Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer, pictorial artist, biologist, theoretical physicist, and polymath. He is considered the supreme genius of modern German literature. His works span the fields of poetry, drama, prose, philosophy, and science. His Faust has been called one of the greatest dramatic works of modern European literature. His other well-known literary works include his numerous poems, the Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, and the epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Goethe was one of the key figures of German literature and the movement of Weimar Classicism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; this movement coincides with Enlightenment, Sentimentalism (Empfindsamkeit), Sturm und Drang and Romanticism. The author of the scientific text Theory of Colours, his influential ideas on plant and animal morphology and homology were extended and developed by 19th century naturalists including Charles Darwin. He also served at length as the Privy Councilor of the duchy of Saxe-Weimar.
In politics Goethe was conservative. At the time of the French Revolution, he thought the enthusiasm of the students and professors to be a perversion of their energy and remained skeptical of the ability of the masses to govern.Likewise, he "did not oppose the War of Liberation waged by the German states against Napoleon, but remained aloof from the patriotic efforts to unite the various parts of Germany into one nation; he advocated instead the maintenance of small principalities ruled by benevolent despots."
Goethe's influence spread across Europe, and for the next century his works were a major source of inspiration in music, drama, poetry and philosophy. Early in his career, however, he wondered whether painting might be his true vocation; late in his life, he expressed the expectation that he would ultimately be remembered above all for his work on color.
Goethe's father, Johann Caspar Goethe (Frankfurt am Main, Hessen, 29 July 1710 – Frankfurt, 25 May 1782), lived with his family in a large house in Frankfurt, then an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire. Though he had studied law in Leipzig and had been appointed Imperial Councillor, he was not involved in the city's official affairs. 38-year-old Johann Caspar married Goethe's mother, Catharina Elisabeth Goethe, the daughter of the Schultheiß (mayor) of Frankfurt Johann Wolfgang Textor (Frankfurt, 11 December 1693 – Frankfurt, 6 February 1771) and wife Anna Margaretha Lindheimer (Wetzlar, 23 July 1711 – Frankfurt, 18 April 1783, a descendant of Lucas Cranach the Elder and Henry III, Landgrave of Hesse-Marburg; married at Wetzlar, 2 February 1726), when she was 17 at Frankfurt on 20 August 1748. All their children, except for Goethe and his sister, Cornelia Friederike Christiana, who was born in 1750, died at early ages.
The father and private tutors gave Goethe lessons in all the common subjects of their time, especially languages (Latin, Greek, French, Italian, English and Hebrew). Goethe also received lessons in dancing, riding and fencing. Johann Caspar, feeling frustrated in his own ambitions, was determined that his children should have all those advantages that he had not.
Goethe had a persistent dislike of the Roman Catholic Church, characterizing its history as a "hotchpotch of fallacy and violence" (Mischmasch von Irrtum und Gewalt). His great passion was drawing. Goethe quickly became interested in literature; Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Homer were among his early favourites. He had a lively devotion to theatre as well and was greatly fascinated by puppet shows that were annually arranged in his home; a familiar theme in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.
He also took great pleasure in reading from the great works about history and religion. He writes about this period:
I had from childhood the singular habit of always learning by heart the beginnings of books, and the divisions of a work, first of the five books of Moses, and then of the 'Aeneid' and Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'. . . If an ever busy imagination, of which that tale may bear witness, led me hither and thither, if the medley of fable and history, mythology and religion, threatened to bewilder me, I readily fled to those oriental regions, plunged into the first books of Moses, and there, amid the scattered shepherd tribes, found myself at once in the greatest solitude and the greatest society.
Goethe became acquainted to Frankfurt actors. Around early literary attempts, he was infatuated with Gretchen, who would later reappear in his Faust and the adventures with whom he would concisely describe in Dichtung und Wahrheit. He adored Charitas Meixner (July 27, 1750 - December 31, 1773), a wealthy Worms trader's daughter and friend of his sister, who would later marry the merchant G. F. Schuler.
