Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
The core of his philosophy of life: Man is not defined by what he is, but by what he does. Read with the quote in the picture, it means that ignorant people with power are the most horrible that exist.
Most suffering we encounter is created by ourselves. Self-inflicted suffering, ie the romantic concept of the artist who has to suffer, be poor and die young of tuberculosis – or shoot himself, as one of his novel characters does – to be a real artist and a genius in the understanding of romance, was totally anti-Goethe. He was in control of his finances, he lived a long, healthy life, he enjoyed it without freaking out in extremes, and he contested several civilian professions such as state councelor and minister. He oversaw the operation of silver mines and established a national theater. He laid out a modern city park for all people – before, only princes could afford that kind of man-made, recreational nature.
He was not a prodigy and a genius, though he had a brilliant education. In other words, he had to work for his insights and abilities, and may have thereby avoided the flaws that spoiled prodigies, who had to suffer from from, because they had it going too easy.
‘A man sees in the world what he carries in his heart ‘
Not coming of age or lifelong youth is not the same as being Peter Pan. Youthfulness is when we always do and try something new, no matter how old we get. Always evolving was Goethe’s philosophy of life, and he practiced it. When he turned 70, he decided to learn Persian! So Goethe has read Djalal udDin Rumi in the original language, and as Rumi was his life theme: love. And yes, Rumi was cosmically in love, for he was as a sufi master spiritually enlightened, but less can do it too, and degrees are perfectly legitimate.
One might ask. if he had not all his life desperately fled from loneliness and longed for love. It does not hold water, for Goethe was not a tragic let alone desperate person but a harmonious person in many ways. Admittedly, there was an element of loneliness, for his mindset moved into such far-reaching spheres that company, was rarely possible. They could not follow him.
His most famous book, the bestseller The Sorrows of Young Werther’s, was written as a parody of and critique of oversentimentalism. But the audience took it literally and started a romantic narcissistic movement, that made him take to his head. There is a certain element of autobiography, as he himself had had an affair with a young woman where he ended up being rejected. It also meant that his view of love shifted from romantic – which is always unrequited, for otherwise it would not be romantic – to classic and clarified. Balance, the Apollonian element, is a classic feature – which of course also has its imbalance in the form of coolness.
‘If you treat a human being as he is, he will remain as he is.
If you treat it as if it were as it should be and could be, it will be what it should and could be.’
Goethe, however, was by no means cool. He associated women with great joy, but he preferred simple women over noble ones. The nobles wear too many jewels and too many clothes, he said. He was just not a womanizer but a woman admirer, and the erotic element is for him the domain of the muse = inspiration. If anything, he has rather allowed himself to be seduced at times, but he was just not a romantic and therefore also not a cultivator of either platonic-unrequited love or wildly passionate love. He was a man of action, and also at that point he has, of course, ‘gone into action’ (‘too much clothing on’). At the age of 40, he grew tired of Protestant-Puritan Germany, perpetual humidity and cold, bad food and a lack of sex, after which he moved to Italy.
The journey became a recreation for him and at the same time a journey of formation. It was not atypical for contemporary artists from painters to writers from Northern Europe to fall in love with the South, which in a way was very romantic. Think of artists like the poet Hans Christian Andersen and the sculptorer Bertel Thorvaldsen. But like Andersen, it was a journey of formation for him. The formation novel about Wilhelm Meister has no end. The development continues in addition to the book itself, so for Goethe it is a question of lifelong education – not education, because then you are finished. Nor is it scholarship, because then you are academic. It is the school of Life itself.
In the Roman Elegies, however, a certain disappointment with Rome is traced. Talk to me, you stone! he wrote, for Rome was full of old stones that had nothing really to say to him. Instead, he writes in his elegies about the woman Faustina, with whom he also spends entire afternoons in bed. For her, too, the ruins meant nothing, and she had no idea even that Bernini was famous, for she was just strolling around in his architectural-sculptural relics on her way to the grocery store and the flower shop. Autobiographical? No doubt, but he was in the process of writing a road movie, because one has to travel the road out to return home.
‘We do not have to visit a madhouse to find confused souls; our planet is the mental institution of the Universe.’
