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Goethe as the Founder of a New Science of Aesthetics

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Goethe as the Founder of a New Science of Aesthetics

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THE number of works and treatises that are appearing in our time, with the object of determining Goethe's relation to the most divergent branches of modern Science and modern intellectual life generally, is overwhelming. The mere list of the titles would fill a portly volume. This feature may be ascribed to the fact that we are ever more clearly realising how, in the person of Goethe, a cultural factor confronts us, with which everything that would participate in the intellectual life of the present day must necessarily come to terms. To pass by would mean, in this case, to reject the foundation of our civilisation, to flounder in the depths, with no will to mount to the luminous heights from which all the light of our culture shines forth. It is only on condition that we attach ourselves, at some point or other, to Goethe and his epoch that we can acquire a clear view of the path our civilisation is treading, and realise the goal which humanity, in modern times, must pursue: failure to find this point of contact with the greatest spirit of latter times means simply being led like the blind, or dragged along by our fellowmen. All things appear to us in a different setting, when viewed with vision quickened at this fountain-head of civilisation.

However gratifying may be the efforts of our contemporaries to find some point of contact with Goethe, the way they set about it is admittedly not very felicitous. Only too often is that necessary quality absent — an open mind — permitting us to sink into and fathom the uttermost depths of Goethe's genius, before mounting the pulpit of criticism. The only reason for believing Goethe to have been superseded in many respects is due to the failure to recognise his full significance. We think we have gone far beyond Goethe, whereas, in most cases, the right thing would be for us to apply his comprehensive principles and magnificent way of looking at things to our own now more perfect scientific appliances and scientific facts. Whether the results of his investigations correspond, more or less, with the results of modern Science is, with regard to Goethe, never of so much importance as the way he sets to work. His results bear the stamp of their epoch, that is, they extend only so far as the scientific appliances and experience of his age allowed: his way of thinking, his way of posing the problems is, however, a permanent achievement, and no greater injustice can be committed than to treat it with contempt. But it is a peculiarity of our day that the spiritual productive force of Genius is considered to be almost without significance. How could it be otherwise in a time when any attempt to reach out beyond the limits of physical experience is tabooed. For mere observation in the world of the senses, all that is necessary are healthy organs of sense, and Genius can, for this purpose, be fairly dispensed with.

But true progress in Science, as also in Art, has never been the product of such methods of observation or servile imitation of Nature. What thousands observe and pass by is then observed by one who, as the result of this same observation, discovers a magnificent scientific law. Many before Galileo had seen a lamp swinging in a church, and yet this man of genius had to come and discover from it the laws of the pendulum, which are of so great importance in Physics. ‘Were not the eye of the nature of the sun, how could it behold the sun,’ exclaims Goethe; he means that none can glance into the depths of Nature who lack the necessary disposition and productive force to see more in the realm of fact than the mere outward facts. This is not accepted. The mighty achievements for which we have to thank Goethe's genius should not be confounded with the deficiencies inherent in his investigations, owing to the lower level of scientific experience at that time. How his own scientific results stand in relation to the progress of scientific research has been aptly characterised by Goethe in a picture: he describes them as pawns which he has perhaps moved forward too daringly on the board, but which should allow the plan of the player to be recognised. If we take these words to heart, then the following great task accrues to us in the field of Goethean research: to revert in each case to Goethe's own tendencies. The results which he himself gives us may stand as examples showing how he attempted to solve his great problems with limited means. It must be our aim to solve them in his spirit, but with the greater means at our disposal, and on the strength of our richer experience. In this way a fructification of all the branches of research to which Goethe devoted his attention will be possible, and, what is more, they will all bear the same uniform stamp, and form links within a great uniform conception of the world. Mere philological and critical research, the justification of which it were folly to deny, must await extension and completion along these lines. We must gain possession of the rich store of thoughts and ideas that are in Goethe, and, making this our starting-point, scientifically carry on the work.

[See page 8 et. seq. notes.]

