolution and experienced its aftereffects when he accompanied the duke into the campaign of the Coalition against the revolutionary forces that ended in the defeat of Valmy (1793). In the midst of the far-reaching social and historical changes that evolved from these events, Goethe remained skeptical, supported peaceful evolution rather than revolution, and concerned himself primarily with preserving all distinctly human values. The idyllic epos Hermann und Dorothea (1797) depicts the over-coming of external danger through simple human bonds and sound social conditions. Similar expressly humane ideas appear in novelistic form in Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten (1797) and in some shorter plays. He later attempted to give lasting expression to his experience of the revolution in the drama Die Natürliche Tochter (1803).

New Creative Impulse. His friendship with the great dramatist Johann Friedrich von Schiller began a new creative phase in Goethe's life. Their famous correspondence attests to their mutually inspiring search for aesthetic principles in accord with the cultural and philosophical tenor of the time. They wrote a series of ballads, chiefly in 1797, and collaborated in the epigrammatic Xenien and some theoretical essays. Schiller gave Goethe a greater awareness of his intellectual mission; he urged him to complete Faust I (1808) and particularly the "novel of development" Wilhelm Meister (1796), which evolved from an earlier 1786 fragment. In the first part, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Goethe recognized art and the theater as significant means of education, but more personal commitments and social functions lead the hero to mature humanistic ideals. The center of Goethe's concern is the formative influence of all the effective, aesthetic, intellectual, and ethical spheres of life, radiating the conviction that "deep in us lies the creative power which enables us to bring forth what ought to be." The second part, Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1829), shows the hero in a more advanced industrial world that had outgrown the old aristocratic order. Broad universal education is replaced by practical specialization designed to cope with the technical and social problems of a new era. In his final stage, Meister leads an active and altruistic existence within a thriving community that serves broadly human rather than individualistic needs.

In the tendencies of the new Romantic movement, arising in neighboring Jena, Goethe saw a return to the individualism of the Sturm und Drang period in spite of the homage that the young generation of poets and critics paid to his Wilhelm Meister. The attempt of the Romantics to identify life and art seemed to contradict the notion of form that he fervently upheld in his later years. His novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809) can be taken as a protest against the Romantics' disregard for social institutions. Even the most passionate content, the theme of adultery and divorce, could be combined with a stern adherence to objective moral demands and inner beauty. In depicting an intense struggle between the elemental power of love and the binding moral order, Goethe symbolically recognized the tragic incompatibility of these opposing forces but found no other human solution than renunciation and either ethical, religious, or self-immolating transformation of the basically insoluble dilemma.

Biographical Work. After the death of Schiller in 1805 Goethe began to see his own life in a historical and symbolic way. This stimulated his Dichtung und Wahrheit (180914; 183031), a synthesis of autobiography and philosophical interpretation of his life in its essential interrelations with the determining currents of his time. This autobiography, which covers only the period of his youth, is supplemented by other biographical writings: Italienische Reise (181617), Campagne in Frankreich (1822), and his correspondence and conversations with Schiller, Zelter, Riemer, Von Müller, and Eckermann. The style of his old age was determined by problems of wide human application expressed in a symbolic and allegorical language whose aim was the fullest possible representation of reality. His lyric poetry now achieved a complete unity of thought and form. Characteristic of this phase is the lyric cycle Westöstlicher Divan (1819), inspired by his love for Marianne von Willemer, and the Marienbad Elegie (1823), where his unrequited feelings for the young Ulrike von Levetzow found sublime expression. Creative and spiritually transcending renunciation, and not withdrawn resignation, is the key to this late expression of love and wisdom.

Faust, Part 2. As Goethe was writing the final books of Wilhelm Meister, he began the "principal occupation" of his last years, the second part of Faust, completed a few months before his death. This enormous tragedy had absorbed all the essential impulses and insights of his life. It began as a subjective "fragment of a grand confession" revealing his youthful convictions about knowledge, love, nature, and God; its second phase, after 1788, includes more mature views on moral and religious problems. Individualistic expressionism changed to a symbolic drama of mankind, a mystery play in its own right. Schiller praised its "duality of human nature and the tragically miscarried attempt to unite divine and earthly realities in man." Goethe, however, regarded such a discrepancy as the basis for any creative development. Higher maturity means an infinitely active search for the realization of new forms of existence. The polarity between Faust and Mephistopheles, between active, spiritual longing on the one hand, and the arresting power of sensual drives on the other, forms a creative rhythm, a productive interplay and intensification of his potentials. Since, for Goethe, God does not stand outside the creative process of life but moves the world from within, constant activity and aspiration draw Faust closer to perfection. This positive and partly redemptive aspect of Faust's destiny, which Goethe added in his middle years, is countered by the destructive boundlessness of his actions, the passionate urge to experience and enjoy "whatever is allotted to all mankind." Such a spiritual titanism can only lead to self-destruction and despair. The tragedy of Gretchen is the most intense objectivation of this process.

Part 2 leads Faust into the world at large, to higher and purer spheres of activity. Goethe admits that allegorical and ideological elements prevail: "The treatment had to proceed from the specific to the generic, because specification and variety belong to man's youth." All persons and actions presented are to be understood as symbols of comprehensive experiences or universal ideas. Faust travels through an expansive and multiform world, at first as an artist exploring the life of the court, then as a wanderer through the mythological world of the classical Walpurgis Night in search for beauty and knowledge; he allies himself in ancient Greece with Helen of Troy, the symbol of womanly perfection. The climactic but tragically limited union of Faust and Helen indicates Goethe's own synthesis of classical and northern elements. Fulfillment is attained only momentarily beyond time and space, and the continuing development is represented by their allegorical offspring, Euphorion, whose boundless flight and self-destruction again reflect the fate of Faust himself as well as that of the advancing times.