Goethe studied law in Leipzig from 1765 to 1768. He detested learning age-old judicial rules by heart, preferring instead to attend the poetry lessons of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert. In Leipzig, Goethe fell in love with Käthchen Schönkopf and wrote cheerful verses about her in the Rococo genre. In 1770, he anonymously released Annette, his first collection of poems. His uncritical admiration for many contemporary poets vanished as he became interested in Lessing and Wieland. Already at this time, Goethe wrote a good deal, but he threw away nearly all of these works, except for the comedy Die Mitschuldigen. The restaurant Auerbachs Keller and its legend of Faust's 1525 barrel ride impressed him so much that Auerbachs Keller became the only real place in his closet drama Faust Part One. Because his studies did not progress, Goethe was forced to return to Frankfurt at the close of August 1768.
In Frankfurt, Goethe became severely ill. During the year and a half that followed, because of several relapses, the relationship with his father worsened. During convalescence, Goethe was nursed by his mother and sister. Bored in bed, he wrote an impudent crime comedy. In April 1770, his father lost his patience; Goethe left Frankfurt in order to finish his studies in Strasbourg.
In Alsace, Goethe blossomed. No other landscape has he described as affectionately as the warm, wide Rhine area. In Strasbourg, Goethe met Johann Gottfried Herder, who happened to be in town on the occasion of an eye operation. The two became close friends, and crucially to Goethe's intellectual development, it was Herder who kindled his interest in Shakespeare, Ossian and in the notion of Volkspoesie (folk poetry). On October 14, 1772 he held a speech in his parental home in honour of the first German "Shakespeare Day". His first meeting with Shakespeare's works is described as his personal awakening in literature.
On a trip to the village Sessenheim, Goethe fell in love with Friederike Brion, in October 1770, but, after ten months, terminated the relationship in August 1771. Several of his poems, like Willkommen und Abschied, Sesenheimer Lieder and Heideröslein, originate from this time.
At the end of August 1771, Goethe was certified as a licensee in Frankfurt. He wanted to make the jurisdiction progressively more humane. In his first cases, he proceeded too vigorously, was reprimanded and lost the position. This prematurely terminated his career as a lawyer after only a few months. At this time, Goethe was acquainted with the court of Darmstadt, where his inventiveness was praised. From this milieu came Johann Georg Schlosser (who was later to become his brother-in-law) and Johann Heinrich Merck. Goethe also pursued literary plans again; this time, his father did not have anything against it, and even helped. Goethe obtained a copy of the biography of a noble highwayman from the German Peasants' War. In a couple of weeks the biography was reworked into a colourful drama. Entitled Götz von Berlichingen, the work went directly to the heart of Goethe's contemporaries.
Goethe could not subsist on being one of the editors of a literary periodical (published by Schlosser and Merck). In May 1772 he once more began the practice of law at Wetzlar. In 1774 he wrote the book which would bring him worldwide fame, The Sorrows of Young Werther. The outer shape of the work's plot is widely taken over from what Goethe experienced during his Wetzlar time with Charlotte Buff (1753–1828) and her fiancé, Johann Christian Kestner (1741–1800), as well as from the suicide of the author's friend Karl Wilhelm Jerusalem (1747–1772); in it, Goethe made a desperate passion of what was in reality a hearty and relaxed friendship. Despite the immense success of Werther, it did not bring Goethe much financial gain because copyright laws at the time were essentially nonexistent. (In later years Goethe would bypass this problem by periodically authorizing "new, revised" editions of his Complete Works.)
Early Years in Weimar
In 1775, Goethe was invited, on the strength of his fame as the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, to the court of Carl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, who would become Grand Duke in 1815. (The Duke at the time was 18 years of age, to Goethe's 26.) Goethe thus went to live in Weimar, where he remained for the rest of his life and where, over the course of many years, he held a succession of offices, becoming the Duke's chief adviser.
