Goethe's Conception of the World
The Position of Goethe in the Evolution of Western Thought
The Metamorphosis of Phenomena
Goethe's world-conception reached its highest state of maturity when there dawned within it the perception of Nature's two great motive forces: the meaning of the concepts of polarity and intensification (Steigerung) (Compare the Essay, Erläuterung zu dem Aufsatz ‘Die Natur’). Polarity inheres in the phenomena of Nature in so far as we think of them in a material sense. It consists in this:( everything of a material nature expresses itself in two opposites, like the magnet, in a north and a south pole. These states of matter are either apparent to the eye, or they lie latent within the material and can be roused into activity by appropriate means. Intensification presents itself when we think of the phenomena in a spiritual sense. It can be observed in Nature processes which fall within the scope of the idea of development. At the different stages of development these processes manifest the idea underlying them with greater or less distinctness in their external appearance. In the fruit, the idea of the plant, the vegetable law, is only indistinctly expressed in outer appearance. The idea cognised by the mind and the perception do not resemble each other. “The vegetable law appears in its highest manifestation in the blossom and the rose becomes once again the summit of the phenomenon.” What Goethe calls “intensification” consists in the emergence of the spiritual from out of the material as a result of the creative activity of Nature. Nature being engaged “in an ever-striving ascent” means that her endeavour is to create forms which, in ascending order, bring the ideas of the objects ever more and more to manifestation in outer appearance also. Goethe holds that “Nature has no secret that is not somewhere revealed to the eye of the attentive observer.” Nature can produce phenomena wherein the ideas proper to a wide sphere of allied processes may be discerned. They are the phenomena wherein the “intensification” has reached its goal, wherein the idea becomes immediate truth. The creative spirit of Nature here appears on the surface of the objects; what can only be apprehended by thought in the coarse material phenomena — what can be perceived only by spiritual vision — becomes visible to bodily eyes in “intensified” phenomena. Here all that is sensible is also spiritual, all that is spiritual, sensible. Goethe thinks of the whole of Nature as permeated with spirit. Her forms are different because the spirit becomes in them outwardly visible to a lesser or greater degree. Goethe knows no dead, spiritless matter. Those things appear as such in which the spirit of Nature assumes an external form that does not resemble her ideal essence. Because one and the same spirit is working in Nature and in his own inner being man can rise to a participation in the products of Nature. “From the tile that falls from the roof, to the shining flash of spirit that arises in thee and which thou impartest” — everything in the universe is to Goethe the activity, the manifestation of One Creative Spirit. “All effects of which we are conscious in experience, of whatever kind they be, are in continuous interdependence; they merge into each other; they undulate from the first to the last.” “A tile is loosed from the roof and in the ordinary sense we call this chance; it falls on the shoulders of a passer-by, in a mechanical sense certainly; yet not only mechanically, for it follows the laws of gravity and so works physically. The ruptured life veins give up their functioning forthwith; instantaneously the fluids work chemically, the rudimentary qualities make their appearance. But the deranged organic life offers opposition with equal rapidity and tries to restore itself; the human being as a whole is, meanwhile, more or less unconscious and psychically disturbed. The person coming to himself again feels himself deeply wounded in an ethical sense; he bewails his disturbed activity of whatever kind it may be, but man does not willingly resign himself in patience. In a religious sense, on the other hand, it is easy to ascribe this accident to a higher destiny, to view it as a preservation from a greater evil, as a preliminary to a higher good. This is sufficient for the sufferer; the convalescent, however, rises up with the buoyancy of genius, with trust in God and himself, and feels himself saved; he takes hold even of what is accidental and turns it to his advantage in order to begin an eternally fresh orbit of life.” All effects in the world appear to Goethe modifications of the spirit, and the man who penetrates into their depths, and studies them from the level of the fortuitous to that of genius, experiences the metamorphosis of the spirit from the form wherein it