In his final phase of life Faust is shown as warlord, colonizer, engineer, free and absolute master of his own territory, yet still unsatisfied and full of inner conflicts. He cannot achieve his goal without destroying part of the inner realization of the divine power of man's soul. Guilt, error, and care accompany him to his death and remind him of the earthly limitation of all human existence. Goethe saw in the full acceptance of the limits imposed by the formative part of man's nature and in the compromises that his existence requires the prerequisite conditions for his attaining perfection. Freedom to act, ceaseless striving, keen awareness of change and continuity throughout the universe are his means of approaching the creative process of life that is one with the divine principle. Faust finally "dies to live anew," his spiritual entelechy becoming part of the all-embracing powers of existence, and with the help of love and divine grace he transcends the sphere of mundane tragedy. His transformation and ascent to heaven can be affected insofar as his inner substance, the impetus of his aspiration, is not sacrificed to the expansion of his being in total action and blind enjoyment. Goethe thus concludes his life's work with the poetic representation of the mystery of human salvation, shrouded in the symbols of Christianity and reaffirming his belief in the continuation of life after death. But the poetic symbolism of heavenly harmony and perfection also contains an element of mystical silence and inexpressible awe before the inscrutable, which Goethe revered and acknowledged throughout his long and unusually productive life.

Religious Attitudes. In all phases of his development Goethe expressed deep religious convictions without binding himself to any of the traditional denominations; neither did he practice a mere theological eclecticism. Fundamental to his faith is his concept of God's omnipotence within the process of nature, and of man's inborn ability to recognize God both as force and mind, substance and form, uninterruptible motion and fixed order. For Goethe, God and world, spirit and matter were neither identical nor could they exist separate from one another; they formed, as it were, a "united polarity of being." Within the dynamic order of life, man's spiritual growth depends upon his active participation in God's continuous self-realization in the phenomenological world. Any particular form of religion or image of God, in Goethe's thought, would mean a narrow humanization of God's greatness: "Being engaged in natural sciences, we are pantheists, in poetry polytheists, morally monotheists." He believed in various forms of revelation that correspond to man's characteristic realms of activity. He admitted that the "worshipful awe" of the "highest principle of morality" as revealed in Christ was as natural to him as his reverence of the sun as the mightiest revelation of God's procreative power. He considered this attitude as "world piety." In contrast to most of the 18th-century European philosophers, Goethe developed a complex of religious feelings and insights; he saw no need, however, to confess more than his resignation to God's incomprehensible will and he remained convinced that man is made to see what is illuminated but not the light itself, to behold God in his works, not God himself. In Christian thought, this is true for this world, but it denies, or at least prescinds from, the ultimates of revelation, which promises a face-to-face vision of God. In this sense, Goethe was no nearer to Christianity than some of the great pagan thinkers had been.

Bibliography: Editions. Werke: Vollständige Ausgabe letzter Hand, 40 v. (Stuttgart 182730), continued as Nachgelassene Werke, 20 v. (Stuttgart 183242); Weimarer Ausgabe, 133 v. (Weimar 18871919); Jubiläums-Ausgabe, ed. e. von der hellen, 40v. (Stuttgart 190207; index v. 1912); Propyläen-Ausgabe, ed. c. hÖfer and c. noch, 49 v. (Munich 190932), in chronological order; Gedenkausgabe, ed. e. beutler, 24 v. (Zurich 194854; suppl. 1960); Hamburger Ausgabe, ed. e. trunz, 14 v. (Hamburg 194860); Akademie-Ausgabe, ed. e. grunach et al. (Berlin 1952). Literature. g. h. lewes, The Life and Works of Goethe, 2v. (London 1855). h. grimm, Goethe (Berlin 1887). r. m. meyer, Goethe (Berlin 1895). a. bielschowsky, Goethe, 2 v. (3d ed. Munich 190204). g. witkowski, Goethe (Leipzig 1899). g. simmel, Goethe (Leipzig 1913). f. gundolf, Goethe (Berlin 1916). p. h. brown, Life of Goethe, 2 v. (New York 1920). g. mÜller, Kleine Goethebiographie (2d ed. Bonn 1947). b. fairley, Goethe as Revealed in His Poetry (London 1932); A Study of Goethe (Oxford 1947). k. viËtor, Goethe, the Poet, tr. m. hadas (Cambridge, Mass. 1949); Goethe, the Thinker, tr. b. q. morgan (Cambridge, Mass. 1950). e. staiger, Goethe, 3 v. (Zurich 195259). h. a. korff, Geist der Goethezeit, 5 v. (Leipzig 195662), various eds. r. friedenthal, Goethe: His Life and Times (London 1965). loewen, h., Goethe's Response to Protestantism (Berne and Frankfurt, 1972). h. plenderleith, "An Approach to Goethe's Treatment of Religion in Dichtung und Wahrheit " German Life and Letters, v. 46, no. 4 (1993), 297. j. j. pelikan, Faust the Theologian (New Haven, Conn. 1995).

[k. schaum]

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

views updated Jun 08 2018

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

BORN: 1749, Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany

DIED: 1832, Weimar, Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, Germany


GENRE: Poetry, Fiction, drama, nonfiction

The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774)
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship (1795)
Faust, Part One (1808)
Faust, Part Two (1832)


Though he lived in late eighteenth-century Germany, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a true Renaissance man whose influence touched not only literature, poetry, and drama, but ranged into philosophy, theology, and science. Best known for his novels and poems, Goethe influenced a generation of philosophers and scientists and created some of Germany's best-known works of literature. History has ranked Goethe alongside William Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante Alighieri: in the words of Napoléon I upon meeting the eminent poet, “There's a man!”

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Frankfurt– am–Main in the state of Hessia in Germany on August 28, 1749. The eldest son of an imperial counselor and the mayor's daughter, Goethe balanced the personalities of

his reserved, stern father, Johann Kaspar Goethe, and his impulsive, imaginative mother, Katharina Elisabeth Textor Goethe.

Law Degree and Attempts at Writing Goethe was educated at home by his father and private tutors, who taught him languages, drawing, dancing, riding, and other subjects. The theater would have a profound impact on Goethe, who was allowed free access to the performances of a French theatrical troupe when the French occupied Frankfurt during the Seven Years War (1756–1763). He began writing early, composing religious poems, a prose epic, and even his first novel, which was written in German, French, Italian, English, Latin, Greek, and Yiddish, by the time he was sixteen years old.

