Saturday, August 28, 2010

On This Date In History Roulette: August 28, 1749, The Birth Of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe!

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
28.VIII.1749 – 22.III.1832

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German writer and polymath. Goethe is considered by many to be the most important writer in the German language and one of the most important thinkers in Western culture. Goethe's works span the fields of poetry, drama, literature, theology, philosophy, and science. His magnum opus, lauded as one of the peaks of world literature, is the two-part drama Faust. Goethe's other well-known literary works include his numerous poems, the Bildungsroman, Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, and the epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Goethe was one of the key figures of German literature and the movement of Weimar Classicism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; this movement coincides with Enlightenment, Sentimentality (Empfindsamkeit), Sturm und Drang and Romanticism. The author of the scientific text Theory of Colors, his influential ideas on plant and animal morphology and homology were extended and developed by 19th century naturalists including Charles Darwin. He also served at length as the Privy Councilor of the Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach.

Goethe is the originator of the concept of Weltliteratur ("world literature"), having taken great interest in the literatures of EnglandFranceItaly, classical GreecePersia, the Arab world, and others. His influence on German philosophy is immeasurable, having major effect especially on the generation of Hegel and Schelling, although Goethe himself refrained from practicing philosophy in the specialized sense.

Goethe's influence spread across Europe, and for the next century his works were a major source of inspiration in music, drama, poetry and philosophy. Early in his career, however, he wondered whether painting might be his true vocation; late in his life, he expressed the expectation that he would ultimately be remembered above all for his work on color.

Catharina Elisabeth Goethe

Goethe's father, Johann Caspar Goethe (Frankfurt am Main, Hessen, 29.VII.1710 – Frankfurt, 25.V.1782), lived with his family in a large house in Frankfurt, then an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire. Goethe's mother, Catharina Elisabeth Textor (Frankfurt, 19.II.1731 – Frankfurt, 15.IX.1808), the daughter of the Schultheiß (mayor) of Frankfurt Johann Wolfgang Textor (Frankfurt, 11.XII.1693 – Frankfurt, 6.II.1771) and wife (married at Wetzlar, 2.II.1726) Anna Margaretha Lindheimer (Wetzlar, 23.VII.1711 – Frankfurt, 18.IV.1783, a descendant of Lucas Cranach the Elder and Henry III, Landgrave of Hesse-Marburg), married thirty-eight year-old Johann Caspar when she was seventeen at Frankfurt on  August 20, 1748. All their children, except for Goethe and his sister, Cornelia Friederike Christiana, who was born in 1750, died at early ages.

Johann Caspar and private tutors gave Goethe lessons in all the common subjects of that time, especially languages (Latin, Greek, French, and English). Goethe also received lessons in dancing, riding and fencing. Johann Caspar was the type of father who, feeling frustrated in his own ambitions by what he saw as a deficiency of educational advantages, was determined that his children would have all those advantages which he had not. Goethe had a persistent dislike of the church, characterizing its history as a "hotchpotch of fallacy and violence" (Mischmasch von Irrtum und Gewalt). His great passion was drawing. Goethe quickly became interested in literature; Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Homer were among his early favorites. He had a lively devotion to theatre as well and was greatly fascinated by puppet shows that were annually arranged in his home; a familiar theme in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

He also took great pleasure in reading from the great works about history and religion. He writes of this period:

“I had from childhood the singular habit of always learning by heart the beginnings of books, and the divisions of a work, first of the five books of Moses, and then of the 'Aeneid' and Ovid's 'Metamorphoses'. . . If an ever busy imagination, of which that tale may bear witness, led me hither and thither, if the medley of fable and history, mythology and religion, threatened to bewilder me, I readily fled to those oriental regions, plunged into the first books of Moses, and there, amid the scattered shepherd tribes, found myself at once in the greatest solitude and the greatest society.”

Goethe gave to woman a full share in the shaping of his career, and to some women a very liberal share. From boyhood he was never without a passion, and if we may believe his autobiography he experienced his first love about the age of fifteen, in the person of Gretchen, who is supposed to have been the daughter of an Offenbach innkeeper. He worshipped her as Dante worshipped Beatrice; but she treated him as a child, very much as Mary Chaworth treated Byron. There is, however, no other evidence of this first love, and it would be quite in accordance with Goethe's manner to enlarge on a very small foundation. His letters also speak of a boyish attachment to one Charitas Meixner, a friend of his sister and the daughter of a wealthy merchant of Worms. He expresses his affection for her with all the fervor of French phraseology; but if she returned it, she soon found "metal more attractive," for she married a rich burgher of her native town.

