Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

(IPA: /ˈgøːtə/) (28 August 174922 March 1832) was a German novelist, dramatist, poet, humanist, scientist, philosopher, and for ten years chief minister of state at Weimar.

Goethe 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, Germany. His father was a man of means and position, who personally supervised the early education of his son. The young Goethe studied at the universities of Leipzig and Strasbourg, and in 1772 entered upon the practice of law at Wetzlar. At the invitation of Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he went in 1775 to live in Weimar, where he held a succession of political offices, becoming the Duke's chief adviser. From 1786 to 1788 he traveled in Italy, and directed the ducal theatre at Weimar. He took part in the Napoleonic wars against France, 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. As of 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 were his tragedy Götz von Berlichingen (1773), which was the first work to bring him fame, and the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, 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 Fuchs.

To the period of his friendship with Schiller belong the continuation of Wilhelm Meister, the beautiful idyl 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.

In 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 also known for his discovery of the intermaxillary bone in humans.

Goethe considered his Theory of Colours to be his most important contribution to science and indeed prized it above all of his literary work. Goethe thought that colour is not only a phenomenon on the physical level, but it also has to do with how light and colour are affected by the object, lighting, and the individual's perception. He was very proud of his research, and is at one point quoted as saying: "That I am the only person in this century who has the right insight into the difficult science of colours, that is what I am rather proud of, and that is what gives me the feeling that I have outstripped many." In the 20th century, Goethe's Theory of Colours would influence the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein when he wrote Remarks on Colour. Psychologist Catharine M. Cox, in her 1926 Early Mental Traits of Three Hundred Geniuses, speculatively estimated Goethe's IQ at 210, the highest score that she assigned.

Historical importance

It is 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 for him). His writings, most of which are philosophic and aphoristic in nature, spurred on the development of many philosophers, such as G.W.F. Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche, 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 sentimentalization was a sickness, even as he penned poetry rich in memorable images, and rewrote the formal rules of German poetry.

His poetry would be set 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 poem, written in two parts, published decades apart would stand as his most characteristic, and famous, artistic creation.

Goethe was also a cultural force, 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.

Goethe and Schiller in Weimar
Goethe and Schiller in Weimar

The following list of key works may give a sense of the scope of the impact his work had on his and our time.

The 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 referenced frequently in the context of the young disaffected and moody hero — a Romeo figure. However, the form of the novel, and the ending in death, were not uncommon in the day. It was the untrammeled expression of longing for the unattainable which made it controversial, and also a model for other novels and works. Novels of this type were common at the time, since correspondence was the main way that people would stay in contact, but it was both the technical mastery which Goethe already displayed, and the manner of handling the climax which set this work apart.

The 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.

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 what has been called the most famous line in German poetry, an allusion to Italy: "Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?" ("Do you know the land where the lemons bloom?").

He 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." and "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", like "Das also war des Pudels Kern", "Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluss" or "Grau ist alle Theorie" have entered everyday German usage. Although 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 in The Roman Campagna (1786) Oil on canvas, 164 x 206 cm Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt
Goethe in The Roman Campagna (1786) Oil on canvas, 164 x 206 cm Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt

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 an 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 quote from his 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 — as so often thought — is a useless or arbitrary product of the formative impulse. (Miller 121)

This 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. Furthermore, 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 Jefferson, 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 scientific paradigm.

List of Works





Other Works


  • Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.
  • You must be either the servant or the master, the hammer or the anvil.
  • Know thyself? If I knew myself, I'd run away.
  • When ideas fail, words come in very handy.
  • Men err as long as they strive.
  • There are two things children should get from their parents: roots and wings.
  • Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine.
  • We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.
  • Willing is not enough; we must do.
  • The masses fear the intellectual, but it is stupidity that they should fear; if they only realized how dangerous it really is.
  • Venetian Epigrams, 67:
Much there is I can stand. Most things not easy to suffer
I bear with quiet resolve, just as a God commands it.
Only a few things I find as repugnant as snakes and poison,
These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs and garlic and Christ.

See also

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