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Goethe, Romanticism and the Anglo-American Critical Tradition

  • Angus Nicholls [1]

…plus d’informations

  • Angus Nicholls [1]
    University of Ballarat, Australia

Corps de l’article

Now that the concept of world literature is on the way in, the German, if you look closely, has most to lose: he will do well to think carefully about this warning.

Goethe, Maxims and Reflections

I. Introduction

In 1932, on the one-hundredth anniversary of Goethe's death, the Spanish philosopher José Ortega Y Gasset wrote an article entitled "In Search of Goethe from Within" for Die Neue Rundschau. The essay is polemical in its intentions, and Ortega makes these intentions all too clear when he observes at the very beginning of his discussion, "We are a little tired of the statute of Goethe" (145). Goethe, he says, is "classic to the second power" – he is the Classical author par excellence (137). But what does Ortega mean when he uses the terms "Classic" and "Classicism" in this context? Just as the university is, in Ortega's opinion, expressive of a kind of Classicism, so too is Goethe a kind of institution – at least in Germany. He has become, says Ortega, like a monument that we look to from the outside, without penetrating to its core. To translate Ortega's point into philosophical terminology, a Classic might be expressive of the Platonic sense of Being: something which is complete, finished, orderly and perfectly formed – perhaps even something which we institutionalise and put on display. Against this perfected and ideal Goethe, Ortega proposes a Goethe not of Being, but of Becoming – a Goethe who continues to be examined and questioned in light of contemporary debate. This is because, according to Ortega:

There is but one way left to save a classic: to give up revering him and use him for our own salvation – that is, to lay aside his classicism, to bring him close to us, to make him contemporary, to set his pulse going again with an injection of blood from our own veins, whose ingredients are our passions . . . and our problems.


In this essay I will not be able to inject Goethe with blood from our own veins, nor will I be able to make him particularly contemporary. What I do want to do is ask the following questions – questions which are not unrelated to Ortega's polemic against the so-called "Classical" Goethe. My questions are: Why do the Germans continue to see Goethe as a proponent of Classicism? Why is a writer who was a contemporary of, and who arguably shared themes, subject matter, and aesthetic preoccupations with nearly all of the major English Romantic poets – including Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge – still seen as a Classical author in Germany? By answering these questions I will also begin to suggest how and why we might begin to see Goethe not simply as a "Classical" author, but as a progressive figure within the context of the European Romantic movement.

The official narrative offered by traditional German literary scholarship concerning Goethe's literary career runs roughly as follows. The young Goethe, caught in the grip of his almost supernatural creative abilities, succumbs to the excessive subjectivity of the "Storm and Stress" period, which is depicted in the early lyrics of the 1770s and in Goethe's first novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Following the therapeutic process of composing The Sorrows of Young Werther, the author, now possessed of a new maturity and objectivity, finds little sympathy for the new school of poetry on the rise in Germany in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the so-called Romantic School. Instead, partly as a consequence of his having successfully passed through his own turbulent and highly subjective "Storm and Stress" phase, and also as a result of his journey to Italy between the years of 1786 and 1788, the author finds in himself a new unifying, form-giving power which is reminiscent of the great Classical authors. It is this eminently mature and balanced "form-giving power" which is said to infuse the works of Goethe's "Classical Period" or Zeit der Klassik – a period which took place roughly between the years of 1786 and 1805, while the early phases of British Romanticism were being shaped by the likes of Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge.

The view taken in this essay is that there are two essential faults with this traditional understanding of Goethe's literary career. The first fault arises from the "cult-of-personality" hermeneutics which have so often infused Goethe scholarship since the late nineteenth century, a hermeneutics arguably initiated by Goethe himself in his autobiography (Dichtung und Wahrheit) and in Johann Peter Eckermann's Conversations with Goethe. According to this "cult-of-personality" school of Goethe criticism, all of Goethe's works are seen as autobiographical documents which depict the development and unfolding of the author's "beautiful soul." [2] When such an approach is taken to the works of Goethe, their literary-philosophical meaning is necessarily confined to the horizon of an individual life-outline, and cannot be viewed within the broader context of the History of Ideas, or in conjunction with other national literatures under the rubric of what Goethe himself called "World Literature." [3]

Speaking in the broadest possible terms, twentieth-century Goethe scholars have treated Goethe's works as museum pieces to be admired, preserved and looked after, but rarely critiqued. As Goethe's most recent biographer (Nicholas Boyle) has commented, apart from a few exceptions, even post-war Goethe scholarship in both the Federal Republic and the Democratic Republic took:

[. . .] a programmatically non-political approach, which has done marvels in editing, annotation, and the accumulation of source material, but has not always faced the challenging task of interpretation.

1: ix

Consequently, the twentieth century yielded only a few compelling readings of Goethe (two of which I will refer to towards the end of this essay) while at the same time producing many extremely well-annotated editions of his works, letters and reported conversations. Alongside this preoccupation with annotation, Goethe scholarship also increasingly dissolved into questions of detail, a situation which produced titles like Robert Steiger's eight-volume documentary chronicle, Goethes Leben von Tag zu Tag (Goethe's Life from Day to Day), in which the author attempts to give an account of every day in Goethe's eighty-three year life. This increasing volume of specialised secondary literature forces Goethe scholarship into yet finer gradations of detail, producing a critical climate in which scholars must forever pursue references lest they neglect to mention which way Goethe tied his shoelaces.

The second fault arises directly from the narrowly autobiographical approach to Goethe's literary output characterised by figures like Steiger. The German obsession with documenting every detail of Goethe's life, and with producing endless editions of his works, is accompanied by a dearth of critical studies which are capable of assessing Goethe's legacy in conjunction with other national literatures, and in particular, in relation to the great products of English Romanticism which appeared during Goethe's lifetime. It is perhaps precisely because German scholarship worked so hard to differentiate Goethe's works from those produced by the Romantic School in Germany, that they neglected to notice the many similarities between Goethe's understanding of the relationship between the subject and nature and similar understandings of the connections between the natural world and the self being pursued by English authors like Wordsworth and Coleridge during the early stages of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, I will not be able to remedy this situation here; rather, I can only begin to suggest how and why Goethe might usefully be seen as a Romantic poet from an Anglo-American critical perspective.

II: Romanticism in Germany and England

With this aim in mind, it is necessary to begin with some discussion of the period referred to as "Romantic" in German and Anglo-American literary criticism, as when one considers periodisation alone, the traditional approaches to Romanticism in German and English are often fundamentally at odds.

