Intellectual Revolt Of Germany, Goethe's "Werther" Revives Romanticism
Author: Hillebrand, Karl

Intellectual Revolt Of Germany, Goethe's "Werther" Revives Romanticism

1775
 


The latter half of the eighteenth century was, throughout Europe, a
period of revolt against the old ideas, the outworn bonds of mediaeval
society. In art and literature the older system, with its elaborately planned
rules and formulas, is technically called "classicism"; and the outburst
against it established "romanticism," the spirit of desire, the longing for
higher things, an impulse which ruled the intellectual world for generations,
and which many critics still believe to be the chief hope for the future.

Romanticism found expression, more or less impassioned and defiant, in
every land, but its earliest and strongest impulse is generally regarded as
having sprung from Germany. The sceptical, half-cynical rule of Frederick the
Great had left men's minds free, and imagination was everywhere aroused. The
early culmination of its extravagance is found in the youth of Goethe and
Schiller, Germany's two greatest poets; and Goethe's famous novel, The Sorrows
of Young Werther, became the text-book of the rising generation of
romanticists. Werther kills himself for disappointed love, and the book has
been seriously accused of creating an epidemic of suicide in Germany.
Hillebrand, writer of the following analysis of the period and the movement,
is among the foremost of present-day German authorities upon the subject.

Goethe was twenty-six years old when he accepted (1775) the invitation of
Charles Augustus, and transported to Weimar the tone and the allures of the
literary bohemia of Strasburg. There, to the terror of the good burghers of
that small residence, to the still greater terror of the microscopic
courtiers, began that "genial" and wild life which he and his august companion
led during several years. Hunting, riding on horseback, masquerades, private
theatricals, satirical verse, improvisation of all sorts, flirtation
particularly, filled up day and night, to the scandal of all worthy folk, who
were utterly at a loss to account for his serene highness saying "Du" to this
Frankfort roturier. The gay Dowager Duchess, Wieland's firm friend, looked
upon these juvenile freaks with a more lenient eye; for she well knew that the
fermentation once over, a noble, generous wine would remain. "We are playing
the devil here," writes Goethe to Merck; "we hold together, the Duke and I,
and go our own way. Of course, in doing so we knock against the wicked, and
also against the good; but we shall succeed; for the gods are evidently on our
side." Soon Herder was to join them there, unfortunately not always satisfied
with the results of his teaching about absolute liberty of genius.

The whole generation bore with impatience the yoke of the established
order, of authority under whatever form, whether the fetters were those of
literary convention or social prejudice, of the state or the church. The ego
affirmed its absolute, inalienable right; it strove to manifest itself
according to its caprices, and refused to acknowledge any check. Individual
inspiration was a sacred thing, which reality with its rules and prejudices
could only spoil and deflower. Now, according to the temperament of each,
they rose violently against society and its laws, or resigned themselves
silently to a dire necessity. The one in Titanic effort climbed Olympus,
heaving Pelion on Ossa; the other wiped a furtive tear out of his eye, and,
aspiring to deliverance, dreamed of an ideal happiness. Sometimes in the same
poet the two dispositions succeed each other.

"Cover thy sky with vapor and clouds, O Zeus," exclaims Goethe's
Prometheus, "and practise thy strength on tops of oaks and summits of
mountains like the child who beheads thistles. Thou must, nevertheless, leave
me my earth and my hut, which thou hast not built, and my hearth, whose flame
thou enviest. Is it not my heart, burning with a sacred ardor, which alone
has accomplished all? And should I thank thee, who wast sleeping whilst I
worked?"

