Goethe's World View
Part I.2: The Platonic World View
With the admirable boldness characteristic of him, Plato expresses this mistrust of experience: the things of this world, which our senses perceive, have no true being at all; they are always becoming but never are. They have only a relative existence, they are, in their totality, only in and through their relationship to each other; one can therefore just as well call their whole existence a non-existence. They are consequently also not objects of any actual knowledge. For, only about what is, in and for itself and always in the same way, can there be such knowledge; they, on the other hand, are only the object of what we, through sensation, take them to be. As long as we are limited only to our perception of them, we are like people who sit in a dark cave so firmly bound that they cannot even turn their heads and who see nothing except, on the wall facing them, by the light of a fire burning behind them, the shadow images of real things which are led across between them and the fire, and who in fact also see of each other, yes each of himself, only the shadows on that wall. Their wisdom, however, would be to predict the sequence of those shadows which they have learned to know from experience.
The Platonic view tears the picture of the world-whole into two parts, into the mental picture of a seeming world and into a world of ideas to which alone true eternal reality is thought to correspond. “What alone can be called truly existing, because they always are, but never become nor pass away are the ideal archetypal images of those shadow images, are the eternal ideas, the archetypal forms of all things. To them no multiplicity can be ascribed; for each is by its very nature only one, insofar as it is the archetypal picture itself, whose copies or shadows are all the single transitory things which bear the same name and are of the same kind. To them can also be ascribed no arising and passing away; for they are truly existing, never becoming, however, nor' perishing like their copies which vanish away. Of them alone, therefore, is there actual knowledge, since only that can be the object of such knowledge which always and in every respect is, not that which is, but then again is not, depending on how one looks at it.”
The separation of idea and perception is justified only when one speaks of how human knowledge comes about. The human being must allow things to speak to him in a twofold way. They tell him one part of their being of their own free will. He need only listen to them. This is the part of reality that is free of ideas. The other pan, however, he must coax from them. He must bring his thinking into movement, and then his inner life fills with the ideas of things. Within the inner life of the personality is the stage upon which things also reveal their ideal inner life. There they speak out what remains eternally hidden to outer perception. The being of nature breaks here into speech. But it is only due to our human organization that things must become known through the sounding together of two tones. In nature one stimulator is there that brings forth both tones. The unbiased person listens to their consonance. He recognizes in the ideal language of his own inner life the statements which things allow to come to him. Only someone who has lost his impartiality will interpret the matter differently. He believes that the language of his inner life comes out of a different realm from the language of outer perception. Plato became conscious of what weight the fact has for man's world view that the world reveals itself to the human being from two sides. Out of his insightful valuation of this fact, he recognized that reality cannot be attributed to the sense world, regarded only by itself. Only when the world of ideas lights up out of his soul life, and man, in looking at the world, can place before his spirit idea and sense observation as a unified knowledge experience does he have true reality before him. What sense observation has before itself, without its being shone through by the light of ideas, is a world of semblance. Regarded in this way light is also shed by Plato's insight upon the view of Parmenides as to the deceptive nature of sense-perceptible things. And one can say that the philosophy of Plato is one of the most sublime edifices of thought that has ever sprung from the spirit of mankind. Platonism is the conviction that the goal of all striving for knowledge must be to acquire the ideas which carry the world and which constitute its foundation. Whoever cannot awaken this conviction within himself does not understand the Platonic world view. — Insofar as Platonism has taken hold in the evolution of Western thought, however, it shows still another side. Plato did not stop short at emphasizing the knowledge that, in human perception the sense world becomes a mere semblance if the light of the world of ideas is not shone upon it, but rather, through the way he presented this fact, he furthered the belief that the sense world, in and for itself, irrespective of man, is a world of semblance, and that true reality is to be found only in ideas. Out of this belief there arises the question: how do idea and sense world (nature) come together outside the human being? For someone who, outside of man, can acknowledge no sense world devoid of ideas, the question about the relationship of idea and sense world is one which must be sought and solved within the being of man. And this is how the matter stands for the Goethean world view. For it, the question, “What relationship exists outside of man between idea and sense world?” is an unhealthy one, because for it there is no sense world (nature) without idea outside of man. Only man can detach the idea from the sense world for himself and thus picture nature to be devoid of idea. Therefore one can say: for the Goethean world view the question, “How do idea and sense-perceptible things come together?”, which has occupied the evolution of Western thought for centuries, is an entirely superfluous question. And the results of this stream of Platonism, running through the evolution of Western thought, which confronted Goethe, for example, in the above conversation with Schiller, but also in other cases, worked upon his feelings like an unhealthy element in man's way of picturing things. Something he did not express clearly in words but which lived in his feelings and became an impulse that helped shape his own world view is the view that what healthy human feeling teaches us at every moment — namely how the language of observation and that of thinking unite in order to reveal full reality — was not heeded by the thinkers sunk in their reflections. Instead of looking at how nature speaks to man, they fashioned