Goethe studied law in Leipzig from 1765 to 1768. He detested learning age-old judicial rules by heart, preferring instead to attend the poetry lessons of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert. In Leipzig, Goethe fell in love with Käthchen Schönkopf the "Ænnchen" of his autobiography and wrote cheerful verses about her in the Rococo genre. She often teased him with her inconstant ways, and to this experience is due his drama, Lovers' Quarrels, as it may be styled. It is a mere trifle, a pastoral in one-act, and its only interest is as an episode from the author's life. A deeper chord is struck in the play of the Fellow Sinners, which forms a forbidding picture of the time and of the doings of the youth who wrote it. The daughter of an innkeeper has made an unhappy marriage, and is visited by a former lover, who is in good circumstances. An assignation is arranged, and the interview is witnessed by the husband who has come to steal the stranger's purse. The father, who comes in to read one of the lover's letters, is surprised and, with his daughter, accused of the theft. The real culprit is discovered, and defends himself by accusing the stranger of his conduct with his wife. Goethe also wrote at Leipzig a number of erotic songs, set to music. Moral-sensuous, he calls them; but they are certainly more sensuous than moral. They have, however, the merit of a musical and easy flow of expression, with varying moods of passion, described with remarkable elegance.

In 1770, he anonymously released Annette, his first collection of poems. His uncritical admiration for many contemporary poets vanished as he became interested in Lessing and Wieland. Already at this time, Goethe wrote a good deal, but he threw away nearly all of these works, except for the comedy Die Mitschuldigen. The restaurant Auerbachs Keller and its legend of Faust's 1525 barrel ride impressed him so much that Auerbachs Keller became the only real place in his closet drama Faust Part One. Because his studies did not progress, Goethe was forced to return to Frankfurt at the close of August 1768.


In Frankfurt, Goethe became severely ill. During the year and a half that followed, because of several relapses, the relationship with his father worsened. During convalescence, Goethe was nursed by his mother and sister. Bored in bed, he wrote an impudent crime comedy. In April 1770, his father lost his patience; Goethe left Frankfurt in order to finish his studies in Strasbourg.

In Alsace, Goethe blossomed. No other landscape has he described as affectionately as the warm, wide Rhine area. In Strasbourg, Goethe met Johann Gottfried Herder, who happened to be in town on the occasion of an eye operation. The two became close friends, and crucially to Goethe's intellectual development, it was Herder who kindled his interest in Shakespeare, Ossian and in the notion of Volkspoesie (folk poetry). On October 14, 1772 he held a speech in his parental home in honor of the first German "Shakespeare Day". His first meeting with Shakespeare's works is described as his personal awakening in literature.

On a trip to the village of Sesenheim, Goethe fell in love with Friederike Brion, and conceived what he imagined to be an imperishable affection for the village parson’s daughter, a simple and worthy man, suggesting to the poet, fresh from the study of Goldsmith, the Vicar of Wakefield. Frederike was but sixteen years of age, tall and slight, with fair hair and blue eyes, and she seems to have fallen headlong in love with Goethe, who was then only twenty-one. He addressed a number of songs to her, ten of which are found in the collection of his works. He devoted to her much of the time which he should have given to his studies, and in the winter neither storm nor cold nor darkness could keep him from riding over to the village, though twenty miles away. In spring there were picnics, water-parties, games and dances, which filled up the swiftly-flying weeks. But when, after taking his degree, the time approached for leaving Strasbourg, he felt that his love was merely a dream, that it could have no serious termination. Frederike endeavored to treat the matter in the same light, and it was only in her letters that she afterward betrayed the depth and reality of her passion. Several of his poems, like Willkommen und Abschied, Sesenheimer Lieder and Heideröslein, originate from this time.

At the end of August 1771, Goethe was certified as a licensee in Frankfurt. He wanted to make the jurisdiction progressively more humane. In his first cases, he proceeded too vigorously, was reprimanded and lost the position. This prematurely terminated his career as a lawyer after only a few months. At this time, Goethe was acquainted with the court of Darmstadt, where his inventiveness was praised. From this milieu came Johann Georg Schlosser (who was later to become his brother-in-law) and Johann Heinrich Merck. Goethe also pursued literary plans again; this time, his father did not have anything against it, and even helped. Goethe obtained a copy of the biography of a noble highwayman from the Peasants' War. In a couple of weeks the biography was reworked into a colorful drama. Entitled Götz von Berlichingen, the work went directly to the heart of Goethe's contemporaries.

Goethe could not subsist on being one of the editors of a literary periodical (published by Schlosser and Merck). In May 1772 he once more began the practice of law at Wetzlar. In 1774 Goethe wrote the book which would bring him worldwide fame, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Despite the immense success of Werther, it did not bring Goethe much financial gain – copyright law at the time being essentially nonexistent. (In later years Goethe would bypass this problem by periodically authorizing "new, revised" editions of his Complete Works.

In September, 1775, the Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach invited Goethe to visit him at Weimar, on the strength of his fame as the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, and the visit was followed by the offer of a permanent situation at the court, with the title of privy councilors and a salary of twelve hundred thalers a year. In spite of his father's opposition, Goethe accepted, and henceforth Weimar was his home. The appointment of an untitled poet to a place which tradition required to be filled by a noble was a great scandal throughout Germany.

