Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749)
It was on this date, August 28, 1749, that Germany’s greatest poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was born in Frankfurt am Main. Initially trained in the law, from age 16, he took to letters under the influence of his mother. He joined the rebels of the Sturm und Drang (storm and stress or insurrectionary) period of German literature, which resisted French neo-classicism. Goethe’s poem Prometheus insisted that man must believe not in gods but in himself, and characterized the movement.
When the Grand Duke of Weimar made him his chief minister, he sobered up. But on a 1786-88 journey to Italy, Goethe wrote, “In Rome I have found myself for the first time.” The visit not only awakened in him a passion for classical ideals, but confirmed an aggressive stand against the Churches. He wrote Römische Elegien and, with Friedrich von Schiller’s co-operation, Die Xenien, a collection of caustic epigrams, including many on religion.
Friends, now flee the darkened chamber,
Where they mix and tangle light,
And with wretched lamentations,
Effigies they bend and twist.
Devotees, since time began,
Left deception, ghosts and bugbears
In the minds of learned men.
When you turn your gaze to heaven’s
Azure, on a day serene,
With Sirocco’s wind the chariot
Of the Sun sinks, crimson, down,
Then give praise to all of nature,
Glad and sound of eyes and heart.
And perceive th’eternal factors
That produce chromatic light.*
Goethe made his reputation in Europe with his 1774 novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des Jungen Werthers), which was banned by Catholic authorities in Italy. The novel depicted the prototypical romantic hero, who commits suicide in the end. In Werther, Goethe wrote, “We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things: and, once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him that would endeavor to erase them.”
But Goethe was not only a poet whom experts rank with Shakespeare – he was also a master of the science of his time. He supported Buffon’s theory of the evolution of the earth as early as 1780, his broad knowledge of biology led him to accept the evolution of plants and animals – and in geology he was one of the earliest to discover the Ice Age. His wide-ranging intellect made him a Renaissance Man to compare with Leonardo da Vinci.
Goethe had been a Pantheist since his youth, believing that everything in Nature is God, and he remained one to the end. When asked about a future life, he replied, “the sensible man leaves the future world out of consideration.”** His Conversations† and letters show that Goethe believed neither in a personal God nor personal immortality: “I shall be well content that after the close of this life we should be blessed with another,” said Goethe, “but I would beg not to have there for companions any who have believed it here.”‡ In a letter (30 March 1831) written in the year before his death Goethe describes himself as an “eclectic” with regard to religion.
His other great work, Faust, was composed in sections during sixty years of his life and expresses the many facets of his genius, although along a Christian model of heaven, hell and the devil – yet some clergy accused Goethe of Atheism. Faust was completed in the year he died, on 22 March 1832 in Weimar. It was Goethe who wrote to theologian Johann Lavater, “You say truly that Man is God and Satan, Heaven and Earth, all in one, for what else are these concepts but conceptions which Man has of his own nature.”
* Zahme Xenien (Gentle Ironies) by Wolfgang von Goethe; translation by Fred Wilson:
Freunde, flieht die dunkle Kammer,
Wo man euch das licht verzwickt
Und mit Kuemmerlichstem Jammer
Sich verschrobnen Bildern bückt.
Gab’s die Jahre her genug,
In den Köpfen eurer Lehrer
Laßt Gespenst und Wahn und Trug.
Wenn der Blick on heitern Tagen
Sich nur Himmelsblaeue lenkt,
Beim Sirok der Sonnenwagen
Purpurrot sich niedersenkt:
Da gebt der Natur die Ehre,
Froh, an Aug’ und Herz gesund,
Und erkennt der Farben lehre
Allgemeinen ewigen Grund.
** Ira D. Cardiff, What Great Men Think of Religion, 1945; repr. 1972.
† Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations of Goethe in the last years of his life, 1836.
‡ Rufus K. Noyes, Views of Religion, 1906.
Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.