Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – His philosophy symbolised ultimate triumph of positivity and optimism

Uday Kumar Varma

Goethe – the social philosopher

To understand, even to some extent, the purpose of life and the nature of our existence is far more rewarding than any material riches. Goethe was one such person who in his long distinguished life sought to examine and analyse the essential nature of God, nature and the entity we collectively call humans. His magnum opus ‘Faust’ was a product of this life-long quest.

Goethe enjoys the same status in German literature as does Shakespeare in English literature. Without Parallel and Beyond Comparison. While his artistic brilliance and creative talent may be a shade less eminent; his range and the enormous body of work surpass that of Shakespeare. Voltaire may be closer to him in this respect.

And in one respect, he is decidedly different from every other genius of all times. While so little is known about many of them including Shakespeare, every aspect of life of Goethe has been known, discussed and documented.

Yet, more than a poet and writer he is referred to as a social philosopher, possibly because his writing addressed themes that carried greater connect to deeper intellectual and moral aspects of human existence.

I offer a two- part tribute to this master who was respected and revered not only in his lifetime, but the meaning and import of his works continue to ignite till today fresh interpretations of essential human nature that has refused to evolve over time.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Part I

He grew up a genuine man, remarkable for endless activity of body and mind, a sage minister, a noble friend, and a voluminous writer.

That Goethe was a genius of epic proportions is not surprising, what is surprising is the extra- ordinary recognition this outstanding man received from the world, so uncommon and so ruefully denied to many other geniuses. It is a different matter that the world has produced so few who match the talent, creativity and profusion of Goethe.

When compared with another literary genius Shakespeare, it was aptly observed, “Each was hailed as a genius and both were prolific writers. The big difference between William Shakespeare and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, is that we know virtually nothing about Shakespeare and his life, but almost everything about Goethe.”

A writer and statesman whose body of work includes epic and lyric poetry written in a variety of metres and styles; prose and verse dramas; memoirs; an autobiography; literary and aesthetic criticism; treatises on botany, anatomy, and colour; and four novels. In addition, numerous literary and scientific fragments, more than 10,000 letters, and nearly 3,000 drawings by him are extant.

It is fortunate that most of his works has been meticulously preserved. Otherwise, many may have wondered if a human being is capable of such fecundity. As one critic has caustically noted, “there would certainly be scholars today theorising that the life and work of half a dozen
men had been combined under Goethe’s name.”

Such was the brilliance and range of his output.

A Writer turned Civil Servant
But writing was not the profession that earned him his livelihood. He was a civil servant. The credit to induct Goethe in the court must go to Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimer-Eisenach, who later became the Grand Duke in 1815. Yet, the reputation that drew the Duke to invite him in 1775 to join his court rose out of his literary accomplishments at a young age. He was developing as a writer and was particularly known for his bestselling book, ‘The Sorrows of Young Werther’. Himself an exceptional man, he was a keen follower of literature, amongst other interests, and his court was celebrated for its brilliance. The invitation raised dissenting and jealous eye-brows because Goethe had bypassed the usual channel of holding positions likea state official and a councillor. Karl was, however, undeterred.

After inviting Goethe to join it, he said:
“People of discernment congratulate me on possessing this man. His intellect, his genius is known. If the world is offended because I have made Dr Goethe a member of my most important collegium without his having passed through the stages of minor official professor and councillor of state it makes no difference to me.”

After being called to court Goethe went to live in Weimar and stayed there for the rest of his life. He became a great friend of the Duke as well as his chief adviser and held a number of offices over the years. Precocious, Patient and Passionate Goethe (pronounced “gerter”) was born in 1749 in the busy old-fashioned town of Frankfort- on-the-Maine; a child so precocious that at the age of seven he could write German, French, Italian, Latin and Greek.

Goethe studied law at Leipzig between 1765 and 1768, mainly to please his father who wanted him to make a career in the legal field. He was, however, more interested in literature.

Afflicted, possibly with tuberculosis, Goethe left Leipzig without a degree in 1768 and after another health collapse, which was said to have brought him close to death, for the following 18 months he was nursed at home in Frankfurt by his mother and sister.

During that time he studied alchemy and, it is thought, then conceived the idea of writing a play about Faust, a half-legendary figure who sells his soul to the Devil for knowledge and power. He became the subject of Goethe’s greatest work.

Much to his father’s pleasure, the obedient and dutiful Goethe went to the University of Strasbourg in 1770 to continue his law studies and came out with a degree.

Court life apart, Goethe continued with his literary work and began the “Weimar Classicis” movement with his good friend Friedrich Schiller, producing poems and dramas such as his best known work, Faust. This was published in two parts (1808 and 1832) and completed just before he died, the second published posthumously.

‘Was Die Welt iminnersten Zusammenhait’- The True Essence of Life ‘Faust’ symbolises and epitomises Goethe’s life long quest and questioning of God, Nature and Humans and the dynamics of these inter-relations. It distils powerfully his philosophy and his innate and acquired understanding; and becomes the final expression of the ultimate triumph of positivity and optimism.

Faust depicted the life of Johann George Faust, a classic German legend, a highly erudite, successful and yet eternally dissatisfied hero. He chose to make a pact with the Devil at a crossroads, exchanging his soul for unlimited knowledge and worldly pleasures. Goethe, in this hybrid form of a long poem and a play, offers a more complex and sophisticated version of the simpler Christian moral of the original legend.

The moral doctrine that Goethe presents is to recognise the essential nature and manifestations of all existence and the laws that govern the universe. This essential nature of these laws propels universe towards an untiring, purposeful and positive effort, and that man can find place in life only through striving to participate in this vast cosmic movement.

Faust’s soul, when he dies, is not claimed by Devil (Mephistopheles) and consigned to ‘The Eternal Empty” but is carried to heaven in the presence of God by the intercession of the Virgin Mother. The victory of womanhood (Gretchen) is seldom so emphatic, energetic and reassuring.

………To Be Continued

The author, Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.