Duchess Anna Amalia Of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach

Soon afterward Weimar became the literary center of Germany. The court was presided over by the Duchess Anna Amalia, the reigning duke's mother, who at the age of nineteen had been left a widow with two sons. She was a great lover of the stage, and the best playwrights of Germany made their headquarters at Weimar until it was burned down in 1774, together with the royal palace.

After the marriage of her eldest son, Karl August, she lived in one of the simple country-houses which surround the capital, and contented herself with amateur theatricals. The duke, who was then only eighteen years of age, was simple in his tastes, impatient of etiquette and restraint, true, honest and steadfast; fond of novelty and excitement, and of great courage and activity. His impulses, rarely checked, led him rather to chivalrous enterprise than to injurious excesses.

Upon this society Goethe, in the strength and beauty of youth, rose like a star. From the moment of his arrival he became the inseparable and indispensable companion of the duke. He subdued the affections of all he met with, and Wieland declared that "his soul was as full of him as a dewdrop of the morning sun; that, take him all in all, he was the greatest, best and most noble being that God had ever created."

Duke Karl August

The first months at Weimar were passed in a round of pleasure, and Goethe was treated as a guest. In the autumn, journeys, rides, shooting-parties; in the winter, balls, masquerades, skating-parties by torchlight, dancing at peasants' feasts, filled up their time. The wild, grotesque life led by the poet and the duke gave much offense. Their chief object seemed to be to violate all the sacred conventionalities of the German courts. They appeared in society in top-boots, cracked whips together in the market-place, plunged into the river Ilm at midnight, and conducted themselves altogether more like a couple of students on frolic than a pair of dignified personages. Evil reports flew about Germany; the court at Weimar had a bad name; Klopstock wrote letters of solemn advice, and forbade his young friend Stolberg to accept an appointment which the duke had offered him. Goethe wrote in reply that, if Stolberg came, he would find them no worse, and perhaps even better, than he had known them before. We may be sure that no decencies were disregarded, except the word by applied to the artificial restrictions of courtly etiquette. Goethe and the duke dined together and bathed together; the duke addressed his friend by the familiar "thou;" Goethe slept in his chamber and tended him when he was ill. In the following spring the duke gave him the little house and garden by the side of the Ilm, in which he lived for the next eight years. By accepting his position as a privy councillor, Goethe had bound himself, as it were, to Weimar, and the tie was further strengthened by the promotions that came swiftly upon him, with emoluments to correspond. In return he devoted himself with interest and enthusiasm to the affairs of the duke, opening mines and otherwise developing the resources of his territory, including the reconstruction of his little army.

During these years Goethe's productiveness slackened, because there was no incitement, and the external impulse gave way, for a time, to his hearty delight in active physical life. It was his habit to carry a poetical conception for a long time in his brain, allowing it to develop by its own force until the proper mood and leisure for its delivery arrived; then it was put into words with a rapidity and artistic completion which astonished his friends, who did not guess how much of the labor had been silently performed in advance. Thus, while he seemed most indolent, the dramatic poems of Iphigenie auf Tauris, Tasso and Egmont, were in progress, and portions of them were even written in prose. After three years of free, unrestrained companionship with the duke, Goethe began to weary of balls, haunts and picnics, and withdrew more and more from the society of the court. Though the intimacy was broken off, the duke was steadfast in his friendship, making Goethe a noble and appointing him president of the Chamber. The death of his father, about this time, having made him comparatively wealthy, he now determined to carry out his long-cherished plan of a journey to Italy; but four years still intervened before he succeeded in leaving Weimar. During this time he began to write his philosophical romance of Wilhelm Meister, which was not published until long afterward.

In 1776, Goethe formed a close relationship to Charlotte von Stein, an older, married woman. She had the same given name as Charlotte Kestner, another older, married woman who had previously infatuated Goethe and who had inspired his The Sorrows of Young Werther. So began his lifelong devotion to Charlotte von Stein, a lady of the court at Weimar, wife of the master of the horse, thirty-three years of age and the mother of seven children. With all these drawbacks, Goethe's affection was undoubtedly sincere, and at the same time perfectly innocent. His letters to her extend over a period of fifty years; he called her by the most endearing epithets; and for years he made her acquainted with his every action and almost with his every thought. Most of his writings at this time were for the dramatic entertainment of the court, including a series of masks or ballets for the birthday of the grand-duchess Louise, two melodramas and several operettas. But his relations with Frau von Stein, though harmless, became every year more full of danger, and it was partly to escape from this influence that Goethe undertook his journey to Italy.

Charlotte Von Stein

During Goethe's term of office as a member of the Geheime Consilium, the top deliberative circle of the Duke Karl August of Saxony-Weimar, there were three cases of the killing of a newborn infant by its mother.

