Wolfgang von Goethe, born Johann Wolfgang Goethe was a German polymath:
he was a novelist, dramatist, poet, humanist, scientist, philosopher,
and for ten years chief minister of state at Weimar.
was one of the paramount figures of German literature and European
Neo-classicism and Romanticism in the late 18th and early 19th
centuries. The author of Faust and Theory of Colours, he inspired
Darwin with his independent discovery of the human premaxilla
jaw bones and focus on evolution. Goethe's influence spread across
Europe, and for the next century his works were a primary source
of inspiration in music, drama, and poetry.
Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main, in the Holy Roman Empire
to Johann Caspar Goethe and his wife Catharina Elisabeth Textor.
His father was a man of means and position who personally supervised
the early education of his son. The young Goethe studied at the
University of Leipzig and the University of Strasbourg.
1772, entered upon the practice of law at Wetzlar. At the invitation
of Carl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, he went in
1775 to live in Weimar where he held a succession of political
offices becoming the Duke's chief adviser.
was ennobled in 1782. From 1786 to 1788 he travelled in the Italian
peninsula (Italian Journey). He took part in the Napoleonic wars
against the First French Empire, and in the following began a
friendship with Friedrich Schiller, which lasted until the latter's
death in 1805. In 1806 he married Christiane Vulpius. By 1820
he was on friendly terms with Kaspar Maria von Sternberg. From
about 1794, he devoted himself chiefly to literature, and after
a life of extraordinary productivity, died in Weimar in 1832.
The most important of Goethe's works produced before he went to
Weimar was his tragedy Götz von Berlichingen (1773), which
was the first work to bring him fame, and the novel The Sorrows
of Young Werther (1774), which gained him enormous popularity
as a writer in the Sturm und Drang movement. During the years
at Weimar before he met Schiller he began Wilhelm Meister, wrote
the dramas Iphigenie, Egmont, and Torquato Tasso, and his Reineke
the period of his friendship with Schiller belong the continuation
of Wilhelm Meister, the beautiful idyll of Hermann and Dorothea,
and the Roman Elegies. In the last period, between Schiller's
death, in 1805, and his own, appeared Faust, Elective Affinities,
his pseudo-autobiographical Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit
(From my Life: Poetry and Truth), his Italian Journey, much scientific
work, and a series of treatises on German art. His writing was
immediately influential in literary and artistic circles.
addition to his literary work, Goethe also contributed significant
work to the sciences. In biology, his theory of plant metamorphosis
stipulated that all plant formation stems from a modification
of the leaf. He is credited with the discovery of the intermaxillary
bone in humans in 1784; however, Broussonet (1779) and Vicq d'Azyr
(1780) had identified the same structure several years earlier.
it was never well received by scientists, Goethe considered his
Theory of Colours to be his most important work. Goethe saw darkness
not as a mere absence of light, but standing in the same relation
to light as the north and south poles of a magnet — with
colour arising from their interplay. In the twentieth century,
Goethe's Theory of Colours influenced the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein's
Remarks on Colour.
It is very difficult to overstate the importance of Goethe on
the 19th century. In many respects, he was the originator of—or
at least the first to cogently express—many ideas which
would, in time, become familiar. Goethe produced volumes of poetry,
essays, criticism, and scientific work, including a theory of
optics and early work on evolution and linguistics. He was fascinated
by minerals and early mineralogy (the mineral goethite is named
non-fiction writings, most of which are philosophic and aphoristic
in nature, spurred on the development of many philosophers, such
as G.W.F. Hegel, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Rudolf Steiner, and
various literary movements, such as romanticism, where he embodied
many of the contending strands in art over the next century: his
work could be lushly emotional, and rigorously formal, brief and
epigrammatic, and epic. He would argue that classicism was the
means to controlling art, and that sentimentalisation was a sickness,
even as he penned poetry rich in memorable images, and rewrote
the formal rules of German poetry.
poetry was set to music by almost every major German composer
from Mozart to Mahler, and his influence would spread to French
drama and opera as well. Beethoven declared that a "Faust"
Symphony would be the greatest thing for Art. Liszt and Mahler
both created symphonies in whole or in large part inspired by
this seminal work which would give the 19th century one of its
most paradigmatic figures: Doctor Faustus. The Faust tragedy,
written in two parts published decades apart, would stand as his
most characteristic and famous artistic creation.
was also a cultural force, and by researching folk traditions,
he created many of the norms for celebrating Christmas, and argued
that the organic nature of the land moulded the people and their
customs - an argument that has recurred ever since, including
recently in the work of Jared Diamond. He argued that laws could
not be created by pure rationalism, since geography and history
shaped habits and patterns. This stood in sharp contrast to the
prevailing Enlightenment view that reason was sufficient to create
well-ordered societies and good laws.
following list of key works may give a sense of the scope of the
impact his work had on his and our time.
short epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, or The
Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774 recounts an unhappy
love affair that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted that he "shot
his hero to save himself". The novel remains in print in
dozens of languages and is frequently referred to in the context
of the young disaffected and moody hero — a Romeo figure.
