Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  

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"What is Classical is healthy; what is Romantic is sick [...]." --Goethe

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832) was a German poet, dramatist, novelist, theorist, humanist, scientist, painter, and polymath. His most enduring work, the two-part dramatic poem Faust, is considered one of the peaks of world literature. Goethe's other well-known literary works include his numerous poems, the bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, the epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther and the semi-autobiographical novel Elective Affinities.

Goethe was one of the key figures of German literature and the movement of Weimar Classicism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; this movement coincides with Enlightenment, Sentimentality ("Empfindsamkeit"), Sturm und Drang, and Romanticism. The author of Faust and Theory of Colours, he influenced Darwin with his focus on plant morphology.

Goethe's influence spread across Europe, and for the next century his works were a primary source of inspiration in music, drama, poetry, and philosophy.



Literary work

The most important of Goethe's works produced before he went to Weimar were his tragedy Götz von Berlichingen (1773), which was the first work to bring him recognition, and the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (called Die Leiden des jungen Werthers in German) (1774), which gained him enormous fame as a writer in the Sturm und Drang period which marked the early phase of Romanticism – indeed the book is often considered to be the "spark" which ignited the movement, and can arguably be called the world's first "best-seller". (For the entirety of his life this was the work with which the vast majority of Goethe's contemporaries associated him). During the years at Weimar before he met Schiller he began Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, wrote the dramas Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), Egmont, Torquato Tasso, and the fable Reineke Fuchs.

To the period of his friendship with Schiller belong Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years (the continuation of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), the idyll of Hermann and Dorothea, the Roman Elegies and the verse drama The Natural Daughter. In the last period, between Schiller's death, in 1805, and his own, appeared Faust Part One, Elective Affinities, the West-Eastern Divan (a collection of poems in the Persian style, influenced by the work of Hafez), his autobiographical Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From My Life: Poetry and Truth) which covers his early life and ends with his departure for Weimar, his Italian Journey, and a series of treatises on art. His writings were immediately influential in literary and artistic circles.

Faust Part Two was only finished in the year of his death, and was published posthumously.

Scientific work

"As to what I have done as a poet,… I take no pride in it… But that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours – of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many." --Johann Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe

Although his literary work has attracted the greatest amount of interest, Goethe was also keenly involved in studies of natural science. He wrote several works on plant morphology, and colour theory.

His focus on morphology and what was later called homology influenced 19th century naturalists, though his ideas of transformation were about the continuing flux of living things and did not relate to contemporary ideas of "transformisme" or transmutation of species. Homology, or as Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire called it "analogie", was used by Charles Darwin as strong evidence of common descent and of laws of variation. Goethe's studies led him to independently discover the human intermaxillary bone in 1784, which Broussonet (1779) and Vicq d'Azyr (1780) had (using different methods) identified several years earlier. While not the only one in his time to question the prevailing view that this bone did not exist in humans, Goethe, who believed ancient anatomists had known about this bone, was the first to prove its peculiarity to all mammals. In 1790, he published his Metamorphosis of Plants.

During his Italian journey, Goethe formulated a theory of plant metamorphosis in which the archetypal form of the plant is to be found in the leaf – he writes, "from top to bottom a plant is all leaf, united so inseparably with the future bud that one cannot be imagined without the other".

Goethe popularized the Goethe Barometer using a principle established by Toricelli. According to Hegel, 'Goethe has occupied himself a good deal with meteorology; barometer readings interested him particularly... What he says is important: the main thing is that he gives a comparative table of barometric readings during the whole month of December 1822, at Weimar, Jena, London, Boston, Vienna, Töpel... He claims to deduce from it that the barometric level varies in the same propoportion not only in each zone but that it has the same variation, too, at different altitudes above sea-level'.

In 1810, Goethe published his Theory of Colours, which he considered his most important work. In it, he contentiously characterized color as arising from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light. After being translated into English by Charles Eastlake in 1840, his theory became widely adopted by the art world, most notably J. M. W. Turner (Bockemuhl, 1991). Schopenhauer considered his On Vision and Colors to be the correct theory and Goethe's book to be a mere gathering of data. Goethe's work also inspired the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, to write his Remarks on Color. Goethe was vehemently opposed to Newton's analytic treatment of color, engaging instead in compiling a comprehensive description of a wide variety of color phenomena. Although the accuracy of Goethe's observations does not admit a great deal of criticism, his theory's failure to demonstrate significant predictive validity eventually rendered it scientifically irrelevant. Goethe was, however, the first to systematically study the physiological effects of color, and his observations on the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his color wheel, 'for the colors diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. (Goethe, Theory of Colours, 1810

Goethe outlines his method in the essay The experiment as mediator between subject and object (1772). In the Kurschner edition of Goethe's works, the science editor, Rudolf Steiner, presents Goethe's approach to science as phenomenological. Steiner elaborated on that in the books The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception and Goethe’s World View, in which he emphasizes the need of the perceiving organ of intuition in order to grasp Goethe's biological archetype (i.e., The Typus).

