, (in English generally ; 28 August 1749 22 March 1832) was a German writer. George Eliot called him "Germany's greatest man of letters… and the last true polymath to walk the earth. Goethe's works span the fields of poetry, drama, literature, theology, humanism, and science. Goethe's magnum opus, lauded as one of the peaks of world literature, is the two-part drama Faust. Goethe's other well-known literary works include his numerous poems, the Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and the epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Goethe was one of the key figures of German literature and the movement of Weimar Classicism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; this movement coincides with Enlightenment, Sentimentality (Empfindsamkeit), Sturm und Drang, and Romanticism. The author of the scientific text Theory of Colours, he influenced Darwin with his focus on plant morphology. He also served at length as the Privy Councilor ("Geheimrat") of the duchy of Weimar.
Goethe is the originator of the concept of Weltliteratur ("world literature"), having taken great interest in the literatures of England, France, Italy, classical Greece, Persia, Arabic literature, amongst others. His influence on German philosophy is virtually immeasurable, having major effect especially on the generation of Hegel and Schelling, although Goethe himself expressly and decidedly refrained from practicing philosophy in the rarefied sense.
Goethe's influence spread across Europe, and for the next century his works were a major source of inspiration in music, drama, poetry and philosophy. Goethe is considered by many to be the most important writer in the German language and one of the most important thinkers in Western culture as well. Early in his career, however, he wondered whether painting might not be his true vocation; late in his life, he expressed the expectation that he would ultimately be remembered above all for his work in colour.
Goethe's father, Johann Caspar Goethe (Frankfurt am Main, Hessen, 29 July 1710 Frankfurt, 25 May 1782), lived with his family in a large house in Frankfurt, then an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire. Goethe's mother, Catharina Elisabeth Textor (Frankfurt, 19 February 1731 Frankfurt, 15 September 1808), the daughter of the Mayor of Frankfurt Johann Wolfgang Textor (Frankfurt, 11 December 1693 Frankfurt, 6 February 1771) and wife (married at Wetzlar, 2 February 1726) Anna Margaretha Lindheimer (Wetzlar, 23 July 1711 Frankfurt, 18 April 1783, a descendant of Lucas Cranach the Elder and Henry III, Landgrave of Hesse-Marburg), married 38-year-old Johann Caspar when she was only 17 at Frankfurt on 20 August 1748. All their children, except for Goethe and his sister, Cornelia Friederike Christiana, who was born in 1750, died at an early age.
Johann Caspar and private tutors gave Goethe lessons in all the common subjects of that time, especially languages (Latin, Greek, French and English). Goethe also received lessons in dancing, riding and fencing. Johann Caspar was the type of father who, feeling frustrated in his own ambitions by what he saw as a deficiency of educational advantages, was determined that his children would have all those advantages which he had not had. Goethe had a persistent dislike of the church, characterizing its history as a "hotchpotch of mistakes and violence" (Mischmasch von Irrtum und Gewalt). His great passion was drawing. Goethe quickly became interested in literature; Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Homer were among his early favourites. He had a lively devotion to theatre as well and was greatly fascinated by puppet shows that were annually arranged in his home; a familiar theme in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.
In Frankfurt, Goethe became severely ill. During the next year and a half which followed, because of several relapses, the relationship with his father worsened. During convalescence, Goethe was nursed by his mother and sister. Bored in bed, he wrote an impudent crime comedy. In April 1770, his father lost his patience; Goethe left Frankfurt in order to finish his studies in Strasbourg.
In Alsace, Goethe blossomed. No other landscape has he described as affectionately as the warm, wide Rhine area. In Strasbourg, Goethe met Johann Gottfried Herder, who happened to be in town on the occasion of an eye operation. The two became close friends, and crucially to Goethe's intellectual development, it was Herder who kindled his interest in Shakespeare, Ossian and in the notion of Volkspoesie (folk poetry). On a trip to the village Sesenheim, Goethe fell in love with Friederike Brion, but, after a couple of weeks, terminated the relationship. Several of his poems, like Willkommen und Abschied, Sesenheimer Lieder and Heideröslein, originate from this time.
Despite being based on his own ideas, his legal thesis was published uncensored. Shortly after, he was offered a career in the French government. Goethe rejected it; he did not want to commit himself, but to instead remain an "original genius".
At the end of August 1771, Goethe was certified as a licensee in Frankfurt. He wanted to make the jurisdiction progressively more humane. In his first cases, he proceeded too vigorously, was reprimanded and lost the position. This prematurely terminated his career as a lawyer after only a few months. At this time, Goethe was acquainted with the court of Darmstadt, where his inventiveness was praised. From this milieu came Johann Georg Schlosser (who was later to become his brother-in-law) and Johann Heinrich Merck. Goethe also pursued literary plans again; this time, his father did not have anything against it, and even helped. Goethe obtained a copy of the biography of a noble highwayman from the Peasants' War. In a couple of weeks the biography was reworked into a colourful drama. Entitled Götz von Berlichingen, the work went directly to the heart of Goethe's contemporaries.
