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From the Stacks: "Goethe and German Egotism"

January 2, 1915

Wikimedia Commons

The German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on this day in 1749. In 1915, George Santayana wrote about the legacy of Geothe, Kant, and Hegel in understanding contemporary Germany. 

There are earnest people who have trustfully fed all their lives on the thoughts of Goethe, Kant and Hegel, but who find themselves somewhat disconcerted by the present attitude of Germany; and they wish to separate if possible those poetic and philosophic influences, which seem so suave and edifying, from the hard sayings of the Bismarckian era. The change, on the surface, is striking enough. A hundred years ago the Zeitgeist was humanitarian, cosmopolitan, romantic; now it is machine-loving, nationalistic, and aggressive. Such pervasive passions in the social medium color even the most original minds. Furthermore, the allegiance of reflective opinion to Christian morals—the native air of the modern world—has been profoundly shaken In the interval. For Goethe and Hegel, and even for Kant, the ultimate foundation of morals may no longer have been Christian; it may have become pantheistic or purely intuitive; yet this revolution was rather esoteric, and for them, as for the conscience of their day, the specific precepts of Christianity were still unquestionable. If you went in for precepts at all, which might be a trifle naive of you, no precepts but the Christian could be taken seriously.

Goethe, no doubt, showed a certain benignity towards paganism and towards the senses; but it was the benignity of a romantic poet, a traveler, a scholar, a sage counsellor to a Christian government; it was not the complete revolt of a natural pagan. His Iphigenie and his Helena and his whole view of antiquity were full of the pathos of distance. He simply continued the Renaissance after that clerical eclipse of it which had dressed the seventeenth century in black; and he was more interested in enriching the life of Christendom with all sorts of speculations and pageantries than in organizing it politically and morally on a new basis. If his pantheist imagination was kindled at times by Spinoza, if he relished the thought that pity was bad and useless or that one who truly loved God could not wish that God should love him in return, he relished these ideas all the more, perhaps, because he took them to be paradoxical and more romantic than in fact they were; for in the system of Spinoza there is nothing strained or willful about them. At the same time Goethe, who was nothing if not benign, showed an equal benignity towards piety and mysticism; he never formulated, like Nietzsche, an anti-Christian standard of duty. Only the sourest Puritan or the inquisitor with the keenest scent for heresy would not gladly forget that so broad a genius was not quite Christian.

More explicitly than by his moral serenity Goethe was separated from the philosophy of Absolute Will, which German action now embodies, by his frank dislike of Fichte, its loudest representative, as well as by his admiration for Napoleon; and he was too Hellenistic and cosmopolitan to dream that the divine life could be wholly summed up in the German nation. Yet faith in Absolute Will has other modes of expression. Schelling, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche have shown how this faith, even in speculation, may become indistinguishable from a naturalism somewhat vitalistic or poetical in tone—the very philosophy Goethe inclined to, and Goethe himself In his personal life and in such writings as “Faust” and “Wilhelm Meister” set forth absolute romantic egotism to perfection. Egotism is but Absolute Will in operation; an egotism which of course must be altogether distinguished from a mean private selfishness without genius. The absolute romantic philosopher sets no particular limits to the range of his interests and sympathies; his programme, indeed, is to absorb the whole world. He is no wounded and disappointed egotist, like Byron, that takes to sulking and naughtiness because most of the world tastes bitter in his mouth. He finds good and evil equally digestible. The personal romantic egotism of Byron or of Musset after all was humble; it felt how weak it was in the universe. But absolute egotism in Goethe, as in Emerson, summoned all nature to minister to the Self; all nature. If not actually compelled to this service by a human creative fiat, could at least be won over to it by the engaging heroism of her favorite child. In his warm pantheistic way Goethe felt the swarming universal life about him; he could have no thought of dragooning it all, as sectarians and nationalists would, into vindicating some particular creed or nation. Yet this impartial fertility in the universe left each life free and in uncensored competition with every other life. Each creature might feed blamelessly on all the others and become if it could the focus and epitome of the world. The development of Self was the only duty, if only the Self was developed widely and securely enough, with insight, calmness, and godlike irresponsibility.

