Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

The alarming increase in machines torments and frightens me, they are rolling down upon us like a thunderstorm, slowly, slowly, but they are on their way, they will come upon us.1

The Germany into which Goethe was born on 28 August 1749 was a pre-industrial collection of statelets. By his death on 22 March 1832 this pre-eminent genius, a poet, dramatist, novelist, artist, critic, lawyer, civil servant, statesman and scientist, had lived through a period which took Germany to the very threshold of its delayed industrial revolution. After a childhood in Frankfurt, Goethe studied law at Leipzig and Strasbourg. During convalescence from serious illness he dabbled in alchemy, the influences of whose underlying philosophy are still evident in Goethe's later approaches to both science and literature. In August 1771 he began to practise as a lawyer, but the tumultuous success in 1774 of his drama Götz von Berlichingen and, especially, of his epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, catapulted him to European-wide fame as a writer. In 1776 Goethe was called to the court of the Duchy of Sachsen-Weimar, marking the start of a life-long career in Weimar as a civil servant and minister under the patronage of the Duke Carl August. In 1782 he was elevated to the aristocracy and in the same decade began to develop his interest in the natural sciences, in the course of time covering fields including geology (he was for a time Minister of Mines), botany, optics, zoology, anatomy, morphology and meteorology. His exploration of botany and geology in particular developed during a sojourn in Italy between 1786 and 1788.2 During the 1790s Goethe not only worked on a number of long-lasting literary projects which were to become world classics (especially Faust, the second part not finished until 1831), but he also began a lengthy endeavour to discredit Isaac Newton's theory of optics in favour of his own chromatics. Goethe finally published his Theory of Colours in 1810, by which point his literary reputation was reaching new heights with the publication of the first part of Faust in 1806 and of the novel Elective Affinities in 1809. By the 1820s Goethe's fame and acknowledged importance were such that his friend Eckermann made detailed notes of his dinner conversation over several years; this along with other sources, and the huge number of words that Goethe wrote, have provided a profoundly rich source for an assessment of his views.

It is primarily Goethe's view of nature that makes him attractive to those interested in environmental thought. Having abandoned Christianity early in life in favour of a Hellenic neo-paganism (though not in any organized or evangelical manner), Goethe allowed his holistic view of nature to inform every aspect of his work. Though he himself was wary of the term pantheism, which is conventionally attributed to him,3 there is no doubting his holistic understanding, a spiritual dimension to his approach to 'God-Nature', and above all and everywhere apparent, his passionate veneration of the natural world. Goethe rejected a view of nature which concentrated solely on the totality, however. A perception of nature as an external, complete, static given is as limiting, indeed false, as an excessively analytical, taxonomic approach which concentrates on the detailed elements in isolation. In Goethe's view the question of the whole and of the parts is inseparable; one cannot be viewed without the other, and both must be seen as part of a process, in constant change, growth, death, rebirth. He was convinced that for this reason there was an intimate relationship between 'the demands of science' and 'the impulses of art and imitation'.4 Accordingly, in an uncanny foreshadowing of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, and in contradiction to the secure objectivity of the eighteenth-and nineteenth-century scientific method, Goethe insisted that there can be no separation between subject and object, between observer and the observed. The interweaving of humankind and nature precludes any such division; the very act of observation affects the observed, while the observed is capable of profoundly altering the observer. The fundamental processes of nature, the polarities of bonding and separation, of breathing in and out, as he understood it, are reflected in the human spirit; Goethe's holism would admit no other. The corollary is that there must be an ethical dimension to the relationship between nature and humankind; nature demands respect, even veneration. Nature, as observed by the scientist, is imbued with values. Herein, surely, lies much of the attraction of Goethe to the modern Green movement. Writing in an age before human beings had the capacity to shape nature in a thoroughgoing post-industrial fashion (although humankind had been leaving its mark on the planet for thousands of years), Goethe nevertheless recognized that inner nature and external nature are indistinguishable, and thus came near to the concept of inner or constructed nature which was only fully developed by Horkheimer and Adorno in the 1940s and 1950s. A further dimension of the attraction Goethe's view of nature holds for modern Greens is his insistence that nature can only be properly comprehended by means of Ahnung, or intuition. This does not mean a rejection of science; but it does mean a rejection of the conventional scientific method; and indeed an understanding of Goethe as a scientist is fundamental to an understanding of his thought in ecological terms.