The same young man who had put into the mouth of the rebellious Titan
this haughty and defiant outburst, at other moments, when he was discouraged
and weary of the struggle, took refuge within himself. Like Werther, "finding
his world within himself, he spoils and caresses his tender heart, like a
sickly child, all whose caprices we indulge." One or the other of those
attitudes toward reality, the active and the passive, were soon taken by the
whole youth of the time; and just as Schiller's Brigands gave birth to a whole
series of wild dramas, Werther left in the novels of the time a long line of
tears. More than that, even in reality Karl Moor found imitators who engaged
in an open struggle against society, and one met at every corner languishing
Siegwarts, whose delicate soul was hurt by the cruel contact of the world.

What strikes us most in this morbid sentimentality is the eternal
melancholy sighing after nature. Ossian's cloudy sadness and Young's dark
Nights veil every brow. They fly into the solitudes of the forests in order
to dream freely of a less brutal world. They must, indeed, have been very far
from nature to seek for it with such avidity. Many, in fact, of these ardent,
feverish young men became in the end a prey, some to madness, others to
suicide. A species of moral epidemic, like that which followed upon the
apparent failure of the Revolution in 1799, had broken out. The germ of
Byronism may be clearly detected already in the Wertherism of those times.
Exaggerated and overstrained imaginations found insufficient breathing-room in
the world, and met on all sides with boundaries to their unlimited demands.
Hearts, accustomed to follow the dictates of their own inspiration alone,
bruised themselves against the sharp angles of reality. The thirst for action
which consumed their ardent youth could not be quenched, in fact, in the
narrow limits of domestic life; and public life did not exist. Frederick had
done great things, but only, like the three hundred other German governments,
to exclude the youth of the middle classes from active life. Thence the
general uneasiness. Werther was as much an effect as a cause of this endemic
disease; above all, it was the expression of a general state of mind. It is
this which constitutes its historical importance, while the secret of its
lasting value is to be found in its artistic form.

Besides, if I may say so without paradox, the disease was but an excess
of health, a juvenile crisis through which Herder, young Goethe, Schiller, and
indeed the whole generation had to pass.

"Oh," exclaimed old Goethe fifty years later in a conversation with young
Felix Mendelssohn, "oh, if I could but write a fourth volume of my life! It
should be a history of the year 1775, which no one knows or can write better
than I. How the nobility, feeling itself outrun by the middle classes, began
to do all it could not to be left behind in the race; how liberalism,
Jacobinism, and all that devilry awoke; how a new life began; how we studied
and poetized, made love and wasted our time; how we young folk, full of life
and activity, but awkward as we could be scoffed at the aristocratic
propensities of Messrs. Nicolai and Co., in Berlin, who at that time reigned
supreme." "Ah, yes, that was a spring, when everything was budding and
shooting, when more than one tree was yet bare, while others were already full
of leaves. All that in the year 1775!"

Old pedantic Nicholai, at whom he scoffed thus, foresaw, with his prosy
commonsense, what would happen "with all those confounded striplings," as
Wieland called them, "who gave themselves airs as if they were accustomed to
play at blind-man's buff with Shakespeare." "In four or five years," said he
in 1776, "this fine enthusiasm will have passed away like smoke; a few drops
of spirit will be found in the empty helmet, and a big caput mortuum in the
crucible." This proved true certainly for the great majority, but not so as
regards the two coursers which then broke loose, and for him who had cut their
traces and released them. Goethe, indeed, modified, or at least cleared up,
his early views under the influence of a deeper study of nature and the sight
of ancient and Renaissance art in Italy (1786-1788); Schiller put himself to
school under Kant (1790), and went out of it with a completely altered
philosophy: Kant himself became another after, if not in consequence of, the
great King's death (1786); Herder alone remained faithful throughout to the
creed he had himself preached.

