Getting with Goethe

Germany’s greatest sage is a Green as ever

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The poet, playwright, critic, scientist, and seer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)—whose collected works run to 143 fat volumes—virtually founded German literature, gave German culture its bearings, and seemed the equal of Shakespeare and Dante to many of our great-grandparents. But German high culture was compromised by the horrors of 1933-45, and the author of Faust faded into the stacks of the scholarly libraries.

Or did he? Goethe, who was a master of metamorphosis while he lived—changing from a young rebel novelist into a cool classicist, a serious naturalist, a master of Gothic smoke and mirrors, and a vibrantly sensual elderly poet—is a good candidate for reincarnation today as a prophet of holism, environmentalism, and the unity of reason and imagination.

As T.J. Reed explains in the best-written short guide to the man and his work, Goethe (Oxford University Press, 1984), Goethe had a profound sense of being at home in nature and the world, a quality that makes him seem a little too healthy for the fashionably alienated but recommends him to those who are trying to make an honorable home for humankind in the nonhuman world today.

“Goethe made himself part of the natural order he had studied as a scientist and as a devotee of art,” Reed writes. He saw the analogy between human and nonhuman as far more intimate than the simple sharing of an ecosystem. According to Reed, he believed that his passions, his changes of identity, and the ways that his emotions found form in poems obeyed exactly the same laws that make flowers bloom and wind erode mountains.

And yet he was no gushing romantic but a tireless scientist. Though his actual contributions to the advance of biology are minor (and he was dead wrong in his decades-long struggle against Newton’s theory of light), Goethe was a major precursor of a new attitude toward the scientific task.

In our day scientists as disparate as René Dubos and Larry Dossey have called for a science of contemplation that would keep the unity, dynamism, and integrity of nature in view, abandoning the idea that the world “out there” exists only to be cut apart and manipulated. Goethe was passionate about this goal. “He who wills the highest must will the whole,” he wrote. “He who treats of spirit must presuppose nature; he who speaks of nature must presuppose . . . spirit.”

For Goethe, examining plants was one way to behold this unity. To describe the essential sameness of form that runs through all the variations of leaf or stem from plant to plant, or all the stages of a single plant’s growth, to see this consistency as a kind of energy and each disparate form as just one “moment” in the unfolding of that energy, was his method; he didn’t merely taxonomize each leaf according to its differences from its nearest neighbors. Ecologist Nigel Hoffmann, writing in Social Alternatives (Jan. 1996), calls the Goethean view an “interpretive ecological art” and suggests that it can be the foundation for a truly ecological style of seeing landscape and doing design.

Goethe’s spirit also seems very close to magician-writer David Abram, who, in The Spell of the Sensuous (Pantheon, 1996), takes contemporary science to task for removing our gaze from the sensory realm into an unseeable, untouchable mathematical and subatomic limbo. Physicist Hermann von Helmholtz (1821-1894) noted that the poet’s voluminous writings on color theory were also “an attempt to protect the immediate truth of the sensory perception against the attacks made on it by the scientists.” (Goethe argued that apparatus like microscopes and prisms run the risk of distorting the realities they seek to probe. He was wrong about prisms, but proved to be a prophet when physics turned subatomic and Heisenberg enunciated his uncertainty principle.)

While Abram tends to emphasize the subjective, human, idiosyncratic side of scientific seeing, Goethe’s way of discovering unity in plant life or nature as a whole is not emotion-laden intuition but “an exact form of investigation into an objective reality,” writes Nigel Hoffmann. Thus Goethe challenges modern prophets of nature’s unity to be less misty and more rigorous at the same time that he wars against the reductive scientism that can make eco-thought dull.

Goethe wrote passionate poems with titles like “Entoptic Colors” and “The Metamorphosis of Plants” and quoted love lyrics in his scientific papers. His less obviously scientific lyrics (such as “Primal Words—Orphic” of 1818) are charged with a visual precision and a weight of familiarity with natural forces that most poets today can only envy. As we enthusiastically explore what we call “new” paradigms, we’re likely to keep on finding the footprints of this restless giant, who was, in his own words, “one of the few people who possess an imagination for the truth of the real.”