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Goethe's Standard of the Soul
GA 22

3. Goethe's Standard of the Soul, as Illustrated in his Fairy Story of “The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily.”

About the time of the beginning of his friendship with Goethe, Schiller was occupying himself with the ideas which found expression in his Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man.1This essay is an elaboration of my article Goethe's Secret Revelation which appeared in the Literary Magazine in 1899, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of Goethe's birthday.!In 1794, he elaborated these letters, which were originally written for the Duke of Augustenberg, for Die Horen. The direction of thought in the verbal discussions and the correspondence which took place at that time between Goethe and Schiller approximated again and again to the orbit of ideas contained in these letters. Schiller's thoughts encountered this question: “What condition of the human soul forces corresponds in the best sense of the word to an existence worthy of man?” “It may be urged that every individual bears within himself, at least in adaptation and destination, a purely ideal man. The great problem of his existence is to bring all the incessant changes of his outer life into conformity with the unchanging unity of this ideal.

Thus writes Schiller in the fourth letter. It is Schiller's aim to build a bridge from man as he is in immediate reality, to the ideal man. There exist in human nature two impulses which hold it back from idealistic perfection when they develop in an unbalanced way—the impulses of the senses and of reason. If the sense impulse has the upper hand man is the servant of his instincts and passions. In action that is irradiated by human consciousness is mingled a force that clouds this consciousness. His acts become the result of an inner necessity. If the reason impulse predominates man strives to suppress the instincts and passions and to give himself up to an abstract necessity that is not sustained by inner warmth. In both cases man is subject to coercion. In the first his sense nature subdues the spiritual; in the second his spiritual nature subdues that of the senses. Neither the one nor the other gives man in the kernel of his being which lies between the material and the spiritual, full and complete freedom. Complete freedom can only be realised in harmonisation of the two impulses. The material sense nature must not be subdued, but ennobled; the instincts and passions must be permeated with spirituality in such a way that they themselves come to be the fulfilment of the spiritual element that has entered into them. And reason must lay hold of the soul nature in man in such a way that it imparts its power to what is merely instinctive and passional, causing man to fulfil its counsels as a matter of course from out of his instinct and with the power of passion. “When we have desire for someone who is worthy of our disdain, we have painful experience of the constraint of Nature. When we are antagonistic to another who merits our respect, we have painful experience of the constraint of the intellect. As soon, however, as he interests our affections and wins our respect, the coercion of feeling and the coercion of reason both disappear, and we begin to love him. A man whose material nature manifests the spiritual qualities of reason, and whose reason manifests the basic power of passion, is a free personality.” Schiller would like to found harmonious social life in human society upon the basis of free personalities. For him the problem of an existence really worthy of man was allied to the problem of the formation of man's social life. This was his answer to the questions facing man-kind at the time when he expressed these thoughts, as a result of the French Revolution (27th Letter). Goethe found deep satisfaction in such ideas. On 26th October, 1794, he writes to Schiller on the subject of the Aesthetic Letters as follows: “I read the manuscript sent to me with the very greatest pleasure; I imbibed it at one draught. These letters pleased and did me good in the same way as a delicious drink that suits our nature is easily imbibed and shows its healthy effects on our tongue through a pleasant humour of the nervous system. How could it be otherwise, since I found such a coherent and noble exposition of what I have long recognized to be true, partly experiencing it, partly longing to experience it in life.

Goethe found that Schiller's Aesthetic Letters expressed all that he longed to experience in life in order to become conscious of an existence that should be really worthy of man. It is therefore comprehensible that in his soul also, thoughts should be stimulated which he tried in his own way to elaborate in Schiller's direction. These thoughts gave birth to the composition that has been interpreted in so many different ways,—namely the enigmatical fairy tale at the end of the narrative which appeared in Die Horen under the title of Conversations of German Emigrants. The fairy tale appeared in this paper in the year 1795. These conversations, like Schiller's Aesthetic Letters, had as their subject the French Revolution. This concluding fairy tale cannot be explained by bringing all sorts of ideas from outside to bear upon it, but only by going back to the conceptions which lived in Goethe's soul at that time.