The way opened by Herder, although partly and temporarily abandoned
during the classical period which intervened, was followed again by the third
generation of the founders of German culture, the so-called Romanticists, and
by all the great scholars, who, in the first half of this century, revived the
historical sciences in Germany. Herder's ideas have, indeed, penetrated our
whole thought to such a degree, while his works are so unfinished and
disconnected, that it is hardly possible for us to account for the
extraordinary effect these ideas and works produced in their day, except by
marking the contrast which they present with the then reigning methods and
habits as well as the surprising influence exercised by Herder personally.
From his twenty-fifth year, indeed, he was a sovereign. His actual and
uncontested sway was not, it is true, prolonged beyond a period of about
sixteen years, albeit his name figured to a much later time on the list of
living potentates. It is also true that when the seeds thrown by him had
grown luxuriantly, and were bearing fruit, the sower was almost entirely
forgotten or wilfully ignored. The generation, however, of the "Stuermer und
Draenger," ^1 or, as they were pleased to denominate themselves, the "original
geniuses," looked up to Herder as their leader and prophet. Some of them
turned from him later on and went back to the exclusive worship of classical
antiquity; but their very manner of doing homage to it bore witness to
Herder's influence. The following generation threw itself no less exclusively
into the Middle Ages; but what, after all, was it doing if not following
Herder's example, when it raked up Dantes and Calderons out of the dust in
order to confront them with and oppose them to Vergils and Racines? However
they might repudiate, nay, even forget, their teacher, his doctrines already
pervaded the whole intellectual atmosphere of Germany, and men's minds
breathed them in with the very air they inhaled. To-day they belong to
Europe.

[Footnote 1: "Storm and stress," the period of intellectual revolt, struggle,
and emancipation in Germany. - Ed.]

Herder, I repeat, is certainly neither a classical nor a finished writer.
He has no doubt gone out of fashion, because his style is pompous and diffuse,
his composition loose or fragmentary; because his reasoning lacks firmness and
his erudition solidity. Still, no other German writer of note exercised the
important indirect influence which was exercised by Herder. In this I do not
allude to Schelling and his philosophy, which received more than one impulse
from Herder's ideas; nor to Hegel, who reduced them to a metaphysical system
and defended them with his wonderful dialectics. But F. A. Wolf, when he
points out to us in Homer the process of epic poetry; Niebuhr, in revealing to
us the growth of Rome, the birth of her religious and national legends, the
slow, gradual formation of her marvellous constitution; Savigny, when he
proves that the Roman civil law, that master-piece of human ingenuity, was not
the work of a wise legislator, but rather the wisdom of generations and of
centuries; Eichhorn, when he wrote the history of German law and created
thereby a new branch of historical science which has proved one of the most
fertile; A. W. Schlegel and his school, when they transplanted all the poetry
of other nations to Germany by means of imitations which are real wonders of
assimilation; Frederick Schlegel, when, in the Wisdom of the Hindoos he opened
out that vast field of comparative linguistic science, which Bopp and so many
others have since cultivated with such success; Alexander von Humboldt and
Karl Ritter, when they gave a new life to geography by showing the earth in
its growth and development and coherence; W. von Humboldt, when he established
the laws of language as well as those of self-government; Jacob Grimm, when he
brought German philology into existence, while his brother Wilhelm made a
science of Northern mythology; still later on, D. F. Strauss, when, in the
days of our own youth, he placed the myth and the legend, with their
unconscious origin and growth, not alone in opposition to the idea of Deity
intervening to interrupt established order, but also to that of imposture and
conscious fraud; Otfr. Mueller, when he proved that Greek mythology, far from
containing moral abstractions or historical facts, is the involuntary
personification of surrounding nature, subsequently developed by imagination;
Max Mueller, even, when he creates the new science of comparative mythology -
what else are they doing but applying and working out Herder's ideas? and if
we turn our eyes to other nations, what else were Burke and Coleridge, B.
Constant and A. Thierry, Guizot and A. de Tocqueville - what are Renan and
Taine, Carlyle and Darwin doing, each in his own branch, but applying and
developing Herder's two fundamental principles, that of organic evolution and
that of the entireness of the individual? For it was Herder who discovered
the true spirit of history, and in this sense it is that Goethe was justified
in saying of him:

"A noble mind, desirous of fathoming man's soul in whatever direction it
may shoot forth, searcheth throughout the universe for sound and word which
flow through the lands in a thousand sources and brooks; wanders through the
oldest as the newest regions and listens in every zone." "He knew how to find
this soul wherever it lay hid, whether robed in grave disguise, or lightly
clothed in the garb of play, in order to found for the future this lofty rule:
Humanity be our eternal aim!"

