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Goethe's World View

Goethean World View: Part I.4: Goethe and the Platonic World View

Goethe's Place in the Development of Western Thought

Goethe and the Platonic World View

Goethe and Schiller
The Platonic World View
The Consequences of the Platonic World View
Goethe and the Platonic World View
Personality and World View
The Metamorphosis of World Phenomena

I have described the development of thought from Plato's time to Kant's in order to be able to show what impressions Goethe had to receive when he turned to the results of the philosophical thoughts to which he had recourse in order to satisfy his powerful need for knowledge. For the innumerable questions to which his nature urged him, he found no answers in the philosophies. In fact, every time he delved into the world view of some philosopher, an antithesis manifested itself between the direction his questions took and the thought world from which he sought counsel. The reason for this lies in the fact that the one-sided Platonic separation of idea and experience was repugnant to his nature. When he observed nature, it then brought ideas to meet him. He therefore could only think it to be filled with ideas. A world of ideas, which does not permeate the things of nature, which does not bring forth their appearing and disappearing, their becoming and growing, is for him a powerless web of thoughts. The logical spinning out of lines of thought, without descending into the real life and creative activity of nature seems to him unfruitful. For he feels himself intimately intertwined with nature. He regards himself as a living pan of nature. What arises within his spirit, according to his view, nature has allowed to arise within him. Man should not place himself in some corner and believe that he could there spin out of himself a web of thoughts which explains the being of things. He should continuously let the stream of world happening flow through himself. Then he will feel that the world of ideas is nothing other than the creative and active power of nature. He will not want to stand above the things in order to think about them, but rather he will delve into their depths and raise out of them what lives and works within them.

Goethe's artistic nature led him to this way of thinking. He felt his poetic creations grow forth out of his personality with the same necessity with which a flower blossoms. The way the spirit brought forth a work of art in him seemed to him to be no different than the way nature produces its creations. And as in the work of art the spiritual element is inseparable from its spiritless material, so also it was impossible for him, with a thing of nature, to picture the perception without the idea. A view therefore seemed foreign to him which saw in a perception only something unclear, confused, and which wanted to regard the world of ideas as separate and cleansed of all experience. He felt, in every world view in which the elements of one-sidedly understood Platonism lived, something contrary to nature. Therefore he could not find in the philosophers what he sought from them. He sought the ideas which live in the things and which let all the single things of experience appear as though growing forth out of a living whole, and the philosophers provided him with thought hulls which they had tied together into systems according to logical principles. Again and again he found himself thrown back upon himself when he sought from others the explanations to the riddles with which nature presented him.

Among the things which caused Goethe suffering before his Italian journey was the fact that his need for knowledge could find no satisfaction. In Italy he was able to form a view for himself about the driving forces out of which works of art come. He recognized that in perfect works of art is contained that which human beings revere as something divine, as something eternal. After looking at artistic creations which particularly interest him, he writes the words, “The great works of art have at the same time been brought forth by human beings according to true and natural laws, as the greatest works of nature. Everything that is arbitrary, thought up, falls away; there is necessity, there is God.” The art of the Greeks drew forth this statement from him: “I suspect that the Greeks proceeded according to precisely those laws by which nature itself proceeds and whose tracks I am pursuing.” What Plato believed he found in the world of ideas, what the philosophers were never able to bring home to Goethe, this looked out at him from the works of art of Italy. In art there reveals itself to Goethe for the first time in a perfect form what he can regard as the basis of knowledge. He sees in artistic production one kind, and a higher level, of the working of nature; artistic creating is for him a heightened creating of nature. He later expressed this in his characterization of Winckelmann: “... inasmuch as man is placed at the pinnacle of nature, he then regards himself again as an entire nature, which yet again has to bring forth within itself a pinnacle. To this end he enhances himself, by imbuing himself with every perfection and virtue, summons choice, order, harmony, and meaning, and finally lifts himself to the production of works of art ...” Goethe attains his world view not on a path of logical deduction but rather through contemplation of the being of art. And what he found in art, this he seeks also in nature.

