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Entered at the Poet-Office at Ann Arbor, Mich. . as Second-class matter.




4 Edel sei der Mensch, hilfreichund gut.'

It is now some thirty years since Thomas De Quincey
expressed the opinion that Goethe had been much over-
rated and that during the next generation or two his repu-
tation would decline.* Verily, as M. Renan lately observed,
the vocation of prophet has become in our time peculiarly
difficult. Since De Quincey printed his splenetic essay
the prestige of Goethe has steadily increased until he has
become, it is safe to say, the most imposing and authorita-
tive personage in the history of modern literature. Her-
mann Grimm calls him simply ' the greatest poet of all
times and of all peoples.' Matthew Arnold, while gently
deriding Grimm's statement of the matter as over-patrio-
tic, is himself -on record to the effect that he, Goethe, 'in
the depth and richness of his criticism of life, is by far our
greatest modern man.'f Edmond Scherer, a Frenchman
who is certainly not chargeable with any prepossessions in
favor of things trans-Rhenane, finds that Goethe, ' although
he has not Shakespeare's power, is a genius more
vast, more universal, than Shakespeare.' Finally, Oscar
Browning, writing for the new Encyclopaedia JBri-
tannica, uses this language: 'Posterity must decide
his exact precedence in that small and chosen com-

* Enc. Brit. 8th ed. article Goethe.

t A French Critic on Goethe in the volume Mixed Essays. In this essaj
the above-quoted opinion of Grimm as well as that of Scherer are consid-
ered at some length.

1 59849


pany which contains the names of Homer, Dante,
and Shakespeare. ... As Homer concentrated in
himself the spirit of antiquity, Dante of the Middle Ages
and Shakespeare of the Renaissance, so Goethe is the
representative of the modern spirit, the prophet of man-
kind under new circumstances and new conditions, the
appointed teacher of ages yet unborn.'

But Mr. Browning has another remark which is even
more significant than that quoted, since it leaves nothing
to posterity, but calmly announces as settled a question
about which there has been vastly more disagreement than
about Goethe's eminence as a poet. The remark is this :
4 He needs no defence, nothing but sympathetic study.'

A few years ago those who interested themselves in
Goethe made it their primary business for the most part
either to assail or to defend him. The charges of the as-
sailants are sufficiently familiar. It was said that he was
cold, statuesque, unpatriotic, indifferent to all except
aesthetic issues; that in his relations to women he was
heartless and insincere ; that as a poet he was immoral,
and as a man self-centered and vain. To these charges,
then, various answers were forthcoming. And so the bat-
tle went on ; Goethe being treated much as if he had been
some hero of romance sent into the world ready-made to
serve as a pattern for all mankind, instead of being as he
was, a man, with a history, and with a man's indefeasible
right to blunder and be held only the more dear for his
blunders, provided they be honestly made in the pursuit
of large and worthy ideals. *

It would hardly be correct to speak of this battle as
ended ; it still goes on here and there. The real students
of Goethe, however, have well nigh lost interest in it. For

*< Die IrrthOmer ries Menschen machen ihn eigeutlich liebenswttrdig.'
"-Goethe's Werke, XIX, 59. (Heinpel edition).


it has become clear that the old theory of heartlessness,
selfishness, moral pococurantism and what not, was ut-
terly unsound and rested upon an elaborate misconcep-
tion.* The sources of the misconception are in good
part known. It sprang very largely from an unskillful
reading of Dichtung und Wahrheit. In part also it came
from the bitter attacks of ' Young Germany ' and other
writers in the fourth and fifth decades of the present cen-
tury. These men, blind for the time being to the import-
ance of everything save the political agitation in which
they were themselves engaged, were naturally made
angry because they could not quote Goethe in the interest
of their own or any other sound and fury. But the pas-
sions and the issues of that time have disappeared ; its
patriotic dream is realized, and lo, it is now seen on every
hand that one of the most valuable possessions of the
united fatherland is the life of Goethe just as it was.
Surely one who knows at all what that life signifies to the
New Germany will be slow to join in regrets that it could
not have been this, that or the other thing which it was
not. A pamphleteer, an anchorite or an angel could not
have become the commanding teacher that Goethe is. In
other words it can be seen in the light of* the present bet-
ter than it could be seen a few years ago that the great
German poet lived consciously to a^ high destiny. Fur-
thermore ; after all the microscopic study that has of late
been bestowed upon him, his life stands out so high in its
purpose, so earnest in its endeavor, and so large in its re-
sults, that there is, as there ought to be, a growing disposi-
tion to take him on what he himself regarded as the main

