Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749- 1832) is widely regarded as one of the greatest visionaries and creative geniuses that the world has ever produced. A man of multiple talents, Goethe was a poet, critic, painter, scientist, statesman, philosopher, and theatre-manager (Willoughby, p. 9). However, Goethe's versatility of talent has not always been recognized. For, Goethe's unconventional approach to the subjects he was interested in, has, at times, been beyond the comprehension of many a scholarly and ordinary mind. As a result, Goethe has always been better known for the literary genius that he displayed in his novels, essays, poems, and plays. This perception of Goethe, in fact, has changed only recently with contemporary scholars in science, human behavior, philosophy, and literature acknowledging Goethe's visionary view of the universe and human nature. Thus, Goethe was a creative thinker who was far ahead of his times.
It is said that a more complete understanding of any literary work is often gained through an understanding of the person who wrote it. This maxim is certainly true in the case of Goethe. As Willoughby (p. 9-11) observes, the complexity and range of Goethe's works can only be appreciated through an understanding of the varied pattern of Goethe's life as it developed in accordance with the rhythmical growth of his own being. For, it is only such an understanding that can throw light on Goethe's transitions from classicism to romanticism, and on his creation of whole new genres in thinking paradigms and literature. In fact, Goethe himself indicated as much in his autobiographical work Poetry and Truth. Describing the work as presenting a new perspective for the study of an artist, Kaufmann (p. 49) points out that Goethe's message was that "life and work must be studied together as an organic unity and in terms of development." In a similar vein, Stelzig opines that Goethe wrote Poetry and Truth as a means to self-completion (Vincent, 2003).
The view that life and work must be studied together as an organic unity, in fact, pretty much sums up Goethe's philosophy in work and in life. Indeed, Goethe's philosophy that there was an organic unity in life led him into frequently revealing personal details in his writings in a manner reminiscent of Freud's "free association" technique. So much so, that he even went to the extent of revealing his own dual nature in works such as Wilhelm Meister, Faust, and the Conversations (Goethe, p. 131).
Goethe's openness and candor is reflected not just in his work but also in the manner in which he led his life. Born in Frankfurt on August 28, 1749, Johann Wolfgang Goethe was the son of a lawyer and a mother who had descended from petty nobility. His father, Johann Caspar Goethe was a strict disciplinarian who was determined that his son should develop his intellectual faculties to the maximum extent possible. As a result, the young Goethe studied several languages, the art of metrics, and the natural sciences at a very early age (Rascoe, p. 325). Besides the early exposure that Goethe received to the academic world, it is believed that Goethe was deeply influenced by his parents.
In fact, true to his philosophy of seeing an organic unity in existence, Goethe ascribed two of his dominant characteristics to family influences in the famous quatrain, "From Father came life's earnest poise, / A bearing strict and stable, / From Mother dear my sense of joys / And will to spin a fable." (Willoughby, p. 11-12). However, Goethe's mind was by no means a susceptible one, which was easily molded by either strong wills or external influences. Indeed, this is evident in George Henry Lewes' revelation of how Goethe's doubts about conventional religion were raised when, during a terrible thunderstorm, the whole household panicked and began fervently praying to try and appease an angry God. According to Lewes, this and presumably other such related experiences led a deeply reflective mind such as Goethe into developing a comprehensive view of the overall beneficial nature of the universe (Neuhaus, 2000).
Thus, it is evident that Goethe possessed a reflective mind, which was eternally contemplating and synthesizing the meaning and pattern of existence in the universe. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that Goethe used the opportunities presented by life in the University of Leipzig to the fullest. Although he was sent to study law, Goethe paid little attention to his legal studies. Instead, he chose to explore literature, write poetry, participate in student activities, and fall in love. Goethe did subsequently graduate as a lawyer from the University of Strassburg, but it is important to note that he seems to have concentrated more on literature and philosophy. In fact, Goethe completed a considerable body of lyrical verse, and a drama Gotz von Berlichingen when he was in Strassburg (Rascoe, p. 326).
All was not, however, smooth sailing for Goethe. On the contrary, his early adult years in Frankfurt where he practiced as a lawyer till the time he left for Weimar were a period of painful transition and development (Willoughby, p. 16). So much so, that Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther to save himself from suicide and as a method of purging from his consciousness all the self-doubt, prejudices, and fears that were plaguing him (Rascoe, p. 322). Goethe's problems were finally solved when he was invited by the Duke of Weimar to make his home in the city of Weimar and work with him in affairs of state (Willoughby, p. 18-9).
Life in Weimar, and thereafter, saw Goethe maturing as a person and thinker. As Kaufmann (p. 48) points out, he took his official duties as a member of the Weimar government seriously, but he managed to nevertheless devote a great deal of time to the arts and natural sciences leading to his being credited with an anatomical discovery, an important botanical hypothesis, an intricate theory of colors, and directing the theatre in Weimar. Goethe's interest and achievements in diverse fields is, of course, a reflection of his view that there was an organic unity to the universe that could be discerned through independent contemplation of nature and life (Vietor, p. 55).
Today, Goethe is hailed as a visionary universal thinker (Vietor, p. 3), but this was not always so. On the contrary, Goethe was severely criticized for violating all conventional scientific norms of induction and quantifiable proof by setting out to insert metaphysics into science and philosophy, and thereby developing scientific theory on the basis of sentiment, mysticism, and quasi-scientific hypothesis (Wilson, 1998). In direct contrast to this criticism, Goethe is now acknowledged as an extraordinary thinker, who was able to discern as early as the nineteenth century, that Naturalphilosophen or the process of observation, contemplation, and synthesis offered a solution to many a scientific dilemma by recognizing the role of the individual in cognition. Today, with the contemporary world of quantum physics and relativity theory acquiescing to the fact that the observer influences the event being observed (Amrine, p. 87-91), Goethe's achievements in the sciences are being regarded with new respect.
In a similar vein, the understanding of human nature displayed by Goethe in his literary writings is increasingly being acknowledged as a tremendous contribution to the field of human behavior. In fact, Goethe is even seen as having greatly influenced Freud and Jung (Goethe, p. 131). Such a view is not surprising since Goethe clearly stressed on man's inner struggles in life as being part of life's process of natural growth and development. For Goethe, that process of growth and development was, however, a function of human kind mastering the limitations imposed by nature. In other words, life must be taken as it comes for the purpose of life is nothing more than life itself (Willoughby, p. 27-8).
Goethe's own purpose in life appears to have simply been to understand life. This inference can be drawn not just from his stated philosophy, but also from the manner in which he reflected that purpose in most of his writings. For instance, Goethe, the critic, contributed new and important ideas in the field of literary theory such as the distinction between allegory and symbol and the notion of Weltliteratur or world literature (Amrine, 1997); Elective Affinities displays Goethe's view on the interrelatedness of material and metaphorical reality, physicality with psychology, and the overall connectedness of nature (Smith, 1997); Goetz and Werther represent his phase of stress and struggle; Iphigenia and Tasso mirror his thoughts on classicism; Faust communicates his views on human dualism; Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship reflects human development and character formation; and finally, Poetry and Truth serves as an autobiography that explains it all (Kaufmann, p. 49).
Thus, there can be little doubt that Goethe was a creative thinker, poet extraordinaire, and literary genius who could easily understand the world and human nature. Indeed, this is the primary reason why Goethe is held with such great respect world over. There is one other reason, however, that Goethe should be respected. And,…