Whereas in 1781 Dorothea Altwein was sentenced to lifelong penal servitude (she was released after 27 years), and Maria Rost was assigned to lifelong penal servitude by the Duke without judicial sentence (she was released after 6 years), Johanna Höhn was executed. Johanna Catharina Höhn, born April 15, 1759 in Tannroda in Saxony-Weimar, had killed her just-born baby, a boy, in an attack of panic. Her crime exposed her to a possible death sentence by sword. But Duke Carl August sent her punishment to be adjudicated, due to arguments for its mitigation. The duke wished to save her, repealing capital punishment in her case and sentencing her to lifelong penal servitude. He therefore referred Johanna's case to members of his government and deliberative circle for consideration. The three members of the Consilium, Goethe, Fritsch and Schnauss, voted on the matter on November 4, 1783. The other counselors, Fritsch and Schnauss, voted first. Goethe's vote decided the issue. In Saxony-Weimar capital punishment was not repealed. Duke Carl August immediately ordered Johanna's execution. Johanna Höhn was beheaded on November 28, 1783.

Goethe's journey to the Italian peninsula from 1786 to 1788 was of great significance in his esthetical and philosophical development. His father had made a similar journey during his own youth, and his example was a major motivating factor for Goethe to make the trip. More importantly, however, the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann had provoked a general renewed interest in the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome. Thus Goethe's journey had something of the nature of a pilgrimage to it. During the course of his trip Goethe met and befriended the artists Angelica Kauffmann and Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, as well as encountering such notable characters as Lady Hamilton and Alessandro Cagliostro.

Emma, Lady Hamilton

While wandering aimlessly in one of the parks near Rome, Goethe was accosted by a young girl, named Christiane Vulpius, who presented him with a petition in favor of her brother. She was a comely damsel, with golden curling locks, rosy cheeks, laughing eyes and a neatly rounded figure. The poet took her to his home, and she became his wife in conscience and the mother of his children. She had little education, and he could not take her into society; but she was a good and loving wife, and her quick mother-wit fitted her for an intellectual companion. To these days of his early wedded life belong the Roman elegies, which, though Italian in form, in color and sensuality, were written in German from home experiences.

He also journeyed to Sicily during this time, and wrote intriguingly that "To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything." While in Southern Italy and Sicily, Goethe encountered, for the first time genuine Greek (as opposed to Roman) architecture, and was quite startled by its relative simplicity. Winckelmann had not recognized the distinctness of the two styles.

Goethe's diaries of this period form the basis of the non-fiction Italian Journey. Italian Journey only covers the first year of Goethe's visit. The remaining year is largely undocumented, aside from the fact that he spent much of it in Venice. This "gap in the record" has been the source of much speculation over the years.

In the decades which immediately followed its publication in 1816 Italian Journey inspired countless German youths to follow Goethe's example. This is pictured, somewhat satirically, in George Eliot's Middlemarch.

In late 1792, Goethe took part in the battle of Valmy against revolutionary France, assisting Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar during the failed invasion of France. Again during the Siege of Mainz he assisted Karl August as a military observer. His written account of these events can be found within his Complete Works.

In 1794 Friedrich Schiller wrote to Goethe offering friendship; they had previously had only a mutually wary relationship ever since first becoming acquainted in 1788. This collaborative friendship lasted until Schiller's death in 1805.

Christiane Vulpius

In 1806, Goethe was living in Weimar with his mistress Christiane Vulpius, the sister of Christian A Vulpius, and their son Julius August Walter von Goethe. On October 13th, Napoleon's army invaded the town. The French "spoon guards", the least-disciplined soldiers, occupied Goethe's house.

The 'spoon guards' had broken in, they had drunk wine, made a great uproar and called for the master of the house. Goethe’s secretary Riemer reports: 'Although already undressed and wearing only his wide nightgown… he descended the stairs towards them and inquired what they wanted from him…. His dignified figure, commanding respect, and his spiritual mien seemed to impress even them.' But it was not to last long. Late at night they burst into his bedroom with drawn bayonets. Goethe was petrified, Christiane raised a lot of noise and even tangled with them, other people who had taken refuge in Goethe’s house rushed in, and so the marauders eventually withdrew again. It was Christiane who commanded and organized the defense of the house on the Frauenplan. The barricading of the kitchen and the cellar against the wild pillaging soldiery was her work. Goethe noted in his diary: "Fires, rapine, a frightful night… Preservation of the house through steadfastness and luck." The luck was Goethe’s, the steadfastness was displayed by Christiane.