* ' Man uannte Goethe wiederholt den raarmornen Gott, und da er es so
oft h6rte, glaubte er es selbst; er 1st iiie marmorn gewesen weder vor noch
naeh der Helena; er war ein gules ireues, deutsches Herz, fahig sich zu
freuen, zu leiden und zu weinen, bis an sein Lebensende.' Julian Schmidt,
Preussische JahrbUcher 39,388.


issue.* Any one who is willing to do this will find that
he has on hand employment enough of a kind at once
more agreeable and more profitable than either continu-
ing or replying to the old fusilade of censure.

The task which I have proposed to myself in the fol-
lowing pages is to sketch the outlines of Goethe's ethical
creed. If he be really the greatest of all critics of life,
then a correct and reasonably concise account of the ele-
ments of his criticism ought surely to possess a certain
value. But is any such account in reality possible?
Goethe himself was no system-maker and that which is best
and most valuable in him comes to us largely in the form of
incidental commentary. Is there not danger, in case of a
man possessing Goethe's prodigious intellectual range,
that any attempt to schematize will result in simply vul-
garizing ? There certainly is danger of this kind and I am
keenly alive to it. At the same time I think it undenia-
ble that this scattered wisdom is in general but the rich
fringe which may sometimes conceal, but is nevertheless
attached to, a coherent thread of ethical doctrine. The
laying bare of this thread may not be an easy, but it ought
not to be a hopeless task. At any rate that is what is here
undertaken. That which I am about to offer is neither
attack nor panegyric, but a study. It will spring in-
deed from a strong admiration of the character of Goethe,
but then, surely, none but an injudicious friend of the
great poet would wish to charge him with perfection.
Probably he got his fair share in Adam's great legacy of
capacity for going wrong, but his shortcomings may be
left, at least for the purposes of the present inquiry, where
he himself left them in the good-natured epigram :

* ' Das Hauptfundament des Sittlichen 1st der gute Wille.'r- Goethe's
Werke, XIX, 77.


What you say is nothing new ;
Fallible I was and who can doubt it?
What you stupid devils say about it,
I know it better than you.*


The three chief subjects of Goethe's thinking were
Nature, Art and Conduct. Now these are the three high-
est and largest interests of humanity and hence it was a
very significant saying of his that the three men to whom
he owed the most were Linnaeus, Shakespeare and
Spinoza, f It was Linnaeus who first brought home to him
a sense of nature's wealth and of the fascination which
comes from puzzling at her riddles. It was Shakespeare
from whom he first learned the meaning and the possibil
ities of art. It was Spinoza who kindled in him a new
fervor for right living and gave him the ground-work of
an ethical philosophy. Goethe was born in 1749 and his
first introduction to the Ethics of Spinoza occurred appar-
ently between 1770 and 1774. What was it that the young
German poet drew from the lens-grinder of Amsterdam ?
Half a century later the same poet, no longer young, tried
to answer this question and these are his words from
Dichtung und Wahrheit:

^When I had sought the world over after a means of
education for my singular character I happened upon the
Ethics of this man. What I may have read out of the
book and what I may have read into it, I could hardly tell.
Suffice it to say, I found here that which quieted my pas-

*'Gar nichtsNeuessagt Ihr mir!
Unvollkommen war ich ohne Zweifel,
Was Ihr an mlr tadelt, dumrae Teufel,
Ich weiss es besser als Ihr.' Werke, II, 378.

fCf. Viehoff, Goethe'* Gedichte, II, 89.


sions and seemed to offer me a large and free outlook over
the physical and moral world. But that which especially
drew me to him was the boundless unselfishness that
shone from every sentence. That marvellous saying,
4 Whoso truly loves God must not demand that God love
him in return,'* with all the propositions that support it
and the consequences that flow from it, filled my mind
completely. To be unselfish in everything, and most so
in love and friendship, was my delight, my maxim, my
exercise ; so that that later wild saying, c If I love thee
what is that to thee ? ' f came from my very heart. For
the rest let me not fail to recognize here also the truth
that the most intimate unions spring from contrasts.
Spinoza's perfect equanimity contrasted with my turbu-
lent striving; his mathematical method was the opposite
of my poetic way of thinking and of putting things ; and
precisely that artificial treatment which some thought ill-
adapted to ethical subjects made me his earnest disciple
and excited my most ardent admiration.'];

