Goethe and the German Enlightenment

Goethe best symbolizes the great modern epoch of western culture which marked a period of transition from classicism to romanticism in the arts, from the generalizations of mathematical and physical sciences to the new theories of biology and social science, from monarchy and authoritarian government to social and political democracy. Before him, three other titans of European literature—Homer, Dante and Shakespeare symbolized the ancient, medieval and renaissance periods.

This great era of change centered about 1800 which is also the mid point in Goethe’s creative life (1770 to 1831). The vast span of his interests and experience stamp him as the figure most expressive of his time. He became, like Dante, a man with a great mission to humanity, an inspired interpreter of the spiritual issues of his day—a role that appears everywhere in his intensely personal writings, in particular in Faust which has become, in our complex and bewildering world, the summation of man’s search of his soul.

 Well past the middle of the eighteenth century Goethe’s homeland Germany remained content with the piety of Reformation, and lagged behind, while England and France forged ahead, exploring the radical ideas of Enlightenment. And yet it is thorough a German word, Aufklarung (Enlightenment) that the age is best defined. It was also Germany that took the movement in a peculiar but important new direction with Goethe leading the way.

 The German Aufklarung struggled into being under Duke Karl August during 1775-1828 as he attracted to Berlin literary giants like Goethe, Schiller, Wieland and Herder. 

Several standard bearers of the Augklarung influenced Goethe:

Leibnitz, generally considered the Father of the Aufklarung, was a brilliant disciple of the French philosophers and British scientists. Leibnitz invented calculus at the time when Newton was doing the same in England. Through his efforts Leibnitz sought not merely to advance knowledge, but to reconcile its contradictory parts. He was at once a bold innovator and a cautious traditionalist.

 Wolff, another standard-bearer of Aufklarung, made Leibnitz’s rational Christianity and rational philosophy popular amongst the Germans. Lessing, popularized religion as an evolutionary process—as both being and becoming. In his Laocoon Lessing argued that some arts were concerned with space, while others were concerned with time, and this made a difference in the artists approach to his subject.

The arts of space-painting and sculptor perpetuate a single moment in time, and their beauty, paradoxically, was therefore, to be judged on their timelessness. Poetry on the other hand, said Lessing, exists in time. It deals not with a single moment but the whole of transitory events. The beauty of poetry is that it traces an emotional event like Laocoon’s agony from beginning to end.

 Three other Aufklarer—Winckelmann who had an overwhelming passion for ancient Greece, Wieland with his cult for the tranquil enjoyment of life, and Kant with his three great critiques of pure reason and of judgment—extended the culture of other nations by fusing the different elements of French, English and German thought.

 Kant believed that the mind was not simply a passive receptacle for sensory impressions. It did this through categories of perception, inherent in the very structure of mind. The most famous of these was the categorical imperative, which held that the behaviour of man was dictated by an intuitive standard which prompted him to act as he thought other men should act. The influence of Kant was wide and deep. His mind ranged over so many fields and illuminated so many matters that Goethe said: “Reading Kant is like entering a lighted room.”

 Along with these formidable Aufklarer Goethe was, as well, influenced by the Sturm and Drang (Storm and Stress) movement that proclaimed the virtues of an art that followed nature and extolled imagination, emotions and intuition. The movement enlisted talented poets and thinkers—Johann Herder, who believed in folk cultures and encouraged the young Goethe to collect the songs of the people from the countryside; Schiller, whose youthful melodramas denounced the established order; and eventually also Goethe who took the movement to its climax with his Sorrows of Werther.

 If Werther took the world by storm, it was because in Carlyle’s words, it gave expression to “the nameless unrest and longing discontent which was then agitating every bosom.” The novel is not just maudlin sentiments; Nor is disappointed love its theme. Rather, it reflects the fatal effects of a predilection for absolutes whether in love, art, or the realm of thought.

 Two decades after Werther, Goethe published his second important novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which shows how a young man grows with experience into maturity. Unlike Werther, its central character lives in a real world, as well, in the interior world of his own senses. As Wilhelm Meister gradually adjusts his goals to the goals of the society he reveals that mastery of life is not conferred at the end of his apprenticeship, but it is ceaseless wandering, in which the goal is the way and the way is the goal.

 When Schiller died in 1805, Goethe was emotionally shattered. He felt he had lost “half of his existence.” Henceforth, he gravitated towards the new school of romantics that included Schlegel, who extolled Greek culture and praised the orient as the summit of Romantic thought and poetry. Through their translations of western and eastern works the romantics were opening up the literary treasures of the world.

 World literature became one of Goethe’s most treasured concepts that, he believed, advanced civilization by encouraging mutual understanding and respect. His West-Osterlicher Divan marries East with West, tenderly, playfully and wisely. Goethe included in his Diwan poems by Marianne, his muse, who sang his lyrics and Mozart’s arias enchantingly, wrote excellent verse and exchanged with him poems of Hafiz, Firdausi and other Persian bards. 

