Experience and Nature are the two great teachers of Goethe8 min read

The scholar, Faust, despairs of satisfaction, having failed to find it in philosophy, science, law, literature or theology.

He despairs of it, and now seeks some means of making his dissatisfaction endurable.

Faust descends to the level of the earth, and invokes this gross means in order to find a narcotic, which may help him to endure his despair.

Mephistopheles offers him such a means. He cheats Faust into believing that he can find the narcotic he seeks in sensual pleasures.

A great point in the philosophy of Goethe, is that the full consummation is always beyond—beyond even life on earth. As the final chorus says :

“ The things that must pass, are only symbols.”

Faust cannot ‘ bid the moment stay ’ unless he sees it in the light of eternity, which Faust knows Mephistopheles cannot provide.

The great riddle of life and death, of the Infinite assuming finite form, defies solution ; and even when solved, the solution cannot be given in words.

“ Man’s thought can only be called thought, when it is of something he cannot think about.”

Mephistopheles fails, and, in the end, Faust disregards him, to work out his own salvation, through service of man, and contemplation.

Goethe being a positivist in science, does not expect to penetrate into the Absolute Truth.

But he is not an agnostic, and, since he is a poet, philosopher and religious mystic, as well as a scientist, the sense of the greater Whole is always present with him.

In the second part of Faust, Goethe illustrates his position. Man cannot look with the naked eye into the Sun, the Absolute, which is the ultimate Truth, and the Cause of all things. He can see Him reflected in, and lighting up His creation. Though fleeting and imperfect, these reflections cannot be separated from their source. He can come nearer to the Absolute by making a proper use of Its appearance. The particular, in Goethe’s symbolism, represehts the universal, not as a dream or shadow, but as a living, momentary revelation of the unfathomable. Man can lift time into eternity, if he lives the moment as well as he thinks it, seriously, in right relation to everything else.

Like Aristotle, Goethe thinks it our business to make ourselves immortal through reason, using all things, keeping their essence, but letting their non-essentials go.

“ Waste not a word
On the things that must pass,

To grow immortal
That is our task.”

Immortality is in the spirit, in the conscious realisation of it, while yet living. Effort is essential to man, but its reward is not here, but elsewhere.                                      ,

From one point of view, Goethe thinks of the Word as eternally perfect, from another, as though it were imperfect, but developing. Goethe is one of the pioneers of the idea of evolution.

He does not give a scientific theory to explain evolution, but one feels that he would have preferred Lamarck’s doctrine, to Darwin’s.

The early Darwinians made no attempt to explain the angle of variation, and laid stress on the external environment as the factor governing biological development. Goethe does not subscribe to this soul-less doctrine, and he believes in the efforts of creatures to do new things. According to him, the whole universe is growing.

He speaks of the one universal breath of life, which governs the whole of nature. Both organic and inorganic nature are , served by one cosmic life-force.

“ The thinker has divided so deeply that he can unite, and united so deeply that he can divide.”

Goethe, as a great sage, believes, while modern science and logic eschew all belief beyond what they consider to be demonstrable truth. He extends belief beyond knowledge.

He believes that nature yields its secrets to thought; he believes that human action aids the purposes of external nature ; he believes that nature is an instrument of God, and he believes that the soul survives death. He is adamant in this last belief, and it is evident that, in his deep meditation, he had seen the vision of immortality.

Man must struggle, fight and work here, to improve the spiritual, moral and material conditions of the world, and should leave the future life to itself.

A wind, blowing in  him from Infinity, kept Goethe resolute and sane.

Faust is essentially the spiritual biography of this great seer and poet, and an account of his own experiences. Goethe’s great achievement, which is expressed in Faust, is his recognition of the living art of discovering Truth by struggle—a discovery which leads-to the experience of a great calm within, which no passions can shake.

Tolerance towards those who are still struggling in life, and abstention from blame, are points which Goethe teaches with perhaps unrivalled eloquence.

“ One has only to grow older to become more tolerant ” Goethe wrote, when he was himself an old man. He did not believe in remorse or repentance. In the personality of Faust, there are two souls at war with each other. In a lesser degree, this is the case with all of us. The scheme underlying Faust shows the way whereby man may be released from passions, and brought to the eternal calm, in which angels carry his soul to God.