Not much importance can be attached to this sugges-
tion about the attraction of opposites. There is good evi-
dence that Goethe was repelled from other men by the
very qualities which he thinks were a part of Spinoza's at-
tractiveness. In Faust he pours ridicule upon the whole
business of logic-chopping and scattered sayings indicate
clearly enough his distrust of formal proof as a means of
arriving at the highest knowledge. The real source of
Spinoza's power lay not in his form but in his matter ; in
the large sweep of his thought and the vastness of his out-
look. It is true that he can no longer affect a reader of
to-day as he did certain minds a hundred years ago ; for

* Spinoza's Ethics, Part V, prop 19.
t Werke. XVII, 228.
J Werke, XXII, 168.


the most of what he had to say has since that time been
better said in the language of poetry and science. But
even now one who will not allow himself to be repelled by
the hard and forbidding shell of Spinoza's mechanical
method will feel often enough that the man was far too
great for his dialect. The geometrical jargon in which he
deemed it best to cast his thought gives an impression of
clipped wings and manacled limbs ; but underneath the
jargon is the soul of a Hebrew poet and it was this poet
who appealed so powerfully to Goethe.

But Goethe even in his youth was not the man
to put himself completely into the hands of a master
and it is best to avoid any such phrase as that he ' accepted '
Spinoza's philosophy. That philosophy, considered as a
theory of the universe, is built upon two ideas : the idea
that what we call Nature is an aspect of God, and the idea
that this God works by necessity through changeless and
eternal laws. Now it is true that both these thoughts found
congenial soil in the mind of young Goethe. Even as a
boy he took delight in a sense of personal closeness to the
Infinite and he was repelled by the current conception of
God, both orthodox and deistic, as a Ruler in the nebulous
distance. * A little later the nature -worship of the day
took possession of him and the open fields could lift him
into a religious ecstacy. He tells us too of his early diffi-
culties over ' dispensations ' like the great Lisbon earth-
quake and the accident to his father's house. This being
the temper of his mind it is not strange that he was ready
to listen to a man who told him that the God whom he de-
sired to approach and the nature he loved were one, that
outside of this One nothing whatever was conceivable,
and that of this One changeless eternal- law was the very

* Dichtung und Wahrheit, Erstes Buch,p<wim. Werke, XX, 25 ff.


essence. That these convictions soon became a part of his
mental life and in some degree the basis of his scientific
thinking, is abundantly attested in his writings.* But that
he ever took any great interest in Spinoza's ' proofs ' as
such there is little reason to suppose. Late in his life we
find him saying, and the words mark the lifelong bent of
his mind : ' I do not venture to theorize concerning the Ab-
aolute.'t Spinoza's work, however, is largely made up of
such theorizing. The truth is that whalf Goethe drew from
Spinoza, was, as he himself intimates, not so much a cer-
tain set of clear intellectual convictions concerning the
constitution of the world, as rather a fund of emotion, an
ethical exaltation which presently crystallized into a few
great regulative principles of conduct. Can anything be
done in sober prose to throw light upon the character of
this emotion? Not much perhaps and yet the attempt is
worth making.

Let us assume that Spinoza's focal doctrines are true.
Let us put aside the thought of an extramundane Ruler

-* For example : ' Was war' ein Gott, der nur von aussen stiesse,
Ira Kreis das All am Finger laufen liesse !
Him ziemt's die Welt im Innern zu bewegen,
Natur in Sich, Sich in Natur zu hegen,
So dags, was in Him leht, und webt uud ist,
Nie Seine Kraft, nle Semen Geist vermisst.'