expresses itself in an external manifestation unlike itself, right up to the stage where it appears in its own most appropriate form. In the sense of the Goethean world-conception all creative forces operate uniformly. They are one Whole manifesting itself in a gradation of related multiplicities. Goethe, however, had no inclination to present to himself the unity of the universe as homogeneous. Adherents of the idea of unity often fall into the error of extending the law that may be observed in one region of phenomena to cover the whole of Nature. The mechanistic view of the world, for example, has fallen into this error. It has a special eye and understanding for what can be explained mechanically. Therefore the mechanical alone appears to it to be in accordance with Nature, and. it tries to trace the phenomena of organic Nature as well back to mechanical laws. Life is only a complicated form of the co-operation of mechanical processes. Goethe found such a world-conception expressed, in a singularly repulsive form, in Holbach's “Système de la Nature” that fell into his hands in Strasburg. Matter was supposed to have existed and to have been in motion from all eternity, and to this motion to right and left in every direction, were attributed the infinite phenomena of existence. “We might have allowed even so much to pass if the author, out of his matter in motion, had built up the world before our eyes. But he seemed to know as little of Nature as we did, for, after simply propounding some general ideas, he forthwith disregards them in order to change what seems above Nature, or a higher Nature within Nature, into matter with weight and motion but without aim or shape, — and by this he fancies he has gained much.” (Poetry and Truth, Book II.). Goethe would have expressed himself in similar words if he could have heard Du-Bois Reymond's phrase (Grenzen des Naturerkennens, S.13.): “Natural knowledge is a tracing back of the variations in the corporeal world to movements of atoms generated by their central forces which are independent of time, or it is the conversion of natural processes into the mechanics of atoms.” Goethe thought that the modes of natural operations were interrelated, the one passing over into the other; but he never wanted to trace them back to one single mode. He did not aspire after one abstract principle to which all natural phenomena should be traced back, but for observation of the characteristic mode in which creative Nature, in each single one of her regions of phenomena, manifests her universal laws through specific forms. He did not want to force one particular form of thought on all natural phenomena, but by living experience in different forms of thought, his aim was to keep the spirit within him as vital and pliable as Nature herself. When the feeling of the mighty unity of all Nature's activity was strong within him he was a Pantheist. “With the many and varied tendencies of my being, I for myself can never be satisfied with one mode of thinking; as poet and artist I am a Polytheist, as Nature investigator, a Pantheist, and such as decisively as the other. If I need a God for my personality as a moral being, that also is provided for” (To Jacobi, 6th January, 1813.). As Artist, Goethe turned to those natural phenomena where the idea is present in direct perception. Here the particular seemed immediately divine, the world a multiplicity of divine entities. As Nature investigator Goethe had perforce also to follow up the forces of Nature in those phenomena where the idea in its individual existence was not visible. As Poet, he could rest content with the multiplicity of the Divine; as Nature investigator he had to seek for the uniformly active ideas of Nature. “The law that manifests in the most absolute freedom, according to its own conditions, produces the objectively beautiful, and this must indeed find worthy subjects by whom it can be understood.” As Artist, Goethe's aim is to perceive this element of objective beauty in the single creation, but as Nature investigator his aim is “to cognise the laws according to which universal Nature wills to act.” Polytheism is the mode of thought that sees and venerates a spiritual element in the particular; Pantheism is the mode that apprehends the Spirit of the Whole. The two modes of thought can exist side by side; the one or the other asserts itself according to whether the gaze is directed to Nature as one Whole, that is, life and progression from one central point; or to those entities wherein Nature unites in one form all that she usually extends over a whole kingdom. Such forms arise when, for instance, the creative powers of Nature “after producing manifold plant forms, produce one wherein all the rest are contained;” or “after manifold animal forms, a being who contains them all: Man.”