Though he was more interested in literature than law, Goethe obeyed his father's wishes and began studying law in Leipzig in 1768. At this time, Goethe composed some of his early plays and poems. After going home in 1768 to recover from a serious illness, Goethe went to Strasbourg in 1770 to complete his law degree.

In Strasbourg, Goethe engrossed himself in reading, artistic discovery, and writing. There, he met Johann Gottfried Herder, a philosopher and poet who introduced him to new literary works, including the novels of English writers Laurence Sterne, Oliver Goldsmith, and Henry Fielding, that would prove influential in his later writing.

Doomed Love Affairs and the Sturm und Drang Sensation After returning to Frankfurt to practice law in 1771, Goethe also launched his writing career. In addition to his legal practice, he visited with literary friends, wrote book reviews, traveled in Germany and Switzerland, and fell in love three times. It was the falling in love that would have the greatest impact on his career as a writer. Each relationship ended in tragedy: his entanglement with Charlotte Buff ended when he discovered she was engaged to his friend; he then fell in love with a married woman; and his engagement to Anna Elisabeth Schönemann was broken off in September 1775. However painful these attachments, they inspired a number of poems, and Goethe became a kind of center for the Sturm und Drang (“Storm and Stress“) artistic movement that was sweeping Germany.

Inspired by ancient poetry, the Sturm und Drang movement tried to establish new political, cultural, and literary forms for Germany as a replacement for the French neoclassical tradition that dominated much literature and culture. The German movement was characterized by extreme emotion, individual feeling, even irrationality—all responses to what was seen as the cold rationalism of French neoclassicism. The members of the German movement idolized writers like William Shakespeare, whom Goethe celebrated as a poet of nature, writing an influential speech on Shakespeare's birthday that would prove a major milestone for Shakespearean literary criticism. He began to imitate Shakespeare's dramatic style in his own prose plays, focusing also on satire and poetic dramas. However, his most influential work of the period, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther), would be inspired by the doomed relationship with Charlotte Buff that almost drove Goethe to suicide. This novel in letters, which explores themes of love, philosophy, religion, and nature, established Goethe as an overnight celebrity. The impact of Werther on Goethe's contemporaries is hard to overestimate: not only did “Werther fever” spread throughout Europe and Asia, but its sentimental tale of love and suicide encouraged a fad of melancholic, emotional romanticism.

The Weimar Years In 1775, Goethe received an invitation to join Duke Karl August, a young prince, in Weimar. Goethe, who was soon given a position of minister of state, would live there for the remainder of his life. He took on responsibility for the duchy's economic welfare, concerning himself with horticulture, agriculture, and mining; however, his growing responsibilities proved an irritating distraction from his writing. At this time, Goethe entered into an intense friendship with Charlotte von Stein, the wealthy wife of a court official and the most intellectual of Goethe's loves.

Though Goethe was a statesman and a writer, his interests extended to topics like alchemy, phrenology, botany, anatomy, and medicine. He made important

discoveries in anatomy and even came up with an influential theory on plant metamorphosis. Overburdened by competing interests and responsibilities, Goethe fled to Italy in 1786, taking a journey that would turn out to be an act of artistic rebirth.

Italian Journey for Artistic Inspiration In Italy, Goethe kept a detailed diary for Charlotte von Stein. In it, he recorded his reflections and inspirations, from his observations of the customs of the people to his studies of painting, sculpture, botany, geology, and history. He revised three influential “classical” plays: Egmont; Iphigenie auf Tauris; and Torquato Tasso. In these plays he drew on themes of conflicted love, intrigue, and mythology.

Upon his return to Weimar in 1788, Goethe experienced several life changes. He was relieved of all of his official duties aside from association with the court theater and libraries, and his relationship with Charlotte von Stein came to an end. Around this time, he entered into a relationship with Christiane Vulpius, a woman who would become his wife and bear him several children, of whom only one, Julius August Walther, would survive. The uneducated Vulpius was looked down upon by Goethe's courtly friends, who cruelly referred to her as Goethe's “fatter half.”

Unconcerned by public opinion, Goethe continued to study and write, though his literary output in the 1790s was sparse compared to that of his earlier years. After his Italian journey, Goethe was increasingly interested in classicism, writing his Roman Elegies during this time. These poems, which show a German traveler finding gradual acceptance into a Roman world of history, art, and classical poetry, were considered scandalous upon publication, but are now considered among the generation's greatest love poems.

Friendship with Schiller and Major Literary Achievements During this time, Goethe formed one of the most influential relationships of his life: a friendship with Friedrich von Schiller, a poet and Sturm und Drang contemporary. After a rocky initial acquaintance, the pair formed a mutually supportive relationship, producing literary journals and helping forge a classical German literature. Hailed by key figures in Germany's growing Romantic movement, Goethe continued to produce poems, plays, satire, and ballads.

Goethe's next accomplishments would profoundly affect world literature: his novel William Meister's Apprenticeship is considered a classic Bildungsroman (a novel that focuses on the protagonist's growth from childhood to maturity). However, Wilhelm Meister was not Goethe's only accomplishment during the 1790s: He rewrote and completed his dramatic poem Faust between the 1790s and 1808. The work, which tells of the legendary Dr. Faust's deal with the devil, would prove immensely popular and influential, inspiring countless works of music, theater, and literature. The play can be seen as a commentary on the pitfalls of the Industrial Revolution, a period of rapid modernization in agriculture, industry, and transportation that started in Europe in the late eighteenth century. Dr. Faust represents modern man's thirst for dominion over nature. But nature, Goethe warns, has a power not fully understood by men, even geniuses like Faust, and mankind tinkers with nature at its peril.

A Meeting with Napoléon Around this time, Goethe's friend Schiller died, and France's emperor Napoléon and his army were marching from victory to victory across Europe. One such victory was at the Battle of Jena in 1806, which took place just twelve miles from Goethe's home in Weimer. The French sacked Weimar, but Goethe's home was spared because of Napoléon's admiration of Goethe's work. The feeling was mutual, apparently. Goethe kept a bust of Napoléon prominently on display in his study. The two famously met in 1808 and briefly discussed literature.