In 1776, Goethe formed a close relationship to Charlotte von Stein, an older, married woman. The intimate bond with Frau von Stein lasted for ten years, after which Goethe abruptly left for Italy without giving his companion any notice. She was emotionally distraught at the time, but they were eventually reconciled.
Goethe, aside from official duties, was also a friend and confidant to the Duke, and participated fully in the activities of the court. For Goethe, his first ten years at Weimar could well be described as a garnering of a degree and range of experience which perhaps could be achieved in no other way. Goethe was ennobled in 1782 (this being indicated by the "von" in his name).
Goethe's journey to the Italian peninsula from 1786 to 1788 was of great significance in his aesthetical and philosophical development. His father had made a similar journey during his own youth, and his example was a major motivating factor for Goethe to make the trip. More importantly, however, the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann had provoked a general renewed interest in the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome. Thus Goethe's journey had something of the nature of a pilgrimage to it. During the course of his trip Goethe met and befriended the artists Angelica Kauffmann and Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, as well as encountering such notable characters as Lady Hamilton and Alessandro Cagliostro (see Affair of the Diamond Necklace).
He also journeyed to Sicily during this time, and wrote intriguingly that "To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything." While in Southern Italy and Sicily, Goethe encountered, for the first time genuine Greek (as opposed to Roman) architecture, and was quite startled by its relative simplicity. Winckelmann had not recognized the distinctness of the two styles.
Goethe's diaries of this period form the basis of the non-fiction Italian Journey. Italian Journey only covers the first year of Goethe's visit. The remaining year is largely undocumented, aside from the fact that he spent much of it in Venice. This "gap in the record" has been the source of much speculation over the years.
In the decades which immediately followed its publication in 1816 Italian Journey inspired countless German youths to follow Goethe's example. This is pictured, somewhat satirically, in George Eliot's Middlemarch.
In late 1792, Goethe took part in the battle of Valmy against revolutionary France, assisting Duke Carl August of Saxe-Weimar during the failed invasion of France. Again during the Siege of Mainz he assisted Carl August as a military observer. His written account of these events can be found within his Complete Works.
In 1794 Friedrich Schiller wrote to Goethe offering friendship; they had previously had only a mutually wary relationship ever since first becoming acquainted in 1788. This collaborative friendship lasted until Schiller's death in 1805.
In 1806, Goethe was living in Weimar with his mistress Christiane Vulpius, the sister of Christian A Vulpius, and their son Julius August Walter von Goethe. On 13 October, Napoleon's army invaded the town. The French "spoon guards," the least-disciplined soldiers, occupied Goethe's house.
The 'spoon guards' had broken in, they had drunk wine, made a great uproar and called for the master of the house. Goethe’s secretary Riemer reports: 'Although already undressed and wearing only his wide nightgown… he descended the stairs towards them and inquired what they wanted from him…. His dignified figure, commanding respect, and his spiritual mien seemed to impress even them.' But it was not to last long. Late at night they burst into his bedroom with drawn bayonets. Goethe was petrified, Christiane raised a lot of noise and even tangled with them, other people who had taken refuge in Goethe’s house rushed in, and so the marauders eventually withdrew again. It was Christiane who commanded and organized the defense of the house on the Frauenplan. The barricading of the kitchen and the cellar against the wild pillaging soldiery was her work. Goethe noted in his diary: "Fires, rapine, a frightful night… Preservation of the house through steadfastness and luck." The luck was Goethe’s, the steadfastness was displayed by Christiane.
— Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, Ch. 5.
The next day, Goethe legitimized their 18-year relationship by marrying Christiane in a quiet marriage service at the court chapel. They already had several children together by this time, including their son, Julius August Walter von Goethe (25 December 1789 — 28 October 1830), whose wife, Ottilie von Pogwisch (31 October 1796 – 26 October 1872), cared for the elder Goethe until his death in 1832. The younger couple had three children: Walther, Freiherr von Goethe (9 April 1818 — 15 April 1885), Wolfgang, Freiherr von Goethe (18 September 1820 – 20 January 1883) and Alma von Goethe (29 October 1827 — 29 September 1844). Christiane von Goethe died in 1816.