1 Natur hat weder Kern noch Schale.
i Alles 1st sie mit einem Male.' Werke II, 237.

Nach ewigen, ehrnen,

Grossen Gesetz n,

Mils sen wir alle

Unseres DaseinH

Kreise vollendt n. Werke, 1, 167.

t 'Vom Absoluten im theoretischen Sinne wag' ich nic^t zu reden ;
behaupten ober darf ich: dass, wer es in der Erscheinung anerkannt und
imrner im Auge behalten hat, sehr grossen Gewinn davon erfahren wird.'
Werke. XIX, 77.


and abolish the word supernatural from our vocabulary.
Let us actually believe that the universe is a manifestation
of necessary and eternal law. This last is nothing more
than the assumption upon which all science rests. And
yet it commonly requires effort to realize the full scope of
the thought. Fichte illustrates it by showing that if a grain
of sand on the beach were to lie a few inches from where
it does lie, the whole precedent history of the world must
have been different. Under this hypothesis Nature becomes
in literal truth

' A subtle chain of countless rings.'

And each particular fact, say, a moth, or a man, or a planet,
is a link in the chain. And what must be the effect of
such a thought upon a man's ethical instinct ? It is very
commonly argued that Spinoza's hypothesis must inevit-
ably act as a moral poison. It leads, as we are told, to
quietism and listlessness ; for what ground of effort is there,
if what one is and does is determined by a chain of natural
causes ? It plays into the hands of badness because it
provides no post-mortem punishment for badness and no
eternal distinction between right and wrong. And it leads
to pessimism and contempt of life because it makes of a
human being nothing but a momentary bubble upon an
infinite ocean. To all of which we can only say : If this
be logic, it is at least not history. Some or all of these
effects may have followed in Asia from certain forms of
pantheistic thought, but they have never been observed in
those who have been influenced by Spinoza. His doctrine
is not a narcotic poison at all, but at once a tonic and a
sedative. Its first real effect has never been better de-
scribed than in the words of Herder : ; The consciousness
of living under high and beautiful laws must destroy ego-


tism and reconcile man with his fate.'* This, surely, is
much for any philosophic or scientific creed to be able to
do ; for egotism, that is, narrow selfishness combined with
an over-estimate of one's own importance, is the "root of
nearly all that morality and religion have to dread. Its
second effect is to give to conduct not a diminished but a
greatly increased significance, by pressing home the
thought that an action once dropped into the shoreless
ocean goes out in widening wave-rings to the end of time.
Instead of ' Thou God seest me,' Spinoza puts the thought :
The thing thou doest is henceforth a part of the world's
fate forever and forever. To a serious person this is the
most solemn motive for right conduct that can possibly
be imagined. A ground of earnestness being thus provided,
the next question naturally is : What is the ultimate object
to be attained? Spinoza makes the great end of life to be
that personal happiness which comes from the knowledge
and the love of God. Upon his theory, then, right living
presupposes, first, a feeling for the solemnity of life ; this
feeling may be called, with reference to the words of Goe-
the below, sympathy with the World-soul. Secondly there
is to be a steady desire to know more and more of God
(struggle with the World-mind; for 'God' is here, it
must be borne in mind, only a name for all that is). From
this knowledge, Spinoza teaches, will come love and acqui-
escence and these will beget happiness. Such, in naked
outline, is the ethical ideal that underlies that wonderful
stanza from Eins und Alles, perhaps the most pregnant
half-dozen lines to be found in the whole range of Goethe's

poetry :

Soul of the World, come and invest U8 ;

Then with the World-mind's self to test us,

* Herder's Qesprfahe fiber Qott. See Julian Schmidt's edition of the
Ideen zur Oeschichte der Menachheit. Vol. I, p. LXXXII.


Becomes our being's noble call ;
Good Spirits lead, our way attending,
High masters, soothing and befriending,

To Him that made and makes the All.*

What, now, were the c few great regulative principles '
above alluded to ? The answer to this question will show
us how Goethe, building upon Spinoza's foundations, but
throwing away Spinoza's scholastic rubbish and putting
a construction of his own upon Spinoza's prescriptions,
worked out a theory of life which forms an epoch in mod-
ern thought. *