Goethe would continue to be productive for the remainder of his life, publishing an influential treatise on color, writing an autobiography, and recording his conversations and letters with luminaries of the era. Though his uncommon attitudes toward society and politics alienated him from many of his peers, Goethe was thought of as Germany's greatest writer at the time of his death in 1832. His sequel to the first part of Faust, which was published after his death, is thought to be his most mature work. Goethe was buried next to his friend Friedrich von Schiller in Weimar.

Works in Literary Context

Though Goethe's plays and poems are considered among the finest in German literature, he was never shy about pointing out his many literary influences. In turn, his own work proved profoundly influential to writers of the Sturm und Drang and Romantic movements along with writers and intellectuals as diverse as Nikola Tesla and Hermann Hesse.

As a young man, Goethe read widely in French, Italian, and the classical languages, but his writing was as influenced by the intellectual society of eighteenth-century Germany as it was by literary figures. During his Sturm und Drang period, Goethe embraced writers such as William Shakespeare, Oliver Goldsmith, and Hans Sachs, a sixteenth-century German satirist, as well as classical figures such as Homer.

The Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship is considered a classic example of the Bildungsroman, a story that follows the growth and maturation of a character from youth to maturity. English author Charles Dickens's Great Expectations (1860), one of the most famous English-language Bildungsromans is considered a direct descendant of Goethe's work. The Bildungsroman form has remained a favorite among fiction writers since Goethe's time. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847),

Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage (1915), Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha (1922), John Knowles's A Separate Peace (1959), and Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972) are all widely studied Bildungsromans.

Defining German Literature and Culture Much of Goethe's literary career concerned weighing the influences of other periods and searching for a German national language and literature. Unsatisfied by the French influence that saturated that period's philosophy and literature, Goethe turned to neoclassicism, upholding the influence of ancient writers, studying classical art and architecture, and embracing Roman ideals of beauty and culture.

Though he was never considered a true Romantic poet, Goethe's works had an undeniable influence in Romantic circles. His The Sorrows of Young Werther attracted a following that would go on to influence the moody writings of the young Romantics. During the last years of his life, he was considered a living monument to a German national literature he had helped create and define.

Goethe's influence was more than just literary: his philosophical works went on to inspire the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche, Carl Gustav Jung, and Ludwig Wittgenstein, while his scientific writings inspired Charles Darwin.

In addition to his literary and scientific influence, Goethe researched German cultural and folk traditions. His cultural research resulted in many of the Christmas traditions observed in the Western world today. In addition, Goethe's theories on geography and culture (namely, that history and geography shape personal habits) are still relevant today. His balanced view of rational thought and aesthetic beauty would go on to shape the work of artists and thinkers like Ludwig van Beethoven, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many others.

Works in Critical Context

Goethe was already considered the premier German poet and writer in his own lifetime and has since enjoyed a long career of critical success. However, the statement “Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him” is attributed to Goethe, implying that his critical reception was not always golden.

The Sorrows of Young Werther Goethe was often a figure of public controversy, with his work criticized for its romantic and sexual content, its rejection of French Enlightenment ideals, and its pagan or antireligious themes. Though The Sorrows of Young Werther appeared to almost unanimous critical success, it was controversial for its romantic excess, which led to a rash of suicides among Werther fanatics.

After Werther, Goethe faded into semi-obscurity, reemerging with his classical plays and receiving acclaim from the young movement of Romantic poets who responded to his sensitivity and natural approach. He was praised by Novalis, a Romantic philosopher and author, as “the true representative of the poetic spirit on earth;” however, Novalis and other Romantics soon turned against what they saw as Goethe's political apathy and elitist views. In his work The Life of Goethe: A Critical Biography, author John R. Williams points out that Goethe did not court good opinion during his life, but rather tried to bring other Germans up to his own standards of education and culture, remaining indifferent to public criticism.


Goethe's famous contemporaries include:

Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860): a German philosopher best known for his work on the limits of human knowledge.

Charles Darwin (1809–1882): an English naturalist and originator of the theory of evolution.

Jane Austen (1775–1817): a British novelist known for her comedies of manners.

Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821): a French political leader known for his military prowess.

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826): the third president of the United States and renowned inventor and philosopher.

Emily Brontë (1818–1848): a British novelist known for her classic novel Wuthering Heights.

Faust Goethe's almost universally praised verse drama Faust is considered one of the world's greatest plays. Based on an old Christian legend that Goethe had seen dramatized in a puppet show during his childhood, Faust utilizes a mythological, magic-laced context to explore with broad appeal and compelling results the dilemma of modern man. Goethe's drama made the legendary figure of Faust one of the best-known literary characters of all time. The ever-seeking, never-satisfied Faust has come to symbolize the human struggle and yearning for knowledge, achievement, and glory. Critic George Santayana wrote that Faust “cries for air, for nature, for all existence.” Few critics have found fault with the play, and those who have, like Margaret Fuller, fault Goethe only in comparisons to such titans of world literature as Dante. She wrote, “Faust contains the great idea of [Goethe's] life, as indeed there is but one great poetic idea possible to man—the progress of a soul through the various forms of existence. All his other works, whatever their miraculous beauty of execution, are mere chapters to this poem, illustrative of particular points. Faust, had it been completed in the spirit in which it was begun, would have been the Divina Commedia of its age.” Fuller mainly

criticizes the second part of the play for being out of keeping with the first part.

Politics and Culture Goethe's critical reception after death has been mixed. His work was spurned by German nationalists who criticized his adoption of international philosophies, while his life was condemned as immoral due to his many love affairs, including one with a longtime live-in mistress. However, Goethe scholarship grew and changed, undergoing an important phase in the post–World War II years in which Germans grappled with questions of identity and national culture. Though more recent literary movements have tried to distance themselves from the German classical literature born in Weimar, Goethe scholarship has continued. Recent works of criticism have focused on Goethe's humor, his position in relation to Marxism, and his place between classical and Romantic literature.