The fact that it ended with the protagonist's suicide and funeral
– a funeral which "no clergyman attended" –
made the book deeply controversial upon its (anonymous) publication,
for it seemed to condone suicide.
would have expected a clergyman to attend the funeral service
and condemn an act considered to be sinful by Christian doctrine.
Epistolary novels were common during this time, letter-writing
being people's primary mode of communication. What set Goethe's
book apart from other such novels was its expression of unbridled
longing for a joy beyond possibility, its sense of defiant rebellion
against authority, and, above all, its total subjectivity--qualities
that pointed the way toward the Romantic movement.
next work, his epic closet drama Faust, was to be completed in
stages, and only published in its entirety after Goethe's death.
The first part was published in 1808 and created a sensation.
The first operatic version, by Spohr, appeared in 1814, and was
subsequently the inspiration for operas by Gounod, Boito, and
Busoni, as well as symphonies by Liszt and Mahler. Faust became
the ur-myth of many figures in the 19th century. Later, a facet
of its plot, "selling one's soul to the devil" for power
over the physical world, took on increasing literary importance
and became a view of the victory of technology and of industrialism,
along with its dubious human expense.
poetic work served as a model for an entire movement in German
poetry termed Innerlichkeit (introversion) and represented by,
for example, Heine. Goethe's words inspired a number of compositions
by, among others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz, and Wolf.
Perhaps the single most influential piece is "Mignon's Song"
which opens with one of the most famous lines in German poetry,
an allusion to Italy: "Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen
blühn?" ("Do you know the land where the lemons
was also widely quoted. Epigrams such as "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", "Divide
and rule, a sound motto; unite and lead, a better one", and
"Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must", are
still in usage or are paraphrased. Lines from Faust, such as "Das
also war des Pudels Kern", "Das ist der Weisheit letzter
Schluss", or "Grau ist alle Theorie" have entered
everyday German usage.
a doubtful success of Goethe in this field, the famous line from
the drama Götz von Berlichingen ("Er kann mich im Arsche
lecken" — "He can lick my arse") has become
a vulgar idiom in many languages, and shows Goethe's deep cultural
impact extending across social, national, and linguistic borders.
It may be taken as another measure of Goethe's fame that other
well-known quotations, such as Hippocrates' "Art is long,
life is short", which is also found in his Wilhelm Meister,
is usually forgotten to be originally associated with Hippocrates.
Goethe's influence was dramatic because he understood that there
was a transition in European sensibilities, an increasing focus
on sense, on the indescribable and the emotional. This is not
to say that he was emotionalist or excessive; on the contrary,
he lauded personal restraint and felt that excess was a disease:
"There is nothing worse than imagination without taste".
He argued that a "formative impulse", which is operative
in every organism, causes an organism to form itself according
to its own distinct laws, and therefore rational laws or fiats
could not be imposed at all from a higher, transcendent sphere:
this placed him in direct opposition to those who attempted to
form "enlightened" monarchies based on "rational"
laws by, for example, Joseph II of Austria or, the subsequent
emperor of France, Napoleon. A quotation from his Scientific Studies
conceive of the individual animal as a small world, existing for
its own sake, by its own means. Every creature is its own reason
to be. All its parts have a direct effect on one another, a relationship
to one another, thereby constantly renewing the circle of life;
thus we are justified in considering every animal physiologically
perfect. Viewed from within, no part of the animal — as
so often thought — is a useless or arbitrary product of
the formative impulse." (Miller 121)
change would, in time, become the basis for 19th century thought
— organic rather than geometrical, evolving rather than
created, and based on sensibility and intuition, rather than on
imposed order, culminating in, as he said, a "living quality"
wherein the subject and object are dissolved together in a poise
of inquiry. Consequently, he embraced neither teleological nor
deterministic views of growth within every organism. Instead,
the world as a whole grows through continual, external and internal
strife. Moreover, he foregoes the mechanistic views that contemporaneous
science subsumed during his time, therewith denying rationality's
superiority as the sole interpretation of reality.
he declares that all knowledge is related to humanity through
its functional value alone and that knowledge presupposes a perspectival
quality. He also stated that the fundamental nature of the world
is aesthetic. This makes him, along with Adam Smith, Thomas
and Ludwig van Beethoven a figure in two worlds: on one hand,
devoted to the sense of taste, order and finely crafted detail
which is the hallmark of the artistic sense of the Age of Reason
and the neo-classical period of architecture, and on the other,
seeking a personal, intuitive and personalized form of expression
and polity, and believing firmly in self-regulating and organic
systems. Thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson would take up many
similar ideas in the 1800's. His ideas on evolution would frame
the question which Darwin and Wallace would approach within the
scholars have argued that discussion of Goethe's possible homosexuality
(despite the lack of clear evidence) has been rigorously suppressed.
In 1999, Karl Hugo Pruys' book The Tiger's Tender Touch: The Erotic
Life of Goethe caused national controversy in Germany when it
brought the issue to mainstream debate.