Getting with Goethe

Germany’s greatest sage is a Green as ever

| May-June 1996

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.”

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