After 1793, Goethe devoted his endeavours primarily to literature. By 1820, Goethe was on amiable terms with Kaspar Maria von Sternberg. In 1823, having recovered from a near fatal heart illness, Goethe fell in love with Ulrike von Levetzow whom he wanted to marry, but because of the opposition of her mother he never proposed. Their last meeting in Carlsbad on 5 September 1823 inspired him to the famous Marienbad Elegy which he considered one of his finest works.
In 1832, Goethe died in Weimar. He is buried in the Ducal Vault at Weimar's Historical Cemetery.
Eckermann closes his famous work, Conversations with Goethe, with this passage:
The morning after Goethe's death, a deep desire seized me to look once again upon his earthly garment. His faithful servant, Frederick, opened for me the chamber in which he was laid out. Stretched upon his back, he reposed as if asleep; profound peace and security reigned in the features of his sublimely noble countenance. The mighty brow seemed yet to harbour thoughts. I wished for a lock of his hair; but reverence prevented me from cutting it off. The body lay naked, only wrapped in a white sheet; large pieces of ice had been placed near it, to keep it fresh as long as possible. Frederick drew aside the sheet, and I was astonished at the divine magnificence of the limbs. The breast was powerful, broad, and arched; the arms and thighs were elegant, and of the most perfect shape; nowhere, on the whole body, was there a trace of either fat or of leanness and decay. A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture the sight caused me made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode. I laid my hand on his heart – there was a deep silence – and I turned away to give free vent to my suppressed tears.
The first production of Richard Wagner's opera Lohengrin took place in Weimar in 1850. The conductor was Franz Liszt, who chose the date 28 August in honour of Goethe, who was born on 28 August 1749.
The most important of Goethe's works produced before he went to Weimar were his tragedies Götz von Berlichingen (1773), which was the first work to bring him recognition, and the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (called Die Leiden des jungen Werthers in German) (1774), which gained him enormous fame as a writer in the Sturm und Drang period which marked the early phase of Romanticism – indeed the book is often considered to be the "spark" which ignited the movement, and can arguably be called the world's first "best-seller". (For the entirety of his life this was the work with which the vast majority of Goethe's contemporaries associated him). During the years at Weimar before he met Schiller he began Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, wrote the dramas Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), Egmont, Torquato Tasso, and the fable Reineke Fuchs.
To the period of his friendship with Schiller belong Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years (the continuation of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), the idyll of Hermann and Dorothea, the Roman Elegies and the verse drama The Natural Daughter. In the last period, between Schiller's death, in 1805, and his own, appeared Faust Part One, Elective Affinities, the West-Eastern Divan (a collection of poems in the Persian style, influenced by the work of Hafez), his autobiographical Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From My Life: Poetry and Truth) which covers his early life and ends with his departure for Weimar, his Italian Journey, and a series of treatises on art. His writings were immediately influential in literary and artistic circles.
Goethe was fascinated by Kalidasa's Abhijñānaśākuntalam, which was one of the first works of Sanskrit literature that became known in Europe, after being translated from English to German.
Faust Part Two was only finished in the year of his death, and was published posthumously.
As to what I have done as a poet,… I take no pride in it… But that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours – of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many.
— Johann Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe
Although his literary work has attracted the greatest amount of interest, Goethe was also keenly involved in studies of natural science. He wrote several works on plant morphology, and colour theory. Goethe also had the largest private collection of minerals in all of Europe. By the time of his death, in order to gain a comprehensive view in geology, he had collected 17,800 rock samples.