Most of the attempts to interpret this composition are recorded in the book entitled Goethe's Wonder Compositions by Friedrich Meyer von Waldeck Heidelberg (Karl Wintersche Universitätsbuchhandlung). Since the publication of this book new attempts at explanation have of course been made.

I have tried to penetrate into the spirit of the fairy tale, taking as my starting point the hypothesis of the Goethean school of thought from the ninetieth year of the eighteenth century onwards, and I first gave expression to what I had discovered in a lecture delivered on 27th October, 1891, to the Goethe Society of Vienna. What I then said has expanded in all directions. But everything that I have since allowed to be printed or that I have said verbally about the fairy tale, is only a further elaboration of the thoughts expressed in that Lecture and my Mystery Play, The Portal of Initiation, published in 1910, is also a result.

We must look for the embryonic thought underlying the fairy tale in the Conversations of which it formed the conclusion. In the Conversations Goethe tells of the escape of a certain family from regions devastated by war. In the conversations between the members of this family there lives all that was stimulated in Goethe's conceptual world as a result of his interchange of ideas with Schiller. The conversations revolve around two central points of thought. One of them governs those conceptions of man which make him believe in the existence of some connection between the events of his life,—a connection which is impermeable to the laws of material actuality. The stories told in this connection are in part phantom, and in part describe experiences which seem to reveal a “Wonder” element in contrast to natural law. Goethe did not write these narratives as the result of a tendency towards superstition, but from a much deeper motive. That soothing, mystical feeling which many people have when they hear of something that cannot be explained by the limited reason directed to the facts of natural law, was quite alien to Goethe. But again and again he was faced by the question: does there not exist for the human soul a possibility of emancipating itself from conceptions emanating from mere sense perception and of apprehending a supersensible world in a purely spiritual mode of conception? The impulse towards this kind of activity of the faculty of cognition may of course be a natural human aspiration based on a connection with this supersensible world,—a connection that is hidden from the senses and the understanding bound to them. And the tendency towards experiences which appear to sever natural connections may be only a childish aberration of this justifiable longing of man for a spiritual world. Goethe was interested in the peculiar direction of the soul's activity when giving way to this fondness for the sweets of superstition rather than for the actual content of the tales and stories to which these tendencies give birth in unsophisticated minds.

From the second central point of thought flow conceptions concerned with man's moral life, the stimulus for which is derived not from material existence, but from impulses which raise man above the impacts of material sense existence. In this sphere a supersensible world of forces enters into the soul life of man.

Rays which must ultimately end in the supersensible proceed from both these central points of thought. And they give rise to the questions about the inner being of man, the connection of the human soul with the sense world on the one side and with the supersensible on the other. Schiller approached this question in a philosophical attitude in his Aesthetic Letters; the abstract philosophical path was not Goethe's. He had to give a picture form to what he wrote, as in the case of the fairy tale of The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily. In Goethe's imagination the different human soul powers assumed the form of figures in the fairy tale, and the whole soul life and soul striving of man was personified in the experiences and the lives of these figures. When anything of this kind is said one has to be prepared for the objection which will come from certain quarters that in this way a composition is lifted out of the realer of imagination, of phantasy, and made into an inartistic, symbolical representation of abstract concepts; the figures are removed from real life and transformed into symbols or even allegories that are not of the nature of art. Such an objection is based on the notion that nothing but abstract ideas can live in the human soul as soon as it leaves the realm of sense materiality. It ignores the fact that there is a living supersensible mode of perception as well as one that is of the senses. And in the fairy tale Goethe moves with his figures in the realm of supersensible perceptions and not of abstract concepts. What is here said about these figures and their experiences is not in any sense a statement that this figure means one thing, and that another. Such symbolical interpretation is as far removed as it could possibly be from the standpoint of this Essay. For it, the Old Man with the Lamp and the Will-o'-the-Wisps in the fairy tale are nothing more nor less than the phantasy figures as they appear in the composition. It is absolutely necessary, however, to look for the particular thought impulses which stimulated the imagination of the poet to create such figures. Goethe's consciousness did not of course lay hold of these thought-impulses in abstract form. He expressed himself in imaginative figures because to his genius any abstract form of thought would have been too lacking in content. The thought-impulse holding sway in the substrata of Goethe's soul had as its outcome the imaginative figure. Thought, as the intermediate stage, lives only subconsciously in his soul and gives the imagination its direction. The student of Goethe's fairy tale needs the thought content, for this alone can enable his soul to follow the course of Goethe's creative phantasy in re-creative imagination. The process of growing into the content of this thought involves nothing more nor less than the adaptation of organs enabling us to live in the atmosphere that Goethe breathed spiritually when he created the fairy tale. This means that we focus our gaze upon the same soul world as Goethe. As a result of Goethe's control of this soul world, living, spiritual forms—not philosophical ideas, burst forth before him. What lives in these spiritual forms lives also in the human soul.