Among the young literary rebels who, under Herder's guidance, attempted,
toward and after 1775, to overthrow all conventionalism, all authority, even
all law and rule, in order to put in their stead the absolute self-government
of genius , freed from all tutorship - the foremost were the two greatest
German poets, Goethe and Schiller. Goethe's Goetz and Werther, Schiller's
Brigands and Cabal and Love, were greeted as the promising forerunners of the
national literature to come. Their subjects were German and modern, not
French or classic; in their plan they affected Shakespearean liberty; in their
language they were at once familiar, strong, and original; in their
inspiration they were protests against the social prejudices and political
abuses of the time, vehement outbursts of individuality against convention.

Not twenty years had passed away, when both the revolutionists had become
calm and resigned liberal conservatives, who understood and taught that
liberty is possible only under the empire of law; that the real world with all
its limits had a right as well as the inner world, which knows no frontiers;
that to be completely free man must fly into the ideal sphere of art, science,
or formless religion. Not that they abjured "the dreams of their youth." The
nucleus of their new creed was contained in their first belief; but it had
been developed into a system of social views more in harmony with society and
its exigencies, of aesthetic opinions more independent of reality and its
accidents, of philosophical ideas more speculative and methodical. In other
words, Goethe and Schiller never ceased to believe, as they had done at
twenty, that all vital creations in nature as in society are the result of
growth and organic development, not of intentional, self-conscious planning,
and that individuals on their part act powerfully only through their nature in
its entirety, not through one faculty alone, such as reason or will, separated
from instinct, imagination, temperament, passion, etc. Only they came to the
conviction that here existed general laws which presided over organic
development, and that there was a means of furthering in the individual the
harmony between temperament, character, understanding, and imagination,
without sacrificing one to the others. Hence they shaped for themselves a
general view of nature and mankind, society and history, which may not have
become the permanent view of the whole nation; but which for a time was
predominant, which even now is still held by many, and which in some respects
will always be the ideal of the best men in Germany, even when circumstances
have wrought a change in the intellectual and social conditions of their
country, so as to necessitate a total transformation and accommodation of
those views.

We cannot regard it merely as the natural effect of advancing years if
Goethe and Schiller modified and cleared their views; if Kant, whose great
emancipating act, the Critique of Pure Reason, falls chronologically in the
same period (1781), corrected what seemed to him too absolute in his system,
and reconstructed from the basis of the conscience that metaphysical world
which he had destroyed by his analysis of the intellect. The world just then
was undergoing profound changes. The great "Philosopher-king" had descended
to the tomb (1786), and with him the absolute liberty of thought which had
reigned for forty-six years. The French Revolution, after having exalted all
generous souls, and seemingly confirmed the triumph of liberty and justice
which the generation had witnessed in America, took a direction and drifted
into excesses which undeceived, sobered, and saddened even the most hopeful
believers. As regards personal circumstances, the Italian journey of Goethe
(1786-1788) and his scientific investigations into nature, the study of Kant's
new philosophy to which Schiller submitted his undisciplined mind (1790 and
1791), were the high-schools out of which their genius came strengthened and
purified, although their aesthetic and moral doctrines did not remain quite
unimpaired by them. I shall endeavor to give an idea of this double process
and its results at the risk of being still more abstract and dry than before.

Man is the last and highest link of nature; his task is to understand
what she aims at in him and then to fulfil her intentions. This view of
Herder's was Goethe's starting-point in the formation of his Weltanschauung
(or general view of things).

