Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on August 28, 1749 in Frankfurt a.M. Main and died March 22,1832 in Weimar. He was a poet, playwright, and novelist but also a natural philosopher, scientist, and minister (Geheimer Rat) of the duchy of Sachsen-WeimarEisenach.
His parents—Katharine Elisabeth nee Textor and Johann Kaspar Goethe, a lawyer who held a property big enough to make a living—belonged to the Frankfurt bourgeoisie (Bürgertum). Goethe studied law in Leipzig (1765-1768) and Strassbourg (1770— 1771), later working for a short time as a lawyer in Frankfurt a.M. and Wetzlar.
His first drama “Götz von Berlichingen” was published in 1773 and his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers) in 1774. The epistolary novel describes how a young man called Werther loses his heart to Lotte, who has already decided to marry another man, and ends tragically with the protagonist’s suicide. These two works, particularly the last, made him very renowed in Europe.
In September 1775, Goethe was invited to Weimar by duke Karl August, where he was to spend the rest of his life, apart from his travels. He soon became acquainted with Karl August, who appointed him as a member of Saxe-Weimar’s government in June 1776 and raised him to nobility in 1782. In 1784, he discovered the human premaxilla jaw bones (Os intermaxil-lare), but because all recognized anatomists (but for his teacher, Justus Christian Loder) denied his discovery, Goethe gave up and did not publish it before 1820. From 1786 to 1788 Goethe traveled in Italy, where he met many German artists (for example, Deutschrömer) and studied painting. He published his experiences in Italian Journey (Italienische Reise) in 1816. While in Rome he wrote Iphigenia in Tauris (Iphigenie auf Tauris), one of his most important dramas. In 1789, a son named August was born to Goethe and a woman he would marry in 1806, Christiane Vulpius.
In his work “Attempt to explain the metamorphosis of plants” (Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären, 1790), Goethe asserts that all plants developed by metamorphosis from one primal plant (Urpflanze). His major scientific work is the “Theory of Colour” (Farbenlehre 1805—10) in which he denies the ideas of Newton.
In 1796, Goethe published the epos Hermann and Dorothea and the novel Wilhelm Meister s Apprenticeship (Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre). The latter is considered to be the most important German Entwicklungsroman, describing the intellectual development of a young bourgeois (Bürger) to an artist. The second part of this novel, Wilhelm Meisters Travels (‘Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre), was published in 1821 and 1829.
Goethe’s friend Friedrich von Schiller, one of the most important intellectuals and authors of the age, died in 1805 in Weimar. One year later, Goethe finished his work Faust, a Tragedy (Faust—Der Tragödie erster Teil, published 1808), in which the scholar Faust sells his soul to the devil Mephisto. In return, Mephisto has to serve him until he is content and wants “the moment to stay.” Faust falls in love with Gretchen, who gets pregnant but kills the newborn out of despair. He tries to save her from execution, but Gretchen, feeling she has to pay for her sins, refuses to take flight. In Faust II (Faust—der Tragödie zweiter Teil, published postmortem in 1833), Faust experiences the European history of ideas. In the end, he is mighty but blind and dies looking forward to eternal glory. Mephisto tries to claim his soul but is tricked by angels, and Faust finally attains salvation.
Goethe also wrote his autobiography, Poetry and Truth (Dichtung und Wahrheit), and just as important as his novels and dramas were his lyrical works, from early poems such as “Prometheus” and “Roman Elegies” to his late poems, especially in “Der Westostliche Divan.”
Goethe never had a homogeneous theory of the nature of humankind, but he did present a few main ideas to which he often referred. In The Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin calls Goethe one of the first who spoke “the law of compensation or balancement of growth.” Trying to discover the nature of humankind, Goethe considered both the results of his natural studies and his life experiences. Seldom does he refer to specific philosophers, although he presents the ideas of Spinoza, Rosseau, Herder, Diderot, Pico della Mirandola, Manetti, Kant, and his friend Schiller in his thinking. Theory unproved by data was mere speculation to him.
Goethe’s central aim in his research was to provide evidence for the primordial unity of all species. According to Goethe, they originated in one primal type of species. One of the missing links to this unity was found when Goethe discovered the human pre-maxilla jaw bones. Goethe believed that the highest creature in nature was man, in whom all natural laws of morphology are present at an enhanced level. A single individual cannot represent the original type of a species, but all individuals of one species can. One of Goethe’s famous remarks is “Only all humans live the human.” We must read Goethe’s literary work as explanation of his ideas about mankind. Faust is the paradigm of man in his quest for insight and creativity. He wants to enjoy all that is allotted to mankind as a whole. This immoderate desire cannot be fulfilled, finally leading to his failure.
There are five major constants in the human existence: individuality, polarity, aging, metamorphosis, and, finally, that human beings are an end in themselves.
According to Goethe, individuality distinguishes human beings from the moment of our births from every other human being. Polarity, the second principle, is the everlasting conflict of sublime and primitive, of nature and spirit or body and soul. Every period in a human life offers a unique range of possibilities not present at any other moment. Metamorphosis is another central paradigm in nature and therefore also in humankind. Every being changes the world and is, in return, changed by it in an everlasting process. One of Goethe’s central metaphysical thoughts was that human beings can change themselves and react consciously, but, at the same time, we are still part of the wholeness of the world.
- Boyle, N. (2000). Goethe: The poet and the age (3 vols.). New York: Oxford University Press.
- Witte, B. (1999). Goethe-Handbuch-in vier Bänden. Metzler: Stuttgart and Weimar.