The activity by which Goethe takes possession of a knowledge about something in nature is not essentially different from artistic activity. Both merge into one another and extend over one another. The artist must, in Goethe's view, become greater and more decisive when, in addition to having “talent he is a trained botanist as well, when, starting with the roots, he knows what influence the various parts have upon the growth and development of the plant, what they do and how they mutually affect each other, when he has insight into, and reflects upon, the successive development of flowers, leaves, pollination, fruit and new seed. He will thereupon not merely reveal, through what he selects from the phenomena, his own tastes, but rather through a correct presentation of individual characteristics, he will also make us feel wonder and teach us at the same time.” According to this, a work of art is all the more perfect the more there comes to expression in it the same lawfulness that is contained in the work of nature to which it corresponds. There is only one unified realm of truth, and this comprises art and nature. Therefore the capacity for artistic creativity can also not be essentially different from the capacity to know nature. Goethe says about the style of the artist that it “rests upon the deepest foundations of knowledge, upon the being of things, insofar as we are permitted to know it in forms we can see and grasp.” The way of looking at things which comes from Platonic conceptions taken up in a one-sided way draws a sharp line between science and art. It lets artistic activity rest upon fantasy, upon feeling; scientific findings should be the result of the development of concepts free of any fantasy. Goethe pictures the matter differently. When he turns his eye upon nature, there results for him a. number of ideas; but he finds that, within the individual object of experience, its ideal component is not closed off; the idea points beyond the individual object to related objects, in which it comes to manifestation in a similar way. The philosophizing observer holds fast to this ideal component and brings it to expression directly in his thought creations. This ideal element also works upon the artist. But it moves him to shape a work, in which the idea does not merely work as it does within a work of nature but rather comes to direct manifestation. That which, in the work of nature, is merely ideal and reveals itself to the spiritual eye of the observer, becomes real in the work of art, it becomes perceptible reality. The artist realizes the ideas of nature. But he does not need to bring these to consciousness for himself in the form of ideas. When he contemplates a thing or an event, there then takes shape immediately within his spirit something else, which Contains in real manifestation what the thing or event contains only as idea. The artist gives us pictures of the works of nature which transform the idea content of these works into a content of perception. The philosopher shows how nature presents itself to thinking contemplation; the artist shows how nature would look if it openly brought the forces working in it not merely to meet thinking but also to meet perception. It is one and the same truth which the philosopher presents in the form of thought, the artist in the form of a picture. The two differ only in their means of expression. The insight into the true relationship of idea and experience which Goethe acquired in Italy is only the fruit from the seed which lay hidden in his natural predisposition. His Italian journey brought him that warmth of sun which was able to bring the seed to maturity. In the essay “Nature,” which in 1782 appeared in the Tiefurt Journal, and whose author was Goethe (see my indication of Goethe's authorship in Volume 7 of the publications of the Goethe Society), there are already to be found the seeds of the later Goethean world view. What is here dim feeling later becomes clear definite thought. “Nature! We are surrounded and embraced by her — unable to take ourselves out of her, and unable to enter more deeply into her. She takes us up, unasked and unwarned, into the orbit of her dance and drives herself on with us, until we are exhausted and fall from her arms ... she (nature) has thought and muses continuously; but not as a human being, rather as nature ... She has no language nor speech, but she creates tongues and hearts, through which she feels and speaks ... I did not speak of her. No, what is true and false, everything, she has spoken. Everything is her fault, everything is to her credit!” As Goethe wrote down these sentences, it was still not yet clear to him how nature expresses her ideal being through man; but he did feel that it is the voice of the spirit of nature which sounds in the spirit of man.


In Italy, Goethe found the spiritual atmosphere in which his organs of knowledge could develop themselves, as they, in accordance with their predisposition, would have to if he were to become fully satisfied. In Rome he “discussed art and its theoretical demands a great deal with Moritz”; as he traveled and observed the metamorphosis of plants, a method, in accordance with nature, took shape within him which later proved itself to be fruitful for gaining knowledge of all organic nature. “For as the vegetation presented its behavior to me step by step, I could not go wrong, but, while letting it be, I had to recognize the ways and means by which it can gradually help even the most hidden condition to develop to perfection.” Only a few years after his return from Italy he succeeded in finding a way of looking at inorganic nature also, born of his spiritual needs. “During physical research the conviction forced itself on me that, in any contemplation of objects, our highest duty is to search out exactly every determining factor under which a phenomenon appears and to aim for the greatest possible completeness of phenomena, because the phenomena are ultimately constrained to connect themselves to each other, or rather to reach over into each other, and they do form, as the researcher looks at them, a kind of organization; they must manifest their whole inner life.”