Goethe could not subsist on being one of the editors of a literary periodical (published by Schlosser and Merck). In May 1772 he once more began the practice of law at Wetzlar. In 1774 Goethe wrote the book which would bring him world-wide fame, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Despite the immense success of Werther, it did not bring Goethe much financial gain copyright law at the time being essentially nonexistent. (In later years Goethe would bypass this problem by periodically authorizing "new, revised" editions of his Complete Works.)
Goethe, aside from official duties, was also a friend and confidant to the Duke, and participated fully in the activities of the court. For Goethe, his first ten years at Weimar could well be described as a garnering of a degree and range of experience which perhaps could be achieved in no other way. Goethe was ennobled in 1782 (this being indicated by the "von" in his name).
During Goethes term of office as a member of the Geheime Consilium, the top deliberative circle of the Duke Carl August of Saxony-Weimar, there are three cases of killing a just-born baby by the mother. Whereas in 1781 Dorothea Altwein was pardoned to lifelong penal servitude (she was released after 27 years) and Maria Rost assigned to lifelong penal servitude by the Duke, without judical sentence (she was released after 6 years), Johanna Höhn was executed. Johanna Catharina Höhn, born the 15th of April 1759 in Tannroda in Saxony-Weimar, had killed her just born baby, a boy, in an attack of panic. She was adjudicated on death, only by the sword, because there were arguments for mitigation. Duke Carl August would pardon Johanna Höhn to lifelong penal servitude. Therefore he commended the members of his government and the members of his deliberative circle to give their votes to the question, whether the capital punishment for this delict should be repealed. He himself was voting for repealing and to substitute by lifelong penal servitude. As one of the three members of the Geheime Consilium Goethe gave his vote for maintaining the capital punishment, at 4th of November 1783, after the votes of the others, Fritsch and Schnauss. Goethe' vote decided the issue: In Saxony-Weimar the capital punishment was not repealed, and the Duke ordered the execution, just after Goethe's vote. Johanna Höhn was beheaded at 28th of November 1783. Goethe gave his vote in the same year, in which he wrote his poem “Edel sei der Mensch, hilfreich und gut”.
He also journeyed to Sicily during this time, and wrote intriguingly that "To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything." While in Southern Italy and Sicily, Goethe encountered, for the first time genuine Greek (as opposed to Roman) architecture, and was quite startled by its relative simplicity. Winckelmann had not recognized the distinctness of the two styles.
Goethe's diaries of this period form the basis of the non-fiction Italian Journey. Italian Journey only covers the first year of Goethe's visit. The remaining year is largely undocumented, aside from the fact that he spent much of it in Venice. This "gap in the record" has been the source of much speculation over the years.
In the decades which immediately followed its publication in 1816 Italian Journey inspired countless German youths to follow Goethe's example. This is pictured, somewhat satirically, in George Elliot's Middlemarch.
In 1794 Friedrich Schiller wrote to Goethe offering friendship; they had previously had only a mutually wary relationship ever since first becoming acquainted in 1788. This collaborative friendship lasted until Schiller's death in 1805.
In 1806, Goethe was living in Weimar with his mistress Christiane Vulpius, the sister of Christian A. Vulpius, and their son Karl August. On 13 October, Napoleon's army invaded the town. The French "spoon guards", the least-disciplined soldiers, occupied Goethe's house.
The next day, Goethe legitimized their relationship by marrying Christiane in a quiet marriage service at the court chapel. Christiane Vulpius and Goethe produced a son, Karl August von Goethe (25 December 1789 28 October 1830), whose wife, Ottilie von Pogwisch (31 October 1796 26 October 1872), cared for the elder Goethe until his death in 1832. They had three children: Walther, Freiherr von Goethe (9 April 1818 15 April 1885), Wolfgang, Freiherr von Goethe (18 September 1820 20 January 1883) and Alma von Goethe (29 October 1827 29 September 1844). Christiane Vulpius died in 1816.
In 1823, having recovered from a nearly fatal heart illness, he fell in love with Ulrike von Levetzow whom he wanted to marry, but, because of the opposition of her mother (Ulrike was 18), he never proposed. Their last meeting in Carlsbad on 5 September 1823 inspired him to the famous Marienbad Elegy which he considered one of his finest and dearest works.
In 1832, after a life of vast productivity, Goethe died in Weimar. He is buried in the Ducal Vault at Weimar's Historical Cemetery.