The German period known as Romantik is relatively short in time span compared with its English counterpart. Among traditional Germanists, the consensus appears to be that the Zeit der Romantik begins near the end of the eighteenth century – usually around the late 1790s in most accounts – in Jena. [4] In his famous study of the period, The Romantic School (1833), Heinrich Heine writes that German Romanticism arose "in the last years" of the eighteenth century, "and [. . .] August Wilhelm and Friedrich Schlegel were its directors" (16). [5] The term Frühromantik (early Romantic) thus commonly refers to the brothers Schlegel, along with Novalis. Significantly, this more or less official model of German literary history refuses to see the earlier "Storm and Stress" period (roughly between 1770 and 1790) and its key figures – namely Hamann, Herder and the young Goethe – as having belonged to the Zeit der Romantik. Although Heine points out that Goethe was much admired by the Schlegels and other early Romantics like Tieck, he is nevertheless seen as having stood at a critical distance from the German Romantic movement proper.

The picture in Anglo-American criticism is very different. Most English-speaking scholars of Romanticism would agree that the Romantic movement begins with figures like Blake (whose dates are 1757-1827), continuing through the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in key writers like Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, the Shelleys and Keats, before enjoying a second flowering in the United States, manifested chiefly in the works of Emerson, Thoreau and even Walt Whitman. [6] In fact, when used in English-language criticism, the term "Romantic" often refers more to a kind of sensibility or mode of thinking, than to a finite period in literary history. Inevitably, the historical breadth of the "Romantic" movement or "Romanticism" depends upon how the term is defined, but it is not possible to give an exhaustive list of such definitions here. [7] Rather, I intend to pursue two interconnected paths in my analysis of the scholarship surrounding Romanticism in the Anglo-American tradition. Firstly, I will offer a brief analysis of recent developments in the scholarly literature that will focus, in particular, upon Jerome J. McGann's purportedly ground-breaking contribution to Romantic studies: The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation, published in 1983. Secondly, in light of what I take to be the rather pronounced limitations of McGann's approach to the Romantic period, I will propose an (albeit partial and qualified) resuscitation of M.H. Abrams's understanding of Romanticism as it appears in Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature, first published in 1971. It is, I will argue, with the help of Abrams's panoramic, transnational model of Romanticism that we can approach a fruitful understanding of Goethe's progressive role within the European Romantic movement.

III: Romanticism, Secularisation and Their Discontents: McGann Contra Abrams

Jerome J. McGann's The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation turns upon the notion that the study of Romanticism is infused with the "ideology" of Romanticism to such an extent that any possibility for a critique of Romantic literature and the discourses ( both historical and contemporary ) which surround it is rendered impossible. Behind this argument lies McGann's understanding of literary works as ideological texts with their own built-in social and cultural determinations. The purpose of McGann's book is thus not so much to erect a theory of Romantic poetry as it is to subject what he calls the "ideology" of Romantic poetry and criticism to a thorough-going critique. In this regard, McGann finds noteworthy precursors to his critical procedure in Karl Marx's The German Ideology and particularly in Heinrich Heine's aforementioned study of the Romantic period in Germany, The Romantic School. In relation to Heine's text, McGann writes:

[. . .] I have chosen Heine as my model for an actual practise of literary analysis. This choice has been dictated by two factors which have an important relation to my own position as a literary scholar. First, Heine was himself deeply involved with and sympathetic toward the literary works he criticized so trenchantly in Die romantische Schule. Second, even as he subjected the Romantic School to a severe critique of its ideology and ideological products, he also provided Romanticism with living quarters in a non-Romantic age and consciousness.


A large problem with McGann's critical procedure can be isolated when we consider this passage. This concerns the literary works which Heine, writing in the early 1830s, saw as comprising those of the Romantic School in Germany. Even a cursory reading of Heine's text shows that he regarded German Romanticism as being a unique and local phenomenon which was certainly not comparable in any significant way to similar movements in either France or England (Heine 2). Indeed, writing in 1833, Heine was scarcely in any position to assess the German Romantic movement in its entirety, let alone Romanticism in England. Romanticism in Germany was, according to Heine, a poetic revival of the Gothic Middle Ages which received its chief emotional impetus from the ecstasy associated with suffering in the Catholic religious tradition. In short, Heine's basic position is that Romanticism is primarily Catholic and that Roman Catholicism, with its mortification of the flesh and its valorisation of spirit over matter, is essentially despotic and reactionary (Heine 3). The list of figures which Heine describes as members of the Romantic School includes the brothers Schlegel, Tieck, Görres, Novalis, E.T.A. Hoffmann, Brentano, Achim von Arnim, Jean Paul, Werner, Uhland and Eichendorff.

Now in this regard Heine can be seen to be largely responsible for the narrow definition of Romantik that has prevailed in the tradition of German literary scholarship since the nineteenth century, a definition which has almost always categorically excluded Goethe. According to this definition, Romanticism is inherently conservative, escapist, nostalgic, anti-enlightenment and anti-modern. It is opposed to all forms of Classical and Neo-Classical culture, and despite its having taken some inspiration from Goethe's early lyrics and his early novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther, it is most definitely at odds with the Weimar Classicism practiced by Goethe and Schiller, while also being differentiated from the "Storm and Stress" movement of the late eighteenth century and its chief progenitors: Hamann, Herder and the young Goethe. For Heine, Goethe is by definition anti-Romantic by virtue of his promotion of Classical culture, his distaste for German nationalism, his admiration for Napoleon, and his status as a non-Christian adherent to the Pantheist philosophy of Spinoza (Heine 29-45).

Thus, the problem with McGann's approach to both English Romanticism and the tradition of Anglo-American Romantic scholarship exemplified by the work of Abrams is that he takes to it with a narrow, brittle stick, a stick which he has snapped off a German tree (the work of Heine) and transported to England and America. This stick might be a highly suitable tool with which to batter Catholic German Romanticism in the narrowly defined sense adopted by Heine, but it is entirely inappropriate for a discussion of both Romanticism in England and the Anglo-American criticism that addresses the Romantic period. Any critic would be hard-pressed to see figures like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Keats and Shelley as anti-Classical, Catholic reactionaries who advocated an escapist spiritual regression to the Middle Ages. Wordsworth and Coleridge in particular, with their emphasis upon a dialectical relationship between the poetic subject and the objects of nature, have far more in common with figures like Herder, Goethe and Schiller than they do with the members of Heine's neo-Catholic Romantic School, with the possible exception of Novalis.

