Goethe's World View
Preface to the First Edition
The thoughts which I express in this book are meant to contain the fundamental elements that I have observed in Goethe's world view. In the course of many years I have contemplated the picture of this world view again and again. There was a particular appeal for me in looking upon what nature had revealed of its being and laws to Goethe's refined organs of sense and spirit. I learned to understand why Goethe experienced these revelations as a good fortune and happiness so great that he sometimes valued them more highly than his poetic gift. I lived into the feelings which moved through Goethe's soul when he said that “nothing motivates us so much to think about ourselves as when, after a long interval, we finally see again objects of the highest significance, scenes of nature with particularly decisive characteristics, and compare the impression remaining from the past with the present effect. We will then notice by and large that the object emerges more and more, that, while we earlier experienced joy and suffering in our encounter with the objects and projected our happiness and perplexity onto them, we now, with egoism tamed, grant them their rightful due, which is that we recognize their particularities and learn to value their characteristics more highly by thus living into them. The artistic eye yields the first kind of contemplation; the second kind is suited to the researcher of nature; and I had to count myself, although at first not without pain, still in the end fortunate that, as the first kind of sense threatened to leave me by and by, the second kind developed all the more powerfully in eye and spirit.”
One must be acquainted with the impressions which Goethe received from the phenomena of nature if one wants to understand the full content of his poetic works. The secrets which he gleaned from the being and becoming of the creation live in his artistic productions and are revealed only to someone who gives heed to the communications which the poet makes about nature. A person cannot dive down into the depths of Goethean art to whom Goethe's observations of nature are unknown.
Feelings such as these impelled me to occupy myself with Goethe's nature studies. They allowed first of all the ideas to ripen, which more than ten years ago I communicated in Kuerschner's Deutscher Nationalliteratur. What I began back then in the first volume I have developed more fully in the three following volumes of the scientific writings of Goethe, of which the last one is appearing just at this time. The same feelings guided me as I undertook some years ago the wonderful task of being responsible for a part of the natural scientific writings of Goethe for the comprehensive Weimar edition of Goethe's works. What I brought to this work in the way of thoughts, and the thoughts that arose in me during it, form the content of the present book. I can characterize this content as experienced in the fullest sense of the word. I have sought to draw near to the ideas of Goethe from many starting points. I have called up all the opposition slumbering in me to Goethe's way of looking at things in order to safeguard my own individuality in the face of the power of this unique personality. And the more I developed my own world view, won for myself, the more I believed I understood Goethe. I tried to find a light that would even illuminate the places in Goethe's soul which remained dark to himself. Between the lines of his works I wanted to read what would make him entirely comprehensible to me. The powers of his spirit, which governed him but of which he did not himself become conscious, these I sought to discover. I wanted to see into the essential character traits of his soul.
When it is a matter of considering a personality psychologically, our age loves to leave its ideas in a kind of mystical semi-darkness. Clarity of thought in such things is held in contempt today as dry intellectual knowledge. It is believed that one can penetrate more deeply if one speaks about one-sidedly mystical abysses of soul life, about demonic powers within the personality. I must admit that this enthusiasm for a misguided mystical psychology appears to me as superficiality. It is present in people in whom the content of the world of ideas arouses no feelings. They cannot descend into the depths of this content; they do not feel the warmth which streams forth from it. Therefore they seek this warmth in unclarity. Whoever is capable of living into the bright spheres of the world of pure thoughts feels within him something that he cannot feel anywhere else. One can come to know personalities like that of Goethe only if one is able to take up into oneself, in all their light-filled clarity, the ideas by which such personalities are governed. A person who loves a false mysticism in psychology will perhaps find my way of looking at things cold. But is it my fault that I cannot regard what is dark and indefinite as one and the same with what is profound? I sought to present the ideas which held sway in Goethe as active powers just as purely and clearly as they appeared to me. Perhaps many will also find the lines I have drawn, the colors I have applied, too simple. I believe, however, that one best characterizes what is great if one tries to present it in all its monumental simplicity. The little adornments and appendages only confuse one's contemplation. It is not the incidental thoughts, to which this or that less significant experience moved Goethe, that are important to me about him but rather the basic direction of his spirit. Although this spirit does also take side paths here and there, one main tendency is always recognizable. And this is what I have sought to follow. If someone believes that the regions through which I have gone are ice-cold, I believe of him that he has left his heart at home.
If someone wants to reproach me by saying that I portray only those aspects of the Goethean world view to which my own thinking and feeling direct me, then I can only respond that I want to look upon another personality only in the way that he must appear to me according to my own being. I do not value very highly the objectivity of those portrayers who want to deny themselves when they present the ideas of others. I believe that this objectivity can paint only dull and pallid pictures. A battle underlies every true presentation of another's world view, and someone who is fully conquered will not be the best portrayer. The other's power must compel my respect, but my own weapons must perform their service. I have therefore stated without reserve that in my view the Goethean way of thinking has its limit, that there are regions of knowledge which remain closed to it. I have shown which direction the observation of world phenomena must take if it wants to penetrate into regions which Goethe did not enter upon, or in which, when he did go into them, he wandered about uncertainly. As interesting as it may be to follow a great spirit upon his path, I want to follow each one only as far as he benefits me myself. For it is not the contemplation, the knowledge, which is valuable, but rather the life, one's own activity. The pure historian is weak, is not a powerful man. Historical knowledge robs one of the energy and spring of one's own activity. Whoever wants to understand everything will not be much himself. What is fruitful is alone true, Goethe has said. Insofar as Goethe is fruitful for our time, one ought to live into his world of thoughts and feelings. And I believe that there will emerge from the following presentation the fact that innumerable treasures lie hidden within this world of thoughts and feelings that have not yet been raised. I have indicated the places where modern science has not kept up with Goethe. I have spoken of the poverty of our present-day world of ideas and contrasted to it the wealth and fullness of the Goethean one. In Goethe's thinking there are seeds which modern science should bring to fruition. This thinking could be an example for science. Science has more material from observations that Goethe had, but it has permeated this material only with a meager and insufficient content of ideas. I hope that there will emerge from my book how little the modern natural scientific way of thinking is in a position to criticize Goethe and how much it could learn from him