The next day, Goethe legitimized their eighteen year relationship by marrying Christiane in a quiet marriage service at the court chapel. They already had several children together by this time, including their son, Julius August Walter von Goethe (25.XII.1789 — 28.X.1830), whose wife, Ottilie von Pogwisch (31.X. 1796 – 26.X.1872), cared for the elder Goethe until his death in 1832. The younger couple had three children: Walther, Freiherr von Goethe (9.IV.1818 — 15.IV.1885), Wolfgang, Freiherr von Goethe (18.IX.1820 – 20.I.1883) and Alma von Goethe (29.X.1827 — 29.IX.1844). Christiane Vulpius died in 1816.

After 1793, Goethe devoted his endeavors primarily to literature. By 1820, Goethe was on amiable terms with Kaspar Maria von Sternberg. In 1823, having recovered from a near fatal heart illness, Goethe fell in love with Ulrike von Levetzow whom he wanted to marry, but because of the opposition of her mother he never proposed. Their last meeting in Carlsbad on September 5, 1823 inspired him to the famous Marienbad Elegy which he considered one of his finest and dearest works.

In 1832, after a life of vast productivity, Goethe died in Weimar. He is buried in the Grand Ducal Vault at Weimar's Historical Cemetery.

Eckermann closes his famous work, Conversations with Goethe, with this passage:

“The morning after Goethe's death, a deep desire seized me to look once again upon his earthly garment. His faithful servant, Frederick, opened for me the chamber in which he was laid out. Stretched upon his back, he reposed as if asleep; profound peace and security reigned in the features of his sublimely noble countenance. The mighty brow seemed yet to harbor thoughts. I wished for a lock of his hair; but reverence prevented me from cutting it off. The body lay naked, only wrapped in a white sheet; large pieces of ice had been placed near it, to keep it fresh as long as possible. Frederick drew aside the sheet, and I was astonished at the divine magnificence of the limbs. The breast was powerful, broad, and arched; the arms and thighs were elegant, and of the most perfect shape; nowhere, on the whole body, was there a trace of either fat or of leanness and decay. A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture the sight caused me made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode. I laid my hand on his heart – there was a deep silence – and I turned away to give free vent to my suppressed tears.”

The first production of Richard Wagner's opera Lohengrin took place in Weimar in 1850. The conductor was Franz Liszt, who chose the date August 28th in honor of Goethe, who was born on August 28, 1749.

The most important of Goethe's works produced before he went to Weimar were his tragedy Götz von Berlichingen (1773), which was the first work to bring him recognition, and the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (called Die Leiden des jungen Werthers in German) (1774), which gained him enormous fame as a writer in the Sturm und Drang period which marked the early phase of Romanticism – indeed the book is often considered to be the "spark" which ignited the movement, and can arguably be called the world's first "best-seller". (For the entirety of his life this was the work with which the vast majority of Goethe's contemporaries associated him). During the years at Weimar before he met Schiller he began Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, wrote the dramas Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), Egmont, Torquato Tasso, and the fable Reineke Fuchs.

To the period of his friendship with Schiller belong Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years (the continuation of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), The Idyll of Hermann and Dorothea, The Roman Elegies and the verse drama The Natural Daughter. In the last period, between Schiller's death, in 1805, and his own, appeared Faust Part One, Elective Affinities, The West-Eastern Divan (a collection of poems in the Persian style, influenced by the work of Hafez), his autobiographical Aus Meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From My Life: Poetry and Truth) which covers his early life and ends with his departure for Weimar, his Italian Journey, and a series of treatises on art. His writings were immediately influential in literary and artistic circles.

Faust Part Two was only finished in the year of his death, and was published posthumously.

“It’s to what I have done as a poet,… I take no pride in it… But that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colors – of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many.”

 Although his literary work has attracted the greatest amount of interest, Goethe was also keenly involved in studies of natural science. He wrote several works on plant morphology, and color theory.

His focus on morphology and what was later called homology influenced 19th century naturalists, though his ideas of transformation were about the continuing flux of living things and did not relate to contemporary ideas of "transformisme" or transmutation of species. Homology, or as Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire called it "analogie", was used by Charles Darwin as strong evidence of common descent and of laws of variation. Goethe's studies led him to independently discover the human intermaxillary bone in 1784, which Broussonet (1779) and Vicq d'Azyr (1780) had (using different methods) identified several years earlier. While not the only one in his time to question the prevailing view that this bone did not exist in humans, Goethe, who believed ancient anatomists had known about this bone, was the first to prove its peculiarity to all mammals. In 1790, he published his Metamorphosis of Plants.

During his Italian journey, Goethe formulated a theory of plant metamorphosis in which the archetypal form of the plant is to be found in the leaf – he writes, "from top to bottom a plant is all leaf, united so inseparably with the future bud that one cannot be imagined without the other".

Goethe popularized the Goethe Barometer using a principle established by Toricelli. According to Hegel, 'Goethe has occupied himself a good deal with meteorology; barometer readings interested him particularly... What he says is important: the main thing is that he gives a comparative table of barometric readings during the whole month of December 1822, at WeimarJenaLondonBostonVienna, Töpel... He claims to deduce from it that the barometric level varies in the same prop portion not only in each zone but that it has the same variation, too, at different altitudes above sea-level'.