"All the world," says one of the characters in Wilhelm Meister, "lies
before us, like a vast quarry before the architect. He does not deserve the
name if he does not compose with these accidental natural materials an image
whose source is in his mind, and if he does not do it with the greatest
possible economy, solidity, and perfection. All that we find outside of us,
nay, within us, is object-matter; but deep within us lives also a power
capable of giving an ideal form to this matter. This creative power allows us
no rest till we have produced that ideal form in one or the other way, either
without us in finished works or in our own life."

Here we already have in germ Schiller's idea that life ought to be a work
of art. But how do we achieve this task, continually impeded as we are by
circumstances and by our fellow-creatures, who will not always leave us in
peace to develop our individual characters in perfect conformity with nature?
In our relations with our neighbor, Goethe - like Lessing and Wieland, Kant
and Herder, and all the great men of his and the preceding age, in England and
France as well as in Germany - recommended absolute toleration, not only of
opinions, but also of individualities, particularly those in which Nature
manifests herself "undefiled." As to circumstances, which is only another name
for fate, he preached and practised resignation. At every turn of our life,
in fact, we meet with limits; our intelligence has its frontiers which bar its
way; our senses are limited and can only embrace an infinitely small part of
nature; few of our wishes can be fulfilled; privation and sufferings await us
at every moment. "Privation is thy lot, privation! That is the eternal song
which resounds at every moment, which, our whole life through, each hour sings
hoarsely to our ears!" laments Faust. What remains, then, for man?
"Everything cries to us that we must resign ourselves." "There are few men,
however, who, conscious of the privations and sufferings in store for them in
life, and desirous to avoid the necessity of resigning themselves anew in each
particular case, have the courage to perform the act of resignation once for
all;" who say to themselves that there are eternal and necessary laws to which
we must submit, and that we had better do it without grumbling; who "endeavor
to form principles which are not liable to be destroyed, but are rather
confirmed by contact with reality." In other words, when man has discovered
the laws of nature, both moral and physical, he must accept them as the limits
of his actions and desires; he must not wish for eternity of life or
inexhaustible capacities of enjoyment, understanding, and acting, any more
than he wishes for the moon. For rebellion against these laws must needs be
an act of impotency as well as of deceptive folly. By resignation, on the
contrary, serene resignation, the human soul is purified; for thereby it
becomes free of selfish passions and arrives at that intellectual superiority
in which the contemplation and understanding of things give sufficient
contentment, without making it needful for man to stretch out his hands to
take possession of them; a thought which Goethe's friend, Schiller, has
magnificently developed in his grand philosophical poems. Optimism and
pessimism disappear at once, as well as fatalism; the highest and most refined
intellect again accepts the world, as children and ignorant toilers do: as a
given necessity. He does not even think the world could be otherwise, and
within its limits he not only enjoys and suffers, but also works gayly, trying
like Horace, to subject things to himself, but resigned to submit to them when
they are invincible. Thus the simple Hellenic existence which, contrary to
Christianity, but according to nature, accepted the present without
ceaselessly thinking of death and another world, and acted in that present and
in the circumstances allotted to each by fate, without wanting to overstep the
boundaries of nature, would revive again in our modern world and free us
forever from the torment of unaccomplished wishes and of vain terrors.

The sojourn in Italy, during which Goethe lived outside the struggle for
life, outside the competition and contact of practical activity, in the
contemplation of nature and art, developed this view - the spectator's view -
which will always be that of the artist and of the thinker, strongly opposed
to that of the actor on the stage of human life. Iphigenie, Torquato Tasso,
Wilhelm Meister, are the fruits and the interpreters of this conception of the
moral world. What ripened and perfected it so as to raise it into a general
view, not only of morality, but also of the great philosophical questions
which man is called upon to answer, was his study of nature, greatly furthered
during his stay in Italy. The problem which lay at the bottom of all the
vague longing of his generation for nature he was to solve. It became his
incessant endeavor to understand the coherence and unity of nature.

