Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is of course one of the great authors of World literature. His oeuvre is vast, varied, and enduring. But during his long lifetime he accomplished so much more beyond mere literary output. Goethe not only wrote such classic works as The Sorrows of Young Werther and Faust, but he also published books and articles on botany, minerology, anatomy, chromatics, and optics. And, while in the service of Duke Karl August of Saxe-Weimar, he acted variously as diplomat, finance minister, military reformer, theater director, road commissioner, university administrator – and perhaps, most importantly, as a collaborator, inspiration, and friend to a long list of the leading authors of the age.
Goethe was, in the words of Rüdiger Safranski, “perhaps the last universal genius.” As reflected in Safranski’s excellent new biography, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art, it is not Goethe’s accomplishments alone that make him interesting; it is “the individual shape of his life that is endlessly fascinating.” Goethe, Safranski writes, is the “exemplar of a life containing intellectual riches, creative power, and worldly wisdom.’
Goethe was born in Frankfurt in 1749 in a well-to-do family. Even as a young man, he demonstrated a seemingly inexhaustible creativity, turning out verses seemingly effortlessly. Despite his creative urges, he turned to the study of law, at his father’s request. He even practiced law briefly in Frankfurt, although without full commitment, devotion, or success.
Goethe’s energy instead went into his writing. His first play, Götz von Berlichingen, written in 1773, made him famous throughout Germany. His publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther in 1774, when Goethe was only 25, would make him famous throughout Europe. (Indeed, in 1808, when Goethe met Napoleon in Erfurt, Napoleon would tell Goethe that he had read Werther seven times). Goethe suddenly found himself as something of a celebrity, with devotees traveling to Frankfurt from great distances just to meet the young literary star.
It is what Goethe did next that makes him so interesting.
Goethe could easily have stayed in cosmopolitan Frankfurt, writing novels, poetry, and plays while leading a life as part of the literary elite. Instead, he took an entirely different path. In 1775, Goethe accepted an invitation from the young duke of Saxe-Weimar, Karl August, to come to Weimar (Goethe was 26 at the time, while Karl was 18.) Goethe would in fact spend the rest of his life in Weimar, almost all of it in service to the Duke. Goethe would become Karl August’s trusted advisor and confidante. Goethe would also eventually take up an ever-widening portfolio of responsibilities, as a privy counselor; as a military reformer; as finance minister; and numerous other posts. Goethe even took responsibility for the duchy’s failing silver mines.
In his biography, Safranski writes that Goethe chose an active life, rather than that of as one of the literati, because for Goethe, “producing art is easier than making one’s own life a work of art, and he recognized he still had much to learn.” Goethe felt that “treating great themes doesn’t automatically make you a great human being.” While the literati “made literature the measure of man, Goethe had become convinced it should be the other way around, for truth emerges from the practice of life, not from literature.” For Goethe, “life has its own purposefulness, as does poetry. Goethe intended to be an expert in both.”
There was for Goethe no conflict between these two roles; he managed to fulfill them both, drawing from one in service to the other. Thus, while traveling around the duchy in 1779 as head of Karl August’s military commission, Goethe would write his play Iphigenia in Tauris . Goethe’s experiences traveling to the battlefield with Karl August at the beginning of the Napoleonic wars, and seeing the refugees fleeing the armies, contributed to his epic poem, Hermann and Dorethea. Every experience provided an opportunity for observation, and not merely in support of his literary work. For example, upon his return from a tour of Italy in 1788, Goethe published his first major scientific work, the Metamorphosis of Plants.
In addition to collecting experiences and observations, Goethe also collected friendships. Goethe’s network of connections encompassed the intellectual elite of the time, including Schiller, Herder, Fichte, Humboldt, and Hegel. Among these, Goethe’s and Schiller’s friendship was the most important and remains the most remarkable.
Goethe and Schiller first met in Weimar in 1788 but the first encounter was, according to Safranski, a “disappointment.” Goethe had read, and was not impressed with, Schiller’s first play, The Robbers, and he stayed aloof from him in their first meeting. Goethe recognized Schiller’s abilities enough to arrange for Schiller to obtain a position at the University of Jena, but Goethe kept his distance. It was not until a chance encounter at an event in Jena in 1794 that the two men were for the first time have a serious exchange of ideas. The encounter marked the beginning of a new phase in Goethe’s life, and indeed their friendship and collaboration would enrich both of their lives. Their alliance and the works that flowed from it are at the heart of what later came to be known as Weimar Classicism.
Sefranski’s biography recounts one incident from their long friendship that captures the spirit of their relationship. In 1795, disappointed with the tepid response to Schiller’s journal Die Horen, particularly among the literary establishment, the two men decided to compose a set of satirical jibes aimed at the literary set, written as rhyming couplets. Something about the exercise energized the two men, and in a late evening session at Schiller’s home in Jena, the two men became so boisterous and were laughing so loud that Schiller’s wife felt compelled to close the windows for fear that the neighbors would be scandalized.
Throughout their long friendship, the two men would review and critique each other’s work. The two also encouraged each other to develop their ideas. They even proposed projects for each other. For example, while traveling in Switzerland in 1797, Goethe developed the idea of writing an epic poem about Wilhelm Tell. Goethe even gathered material in support of the project, but he ultimately surrendered the idea and the material to Schiller. Schiller turned the material into one of his most popular plays; the play premiered in 1804 at the theater in Weimar, with Goethe directing the production.
Sadly, only a few short months after the debut of Wilhelm Tell, Schiller fell ill and died. Goethe reportedly said, “I lose a friend, and with him, half of my existence.” The sense of loss never left Goethe. Nearly 25 years later, while sorting through his correspondence with Schiller, Goethe, as reported by Goethe’s assistant and friend Johann Peter Eckermann, began pacing about the room and reciting both sides of extended remembered conversations with Schiller. Schiller, Eckermann would later write, “was completely alive in his memory.”
Schiller was not the only one that Goethe was to outlive. By the time Goethe died at age 82 in 1832, Goethe had outlived his wife; his son; Duke Karl August; even Napoleon. There is, however, something very fortunate in Goethe’s long life. He was able to finish almost all of his projects. He finished his autobiography, Poetry and Truth ; he finished his work on optics and chromatics, Theory of Colors; and he finished his late masterwork, Faust.
In his biography, Safranski writes that, like all stories and lives, Goethe’s life had a beginning, a middle, and an end, but unlike other lives and other stories, the meaning of Goethe’s life “did not emerge only at the end of his life, but in every motivating moment.” Goethe was not satisfied with merely expressing himself; he wanted “to grasp the world both poetically and scientifically and locate himself within it.” Goethe “is the great example of how far you can go when you accept the lifelong task of becoming who you are.”
At the conclusion of his excellent book, Safranski quotes from one of Goethe’s letters, in which Goethe wrote the following: “I recall a complimentary reproach made by a friend of my youth. He said, what you live is better than what you write, and it would please me if that were still true.”