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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Hints of Egotism in Goethe

All transcendentalists are preoccupied with the self, but not all are egotists. Some regard as a sad disability this limitation of their knowledge to what they have created; they are humble, and almost ashamed to be human, and to possess a mind that must cut them off hopelessly from all reality. On the other hand there are many instinctive egotists who are not transcendentalists, either because their attention has not been called to this system, or because they discredit all speculation, or because they see clearly that the senses and the intellect, far from cutting us off from the real things that surround us, have the function of adjusting our action to them and informing our mind about them. Such an instinctive egotist does not allege that he creates the world by willing and thinking it, yet he is more interested in his own sensations, fancies, and preferences than in the other things in the world. The attention he bestows on things seems to him to bathe in light their truly interesting side. What he chiefly considers is his own experience—what he cared for first, what second, what he thinks to-day, what he will probably think to-morrow, what friends he has had, and how they have lost their charm, what religions he has believed in, and in general what contributions the universe has made to him and he to the universe. His interest in personality need not be confined to his own; he may have a dramatic imagination, and may assign their appropriate personality to all other people; every situation he hears of or invents may prompt him to conceive the thrilling passions and pungent thoughts of some alter ego, in whom latent sides of his own nature may be richly expressed. And impersonal things, too, may fascinate him, when he feels that they stir his genius fruitfully; and he will be the more ready to scatter his favours broadcast in that what concerns him is not any particular truth or person (things which might prove jealous and exclusive), but rather the exercise of his own powers of universal sympathy.

Something of this sort seems to appear in Goethe; and although his contact with philosophical egotism was but slight, and some of his wise maxims are incompatible with it, yet his romanticism, his feeling for development in everything, his private life, the nebulous character of his religion, and some of his most important works, like Faust  and Wilhelm Meister, are all so full of the spirit of German philosophy, that it would be a pity not to draw some illustration for our subject from so pleasant a source.

There are hints of egotism in Goethe, but in Goethe there are hints of everything, and it would be easy to gather an imposing mass of evidence to the effect that he was not like the transcendentalists, but far superior to them. For one thing he was many-sided, not encyclopædic; he went out to greet the variety of things, he did not pack it together. He did not even arrange the phases of his experience (as he did those of Faust) in an order supposed to be a progress, although, as the commentators on Faust  inform us, not a progress in mere goodness. Hegel might have understood  all these moral attitudes, and described them in a way not meant to appear satirical; but he would have criticised and demolished them, and declared them obsolete—all but the one at which he happened to stop. Goethe loved  them all; he hated to outgrow them, and if involuntarily he did so, at least he still honoured the feelings that he had lost. He kept his old age genial and green by that perennial love. In order to hold his head above water and be at peace in his own heart, he did not need to be a Christian, a pagan, or an epicurean; yet he lent himself unreservedly, in imagination, to Christianity, paganism, and sensuality—three things your transcendental egotist can never stomach: each in its way would impugn his self-sufficiency.

Nevertheless the sympathies of Goethe were only romantic or æsthetic; they were based on finding in others an interesting variation from himself, an exotic possibility, rather than an identity with himself in thought or in fate. Christianity was an atmosphere necessary to certain figures, that of Gretchen, for instance, who would have been frankly vulgar without it; paganism was a learned masque, in which one could be at once distinguished and emancipated; and sensuality was a sentimental and scientific licence in which the free mind might indulge in due season. The sympathy Goethe felt with things was that of a lordly observer, a traveller, a connoisseur, a philanderer; it was egotistical sympathy.

Nothing, for instance, was more romantic in Goethe than his classicism. His Iphigenie  and his Helena  and his whole view of antiquity were full of the pathos of distance. That pompous sweetness, that intense moderation, that moral somnambulism were too intentional; and Goethe felt it himself. In Faust, after Helen has evaporated, he makes the hero revisit his native mountains and revert to the thought of Gretchen. It is a wise home-coming, because that craze for classicism which Helen symbolised alienated the mind from real life and led only to hopeless imitations and lackadaisical poses. Gretchen's garden, even the Walpurgisnacht, was in truth more classical. This is only another way of saying that in the attempt to be Greek the truly classical was missed even by Goethe, since the truly classical is not foreign to anybody. It is precisely that part of tradition and art which does not alienate us from our own life or from nature, but reveals them in all their depth and nakedness, freed from the fashions and hypocrisies of time and place. The effort to reproduce the peculiarities of antiquity is a proof that we are not its natural heirs, that we do not continue antiquity instinctively. People can mimic only what they have not absorbed. They reconstruct and turn into an archæological masquerade only what strikes them as outlandish. The genuine inheritors of a religion or an art never dream of reviving it; its antique accidents do not interest them, and its eternal substance they possess by nature.

The Germans are not in this position in regard to the ancients. Whether sympathetic like Goethe, or disparaging like Burckhardt, or both at once, like Hegel, they have seen in antiquity its local colour, its mannerisms, its documents, and above all its contrasts with the present. It was not so while the traditions of antiquity were still living and authoritative. But the moderns, and especially the Germans, have not a humble mind. They do not go to school with the Greeks unfeignedly, as if Greek wisdom might possibly be true wisdom, a pure expression of experience and reason, valid essentially for us. They prefer to take that wisdom for a phase of sentiment, of course outgrown, but still enabling them to reconstruct learnedly the image of a fascinating past. This is what they call giving vitality to classical studies, turning them into Kulturgeschichte. This is a vitality lent by the living to the dead, not one drawn by the young and immature from a perennial fountain. In truth classical studies were vital only so long as they were still authoritative morally and set the standard for letters and life. They became otiose and pedantic when they began to serve merely to recover a dead past in its trivial detail, and to make us grow sentimental over its remoteness, its beauty, and its ruins.

