Goethe the passionate anti-smoker: Few could hope for such a serene departure

Uday Kumar Varma

Portrait of Johann Wolfgang Goethe

In the second part of my tribute to Goethe, his passionate penchant against Smoking finds expression. Many today hail it as progressive, but in his times it was nothing short of radical and revolutionary. And his protestations were not merely ethical or Christian, they emerged from a thorough understanding of human anatomy and physiology.

His end was exceptionally peaceful and serene. He departed with a contented tranquility and serenity that hallowed his countenance and was so striking that those who saw him after his death, could not miss noticing it, making it the most envious aspect of his worldly existence.

Please continue to read about this literary genius and an exceptional human being in this concluding part.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – Part II

The exceptional quality of Goethe’s writing never lost its perspicacity or freshness as he uncommonly produced a volume of work, which even the best could accomplish over several life times. He may have lived long but the richness and brilliance of his output sustained for several decades; without in the least diminishing or diluting the quality and originality of his work.

From this perspective, Goethe enjoys a station of rare exaltation and eminence.

Incomparably Prolific
Poet and literary critic Adam Kirsch wrote: “Goethe’s significance is only roughly indicated by the sheer scope of his collected works, which run to a hundred and forty-three volumes.

“Here is a writer who produced not only some of his language’s greatest plays but hundreds of major poems of all kinds.

“He also wrote three of the most influential novels in European literature, and a series of classic memoirs documenting his childhood and his travels, and essays on scientific subjects ranging from the theory of colours to the morphology of plants.

“Then, there are several volumes of his recorded table talk, more than twenty thousand extant letters, and the reminiscences of the many visitors who met him throughout his sixty-year career as one of Europe’s most famous men.”

Shakespearean scholars would be thrilled and excited to have just a fraction of such information about the man of Stratford.

“Finally,” Kirsch wrote, “Goethe accomplished all this while simultaneously working as a senior civil servant in the duchy of Weimar, where he was responsible for everything from mining operations to casting actors in the court theatre.”

Prolific as he was, and outstanding as his output was in terms of range, quality and depth, the years of dedicated application refined his style and content. His observations and comments increasingly acquired the character of beautifully crafted epigrams. Like Oscar Wilde (I can resist everything but temptation) or Benjamin Franklin (Little strokes fell great oaks), his pithy and poignant observations exuded wisdom and wit, intensity and profoundness of his understanding of human nature. Sample this one, among many; “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him”

A crusader against Smoking
was, incidentally, a passionate anti-smoker. Here’s what he had to say on the subject:

Smoking stupefies a man, and makes him incapable of thinking or writing. It is only fit for idlers, people who are always bored, who sleep for a third of their lifetime, fritter away another third in eating, drinking, and other affairs.

“[They] find mental solace in . . . gazing at the clouds of smoke that they puff into the air; it helps them to kill time.

Goethe also believed that smoking contributed to what he considered to be another vice. “[It] induces drinking beer,” he said, “for hot mouths need to be cooled down. Beer thickens the blood, and adds to the intoxication produced by the narcotic smoke. The nerves are dulled and the blood clotted.

“Smoking, too, is gross rudeness and unsociability. Smokers poison the air far and wide and choke every decent man. Who can enter a smoker’s room without feeling ill? Who can stay there without perishing?”

Obviously a man of strong convictions – and extra-ordinary talent to articulate his convictions.

In a Lighter Vein
But Goethe left us with laughter, too, subtle and sophisticated. Peter Cook, the late comedic actor, once said on television that his favourite “intellectual” joke went like this:

“A very hard-up university student decided to apply for a temporary job on a building site to make some money.

The foreman said to him, ‘No, you’re no use to me. We don’t need thinkers; we need someone for hard physical labour. Besides, I don’t imagine you know anything about the building trade.’

‘Of course I do,’ snapped the student, thinking it couldn’t be rocket science.

‘OK, then,’ said the foreman. ‘What’s the difference between a joist and a girder?’

‘Well,’ said the student, ‘I don’t know what you mean by the difference between them, but Joyce wrote Ulysses and Goethe wrote Faust.’

Blissful and Glorious Departure
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe died, reportedly from a heart attack, on March 22, 1832 at his home in Weimar where he had lived for more than 50 years. He was 82.

Few could hope for such a serene and peaceful departure.

His good friend, poet and author Johann Eckermann, closed his work, ‘Conversations with Goethe’, with this entry:

“The morning after Goethe’s death, a deep desire seized me to look once again upon his earthly garment. His faithful servant, Frederick, opened for me the chamber in which he was laid out.

“Stretched upon his back, he reposed as if asleep; profound peace and security reigned in the features of his sublimely noble countenance. The mighty brow seemed yet to harbour thoughts. I wished for a lock of his hair; but reverence prevented me from cutting it off.

“A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture the sight caused me made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode. I laid my hand on his heart – there was a deep silence – and I turned away to give free vent to my suppressed tears.”


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.

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