It will at this point be incumbent on me to show to what extent the principles just explained may be applied to one of the youngest and most discussed of sciences — the science of Æsthetics. This science, which is devoted to Art and artistic creation, is barely 160 years old. It was with the conscious intention of opening a new field of scientific research that Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten came forward with it in 1750. To this same epoch belong the efforts of Winckelmann and Lessing to attain a basis for judging the fundamental questions in Art. All former attempts in the direction of this science cannot even be described as a most elementary tendency. Even the great Aristotle, that intellectual giant, whose influence on all branches of science was so decisive, remained quite unproductive in Æsthetics. He completely excluded the plastic arts from his sphere of research, thus showing clearly that he had no conception whatever of Art; and, besides, he knew no principle other than that of the imitation of Nature, which again shows that he never understood the task which the spirit of man sets itself in the creation of the work of art.

That the science of the Beautiful only came into existence so late is no accident. It could not exist earlier, simply because the necessary conditions were absent. What are these conditions? The desire for Art is as old as man himself, but the desire to grasp the nature of its task only came into evidence much later. The Greek spirit, so happily constituted as to find satisfaction in the reality that immediately surrounds us, brought forth an epoch of Art which stands for a highest culmination; but it was the work of primitive ingenuousness, and the need was not felt to create in Art a world that should offer satisfaction such as could not come to us from any other source. The Greeks found in reality all that they sought; all that their hearts yearned and their spirits thirsted for, Nature supplied to them in abundance. It was never to go so far with them, that a yearning should be born in their heart for a Something which we seek in vain in the world that surrounds us. The Greek did not grow out of and away from Nature, therefore all his needs could be satisfied through Nature. With his whole being he was inseparably united and interwoven with Nature; Nature creates in him and knows quite well what she may implant in him, so as to be able again to satisfy his needs. Art, then, with this ingenuous people, was only a continuation of what lives and surges within Nature; it grew directly out of Nature; Nature satisfied the same needs as a mother, only in a higher sense. Aristotle knew no higher principle of Art than the imitation of Nature. There was no need to go farther than Nature, because in Nature was to be found the source of all satisfaction. The mere imitation of Nature, which, to us, would appear empty and insignificant, was, in this case, fully sufficient. We have forgotten how to see in mere Nature the highest that our spirit craves for; for this reason mere realism, which offers us reality devoid of that highest, could never satisfy us. This epoch had to come. It was a necessity for mankind, as it develops to an ever higher level of perfection. Man could only remain completely within Nature so long as he was unconscious of this fact. The instant he gained full and clear knowledge of his own self, the instant he became aware of a kingdom within his inner self, which was of at least equal standing with that outer world — in that instant he had to break away from the shackles of Nature. He could now no longer surrender himself to her, for her to bear absolute sway over him, so that she should give rise to his needs and moreover satisfy them. Now he had to confront her, and this meant, in fact, that he had broken away from her, that he had created a new world within himself, and it is in this world that the source must now be sought from which his yearning and his desires flow. Whether these desires, now produced apart from Mother Nature, can also be satisfied by her is left to chance. At any rate, a deep chasm now separates man from reality, and he must restore the harmony formerly existing in its original perfection. Hence all the conflicts of the ideal with reality, of purpose with attainment — in short, everything that leads the soul of man into a veritable spiritual labyrinth. Nature stands there bereft of soul, devoid of everything our inner self tells us is divine. The next consequence is estrangement from everything which is Nature — a flight from direct reality. This is the exact opposite of the Greek spirit, which found everything in Nature. [See page 10 and 11 notes.] The subsequent conception of the world finds nothing at all in Nature. The Christian Middle Ages must appear to us in this light. Just as little as the Greeks could gain a knowledge of the essence of Art, in their inability to grasp how Art reaches out beyond Nature, creating a higher Nature side by side with actual Nature, so little could mediaeval science attain a science of Art, for Art could only work with means offered by Nature, and the scholars could not grasp how works could be created within the pale of godless reality, which could satisfy the spirit striving to attain the divine. But the helplessness of Science did not injure the development of Art. While the scholars did not know just what to think, the most glorious works of Christian Art came into existence. Philosophy, which in those days had Theology in tow, was as incapable as the great idealist of the Greeks, the ‘divine Plato,’ had been, of conceding to Art a place within the progress of civilisation. Plato declared the plastic and dramatic arts to be harmful. He could so little conceive of an independent mission of Art, that he only mercifully spares music, because music promotes courage in war.