Goethe’s rejection of romanticism is due to his intimate understanding of its Dionysian enchantments. There were many pitfalls in romance and too much seduction, gold and glitter and emotional ecstasy that one could get lost in. The whole revolutionary movement of his time was driven by those kind of romantic and fluffy ideals. And anti-human, even though the revolutionaries always courted people by promising to improve their lives by overthrowing those who, according to them, were the enemies of humanity – and later seizing power for themselves. Idealism is romantic, and the revolutionaries were always encapsulated in abstract ideas that, if they were to be realized, had to be enforced with raw violence and power and in spite of man. Romantics has a decidedly dark side, and all the social romantic upheavals of the centuries hereafter have fully proven it.
Goethe did not believe in perfection, he was not an idealist. He believed so much in action that mistakes were part of his philosophy. To fail is to live (Andersen: To travel is to live). If you look for a system at Goethe, you will look in vain. It does not exist.
If I knew myself, I would run away screaming.’
Even his letters are interesting, like the Conversations with Goethe in his last years of life collected and published by his private secretary Eckermann is a brick of closely written 500 pages, and Nietzsche called it the best book written in German. Goethe was possibly aware that the letters would be published, so either has made an effort, or else he just could not help but write well.
Faust: an unplayable and indigestible 13-hour play with 160 scene changes! Not even Goethe himself has experienced it performed in its entirety. Mefisto is not an evil character, he is the challenger who gives Faust a kick in the ass, for Faust has stalled in his life. It is a great misconception that Mephisto demands his soul in the end, for he never gets it. Goethe wrote on the play all his life without finishing it, because in a way it is also a piece of autobiographical formation literature.
Faust falls on his life journey in various life traps. At first he wallows in like a bookworm, believing that only he has the rarest and most precious manuscripts, so he he found the philosophers stone. A critique of science. Next, he freaks out in sheer hedonism and the satisfaction of every conceivable gross sensory appetite. Then he realizes that he longs for beauty and refined sensuality and indulges in sex and alcohol. A critique of oversentimentalism. Next, he strives to become a political leader in order to create a new kind of state. A critique of idealism.
‘Thinking is easy. Acting is difficult.
But the hardest thing in the world is to act the way you think.’
Faust is not unlike Goethe, who was also close to falling in the traps, but who acknowledges it and reflects. Faust is not really a tragic person, because then he would have remained in one of the ditches. The Faustian idea is, that we can afford to flirt with things that can be dangerous and that can destroy us – if only we stop in time and stick to a higher purpose. We must know the dark side without being engrossed in it. Maybe we could learn a little from that?
Was he a Freemason? Of course he was, because they all were. But the question is probably whether the Freemasons did not need him more than he needed them. In any case, they are very concerned that his statement in the deathbed was ‘More light’. As we may know, Lucifer, the light bringer, is the god of the freemasons.
At certain points, Goethe is reminiscent of Leonardo da Vinci. He is a 17-1800s renaissance man with several scientific studies in the making: geology, metrology, physiology, chemistry and botany.
‘Knowing is not enough; we must also apply our knowledge.
Willpower is not enough; we must do something too.’
He wrote two scientific dissertations, one of which is written in verse – what ?! and is about the Metamorphosis of Plants. It turns out to be extremely modern in many of its observations. Goethe is a geneticist before the invention of genetics, but far more far-sighted than Darwin became. The other is a brick of a book named Colorscience (Zur Farbenlehre) and is a critique of Newton. Again, he has, by and large, grasped something significant.
The reason why scientists have not regarded him as a scientist is, that he does not, like them, amputate experience and consciousness. He is phenomenologically scientific. He cuts away the interpretations and asks: what exactly do I see and sense? He allows himself to be present in his observations. Colors are not a thing, it is an activity. He is a quantum physicist before quantum physics (cosmos is not the accumulation of particles but of events, waves, frequencies, patterns,…). If he could look down from the holy halls, it would be with a smile, for he sits a few hundred years later with the long straw. Materialistic science was a dead end, that we obviously had to go through to get out of – like Faust.
‘No one is more a slave than one who thinks he is free from it’
He has been called a natural philosopher to distance him from science. And in a way, he is also more akin to the classical philosophers and scientists. He would no doubt have enjoyed the company of both Hippocrates and Heraclitus and immersed himself in medicine respectively – Hippocrates was a naturopath / homeopath, and Heraclitus advocated the simple life in the countryside surrounded by a collective of friends – Goethe himself played with the collective idea.