Goethe did not find enlightenment anywhere. He had to enlighten himself. He sought the reason for this and believed to have found it in his lack of an organ for philosophy in the real sense. The reason, however, is to be sought in the fact that the Platonic way of thinking, grasped one-sidedly, which held sway in all the philosophies accessible to him, was contrary to his healthy natural disposition. In his youth he had repeatedly turned to Spinoza. He admits, in fact, that this philosopher had always had a “peaceful effect” upon him. This is based on the fact that Spinoza regards the universe as a great unity and thinks of everything individual as going forth necessarily out of the whole. But when Goethe let himself into the content of Spinoza's philosophy, he felt nevertheless that this content remained alien to him. “But do not think that I would have liked to subscribe to his writings and profess them literally. For, I had already all too clearly recognized that no one understands another, that no one, in relation to the same words, thinks the same thing that another does, that a conversation or a reading stimulate different trains of thought in different people; and one will certainly tryst the author of Werther and Faust, deeply aware as he is of such misunderstandings, not to harbor the presumption of perfectly understanding as a man who, as student of Descartes, has raised himself through mathematical and rabbinical training to the pinnacle of thinking; who, right up to the present day, still seems to be the goal of all speculative efforts.” But what made him for Goethe a philosopher to whom he still could not surrender himself completely was not the fact that Spinoza was schooled by Descartes, and also not the fact that he had raised himself through mathematical and rabbinical training to the pinnacle of thinking but rather his purely logical way, estranged from reality, of dealing with knowledge. Goethe could not surrender to pure thinking free of experience, because he was not able to separate it from the totality of what is real. He did not want, merely logically, to join one thought onto another. Rather, such an activity of thought seemed to him to lead away from true reality. He had to immerse his spirit into experience in order to come to the idea. The reciprocal working of idea and perception was for him a spiritual breathing. “Time is ruled by swings of the pendulum, the moral and scientific world by the reciprocal movement of idea and experience.” To regard the world and its phenomena in the sense of this statement seemed natural to Goethe, because for him there was no doubt about the fact that nature follows the same procedure: that it “is a development from a living mysterious whole” to the manifold particular phenomena which fill space and time. The mysterious whole is the world of the idea. “The idea is eternal and single; that we also use the plural is not appropriate. Everything of which we become aware and about which we are able to speak is only a manifestation of the idea; concepts are what we speak, and to this extent the idea itself is a concept.” Nature's creating goes from the whole, which is ideal in character, into the particular given to perception as something real. Therefore the observer should “recognize what is ideal within the real and allay his momentary discontent with what is finite by raising himself to the infinite.” Goethe is convinced that “nature proceeds according to ideas in the same way that man, in everything he undertakes, pursues an idea.” When a person really succeeds in raising himself to the idea and, taking his start from the idea, succeeds in grasping the particulars of perception, he then accomplishes the same thing that nature does when it lets its creations go forth out of the mysterious whole. As long as a person does not feel the working and creating of the idea, his thinking remains separated from living nature. He must then regard his thinking as a merely subjective activity, which can sketch an abstract picture of nature. As soon as he feels, however, how the idea lives and is active within his inner life, he looks upon himself and nature as one whole, and what appears as something subjective in his inner life has objective validity for him as well; he knows that he no longer confronts nature as a stranger but rather feels himself grown together with the whole of it. The subjective has become objective; the objective has become entirely permeated with spirit. Goethe is of the opinion that Kant's basic error consists of the fact that he “regards the subjective ability to know as an object itself and, sharply indeed but not entirely correctly, he distinguishes the point where subjective and objective meet.” The ability to know appears subjective to a person only so long as he does not heed the fact that it is nature itself that speaks through this ability. Subjective and objective meet when the objective world of ideas arises within the subject and when there lives in the spirit of man that which is active in nature itself. When that is the case, then all antithesis between subjective and objective ceases. This antithesis has significance only so long a person maintains it artificially, only so long as he regards ideas as his thoughts, through which the being of nature is mirrored but in which this being itself is not at work. Kant and the Kantians had no inkling of the fact that, in the ideas of our reason the being, the “in-itself” of things is experienced directly. For them everything of an ideal nature is merely something subjective. They therefore came to the opinion that what is ideal could be necessarily valid only when that to which it relates, the world of experience, is also only subjective. The Kantian way of thinking stands in sharp opposition to Goethe's views. There are, it is true, isolated statements of Goethe's in which he speaks approvingly of Kant's views. He tells of having been present at many conversations on these views. “With a certain amount of attentiveness I was able to notice that the old cardinal question was being revived as to how much our self and how much the outer world contributes to our spiritual existence. I had never separated the two, and when, in my way, I philosophized about things, I did so with unconscious naivety and really believed that I saw my conclusions before my very eyes. But as soon as that dispute arose in the discussion, I liked to range myself on the side which does man the most honor, and fully applauded all the friends who maintained, with Kant, that even though all our knowledge begins with experience, still it does not for that reason all spring from experience.” In Goethe's view the idea also does not stem from that part of experience which presents itself to mere perception through the senses of man. Reason, fantasy, must be active, must penetrate into the inner life of beings in order to take possession of the ideal elements of existence. To that extent the spirit of man partakes in the coming about of knowledge. Goethe believes it does man honor that within his spirit the higher reality which is not accessible to his senses comes to manifestation; Kant, on the other hand, denies the world of experience any character of higher reality, because it contains parts which stem from our spirit. Only when he first reinterpreted Kant's principles in the light of his world view could Goethe relate himself favorably to them. The basic elements of Kant's way of thinking are in sharpest opposition to Goethe's nature. If he did not emphasize this opposition sharply enough, that is certainly only due to the fact that he did not involve himself with these basic elements because they were too alien to him. “It was the opening part (of the Critique of Pure Reason) which appealed to me; I dared not venture into the labyrinth itself: sometimes my poetic gift hindered me, sometimes my common sense, and nowhere did I feel myself changed for the better.” About his conversations with the Kantians Goethe had to confess, “They certainly heard me but had no answer for me nor could be in any way helpful. It happened to me more than once that one or another of them, with smiling wonderment, admitted that what I said was analogous to the Kantian way of picturing things, but strange.” It was, as I have shown, in fact not analogous but rather most emphatically opposite to the Kantian way of picturing things.