It is here where any discussion of The Romantic Ideology is forced to face a deep-seated contradiction within McGann's critical methodology. On the one hand, McGann's desire to bring a thorough-going critique to texts of the Romantic period and particularly to their twentieth-century reception in figures like Harold Bloom and M.H. Abrams leads him to champion Heine as perhaps the earliest and most prescient critic of the "ideologies" of Romanticism. At the same time, however, and as David Chandler has recently shown in his article "One Consciousness: Historical Criticism and the Romantic Canon," McGann often deals with the Romantic period with the same "spirit-of-the-age" approach that he so trenchantly criticizes M.H. Abrams for adopting in his (Abrams's) famous essay "English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age" (1963). Thus, according to McGann's formulation in The Romantic Ideology, Wordsworth is still seen as the "representative" figure of the Romantic period, and Heine, we are led to believe, is its most representative critic. In this regard, McGann's approach fails to live up to the inductive methodology that is often attributed to the school of criticism with which he is most often associated: that of New Historicism. [8] Conclusive proof of McGann's failure in this respect can be found in his crude application of Heine's culturally specific critique of Catholic German Romanticism to English literature of the Romantic period, an application which elides the entirely different definitions, descriptions and periodisations which have surrounded "Romantic" literature in German literary criticism since the nineteenth century.

This brings me to McGann's critique of M.H. Abrams, and to the reasons why I believe that, despite his oft-noted shortcomings, [9] Abrams remains one of the most comprehensive historical explicators of Romanticism as it occurred in both England and Germany. In his famous 1971 study of the Romantic period, Natural Supernaturalism, Abrams makes the following statement on the subject of Romanticism, a statement worth quoting here at length:

It is a historical commonplace that the course of Western thought since the Renaissance has been one of progressive secularization, but it is easy to mistake the way in which that process took place. Secular thinkers have no more been able to work free of the centuries-old Judaeo-Christian culture than Christian authors were able to work free of their inheritance of classical and pagan thought. The process – outside the exact sciences at any rate – has not been the deletion and replacement of religious ideas but rather the assimilation and reinterpretation of religious ideas, as constitutive elements in a world view founded on secular premises. Much of what distinguishes writers I call "Romantic" derives from the fact that they undertook, whatever their religious creed or lack of creed, to save traditional concepts, schemes, and values which had been based on the relation of the Creator to his creature and creation, but to reformulate them within the prevailing two-term system of subject and object, ego and non-ego, the human mind or consciousness and its transactions with nature.


In Abrams's view, it was precisely because authors of the Romantic period wrote within the context of the European Enlightenment that they sought, either consciously or unconsciously, to reconfigure the relationship between man and God as a dialectical interchange between the perceiving subject or self and the objects of nature. In short, Abrams contends that the Romantics sought to "naturalize the supernatural and to humanize the divine" (68).

There are a number of positive aspects to Abrams's understanding of Romanticism in terms of secularisation, particularly from the perspective of Comparative Literature or what Goethe called "World Literature." Firstly, Abrams's secularisation thesis is broad enough to encompass the Romantic movements in both England and Germany, and here we should note that Natural Supernaturalism not only contains references to English authors like Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, but also offers analyses of Romantic literature and philosophy in Germany through its discussions of figures like Hamann, Herder, Goethe, Schiller, Hölderlin, Schelling, Fichte and Hegel. Secondly, the claims made by Abrams in Natural Supernaturalism are by no means exorbitant – he merely posits that English and German poets "during the lifetime of Shelley" shared "common important themes, modes of expression and ways of feeling and imagining [. . .that were. . .] part of a comprehensive intellectual tendency which manifested itself in philosophy as well as in poetry"(11). It is worth mentioning that this central thesis of Natural Supernaturalism (which from our historical vantage point seems rather modest) is never directly confronted by McGann in The Romantic Ideology, as McGann's critique of Abrams confines itself to an earlier essay: "English Romanticism: The Spirit of the Age." Thirdly, by situating Romanticism within the context of the European Enlightenment, Abrams avoids simplistic characterisations of the Romantic movement as an anti-rational, obscurantist counter-enlightenment, as has been proposed by Heine, and more recently, by Isaiah Berlin. [10]

But Jerome J. McGann's strongest criticism of Abrams can be found in his contention that Abrams's theory of Romanticism is itself deeply "Romantic" in character. By emphasising the notion that Romanticism is primarily concerned with spiritual issues regarding the relationship between the self and its natural surroundings, Abrams's theory of Romanticism is said by McGann to simply repeat and reify a number of key Romantic self-conceptualisations. The most troubling of these self-conceptualisations, according to McGann, is the notion that human progress is primarily a non-political, internal, private matter played out between the creative soul of the poet and his or her natural surroundings, having little to do with broader social issues (McGann, Ideology 32).

Here, according to McGann, is the essence of the "Romantic Ideology": a kind of "false consciousness" in which socially constructed concepts like "creativity," "individuality" and "genius" are endowed with a sense of false objectivity and enshrined within the canon of Romantic criticism, where they have been isolated from questioning or critique. In McGann's view, only New Historicist criticism is capable of revealing the concrete social relations which gave rise to these concepts, thereby enabling us to gain a new and more diverse understanding of the Romantic period and its various modes of self-representation.

As Clifford Siskin has shown in his book The Historicity of Romantic Discourse (1988), McGann's arguments are expressions of an outdated, classically Marxist Weltanschauung (57-62). Beneath the "false consciousness" created by the Romantic Ideology there is said to exist an extra-linguistic, "real," non-ideological, unmediated version of reality to which the New Historicist critic can gain access. It is against this purported bedrock of unmediated historical reality that McGann judges the escapist "false consciousness" of the Romantic Ideology, a view of Romanticism which he clearly derives from Heine's narrower discussion of the neo-Catholic Romantic movement in Germany.

Now there is little doubt that McGann is correct when he asserts that the Romantic period was both more complex and contradictory than any of its twentieth-century critical characterisations suggest, including that offered by Abrams. In particular, I am inclined to agree with McGann's more recent contention that the literature of the Romantic period, far from being characterised by a sense of unity or singleness of purpose, is more like "a theatre for the conflicts and interactions of the ideologies of Romanticism" (McGann, "Rethinking Romanticism" 166-167). At the same time, however, and as McGann himself has acknowledged since the publication of The Romantic Ideology in 1983, in completely doing away with the synthesising efforts of criticism like those offered by Abrams, we run the risk of throwing the baby out with the bath water. The "baby" in this case is an object which is particularly useful to scholars of Comparative Literature: a historical-critical model upon which to contrast and compare the products of European, and not just English, or just German, Romanticism. Such models or historical theses as that suggested by Abrams are of course necessarily limited in their verisimilitude, but without them both literary history and Comparative Literature might cease to be possible.

It is significant that McGann himself has, in recent years, sketched out a possible solution to this critical impasse. In his 1996 essay "Rethinking Romanticism," he likens literary-historical periodisations in general, and broad synthetic approaches to Romanticism in particular, to Goethe's notion of the Urphänomen or "Primal Phenomenon" (166). When Goethe formulated the notion that a "primal plant" may exist which could function as the prototype or "platonic form" for all forms of botanical life, he only momentarily entertained the idea that such a primal plant could exist in real life. [11] After recovering from this brief episode of scientific hubris, Goethe came to see the Urpflanze or "primal plant" as a theoretical model – in more precise philosophical terms, a Neo-Kantian "Idea of Pure Reason" – against which to map the infinite variations in botanical phenomena. Mirroring Kant's philosophical position in relation to the "Ideas of Pure Reason," [12] Goethe did not assert the literal truth of his primal plant – rather, he demonstrated its contingent and provisional theoretical utility.