At a time when Spirit and Nature were so closely joined, a science of Art could not come into existence, nor was this possible at a time when they faced each other in unreconciled opposition. For the genesis of Æsthetics a time was necessary when man, in freedom and independence from the shackles of Nature, perceived the spirit in its undimmed purity, but a time, also, when a reunion with Nature is again possible. That the standpoint of the Greeks should be superseded, is not without good reason. For in the sum total of accidents constituting the world in which we feel ourselves placed, we can never find the divine, the necessary; we see nothing around us but facts that might equally well be different; we see nothing but individuals, and our spirit strives for the expression of the species, for the archetype; we see nothing but the finite, the perishable, and our spirit strives for the infinite, the imperishable, the eternal. And so if man's spirit, once estranged from Nature, is to return to Nature, it must be to something different from that sum total of accidents. It is for this return that Goethe stands; a return to Nature, but with the rich abundance of a developed spirit, with the level of culture of modern times.

The fundamental separation of Spirit and Nature does not correspond with Goethe's views. He sees in the world one great whole — a uniformly progressive chain of beings, within which man is a link, even though the highest. ‘Nature! we are surrounded and embraced by her, unable to withdraw from her and unable to advance more deeply into her. She lifts us unasked and unwarned, into the gyrations of her dance, and whirls with us away, until we are exhausted and fall from her arms.’ (Cp. Goethe's Scientific Works edited by Rudolf Steiner, vol. 2, p. 5.) And in the book on Winckelmann: ‘When man's healthy nature works as a whole, when the harmonious pleasure affords him a pure instinctive joy — then the Universe, if it could feel its own self, would cry out in exultation, as having reached its goal, and admire the pinnacle of its own growth and being.’ Here we have Goethe's characteristic way of reaching out far beyond the immediate in Nature, though without in the least losing sight of what constitutes the inner being of Nature. He is a stranger to a quality he finds in many especially gifted men, ‘of feeling a kind of shyness before real life, of drawing back into oneself, of creating one's own inner world, and in this way of giving the most excellent accomplishments an inward direction.’ Goethe does not fly from reality in order to create an abstract thought-world, having nothing in common with reality; he plunges deep into reality, in its eternal mutation, its genesis and movement, to find its laws that are immutable: he confronts the individual to behold the archetype. Thus were born in his spirit the plant-type and the animal-type, which are nothing but the Ideas of the plant and the animal. These are no empty general ideas that are part of a dry theory; they are the essential foundation of organisms — substantial and concrete, animated and distinguishable. Distinguishable, to be sure, not for the outer senses, but only for that higher contemplative capacity that Goethe discusses in his essay on ‘Contemplative Discernment.’ In the Goethean sense, ideas are just as objective as the colours and the forms of things, but they are only perceivable for those whose perceptive faculty is regulated for this purpose; just as colours and forms are only there for those who see, and not for the blind. If we approach the objective world with a non-receptive spirit, it does not disclose itself to us. Without the instinctive capacity for apprehending ideas, the latter remain an ever-sealed book. Here none saw as deeply as Schiller into the structure of Goethe's genius.

