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Wolfgang von Goethe

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (pronounced ['gø tə]) (August 28, 1749–March 22, 1832 EV) was a German writer, humanist, scientist, and philosopher. As a writer, Goethe was one of the paramount figures of German literature and European Romanticism during and around the 18th and 19th century. Goethe was the author of Faust and Theory of Colors. Aleister Crowley made Goethe a Saint in the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica.

Table of contents

His life

Goethe was born in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. His father was a man of means and position, and he personally supervised the early education of his son. The young Goethe studied at the universities of Leipzig and Strasbourg, and in 1772 entered upon the practice of law at Wetzlar. At the invitation of Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he went in 1775 to live in Weimar, where he held a succession of political offices, becoming the Duke's chief adviser. From 1786 to 1788 he traveled in Italy, and directed the ducal theater at Weimar. He took part in the wars against France, and in the following began a friendship with Friedrich Schiller, which lasted till the latter's death in 1805. In 1806 he married Christiane Vulpius. From about 1794 he devoted himself chiefly to literature, and after a life of extraordinary productiveness died in Weimar.

Historical Importance

It is difficult to overstate the importance of Goethe on the 19th century in this era. In many respects, he was the originator of—or at least the first to cogently express—many ideas which would, in time, become familiar. Goethe produced volumes of poetry, essays, criticism, and scientific work, including a theory of optics and early work on evolution and linguistics. He was fascinated by minerals and early mineralogy (the mineral goethite is named for him). As a philosopher and writer he is one of the key figures in the transition from the Enlightenment to Romanticism.

The following list of key works may give a sense of the scope of the impact his work had on his and our time.

The short epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werther, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774 recounts an unhappy love affair that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted that he "shot his hero to save himself". The novel remains in print in dozens of languages and is referenced frequently in the context of the young disaffected and moody hero — a Romeo figure. However, the form of the novel, and the ending in death, were not uncommon in the day. It was the untrammeled expression of longing for the unattainable which made it controversial, and also a model for other novels and works.

The next work, his epic poem Faust, was to be completed in stages, and only published in its entirety after Goethe's death. The first part was published in 1808 and created a sensation. Faust became the ur-myth of many figures in the 19th century. The basic plot of "selling one's soul to the devil" for power over the physical world took on increasing importance and became a metaphor for the victory of technology and industrialism and its human cost. Goethe's poetic work served as a model for an entire movement in German poetry termed Innerlichkeit (introversion). Goethe's words inspired a number of compositions by, among others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Wolf.

Goethe's influence was dramatic because he understood that there was a transition in European sensibilities, an increasing focus on sense, on the indescribable and the emotional. This is not to say that he was emotionalist or excessive; quite the contrary: he preached restraint and felt that excess was a disease. "There is nothing worse than imagination without taste." He argued that law developed out of the depth of a people's culture and their connectedness to the land they live on, and therefore rational laws could not be imposed effectively from above: an interpretation that placed him in direct opposition to those who attempted to form "enlightened" monarchies based on "rational" laws, for example Joseph II of Austria or, later, Napoleon as emperor of France.

This change would, in time, become 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. This makes him, along with Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and Ludwig van Beethoven a figure in both worlds. On 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, and on the other, seeking a personal, intuitive and personalized form of expression and polity, and believing firmly in self-regulating and organic systems. Philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson would take up many of the same ideas in the 1800's. His ideas on evolution would frame the question which Darwin and Wallace would provide the answers to.


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