How much freer and surer was Goethe's hand when it touched the cord of romanticism! How perfectly he knew the heart of the romantic egotist! The romantic egotist sets no particular limits to the range of his interests and sympathies; his programme, indeed, is to absorb the whole world. He is no wounded and disappointed creature, like Byron, that takes to sulking and naughtiness because things taste bitter in his mouth. He finds good and evil equally digestible. The personal egotism of Byron or of Musset after all was humble; it knew how weak it was in the universe. But absolute egotism in Goethe, as in Emerson, summoned all nature to minister to the self: all nature, if not actually compelled to this service by a human creative fiat, could at least be won over to it by the engaging heroism of her favourite child. In his warm pantheistic way Goethe felt the swarming universal life about him; he had no thought of dragooning it all, as sectarians and nationalists would, into vindicating some particular creed or nation. Yet that fertile and impartial universe left each life free and in uncensored competition with every other life. Each creature might feed blamelessly on all the others and become, if it could, the focus and epitome of the world. The development of self was the only duty, if only the self was developed widely and securely enough, with insight, calmness, and godlike irresponsibility.

Goethe exhibited this principle in practice more plainly, perhaps, than in theory. His family, his friends, his feelings were so many stepping-stones in his moral career; he expanded as he left them behind. His love-affairs were means to the fuller realisation of himself. Not that his love-affairs were sensual or his infidelities callous; far from it. They often stirred him deeply and unsealed the springs of poetry in his heart; that was precisely their function. Every tender passion opened before him a primrose path into which his inexorable genius led him to wander. If in passing he must tread down some flower, that was a great sorrow to him; but perhaps that very sorrow and his inevitable remorse were the most needful and precious elements in the experience. Every pathetic sweetheart in turn was a sort of Belgium to him; he violated her neutrality with a sigh; his heart bled for her innocent sufferings, and he never said afterwards in self-defence, like the German Chancellor, that she was no better than she should be. But he must press on. His beckoning destiny, the claims of his spiritual growth, compelled him to sacrifice her and to sacrifice his own lacerated feelings on the altar of duty to his infinite self. Indeed, so truly supreme was this vocation that universal nature too, he thought, was bound to do herself some violence in his behalf and to grant him an immortal life, that so noble a process of self-expansion might go on for ever.

Goethe's perfect insight into the ways of romantic egotism appears also in Faust, and not least in the latter parts of it, which are curiously prophetic. If the hero of that poem has a somewhat incoherent character, soft, wayward, emotional, yet at the same time stubborn and indomitable, that circumstance only renders him the fitter vehicle for absolute Will, a metaphysical entity whose business is to be vigorous and endlessly energetic while remaining perfectly plastic. Faust was at first a scholar, fervid and grubbing, but so confused and impatient that he gave up science for magic. Notwithstanding the shams of professional people which offended him, a private and candid science was possible, which might have brought him intellectual satisfaction; and the fact would not have escaped him if he had been a simple lover of truth. But absolute Will cannot be restricted to any single interest, much less to the pursuit of a frigid truth in which it cannot believe; for the Will would not be absolute if it recognised any truth which it had to discover; it can recognise and love only the truth that it makes. Its method of procedure, we are told, consists in first throwing out certain assumptions, such perhaps as that everything must have a cause or that life and progress must be everlasting; and the truth is then whatever conforms to these assumptions. But since evidently these assumptions might be utterly false, it is clear that what interests absolute Will is not truth at all, but only orthodoxy. A delightful illustration of this is given by Faust when, emulating Luther for a moment, he undertakes to translate the first verse of Saint John—that being the Gospel that impresses him most favourably. The point is not prosaically to discover what the Evangelist meant, but rather what he must and shall have meant. The Word  will never do;the Sense  would be somewhat better; but In the beginning was Force  would have even more to recommend it. Suddenly, however, what absolute Will demands flashes upon him, and he writes down contentedly: In the beginning was the Deed :

Auf einmal seh' ich Rat
Und schreibe getrost: Im Anfang war die That!

Yet even in this exciting form, the life of thought cannot hold him long. He aches to escape from it; not that his knowledge of the sciences, as well as his magic, will not accompany him through life; he will not lose his acquired art nor his habit of reflection, and in this sense his career is really a progress, in that his experience accumulates; but the living interest is always something new. He turns to miscellaneous adventures, not excluding love; from that he passes to imperial politics, a sad mess, thence to sentimental classicism, rather an unreality, and finally to war, to public works, to trade, to piracy, to colonisation, and to clearing his acquired estates of tiresome old natives, who insist on ringing church bells and are impervious to the new Kultur. These public enterprises he finds more satisfying, perhaps only because he dies in the midst of them.

Are these hints of romantic egotism in Goethe mere echoes of his youth and of the ambient philosophy, echoes which he would have rejected if confronted with them in an abstract and doctrinal form, as he rejected the system of Fichte? Would he not have judged Schopenhauer more kindly? Above all, what would he have thought of Nietzsche, his own wild disciple? No doubt he would have wished to buttress and qualify in a thousand ways that faith in absolute Will which they emphasised so exclusively, Schopenhauer in metaphysics and Nietzsche in morals. But the same faith was a deep element in his own genius, as in that of his country, and he would hardly have disowned it.