Experience and Nature are the two great teachers of Goethe. His Nature is not “ red in tooth and claw ”. This is a foolish view of Nature ; it is one-sided. Goethe, speaking of Nature, says

“ She has set all things apart, that she may bring all things together. One draught from the beaker of love, she counts payment enough for a life-time of toil. . . . To her, the present is eternity. She is kind and gracious. I praise her and all her works. Man can tear no revelation from her by force, wring from her no gifts that she will not freely give. … She has brought me here ; she will lead me hence. … She will not hate,her work.”

Nature does not hide God. “ He who cannot grasp the truth that spirit and matter, soul and body, thought and space . . . were and will be the necessary two-fold constituents of the universe ; that both have equal rights, and both may be regarded as representative of God ; he who cannot rise to the height of this thought, ought long ago, to have given up thinking ”.

Here you find a true pupil of Spinoza.

Goethe believes that the spiritual truth is knowable ; that man must discover his likeness to God, in his profound experience. He combats the view of the sceptics, that we can only know the ‘ shell ’ of things, while the kernel is inaccessible. He says, in Wilhelm Meister: “ Every

discovery is an inborn feeling for truth. It is a revelation, which unfolds itself from the inner to the outer, and through it, man may surmise his likeness to God. It is a union between the world and mind, an assurance of the eternal harmony in all Being.” .

Goethe was a man of love, enquiry, gratitude and Contemplation. He preserved the tranquillity of his mind amid discouraging circumstances. The following quotation from his autobiography is significant :

“ I endeavoured to free my mind from all external influences, to regard all that existed beyond myself, with benevolence and affection, and to leave all beings, commencing with man, to produce their effect on me, according to. their respective natures, that I might comprehend them as thoroughly as possible. This mode of feeling, gave me, if I may so express it, a particular affinity with every object ; attuned me to harmony with all nature ; and rendered my soul like an internal echo, in which every sound was reverberated.”

The eye of the painter was combined in him With the sensibility of the poet. “ The fine and richly cultivated country, fertilised by a beneficent stream, increased my love of solitude, and encouraged my tranquil meditation, whilst it allowed them to range freely and unconfined.”

Restlessness , is a characteristic of a great creative mind, in the early stages of its candidature for the great peace. It has to be guided and controlled. Goethe, as a young man, was fortunage enough to know, and revere, a mystic, Fraulein Von Klettenbert, who exercised a great spiritual influence on him. He says of her :—

“ Her presence calmed, for a time at least, my erring inclinations and tumultuous passions”

In Wilhelm Meister, Goethe describes beautifully, tihe mystic thoughts of this woman. The seeds sown by her, in Goethe’s mind, and the influence of the Moravian Order, developed into a high mystic state in him, in old age.

Goethe was a deeply religious man, but neither a Christian nor a Buddhist, nor a Hindu. His great and most generous mind, could not be pigeon-holed in any sect or creed.

Let us conclude with a translation of one of the noblest of his lyrics, which Carlyle has styled, “ the marching music of mankind”:—

“ The Mason wanders
Like all who live,
And all the wonders
He strives to build,
Are like man’s striving.

The future will waken
New joy, new grief.
We see but one step,
And that step brief,
Yet press through, unshaken.

Dark in the distance
There hangs a veil,
Solemnly. Silent,
The stars are above us,
Beneath us the graves.

Behold them and ponder !
Strange visions will rise,
Changing, baffling
The bravest eyes,
Dread visions, grave-hearted.

But listen ! The voices
Call from the sky,
The Spirits, the Masters,
Unceasingly :—
Loiter not! Work !

Here are woven
Here in the calm,
For all who labour,
Full crowns of palm.
We say to you—hope ! ”

The true sage keeps his knowledge within him, while men in general set forth theirs in argument, in order to convince each  other.

The true lover of God is he that rests in naught, and bestows on none other more than a thought, from the moment he sets forth to seek until he hath found what he sought

Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and everone that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not noweth not God; for God is love.