In a similar way, the call being made here is not for New Historicist approaches to the Romantic period to be completely discarded and replaced by the older "History of Ideas" approach that characterises books by Abrams like The Mirror and the Lamp and Natural Supernaturalism. It is rather a request for a kind of double vision which reveals itself to be particularly apposite when applied to the case of Goethe's position with respect to the often vastly differing elucidations of Romanticism found in German and Anglo-American scholarship.

The New Historicist critique of the traditional "History-of-Ideas" approach to literature is by and large correct in its assertion that there can be no cultural domain or set of texts which exist in isolation from non-textual forces like, say, the economy, developments in technology, or general socio-political conditions (Colebrook 23-30). It would also now seem to be incontrovertible that the processes of canon formation upon which the "History of Ideas" has traditionally relied are likewise embedded in broader socio-cultural issues which exceed strictly literary questions, as McGann has conclusively demonstrated through his explanation of why Byron was always a problematic figure for Anglo-American theorists of Romanticism like René Wellek (McGann, "Rethinking Romanticism" 162-163).

At the same time, however, competing literary-historical periodisations, theories and categories also have a provisional use which can be demonstrated when they are brought into confrontation with one another. Again, a case in point in this connection is Goethe. As has already been observed, by German standards Goethe is at best a marginal figure in the history of Romanticism: a figure whose early works inspired some "real" Romantics like Friedrich Schlegel and Novalis, but who later became a famous critic of so-called "pathological Romanticism" and a proponent of Classicism. For Anglo-American critics like Abrams and Wellek, Goethe is central, but his anti-Romantic polemics are seldom considered or understood. Finally, a figure like Heine is able to demonstrate quite clearly the very specific cultural politics behind Goethe's opposition to his younger Romantic contemporaries, and in this respect McGann is right in seeing Heine's socio-political approach as a kind of early prototype for New Historicist critical practices.

In short, all of these differing positions regarding Goethe hold some truth, while at the same time being inadequate when left in isolation. The traditional German account fails to see Goethe's significant affinities with major figures in English Romanticism, the Anglo-American position tends to gloss over Goethe's often extreme reactions to his Romantic contemporaries (which we will shortly consider), while Heine's discussion of Goethe is so deeply embedded in both the German Goethezeit and the Romantic period that it is unable to appreciate the latter's contribution to European Romanticism in historical terms.

Where, then, does this leave Abrams's "secularisation" thesis and its application to Goethe's works? The answer to this question lies in the strategic advantages which such a thesis might yield when used as a means to question and broaden the traditional German understanding of Goethe's position with respect to Romanticism, and to assess Goethe's contribution to the Romantic movement in comparison with the works of figures like Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Such a deployment of Abrams's secularisation thesis in Natural Supernaturalism would not assert its literal truth, nor its merits at the exclusion of all other theoretical paradigms; rather, it would suggest its strategic potential for opening new perspectives in relation to works of a particular author.

Abrams's understanding of Romanticism as the modern secularisation of ancient religious thought systems gives us a broader ground upon which to theorise the Romantic movement in Germany, and particularly the role of Goethe and his older contemporaries like Hamann and Herder within that movement. When, for example, we confront Heine's traditional periodisation of Romanticism in Germany with Abrams's broader understanding of the European Romantic movement, it becomes quite clear that the secular or immanentist tendencies to which Abrams refers are already present in the period commonly referred to by German literary historians as the "Storm and Stress." In fact, when we look back at the figures who dominated the "Storm and Stress" through the lens of Abrams's theory of Romanticism – Goethe, Herder and Hamann – it becomes apparent that they were primarily concerned with religious issues, and, more particularly, with the question of how much ground religious ways of thinking should cede to the processes of secularisation.

The decisive influence in this process of secularisation was the philosophy of Spinoza, which held that "Nature" is a unified whole infused with the divine presence of an indwelling God. The role of what I want to call German Romanticism – beginning with the "Storm and Stress" and continuing into Goethe's early lyrics, his famous novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, and subsequently through the whole of Goethe's literary career, including the so-called Classical Period and the forays into "Science"– was to interpret and give expression to this divine immanence through the artistic modes of poetry and song – that is to say, through linguistic expression. This is the program developed by Herder and communicated to Goethe in the early 1770s, a program that influenced Goethe for the rest of his life. Thus, I am more or less in agreement with René Wellek when he writes that:

[. . .] it is impossible to accept the common German view that romanticism is the creation of the Schlegels, Tieck and Novalis. If one looks at the history of German literature between the date of Klopstock's Messiah (1748) and the death of Goethe [1832] [. . .] one can hardly deny the unity and coherence of the whole movement which, in European terms, would have to be called "romantic."


The arguments of Wellek and Abrams are useful to us in that they question a fundamental assumption that characterises the more cursory treatments of the Romantic period, and particularly that offered in Heine's The Romantic School: namely, the notion that the Romantic movement was an aesthetic rebellion against Classical art forms and, in a broader sense, against Classical culture per se. It is arguably this purported opposition between the Romantic and Classical world-views which has led to the assumption that a great ideological gulf existed between the so-called Classical Goethe and his Romantic contemporaries.

IV: Romanticism versus Classicism in the Works of Goethe

This Klassik/Romantik distinction is particularly strong in German literary criticism, and even stronger still in traditional Goethe scholarship. Goethe himself is of course partly responsible for this crude opposition between the Classic and the Romantic by virtue of a famous statement, probably uttered around 1829, that appears in his Maxims and Reflections:

Klassisch ist das Gesunde, romantisch das Kranke.
Classicism is the healthy, Romanticism is the sick.

Maximen 487 [13]

Within this aesthetic dualism, the Classical represents that which is limited, orderly, clear, formal, sensuous and mature, while the Romantic is the limitless, the formless, the mystical, the spiritual and the immature.

In proposing a reading of the works of Goethe in conjunction with M.H. Abrams's broad definition of Romanticism, it is not my intention to efface the many differences between the respective Weltanschauungen of Goethe and his younger German Romantic contemporaries like the Schlegels and Novalis, differences which, as the above statement by Goethe suggests, arose partly as a result of Goethe's adoption of his so-called Classicism following his first journey to Italy in 1786. [14] Nor do I not wish completely to ignore traditional German literary-historical periodisations like the "Storm and Stress" and Romantik periods.

