This synopsis [of The Sufferings of Young Werther] is notable for the distance Goethe seems to be putting between himself and a hero whose story was in important respects his own. He too had gloomily asked himself whether a self-defeating compulsion did not underlie his practice of falling in love with unattainable women; he too had contemplated suicide, though he had lacked the courage to do the deed. The crucial difference between himself and Werther was that he could call on his art to diagnose and expel the malaise that afflicted him, whereas Werther could only suffer it.
[Goethe] was a German writer, the leader of the German Romantic movement; he was a philosopher; but, foremost, he was a scientist [...] As a scientist, Goethe carried on extensive research, especially in plant biology and in optics writing "On the Theory Colors, 1810." Goethe looked at things in a different manner, different than those thinkers up to his time.
[Goethe's] place in the history of science is secure, having discovered that human beings possess an intermaxillary bone. Animals had long been known to possess this anatomical feature of the jaw. But in Goethe's day, there was a lively science-and-religion-type dispute as to whether human beings did too. The leading anatomist Petrus Camper denied it and further argued that this demonstrated that human beings were different from animals. Eventually, though, Goethe's research won the day. It proved to be no trivial discovery but inspired the concept of homology, the study of anatomical features across different species. This proved crucial for Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.
Most Europeans know that [Goethe] was the greatest of all German writers and poets and one of the giants of world literature. Less well known is that he was also a thorough-going classical liberal, arguing that free trade and free cultural exchange are the keys to authentic national welfare and peaceful international integration. He also argued and fought against the expansion, centralization, and unification of government on grounds that these trends can only hinder prosperity and true cultural development.
Generally recognized as one of the greatest and most versatile European writers and thinkers of modern times, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, (born Aug. 28, 1749, died Mar. 22, 1832), profoundly influenced the growth of literary romanticism. Best known for his lyrical poetry, for the far-reaching influence of his novels, and particularly for his dramatic poem Faust (Part 1, 1808; Part 2, 1832; Eng. trans., 1838), [...] he was without question one of the greatest figures of German culture, encompassing literature, science, music, and philosophy within his work.
Goethe was the philosopher of this multiplicity; hundred-handed, Argus-eyed, able and happy to cope with this rolling miscellany of facts and sciences, and by his own versatility to dispose of them with ease; a manly mind, unembarrassed by the variety of coats of convention with which life had got encrusted, easily able by his subtlety to pierce these and to draw his strength from nature, with which he lived in full communion. What is strange too, he lived in a small town, in a petty state, in a defeated state, and in a time when Germany played no such leading part in the world's affairs as to swell the bosom of her sons with any metropolitan pride, such as might have cheered a French, or English, or once, a Roman or Attic genius. Yet there is no trace of provincial limitation in his muse. He is not a debtor to his position, but was born with a free and controlling genius.
One phrase that Goethe used to describe his [scientific] method was delicate empiricism (zarte Empirie)‑-the effort to understand a thing's meaning through prolonged empathetic looking and seeing grounded in direct experience. He sought to use firsthand encounter directed in a kindly but rigorous way to know the thing in itself. "Natural objects," he wrote, "should be sought and investigated as they are and not to suit observers, but respectfully as if they were divine beings."
Goethe's working of the Faust story differs from other dramas based on the archetypal legend of a conjuror who sells his soul to the devil, sealing his pact with a drop of blood, ultimately to suffer the fires of Hell, in that Goethe reveals through his drama various transformational processes working in the human soul, personified in Faust. Goethe struggles to weave the personal inner journey of Faust towards some enlightenment, together with the collective social forces that are undergoing transformation through the historical process, so here Faust is also a representative of Northern European humanity striving for evolution from the limitations and strictures of the 16th century Reformation to the new aspirations of humanity that Goethe saw developing during the 18th century Enlightenment era.
Goethe’s Faust Part II brilliantly describes the perils of inflation. Mephistopheles urges the emperor to use undiscovered gold beneath his lands as putative collateral for promissory notes to pay the army. When the emperor and his court find they can print money without restraint, their wild spending leads to an inflationary spiral and civil chaos. [...] Goethe’s masterpiece no doubt helped embed the anti-inflationary mentality in Germany’s educated class.
Goethe retained a formal adherence to this [Lutheran] faith. He used to refer to itself as 'decidedly non-Christian', and even to stress the fact, as 'pagan', or else he would profess to having a creed of his own; but occasionally when there was talk of protesting, he claimed to be a 'cheerful Protestant'.
A portrayal of Goethe that makes use of his own words can draw on an almost endless supply of sources. In addition to his literary, scientific and particularly his autobiographical writings, among them Poetry and Truth, the story of his youth, he penned more than 15,000 letters and kept a diary for 52 years. Many visitors, associates and friends recorded their conversations with him. Perhaps not unjustly it has been claimed that there may exist for no other man of letters a similar wealth of documentation.
Goethe is Faust. That no one can dispute, even though Faust is not to be identified always with Goethe's personality. It was with Faust that he felt himself one, whether he willed it or not, in whatsoever place or time he might fathom the profound depths of life.
Present generations of German pupils and students grow up largely in ignorance of Goethe's work. Yet the fascination still exerted by this writer is strong and scholarship has continued to flourish. And while ignorance that would have shocked Germans who grew up in the1950s is indeed widespread, the liveliness of response by critics and commentators to the recent 250th anniversary is also a testimony to the possibility of a rediscovery of Goethe.