Responses to Literature

  1. Goethe combined his literary work with studies in science, philosophy, history, and culture. What might such a broad set of interests have contributed to Goethe's literary work? Or might his varied interests have detracted from his work? Is there a particular area of study that is more reflected in his works than others? Explain.
  2. The Sorrows of Young Werther set off an international sensation with its melancholy and overblown sentimentality. What other works of literature have sparked international fads? How have those fads presented themselves and how long did they last? Why were those fads particularly popular?
  3. Goethe was strongly influenced by his friendship with Friedrich von Schiller, a German poet next to whom he was buried. Using your library and the Internet, research another pair of influential writers whose friendship contributed to their literary work. What do you think attracted these two friends to one another?
  4. Faust is considered one of the most influential works of German literature and has spawned a number of related works by other writers and artists. Using your library and the Internet, compare and contrast two separate adaptations of Goethe's Faust. Which of these adaptations holds more relevance for today's audience? How so?


Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship is considered to be the epitome of the Bildungsroman, a “self-cultivation” novel that follows a protagonist's development from childhood to maturity. Here are a few other examples of the genre:

Persepolis (2003), a graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi. This work chronicles the author's childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943), a novel by Betty Smith. Smith traces the childhood and maturation of Francie Nolan, an Irish-American living in New York in the early twentieth century.

David Copperfield (1850), a novel by Charles Dickens. David Copperfield transforms from awkward child to writer in this classic English Bildunsgroman.

Harry Potter series (1997–2007), novels by J.K. Rowling. The seven-book Potter series follows a young wizard and his friends as they grow up and take on adult responsibilities.



Atkins, Stewart P. Goethe's Faust: A Literary Analysis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958.

Brandes, Ute Thoss. Günter Grass. Berlin: Edition Colloquium,1998.

Graham, Ilse. Goethe: A Portrait of the Artist. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter, 1977.

Lewes, George Henry. The Life and Works of Goethe. London: Nutt, 1855.

Richards, Robert L. The Romantic Conception of Life: Science and Philosophy in the Age of Goethe. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.

Sharpe, Lesley. The Cambridge Companion to Goethe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Ugrinsky, Alexej. Goethe in the Twentieth Century. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Williams, John R. The Life of Goethe: A Critical Biography. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley-Blackwell, 1998.

Web sites

The Goethe Society. Retrieved March 3, 2007, from http://www.goethesociety.org

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

views updated May 17 2018


youth and early literary fame
the weimar years and the italian journey
goethe's scientific studies
final years

GOETHE, JOHANN WOLFGANG VON (1749–1832), German poet, novelist, dramatist, natural scientist, and philosopher.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is perhaps the last universal genius known to the West. He is best known as the writer of Faust: A Tragedy, one of the greatest contributions to the Western canon of epic poetry, and as the perfecter, if not originator, of the genre of the bildungsroman (the novel of education).

youth and early literary fame

Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main on 28 August 1749, the son of Johann Kaspar Goethe (1710–1782), who, though trained as a lawyer, was frustrated in his hopes of entering the civil administration of his native Frankfurt. As a result, he lived a life of quiet retirement, dedicating himself to the education of his children. Goethe's mother, Katharina Elisabeth Textor (1731–1808), was the daughter of a former mayor of Frankfurt.

In his autobiography Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and truth), Goethe writes of these early years as well as his formation as a poet until the time of his leaving for Weimar in November 1775. Even in the early twenty-first century this autobiography remains the highest example of the genre. Within it, Goethe interweaves an account of growing up in his parental home with the expanding mental horizon of the child, boy, and youth as he comes to know the complex social structure of the imperial city of Frankfurt with its rich medieval and imperial, Christian and Jewish traditions.

Although early signs of literary ability emerged in his youth, these talents fully emerged only during Goethe's student years at the University of Leipzig. Conforming to his father's wishes, he followed in his father's footsteps to Leipzig in order to prepare for a career in the law and public administration. Under the influence of the older, genial, yet often acerbic Ernst Wolfgang Behrisch, the young student began to write light, Anacreontic (convivial) lyrics, which meshed with the rococo tastes of the "Little Paris" of eighteenth-century Leipzig. Always living at full tilt, he eventually succumbed to a series of physical and mental illnesses. Goethe returned to his familial home in Frankfurt, considering himself a failure both as a student and a poet. This was a period of deep introspection, marked by a turn to the study of alchemy and astrology—esoteric sciences that later served him well in the composition of Faust.

Upon recovery, Goethe resolved to continue his law studies at the University of Strasbourg. From his first entry into the Alsatian capital to his love affair with Friederike Brion, he underwent a series of life-changing experiences. Goethe's description of this phase of his life in Dichtung und Wahrheit—what he called the "Sesenheim Idyll," named after Brion's hometown—represents the complex lyrical narrative structure that characterized his novelistic and historical writings. Organized around the image of the uncompleted towers of the Strasbourg Minster (cathedral), the Sesenheim Idyll depicts a world of an older and more integrated German culture. As Goethe came to see in his mind's eye the original design of the cathedral so he comes to see the inner organization and even the ideal structure of this culture. Both viewing the architectural whole of the Gothic cathedral and seeing a totality of this culture are the result of Anschauung. This central Goethean concept consists of training the eye to see the interrelation of parts to whole and whole to parts through a repeated process of intense viewing. Anschauung also provided the bridge from Goethe's literary works to his scientific research of nature.

Anschauung formed the core of another central Goethean concept, Bildung. As education in the broad sense, of self-formation based on the development of the individual's unique characteristics, Bildung is an education in seeing. The individual comes to see the interconnected wholes both in and between nature and culture as she comes to see the observer in relationship to what is observed. In the early 1770s, the young Goethe incorporated these insights into a larger philosophy, which with only slight alterations he continued to believe in for the rest of his life. From the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632–1677) Goethe learned to look upon nature as the "living garment of God," and from the German philosopher Johann Georg Hamann (1730–1788) he came to understand that the world consists of individualities, one-of-a-kind entities. Applied to human life, individuality becomes a guiding value and revealed a new human type for Goethe. From it he derived the value that it is incumbent upon each individual to realize as far as possible what makes him or her unique.

