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Goethe's Conception of the World

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Goethe's Conception of the World

Goethe's Conception: Chapter IV: Goethe and the Platonic View of the World

Goethe and the Platonic View of the World.

I have described the evolution of thought from the age of Plato to that of Kant in order to be able to show the impressions which Goethe was bound to receive when he turned to the outcome of the philosophical thoughts to which he might have adhered in order to satisfy his intense desire for knowledge. He found in the philosophies no answer to the innumerable problems which his nature impelled him to face. Indeed, whenever he delved into the world-conception of some particular philosopher, he found an opposition between the drift of his questions and the world of thought from which he would have liked to get counsel. The reason for this lies in the fact that the one-sided Platonic separation of idea and experience was repugnant to his being. When he observed Nature the ideas lay there before him. He could therefore only think of Nature as permeated by ideas. A world of ideas that neither permeates the objects of Nature nor brings about their appearance and disappearance, their becoming and growth, is to him nothing but a feeble web of thought. The logical fabrication of trains of thoughts without penetration into the life and creative activity of Nature appeared to him unfruitful, for he felt himself intimately one with Nature. He looked upon himself as a living member of Nature. In his view, all that arose in his spirit had been permitted by Nature so to arise. Man should not sit away in a corner and imagine that from there he can spin out of himself a web of thoughts which elucidates the true being of things. He should rather allow the stream of world-events to flow through him perpetually. Then he will feel that the world of ideas is nothing else than the active, creative power of Nature. He will not then want to stand above the objects in order to reflect upon them, but he will sink himself into their depths and extract from them all that lives and works in them.

Goethe's artistic nature led him to this mode of thinking. He felt his poetic creations grow out of his personality with the same necessity as that which makes a flower blossom. The way in which the spirit within him produced the work of Art seemed to him no different from the way in which Nature produces her creatures. And just as in the work of Art the spiritual element cannot be separated from the spiritless material, so it was impossible for him, in face of a natural object, to think the perception without the idea. A point of view to which the perception is only an indefinite, confused element and which wishes to see the world of ideas separated off, purged of all experience, is therefore foreign to him. In all those world-conceptions in which the elements of a partially understood Platonism lived, he sensed something contrary to Nature. For this reason he could not find in the philosophers what he sought. He was seeking for the ideas which live in the objects and which allow all the particulars of experience to appear as if growing out of a living whole, and the philosophers offered him husks of thought that they had combined into systems according to the principles of Logic. He always found that he was thrown back on himself when he turned to others for explanation of the problems which Nature set him.

* * * * *

One of the things from which Goethe suffered before his Italian journey was that his yearning for knowledge could find no satisfaction. In Italy he was able to form a view of the motive forces which give rise to works of Art. He recognised that perfect works of Art contain what men reverence as the Divine, the Eternal. After beholding the artistic creations which interested him most deeply, he wrote these words: “The great works of Art, like the highest creations of Nature, have been brought forth in conformity with true and natural law. All that is arbitrary, that is invented, collapses: there is Necessity, there is God.” The art of the Greeks drew forth this utterance from him: “I suspect that the Greeks proceeded according to those laws by which Nature herself proceeds, and of which I am on the track.” What Plato believed to have found in the world of ideas and what the philosophers could never bring home to Goethe, streamed forth to him from the works of Art in Italy. What he is able to regard as the basis of knowledge is revealed to him for the first time, in a perfect form, in Art. He sees in artistic production a mode and higher stage of Nature's working; artistic creation is to him an enhanced Nature-creation. He expressed this later in his characterisation of Winckelmann: “In that man is placed on Nature's pinnacle, he regards himself as another whole Nature, whose task is to bring forth inwardly yet another pinnacle. For this purpose he heightens his powers, imbues himself with all perfections and virtues, summons discrimination, order and harmony, and rises finally to the production of a work of Art.” Goethe does not attain to his world-conception along the path of logical deduction but as a result of the contemplation of the essence of Art. And what he found in Art he seeks also in Nature.