Key works

The short epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, recounts an unhappy romantic infatuation that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted that he "shot his hero to save himself": a reference to Goethe's own near-suicidal obsession with a young woman during this period, an obsession he quelled through the writing process. The novel remains in print in dozens of languages and its influence is undeniable; its central hero, an obsessive figure driven to despair and destruction by his unrequited love for the young Lotte, has become a pervasive literary archetype. The fact that Werther ends with the protagonist's suicide and funeralTemplate:Ndash a funeral which "no clergyman attended"Template:Ndash made the book deeply controversial upon its (anonymous) publication, for on the face of it, it appeared to condone and glorify suicide. Suicide was considered sinful by Christian doctrine: suicides were denied Christian burial with the bodies often mistreated and dishonoured in various ways; in corollary, the deceased's property and possessions were often confiscated by the Church. Epistolary novels were common during this time, letter-writing being a primary mode of communication. What set Goethe's book apart from other such novels was its expression of unbridled longing for a joy beyond possibility, its sense of defiant rebellion against authority, and of principal importance, its total subjectivity: qualities that trailblazed the Romantic movement.

The next work, his epic closet drama Faust, was to be completed in stages, and only published in its entirety after his death. The first part was published in 1808 and created a sensation. The first operatic version, by Spohr, appeared in 1814, and was subsequently the inspiration for operas and oratorios by Schumann, Berlioz, Gounod, Boito, Busoni, and Schnittke as well as symphonic works by Liszt, Wagner, and Mahler. Faust became the ur-myth of many figures in the 19th century. Later, a facet of its plot, i.e., of selling one's soul to the devil for power over the physical world, took on increasing literary importance and became a view of the victory of technology and of industrialism, along with its dubious human expenses. In 1919, the Goetheanum staged the world premiere of a complete production of Faust. On occasion, the play is still staged in Germany and other parts around the world.

Goethe's poetic work served as a model for an entire movement in German poetry termed Innerlichkeit ("introversion") and represented by, for example, Heine. Goethe's words inspired a number of compositions by, among others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz and Wolf. Perhaps the single most influential piece is "Mignon's Song" which opens with one of the most famous lines in German poetry, an allusion to Italy: "Template:Lang?" ("Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom?").

He is also widely quoted. Epigrams such as "Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him", "Divide and rule, a sound motto; unite and lead, a better one", and "Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must", are still in usage or are often paraphrased. Lines from Faust, such as "Template:Lang", "Template:Lang", or "Template:Lang" have entered everyday German usage.

It may be taken as another measure of Goethe's fame that other well-known quotations are often incorrectly attributed to him, such as Hippocrates' "Art is long, life is short", which is found in Goethe's Faust ("Art is something so long to be learned, and life is so short!") and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.


Many of Goethe's works, especially Faust, the Roman Elegies, and the Venetian Epigrams, depict hetero- and homosexual erotic passions and acts. For instance, in Faust, the first use of Faust's power after literally signing a contract with the devil is to fall in love with and impregnate a teenage girl. In fact, some of the Venetian Epigrams were held back from publication due to their sexual content. In his 1999 book The Tiger's Tender Touch: The Erotic Life of Goethe, Karl Hugo Pruys argued (with great controversy in Germany) that Goethe's writings suggest he may have been gay. Goethe's sexual portraitures and allusions may have been inspired by his sojourn in Italy, where some men, trying to avoid both the prevalence of venereal disease among prostitutes, and the demand of marriage among 'maidens', embraced homosexuality. Whatever the case, Goethe clearly saw sexuality as a topic worthy of poetic and artistic depiction—an idea that was uncommon in a time when the private nature of sexuality was rigorously normative, and one which may make him a more modern thinker than he is typically considered.


Born into a Lutheran family, Goethe's early faith was shaken by news of such events as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years' War. In July 1782, he described himself as "not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian." In the book Conversations with Goethe by Goethe's secretary Eckermann, however, Goethe is portrayed as enthusiastic about Christianity, Jesus, Martin Luther, and the Protestant Reformation, even calling Christianity the "ultimate religion". Although he opposed many of the central teachings of the Christian churches, he thought that he could nevertheless be inwardly Christian.

His later spiritual perspective evolved among pantheism (heavily influenced by Spinoza), humanism, and various elements of Western esotericism, as seen most vividly in Part II of Faust. According to Nietzsche, Goethe had "a kind of almost joyous and trusting fatalism" that has "faith that only in the totality everything redeems itself and appears good and justified."

On the other hand, a year before his death he expressed an identification with the Hypsistarians, an ancient Jewish-pagan sect of the Black Sea region. After describing his difficulties with mainstream religion, Goethe laments:

…I have found no confession of faith to which I could ally myself without reservation. Now in my old age, however, I have learned of a sect, the Hypsistarians, who, hemmed in between heathens, Jews and Christians, declared that they would treasure, admire, and honour the best, the most perfect that might come to their knowledge, and in as much as it must have a close connection to the Godhead, pay it reverence. A joyous light thus beamed at me suddenly out of a dark age, for I had the feeling that all my life I had been aspiring to qualify as a Hypsistarian. That, however, is no small task, for how does one, in the limitations of one's individuality, come to know what is most excellent?|from a letter to Sulpiz Boisserée dated 22 March 1831

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe bibliography

The following is a list of the major publications of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). 142 volumes comprise the entirety of his literary output, ranging from the poetical to the philosophical, including 50 volumes of correspondence.

See also

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