Home : Goethe and being at home in the World – OntoMountain – Medium
The classical German philosophy and culture has a peculiar relation to us. It stands at the beginning of the world we see around us today. As such, it is a reaction to the beginning. On the other hand, with the so-called collapse of the Hegelian system, the path it took met the end. In less than a hundred years some of the greatest works and ideas in human history were created. Nonetheless, while ideas of enlightenment, science, liberalism and capitalism progressively evolved in the public sphere, and ideas of romanticism took hold of our personal lives (Taylor’s idea), the ideas behind German idealism and classical German culture are explored only in fundamentally distorted ways in history (if at all).
Five historical revolutions
What are the historical conditions that Germans tried to think about at the beginning of our modern world? The 1789 marks not only the great French revolution. Another change already in place at the time of revolution was the emergence of a Newspaper. The world became more connected and smaller than ever. It is the newspapers that will inform Germans about the last developments of the French revolution or events unfolding in England. It is after reading a newspaper that young roommates Schelling, Hegel, and Holderlin will plant “the tree of liberty”. Of course, French revolution is not only the advent of liberty, but also the desolation of holiness of political power.
Germany at the time was a backward country compared to other European superpowers. Nonetheless, German intellectuals were perfectly aware of yet another revolution: the industrial revolution in England. Often overlooked, this had probably the biggest impact on daily life of regular man. Not only the division of labor changed the centuries-old mode of production and work, but also debt as an essential driving force of economy emerged (for simple analysis of latter point see Varoufakis „Talking about the economy to my daughter“). One can say, without exaggeration, that economy as we know it today first appears in England in this period, with disastrous factories and alienation.
Being unable to follow neither French (political), neither English (industrial) revolutions Germans will cling to their revolution: that of Luther. This is how the well-known stereotype of politically radical French, trader Englishman, and speculative German emerge. However, the German revolution gave birth to two other essential ideas to the world we live in today in. The first one is the idea of toleration (to end religious wars), the second is that of a nation (the translations of the Bible into native tongues soon followed by „creation“ of European languages as we know them).
The last revolution was of a speculative kind. Immanuel Kant brought it up with his three critiques: of theoretical philosophy, of moral philosophy and of aesthetics. The problem was that Kant’s revolution brought even more mess. Kant never produced a system he promised. Furthermore, the universe Kant’s philosophy pictured was hard to call home. He also pointed out the fundamental contradiction between Newtonian science (another great revolution) and morality, and the problematic relationship between belonging to nation and humanity as a whole, to mention just a few things. In a nutshell, Kant was understood to show modern philosophy to be a project to be realized, not something he himself finished.
The transformation of the old world is a constant theme in classical German culture. Sometimes reflections are cheerful, sometimes tragic. Today, our reflections about the modern world are mostly guided by the question of the authenticity of the self. This was not the case in those times. The risky thesis I want to propose here is that entire period of classical German culture is guided by the question of how to be at home in the modern world. As Novalis one wrote: „Philosophy is truly homesickness (Heimweh)“. Goethe’s life is the realization of this idea.
The happy one
This whole idea first came to me while listening to Wes Cecil’s lecture „Forgotten thinkers: Goethe“. In Cecil’s opinion, Goethe’s successful life is a certain barrier for our understanding of his works. He quotes Herman’s Hesse’s „Steppenwolf“ where the main character addresses Goethe in this way: „You should have died young, you should have died suffering. It’s unbearable that you lived to a pleasant, successful old age“. This scene demonstrates the fundamental collision of two worlds. We understand itself to be in a quest for freedom and authenticity of a finite individual. But the world is a dark, nasty and unbearable place. Only stupid people who don’t see how things stand, can be happy. Ask Woody Allen. As Cecil observes, all that is dear to this world, „All of the clichés about genius and artistic productivity are fundamentally disproven by Goethe’s existence“.
Goethe already feels at home in the world of culture in his early years while being fascinated by Puppet theater. He would make puppets and arrange shows in his home. He is drawn to the birthplaces of the West, reading Old Testament, Virgil, and Ovid. All in all, his early life in the free city of Frankfurt was pleasant and without a soul-deforming lack.
The Sorrows of Young Werther“ (1774) made the poet famous and created an archetype of the romantic hero. Many went to imitate Werther, both in his garderobe and his choices. The wave of suicides followed. The ironic thing is that „The Sorrows of Young Werther“ was supposed to be a parody of the romantic ideal of the man. Goethe himself never was a romantic. 16 years later Goethe would go completely into the other direction and publish „The metamorphosis of plants“ (1790), the work in biology. In his life, Goethe will also publish „A theory of color“ (1810), his view that is an alternative to the Newtonian one. In natural sciences, he is just as at home as in literature. The wonderful mixture of these two domains is found in „Elective Affinities“ (1809). Here, the relations between four main protagonists (two men and two women) are modeled on chemical laws of affinity, producing the feeling of the inescapability of events. In 1796, six years after the Plants, Goethe would establish the tradition of Bildungsroman with his „Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship“. At this time, he already had his great lifetime friend Friedrich Schiller. The things mentioned are enough for 6 lifetimes of a Genius. However, ever changing Goethe had more tricks up his sleeve. Late Goethe gets inspired by Persian poetry. This cultural encounter would result in the „West-Eastern Divan“ (1819), the collection of Poetry. Many of the poems were later set to music. Crazy enough, the Muslim population of Germany today sees Goethe’s poetry collection as a first document of German Muslim culture. In this sense, Goethe is a model of multicultural Germany and even has a Mosque named after him! Not only Goethe felt at home in the world — he also became home for others.
But it was not the successful ever changing literary and scientific activity that made Goethe „unbearable“ to Hesse. It is his labor. The readers of Wilhelm’s Meister saga know the constant dilemmas Wilhelm had between giving himself to Art and leading a good practical life. Goethe managed to combine both. He finished his Law degree in 1771, although not without difficulties. For most of his life, he would work at Weimar Court and hold many different offices. To put the long story short, he never went broke and was valued at „the workplace“. One could think that working in Weimar would reduce Goethe’s cultural activities. However, Goethe produced many plays there. Lacking professional actors, he would write plays designed to fit the personalities of the locals and the guest’s he had.
Faust — Refusing to stop the change
You thought I missed something? Goethe’s life’s work and masterpiece, Faust, expresses central values Goethe embodied. Faust tells a story of a scientist doctor Faust who tries to know everything there is to know at all costs. In despair, he signs the contract with Mephistopheles, the Devil. Mephistopheles promises to serve Faust on earth. If he gives Faust the moment he cannot let go and Faust says „Verweile , du bist so schön“ — „Stay a while, you are so beautiful“. This is how the mega journey begins in which the duo tries out everything, all the modern man values: drinking, drugs, love, crazy festival of magical and strange beasts, politics, sublime beauty and social reforming. During the whole journey, Faust refuses to stop for once: he refuses to stop the change. One is not to understand this in a contemporary „find yourself and always change“ type of way. The Faustian change is not something subject chooses to do, but something that emerges as necessity and expression of the engaged life.
This is then the hypothesis and the life. What else can be said about living homely? To answer this a deeper look into the thinking of the time is needed. Then one can see how being-at-home-in-the-world differs from freedom, authenticity and belonging to a tribe that govern our time.