The kind of activity by means of which Goethe acquired his knowledge of Nature does not differ essentially from artistic activity. Both play into and mutually react on each other. In Goethe's view the artist must surely become mightier and more effective when, in addition to his talent, “he is a well-informed Botanist, when he knows, from the root upwards, the influence of the different parts on the health and growth of the plant, their significance and mutual interaction, when he penetrates into and reflects upon the successive development of the flowers, leaves, fertilisation, fruit and new seed. He will not then reveal his own ‘taste’ by a choice from among the phenomena, but by a true portrayal of the qualities he will instruct and at the same time fill us with admiration.” The work of Art is therefore the more perfect, the more fully it expresses the same law as that embodied in the work of Nature to which it corresponds. There is but one uniform realm of truth, and this includes both Art and Nature. Hence the faculty of artistic creation cannot differ essentially from the faculty of the cognition of Nature. Goethe says in reference to the artist's style that “it is based on the deepest foundations of knowledge, on the essence of things in so far as it is granted us to cognise this essence in visible, tangible forms.” The view of the world that had proceeded from one-sided understanding of Platonic conceptions draws a sharp boundary line between Science and Art. It bases artistic activity upon phantasy, upon feeling, and would represent scientific results as the outcome of a development of concepts that is free of the element of phantasy. Goethe sees the matter differently. When he directs his gaze to Nature he finds there a sum-total of ideas; but to him the ideal constituent is not confined within the single object of experience; the idea points out beyond the particular object to related objects wherein it manifests in a similar way. The philosophical observer takes hold of this ideal element and brings it to direct expression in his thought-creations. This ideal element works also upon the artist. But it stimulates him to give form to a creation wherein the idea does not merely function as in a work of Nature, but becomes present in appearance. That which in a work of Nature is merely ideal, and is revealed to the spiritual vision of the observer, becomes concrete, perceptible reality in the work of Art. The artist realises the ideas of Nature. It is not, however, necessary that he should be conscious of these in the form of ideas. When he contemplates an object or an event something else assumes direct form in his spirit — something that contains as actual appearance what Nature contains only as idea. The artist gives us images of Nature's works and in these images the ideal content of Nature's works is transformed into perceptual content. The philosopher shows how Nature presents herself to contemplative thought; the artist shows how Nature would appear if she were to reveal openly her active forces not merely to thought but also to perception. It is one and the same truth that the philosopher presents in the form of thought and the artist in the form of an image. 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 of the seed that was lying concealed in his nature. The Italian journey afforded the sun-warmth which was able to ripen the seed. In the Essay “Nature” which appeared in 1782 in the Tiefurt Journal, and for which Goethe was responsible, [Compare my proof of Goethe's authorship in Vol. VII of the publications of the Goethe Society.] the germs of the later Goethean world-conception are already to be found. What is here dim feeling later develops into clear, definite thought. “Nature! we are surrounded and embraced by her, we cannot draw back from her, nor can we penetrate more deeply into her being. She lifts us, unasked and unwarned, into the gyrations of her dance and whirls us away until we fall exhausted from her arms. ... She (Nature) has thought and she broods unceasingly, not as a man but as Nature. ... She has neither language nor speech, but she creates tongues and hearts through which she speaks and feels. ... It was not I who spoke of her. Nay, it was she who spoke it all, true and false. Hers is the blame for all things, hers the credit.” At the time when Goethe wrote these sentences it was not yet clear to him how Nature expresses her ideal being through man; but what he did feel was that it is the voice of the Spirit of Nature that sounds in the Spirit of Man.

* * * * *

In Italy Goethe found the spiritual atmosphere which was able to develop his organs of cognition in the only way that in accordance with their inherent nature they could develop, if he were ever to find complete satisfaction. In Rome he had “many discussions with Moriz about Art and its theoretical demands;” as he observed the metamorphosis of plants on the journey there developed in him a natural method that later proved fruitful for the cognition of the whole of organic Nature. “For as vegetation unfolded her procedure before me stage by stage, I could not fall into error, but allowing things as I did to take their own course, I could not fail to recognise the ways and means by which the most undeveloped state was brought to perfection.” A few years after his return from Italy Goethe was able to find a mode of procedure, born of his spiritual needs, for the observation of inorganic Nature also. “In connection with physical investigations the conviction was borne in upon me that in all observation of objects the highest duty is to search for every condition under which the phenomenon appears, with the greatest exactitude, and to strive for the greatest possible perfection of the phenomena; because ultimately they are bound to range themselves alongside each other or rather overlap each other, to form a kind of organisation before the gaze of the investigator, and to manifest their inner, common life.”