By the same token, however, and notwithstanding the fact that we are more concerned here with conceptual genealogies than with exact dates and periodisations, it is useful to point out that the "Storm and Stress" period does at least partially coincide with the broader historical time-frame (roughly 1780 up until the mid-nineteenth century) referred to as "Romantic" by Anglo-American scholars, [15] while at the same time not coinciding with the later and shorter period (roughly 1798 up until the late 1820s) known as the Zeit der Romantik in German literary scholarship.

The notion that a kind of dialectical relationship existed between Jena Romanticism and Weimar Classicism has become a commonplace of German literary scholarship, at least since Fritz Strich's Deutsche Klassik und Romantik, published in 1922. Such an argument involves the use of familiar binary opposites like Naïve/Sentimental (as in Schiller's Naïve and Sentimental Poetry), or Apollonian/Dionysian (as in Nietzsche's Birth of Tragedy). In the case of Weimar Classicism and Jena Romanticism, Strich proposes a dualism between Vollendung (completion) and Unendlichkeit (infinity). According to this argument, the sense of completion, limitation and fulfillment associated with Classical poetics exists in a polar opposition to the notions of subjective infinity, incompleteness, and yearning which were valorised by the Jena Romantics, and particularly by Friedrich Schlegel in the Athenaeum Fragments.

Such an argument involves an implicit literary history that has tended to obscure Goethe's significance in the development of literary modernity and the history of Romanticism. Examples of this tendency in both Anglo-American and German criticism can be found in the works of two "giants" of twentieth-century literary criticism: Harold Bloom and Walter Benjamin. In his essay entitled "Goethe's Faust, Part Two: The Countercanonical Poem," which appears in The Western Canon, Bloom writes of Goethe: "[. . .] though he stands at the true beginning of imaginative literature in German, Goethe is, from a Western perspective, an end rather than a beginning" (203-204). Bloom's argument is that Goethe stands at the end of a Classical tradition of European literature which begins with Homer, and it is for this reason that Bloom prefers to see Wordsworth as the true pioneer within the epoch of literary modernity (204). Likewise, in his essay on Goethe written for the Soviet Encyclopedia, Walter Benjamin more or less agrees with Bloom when he writes that "the only sphere of thought in which Goethe lagged behind his age" lay in his "narrow classicist theory of art" (Benjamin, "Goethe" 169).

The rather familiar underlying contention here is that Goethe's rule-bound Classicism was a relic from antiquity – a relic which was sometimes fruitfully opposed to the excesses of the new Romantic School in Germany, while at the same time being essentially incapable of grasping the radically individualistic and subjective turn in modern poetry which purportedly begins with true Romantics like the Schlegels or Novalis. Again, such an argument tends to reinforce the traditional Classic/Romantic breach that is said to have existed between Goethe and his Romantic contemporaries in both Germany and England, while at the same time neglecting to discern the deeply progressive, innovative, one might even say "Romantic" characteristics of Goethean Classicism. Thus, in response to José Ortega Y Gasset's notion that we should "lay aside" Goethe's "Classicism," I would counter that our task is not so much that of dismissing this "Classicism" but rather of understanding its progressive modernity, and its contribution to debates within the realm of Romantic literature and philosophy.

In this connection, a distinction which is far more obvious in German literary criticism than in its Anglo-American counterpart needs to made: the distinction between Klassizismus and Klassik. To a large extent Klassizismus (or what we commonly understand by the term "Classicism") refers to French Neo-Classicism, a movement which valorised the aesthetics of figures like Aristotle, Quintilian and Longinus, among others, and which sought to formalise and codify art in a series of classically derived aesthetic norms. The predominant literary credo of Klassizismus was the Aristotelean concept of mimesis: the notion that art works should adequately present typical scenes or literary topoi from the everyday lives of "noble" individuals. The key literary figures in French Neo-Classicism were Corneille, Racine, Molière and La Fontaine, while in Germany eighteenth century Klassizismus received its chief impetus from the works of Lessing and Winckelmann (Montgomery 825-831). Klassik, or "Weimar Classicism," on the other hand, did not place the same emphasis upon the imitation of ancient models as did Klassizismus. Weimarer Klassik, an aesthetic credo specifically developed by Goethe and Schiller (hence its association with Weimar), was more concerned with establishing a progressive, modern program of aesthetics which endeavored to adapt Classical notions of form to modern subject matter and in particular, to late-eighteenth-century understandings of subjectivity. [16]

It is particularly with reference to Weimarer Klassik that Abrams's broad thesis of Romanticism-as-secularisation continues to be of use to scholars who attempt to view Goethe's works within the broader contexts of both European Romanticism and the European Enlightenment. Since the rise of New Historicism, such a panoramic, "History-of-Ideas" characterisation of Romanticism can never again assume the level of authority that first attended the publication of Natural Supernaturalism in 1971. But the broadness of Abrams's thesis still offers us a strategic, unifying lens through which to view the cultural tendencies of an epoch, tendencies which, as part of a wider progression toward secularisation, extended beyond the field of the strictly "literary." Thus, when Abrams contends, in Natural Supernaturalism, that the Romantic movement served to modernise ancient religious thought patterns by secularising them, he has in mind not only Romantic literature but also a phenomenon which he calls "Romantic philosophy." In this connection, Abrams writes:

In its central tradition Christian thought had posited three primary elements: God, nature, and the soul; with God of course utterly prepotent, as the creator and controller of the two others and as the end, the telos, of all natural processes and endeavour. The tendency in innovative Romantic thought (manifested in proportion as the thinker is or is not a Christian theist) is greatly to diminish, and at the extreme to eliminate, the role of God, leaving as prime agencies man and the world, mind and nature, the ego and the non-ego, the self and the not-self, spirit and the other, or (in the favourite antithesis of post-Kantian philosophers) subject and object [. . .]. In this grandiose enterprise, however, it is the subject, mind, or spirit which is primary and takes over the initiative and the functions which had once been the prerogatives of deity; that is why we justifiably call Romantic philosophy, in its diverse forms, by the generic term "Idealism."


While the Romantic movement as described by Abrams shared with the European Enlightenment a decidedly secular inclination, it also threatened enlightenment thinking by virtue of its tendency to place an enormous emphasis upon the powers of subjectivity, often at the expense of the so-called independent world of objects. This emphasis upon subjectivity found its most noteworthy expression in the radically subjective interpretation of Kant adopted by Fichte in his Wissenschaftslehre. In his Grundlage der gesammten Wissenschaftslehre (Foundations of the Entire Wissenschaftslehre) of 1794-95, Fichte maintained that we do not just perceive the world according to transcendental a priori intuitions and categories as in the philosophy of Kant. Rather, Fichte proposed that through a primary Tathandlung or "deed-action," the subject or ego actually posits (and therefore in a sense projects) the object world as its opposite or "not-I." It is widely known that Goethe's philosophical contemporaries like Schelling and Schiller recognised that Fichte's radical Idealism had the potential to attenuate and perhaps overwhelm completely the autonomous existence of external objects.  [17] It is less well known that Goethe himself recognised the dangers inherent in the radically subjective and solipsistic strain in European Romanticism long before the publication of Fichte's Wissenschaftslehre, perhaps even as early as The Sorrows of Young Werther, first published in 1774 and then revised for a second edition in 1787.

