Remember: To Live!
The Philosophy of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Delivered at the Washington, D.C.
Spinoza Society, Goethe-Institut
Written by Daniel Spiro
“The great Goethe.” Those words roll off
the tongue, and not merely because of the
Words like “great” and “genius” could aptly be
used for but a select number of artists –
for Michelangelo, say, or Shakespeare. In the Un
ited States, the works of those artists have been
incorporated into popular culture as the epitome of visual and linguistic b eauty. By contrast, on
these shores, Goethe’s work remains largely unr
ead and rarely discussed except among college
students, most of whom develop a healthy dose
of amnesia shortly after graduation. Why, then,
is there such unanimity about his greatness am
ong all who have allowed him to touch their
“The best German book there is.” So said
Nietzsche in reference to a work associated
with Goethe. But it was not Goethe’s
, his supposed masterpiece, nor his
, the novel that made Goethe an instant 18
century celebrity as one who painted
a picture of human desire run amuck. Nor was it
Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship
splendid philosophical novel, though a virtually
unknown work in modern day America.
Nietzsche was referring instead to Johann Peter Eckermann’s biography entitled Conversations
, a German version of Boswell’s
Eckermann was 31 when he met the 73-
year old sage of Weimar, and wrote about the mu
sings that Goethe shared with him during the
last nine years of his life. R
eading the mature Goethe’s reflections truly does resemble watching a man reach the top of Everest and proudly look downward. It is difficult to imagine a human soul that experienced more varied forms of inspiration, engaged more brilliant minds, and soaked up more wisdom than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
That is because Goethe rarely spent a day
without heeding a simple lesson: remember to live!
Not simply “remember to persevere.” Nor ev
en “remember to enjoy.” But remember to
! To contemplate the world around us. To
express ourselves based on our own unique
perspectives. To find the holy throughout all of
nature, and not simply on ground that has been
labeled as sacred by mere mortals. To make a pos
itive difference in the lives of others – be they
professors, students, or ordinary citizens. To
be a person whom one doesn’t so much notice, as
I, for one, am incapable of reading a poem, play or novel by Goethe without marveling at the person who created it. Here was a genius
who let us into his heart and his sometimes-
tortured imagination, and did not simply hide behind his art or his science. Yes, Goethe was and is great. But forget
the concept of greatness for a moment. And
forget certain conduct in Goethe’s personal life
that was anything but exemplary. Concentrate
instead on his philosophy and his literature. I th
ink you will find that what is particularly
fascinating about Goethe is what he has to tell us about how to be good
Goethe was a man of considerable political
power. He thought of
himself also as a
scientist. And he has long been recognized as
a writer of remarkable poems, plays and prose.
But to me, Goethe is above all else an ethicist.
Perhaps the man himself would cringe at that
statement. He once told Herder’s fiancé that “s
ince he lacked all virtues ... he intended to go in
for talents instead.” Still, one cannot deny the
brilliance of so many principles that can be
derived from his life and his work.
He points us in a direction. He shows us all how to live and thrive as good men and women – whether we’re great or not. Indeed, perhaps it is more honorable to live in the example of Goethe
possessing his genius, than it is to walk the
earth knowing that you’re capable of writing
, painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel,...
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