His focus on morphology and what was later called homology influenced 19th century naturalists, although his ideas of transformation were about the continuous metamorphosis of living things and did not relate to contemporary ideas of "transformisme" or transmutation of species. Homology, or as Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire called it "analogie", was used by Charles Darwin as strong evidence of common descent and of laws of variation. Goethe's studies led him to independently discover the human intermaxillary bone in 1784, which Broussonet (1779) and Vicq d'Azyr (1780) had (using different methods) identified several years earlier. While not the only one in his time to question the prevailing view that this bone did not exist in humans, Goethe, who believed ancient anatomists had known about this bone, was the first to prove its peculiarity to all mammals. In 1790, he published his Metamorphosis of Plants.
During his Italian journey, Goethe formulated a theory of plant metamorphosis in which the archetypal form of the plant is to be found in the leaf – he writes, "from top to bottom a plant is all leaf, united so inseparably with the future bud that one cannot be imagined without the other".
Goethe popularized the Goethe Barometer using a principle established by Toricelli. According to Hegel, 'Goethe has occupied himself a good deal with meteorology; barometer readings interested him particularly... What he says is important: the main thing is that he gives a comparative table of barometric readings during the whole month of December 1822, at Weimar, Jena, London, Boston, Vienna, Töpel... He claims to deduce from it that the barometric level varies in the same propoportion not only in each zone but that it has the same variation, too, at different altitudes above sea-level'.
In 1810, Goethe published his Theory of Colours, which he considered his most important work. In it, he contentiously characterized color as arising from the dynamic interplay of light and darkness through the mediation of a turbid medium. In 1816, Schopenhauer went on to develop his own theory in On Vision and Colors based on the observations supplied in Goethe's book. After being translated into English by Charles Eastlake in 1840, his theory became widely adopted by the art world, most notably J. M. W. Turner. Goethe's work also inspired the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, to write his Remarks on Color. Goethe was vehemently opposed to Newton's analytic treatment of color, engaging instead in compiling a comprehensive rational description of a wide variety of color phenomena. Although the accuracy of Goethe's observations does not admit a great deal of criticism, his theory's failure to demonstrate significant predictive validity eventually rendered it scientifically irrelevant. Goethe was, however, the first to systematically study the physiological effects of color, and his observations on the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his color wheel, 'for the colors diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. (Goethe, Theory of Colours, 1810). In this, he anticipated Ewald Hering's opponent color theory (1872).
Goethe outlines his method in the essay The experiment as mediator between subject and object (1772). In the Kurschner edition of Goethe's works, the science editor, Rudolf Steiner, presents Goethe's approach to science as phenomenological. Steiner elaborated on that in the books The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception and Goethe’s World View, in which he emphasizes the need of the perceiving organ of intuition in order to grasp Goethe's biological archetype (i.e., The Typus).
Novalis, himself a geologist and mining engineer, expressed the opinion that Goethe was the first physicist of his time and 'epoch-making in the history of physics', writing that Goethe's studies of light, of the metamorphosis of plants and of insects were indications and proofs 'that the perfect educational lecture belongs in the artist's sphere of work'; and that Goethe would be surpassed 'but only in the way in which the ancients can be surpassed, in inner content and force, in variety and depth - as an artist actually not, or only very little, for his rightness and intensity are perhaps already more exemplary than it would seem'.
The short epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, recounts an unhappy romantic infatuation that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted that he "shot his hero to save himself": a reference to Goethe's own near-suicidal obsession with a young woman during this period, an obsession he quelled through the writing process. The novel remains in print in dozens of languages and its influence is undeniable; its central hero, an obsessive figure driven to despair and destruction by his unrequited love for the young Lotte, has become a pervasive literary archetype. The fact that Werther ends with the protagonist's suicide and funeral – a funeral which "no clergyman attended" – made the book deeply controversial upon its (anonymous) publication, for on the face of it, it appeared to condone and glorify suicide. Suicide was considered sinful by Christian doctrine: suicides were denied Christian burial with the bodies often mistreated and dishonoured in various ways; in corollary, the deceased's property and possessions were often confiscated by the Church. Epistolary novels were common during this time, letter-writing being a 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 of principal importance, its total subjectivity: qualities that trailblazed the Romantic movement.