On 23rd August, 1794, he enlightens Goethe, in the following words, on the fundamental qualities of his nature: ‘You gather together the whole of Nature in order to gain light on the single detail; where the forms of the phenomena merge into the universal, there you seek the explanation and the reason for the individual. From the simple organisation you mount, step by step, to the more complicated, in order finally to build up the most complicated of all — Man — genetically, and from the materials of Nature's whole edifice. While thus creating him afresh after Nature's pattern, you seek to penetrate the secret of his construction.’ This re-creation provides a key for the understanding of Goethe's conception of the world. If we wish really to rise to the primal types of things, to the immutable in the general mutation, we must revert to the genesis, we must witness Nature create; we must not consider what has reached completion, for this no longer corresponds wholly to the Idea which comes to expression in it. This is the meaning of Goethe's words in his essay on ‘Contemplative Discernment:’ ‘If, in the sphere of morality, through belief in God, virtue and immortality, we seek to raise ourselves to a higher region and draw near to the first Being, the same should be the case in the sphere of the intellect — that, through the contemplation of an ever-creating Nature, we should make ourselves worthy of spiritual participation in her production. So did I press on untiringly to that original primal type.’ Thus Goethe's archetypes are no empty forms; they are the productive forces behind the phenomena. This is the ‘Higher Nature’ in Nature over which Goethe wished to gain control. We gather from this that the reality spread out before our senses in no case represents something on the level of which a man who has attained a higher standard of culture can remain stationary. Only when man transcends this reality — breaks the shell and makes for the kernel — is that revealed to him, which the world holds together in its innermost recess. Nevermore can we find satisfaction in the isolated event in nature, but only in the law of nature; nevermore in the single and the particular, but only in the general and the universal. With Goethe this fact comes into evidence in the most perfect imaginable form. With him also the fact is established that, to the modern intellect, reality, as the single and the particular, can afford no satisfaction, because not in it but beyond it do we find that in which we recognise the highest, which we can revere as divine, which, in Science, we express as Idea. While mere observation cannot reconcile the opposing extremes, if it has reality but has not yet the Idea, so also is Science unable to effect this reconciliation, if it has the Idea, but no longer the reality. Between both, man needs a new kingdom; a kingdom in which the Idea is represented by the individual and not only by the whole; a kingdom in which the particular appears gifted with the character of the universal and the necessary. Such a world, however, is not present within sense reality; such a world must first be created by man, and this world is the world of Art — a necessary third kingdom by the side of the kingdoms of the senses and of reason. The comprehension of Art as this third kingdom is the task which the Science of Æsthetics must regard as its own. The divinity which the objects in Nature have lost must be implanted in them by man himself, and therein lies a noble task which accrues to the artist. He has, so to speak, to bring the kingdom of God on to this earth. This religious mission of Art, as it may well be called, is expressed by Goethe (in the book on Winckelmann) in the following glorious words:

‘In that Man is placed on Nature's pinnacle, he regards himself as another whole Nature, whose task is to bring forth inwardly yet another pinnacle. For this purpose, he heightens his powers, imbuing himself with all perfections and virtues, calling on choice, order, harmony, and meaning, and finally rising to the production of the work of art, which takes a pre-eminent place by the side of his other actions and works. Once it is brought forth, once it stands before the world in its ideal reality, it produces a permanent effect — it produces the highest effect — for as it develops itself spiritually out of a unison of forces, it gathers into itself all that is glorious and worthy of devotion and love, and thus, breathing life into the human form, uplifts man above himself, completes the circle of his life and activity, deifies him for the present, in which the past and the future are included. Such were the feelings of those who beheld the Olympian Jupiter, as we can gather from the descriptions, narratives, and testimonies of the Ancients. The god had become man, in order to uplift man to a god. They beheld the highest dignity and were filled with enthusiasm for the highest beauty.’