The most important of Goethe's works produced before he went to Weimar were his tragedy Götz von Berlichingen (1773), which was the first work to bring him recognition, and the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (called Die Leiden des jungen Werthers in German) (1774), which gained him enormous fame as a writer in the Sturm und Drang period which marked the early phase of Romanticism - indeed the book is often considered to be the "spark" which ignited the movement, and can arguably be called the world's first "best-seller". (For the entirety of his life this was the work with which the vast majority of Goethe's contemporaries associated him). During the years at Weimar before he met Schiller he began Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, wrote the dramas Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), Egmont, Torquato Tasso, and the fable Reineke Fuchs.
To the period of his friendship with Schiller belong Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years (the continuation of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), the idyll of Hermann and Dorothea, and the Roman Elegies. In the last period, between Schiller's death, in 1805, and his own, appeared Faust Part One, Elective Affinities, the West-Eastern Divan (a collection of poems in the Persian style, influenced by the work of Hafez), his autobiographical Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From My Life: Poetry and Truth) which covers his early life and ends with his departure for Weimar, his Italian Journey, and a series of treatises on art. His writings were immediately influential in literary and artistic circles.
Faust Part Two was only finished in the year of his death, and was published posthumously.
Although his literary work has attracted the greatest amount of interest, Goethe was also keenly involved in studies of natural science. He wrote several works on plant morphology, and colour theory.
With his focus on morphology he influenced Darwin. His studies led him to independently discover the human intermaxillary bone in 1784, which Broussonet (1779) and Vicq d'Azyr (1780) had (using different methods) identified several years earlier. While not the only one in his time to question the prevailing view that this bone did not exist in humans, Goethe, who believed ancient anatomists had known about this bone, was the first to prove its peculiarity to all mammals. In 1790, he published his Metamorphosis of Plants.
During his Italian journey, Goethe formulated a theory of plant metamorphosis in which the archetypal form of the plant is to be found in the leaf - he writes, "from top to bottom a plant is all leaf, united so inseparably with the future bud that one cannot be imagined without the other".
In 1810, Goethe published his Theory of Colours, which he considered his most important work. In it, he (contentiously) characterized colour as arising from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light. After being translated into English by Charles Eastlake in 1840, this theory became widely adopted by the art world, most notably J. M. W. Turner (Bockemuhl, 1991). It also inspired the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, to write his Remarks on Colour. Goethe was vehemently opposed to Newton's analytic treatment of colour, engaging instead in compiling a comprehensive description of a wide variety of colour phenomena. Although Goethe cannot necessarily be criticized for the accuracy and extent of his observations, scientists in general have found little use for his theory because not much can be predicted by means of it. Goethe was, however, the first to systematically study the physiological effects of colour, and his observations on the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his colour wheel, 'for the colours diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. (Goethe, Theory of Colours, 1810). In this, he anticipated Ewald Hering's opponent color theory (1872).
Goethe outlines his method in the essay, The experiment as mediator between subject and object (1772). In the Kurschner edition of Goethe's works, the science editor, Rudolf Steiner, presents Goethe's approach to science as phenomenological. Steiner elaborated on this in the books The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception and Goethe's World View, in which he emphasizes the need of the perceiving organ of intuition in order to grasp Goethe's biological archetype (i.e. The Typus).
The short epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, recounts an unhappy romantic infatuation that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted that he "shot his hero to save himself": a reference to Goethe's own near-suicidal obsession with a young woman during this period, an obsession he quelled through the writing process. The novel remains in print in dozens of languages and its influence is undeniable; its central hero, an obsessive figure driven to despair and destruction by his unrequited love for the young Lotte, has become a pervasive literary archetype. The fact that Werther ends with the protagonist's suicide and funeral a funeral which "no clergyman attended" made the book deeply controversial upon its (anonymous) publication, for on the face of it, it appeared to condone and glorify suicide. Suicide was considered sinful by Christian doctrine: suicides were denied Christian burial with the bodies often mistreated and dishonoured in various ways; in corollary, the deceased's property and possessions were often confiscated by the Church. Epistolary novels were common during this time, letter-writing being a primary mode of communication. What set Goethe's book apart from other such novels was its expression of unbridled longing for a joy beyond possibility, its sense of defiant rebellion against authority, and of principal importance, its total subjectivity: qualities that trailblazed the Romantic movement.
The next work, his epic closet drama Faust, was to be completed in stages, and only published in its entirety after his death. The first part was published in 1808 and created a sensation. The first operatic version, by Spohr, appeared in 1814, and was subsequently the inspiration for operas and oratorios by Schumann, Gounod, Boito, Busoni, and Schnittke as well as symphonic works by Liszt, Wagner, and Mahler. Faust became the ur-myth of many figures in the 19th century. Later, a facet of its plot, i.e., of selling one's soul to the devil for power over the physical world, took on increasing literary importance and became a view of the victory of technology and of industrialism, along with its dubious human expenses. In 1919, the Goetheanum staged the world premiere of a complete production of Faust. On occasion, the play is still staged in Germany and other parts around the world.