It was originally a proposition in physics, which Spi-
noza, borrowing from Des Cartes and enlarging the scope
of its application, made the basis of his own theory of the
passions, and so, in some sense, of his entire prescriptive
philosophy. The proposition is : ' Everything, so far as in
it lies, endeavors to persist in its own being.'f This prin-
ciple, that persistence in suo ease is a universal law of
things, being duly established, Spinoza proceeds to apply
it in the domain of ethics thus : k Since reason demands
nothing contrary to nature, it therefore demands that every
one shall love himself, seek his own true advantage, desire
all that leads a man to greater perfection and generally, so
far as in him lies, endeavor to persist in his own being.
Then, seeing that virtue is naught else than acting accord-
ing to the laws of one's own nature, and seeing that no one

* Weltseele komm, uns zu durchdringen !
Dann mit clem Weltgeist selbst zu ringen,

Wird unsrer KrSfte Hochberuf.
Theilnebjnend ffthren gute Geister,
Qelinde leitend, hOchste Melster,

Zu Dem, der Alles schafft und schuf.' Werke, II, 228.

t Ethics, Part III, prop. 6.


endeavors to preserve his own being except in accordance
with the laws of his own nature, it follows that the foun-
dation of virtue is this very endeavor to persist in one's
own being.'* The author of the Ethics takes pains to guard
this deduction against the suspicions of those who might
think ' that self-interest is the beginning of wickedness
but not of goodness.' He explains that man's perfection
is realizable only in society and can not therefore be con-
sidered apart from the general weal. The law of persist-
ence in one's own being really requires, therefore, the doing
of those things which make for the good of one's self and
one's fellow-men. To enable us to decide what things
these are, the help of reason must be called in. Reason
tells us that to the attainment of the end in question a
certain part of one's ' being ' needs to be repressed rather
that c persisted ' in. But still the foundation of virtue on
its positive or active side is the affirmation of self.

We turn now to Goethe.

The present Century is marked by the emergence of a
new ethical ideal which, under the name of Culture, has
made both friends and enemies. But whatever view be
taken of this ideal, Goethe is usually made to stand sponsor
for it. He is regarded as the founder of the cult and, like
many real founders of a cult, he has been overlaid with

There is in literature, especially in English and Amer-
ican literature of the not too recent past, a mythological
Goethe, who has been the target of many a shot in prose
and verse. This myth is a creature without a heart, inca-
pable of self-sacrifice and deaf to the finer issues of mo-
rality. The only thing that he cares for is himself. His
motto, so to speak, is : Art for art's sake and Goethe its

* Ethic*, Part IV, prop. 18, Scholium.


prophet. He is a sort of ^Esthetic Mogul bent solely upon
achieving his own pleasure and exhibiting his own great-
ness. Very different from all this is the real Goethe as
disclosed in the facts of his life, and yet it is not hard to
find in the real Goethe something which, with a little mis-
construing and a good deal of ignoring, can be worked over
into the phantom just described. What was this some-
thing? Probably the best concise answer to this question
is to be found in a sentence of Dichtung und Wahrheit, a
sentence written down by Goethe as he stood on the
threshold of old age and looked back upon his early ro-
mance with Friederike Brion. The words, which contain
the rationale not only of his conduct toward the village

maid, but also of his entire life, are these : ' Man may seek

his higher destiny on earth or in heaven, in the present or
in the future ; yet for that reason he remains exposed to
constant wavering within and to continual disturbance
from without until he once for all makes up his mind to
declare that that is right which is suited to him ( c was
ihm gemass ist').*

What now is to be said of this definition ? The first
thought of most readers probably is to repudiate it with
indignation as the very climax of moral perversity. On the
face of it it seems to justify all that has been said about its
author's lack of feeling for the higher aspects of righteous-
ness and morality. To say that the Right is the Agreeable, t
sounds very like a vulgar falsehood. But he who goes in
search of Goethe, ' the clearest, largest and most helpful
thinker of modern times,'! will not find him in the region
of vulgar falsehoods. Then, too, the definition in question
is pronounced by so good an authority as Rudolf Virchow

* Werke, XXII, 18.

t Matthew Arnold, in the essay cited above.


is a passion ceases to be such when we form a clear and
distinct idea of it (in modern phrase, when we think we
understand it). The first step toward freedom is, then, to
learn to understand one's own nature as a part of the
Eternal Order which is God ; for passion is subdued the
moment we think of that which excites it as inevitable.
Such contemplation of the ordered universe combined

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Online LibraryCalvin ThomasGoethe and the conduct of life → online text (page 1 of 3)