The mode of conception which permeates the fairy tale is also present in the Conversations. In the discussions narrated there, the human soul turns to the two world spheres between which man's life is placed—the material and the supersensible. The deeper nature of man strives to establish a right relationship to both these spheres for the purpose of attaining a free soul understanding that is worthy of man, and of building a harmonious social life. Goethe felt that what he brought to light in the narratives did not come to expression fully in the Conversations. In the all-embracing picture of the fairy tale he had to bring those human soul problems upon which his gaze was directed, nearer to the immeasurably rich world of spiritual life. The striving towards the condition truly worthy of man to which Schiller refers and which Goethe longs to experience, is personified in the Young Man in the fairy tale. His marriage with the Lily, who embodies the realization of the world of Freedom is the union with those forces which slumber in the human soul and when awakened lead to the true inner experience of the free personality.

The “Old Man with the Lamp” plays an important part in the development of the fairy tale. When he comes with his lamp into the clefts of the rocks, he is asked which is the most important of the secrets known to him. He answers, “the revealed,” and when asked if he will not divulge this secret, replies, “When I have learnt the fourth.” This fourth secret, however, is known to the Green Snake, who whispers it in the Old Man's ear. There can be no doubt that this secret concerns the condition for which all the figures in the fairy tale are longing. This condition is described at the end of the tale. A picture portrays the way in which the soul of man enters into union with the subterranean forces of its nature. As a result of this, the soul's relationship to the supersensible,—the kingdom of the Lily,—and to the material,—the kingdom of the Green Snake, is so regulated that in experience and in action it is freely receptive to impulses from both regions. In union with both the soul is able to fulfil its true being. It must be assumed that the Old Man knows this secret; for he is the only figure who is always master of the circumstances; everything is dependent on his guidance and leadership. What then can the Snake say to the Old Man? He knows that the Snake must be offered up in sacrifice if the longed-for goal is to be attained. But this knowledge of his is not unconditional. He must wait until the snake from out of the depths of her nature is ripe to make the sacrifice. Within the compass of man's soul life is a power which bears the soul's development on to the condition of free personality. This power has its task on the way to the attainment of free personality. When this is achieved the task is over. This power brings the human soul into connection with the experiences of life. It transforms into inner wisdom all that science and life reveal, and makes the soul ever riper for the desired spiritual goal. This attained, it loses meaning, for it establishes man's relation to the outer world. At the goal, however, all external impulses are changed into inner impulses of the soul, and there this power must sacrifice itself, must suspend its functions; it must, without separate existence of its own, live on now in the transformed man as the ferment permeating the rest of soul life. Goethe's spiritual outlook was particularly concerned with this power in human life. He saw it working in the experiences of life and of science. He wanted to see its application without the outcome of preconceived ideas or theories of an abstract goal. This goal must be a result of the experiences themselves. When the experiences are mature they must themselves give birth to the goal. They must not be stunted by a predestined end. This soul-power is personified in the Green Snake. It devours the gold,—the wisdom derived from life and science, which must be so worked upon by the soul that wisdom and soul become one. This soul-power will be sacrificed at the right time; it