Inspired by Goethe’s Diwan, Iqbal wrote Piam-e-Mashriq which contains some of his finest poetry in Persian. In the preface to the book, Iqbal adoringly describes Goethe’s Diwan with Heine’s words: “This is a bouquet of love and respect, sent by the West to the East.” Iqbal dedicated a poem to Goethe in which he selects Maulana Rumi, the great mystic poet, to pay tribute to the German poet: “You have entangled the angels and overpowered the Almighty”.

Then, in 1808, Goethe gave the world the first part of his magnum opus Faust. The final part appeared twenty three years later–a year before his death. He started working on it when he was twenty four years old, and poured into it fifty eight years of relentless labor. He had long nurtured in his mind the subject-matter for Faust, that he felt in every fiber of his being—the soul struggling to understand truth and beauty, but losing the struggle because of the elusiveness of truth and the brevity of beauty; yet finding peace by narrowing the goal and broadening the self. But how to envision all this in dramatic form?

Disappointed with an earlier draft of Faust he tore it up and wrote to Schiller: “I am determined to take up my Faust again. I only wish that you would be so kind as to think the matter over on one of your sleepless nights and tell me what you would demand of the whole and to interpret my dreams to me like a true prophet.” Schiller replied: “The duality of human nature and the unsuccessful endeavor to unite in man the godlike and the physical, is never to be lost sight of. The nature of the subject will force you to treat it philosophically and the imagination will have to accommodate itself to serve a rational idea.”

Faust, of course is Goethe. Faust’s aspiration for wisdom and beauty is the soul of Goethe. Faust and Goethe say “yes” to life. By contrast, Mephistopheles is the devil of denial and doubt, for him aspiration is nonsense, beauty is illusion. Faust does not sell his soul unconditionally. He agrees to go to hell only if Mestopheles shows him a pleasure so durably satisfying that he will be glad to stay with it forever. 

Faust gives the full literary expression to the romantic philosophy which glorifies life as a search for fulfillment and as a vast adventure into the knowable and the unknowable worlds. Whereas Marlowe’s Faust is doomed to prediction, Goethe’s Faust is saved by the redeeming quality of his continual dissatisfaction, experimentation and striving. Salvation resides in man’s refusal to accept contentment and in his unremitting effort to fulfill the highest prompting of the human spirit.

The first part of Faust tells of Faust’s pact with the devil, who promises him happiness in return for his soul; and his seduction of Gretchen, which ultimately results in her madness and death. In the richly textured second part Faust ventures out into a larger, symbolic world. The devil allows him to know supreme beauty in a marriage with Helen of Troy, and worldly success as the sole ruler of a virgin tract of land which he colonizes according to his idea of a perfect state. Both are won through trickery and force. In the end, however, Faust is welcomed in heaven, partly through his own ceaseless striving to improve his actions, partly through the help of a supernatural love.

As Goethe became older, he grew through science and poetry into a sage, though spending more time on science than in his pursuit of poetry. Darwin recognized him as a fore runner. He was the founder of morphology—the study of forms in plants and animals. He stood for both analysis and synthesis. In his dictum “In the beginning was the deed” we find truth in action rather than in thought, for thought should be an instrument not a substitute for action. Like Kant, Goethe acknowledged that the ultimate nature of reality is beyond us, but this did not commit him to orthodoxy. Quite the opposite, he recommended ignoring the unknowable. He said: “As a poet I am a polytheist, as a scientist pantheist, as a moral being, I stand in need of personal God.” This is one of the meanings he attached to the biblical verse: “In my father’s house are many mansions.”

A day will come, Carlyle predicted in his letter to Ralph Emerson, when “you will find that this sunny looking courtly Goethe held veiled in him a prophetic sorrow deep as Dante’s.” No doubt, Goethe looked deep into the abyss, but he emphasized life and light. He lived life to the full, exuding joi de vivre. As a standard bearer of Aufklarung he was committed to the adventure of science, but he stood in awe and reverence before the mystery of the universe. He shed light through out his life so that bewildered humanity torn between the old and the new, the orthodox and heterodox, between pessimism and optimism, between reason and faith could find the way out of its predicament. Yet when he was dying, he asked for more light.

Just as his Werther knew that the realities of existence are rarely to be grasped by either-or, the reality of Goethe himself eludes any such attempt. Truth for him lay not in compromise but in the embracing of opposites. The only epithet that befits this titan of literature is what Napolean said when he met Goethe at Erfurt: “Voila un home!” (Behold a man).

“The poet,” says Schiller, “is a citizen not only of his country but of his time.” Whatever occupies and interests men in general will interest him still more. Goethe gave voice to that nameless unrest, the blind struggle of a soul in bondage, that high, sad, longing discontent which is agitating every bosom, as we stand at the threshold of the third millennium. He more than any other writer stands with us and shares our bewilderment and spiritual perplexities. He has mastered them and has shown others how to rise above them. Goethe’s writings reflect Goethe’s times in such a sublime way that eternity illumines them.

We draw intellectual and spiritual sustenance from Goethe who dealt with those tangled issues so clearly and so beautifully. Let us remember what he said: “Only he earns his freedom and existence, who daily conquers them anew.”


One Response to “Goethe and the German Enlightenment”

  1. Michele Says:

    This is a wonderful piece. It is helped me understand Faust and Goethe more deeply. Thank you for writing it.

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