This growing sense of himself as a participant within a common culture was heightened and further developed through Goethe's contact with the philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744–1803). Herder showed Goethe the beautiful simplicity of nature, the power of the early German Volksliede (folk songs), and the profundities of Shakespearean drama. Under his tutelage, the young Goethe came to see how a culture formed not just an inner totality but also a specific way of viewing and experiencing the world. He awakened in him an appreciation of German culture, which appeared to be so provincial and thus quaint in comparison to the dominant neoclassical taste and universalizing reason of the Enlightenment. Under Herder's influence Goethe also pursued the study of "German" architecture and came to see in the Strasbourg Minster a new aesthetic principle. With Herder's help he published the groundbreaking essay "Von deutscher Baukunst" (1773; On German architecture), which contributed to the greater understanding of the principles of Gothic architecture. Furthermore, Goethe learned from Herder not just to appreciate the early German Volksliede but to imitate them. His ballads of these years along with the lyrics inspired by Brion—"Kleine Blumen, kleine Blätter" (Small flowers, small leaves) and "Wie herrlich leuchtet mir die Natur" (How marvelously does nature shine for me!)—brought about a new epoch of German poetry. To the Strasbourg years also belong his first important dramas, Götz von Berlichingen (1773) and Clavigo (1774).

In Wetzlar and then back in Frankfurt, Goethe became the center of a talented and eccentric group of young writers that became identified as the Sturm und Drang. Although not published until 1788, Egmont belongs to this highly creative period. Compared to his earlier efforts, this drama exhibits a marked maturation of his powers as a dramatic poet. Many of Goethe's projects of the mid-1770s, however, remained unfinished. The first version of Faust (discovered only in 1887) also belongs to this period. But it was the work that went against the dominant type of this literature that brought its twenty-five-year-old author European-wide fame. Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The sorrows of young Werther) is an epistolary novel that is stylistically beautiful and engulfingly sentimental. Published in 1774, this novel derived its story line from Goethe's own experience in Wetzlar. His love affair with Charlotte Buff, the daughter of the town's Amtmann (senior civil servant), brought him to the brink of suicide when it abruptly ended.

the weimar years and the italian journey

Upon receiving several invitations from its young duke, Goethe eventually decided to move to the Thuringian duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach in November 1775. Weimar would prove to be his home for the rest of his life. Assuming a position in the government, he interested himself in agriculture, horticulture, and mining, which were paramount to the economic and social welfare of the duchy. Goethe not only took these responsibilities seriously in an administrative sense, he also engaged in them with the eyes of a scientist. They in fact became the basis for his interest in the wide range of research into nature that was to occupy him for the rest of his life. The literary output of this period was limited in number but remarkable in quality. The lyrics "Wanders Nachtlieder" (Wanderer's night songs), "An den Mond" (To the moon), and "Gesang der Geister über den Wassern" (Singing of the spirits over the water) and the ballad "Der Erlkönig" (King of the elves) belong to this period, as does the original prose version (1779) of the drama Iphigenie auf Tauris. Goethe also wrote the first draft of his novel of theatrical life titled Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung (1777; Wilhelm Meister's theatrical mission), which like Iphigenie would be reworked to its final form in Italy.

In September 1786 Goethe left Weimar for Italy, a journey he had planned at least since 1775 and in a certain way ever since as a child he viewed the "Piranesi-like prints" in his father's collection. Italy proved more than he even dreamed of. Carefully recorded in the Italienische Reise (1816–1817; Italian journey), these experiences opened Goethe to a new aesthetic. No longer viewed against the neoclassicism from which he revolted in his youth and not even perceived in terms of the creativity of the Renaissance, the artworks of ancient Greece and Rome had an overwhelming and long-lasting impact upon him. Although the move to Weimar had weakened his ties to former friends and to the Sturm und Drang movement as a whole, the experience of Italy brought a complete break and a new understanding of and a creative dedication to the principles of classical art. The resulting German classicism was based not on the rigid laws of French neoclassicism but on a broader and more organic understanding of both nature and art. On a personal level, Italy represented a time of completion of a number of unfinished works and more importantly of new plans for the future.

This new understanding of classical principles resulted in a new iambic version of Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787); a new series of lyrics, the Römische Elegien (1795; Roman elegies) and the Venezianische Epigramme (Venetian epigrams; the product of a second visit to Italy in 1790); and a drama on the Renaissance revival of the classical ideal, Torquato Tasso (1790). Classicism also influenced Goethe's continuing work on Faust, which appeared as a Fragment in 1790, as well as the reformulation of the Wilhelm Meister story as a novel of education, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795–1796). This exemplary bildungsroman was no longer the account of a young dreamer, a purposeless youth overwhelmed by the demands of life in general and of art in particular. Rather, it is the story of the misadventures and wrong decisions of a talented but misdirected young man. Meister gradually comes to a new understanding of himself as he reflects on his past actions. Action and reflection in fact become the poles of the novel. The process of this education, however, does not just evolve through self-knowledge; for Meister comes to know himself only as he comes to know the culture in which he lives and through which he interacts. Goethe's concept of Bildung is thus an integrated process of knowing the world in the self and the self in the world. Stylistically, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre marks Goethe's maturation as a novelist. This style is capable of including direct forms of realistic description, highly figurative moments, rich in poetic episodes, and some of Goethe's best-known lyric poems. Goethe further extended these stylistic innovations in the sequel to the Lehrjahre titled Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre (1821–1829; Wilhelm Meister's journeyman years).

The return to Weimar witnessed a change in Goethe's life. No longer involved with the day-to-day administration of the duchy in any official way, he lived a life of genial retirement, away from the ducal court and its intrigues. He shared this life with his companion, Christiane Vulpius (1765–1816), who bore him a son, August, in 1789 and to whom he was finally married in 1806. The only public function he served in these years was as director of the ducal theater. Appointed in 1791, Goethe occupied this post for the next twenty-two years. This directorship also gave him the opportunity of staging the numerous plays he wrote during this period. These include the dramas Der Gross-Cophta (1792; The Great Cophta) and Der Buürgergeneral (1793; The citizen general) as well as a number of works of lesser quality.