In terms of its reception by the European public, The Sorrows of Young Werther was by far Goethe's most spectacular literary success. According to the mythology surrounding the relation of Goethe's artistic productions to his life (a mythology initially generated by Goethe himself), the novel represents Goethe's last major production of the turbulent "Storm and Stress" period – a kind of final, non-rational catharsis that prepares the way for the more balanced contours of Weimar Classicism. The degree to which the German literary periodisations of "Storm and Stress" and Weimarer Klassik are in fact inscribed and to a certain extent even determined by Goethe's biography is suggested by Goethe's reflections on the composition of The Sorrows of Young Werther, contained in Dichtung und Wahrheit:

[. . .] by this composition, more than any other, I had freed myself from that stormy element, upon which, through my own fault and that of others, through a mode of life both accidental and chosen, through design and thoughtless precipitation, through obstinacy and pliability, I had been driven about in the most violent manner. I felt, as if after a general confession, once more happy and free, and justified in beginning a new life.

Goethe, Autobiography 2: 167

The main character of the novel – that of Werther – has thus often been seen as a veiled portrait of Goethe during the turbulent Geniezeit or "Genius-phase" of the "Storm and Stress" period. This "Goethe," according to no less an authority than Thomas Mann, is to be seen as:

[. . .] the poet, the genius, the true-hearted and sincere, but also unfaithful and – in the popular sense – unreliable vagabond of the feelings [. . .]. A loveable daemon: handsome, talented, laden with spirit and life, fiery, sensitive, lively and melancholy, in short – crazy in a loveable way [. . .]

342 [18]

The term "genius" (Genie) was indeed very much on the agenda of German cultural life around the time that Goethe set about composing The Sorrows of Young Werther. Lamenting the valorisations of ancient Greek poetry undertaken by figures like Lessing and Winckelmann, writers like Herder had begun to call for a new, characteristically "German" genius capable of expressing the essence of the local language and landscape. After having been dispatched, in early 1771, by Herder on a mission collecting "earthy" German folksongs from the region of Alsace, Goethe returned with a new understanding of "Genius," derived at least in part from the philosophy of Herder. This new genius does not produce works which are derivative of previous epochs – in fact its mode of artistic production is, according to Goethe, totally non-mimetic, springing from feelings which are "sincere, unified, original [and] autonomous [. . .] unconcerned, indeed unaware of anything extraneous [. . .]"(Goethe, "On German Architecture" 8-9). This understanding of genius would later be theorised by Schiller, in his essay Naïve and Sentimental Poetry (1795), as being characteristically "naïve."

Poets, in Schiller's view, "will either be nature, or they will seek lost nature" (Schiller, Naïve and Sentimental 106). The former variety are "naïve" in that they follow no antecedent model or prototype, the latter sentimental in that they attempt to re-approximate something which precedes them. The naïve poet creates original works by harnessing the forces of nature that well up from within the self, just as the sentimental poet sets about recreating a past epoch in a painstaking fashion. The naïve poet is thus the true genius, while the sentimental poet is merely a pale imitator.

It is this ideology of the "naïve genius" that is depicted by Goethe in the character of Werther. The main character of Goethe's novel is an extremely passionate young man with a heightened sensitivity towards the objects of nature. Nature, according to Werther, is the expression of God's divine immanence, and the task of the creative, sensitive soul is to commune with this divine immanence through acts of artistic creation, producing a situation in which subject and object, self and other, intermingle and even fuse together. This aesthetic ideology can be seen in the following lines, spoken by the sensitive "hero" of Goethe's novel:

[. . .] I lie in the long grass by the tumbling brook, and lower down, close to the earth, I am alerted to the thousand various little grasses [. . .] I sense the teeming of the little world among the stalks, the countless indescribable forms of the bugs and flies, closer to my heart, and feel the presence of the Almighty who created us in his image [. . .].

Goethe, Werther 26-27

On meeting a rustic young girl named Lotte, Werther imagines her to be the perfect feminine expression of God's natural order. Werther almost immediately assimilates Lotte to his pantheistic schema: she becomes for him the essence of natural womanhood and the object of his obsessive desires. When Werther discovers subsequently that Lotte is betrothed to another man, he cannot accept the idea that she exists independently of his eminently subjective world-view. As a consequence of Lotte's refusal to play the role of muse to Werther the sensitive genius, the novel's hero is consumed by his unfulfilled longings and commits suicide.

The Sorrows of Young Werther is normally seen as a representation, and not a critique, of the excesses of subjectivity associated with the "Storm and Stress" movement. In maintaining no differentiation or boundary between self and other, between the subject and nature, the genius who imagines himself to be "naïve" (in Schiller's sense of the term) is divested of his ability to withstand any disparity between his "idea" of the natural world and the world "in itself." According to this aesthetic schema, he does not represent nature, he is nature (dynamically expressed in the form of "natural genius") and nature is him. His world-view thus comes to resemble a crude prototype of the subjective Idealism of Fichte, in which the external world is a mere extension of the self-positing ego and its desires.

According to critics like Walter Benjamin and Nicholas Boyle, it was the tragic events depicted in The Sorrows of Young Werther, combined with its extraordinarily effective depiction of solipsistic subjectivity, which led to the novel's almost unprecedented success. [19] The desire of critics to associate The Sorrows of Young Werther almost exclusively with the aesthetics of the "Storm and Stress" period has, however, obscured the sense in which this novel contributes to broader debates in relation to subjectivity which continued into the early nineteenth century and beyond, under the rubric of what M.H. Abrams describes, in Natural Supernaturalism, as "Romantic philosophy" (that is, Kantian and post-Kantian Idealism and its literary manifestations in both Germany and England).

In this connection, it is worth exploring some of the changes that Goethe made to The Sorrows of Young Werther in preparation for the Göschen edition of his works, which appeared in 1787. Following accusations that the first edition of the novel was blasphemous and encouraged suicide, [20] Goethe's revisions serve to emphasise the pathological tendencies of the novel's "hero," and thus to discourage the reader from identifying with his state of mind. The clearest demonstration of this new element in the second edition of Werther is the following motto, which appears in the volume's ‘Foreword' and is apparently spoken by Werther himself from beyond the grave: Sei ein Mann und Folge mir nicht nach (Be a man and do not follow after me). It is also in this second edition of the novel that Goethe inserts a new scene, in which the configuration of the relationship between subject and object, between self and nature, adopted by Werther (the character), is more explicitly represented as a totally narcissistic identification, in which the subject sees all external objects as mere reflections of its own internal desires, projects and fantasies.