Goethe exhibited this principle in practice more plainly, perhaps, than in theory. His family, his friends, his feelings were so many stepping-stones in his moral career; he expanded as he left them behind. His love-affairs were means to the fuller realization of himself. Not that his love-affairs were sensual or his infidelities callous; far from it. They often stirred him deeply and unsealed the springs of poetry in his heart; that was precisely their function. Every tender passion opened before him a primrose path into which his inexorable genius led him to wander. If in passing he must tread down some flower, that was a great sorrow to him; but perhaps that very sorrow and his inevitable remorse were the most needful and precious elements in the experience. Every pathetic sweetheart in turn was a sort of Belgium to him; he violated her neutrality with a sigh; his heart bled for her innocent sufferings, and he never said afterwards in self-defense, like the German Chancellor, that she was no better than she should be. But he must press on. His beckoning destiny, the claims of his spiritual growth, compelled him to sacrifice her and to sacrifice his own lacerated feelings on the altar of duty to his infinite self. Indeed, so truly supreme was this vocation that universal nature too, he thought, was bound to do herself some violence in his behalf and to grant him an immortal life, that so noble a process of self-expansion might go on forever.

Goethe’s perfect insight into the ways of romantic egotism appears also in “Faust,” and not least in the latter parts of it, which are curiously prophetic. If the hero of that poem has a somewhat incoherent character, soft, wayward, emotional yet at the same time stubborn and indomitable, that circumstance only renders him the fitter vehicle for Absolute Will, a metaphysical entity whose business. Is to he vigorous and endlessly energetic while remaining perfectly plastic. Faust was at first a scholar, fervid and grubbing, but so confused and impatient that he gave up science for magic. Notwithstanding the shams of professional people which offended him, was not a private and candid science possible, which might have brought him intellectual satisfaction and plenty of exhilarating conflicts with hallowed humbug? Of course, and the fact would not have escaped him if he had been a simple lover of truth. But Absolute Will cannot be restricted to any single Interest, much less to the pursuit of a frigid truth in which it cannot believe; for the Will would not he absolute if It recognized any truth which it had to discover; it can recognize and love only the truth that it makes. Its method of procedure, we are told, consists in first throwing out certain assumptions, such perhaps as that every thing must have a cause or that life and progress must be everlasting; and the truth is then whatever conforms to these assumptions. But since evidently these assumptions might be utterly false, it is clear that what interests Absolute Will is not truth at all, but only orthodoxy. A delightful illustration of this is given by Faust when, emulating Luther for a moment, he undertakes to translate the first verse of Saint John—that being the Gospel that Impresses him most favorably. The point is not prosaically to discover what the Evangelist meant, but rather what he must and shall have meant. The Word will never do; the Sense would be somewhat better; but In the beginning was Force would have even more to recommend it. Suddenly, however, what Absolute Will demands flashes upon him, and he writes down: In the beginning was the Deed:

Auf einmal seh' ich Rat
Und schreibe getrost: Im Anfang war die That!

Now, if it comes to making truth, magic can do it far more quickly and brilliantly than science. Magic is an experiment in omnipotence; it thinks to create facts by invoking them, as Absolute Will thinks to create truths by assuming them; so that after all we need not be surprised that Faust finds magic the best key to the universe.

Yet even in this exciting form, the life of thought cannot hold him long. He aches to escape from it; not that his knowledge of the world, as well as his magic, will not accompany him through life; he will not lose his acquired art nor his habit of reflection, and in this sense his career is really a progress, in that his experience accumulates; but the living interest Is always something new. He turns to miscellaneous adventures, not excluding love; from that he passes to imperial politics, a sad mess, thence to sentimental classicism, rather an unreality, and finally to war, to public works, to trade, to piracy, to colonisation, and to clearing his acquired estates of tiresome old natives, who insist on ringing church bells and are impervious to the new Kultur. These public enterprises he finds more satisfying, perhaps only because he dies in the midst of them.

Are these hints of romantic egotism in Goethe mere echoes of his youth and of the ambient philosophy, echoes which he would have rejected if confronted with them in an abstract and doctrinal form, as he rejected the system of Fichte? Would he not have judged Schopenhauer more kindly? Above all, what would he have thought of Nietzsche, his own wild disciple? No doubt he would have wished to buttress and qualify in a thousand ways that faith in Absolute Will which they emphasized so exclusively, Schopenhauer in metaphysics and Nietzsche In morals. But the same faith was a deep element in his own genius, as In that of his country, and he would hardly have disowned it.