The years of classicism for Goethe found their focus in his relationship with the Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805). Beginning in June 1794, this friendship led Goethe to take up again his interest in poetry and drama. A whole series of poetry belongs to this period: "Der Zauberlehrling" (The sorcerer's apprentice), "Der Gott und die Bayadere" (The God and the bayadere), "Alexis und Dora," and "Der neue Pausias" (The new pausias). Perhaps his most innovative poem, however, was the epic of middle-class life, Hermann und Dorothea (1798). Schiller also inspired Goethe to return to Faust. Faust, Part One appeared in 1808, while Goethe continued to work on what would become Part Two for the rest of his life. The literary journal Athenäum, which was founded in 1798 by August Wilhelm and Friedrich von Schlegel and became the organ of German Romanticism, praised Faust: Part One (as it had other works of Goethe) and declared it one of the greatest examples of Romantic literature. Though they thought of Goethe as their inspiration, the poets and critics of the early Romantic movement increasingly found themselves the target of Goethe's and Schiller's negative criticism.

goethe's scientific studies

These years also saw the first culmination of Goethe's studies of nature. Of all the changes in the evaluations of Goethe's contributions to diverse fields of endeavor, his studies of nature have been the subject of the most radical reinterpretation at the turn of the twenty-first century. These studies are no longer seen as merely unenlightened by the reigning mechanistic model of nature or simply as the extension of his literary interests. They are now understood as inaugurating a new and powerful understanding of nature and humankind's relationship to nature that are foundational for the study of the environment and of the phenomenological approach to nature in general.

Highly critical of the mechanistic model and mathematical abstractions that define modern science, Goethe invented his own "method" of research based on training in the observation of individual phenomena. His was an empirically based study that aimed not at abstract and causal models but at the development of Anschauung and the perception of repeated patterns, the typical, or what he called the Urphänomene. Understanding resulted not so much in an explanatory process as in a moment of seeing, an insight, an aperçu. In this way Goethe denied the rational view that came to dominance in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which resulted in the exploitation of nature for human purposes. For him the human being is realizable only within a common nature, and human perception is itself a part of this nature. The moral (sittlich), therefore, did not mark a break from lawful nature but was a further intensification of it.

Goethe's first published scientific studies were in comparative osteology (the scientific study of bones). In fact these studies were only a part of a larger research project in comparative animal morphology; in many ways he created both this field and comparative plant morphology as well. In 1784 Goethe announced the discovery of the fusion of the intermaxillary bone in the upper jaw, supposed to be found only in apes, into the human jawbone. Goethe thus presented a persuasive argument for evolution; but, unlike Darwinian versions of this theory, he emphasized that the human being was an "intensified" (gesteigert) form of animal that at once marked a continuation of nature and a spiritual break from nature. Goethe also studied plants through a similar comparative morphology. His botanical interests began before the trip to Italy but definitely flourished during his journey to southern Italy and Sicily. The vast variety of flora growing under diverse conditions stimulated in him the search for the unifying principle or archetype of all plants. In Versuch, die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären (1790; An attempt to explain the metamorphosis of plants), he demonstrated through a series of graduated leaf formations that the primal leaf formed the prototype of all the other organs of the plant.

Within his scientific writings, Goethe is perhaps best recognized for his study of color. Between 1791 and 1792, he published the two parts of his Beiträge zur Optik (Essays on optics), and in 1810 he produced his monumental Farbenlehre (Theory of color). Rather than impose a theoretical structure on experience, Goethe sought to allow light and darkness to phenomenalize themselves in such a way that all observers could see. In opposition to Isaac Newton's theory that all colors are part of pure light as is exemplified by refraction through a prism, Goethe understood color as a dialectic between light and darkness. Darkness is not a negative condition of light as Newton argued but rather produced in the eye an inclination to light. Conversely, light produced an inclination toward darkness. What the eye sees as color, therefore, is the result of a dialectical interrelationship of light and darkness. Against the experience of light, the eye compensates by producing darkness as the colors of blue, indigo, and violet. Against darkness, the eye sees the lighter colors of yellow, orange, and red. Goethe also expanded this phenomenological method into the fields of mineralogy, geology, and meteorology.

final years

What is generally considered to be the third and last phase of Goethe's literary career transcends the "romanticism" of his youth and the classicism of his middle years. In the last thirty years of his life Goethe came to an appreciation of the great diversity of individuals and the multiplicity of cultures within an image of cosmic harmony open to human comprehension through the "basic phenomena" of humankind and nature. This last period can be said to have begun with the death of Schiller (1805). In 1809 he published Die Wahlverwandtschaften (Elective affinities). Just as with the Lehrjahre, this psychological novel inspired other novelists throughout the nineteenth century. During the 1820s he worked on and published the sequel to the Lehrjahre, in which he addressed such contemporary social problems brought on by early industrialization. Goethe also expanded his notion of literature to what he termed "world literature" as the background against which all evaluations should be made. He found additional inspiration in non-German and even non-Western literary works. Suggested by a German edition of the works of the Persian poet Hafez, Goethe composed his last and most concise and most profound lyrics for the Westöstlicher Diwan (1819; West-Eastern divan).

Goethe will perhaps always be remembered as the poet of Faust. This monumental epic is a compendium of human knowledge, a reconnection of modernity's relationship to the classical heritage, and a redefinition of the human. Yet following the decades he had devoted to its completion, Goethe, perhaps sensing the limitations of the epic form for comprehending modern life, turned to autobiographic writings in the final years of his life. In general Goethe considered the French Revolution of 1789 and the world it introduced across Europe as culturally cruder and less supportive of individual development than the one the revolution replaced. In addition to Dichtung und Wahrheit, the four parts of which appeared between 1811 and 1833 (the year after the poet's death), he edited the diary of his trip to Italy and published it as the Italienische Reise; published accounts of his experiences with Duke Charles Augustus in the wars against France, in Campagne in Frankreich, 1792 (Campaign in France) and Die Belagerung von Mainz, 1793 (The siege of Mainz), both issued in 1822; and wrote a collection of notes dealing with his life after 1775 (published as Tagund Jahreshefte [1830; Day and year papers]). All of these works he considered parts of a single grand confession "from my life" (Aus meinem Leben), the title he gave to the collection of these diverse autobiographical writings.