The next work, his epic closet drama Faust, was to be completed in stages, and only published in its entirety after his 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 and oratorios by Schumann, Berlioz, Gounod, Boito, Busoni, and Schnittke as well as symphonic works by Liszt, Wagner, and Mahler. Faust became the ur-myth of many figures in the 19th century. Later, a facet of its plot, i.e., of 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 expenses. In 1919, the Goetheanum staged the world premiere of a complete production of Faust. On occasion, the play is still staged in Germany and other parts around the world.
Goethe's 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 lemon trees bloom?").
He is 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 often 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.
It may be taken as another measure of Goethe's fame that other well-known quotations are often incorrectly attributed to him, such as Hippocrates' "Art is long, life is short", which is found in Goethe's Faust ("Art is something so long to be learned, and life is so short!") and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.
Many of Goethe's works, especially Faust, the Roman Elegies, and the Venetian Epigrams, depict erotic passions and acts. For instance, in Faust, the first use of Faust's power after literally signing a contract with the devil is to fall in love with and impregnate a teenage girl. Some of the Venetian Epigrams were held back from publication due to their sexual content. Goethe clearly saw human sexuality as a topic worthy of poetic and artistic depiction, an idea that was uncommon in a time when the private nature of sexuality was rigorously normative.
In his 1999 book The Tiger's Tender Touch: The Erotic Life of Goethe, Karl Hugo Pruys argued (with great controversy in Germany) that Goethe's writings suggest he may have been bisexual. Goethe's sexual portraitures and allusions may have been inspired by his sojourn in Italy, where some men, trying to avoid both the prevalence of venereal disease among prostitutes, and the demand of marriage among 'maidens', embraced homosexuality.
Born into a Lutheran family, Goethe's early faith was shaken by news of such events as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years' War. In July 1782, he described himself as "not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian." In his Venetian Epigram 66, Goethe listed four things that he disliked: "tobacco smoke, bugs and garlic and the cross. In the book Conversations with Goethe by Goethe's secretary Eckermann, however, Goethe is portrayed as enthusiastic about Christianity, Jesus, Martin Luther, and the Protestant Reformation, even calling Christianity the "ultimate religion." Although he opposed many of the central teachings of the Christian churches, he thought that he could nevertheless be inwardly Christian.
His later spiritual perspective evolved among pantheism (heavily influenced by Spinoza), humanism, and various elements of Western esotericism, as seen most vividly in Part II of Faust. According to Nietzsche, Goethe had "a kind of almost joyous and trusting fatalism" that has "faith that only in the totality everything redeems itself and appears good and justified."
On the other hand, a year before his death he expressed an identification with the Hypsistarians, an ancient Jewish-pagan sect of the Black Sea region. After describing his difficulties with mainstream religion, Goethe laments:
…I have found no confession of faith to which I could ally myself without reservation. Now in my old age, however, I have learned of a sect, the Hypsistarians, who, hemmed in between heathens, Jews and Christians, declared that they would treasure, admire, and honour the best, the most perfect that might come to their knowledge, and in as much as it must have a close connection to the Godhead, pay it reverence. A joyous light thus beamed at me suddenly out of a dark age, for I had the feeling that all my life I had been aspiring to qualify as a Hypsistarian. That, however, is no small task, for how does one, in the limitations of one's individuality, come to know what is most excellent?
— from a letter to Sulpiz Boisserée dated 22 March 1831
In politics Goethe was conservative. At the time of the French Revolution, he thought the enthusiasm of the students and professors to be a perversion of their energy and remained skeptical of the ability of the masses to govern. Likewise, he "did not oppose the War of Liberation (1813–15) waged by the German states against Napoleon, but remained aloof from the patriotic efforts to unite the various parts of Germany into one nation; he advocated instead the maintenance of small principalities ruled by benevolent despots."