Nowhere did Goethe find enlightenment. He had always to enlighten himself. He tried to find the reason for this and came to the conclusion that he had no facility for philosophy in the proper sense. The reason, however, lies in the fact that the one-sided comprehension of the Platonic mode of thought which dominated all philosophies accessible to Goethe was contrary to the healthy tendency of his nature. In his youth he had repeatedly turned to Spinoza. He admits that this philosopher always had a “pacifying effect” upon him. The reason for this is that Spinoza conceives of the universe as one great unity with the single parts proceeding necessarily from the whole. But when Goethe entered into the content of Spinoza's Philosophy he still felt it to be alien to him. “It must not be imagined that I was able to agree absolutely with his writings and admit their truth word for word; for I had already realised only too clearly that no one person understands another, nor thinks as another, even although their words may be the same; I had realised that a conversation or reading would awaken different trains of thought in different people. And one will credit the author of Werther and Faust with the fact that, deeply permeated by such misunderstandings, he is not conceited enough to imagine that he has perfect understanding of a man, who, as a disciple of Descartes has raised himself through mathematical and rabbinical culture to the summit of thought which up to the present time seems to be the goal of all speculative endeavours.” It was not the fact that Spinoza had been taught by Descartes, nor that Spinoza had attained to the summit of thought as the result of mathematical and rabbinical culture that made him an element to which Goethe could not wholly surrender himself, but it was Spinoza's purely logical method of handling knowledge — a method that is alien to reality. Goethe could not surrender himself to a mode of pure thinking free of all element of experience, because he could not separate this from the sum-total of the real. He did not want to connect one thought with another in a merely logical sense. Such an activity of thought seemed to him rather to depart from true reality. He felt that he must sink his spirit into the experience in order to reach the idea. The mutual interplay of idea and perception was to Goethe a spiritual breathing. “Time is regulated by the swings of the pendulum; the moral scientific world is regulated by the interplay of idea and experience.” To observe the world and its phenomena in the sense of these words seemed to Goethe to be in conformity with Nature. For he had no doubt but that Nature observes the same procedure; that she (Nature) is a development from a mysterious, living Whole into the diverse and specific phenomena that fill space and time. The mysterious Whole is the world of the idea. “The idea is eternal and unique; that we also use the plural is unfortunate. All things that we perceive and of which we can speak are but manifestations of the idea; we utter concepts and to this extent the idea is itself a concept.” Nature's creative activity proceeds from the ideal Whole into the particular that is given to perception as something real. The observer ought therefore “to recognise the ideal in the real and allay his temporary dissatisfaction with the finite by rising to the infinite.” Goethe is convinced that “Nature proceeds according to idea just in the same way as man follows an idea in all that he undertakes.” When man really succeeds in rising to the idea and in comprehending from out of the idea the details of perception, he accomplishes the same thing as Nature accomplishes by allowing her creations to issue forth from the mysterious Whole. So long as man has no sense of the working and creative activity of the idea, his thinking is divorced from living Nature. He must regard thinking as a purely subjective activity that is able to project an abstract picture of Nature. But directly he senses the way in which the idea lives and is active in his inner being he regards himself and Nature as one Whole, and what makes its appearance in his inner being as a subjective element is for him at the same time objective; he knows that he no longer confronts Nature as a stranger, but he feels that he has grown together with the whole of her. The subjective has become objective; the objective is wholly permeated with the spirit. Goethe thinks that Kant's fundamental error consists in the fact that he (Kant) “regards the subjective, cognitive faculty itself as object, and makes indeed a sharp but not wholly correct division at the point where subjective and objective meet “ (Weimar Edition, Part II. Volume II. Page 376.). The cognitive faculty appears to man as subjective only so long as he does not notice that it is Nature herself who speaks through this faculty. Subjective and objective meet when the objective world of ideas lives in the subject and when all that is active in Nature herself lives in the spirit of man. When this happens, all antithesis between subject and object ceases. This antithesis has meaning only so long as it is artificially sustained and man regards the ideas as being his own thoughts by which the being of Nature is reflected, but in which, however, this being is not itself active. Kant and his followers had no inkling of the fact that the essential being of objects is directly experienced in the ideas of reason. To them the ideal is merely subjective, and they therefore came to the conclusion that the ideal can necessarily only be valid if that to which it is related, the world of experience, is also merely subjective. The Kantian mode of thought is in sharp contrast to Goethe's views. There are, it is true, isolated utterances of Goethe where he speaks with some appreciation of Kant's views. He says that he has been present at many discussions of these views. “With a little attention I was able to observe the reappearance of the old cardinal question — the question as to how much the Self and how much the external world contributes to our spiritual existence. I had never separated these two, and when I philosophized in my own fashion about objects, I did so with unconscious naiveté and really believed that I saw my opinions clearly before me. As soon, however, as that dispute came into the discussion, I wanted to range myself on that side which does man most credit, and I gave entire approbation to all those friends who maintained with Kant that even if all knowledge commences with experience it is not necessarily all derived from experience.” Neither does the idea, in Goethe's view, originate from that portion of experience which may be perceived through the senses of man. Reason, Imagination (Phantasie) must be active and penetrate to the inner being of things in order to master the ideal element of existence. To this extent the spirit of man participates in the birth of knowledge. Goethe thinks that honour is due to man because the higher reality which is inaccessible to the senses, is made manifest in his spirit; Kant, on the other hand, denies the character of higher reality of the world of experience, because it contains elements that are derived from the spirit. Goethe was only able to find himself in some measure of agreement with the Kantian principles when he had interpreted them in the light of his own world-conception. The fundamental principles of the Kantian mode of thought are strongly antagonistic to Goethe's nature. If he does not emphasise this sharply enough, it is really only because he will not allow himself to enter into these fundamental principles because they are too alien to him. “It was the Introduction (to The Critique of Pure Reason) that pleased me; I could not venture into the labyrinth itself for here I was restrained by my poetic gift and there by the human intellect, and I felt no benefit anywhere.” In reference to his discussions with the followers of Kant, Goethe had to make this confession: “They listened to me, it is true, but could give me no reply nor be helpful in any way. More than once it happened that one or another of them admitted in smiling admiration, ‘it is certainly analogous to the Kantian mode of conception, but in a very peculiar sense.’” ... It was, as I have shown, not analogous at all, but the very reverse of Kant's mode of conception.