It is interesting to see how Schiller seeks to shed light for himself upon the antithesis between the Goethean way of thinking and his own. He feels what is original and free in the Goethean world view, but he cannot rid his own spirit of its one-sidedly grasped Platonic elements of thought. He cannot raise himself to the insight that idea and perception are not present within reality in a state of separation from each other but rather are only artificially thought to be separated by an intellect which has been led astray by ideas steered in a false direction. Therefore in contrast to the Goethean way of thinking, which Schiller calls an intuitive one, he sets up his own way, as a speculative one, and declares that both ways, if they only work strongly enough, must lead to one and the same goal. Schiller supposes of the intuitive spirit that he holds to the empirical, to the individual, and from there ascends to the law, to the idea In the case where such a spirit is a genius, he will recognize what is necessary within the empirical, the species within the individual. The speculative spirit, on the other hand, supposedly goes in the opposite direction. The law, the idea, is supposedly given to him first, and from it he descends to the empirical and the individual. If such a spirit is a genius, then he will, in fact, always have only species in view, but with the possibility of life and with a well-founded connection to real objects. The supposition that there is a particular way of thinking, the speculative in contrast to the intuitive, rests upon the belief that the world of ideas is thought to have an isolated existence separate from the world of perception. Were this the case, then there could be a way for the content of ideas about perceptible things to come into the spirit, even if the spirit did not seek it within experience. If, however, the world of ideas is inseparably bound up with the reality of experience, if both are present only as one whole, then there can only be an intuitive knowledge which seeks the idea within experience and which also grasps the species along with the individual. In truth there is also no purely speculative spirit in Schiller's sense. For the species exist only within the sphere to which the individuals also belong; and the spirit absolutely cannot find them anywhere else. If a so-called speculative spirit really has ideas of species, then these stem from observation of the real world. If one's living feeling for this origin, for the necessary connection of species with the individual is lost, then there arises the opinion that such ideas can arise in our reason even without experience. The adherents of this opinion label a number of abstract ideas of species as content of pure reason because they do not see the threads by which these ideas are bound to experience. Such a delusion is most easily possible with respect to the most general most comprehensive ideas. Since such ideas encompass wide areas of reality, much in them is eradicated or dimmed which is attributable to the individuals belonging to this or that area. A number of such general ideas can be taken up from other people and then believed to be innate in man or to be spun out of pure reason. An individual succumbing to such a belief may consider himself to be speculative. But he will never be able to draw from his world of ideas anything more than what those people have put there, from whom he has received these ideas. When Schiller maintains that the speculative spirit, if he is a genius, always creates “only species, but with the possibility of life and with a well-founded connection to real objects” (see Schiller's letter to Goethe of August 23, 1794), he is in error. A really speculative spirit, who lived only in concepts of species, could not find in his world of ideas any well-founded connection to reality other than the one which already lies within it. A spirit who has connections to the reality of nature and who in spite of this calls himself speculative, is caught up in a delusion about his own being. This delusion can mislead him into neglecting; his connections with reality, with his immediate life. He will believe himself able to dispense with immediate observation, because he believes himself to have other sources of truth. The result of this is always that the world of ideas of such a spirit has a dull and faded character. The