The lasting achievement of Goethe's scientific work is also his earliest in the field of natural sciences: the discovery of the intermaxillary bone in human beings. Until Goethe's discovery, the absence of a bone in the human jaw which in animals houses the canine teeth was taken as evidence of the essential distinction between the two. The suture which remains as the indication that human beings also retain such an anatomical structure bears Goethe's name still. But it is in the theological and social, not to say scientific, importance of the recognition of a relationship between human beings and animals that the importance of this discovery lies. It points to an essential cornerstone in ecological thinking; that human beings, while in Goethe's view the crowning achievement of nature and clearly distinct from animals, are a part of nature like any other.

Although with the exception of this anatomical discovery none of Goethe's scientific revelations are of acknowledged lasting significance, his writings on science nevertheless remain the subject of lively debate. Distinguished physicists including Walter Heitler, Werner Heisenberg and Max Planck have written on Goethe. The reason for this enduring interest lies in his idiosyncratic scientific methodology.

This is nowhere more clearly or fully expressed than in the substantial Theory of Colours, the work which he regarded as his most important.5 On the basis of a chance observation through a prism, Goethe became convinced that Newton's spectral theory of light was wrong, in contrast to his own understanding of light as a unity of white which achieved colour by varying admixtures of shade. To his lasting chagrin, Goethe was unable to convince his contemporaries of the correctness of this thesis, partly since he was of course utterly in the wrong. It has been argued that Newton and Goethe were in fact talking about two different things; Newton about the composition of light and Goethe about the human perception of it.6 And it is on subjective perception that Goethe's scientific method relied. The attack on Newton was anything other than objective; indeed, a 'Polemical Section' of the work is devoted in part to denigrating Newton's character in the most scurrilous fashion. In fact, the basis for Goethe's deep disquiet was Newton's analytical methodology, which allegedly embodied the nature-dominating techniques of the scientific method. Spectral analysis using optical instruments was a dispassionate dissection, objectification and subjugation of nature. For Goethe, an account of an experiment was not a formula setting out aim, method, equipment and results, but a story in itself, which included his own feelings, the origins of the experiment, the effect on his senses; in short, a contextual narrative, the whole deriving from subjective evidence. Experiment must also be experience, easily repeatable for the reader with the most rudimentary equipment. Only such 'zarte Empirie' (delicate empiricism) could do justice to the wholeness of 'God-Nature'. Accurate detail and linear causality were of less importance to Goethe than broad-ranging context, the network of interconnections. To be absolutely clear: Goethean science is a rejection not of science, but of a science which is contemptuous of nature. The extent of Goethe's influence can be gauged by the fact that there are today scientists working in ecology and other fields who pursue their research in an explicitly Goethean fashion.7

Goethe is conventionally celebrated for his literary achievements, where proto-ecological elements have also been discovered.8 Merely on the level of content, Werther's despair at the cutting down of ancient nut-trees is an emotion with which many modern Green activists could sympathize, while the fear expressed in Wilhelm Meister at the ubiquity of machines (quoted at the outset) also has contemporary resonances. Goethe's refusal to distinguish between art and science often led him to give literary expression to scientific results. His poem Metamorphosis of Plants encapsulates the results of his essay of the same name, but the poem Metamorphosis of Animals is even more directly relevant for our topic. The apparent foreshadowing of Darwin is so startling as to make it worth quoting (my translation):

Thus the form determines the animal's way of living And the way of living powerfully affects all forms In turn. The ordered formation is thus clearly shown

Which, through the operation of outside elements, tends to change.9

As the biochemist Friedrich Cramer argues, this does sound very much like Darwinism.10 At the very least there is a clear recognition here of the way in which creatures adapt to their environment, and, perhaps, of the interplay between organism and environment without which any ecological view is unthinkable. But on a more fundamental level too, Goethe's assumptions concerning nature inform his literary work. In particular, his masterpiece Faust has been interpreted as an attempt using alchemical metaphors to show the way in which the economy depends on the exploitation of nature.11 Similarly, lost Hermand argues that the longstanding misreading of the text as a paradigm of technical progress and individual ambition requires correction; in fact, it is a celebration of the natural virtues of harmony, holism and mutuality. Faust's destructive drives arise, Hermand argues, because he has lost 'all sense of human solidarity or empathy with nature'.12 Both the Sorrows of Young Werther and Elective Affinities, as well as a number of poems, have also been refracted through an ecological prism. 'The Magician's Apprentice', for example, a poem known to every German-speaking school-child, is routinely used to demonstrate the dangers of meddling with powerful forces one does not properly understand.