Goethe has made this remark: “Whoever has learnt to understand my writings and my real nature will have to admit that he has attained a certain inner freedom” (Conversations with Chancellor F. von Müller, January 5th, 1813.). Goethe was referring here to the active force which asserts itself in all man's striving for knowledge. So long as man remains stationary at the point where he perceives all the antitheses around him, regarding their laws as principles which have been implanted in them and by which they are governed, he has the feeling that they confront him as unknown powers working upon him, forcing upon him the thoughts of their laws. He feels no freedom in face of the objects; he experiences the Law of Nature as inflexible necessity to which he has to submit. Only when man becomes aware that the forces of Nature are only forms of the same spirit that works also in himself does the intuition dawn in him that he partakes of freedom. Nature's Law is perceived as compulsion only so long as man looks upon it as an alien power. If he penetrates its true being it is experienced as a force which he himself uses in his inner being; he feels himself to be an element co-operating productively in the “being and becoming” of things. He is on intimate terms with all power of “becoming;” he has absorbed into his own action what he otherwise only experiences as external instigation. This is the liberating process brought about by the cognitional act in the sense of the Goethean world-conception. Clearly did Goethe perceive the ideas of Nature's activity as they faced him in the Italian works of Art. He also realised clearly the liberating effect which the mastery of these ideas has on man. A consequence of this is his description of the mode of cognition which he speaks of as that of comprehensive minds. “Comprehensive minds, which we can proudly speak of as creative, are productive in the highest degree; in that they take their start from ideas, they already express the unity of the Whole, and it is really thereafter the concern of Nature to submit herself to these ideas.” Goethe, however, never attained to direct perception of the act of liberation. This perception can only be attained by one who observes himself in the act of cognition. Goethe did indeed practise the highest mode of cognition, but he did not observe this mode of cognition in himself. Does he not himself admit: “I have been clever, for I have never thought about thought.”
But just as the creative powers of Nature after manifold plant forms bring forth one wherein “all the others are contained,” so, after manifold ideas, do these creative powers of Nature produce one wherein is contained the whole of ideas. And man apprehends this idea when to the perception (Anschauung) of other objects and processes, he adds the perception (Anschauung) of thinking. For the very reason that Goethe's thinking was entirely filled with the objects perceived, because his thinking was a perception, his perception a thinking, he could not come to the point of making thought itself into an object of thought. But the idea of freedom is only attained through the perception of thought. Goethe did not make the distinction between thinking about thought and the perception of thought. Otherwise he would have attained the insight that although in the sense of his world-conception one may indeed refrain from thinking about thought, it is nevertheless possible to attain to perception of the world of thought. Man has no participation in the coming-into-existence of all other perceptions. The ideas of these perceptions come to life within him. The ideas, however, would not be there if the productive power to bring them to manifestation did not exist within him. The ideas may be in truth the content of what is working in the objects, but they come to evident existence as a result of the activity of man. Therefore man can only cognise the essential nature of the world of ideas when he perceives his own activity. In every other perception he does nothing more than penetrate the idea in operation; the object in which it is operating remains, as perception, outside his mind. In the perception of the idea the operative activity and what it has brought about are contained within his inner being. He has the whole process completely present within him. The perception no longer seems to have been generated by the idea; for the perception is now itself idea. This perception of what brings forth its self, is, however, the perception of freedom (free spiritual activity). When he observes thought, man penetrates the world-process. Here he has not to search for an idea of this process, for the process is the idea itself. The previously experienced unity of perception and idea is here experience of the spirituality of the world of ideas which has become perceptible. The man who perceives this self-grounded activity has the feeling of freedom. Goethe indeed experienced this feeling but did not express it in its highest form. He practised a free activity in his observation of Nature, but this activity was never objective to him. He never gazed behind the veils of human cognition and therefore never assimilated into his consciousness the idea of the world-process in its essential form, in its highest metamorphosis. As soon as man attains to the perception of this highest metamorphosis he moves with certainty within the realm of things. At the central point of his personality he has attained the true point of departure for all observation of the world. He will no longer search for unknown principles, for causes that he outside himself; he knows that the highest experience of which he is capable consists in the self-contemplation of his own being. Those who are wholly permeated by the feelings which this experience evokes will attain the truest relationship to things. Where this is not the case men will seek for the highest form of existence elsewhere and since it is not to be discovered in experience, they will conjecture that it lies in an unknown region of reality. An element of uncertainty will make its appearance in their observation; in answering the questions which Nature puts to them they will perpetually plead the unfathomable. Because of his life in the world of ideas Goethe had a feeling of the firm central point within the personality, and so he succeeded within certain limits in acquiring sure concepts in his observation of Nature. Because, however, the direct perception of the most inward experience eluded him, he groped around insecurely outside these limits. For this reason he says that man is not born “to solve the problems of the universe but to seek where the problem commences, and then to keep within the boundary of the comprehensible.” He says: “Unquestionably the greatest service rendered by Kant is that he sets up limits to which the human mind is capable of advancing, and that he leaves the insoluble problems alone.” If the perception of the highest experience had yielded him certainty in the observation of things Goethe would have attained more along his path than “a kind of qualified reliability by means of ordered experience.” Instead of penetrating right through experience in the consciousness that the true has only meaning to the extent to which it is demanded by the nature of man, he came to the conviction that “a higher influence favours the constant, the active, the rational, the ordered and the ordering, the human and the pious” and that “the moral World Order” manifests in the greatest beauty where it “comes indirectly to the assistance of the good, of the valiant sufferer.”