"You are forever searching for what is necessary in nature," Schiller
wrote to him once, "but you search for it by the most difficult way. You take
the whole of nature in order to obtain light on the particular case; you look
into the totality for the explanation of the individual existence. From the
simplest organism (in nature) you ascend step by step to the more complicated,
and finally construct the most complicated of all - man - out of the materials
of the whole of nature. In thus creating man anew under the guidance of
nature, you penetrate into his mysterious organism."

And, indeed, as there is a wonderful harmony with nature in Goethe the
poet and the man, so there is the same harmony in Goethe the savant and the
thinker; nay, even science he practised as a poet. As one of the greatest
physicists of our days, Helmholtz, has said of him, "He did not try to
translate nature into abstract conceptions, but takes it as a complete work of
art, which must reveal its contents spontaneously to an intelligent observer."
Goethe never became a thorough experimentalist; he did not want "to extort the
secret from nature by pumps and retorts." He waited patiently for a voluntary
revelation, i.e., until he could surprise that secret by an intuitive glance;
for it was his conviction that if you live intimately with Nature she will
sooner or later disclose her mysteries to you. If you read his Songs, his
Werther, his Wahlverwandtschaften, you feel that extraordinary intimacy - I
had almost said identification - with nature, present everywhere. Werther's
love springs up with the blossom of all nature; he begins to sink and nears
his self-made tomb while autumn, the death of nature, is in the fields and
woods. So does the moon spread her mellow light over his garden, as "the mild
eye of a true friend over his destiny." Never was there a poet who humanized
nature or naturalized human feeling, if I might say so, to the same degree as
Goethe. Now, this same love of nature he brought into his scientific
researches.

He began his studies of nature early, and he began them as he was to
finish them - with geology. Buffon's great views on the revolutions of the
earth had made a deep impression upon him, although he was to end as the
declared adversary of that vulcanism which we can trace already at the bottom
of Buffon's theory - naturally enough, when we think how uncongenial all
violence in society and nature was to him, how he looked everywhere for slow,
uninterrupted evolution. From theoretical study he had early turned to direct
observation; and when his administrative functions obliged him to survey the
mines of the little dukedom, ample opportunity was offered for positive
studies. As early as 1778, in a paper, Granite, he wrote: "I do not fear the
reproach that a spirit of contradiction draws me from the contemplation of the
human heart - this most mobile, most mutable and fickle part of the creation -
to the observation of (granite) the oldest, firmest, deepest, most immovable
son of nature. For all natural things are in connection with each other." It
was his life's task to search for the links of this coherence in order to find
that unity which he knew to be in the moral as well as material universe.

From those "first and most solid beginnings of our existence" he turned
to the history of plants and to the anatomy of the animals which cover this
crust of the earth. The study of Spinoza confirmed him in the direction thus
taken. "There I am on and under the mountains, seeking the divine in herbis
et lapidibus," says he, in Spinoza's own words; and again: "Pardon me if I
like to remain silent when people speak of a divine being which I can know
only in rebus singularibus." This pantheistic view grew stronger and stronger
with years; but it became a pantheism very different from that of Parmenides,
for whom being and thinking are one, or from that of Giordano Bruno, which
rests on the analogy of a universal soul with the human soul, or even from
that of Spinoza himself, which takes its start from the relations of the
physical world with the conceptive world, and of both with the divine one.
Goethe's pantheism always tends to discover the cohesion of the members of
nature, of which man is one: if once he has discovered this universal unity,
where there are no gaps in space nor leaps in time, he need not search further
for the divine.