will bring man to his goal, will make him a free personality. The Snake whispers to the Old Man that it will sacrifice itself. It confides to him a mystery that is revealed to him, but of which he can make no use so long as it is not fnlfllled by the free resolve of the Snake. When this soul power in man speaks to him as the Snake speaks to the Old Man, “the time has come” for the soul to realise life experience as life wisdom; harmony between the material and the supersensible is re-established. The Young Man has had premature contact with the supersensible world, and has been paralysed, deadened. Life revives in him and he marries the Lily when the Snake,—the soul experience, is offered up in sacrifice. Thus the longed for consummation is attained. The time has now also come when the soul is able to build a bridge between the nether and the further regions of the river. This bridge is built of the Snake's own substance. From now on, life experience has no separate existence; it is no longer directed merely to the outer sense world as before. It has become inner soul power which is not consciously exercised as such, but which only functions in the reciprocal illumination of the material and super-sensible life of man's inner being. This condition is brought about by the Snake. Yet the Snake by itself cannot impart to the Young Man the gifts whereby he is able to control the newly fathomed soul kingdom. These gifts are bestowed on him by the Three Kings. From the Brazen King he receives the sword with the command: “Take the sword in your left hand and keep the right hand free.” The Silver King gives him the sceptre with the words: “Feed my sheep.” The Golden King sets the Crown of Oak on his head, saying, “Acknowledge the Highest.” The fourth King, who is formed of a mixture of the three metals, Copper, Silver and Gold, sinks lifelessly to the ground. In the man who is on the way to become a free personality there are three soul forces in alloy:—Will (Copper), Feeling (Silver), Knowledge (Gold). In the course of existence the revelations of life experience give all that the soul assimilates from the operation of these three forces. Power, through which virtue works is made manifest in Will: Beauty (beautiful appearance) reveals itself in Peeling; Wisdom, in Knowledge. Man is separated from the state of “free personality” through the fact that these three forces work in his soul in alloy; he will attain free personality to the degree in which he assimilates the gifts, each of the three in its specific nature, in full consciousness and unites them in free conscious activity in his own soul. Then the chaotic alloy of the gifts of Will, Feeling and Knowledge which has previously controlled him, falls asunder.

The Wisdom King is of Gold. Gold personifies Wisdom in some form. The operation of Wisdom in the life experience that is finally sacrificed has already been described. But the Will-o'-the-Wisps too, seize upon the Gold in their own way. In man there exists a soul quality,—(in many people it develops abnormally and seems to fill their whole being)—by which he is able to assimilate all the wisdom that life and science bestow. But this soul quality does not endeavour to unite wisdom wholly to the inner life. It remains one-sided know-ledge, as an instrument of dogma or criticism; it makes a man appear brilliant, or helps to give him a one-sided prominence in life. It makes no effort to bring about a balance through adjustment with the yields of external experience. It becomes superstition as described by Goethe in the Wonder Tales of the Emigrants, because it does not try to harmonise itself to Nature. It becomes learning before it has become life in the inner being of the soul. It is that which false prophets and sophists like to bear through life. All endeavour to assimilate the Goethean life-axiom: “Man must surrender his existence if he would exist” is alien to it. The Snake, the selfless life-experience that has developed for love's sake to conscious wisdom, surrenders its existence in order to build the bridge between material and spiritual existence.