In 1810, Goethe published his Theory of Colours, which he considered his most important work. In it, he contentiously characterized color as arising from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light. After being translated into English by Charles Eastlake in 1840, his theory became widely adopted by the art world, most notably J. M. W. Turner (Bockemuhl, 1991). Schopenhauer considered his On Vision and Colors to be the correct theory and Goethe's book to be a mere gathering of data. Goethe's work also inspired the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, to write his Remarks on Color. Goethe was vehemently opposed to Newton's analytic treatment of color, engaging instead in compiling a comprehensive description of a wide variety of color phenomena. Although the accuracy of Goethe's observations does not admit a great deal of criticism, his theory's failure to demonstrate significant predictive validity eventually rendered it scientifically irrelevant. Goethe was, however, the first to systematically study the physiological effects of color, and his observations on the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his color wheel, 'for the colors diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye." 

Goethe outlines his method in the essay The experiment as mediator between subject and object (1772). In the Kurschner edition of Goethe's works, the science editor, Rudolf Steiner, presents Goethe's approach to science as phenomenological. Steiner elaborated on that in the books The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception and Goethe’s World View, in which he emphasizes the need of the perceiving organ of intuition in order to grasp Goethe's biological archetype (i.e., The Typus).

The short epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, recounts an unhappy romantic infatuation that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted that he "shot his hero to save himself": a reference to Goethe's own near-suicidal obsession with a young woman during this period, an obsession he quelled through the writing process. The novel remains in print in dozens of languages and its influence is undeniable; its central hero, an obsessive figure driven to despair and destruction by his unrequited love for the young Lotte, has become a pervasive literary archetype. The fact that Werther ends with the protagonist's suicide and funeral – a funeral which "no clergyman attended" – made the book deeply controversial upon its (anonymous) publication, for on the face of it, it appeared to condone and glorify suicide. Suicide was considered sinful by Christian doctrine: suicides were denied Christian burial with the bodies often mistreated and dishonored in various ways; in corollary, the deceased's property and possessions were often confiscated by the Church. Epistolary novels were common during this time, letter-writing being a primary mode of communication. What set Goethe's book apart from other such novels was its expression of unbridled longing for a joy beyond possibility, its sense of defiant rebellion against authority, and of principal importance, its total subjectivity: qualities that trail blazed the Romantic movement.

The next work, his epic closet drama Faust, was to be completed in stages, and only published in its entirety after his death. The first part was published in 1808 and created a sensation. The first operatic version, by Spohr, appeared in 1814, and was subsequently the inspiration for operas and oratorios by Schumann, Berlioz, Gounod, Boito, Busoni, and Schnittke as well as symphonic works by Liszt, Wagner, and Mahler. Faust became the ur-myth of many figures in the 19th century. Later, a facet of its plot, i.e., of selling one's soul to the devil for power over the physical world, took on increasing literary importance and became a view of the victory of technology and of industrialism, along with its dubious human expenses. In 1919, the Goetheanum staged the world premiere of a complete production of Faust. On occasion, the play is still staged in Germany and other parts around the world.

Goethe's poetic work served as a model for an entire movement in German poetry termed Innerlichkeit ("introversion") and represented by, for example, Heine. Goethe's words inspired a number of compositions by, among others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz and Wolf. Perhaps the single most influential piece is "Mignon's Song" which opens with one of the most famous lines in German poetry, an allusion to Italy"Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?" ("Do you know the land where the lemon trees bloom?").

He is also widely quoted. Epigrams such as "Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him", "Divide and rule, a sound motto; unite and lead, a better one", and "Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must", are still in usage or are often paraphrased. Lines from Faust, such as "Das also war des Pudels Kern", "Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluss", or "Grau ist alle Theorie" have entered everyday German usage.

It may be taken as another measure of Goethe's fame that other well-known quotations are often incorrectly attributed to him, such as Hippocrates' "Art is long, life is short", which is found in Goethe's Faust ("Art is something so long to be learned, and life is so short!") and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

Many of Goethe's works, especially Faust, The Roman Elegies, and The Venetian Epigrams, depict hetero- and homosexual erotic passions and acts. For instance, in Faust, the first use of Faust's power after literally signing a contract with the devil is to fall in love with and impregnate a teenage girl. In fact, some of the Venetian Epigrams were held back from publication due to their sexual content. In his 1999 book The Tiger's Tender Touch: The Erotic Life of Goethe, Karl Hugo Pruys argued (with great controversy in Germany) that Goethe's writings suggest he may have been gay. Goethe's sexual portraitures and allusions may have been inspired by his sojourn in Italy, where some men, trying to avoid both the prevalence of venereal disease among prostitutes, and the demand of marriage among 'maidens', embraced homosexuality. Whatever the case, Goethe clearly saw sexuality as a topic worthy of poetic and artistic depiction—an idea that was uncommon in a time when the private nature of sexuality was rigorously normative, and one which may make him a more modern thinker than he is typically considered.