artificial concepts about the relationship of the world of ideas and experience. In order to see the full extent of the deep significance of this direction of thought, which Goethe felt to be unhealthy, within the world views confronting him and by which he wanted to orient himself, one must consider how the stream of Platonism just indicated, which evaporates the sense world into a mere semblance and which thereby brings the world of ideas into a distorted relationship to it, one must consider how this Platonism has grown stronger through a one-sided philosophical apprehension of Christian truth in the course of the evolution of Western thought. Because the Christian view confronted Goethe as connected with the stream of Platonism which he felt to be unhealthy, he could only with difficulty develop a relationship with Christianity. Goethe did not follow in detail how the stream of Platonism which he rejected worked on in the evolution of Christian thought, but he did feel the results of it working on within the ways of thinking which confronted him. Therefore a study of how these results came to be in these ways of thinking which developed through the centuries before Goethe came on the scene will shed light on how his way of picturing things took shape. The Christian evolution of thought, in many of its representatives, sought to come to terms with belief in the beyond and with the value that sense existence has in the face of the spiritual world. If one surrendered oneself to the view that the relationship of the sense world to the world of ideas has a significance apart from man, then, with the question arising from this, one came into the view of a divine world order. And the church fathers, to whom this question came, had to form thoughts for themselves as to the role played by the Platonic world of ideas within this divine world order. One not only stood in danger thereby of thinking that what unite in human knowing through direct perception, namely idea and sense world, are separated off by themselves outside of man, but one also stood in danger of separating them from each other, so that ideas, outside of what is given to man as nature, now also lead an existence for themselves within a spirituality separated from nature. If one joined this mental picture, which rested on an untrue view of the world of ideas and of the sense world, with the justified view that the divine can never be present in the human soul in full consciousness, then a total tearing apart of the world of ideas and nature resulted. Then one seeks what always should be sought within the human spirit, outside it, within the created world. The archetypal images of all things begin to be thought of as contained within the divine spirit. The world becomes the imperfect reflection of the perfect world of ideas resting in God. The human soul then, as the result of a one-sided apprehension of Platonism, becomes separated from the relationship of idea and “reality.” The soul extends what it justifiably thinks to be its relationship to the divine world order out over the relationship which lives in it between the world of ideas and the seeming world of the senses. Augustine comes, through a way of looking at things such as this, to views like the following: “Without wavering we want to believe that the thinking soul is not of the same nature as God, for He allows no community but that the soul can, however, become enlightened through taking part in the nature of God.” In this way, then, when this way of picturing things is one-sidedly overdone, the possibility is taken away from the human soul of experiencing, in its contemplation of nature, also the world of ideas as the being of reality. And experiencing the ideas is also interpreted as unchristian. The one-sided view of Platonism is extended over Christianity itself. Platonism as a philosophical world view stays more in the element of thinking; religious sentiment immerses thinking into the life of feeling and establishes it in this way within man's nature. Anchored this way within man's soul life, the unhealthy element of one-sided Platonism could gain a deeper significance in the evolution of Western thought than if it had remained mere philosophy. For centuries this development of thought stood before questions like these: how does what man forms as ideas stand with respect to the things of reality? Are the concepts that live in the human soul through the world of ideas only mental pictures, names, which have nothing to do with reality? Are they themselves something real which man receives through perceiving reality and through grasping it with his intellect? Such questions, for the Goethean world view, are not intellectual questions about something or other lying outside of man's being. Within human contemplation of reality these questions solve themselves with inexhaustible liveliness through true human knowing. And this Goethean world view must not only find that within Christian thoughts there live the results of a one-sided Platonism, but it feels itself estranged from genuine Christianity when the latter confronts him permeated with such Platonism. — What lives in many of the thoughts which Goethe developed within himself in order to make the world comprehensible to himself was rejection of that stream of Platonism which he experienced as unhealthy. The fact that besides this he had an open sense for the Platonic lifting of the human soul up to the world of ideas is attested to by many a statement made in this direction. He felt within himself the active working of the reality of ideas when, in his way, he approached nature through contemplation and research; he felt that nature itself spoke in the language of ideas, when the soul opens itself to such language. But he could not agree that one regard the world of ideas as something isolated and thus create for oneself the possibility, with respect to an idea about the nature of plants, of saying: that is no experience, that is an idea. He felt there that his spiritual eye beheld the idea as a reality, just as the physical eye sees the physical part of the plant being. Thus that Platonism which is directed into the world of ideas established itself in all its purity in Goethe's world view, and the stream of Platonism that leads away from reality is overcome in it. Because his world view took this form, Goethe had also to reject what presented itself to him as Christian views in such a way that it could only appear to him to be transformed one-sided Platonism. And he had to feel that in the forms of many a world view which confronted him and with which he wanted to come to terms, one had not succeeded in overcoming within Western culture the Christian-Platonic view of reality which was not in accordance with nature nor with ideas.