Goethe's influence on the history of ecological thought is manifest: Darwin, without whose work there could be no science of ecology, cites him in the Origin of Species. Ernst Haeckel's late-nineteenth-century fusion of science and mysticism in the form of monism, which invested a holistic nature with spiritual qualities, is explicitly derived from Goethe. Rudolf Steiner, the founder of anthroposophy and an originator of organic farming, was deeply indebted to Goethe, as are contemporary Green campaigners of the stature of Fritjof Capra.13 Was Goethe himself an early Green campaigner? Clearly not; despite the opening quotation, the steam engine is only mentioned explicitly a handful of times in the vast number of words he wrote, though it was invented in 1776. And there is a distinct thread of anthropocentrism, to be expected in his era, running through all his work. It would be dangerous and misleading, then, to instrumentalize Goethe in the light of contemporary concerns (though each age has appropriated him for its own purposes). But it is beyond dispute that, among his many accomplishments, Goethe remains a lasting source of inspiration to the ecological imagination.


1 Wilhelm Meister's Travelling Years, 1829; quotation translated from the original German by Colin Riordan.

2 He was especially impressed by Rousseau's work on botany.

3 He feared its use might lead to a simplistic categorization of his views. See letter to C.F.Zelter, 31 October 1831, WA, IV, 49.

5 Indeed, Goethe felt that it was his scientific work which would be his lasting monument.

6 See H.A.Glaser (ed.), Goethe und die Natur, Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, p. 29, 1986.

7 For examples, see especially Part II of D.Seamon and A.Zajonc (eds), Goethe's Way of Science, entitled 'Doing Goethean Science'.

8 Non-specialists frequently and mistakenly associate Goethe with Romanticism. In fact he was an overarching figure whose relations to the Romantics were ambivalent; there were fundamental differences in philosophy.

10 Friedrich Cramer, '"Denn nur also beschränkt war je das vollkommene möglich".. .Gedanken eines Biochemikers zu Goethes Gedicht "Metamorphose der Tiere"', in Glaser, op. cit., pp. 119-32.

11 See Hans-Christoph Binswanger, 'Die moderne Wirtschaft als alchemistischer Prozeß—eine ökonomische Deutung von Goethes "Faust"', in Glaser, op. cit., pp. 155-76.

12 Jost Hermand, Grüne Utopien in Deutschland. Zur Geschichte des ökologischen Bewußtseins, Frankfurt am Main: Fischer, p. 58, 1991 (my translation). See also Jost Hermand, 'Freiheit in der Bindung. Goethes grüne Weltfrömmigkeit', in Jost Hermand, Im Wettlauf mit der Zeit. Anstöße zu einer OkologiebewußtenAsthetik, Berlin: Sigma Bohn, 1991. Gerhard Kaiser makes a very similar argument in his Mutter Natur und die Dampfmaschine. Ein literarischer Mythos im Rückbezug auf Antike und Christentum, Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach Verlag, 1991.

13 See especially Fritjof Capra, Wendezeit: Bausteine für ein neues Weltbild, Munich: Droemer Knaur, 1999.

See also in this book

Darwin, Rousseau

Goethe's major writings

Sorrows of Young Werther, 1774, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1989.

Faust: Parts One and Two, 1806 and 1831, London: Nick Hern Books, 1995.

Elective Affinities, 1809, Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks, 1999.

Theory of Colours, 1810, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1970.

Conversations of German Refugees/Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years or The Renunciants, 1829, in Goethe: The Collected Works in 12 Volumes, vol. 10, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Scientific Studies, in Goethe: The Collected Works in 12 Volumes, vol. 12, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995.

Further reading

Bortoft, H., The Wholeness of Nature: Goethe's Science of Conscious Participation in Nature, Hudson, NY: Lindisfarne Press, 1996.

Hoffmann, N., 'The Unity of Science and Art: Goethean Phenomenology as a New Ecological Discipline', in D.Seamon and A.Zajonc (eds), pp. 129-77.

Seamon, D. and Zajonc, A. (eds), Goethe's Way of Science. A Phenomenology of Nature, Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998.

Whyte, L.L., 'Goethe's Single Vision of Nature and Man', German Life and Letters, 2, pp. 287-97, 1949.

Williams, J.R., The Life of Goethe. A Critical Biography, Oxford: Blackwell, 1998.


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    How did Goethe influence Darwins' thinking?
    9 years ago

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