An irresistible desire presses the Young Man onward to the kingdom of the Beautiful Lily. What are the characteristics of this kingdom? Although men have the deepest longing for the world of the Lily, they can only reach it at certain times before the bridge is built. At noon the Snake, even before its sacrifice, builds a temporary bridge to the supersensible world. And evening and morning man can pass over the river that separates sense-existence from supersensible existence on the Giant's Shadows—the powers of imagination and of memory. Anyone who approaches the ruler of the supersensible world without the necessary inner qualification must do harm to his life like the Young Man. The Lily also desires the other region. The Ferryman who conveyed the Will-o'-the-Wisps over the river can bring anyone back from the supersensible world, but can take no one to it.

A man who desires contact with the supersensible world must first have developed his inner being in the direction of this world through life experience, for the supersensible world can only be grasped in free spiritual activity.

The Prose Aphorisms express Goethe's opinion of this goal: “Everything that sets our spirit free without giving us mastery over ourselves, is harmful.” Another aphorism is: “Duty, when a man loves the commands he gives to himself.” The kingdom of pure supersensible activity—Schiller's “Reason Impulse,” is that of the Lily; the kingdom of pure sense-materiality—Schiller's “Sense Impulse” is the home of the Snake before its sacrifice. The Ferryman can bring anyone to the realm of sense but cannot convey them to the realm of spirit. All men have involuntarily descended from the supersensible world. But they can only re-establish a free union with this supersensible world when they have the will to pass over the bridge of sacrificed life-experience. It is a union independent of “Time,” of all involuntary conditions of soul. Before this free union has taken place there exist two involuntary conditions of soul which enable man to attain to the supersensible world—the kingdom of the free personality. One such condition is present in creative imagination or phantasy which is a reflection of supersensible experience. In Art man links sense existence to the supersensible. In Art he manifests also as free creative soul. This is depicted in the crossing which the Snake makes possible at noon. The Snake typifies life-experience not yet ready for supersensible existence. The other condition of soul sets in when the conscious soul of man—of the Giant in man who is an image of the macrocosm—is dimmed, when conscious cognition is obscured and blunted in such a way that it becomes superstition, hallucination, mediumistic trance. The soul power existing in this way in obscured consciousness is for Goethe one with that power that is prone by force and despotism to lead men to the state of freedom in a revolutionary sense. In revolutions the urge towards an ideal state lives obscurely; it is like the shadow of the Giant which lies over the river at twilight. What Schiller writes to Goethe on 16th October, 1794, is also evidence of the accuracy of this idea of the Giant. Goethe was on a journey which it was his intention to extend to Frankforton-the-Main. Schiller writes: “I am indeed glad to know that you are still far away from the commerce of the Main. The shadow of the Giant might well lay rough hands upon you.” The result of caprice, the unregulated “laissez faire” of historical events, is personified in the Giant and his shadow, by the side of the obscured consciousness of man. The soul impulses leading to such happenings are certainly associated with the tendency towards superstition and chimerical ideology.

The “Old Man's” lamp has the quality of only being able to give light where another light already is. One cannot but be reminded here of the saying of an old Mystic, quoted by Goethe: “If the eye were not of the nature of the light it could never see the sun; if God's own power were not within us, how could Divinity delight us?” Just as the lamp does not give light in the darkness, so the light of wisdom, of knowledge, does not shine in the man who does not bring to it the appropriate organ, the inner light. What the lamp denotes will become still more intelligible if we take heed of the fact that it can in its own way shed light upon what is developing as a resolution in the Snake, but that there must first be knowledge of the Snake's willingness to make this resolution. There is a kind of human know-ledge which is at all times a concern of the highest endeavour of man. It has arisen from the inner experience of souls in the course of the historical life of mankind. But the goal of human endeavour to which it points can only be attained in concrete reality out of the sacrificed life-experience. All that the consideration of the historical past teaches man, all that mystical and religious experience enables him to say about his connection with the supersensible world,-all this can find its ultimate consummation only by the sacrifice of life-experience. The Old Man can change everything by his lamp in such a way that it assumes a new life-serving form, but actual development is dependent upon the ripening of the life-experience.