fresh colors of life will be lacking in his thoughts. Whoever wants to live in association with reality will not be able to gain much from such a world of thoughts. The speculative way cannot be regarded as a way of thinking which can stand with equal validity beside the intuitive one but rather as an atrophied way of thinking, impoverished of life. The intuitive spirit does not have to do merely with individuals; he does not seek within the empirical for the character of necessity. But rather, when he turns to nature, perception and Idea join themselves together directly into a unity for him. Both are seen as existing within one another and are felt to be a whole. While he can ascend to the most general truths, to the artiest abstractions, immediate real life will always be recognizable in his world of thoughts. Goethe's thinking was of this kind. Heinroth made an apt statement in his anthropology about this thinking which pleased Goethe mightily, because it gave him insight into his own nature. “Dr. Heinroth ... speaks favorably about my being and working; he even describes my way of going about things as an original one: that my ability to think, namely, is active objectively, by which he means that my thinking does not separate itself from the objects; that the elements of the objects, one's perceptions, go into thinking and become most inwardly permeated by it; that my perceiving is itself a thinking, my thinking a perceiving.” Basically Heinroth is describing nothing other than the way any healthy thinking relates itself to objects. Any other way of going about things is an aberration from the natural way. If perception predominates in a person, then he gets stuck at what is individual; he cannot penetrate into the deeper foundations of reality; if abstract thinking predominates in him, then his concepts seem insufficient to understand the living fullness of what is real. The raw empiricist, who contents himself with the individual facts, represents the extreme of the first aberration; the other extreme is given in the philosopher who worships pure reason and who only thinks, without having any feeling for the fact that thoughts, by their very nature, are bound to perception. Goethe describes, in a beautiful picture, the feeling of the thinker who ascends to the highest truths without losing his feeling for living experience. At the beginning of 1784 he writes an essay on granite. He goes out upon a mountaintop of this stone, where he can say to himself, “You rest here directly upon a ground that reaches into the deepest places of the earth; no newer layers, no ruins, heaped or swept together, have laid themselves between you and the solid ground of the primeval world; you do not walk here, as in those fruitful valleys, upon a continuous grave; these peaks have brought forth no living thing and have devoured no living thing; they are before all life and above all life. In this moment, when the inner attracting and moving powers of the earth are working as though directly upon me, when the influences of the heavens are hovering around me more closely, I become attuned to higher contemplations of nature, and just as the human spirit enlivens all, so there stirs in me also a parable, whose sublimity I cannot withstand. So lonely, I say to myself as I look down this completely bare peak and scarcely make out in the distance at the foot a meager moss growing, so lonely, I say, does the mood of a man become, who wants to open his soul only to the oldest, first, and deepest feelings of truth. Yes, he can say to himself: here, upon the most ancient, eternal altar, which is built directly upon the deeps of creation, I bring an offering to the being of all beings. I feel the primal and most solid beginnings of our existence; I look out over the world, upon its more rugged and more gentle valleys and upon its distant fruitful meadows; my soul rises above itself and above all, and longs for the heavens nearer it. But soon the burning sun calls back thirst and hunger, his human needs. He looks back upon those valleys from which his spirit had already soared.” Only that person can develop within himself such an enthusiasm of knowledge, such feelings for the oldest sound truths, who again and again finds his way out of the regions of the world of ideas back into direct perceptions.

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