It is analogy which helps us to form these intuitive or platonic ideas.
It was through analogy that Goethe arrived at his great discoveries in natural
science, and I only repeat what such men as Johannes Mueller, Baer, and
Helmholtz have been willing to acknowledge, when I say that the poet's eye has
been as keen as that of any naturalist. Kant had contended that there might
be a superior intelligence, which, contrary to human intelligence, goes from
the general to the particular; and Goethe thought - he proved, I might say -
that in man too some of this divine intelligence can operate and shine, if
only in isolated sparks. It was a spark of this kind which, first at Padua on
the sight of a fanpalmtree, then again, on the eve of his departure from
Palermo, during a walk in the public garden amid the Southern vegetation,
revealed to him the law of the metamorphosis of plants. He found an analogy
between the different parts of the same plant which seemed to repeat
themselves; unity and evolution were revealed to him at once.

Three years later the sight of a half-broken sheep-skull, which he found
by chance on the sand of the Venetian Lido, taught him that the same law, as
he had suspected, applied also to vertebrate animals, and that the skull might
be considered as a series of strongly modified vertebrae. He had, in fact,
already hinted at the principle, shortly after put forward by Lamarck, and
long afterward developed and firmly established by Darwin. He considered the
difference in the anatomical structure of animal species as modifications of a
type or planned structure, modifications brought about by the difference of
life, food, and dwellings. He had discovered as early as 1786 the
intermaxillary bone in man, i.e., the remnant of a part which had had to be
adapted to the exigencies of the changed structure; and proved thereby that
there had been a primitive similarity of structure, which had been transformed
by development of some parts and atrophy of others. Goethe's sketch of an
Introduction into Comparative Anatomy, which he wrote in 1795, urged by A. von
Humboldt, has remained, if I may believe those competent to judge, a
fundamental stone of modern science. And I may be allowed, as I am unversed
in such matters, to invoke the authority of one of the most eminent living
physiologists, Helmholtz, who says of Goethe's anatomical essay, that in it
the poet "teaches, with the greatest clearness and decision, that all
differences in the structure of animal species are to be considered as changes
of one fundamental type, which have been brought about by fusion,
transformation, aggrandizement, diminution, or total annihilation of several
parts. This has, indeed, become, in the present state of comparative anatomy,
the leading idea of this science. It has never since been expressed better or
more clearly than by Goethe: and after-times have made few essential
modifications." ^1

[Footnote 1: Written in 1853, five years before the appearance of Mr. Darwin's
great work.]

Now, the same may be said, I am told, in spite of some differences as to
details, of his metamorphosis of plants. I do not mean by this to say that
Goethe is the real author of the theory of evolution. There is between him
and Mr. Darwin the difference which there is between Vico and Niebuhr, Herder
and F. A. Wolf. In the one case we have a fertile hint, in the other a
well-established system, worked out by proofs and convincing arguments.
Nevertheless, when a man like Johannes Mueller sees in Goethe's views "the
presentiment of a distant ideal of natural history," we may be allowed to see
in Goethe one of the fathers of the doctrine of evolution, which, after all,
is only an application of Herder's principle of fieri to the material world.

After having thus gone through the whole series of organisms, from the
simplest to the most complicated, Goethe finds that he has laid, as it were
the last crowning stone of the universal pyramid, raised from the materials of
the whole quarry of nature; that he has reconstructed man. And here begins a
new domain; for after all for mankind the highest study must be man himself.
The social problems of property, education, marriage, occupied Goethe's mind
all his life through, although more particularly in the last thirty years.
The relations of man with nature, the question how far he is free from the
laws of necessity, how far subject to them, are always haunting him. If you
read the Wahlverwandtschaften, the Wanderjahre, the second Faust, you will
find those grave questions approached from all sides. I shall not, however,
enter here into an exposition of Goethe's political, social, and educational
views, not only because they mostly belong to a later period, but especially
because they have never found a wide echo, nor determined the opinions of an
important portion of the nation, nor entered as integrating principles into
its lay creed. Not so with the metaphysical conclusion which he reached by
this path, and which is somewhat different from the pantheism of his youth,
inasmuch as he combines with it somewhat of the fundamental ideas of Leibnitz,
which were also Lessing's, and which, after all, form a sort of return to
Christianity, as understood in its widest sense, in the sense in which it
harmonizes with Plato's idealism. "Thinking is not to be severed from what is
thought, nor will from movement." Nature consequently is God, and God is
nature, but in this God-nature man lives as an imperishable monad, capable of
going through thousands of metamorphoses, but destined to rest on each stage
of this unlimited existence, in full possession of the present, in which he
has to expand his whole being by action or enjoyment. This conception of life
was not, as you will see, the creation of an imagination longing to pass
beyond the conditions of human existence - which is the idealism of the
"general" - but the highest result of the poet's insight into the order of
nature.