Goethe's poetic work served as a model for an entire movement in German poetry termed Innerlichkeit ("introversion") and represented by, for example, Heine. Goethe's words inspired a number of compositions by, among others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz and Wolf. Perhaps the single most influential piece is "Mignon's Song" which opens with one of the most famous lines in German poetry, an allusion to Italy: "Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?" ("Do you know the land where the lemons bloom?").
He is also widely quoted. Epigrams such as "Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him", "Divide and rule, a sound motto; unite and lead, a better one", and "Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must", are still in usage or are often paraphrased. Lines from Faust, such as "Das also war des Pudels Kern", "Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluss", or "Grau ist alle Theorie" have entered everyday German usage. Although a success of less tasteful appeal, the famous line from the drama Götz von Berlichingen ("Er kann mich im Arsche lecken": "He can lick my arse") has become a vulgar idiom in many languages, and shows Goethe's deep cultural impact extending across social, national, and linguistic borders.
It may be taken as another measure of Goethe's fame that other well-known quotations are often incorrectly attributed to him, such as Hippocrates' "Art is long, life is short", which is found in Goethe's Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.
A year before his death he expressed an identification with the Hypsistarians, an ancient Jewish-pagan sect of the Black Sea region. After describing his difficulties with mainstream religion, Goethe laments:
Goethe had a great effect on the nineteenth century. In many respects, he was the originator of many ideas which later became widespread. He produced volumes of poetry, essays, criticism, a theory of colours and early work on evolution and linguistics. He was fascinated by mineralogy, and the mineral goethite is named after him. His non-fiction writings, most of which are philosophic and aphoristic in nature, spurred the development of many philosophers, including G.W.F. Hegel, Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Cassirer, Carl Jung, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Along with Schiller, he was one of the leading figures of Weimar Classicism.
Goethe embodied many of the contending strands in art over the next century: his work could be lushly emotional, and rigorously formal, brief and epigrammatic, and epic. He would argue that classicism was the means of controlling art, and that romanticism was a sickness, even as he penned poetry rich in memorable images, and rewrote the formal rules of German poetry. Even in contemporary culture, he stands in the background as the author of the story upon which Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice is based.
His poetry was set to music by almost every major Austrian and German composer from Mozart to Mahler, and his influence would spread to French drama and opera as well. Beethoven declared that a "Faust" Symphony would be the greatest thing for Art. Liszt and Mahler both created symphonies in whole or in large part inspired by this seminal work, which would give the 19th century one of its most paradigmatic figures: Doctor Faustus. The Faust tragedy/drama, often called "Das Drama der Deutschen" (the drama of the Germans), written in two parts published decades apart, would stand as his most characteristic and famous artistic creation. Followers of the twentieth century esotericist Rudolf Steiner built a theatre named the Goetheanum after him - where festival performances of Faust are still performed.
Goethe was also a cultural force, and by researching folk traditions, he created many of the norms for celebrating Christmas, and argued that the organic nature of the land moulded the people and their customs—an argument that has recurred ever since, including recently in the work of Jared Diamond. He argued that laws could not be created by pure rationalism, since geography and history shaped habits and patterns. This stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing Enlightenment view that reason was sufficient to create well-ordered societies and good laws.
The Federal Republic of Germany’s cultural institution, The Goethe-Institut is named after him, and promotes the study of German abroad and fosters knowledge about Germany by providing information on its culture, society and politics.
This change later became the basis for 19th century thought; organic rather than geometrical, evolving rather than created, and based on sensibility and intuition, rather than on imposed order, culminating in, as he said, a "living quality" wherein the subject and object are dissolved together in a poise of inquiry. Consequently, he embraced neither teleological nor deterministic views of growth within every organism. Instead, the world as a whole grows through continual, external, and internal strife. Moreover, he did not embrace the mechanistic views that contemporaneous science subsumed during his time, and there with he denied rationality's superiority as the sole interpretation of reality. Furthermore, he declared that all knowledge is related to humanity through its functional value alone and that knowledge presupposes a perspectival quality. He also stated that the fundamental nature of the world is aesthetic.
His views make him, along with Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and Ludwig van Beethoven, a figure in two worlds: on the one hand, devoted to the sense of taste, order, and finely crafted detail, which is the hallmark of the artistic sense of the Age of Reason and the neo-classicistic period of architecture; on the other, seeking a personal, intuitive, and personalized form of expression and society, firmly supporting the idea of self-regulating and organic systems. Thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson would take up many similar ideas in the 1800s. His ideas on evolution would frame the question which Darwin and Wallace would approach within the scientific paradigm.