The wife of the Old Man is she whose body is pledged to the river for the debt which she has come to owe it. This woman personifies the human powers of perception and conception as well as humanity's memory of its past. She is an associate of the Old Man. By her aid he has possession of the light that is able to illumine what is made evident already by external reality. But the powers of conception and of remembrance are not united in life with the concrete forces active in the evolution of the individual man and in the historical life of humanity. The power of conception and of remembrance cleaves to the past; it conserves the things of the past so that they make their claims upon all that is becoming and evolving in the present. The conditions—maintained by memory—in which the individual and the human race are always living, are the crystallisation of this power of the soul.

Schiller writes of them in the third of the Aesthetic Letters: “He (man) was introduced into this state by the power of circumstances, before he could freely select his own position. Before he could adjust it according to the Laws of Reason, necessity has done so according to Natural Laws.” The river divides the two kingdoms, of free spiritual activity in supersensible existence and of necessity in material life. The unconscious soul powers, the Ferryman, transport man, whose origin is in the supersensible kingdom, into the material world. Here in the first place he finds himself in a realm wherein the powers of conception and remembrance have created conditions in which he has to live. But they separate him from the supersensible world; he feels himself beholden to them when he must approach the power (the Ferryman) that has brought him unconsciously out of the supersensible world into the material sense world. He can only break the power which these conditions have over him, and which is revealed in the deprivation of his freedom, when with the “Fruits of the Earth” that is to say, with self-created life wisdom, he frees himself from the obligation imposed upon him by the conditions, from coercion. If he cannot do this, these conditions—the water of the river—take his individual wisdom away from him. He is swallowed up into his soul being.

On the river stands the Temple in which the marriage of the Young Man with the Lily takes place. The “marriage” with the supersensible, the realisation of the free personality, is possible in a human soul whose forces have been brought into a state of regularity that in comparison with the usual state is a transformation. The life experience previously acquired by the soul is so far mature that the force directed to it is no longer exhausted in adapting man to the world of sense. This force becomes the content of what is able to stream into man's inner being from the supersensible world in such a way, that, acts in the material sense world become the fulfilment of supersensible impulses. In this condition of soul, those spiritual powers of man which previously flowed along mistaken or one-sided channels, assume their new significance in the character as a whole,—a significance adequate for a higher state of consciousness. The wisdom of the Will-o'-the-Wisps, for example, which has broken loose from the sense world and has wandered into superstitution or chaotic thought, serves to open the door of the Palace, that is the personification of the soul condition wherein the chaotic alloy of Will, Feeling and Cognition holds man in chain within a constricted inner life shut off from the supersensible world.

In the wonder pictures of the composition Goethe approached the panoramic evolution of the human soul before his spiritual vision in that frame of mind which is conscious of estrangement in face of the supersensible until it attains those heights of consciousness where life in the sense world is permeated by the supersensible, spiritual world to such an extent that the two become one. This process of transformation was visible to Goethe's soul in delicately woven figures of phantasy. Through the Conversations of German Emigrants shines the problem of the relation of the physical world to a world of supersensible experience free of every element of sense with its consequences for the communal life of man. This problem finds a far-reaching solution at the end of the fairy tale in a panorama of poetic pictures. This Essay merely indicates the path leading to the realm where Goethe's imagination wove the fabric of the fairy tale. Living understanding of all the other details can be developed by those who realise the fairy tale to be a picture of man's soul life as it strives towards the supersensible world. Schiller realised this fully. He writes: “The fairy tale is full of colour and humour and I think that you have given most charming expression to the ideas of which you once spoke, namely, in reference to the reciprocal interplay of the powers and their reaction on each other.” For even when it is objected that this reciprocal interaction of the powers refers to powers of different men, we can plead the well-known Goethean truth that although the soul powers from one point of view are distributed among different human beings, they are nothing but the divergent rays of the collective human soul. And when different human natures work together in a common existence we have in this mutual action and reaction nothing more nor less than a picture of the multifarious forces and powers constituting in their reciprocal relationships the one collective individual being, Man.