Because Goethe did not know the most inward human experience it was impossible for him to attain to the ultimate thoughts concerning the moral World Order which essentially belong to his conception of Nature. The ideas of things are the content of the active creative elements within them. Man experiences moral ideas directly in the form of ideas. A man who is able to experience how in perception of the world of ideas, the ideal itself becomes self-contained, filled with itself, is also able to experience how the moral element is produced within the nature of man. A man who knows the ideas of Nature only in their relationship to the world of perception will want to relate moral concepts also to something external to them. He will seek a reality for these concepts similar to the reality that exists for concepts that have been acquired from experience. A man, however, who is able to perceive ideas in their own proper essence will be aware that in the case of moral ideas nothing external corresponds to them, that they are produced directly in spiritual experience as ideas. It is clear to him that neither an externally working Divine Will nor an externally working moral World Order is active in producing these ideas. For no trace of relationship to such powers can be observed in them. All that they express is also included in their pure, ideal form which is experienced spiritually. They work upon man as moral powers by virtue of their own content only. No categorical imperative stands behind them with a whip and forces man to follow them. Man feels that he himself has brought them forth and he loves them as he loves his child. Love is the motive power of action. Spiritual delight in one's own production is the source of the moral.
There are men who are incapable of giving birth to any moral ideas. They assimilate those of other men through tradition. And if they have no perceptual faculty for ideas per se they do not recognise the source of the Moral that can be experienced in the mind. They seek this source in a superhuman Will that lies outside them. Or they believe that outside that spiritual world which is experienced by man there exists an objective, moral World Order whence the moral ideas are derived. The speech organ of this World Order is frequently thought to lie in the human conscience. Goethe is uncertain in his thoughts about the source of the Moral, just as he is about certain matters pertaining to the rest of his world-conception. Here too, his feeling for what is in conformity with ideas drives him to principles that accord with the demands of his nature: “Duty — where man loves the commands he gives to himself.” Only a man who perceives the basis of the Moral wholly in the content of moral ideas could have said: “Lessing, who reluctantly was aware of various limitations, puts these words into the mouth of one of his characters: Nobody is compelled to be compelled (Niemand muss müssen). A spiritually-minded, happily disposed man said: He who wants to — must. A third, a man of culture to be sure, added: He who has insight, he also wants to. And so it was believed that the whole range of knowledge, will and necessity had been defined. But on the average, man's knowledge of whatever kind it be, determines his actions and missions; therefore nothing is more terrible to see than ignorance in action.” The following utterance proves that a sense of the true nature of the moral held sway in Goethe but never became a clear perception: “In order to become perfect the will must submit itself in the moral sphere, to the conscience that does not err. ... The conscience needs no ancestry, everything exists within it, it is concerned with the inner world alone.” “Conscience needs no ancestry” can only mean that originally there exists no moral content in man; he supplies it himself. In contradistinction to these sayings we find others where the origin of conscience is relegated to a region outside man: “However strongly the earth with its thousands upon thousands of phenomena attracts man, he still raises his gaze with longing to the heavens, because he feels deeply and vividly within himself that he is a citizen of that spiritual realm the belief in which we can neither reject nor surrender.” “That which defies solution we leave with God as the All-determinant, All-liberating Being.”