Goethe had a great effect on the nineteenth century. In many respects, he was the originator of many ideas which later became widespread. He produced volumes of poetry, essays, criticism, a theory of colours and early work on evolution and linguistics. He was fascinated by mineralogy, and the mineral goethite (iron oxide) is named after him. His non-fiction writings, most of which are philosophic and aphoristic in nature, spurred the development of many philosophers, including G.W.F. Hegel, Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Cassirer, Carl Jung, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Along with Schiller, he was one of the leading figures of Weimar Classicism.
Goethe 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 of controlling art, and that romanticism was a sickness, even as he penned poetry rich in memorable images, and rewrote the formal rules of German poetry. Even in contemporary culture, he stands in the background as the author of the ballad upon which Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice is based.
His poetry was set to music by almost every major Austrian and 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/drama, often called Das Drama der Deutschen (the drama of the Germans), written in two parts published decades apart, would stand as his most characteristic and famous artistic creation. Followers of the twentieth century esotericist Rudolf Steiner built a theatre named the Goetheanum after him – where festival performances of Faust are still performed.
Goethe 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. 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.
Hafez-Goethe memorial in Weimar
It was to a considerable degree due to Goethe's reputation that the city of Weimar was chosen in 1919 as the venue for the national assembly, convened to draft a new constitution for what would become known as Germany's Weimar Republic.
The Federal Republic of Germany’s cultural institution, The Goethe-Institut is named after him, and promotes the study of German abroad and fosters knowledge about Germany by providing information on its culture, society and politics.
The literary estate of Goethe in the Goethe and Schiller Archives was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2001 in recognition of its historical significance.
Goethe's influence was dramatic because he understood that there was a transition in European sensibilities, an increasing focus on sense, the indescribable, and the emotional. This is not to say that he was emotionalistic 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 in his scientific works that a "formative impulse", which he said 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 the French, Napoleon I. A quotation from Goethe's Scientific Studies will suffice:
We 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 is a useless or arbitrary product of the formative impulse (as so often thought). Externally, some parts may seem useless because the inner coherence of the animal nature has given them this form without regard to outer circumstance. Thus…[not] the question, What are they for? but rather, Where do they come from?
— Suhrkamp ed., vol 12, p. 121; trans. Douglas Miller, Scientific Studies
That change later became 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 Goethe said, a "living quality," wherein the subject and object are dissolved together in a poise of inquiry. Consequently, Goethe embraced neither teleological nor deterministic views of growth within every organism. Instead, his view was that the world as a whole grows through continual, external, and internal strife. Moreover, Goethe did not embrace the mechanistic views that contemporaneous science subsumed during his time, and therewith he denied rationality's superiority as the sole interpreter of reality. Furthermore, Goethe declared 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.
His views make him, along with Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and Ludwig van Beethoven, a figure in two worlds: on the 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; on the other, seeking a personal, intuitive, and personalized form of expression and society, firmly supporting the idea of self-regulating and organic systems. Thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson would take up many similar ideas in the 1800s. Goethe's ideas on evolution would frame the question that Darwin and Wallace would approach within the scientific paradigm. The Serbian inventor and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla was heavily influenced by Goethe's Faust, his favorite poem, and had actually memorized the entire text. It was while reciting a certain verse that he was struck with the epiphany that would lead to the idea of the rotating magnetic field and ultimately, AC current.
WHO rides there so late through the night dark and drear?
The father it is, with his infant so dear;
He holdeth the boy tightly clasp'd in his arm,
WHEN the vine again is blowing,
Then the wine moves in the cask;
When the rose again is glowing,
Wherefore should I feel oppress'd?
No living atom comes at last to naught!
Active in each is still the eternal Thought:
Hold fast to Being if thou wouldst be blest.
FLOURISH greener, as ye clamber,
Oh ye leaves, to seek my chamber,
Up the trellis'd vine on high!