* * * * *

It is interesting to see how Schiller tries to explain to himself the difference between the Goethean mode of thinking and his own. He senses the originality and freedom of Goethe's world-conception. He cannot, however, rid his mind of thought elements that are the result of a one-sided conception of Platonism. He cannot attain the insight that idea and perception are not separated from each other in reality, but are only thought of as separated by the intellect that has been led astray by a misguided trend of ideas. Therefore in contrast to the Goethean mode of thinking which he describes as intuitive, he places his own speculative mode of thinking and asserts that both must lead to one and the same goal if they only operate with sufficient power. Schiller assumes that the intuitive mind adheres to the empirical, the individual, and rises from there to the law, to the idea. If such a mind is endowed with the quality of genius it will cognise in the empirical, the necessary; in the individual, the species. The speculative mind, on the other hand, must proceed by the reverse path. The law, the idea, has first to be given to it and from thence it descends to the empirical and individual. If such a mind is endowed with the quality of genius it will of course always have the species only in view, but with the possibility of life and with an established relation to real objects. The assumption of a special type of mind — of the speculative in contradistinction to the intuitive — is based on the belief that the world of ideas has an existence separate and distinct from the world of perception. If this were the case a path could be found along which the content of the ideas about the objects of perception might enter the mind even when the mind does not seek it in experience. If, however, the world of ideas is inseparably bound up with the reality given in experience, if the two only exist as one Whole, there can only be an intuitive cognition that seeks for the idea in the experience and apprehends the species along with the individual. The truth is that there is no purely speculative mind in Schiller's sense. For the species exist only within the sphere to which the individuals also pertain. The mind cannot find them elsewhere. If a so-called speculative mind really has conceptions of species, these are derived from observation of the real world. When the living feeling for this origin, for the essential connection of the species with the individual, is lost, there arises the opinion that such ideas can arise in the reason also without experience. Those who hold this opinion describe a number of abstract conceptions of species as the content of the pure reason because they do not see the threads which bind these ideas to experience. Such an illusion can occur most easily in connection with ideas that are the most general and comprehensive in character. Because such ideas cover a wide region of reality, a great deal that appertains to the entities belonging to this region is effaced or obliterated. A man may absorb a number of such general ideas through tradition and then come to believe that they are inborn in human beings or that they have been spun by man from out of pure reason. A mind that lapses into such a belief may regard itself as speculative in character. It will, however, never be able to extract from its world of ideas any ideas other than have been placed there by tradition. Schiller is in error when he says that the speculative mind, if it is endowed with the quality of genius, produces “indeed only species but with the possibility of life and with an established relation to real objects” (Compare Schiller's letter to Goethe, 23rd August, 1794.). A truly speculative mind, living only in concepts of species, could find in its world of ideas no established relationship to reality other than that already existing within that world of ideas. A mind that has relation to the reality of Nature and in spite of this designates itself as speculative, is labouring under a delusion as to its own nature. This delusion can mislead it into negligence of its relation to reality and to actual life. It will imagine itself able to dispense with direct perception because it believes that other sources of truth are in its possession. The result of this always is