Goethe has no faculty for observation of the innermost nature of man, for self-contemplation. “I acknowledge in this connection that the mighty command which sounds so significant — ‘Know thyself!’ — has always roused the suspicion in me that it was a ruse of a secret confederacy of the priesthood whose aim it was to confuse men by unattainable demands and to lead them away from activity in the external world to a false inward contemplation. Man knows himself only to the extent to which he knows the world. He becomes aware of the world only in himself, and of himself, only in the world. Every fresh object, contemplated with deliberation, opens up a new faculty within us.” The truth is exactly the reverse: man knows the world only to the extent to which he knows himself. For what is present as perception in external objects in reflection, example, symbol, only reveals itself in his inner being in its own essential form. That which man can otherwise only speak of as unfathomable, impenetrable, divine, appears before him in its true form in self-perception. Because in self-perception he sees the ideal in direct form he acquires the power and faculty to seek for and recognise this ideal element in all outer phenomena also, in the whole of Nature. A man who has experienced the flash of self-perception does not any longer set out in quest of a “hidden” God behind the phenomena; he apprehends the Divine in its different metamorphoses within Nature. Goethe remarked in reference to Schelling: “I would see him more frequently if I were not still living in the hope of poetic moments; philosophy ruins poetry so far as I am concerned, probably because it forces me into the object, and since I can never remain purely speculative but am compelled to seek a perception for every principle I take flight at once out into Nature.” The highest perception, the perception of the world of ideas, however, was just what he could not discover. That perception cannot ruin poetry, for it alone frees the spirit from all conjectures as to the existence in Nature of an unknown, an unfathomable element. It makes the spirit able to surrender itself wholly and freely to the objects, for it imparts the conviction that all that the spirit may desire from Nature may be gleaned from her.
The highest perception, however, also frees the human spirit from any one-sided sense of dependence. In possessing it the spirit of man feels itself master in the realm of the moral World Order. The spirit of man knows that in its inner being there works, as in its own will, the motive power that brings forth all things, and that the highest moral decisions lie within itself. For these highest decisions flow from the world of moral ideas, and the soul of man has been present at the production of this world. Man may be conscious of limitation in regard to a particular thing, may be dependent on a thousand others, but on the whole he himself sets his own moral goal and moral direction. The operative element of all other things is manifested in man as idea; the operative element in man is the idea which he himself brings forth. The process that takes place in Nature as a Whole is accomplished in each single human individuality: it is the creation of an actuality from out of the idea, man himself being the creator. For at the basis of his personality there lives the idea which imparts content to itself. Going beyond Goethe, we must expand his phrase that Nature “in her creation is so bounteous that after multifarious plant forms she makes one wherein all the others are contained, and after multifarious animals one being who contains them all — Man.” Nature is so mighty in her creation that she repeats in each individual human being the process by means of which she brings forth all creatures directly out of the idea, inasmuch as moral acts spring from the ideal basis of the personality. That which man feels to be the objective basis of his acts is only the result of “paraphrasing” and misunderstanding of his own being. Man realises himself in his moral acts. In concise phrases Max Stirner has described this knowledge in his work: “The Individual and his Rights.” “I am the owner of my power; I am this when I know myself as a unique individual. In the individual the owner returns to his creative void out of which he was born. Every higher being above me, be he God, be he Man, weakens the sense of my individuality and pales before the sunlight of this consciousness. If I cast my lot upon myself, the individual, it rests on its own perishable, mortal creator who consumes himself, and I am able to say: ‘I have cast my lot on Nothingness.’” But one may reply to Stirner in the words of Faust to Mephistopheles: “In thy Nothingness I hope to find the All,” for in my inner being dwells, in its individual form, the active power whereby Nature creates the All. So long as man has not perceived this active power in himself he will appear, in face of it, as Faust appeared to the Earth Spirit. It will always cry to him in the words: “Thou'rt like the Spirit whom thou comprehendest, not me!” Only the perception of the deepest inner life can conjure forth this Spirit which says of itself:
“In the tides of Life, in Action's storm,
A fluctuant wave,
A shuttle free,
Birth and the Grave,
An eternal sea,
A weaving, flowing
Thus at Time's humming loom 'tis my hand prepares
The garment of Life which the Deity weaves.”