To this list of autobiographical writings could be added the Gespäche mit Eckermann in den Letzten Jahren seines Lebens (Conversations with Geothe in the Last Years of His Life). These conversations with his secretary Johann Peter Eckermann ranged widely over such topics as German, French, Italian, and British literature, ancient and modern history, and contemporary political and social problems. In themselves, the Conversations exhibit the power and subtlety of Geothe's mind. Geothe died in Weimar on 22 March 1832.

See alsoGermany.


Primary Sources

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Goethes Werke. 14 vols. Edited by Lieselotte Blumenthal and Erich Trunz. Hamburg, Germany, 1949–1960. The standard German edition of Goethe's works.

——. Goethe's Collected Works. 12 vols. Edited by Victor Lange, Eric Blackall, and Cyrus Hamlin. New York, 1983–1989. Reprint, Princeton, N.J., 1994–1995. The leading translation of Goethe into English.

——. Scientific Studies. Edited and translated by Douglas Miller. New York, 1988. Reprint, Princeton, N.J., 1995. The most complete set of Goethe's scientific writings in English.

Secondary Sources

Amrine, Frederick, ed. Goethe in the History of Science. 2 vols. New York, 1996.

Atkins, Stuart. Goethe's "Faust": A Literary Analysis. Cambridge, Mass., 1958.

Bortoft, Henri. The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Way toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. Hudson, N.Y., 1996.

Boyle, Nicholas. Goethe: The Poet and the Age. Vol. 1: The Poetry of Desire (1749–1790). Oxford, U.K., 1991.

——. Goethe: The Poet and the Age. Vol. 2: Revolution and Renunciation (1790–1803). Oxford, U.K., 2000.

Brown, Jane K. Goethe's "Faust": The German Tragedy. Ithaca, N.Y., 1986.

Emrich, Wilhelm. Die Symbolik von "Faust II": Sinn und Vorformen. 3rd ed. Frankfurt am Main, Germany, 1964.

Gearey, John. Goethe's "Faust": The Making of Part I. New Haven, Conn., 1981.

Matthaei, Rupprecht, ed. Goethe's Color Theory. New York, 1971.

Nisbet, H. B. Goethe and the Scientific Tradition. London, 1972.

Benjamin C. Sax

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

views updated Jun 27 2018

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

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

views updated May 21 2018

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). □

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang Von

views updated May 18 2018


(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

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749-1832)

views updated May 18 2018

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.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

views updated Jun 11 2018

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


German Writer

Johann Wolfgang Goethe was the last of the great universal scholars. He was the greatest German poet and an outstanding figure in many fields of writing. In addition to criticism, poetry, novels, and plays, his scientific writings filled 14 volumes. In his 82 years he achieved masterful wisdom and accomplishments. He was a strong advocate of natural theology—the finding of God in nature.

Goethe was born August 28, 1749, in Frankfurt am Main, now Germany. At that time Frankfurt was a free city-state. His father, Johann Caspar Goethe, was an attorney who taught his son the intellectual and moral discipline characteristic of the cities of northern Germany. His mother, Katharine Textor Goethe, the daughter of the mayor of Frankfurt, opened up contacts for her son to have artistic and cultural opportunities. Eight children were born to the couple but only Wolfgang and his sister Cornelia survived.

At 16 he went to the University of Leipzig, and although the town was dubbed "Little Paris," he preferred lectures in the foundation of German and moral culture given by C. F. Gellert, poet and author of hymns. Serious illness forced him to leave Leipzig and return home. Here, he came in contact with Pietists circles. The Pietists were a religious group of German Lutherans who combined moral and ethical behavior with reason. He also developed an interest in alchemy as a mystical endeavor and in the newly emerging field of chemistry.

Recovering from the illness, he went to Strasbourg to finish his law degree, but his illness had given a sentimental mood to his writing. He developed a sublime view of nature and art that became known as "Romantic." The combination of the mystical with the occult would appear later in the novel, Faust, a story of a young man who sells his soul to the devil.

In 1775 Goethe was betrothed to Anna Shonemann, a rich banker's daughter, but differences in age and temperament ended the engagement. Goethe had several stormy relationships, many of which appeared in his novels and as subjects of his poetry.

Goethe went to Weimar, home of the reigning duke Karl August, and quickly became his friend and adviser. The duke heaped a lot of responsibilities on his shoulders, including director of finance, supervisor of mines and military activities, and diplomatic duties. However, he did not neglect his writing and wrote poems and plays for numerous official occasions.

Advances in technology engaged Goethe in the natural sciences. His interest in art led him to the study of anatomy. In 1784 he discovered the intermaxillary bone, a segment of the upper jaw. Art also led him to the study of optics, color, and light. His scientific studies took on a controversial bent when he tried to prove that Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was wrong and that light is one and indivisible and cannot be explained by the theory of particles.

In 1790 he wrote a classic text on botany and biology called Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären (Metamorphosis of Plants). The book was artistic and well written and showed how many parts of plants are modifications of a basic form.

While Goethe's scientific discoveries were not notable, he did have great insight into scientific method and the study of natural phenomena. He was a keen observer and knew how to construct theory. He insisted that knowledge of self should develop with knowledge of the world.

Goethe founded and named the branch of science called morphology, which is a systematic study of natural occurrences. He studied the formations and transformations of rocks, animals, plants, colors, and clouds. He was interested in the cultural happenings of human science. His interests were in connecting all nature.

His poem Gott und Welt (God and World) showed how Goethe saw god in the natural world. Actually, Goethe was not a traditional church person but was a believer in the roots of the Bible as his philosophical base. Some have tried to describe his beliefs as "panentheism," a belief in the divine and transcendent God; however, he disagreed, saying that his beliefs could not be put into a small category.

He died in Weimar, Saxe-Weimar, on March 22, 1832.


Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von

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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


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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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