that the ideal world of such a mind bears a dull, pale character. The fresh colours of life will be lacking from its thoughts. Those who wish to live with reality will be able to acquire little from such a world of thought. It cannot be admitted that the speculative type of mind is on the same level as the intuitive; it is stunted and impoverished. The intuitive mind is not concerned with individuals alone, it does not seek the character of necessity in the empirical. But when it applies itself to Nature, perception and idea coalesce into unity. Both are seen to exist within each other and are perceived as one Whole. The intuitive mind may rise to the most universal truths, to the highest abstractions, but direct, actual life will always be evident in its world of thought. Goethe's thinking was of this nature. In his Anthropology, Heinroth has spoken about this kind of thinking in striking words that pleased Goethe in the highest degree, because they explained to him his own nature. “Dr. Heinroth speaks favourably of my nature and activity, indeed he describes my modus operandi as original; he says that my thinking faculty is objectively active, by which he means to express that my thinking does not sever itself from the objects; that the elements inherent in the objects and the perceptions enter into my thinking and are permeated by it in a most intimate way; that my perceiving is itself thinking, my thinking, perceiving.” Fundamentally speaking, Heinroth is describing nothing else than the way in which all sound thinking is related to objects. Any other mode of procedure is a deviation from the natural path. If perception predominates in a man he adheres to the individual element; he cannot penetrate to the deeper foundations of reality. If abstract thought predominates in him, his concepts are manifestly inadequate to comprehend the whole living content of the real. The extreme of the first deviation from the natural path produces the crude empiricist who contents himself with the individual facts; the extreme of the other deviation is represented in the philosopher who worships pure Reason and who merely thinks, without realising that thoughts in their essential being, are bound up with perception. In beautiful imagery Goethe describes the feeling of the thinker who rises to the highest truths without losing the sense for living experience. At the beginning of the year 1784 he writes an Essay on Granite. He goes to a hill composed of this stone where he is able to soliloquise as follows: “Here you are resting on a substructure that extends to the very depths of the Earth; no newer stratum, no deposited, heaped-up fragments are laid between you and the firm foundation of the primordial world; you are not passing over a continuous grave as in yonder fruitful valleys; these peaks have brought forth no living thing, have devoured no living thing; they are antecedent to all life, they transcend all life. In this moment when the inner attractive and moving forces of the Earth are working directly upon me, when the influence of the heavens hovers more closely around me, it is given to me to attain to a more sublime perception of Nature, and as the human spirit gives life to everything, an image whose sublimity I cannot withstand, is stirred to activity within me. looking down this naked peak with scanty moss hardly perceptible at its base, I say to myself that this loneliness overtakes one who would fain open his soul only to the first, oldest, deepest feelings of truth. Such an one can say to himself: here on the most ancient, imperishable altar, built immediately above the depths of Creation, I bring a sacrifice to the Being of all Beings. I feel the first firm beginnings of our existence; I look over the world with its valleys now rugged, now undulating, its wide fertile meadows, and my soul, raised above itself and all else, yearns for the Heavens that draw nigh. But soon the burning sun calls back thirst and hunger — human needs — and one looks around for those valleys above which one's spirit had raised itself.” Such enthusiasm in knowledge, such a sense for the oldest, immutable truths can only develop in a man who continually finds his way back from the spheres of the world of ideas to direct perceptions.




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