In my Philosophy of Spiritual Activity 1The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity, Anthroposophical Publishing Company, 46 Gloucester Place, London, W.1. Price 12/- I have tried to show how the knowledge that in his actions man is dependent upon himself is derived from the most inward of all experiences, from the perception of his own being. In 1844 Stirner advocated the view that if man truly understands himself he can only see the basis of his activity in himself. In the case of Stirner, however, this knowledge did not proceed from perception of the most inward experience but from the feeling of being free and untrammelled by all-constraining world powers. Stirner does not go further than to demand freedom; in this region he is led to lay the sharpest possible emphasis on the fact that human nature is based upon itself. I have tried to describe life in freedom on a broader basis by showing what man discovers when he beholds the foundation of his soul. Goethe did not attain to the perception of freedom because he had an aversion to self-knowledge. If this had not been the case the knowledge of man as a free personality based on itself must have constituted the summit of his world-conception. We find the germs of this knowledge everywhere in Goethe, and they are at the same time the germs of his view of Nature.
In his real studies of Nature Goethe never speaks of impenetrable courses or of hidden motive forces of phenomena. He is content with observing the phenomena in their sequence and explaining them by the help of those elements which in the act of observation are revealed to the senses and the mind. On May 5th, 1786, he writes in this sense to Jacobi; he says that he had the courage “to devote his whole life to the observation of objects accessible to him” and of whose essential being he “can hope to form an adequate idea,” without worrying in the least about how far he will advance or about what is suitable for him. A man who believes that he draws near to Divinity in the single object of Nature does not any longer need to build up for himself a separate conception of a God existing exterior to and alongside of the objects. It is only when Goethe leaves the realm of Nature that his sense for the essential being of objects no longer asserts itself. His lack of human self-knowledge leads him then to make statements that cannot be reconciled either with his innate mode of thought or with the trend of his Nature studies. Those who are prone to refer to statements of this kind may assume that Goethe believed in an anthropomorphous God and in an individual continuation of that form of the soul's life that is bound up with the conditions of the physical, bodily organisation. Such a belief is contradictory to Goethe's Nature studies. The trend of these studies could never have become what it is if Goethe had allowed himself to be guided by this belief. In accordance with the whole character of his Nature studies is the conception that the true being of the human soul lives in a supersensible form of existence after the body has been laid aside. This form of existence necessitates that by reason of the changed life conditions it will also assume a mode of consciousness different from that which it possessed through the physical body. And so the Goethean teaching of metamorphoses leads also to the perception of metamorphoses of soul life. But we shall only be able to apprehend this Goethean idea of Immortality aright if we realise that Goethe's view of the world could not lead him to conceive of an unmetamorphosed continuation of that form of spiritual life that is conditioned by the physical body. Because Goethe did not attempt a perception of the life of thought in the sense indicated here he was not induced in the course of his life to develop in any special degree that idea of Immortality which would have been the continuation of his thoughts on Metamorphosis. This is, however, the idea that would really in truth have followed from his world-conception in reference to this sphere of knowledge. What Goethe gave as the expression of a personal feeling in reference to the view of life of one or another of his contemporaries, or from some other motive, without thinking of its connection with the view of the world won from its Nature studies must not be quoted as characteristic of his idea of Immortality.
When it is a question of a true estimation of some particular utterance of Goethe within the collective picture of his world-conception, we must also take into consideration the fact that the attitude of his soul in the different periods of his life gives special colouring to such utterances. He was fully conscious of this variation in the forms in which his ideas were expressed. When Forster gave it as his view that the solution of the Faust problem is given in the words:
“A good man through obscurest aspirations
Has still an instinct of the one, true way,”
Goethe's reply was: “That would be an explanation. Faust ends as an old man, and in old age we become Mystics.” And in the Prose Aphorisms we read: “There is a specific philosophy answering to every period of life. The child is a Realist, for it finds itself as convinced about the existence of the pears and apples as it is about its own. The youth, assailed by inner passions, must reckon with himself, must feel his way, and he is transformed into an idealist. On the other hand, the grown man has every cause to become a sceptic; he does well to doubt as to whether the means which he has chosen for his ends are the right ones. Before acting and in action he has every cause to keep his intellect mobile in order that he may not later have to regret a wrong choice. The old man, however, will always embrace Mysticism; he realises that so much seems to be dependent on chance; the unreasonable succeeds, the reasonable strikes amiss, fortune and misfortune alike balance unexpectedly; thus it is, thus it was, and old age rests in Him Who is, Who was and Who will be.”