The image of the genius as a rushing stream of water has been a topos of Western literature and philosophy at least since Horace. [21] In the following scene, taken from the second edition of The Sorrows of Young Werther, Goethe (through the voice of Werther) gives this ancient topos a new "pathological" twist – a twist which reflects his own quite explicit critique of the radically subjective Idealism of early German Romanticism:

Yesterday evening I had to go out. A thaw had suddenly set in, I had heard that the river had burst its banks, all the streams were swollen, and all the way from Wahlheim my beloved valley was flooded! It was after eleven, and I ran out into the night. It was a fearful spectacle: the raging torrents were crashing down from the crags in the moonlight, flooding the fields and meadows and hedges, and the broad valley, upstream and down, was a turbulent lake whipped by a roaring wind! And when the moon appeared once more, peaceful above a sombre cloud, and the flood before me rolled and thundered and gleamed with awesome majesty, a shudder of horror shook me – and then longing seized me again! Ah, there I stood, arms outstretched, above the abyss, breathing: plunge! plunge! – and I was lost in the joyful prospect of ending my sufferings and sorrows by plunging, passing on with a crash like the waves!

Goethe, Werther 111-112

In this passage, Goethe exposes the early German Romantic conception of genius to a profound critique – a critique which operates on two interrelated levels: the level of enunciation (Werther's voice) and the level of imagery (Goethe's thematic intentions). At the level of enunciation, of speech, Goethe depicts a Werther who identifies with nature to such an extent that he sees the trajectory of his own life embodied in natural events. He longs to mimic the transit of the river by plunging himself into the abyss of nature.

The pathological element in Werther's identification is then displayed by Goethe through the imagery deployed in this passage, imagery which requires some philosophical elucidation. It is a commonplace of Western thought from Fichte through Hegel to Freud that the human subject defines itself negatively: that is to say, by ascertaining what it is not. In this way, external objects, including those of nature, take part in the subject's perception of itself as an object – a discrete, individual being distinct from other beings. When the genius-stream's (i.e., Werther's) subjectivity becomes swollen to such an extent that it literally overwhelms the autonomy of external objects, then the image of "nature" longed for by the subject is destroyed. In its place, the subject installs a boundless narcissism in which everything in nature merely reflects internal emotions. The object-world is thus literally flooded with Werther's subjectivity, and nature, far from being celebrated through poetry and song, is in fact lost in the unlimited expansion of the poet's self. But nature (the world of external objects) is not the only thing that is lost in this process. Without an object-world from which to differentiate, and thus to define and delimit itself, the subject (in this case, Werther) also loses its identity.

The Sorrows of Young Werther offers only one instance of Goethe's critique of the aesthetics of Genius which were on the rise in Germany during the late eighteenth century, beginning with the "Storm and Stress" movement and continuing into the German Zeit der Romantik proper. The novel demonstrates that Werther's eminently solipsistic world-view is tragically flawed. Far from showing that there can be a complete identification or unity between the human subject and the objects of nature, the novel demonstrates that Werther's version of "nature" is ineluctably cultural and conceptual, having at best a tenuous relationship to external reality or what Kant, in a critical mood, would call "things in themselves."

This is perhaps the "sickness" which Goethe diagnosed as being a hallmark of Romanticism: the tendency to valorise and idealise general concepts such as "nature," thereby occluding any real appreciation of nature as a collection of discrete, concrete objects. This diagnosis does not, however, negate Goethe's participation within the movement known as Romanticism; rather, it demonstrates his active and progressive engagement with philosophical debates of the Romantic period. It is, moreover, in this connection that Jerome McGann's notion that Romantic poetry often occupies "a critical position toward its subject matter" can fruitfully be applied to the case of Goethe, suggesting that Goethe's often antagonistic attitude toward his Romantic contemporaries does not necessarily preclude his important role within the Romantic movement (McGann, Ideology 2).

Goethe's attempts to restore the unequal balance between subject and object did not end with The Sorrows of Young Werther. In particular, Goethe's post-1786 turn toward nature and to scientific experimentation was underpinned by his belief that the subject should learn to accommodate the particularities of external objects. A failure to do so, according to Goethe, entailed the risk that scientific methodology could descend into an erroneous solipsism in which the results of an experiment would be decided upon in advance of its execution. Thus, according to Goethe:

[. . .] we can never be too careful in our efforts to avoid drawing hasty conclusions from experiments or using them directly as proof to bear out some theory. For here at this pass, this transition from empirical evidence to judgement…all the inner enemies of man lie in wait: imagination [. . .] impatience; haste; self-satisfaction, rigidity; formalistic thought; prejudice; ease; frivolity; fickleness – this whole throng and its retinue [. . .].

Goethe, Experiment 14

This was the dictum arrived at by Goethe in his 1792 essay "The Experiment as Mediator between Object and Subject." The central philosophical position which underlies this essay is Kantian and runs as follows: there will always be a cognitive gap between our subjectively mediated scientific theories and the objects of nature or "things in themselves." By failing to take this cognitive gap into account we confuse our ideas about reality with "reality" itself, thereby becoming blinded by our own subjectivity.

In these two works by Goethe alone – The Sorrows of Young Werther and "The Experiment as Mediator between Object and Subject" – we may find elements of his so-called Classicism. The critique of unlimited or unbounded subjectivity offered in The Sorrows of Young Werther is suggestive of Goethe's later notion of Entsagung or renunciation, which Nicholas Boyle has accurately described as the "negative image of desire"(2: 325). This concept, so often associated with the maturity of Goethe's so-called Classical period but rarely seen as a specific development of Romantic theories of subjectivity, runs through his nineteenth-century works ranging from Wilhelm Meister through the Elective Affinities to Faust Part Two. The turn toward the objects of nature expressed in "The Experiment as Mediator between Object and Subject" conforms with the popular view that Goethe's aesthetics became more sensuous following his first journey to Italy in 1786.

The question remains, however, as to whether Goethe's so-called Classical period, and his attendant rejection of his younger Romantic contemporaries, should really be seen as a backward-looking, conservative response to literary changes which took place in Germany during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. According to Anglo-American critics like Abrams and Wellek, there is no question that Goethe, with his continuing preoccupation with human subjectivity and its transactions with nature, a preoccupation that extended well into the nineteenth century with works like the Theory of Colour and Faust Part Two, remained a central figure in the European Romantic movement. [22] Likewise, within Germany (or at the very least within German language criticism) a few critical voices have approached the progressive character of Goethe's so-called Classicism. Given the aforementioned tendency toward narrowly biographical readings of Goethe's works by German critics, it is perhaps no coincidence that some of the best writing on Goethe has been produced by "philosophical" critics with a broader appreciation of Goethe's position in European intellectual history: in particular, Georg Lukács and Hans-Georg Gadamer.

