Goethe's Cultural Environment and the Present Epoch
This article was written in 1923 and is included in the volume Der Goetheanum-Gedanke inmitten der Kulturkrisis der Gegenwart.
Translated by A. H. Parker
In the article published in Das Goetheanum weekly on October 7, 1923, in which I discussed Michael's fight with the Dragon, I was obliged to draw attention to the constitution of the human soul in the comparatively recent past. I pointed out that in the XVIII century certain ideas were still current which were regarded as a basis of knowledge. Today they are relegated to the realm of fantasy.
Goethe's Weltanschauung will only appear as a living reality in the eyes of our contemporaries if this fact is given due consideration. The seventies and eighties of the XVIII century were the years in Goethe's life when his Weltanschauung took the direction which determined its future fruitful development. By infusing scientific knowledge into his mode of thinking Goethe provided that inner impulse which is so characteristic of his thought. It was not by rejecting a genuine study of nature, but by working in harmony with nature, that he wished to reach the heights of a spiritual conception of the universe. We shall only understand this inner impulse aright if we follow the movement of ideas in his epoch, and if we realise that within this cultural environment Goethe's aims and ideas met with no response. Many phenomena confirm this; the following is perhaps not the least important.
In the year 1782 there appeared the translation of the book ‘Des Erreurs et de la Vérité’ by the worthy Matthias Claudius. It was the work of Saint-Martin, the so-called Unknown Philosopher, and describes the attempt to arrive at a satisfactory Weltanschauung by returning to the primordial traditional wisdom of mankind. It showed at the same time that those who thought along these lines saw no possibility, from the conclusions derived from scientific thinking, of arriving at a form of cognition that was inwardly satisfying. It was Goethe's heartfelt wish to attain this knowledge.
The fact that Goethe's contemporaries could feel a need for the ideas adumbrated by Saint-Martin is a circumstance or phenomenon which may be of particular interest today.
The scientific mode of thinking strove for a conception of the world which totally excluded moral impulses as irrelevant for the purpose of true knowledge. In the eyes of natural science moral ideas are simply something that dawns in the human soul independently of the ideas of nature. In accordance with its character the physical evolution of the world to which man directs his attention must be envisaged, both in respect to its origin and its end, without the impact of moral ideas. In the cosmic nebulae from which worlds emerge and which in their turn ultimately give birth to man, no moral impulses are at work.
There could still be found amongst Goethe's circle those who rejected this conception of nature, but who hankered after something akin to what Matthias Claudius wanted to give through his translation of Saint-Martin's work. Goethe however was wholly committed to a scientific approach to nature. Others wanted to unite the knowledge of man and moral world order independently of the kingdom of nature; Goethe wanted to find this union within the realm of nature.
Saint-Martin speaks of a serious primordial dereliction, of an original sin. Man had originally been fashioned in his true being by a supersensible world. This no longer applies, he is no longer the same being: he shows he has now become another being. He has lost his original innocence and has clothed himself with the substances of the sensible world in a manner unbefitting his original being. This fall from grace extends even to the different manifestations of life — one of these manifestations is language, for example. The kind of language now spoken in the different countries of the world no longer suffices to express by means of words the fundamental nature of things. Man is obliged to confine himself to their external aspect. To pre-lapsarian man was assigned original language which was integrated with the creative forces acting in world events.
In these ideas the natural order is associated with the moral order. In a world where natural law reigns there is no place for this moral order.
For the followers of Saint-Martin all knowledge consisted fundamentally in acquiring once again man's original disposition of soul by actively developing the inner life.
It is this desire, this tendency which pervades the books of Saint-Martin. They could only satisfy those who saw in scientific knowledge an aberration, a consequence of man's fall. His disciples could not choose but think that this knowledge was the product of original sin; true understanding, they felt, can only be acquired independently of natural science, of a scientific perception of nature.
This attitude of mind lends to his works something which is alien to our modern mentality. And Goethe must have felt the same. How far he was familiar with the work of Saint-Martin is not important; what matters is that in Goethe's day there were men whose spiritual needs could be satisfied by a predilection for Saint-Martin. This characterises the state of mind of many of Goethe's contemporaries whose opinions he was obliged inwardly to disavow.
Goethe himself was unable to stand aloof from the scientific observation of nature. He could only arrive at an understanding of the spirit if observation of natural phenomena revealed this spirit to him. For Goethe, man has not lost his state of innocence, he still bears it within him, though at first he is not aware of it. But it is precisely because he is unaware of it in early life that man is able to acquire by his own persistent efforts an understanding of his true being. Insight into nature for Goethe is not the consequence of man's fall but the means of self-realisation which is possible at every moment. In this way Goethe has incorporated in his Weltanschauung the true idea of inner freedom. It is nowhere explicitly stated in his works, but it is implicit in them. He who seeks will find it if he opens himself to the Goethean way of thinking. We shall only see Goethe today in the right perspective if we are aware of this. In the eighties he felt an irresistible longing to escape from his cultural environment. In Italy, it was not Italy he sought. As a result of his experiences there he found himself, his true being. If we follow Goethe during his Italian journey, we see the progressive development of the Goethe to whom the world owes so much.
It is in man's true and sincere striving that the element of freedom is to be found. In Goethe we see the new outlook, the new horizon that mankind owes to his influence. And it is this also which unites him within the Michael impulse. He was unable to achieve this union in an environment which was alien to him, but he found it, however, by a form of contemplation which was peculiarly his own.
For this reason Goethe is so near today to those who are seeking knowledge of the spirit. He often felt himself a stranger to his age; every seeker after the spirit feels himself perfectly at home with him today.