Goethe His Personality and His Work

22 Apr

What is Goethe’s conception of the world and of life? To which philosophy does he belong?

There are two kinds of philosophy: the doctrinal and the nondoctrinal. Doctrinal philosophy does not start from observation of nature, but applies to nature those concepts it has formed about nature, and interprets nature in accordance with them.  It is speculative, and undertakes to construct systems.  Nondoctrinal philosophy starts from nature, attaches itself to nature, and strives to interpret nature in accord with ever-widening and deepening observations and experiments.  This is natural philosophy.  The two currents of thought run side by side throughout the history of the mind.

In antiquity the philosophy of systems was represented by Plato and Aristotle.  In modern times it reached its height at the beginning of the nineteenth century, with Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Schopenhauer, contemporaries of Goethe.

Natural philosophy was born in Ionia, in the Greek world of Asia Minor.  It beagan with Thales, Anaximander, Heraclitus, Empedocles.  Their efforts tended to comprehend the origin of life in matter, and its evolution.  Later, Epicureanism and Stoicism, because of their similar efforts to hold close to nature, also have the character of philosophies of nature.

In the Renaissance, when a new flowering of the natural sciences occurred, there were attempts toward a renewal of natural philosophy.  The most remarkable of these was that of Giordano Bruno.  But the Renaissance and the post-Renaissance failed to create a well worked-out and convincing natural philosophy.  Spinoza succeeded in reviving the spirit of the natural philosophy of Stoicism, even though forced to lend to it the language and the formulas of Descartes.

The young Goethe came under the influence of Giorano Bruno and of Spinoza.  Devoting himself to the natural sciences he became, as a thinker, the representative of natural philosophy at a period when the great systems of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel were the fashion and claimed each to be the complete and definitive philosophy.  He could scarcely have had worse luck.

Brave and modest as he is, he starts studying this doctrinal philosophy, certain that it has something to teach him.  He applies himself dutifully to the reading of Kant; he sits at the feet of Schiller, the prophet of Kant, and lets himself be catechized about the celebrated theory of cognition.  Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel he knows personally. The three had been called by him to the University of Jena.  As we learn from his diary, he lets Schelling initiate him into his pseudo philosophy of nature and makes an effort to relish it.


In the end, however, he has to confess that the manner of thinking of Kant, Fichte, Schelling and Hegel, as well as of Schopenhauer, is alien to him, and that he does not know what to do with it, really because their thinking does not start from the study of nature itself, but applies to it some prefabricated theories. In the aphorisms of his old age he says: “I have always held myself on guard against philosophy.  My point of view has always been that of common sense.

How an individual by himself and through his own study can arrive at convictions capable of guiding him on the right road throughout his existence; that to Goethe is the question that matters.  He feels that he cannot reach these simple and sound convictions except by starting from reality, from the knowledge he gains be observing nature and by observing himself.  To be a realist in order to win through to spirituality-this is Goethe’s keynote.




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