First published in 1947, Georg Lukács's Goethe and his Age offers a philosophical reading of Weimar Classicism which argues that "The Age of Goethe" comprises "one of the last progressive periods of bourgeois thinking" – a period which, in Lukács" view, ultimately paved the way for the dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels (13). In particular, Lukács's essay "The Correspondence between Goethe and Schiller" (written in 1934) shows an advanced understanding of the philosophical content of Weimar Classicism, which the author sees as standing at the summit "of the development of dialectical idealism in Germany," and not as a conservative harking back to the aesthetics of the ancient world (69). The central contention of Lukács's essay is that the Classicism of Goethe and Schiller is:

[. . .] by no means a question of the attempt simply to imitate antiquity, but the attempt to study its laws of form and to apply them to the material which the modern age offers its poets. [. . .] In Goethe and Schiller [. . .] the basic line of inquiry into the laws of art through the study of antiquity is always aimed at a specifically modern art, or at least closely related to the problems of modern art [. . .].

78, 95

Lukács proposes that Goethe and Schiller regarded different literary epochs as constituent elements in a larger dialectical relationship between opposed literary forms or types. In this respect, his approach at least partially mirrors that offered by Fritz Strich: namely, the notion that there is a dialectical opposition between Romantic and Classical art forms – the former constituting an art of limitlessness or infinity, the latter an aesthetics of closure. The major difference between Lukács and Strich lies in the progressive content which Lukács finds within Weimar Classicism. For Lukács, Weimar Classicism does not constitute a simple resurgence of Neo-Classical aesthetics or the return of Aristotelean poetics. Rather it represents a progressive, dialectical attempt to apply the Classical laws of form to literature which takes as its subject the preoccupations of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: in particular, the question of the individual's freedom or lack of freedom within society (The Sorrows of Young Werther), the rise of the European bourgeoisie following the French Revolution (Wilhelm Meister) and (on a more abstract philosophical level) the relationship between human subjects and the objects of nature (Faust). Lukács ultimately argues that Weimar Classicism can be seen as the forerunner to nineteenth-century Realism, exemplified most readily by the works of Balzac.

By seeing Goethe as a key player within the literary-historical transition from Sentimentalism and Romanticism into Realism, Lukács endeavors to counter the contention of Heine and others that Goethe was an anti-revolutionary supporter of the European aristocracy. Although Lukács's description of Goethean Classicism as a literary current which engaged in a dynamic, dialectical relationship with other works of the European Romantic period seems correct in its essentials, his ultimate conclusion that Goethe was one of the originators of literary Realism reads like a crude attempt to induct Goethe into the canon of socialist literature. [23]

A more interesting and, to my mind, more convincing reading of Goethean Classicism is offered by Hans-Georg Gadamer in his essay "Goethe and Philosophy," also published in 1947. Gadamer takes up the issue of Goethe's relationship to philosophy by considering his works in conjunction with the products of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century German Idealism. I mentioned earlier M.H. Abrams's contention that the Romantic movement was pivotal in shifting the philosophical emphasis toward the pole of subjectivity, and in this connection Abrams cites the example of Kant's philosophy and its radically subjective interpretation by Fichte. Gadamer sees Goethe as offering a kind of counter-resistance to the philosophical shift towards subjectivity described by Abrams.

Firstly, Gadamer maintains that Goethe's reading of Kant, a reading mediated by his association with Schiller, tended to emphasise the critical aspect of Kantian thought: that is to say, the notion that there is always a gap between our ideas about the world and the world "in itself." Gadamer then argues that Goethe extends the critical philosophy of Kant in a direction not dissimilar to the path taken by the early Naturphilosophie of Schelling. Comparing Goethe's relationship with the philosophy of German Idealism to Socrates's critical interaction with the Sophists, Gadamer writes:

Goethe also opposes the abstract speculation of his age, and precisely this unencumbered self-assuredness in his opposition to the dogmatism of the modern period confers on him an aura of antiquity. In the classical sense, he too is a philosopher and is closer to the origins than his great contemporaries in philosophy. For he does not share the faith of his age in the autonomy of reason – he sees its human conditionedness.


If there is a kind of "Realism" that can be ascribed to the version of Goethe offered by Gadamer, it is perhaps more "epistemological" than it is "social" in character. In short, Gadamer's contention is that Goethe "belonged to those who believe more in nature than in freedom" (13). The purported autonomy of reason, and of Kant's "Transcendental Unity of Apperception," was always seen by Goethe to exist within a broader natural context encompassed by the untranslatable term Weltfrömmigkeit, which can only be approximated in English through a series of phrases: world-piety, respect for the world, a sense of duty towards the world. Through the concept of Weltfrömmigkeit, which makes its most notable appearance in Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre[24] Goethe seeks to place the individual desires, longings and fantasies of the high-Romantic, Werther-style subject within a wider order that is suggestive of Spinoza's Pantheism – an order which is at once social, natural and ultimately cosmic.

The conditionedness of human reason flows inexorably from the subject's position within this wider natural order. Since human subjects are conditioned by nature, then human reason can never exist in a situation of pure autonomy with respect to nature. "Truth" is thus not something accessible though the exclusive deployment of reason; rather, it arises from the individual's day-to-day encounters with external objects and with other subjects, thereby being intimately linked with both lived, sensuous experience and with error.

The affinity which Gadamer sees as existing between Goethe and the Platonic Socrates can be further drawn out when we recall Socrates's famous statement, made at 23a of the Apology, that his wisdom consists in his acknowledgement that he knows nothing. The point of Socrates's statement is to demonstrate the inherent negativity and incompleteness of human knowledge in comparison with the knowledge of God, and it is this realisation which leads Socrates to set out upon his philosophical mission of exposing false claims to wisdom through the deployment of elenchus or critique. In a similar way, Goethe's mode of engagement with the philosophical Idealism of Kant and Fichte sets limits for human knowledge, human reason and the autonomy of the subject. By seeing the human subject as being both situated in and conditioned by an often unaccountable natural order, Goethe points to the darker side of the Western enlightenment, to what might be called the "unconscious" of reason and progress.

The systematic development of this essentially Romantic philosophical position – that is to say, the argument that the human subject and reason are ultimately grounded in nature, and not in a purely rational transcendental subject – exists in the early Naturphilosophie of Schelling and continues through the work of Schopenhauer into Freud. But the poetic, unsystematic counterpart to this philosophy lies in many of Goethe's works from the so-called Classical period of 1795-1805 and beyond: especially The Elective Affinities, the sonnet "Mächtiges Überraschen" ("Powerful Astonishment") and Faust Part Two. Thus, to see such works as purely Classical achievements which exist in an unambiguous opposition to the discourses of European Romanticism is fundamentally to misread the progressive role played by Goethe in the history of modern literature.

Parties annexes