The thoughts expressed in this book are intended to set forth the fundamental principles which I have observed in Goethe's conception of the world. In the course of many years I have studied again and again what is presented by this world-conception. It especially fascinated me to contemplate the revelations which Nature had made in regard to her laws and her being to Goethe's delicate organs of sense and of spirit. I learnt to understand why it was that Goethe treasured these revelations so highly that he sometimes accounted them of more value than his poetic genius. I entered into the feelings that flowed through Goethe's soul when he said that “nothing induces us to think about ourselves so intensely as when we see after long intervals, highly significant objects or striking scenes in Nature and compare the impression remaining with the present effect. Then we shall notice, on the whole, that the object stands out in greater relief; that if we previously experienced joy and sorrow, serenity and distraction in contemplating the objects, we now, with controlled egoism, recognise their claim that their characteristics and qualities, in so far as we penetrate them, shall be understood and prized in a higher degree. The artistic eye affords the former way of perceiving; the latter befits the investigator of Nature, and although at the beginning it was not without a certain pain, I could not but ultimately account it a happy circumstance that, whereas the one sense threatened gradually to abandon me, the other developed in eye and mind with all the greater power.”
We must acquaint ourselves with the impressions made upon Goethe by the phenomena of Nature if we would understand the full import of his poems. The secrets he learned by listening to the being and becoming of Creation live in the Poet's artistic productions and become intelligible only to those who pay attention to what he says in reference to Nature. Those who know nothing about Goethe's observations of Nature cannot fathom the depths of his art.
These were the feelings that prompted me to concern myself with Goethe's Nature studies. First of all they afforded opportunity for the maturing of the ideas which more than ten years previously I had expressed in the volumes of Kürschner's Deutsche Nationalliteratur. What I then began, in the first, I have elaborated in the three following volumes of Goethe's Natural Scientific Writings, the last of which has just been published. I was prompted by the same feelings when, several years ago, I undertook the pleasant task of supervising the publication of some of Goethe's Natural Scientific writings for the great Weimar edition. The thoughts I brought to this work and those which I worked out while engaged on it form the content of this present book. I am able to say in the fullest sense of the word that this content has been a matter of experience with me. I have tried to approach Goethe's ideas from many starting-points. I have called forth all the opposition to his world-conception that was slumbering within me in order to preserve my own individuality in the presence of the power of his unique personality. And the more my own self-achieved world-conception developed, the more was I convinced that I understood Goethe. I tried to find a light which should also illumine certain spaces in Goethe's soul that were obscure even to himself. I wanted to find between the lines of his writings, elements which would make him fully intelligible to me. I tried to discover forces that dominated his spirit, of which he, however, was not himself conscious. I wanted to penetrate into the essential qualities and tendencies of his soul.
When it is a question of a psychological study of a personality, our age likes to leave ideas in a mystical semi-obscurity. Clarity and definite thought in such matters is nowadays regarded as prosaic intellectualism. It is considered more ‘profound’ to speak of the one-sided mystical depths of soul life, of daemonic forces within the personality. I must confess that, to me, this enthusiasm for mistaken mystical psychology is superficial. It exists in men whom the content of the world of ideas leaves unmoved. They are incapable of fathoming the depths of this content and do not sense the warmth that streams from it. They therefore seek this warmth in vagueness. A man who is able to enter the luminous spheres of the world of pure thought experiences therein something that is nowhere else to be found. Personalities like that of Goethe can only be understood when one is able to lay hold of the ideas which dominate them in all their clarity. Those who love a pseudo-mysticism in psychology may perhaps find my mode of thinking cold. Is it to my discredit that I cannot identify real profundity with obscurity and indefiniteness? I have tried to present the ideas which dominated Goethe as living forces in all the purity and clarity in which they appeared to me. It is possible that the lines and colouring which I have adopted may seem to many to be too simple. I am, however, of opinion that we best characterise greatness when we attempt to portray it in all its monumental simplicity. Flourishes and ornamentations only confuse perception. The essential thing to me, so far as Goethe is concerned, is not the mass of secondary thoughts induced in him by some relatively unimportant experience, but the fundamental trend and direction of his mind. Even if here and there this mind may strike bye-paths, one main direction is always present, and it is this that I have tried to follow. If there are people who think that the regions which I have traversed are icy cold, I can only say to them that they have surely left their hearts behind them.
If I am reproached with describing only those aspects of Goethe's view of the world to which my own thinking and feeling lead me, I can make no other reply than that I only wish to regard another personality as it appears to me in accordance with my own being. I do not place great value on the objectivity of exponents who are willing to efface themselves when they are describing the ideas of others. I believe that they can only give us lifeless, colourless pictures. A conflict always lies at the basis of every true presentation of another's world-conception; and one who is wholly conquered will not be the best exponent. The other power must compel respect but one's own weapons must perform their task. I have therefore stated unreservedly that in my view there are limitations to the Goethean mode of thought; there are regions of knowledge which have remained closed to it. I have indicated the direction which observation of world phenomena must take if it would penetrate to those regions which Goethe did not enter, or around which he wandered with uncertain feet when he ventured into them. Interesting as it is to follow the paths of a great mind, I only want to follow anyone so far as he furthers me. What is of value is life, self-activity, not contemplation or knowledge. The historian pure and simple is weak and powerless. Historical cognition saps the energy and elasticity of individual activity. A man who wants to understand everything will in himself be of little account. Goethe has said that only what is fruitful is true. To the extent to which Goethe is fruitful for our age — to that extent ought we to penetrate his world of thought and perception. And I think that the following exposition will show that innumerable, as yet undiscovered treasures lie hidden in his world of thought and feeling. I have indicated where modern science has remained behind Goethe. I have spoken of the poverty of the modern world of ideas and have held up in contrast to it the wealth and abundance of that of Goethe. In Goethe's thought there are germs which modern natural science ought to bring to maturity. His mode of thought might well be a model for modern natural science which has at its disposal a greater abundance of material for observation than he had. It has, however, permeated this material with meagre, inadequate concepts only. I hope that my exposition will show how little the modern scientific mode of thought is qualified to criticise Goethe and how much it could learn from him.