Born into a Lutheran family, Goethe's early faith was shaken by news of such events as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years' War. In July 1782, he described himself as "not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian." In his Venetian Epigram 66, Goethe listed four things that he loathed: "tobacco smoke, bugs and garlic and †." In the book Conversations with Goethe by Goethe's secretary Eckermann, however, Goethe is portrayed as enthusiastic about Christianity, Jesus, Martin Luther, and the Protestant Reformation, even calling Christianity the "ultimate religion". Although he opposed many of the central teachings of the Christian churches, he thought that he could nevertheless be inwardly Christian.

His later spiritual perspective evolved among pantheism (heavily influenced by Spinoza), humanism, and various elements of Western esotericism, as seen most vividly in Part II of Faust. According to Nietzsche, Goethe had "a kind of almost joyous and trusting fatalism" that has "faith that only in the totality everything redeems itself and appears good and justified."

On the other hand, a year before his death he expressed an identification with the Hypsistarians, an ancient Jewish-pagan sect of the Black Sea region. After describing his difficulties with mainstream religion, Goethe laments:

"…I have found no confession of faith to which I could ally myself without reservation. Now in my old age, however, I have learned of a sect, the Hypsistarians, who, hemmed in between heathens, Jews and Christians, declared that they would treasure, admire, and honor the best, the most perfect that might come to their knowledge, and in as much as it must have a close connection to the Godhead, pay it reverence. A joyous light thus beamed at me suddenly out of a dark age, for I had the feeling that all my life I had been aspiring to qualify as a Hypsistarian. That, however, is no small task, for how does one, in the limitations of one's individuality, come to know what is most excellent?"

In politics Goethe was conservative. At the time of the French Revolution, he thought the enthusiasm of the students and professors to be a perversion of their energy and remained skeptical of the ability of the masses to govern. Likewise, he "did not oppose the War of Liberation (1813–15) waged by the German states against Napoleon, but remained aloof from the patriotic efforts to unite the various parts of Germany into one nation; he advocated instead the maintenance of small principalities ruled by benevolent despots."

"Science and art belong to the whole world, and before them vanish the barriers of nationality."

Goethe had a great effect on the nineteenth century. In many respects, he was the originator of many ideas which later became widespread. He produced volumes of poetry, essays, criticism, a theory of colours and early work on evolution and linguistics. He was fascinated by mineralogy, and the mineral goethite is named after him. His non-fiction writings, most of which are philosophic and aphoristic in nature, spurred the development of many philosophers, including G.W.F. Hegel, Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Cassirer, Carl Jung, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Along with Schiller, he was one of the leading figures of Weimar Classicism.

Goethe embodied many of the contending strands in art over the next century: his work could be lushly emotional, and rigorously formal, brief and epigrammatic, and epic. He would argue that classicism was the means of controlling art, and that romanticism was a sickness, even as he penned poetry rich in memorable images, and rewrote the formal rules of German poetry. Even in contemporary culture, he stands in the background as the author of the ballad upon which Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice is based.

His poetry was set to music by almost every major Austrian and German composer from Mozart to Mahler, and his influence would spread to French drama and opera as well. Beethoven declared that a "Faust" Symphony would be the greatest thing for Art. Liszt and Mahler both created symphonies in whole or in large part inspired by this seminal work, which would give the 19th century one of its most paradigmatic figures: Doctor Faustus.

The Faust tragedy/drama, often called Das Drama der Deutschen (the drama of the Germans), written in two parts published decades apart, would stand as his most characteristic and famous artistic creation. Followers of the twentieth century esotericist Rudolf Steiner built a theatre named the Goetheanum after him – where festival performances of Faust are still performed.

Goethe was also a cultural force, and by researching folk traditions, he created many of the norms for celebrating Christmas, and argued that the organic nature of the land molded the people and their customs—an argument that has recurred ever since. He argued that laws could not be created by pure rationalism, since geography and history shaped habits and patterns. This stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing Enlightenment view that reason was sufficient to create well-ordered societies and good laws.

It was to a considerable degree due to Goethe's reputation that the city of Weimar was chosen in 1919 as the venue for the national assembly, convened to draft a new constitution for what would become known as Germany's Weimar Republic.

The Federal Republic of Germany’s cultural institution, The Goethe-Institut is named after him, and promotes the study of German abroad and fosters knowledge about Germany by providing information on its culture, society and politics.

The literary estate of Goethe in the Goethe and Schiller Archives was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2001 in recognition of its historical significance.