I have said that there was an antagonism between Kant's views and those
of Herder and Goethe, and that this antagonism has been ever since sensibly
felt in the intellectual history of Germany. Some efforts were made to
reconcile them, as for instance by Schiller. Sometimes a sort of alliance
took place, as in 1813, when the Romanticists, who were quite under the spell
of the Herder-Goethe ideas, invoked the aid of the moral energy, which was a
special characteristic of Kant's disciples; but the antagonism lives on not
the less even now in the German nation, as the antagonism between Hume and
Burke, Locke and Berkeley, Fielding and Richardson, Shakespeare and Milton,
nay, between Renaissance and Puritanism in spite of their apparent death, is
still living in the English nation. This difference is, as will happen in
this world, much more the difference between two dispositions of mind,
character, and temperament, than between two opposite theories; or at least
the conflicting opinions are much more the result of our moral and
intellectual dispositions than of objective observation and abstract
argumentation. Germany owes much to the stern unflinching moral principles of
Kant; she owes still more, however, to the serene and large views of Goethe.
The misfortune of both ideals is that they cannot and will never be accessible
save to a small elite, that of Kant to a moral, that of Goethe to an
intellectual, elite. But are not all ideals of an essentially aristocratic
nature? The German ideals, however, are so more than others, and the
consequence has been a wide gap between the mass of the nation and the
minority which has been true to those ideals. The numerical majority, indeed,
of the German nation has either remained faithful to the Church, though
without fanaticism, or has become materialistic and rationalistic. It is a
great misfortune for a nation when its greatest writer in his greatest works
is only understood by the happy few, and when its greatest moralist preaches a
moral which is above the common force of human nature. The only means of
union between the nation and the intellectual and moral aristocracy, which has
kept and guarded that treasure, as well as the only link between these two
aristocratic views of life themselves, would be furnished by religion, a
religion such as Lessing, Mendelssohn, and above all Schleiermacher,
propounded, such as reigned all over Germany forty or fifty years ago, before
party spirit had set to work, and the flattest of rationalisms had again
invaded the nation - a religion corresponding, for the mass, to what Goethe's
and Kant's philosophy, which is neither materialism nor spiritualism, is for
the few - a religion based on feeling and intuition, on conscience and
reverence, but a religion without dogmas, without ritual, without forms, above
all without exclusiveness and without intolerance. I doubt whether this mild
and noble spirit, which is by no means indifferentism, will soon revive, as I
doubt whether Germany will quickly get over the conflict between the
traditional and the rationalistic spirit which mars her public life; whether
too she will soon reach that political ideal which England realized most fully
in the first half of this century, and which consists in a perfect equilibrium
between the spirit of tradition and that of rationalism. However, although
Kant's lofty and Goethe's deep philosophy of life is now the treasure of a
small minority only, it has none the less pervaded all the great scientific
and literary work done up to the middle of this century. It has presided over
the birth of our new state; and the day will certainly come when public
opinion in Germany will turn away from the tendency of her present literature,
science, and politics - a somewhat narrow patriotism, a rather shallow
materialism, and a thoroughly false parliamentary regime - and come back to
the spirit of the generations to whom, after all, she owes her intellectual,
though not perhaps her political and material, civilization.

 

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