Goethe's influence was dramatic because he understood that there was a transition in European sensibilities, an increasing focus on sense, the indescribable, and the emotional. This is not to say that he was emotionalistic or excessive; on the contrary, he lauded personal restraint and felt that excess was a disease: "There is nothing worse than imagination without taste". He argued in his scientific works that a "formative impulse", which he said is operative in every organism, causes an organism to form itself according to its own distinct laws, and therefore rational laws or fiats could not be imposed at all from a higher, transcendent sphere; this placed him in direct opposition to those who attempted to form "enlightened" monarchies based on "rational" laws by, for example, Joseph II of Austria or the subsequent Emperor of the French, Napoleon I. A quotation from Goethe's Scientific Studies will suffice:

“We conceive of the individual animal as a small world, existing for its own sake, by its own means. Every creature is its own reason to be. All its parts have a direct effect on one another, a relationship to one another, thereby constantly renewing the circle of life; thus we are justified in considering every animal physiologically perfect. Viewed from within, no part of the animal is a useless or arbitrary product of the formative impulse (as so often thought). Externally, some parts may seem useless because the inner coherence of the animal nature has given them this form without regard to outer circumstance. Thus…[not] the question, What are they for? but rather, Where do they come from?”

That change later became the basis for 19th-century thought: organic rather than geometrical, evolving rather than created, and based on sensibility and intuition rather than on imposed order, culminating in, as Goethe said, a "living quality," wherein the subject and object are dissolved together in a poise of inquiry. Consequently, Goethe embraced neither teleological nor deterministic views of growth within every organism. Instead, his view was that the world as a whole grows through continual, external, and internal strife. Moreover, Goethe did not embrace the mechanistic views that contemporaneous science subsumed during his time, and therewith he denied rationality's superiority as the sole interpreter of reality. Furthermore, Goethe declared that all knowledge is related to humanity through its functional value alone and that knowledge presupposes a perspectival quality. He also stated that the fundamental nature of the world is aesthetic.

His views make him, along with Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and Ludwig van Beethoven, a figure in two worlds: on the one hand, devoted to the sense of taste, order, and finely crafted detail, which is the hallmark of the artistic sense of the Age of Reason and the neo-classical period of architecture; on the other, seeking a personal, intuitive, and personalized form of expression and society, firmly supporting the idea of self-regulating and organic systems. Thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson would take up many similar ideas in the 1800s. Goethe's ideas on evolution would frame the question that Darwin and Wallace would approach within the scientific paradigm.

Goethe's artistic influence is still felt today. Contemporary writer Christa Wolf declared: "I have a small blue book of Goethe's poems that means a lot to me. When I was 17 or 18 I was quite ill after fleeing from East Prussia, and had to spend a few months in a sanitarium. The poems were given to me by a teacher of mine, and gave me incredible joy. They were a revelation to me, and still are."

1 - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749-1832


2 - Johann Caspar Goethe 1710-1782
3 - Catharina Elisabeth Textor 1731-1808


4 - Friedrich Georg Goethe +1730
5 - Cornelia Walter 1668-1754

6 - Johann Wolfgang Textor 1693-1771
7 - Anna Margarethe von Lindheimer 1711-1773

Great Grandparents:

8 - Hans Christian Göthe ca 1633-1694
9 - Sibylle Werner +1689

14 - Cornelius von Lindheimer 1671-1722
15 - Catharina Elisabeth Juliane Seip 1680-1759

Great Great Grandparents:

16 - Hans Göthe 1604-1686
17 - Sibylla Werner +1651

18 - Johannes Werner
19 – Untraced

28 - Johann Lindheimer 1627-1694
29 - Anna Helene Windecker 1631-1707

30 - Johann David Seip 1652-1729
31 - Catharina Elisabeth Steuber 1657-1724

Great Great Great Grandparents:

32 - Hans Göthe ca 1560-1633
33 - Elsa Schulze +1637

34 - Volkmann Werner +1686
35 – Untraced

56 - Jörg Lindheimer 1595-1672
57 - Anna Margaretha Mohr 1602-1632

60 - Johannes Seip 1614-1681
61 - Elisabeth Schröter 1618-1680

Great Great Great Great Grandparents:

64 - Claus Göthe ca 1530-1619
65 - Untraced

112 - Johann Lindheimer 1550-1630
113 - Anna Fäch 1558-1624

122 - Jakob Schröter 1570-1645
123 - Anastasia Zollner 1598-1643

5 Great Grandparents:

128 - Hans Göthe ca 1500-1552/
129 – Untraced

244 - Jakob Schröter 1529-1612
245 - Barbara Brück +1609

6 Great Grandparents:

490 - Christian Brück 1567
491 - Barbara Cranach ca 1513-1601

7 Great Grandparents:

982 - Lucas Cranach 1472-1553
983 - Barbara Brengbier +/1540

8 Great Grandparents:

1,964 - Hans Sünder 1448-/1528
1,965 - Anna Hübner /1450-1491
1,966 - Jobst Brengbier ca 1455-ca 1528
1,967 - Ursula Jahn


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