In these words, the significance of Art for the progress of civilisation was recognised. And it is characteristic of the mighty German Ethos, that it was the first to whom the recognition of this fact occurred; it is characteristic that all German philosophers, for the last hundred years, have struggled to find the most suitable scientific form for the peculiar way in which, in the work of art, spirit and object, idea and reality, melt into each other. The task of Æsthetics is none other than to comprehend the nature of this interpenetration, and to study it in detail, in the single forms in which it asserts itself, in the various branches of Art. The merit of having given a stimulus to this problem in the way indicated, and thereby to have set the ball rolling in connection with the chief, central questions of Æsthetics, must be ascribed to Kant's Critique of Judgment which appeared in 1790, and at once created a favourable impression on Goethe. In spite, however, of particularly serious work devoted to this subject, we are bound to admit to-day that an all-round satisfactory solution to these æsthetical problems is not forthcoming. The grand master of Æsthetics, that keen thinker and critic, Friedrich Theodor Vischer, held firmly to the end of his life, to his expressed conviction that the science of Æsthetics was still in its infancy. This amounts to an admission that all efforts in this field, including his own five volumes on Æsthetics, were in a more or less false direction. This is indeed the case, and if I may here express my own conviction, it can only be traced back to the circumstance that the fruitful seeds planted by Goethe were passed over unnoticed, and that he was not regarded as being scientifically competent. Had he, on the contrary, been so regarded, those ideas would merely have received a final development, with which Schiller was inspired in the contemplation of Goethe's genius, and which he set down in his letters on ^Esthetical education. These letters, too, are held by writers intent on systems, to be insufficiently scientific, and yet they can be counted among the most important works ever produced in the field of Æsthetics. Schiller sets out from Kant, who determined the nature of the Beautiful in more than one respect. Kant first examines the reason of the pleasure we feel in the beautiful works of art. He finds this feeling of pleasure quite different from any other. Comparing it to the pleasure we feel when concerned with an object to which we owe an element of utility to ourselves, it is quite different. This pleasure is closely bound up with the desire for the existence of the object. Pleasure in the useful disappears when the useful is no longer there. Not so with the pleasure in the Beautiful. This pleasure has nothing to do with the possession, with the existence of the object, for it is not attached to the object but to the idea of the object. Whereas with the expedient and the useful, the need is felt to translate the idea into reality: we are content, in the case of the Beautiful, with the mere image. For this reason, Kant calls the feeling of delight in the Beautiful a feeling that is uninfluenced by any actual interest — a disinterested delight. It would, however, be quite erroneous to hold that conformity to purpose is thereby excluded from the Beautiful; this applies only to an exterior purpose. Hence is derived the second explanation of the Beautiful: It is something formed in itself in conformity to purpose, without, however, serving an exterior purpose. When we perceive an object in Nature, or a product of human skill, our intellect comes and inquires for its use and purpose, and is not satisfied until its question as to the ‘wherefore’ is answered. With the Beautiful, the ‘wherefore’ lies in the object itself, and the intellect does not need to reach out beyond it. At this point Schiller sets in, weaving the idea of Freedom into the sequence of thought in a way that does the greatest honour to human nature. To begin with, Schiller sets in opposition two human instincts which ceaselessly assert themselves. The first is the so-called material impulse, or the need to keep our senses open to the inpouring outer world. A rich gift presses in upon us, but without our being able to exert any determining influence on its nature. Here everything takes place with unconditional necessity. What we apprehend is determined from outside; here we are unfree, in subjection; we must simply obey the commands of physical (natural) necessity. The second is the formative impulse; that is none other than Reason, which brings law and order into the chaotic confusion of sense perceptions (external impressions). Through its work, system is introduced into experience. Here too, Schiller finds, we are not free; for in this work Reason is subjected to the unchanging laws of logic. We submit, in the first case, to necessity as imposed by Nature, and, in the second case, as imposed by Reason. Freedom seeks a haven of refuge from both. Schiller, emphasising the analogy between Art and the play of a child, assigns to Freedom the domain of Art. What is essentially the nature of play? Things possessed of reality are taken, and their general bearing altered at will. In this transformation of reality no law of logical necessity decides the issue — as, for instance, in the construction of a machine, where we must strictly conform to the laws of Reason; here everything is in the service of subjective necessity. The player connects things in a way that gives him pleasure; he imposes on himself no constraint. He pays no heed to physical, natural necessity, for he overcomes this constraint by putting to quite arbitrary use whatever passes into his hands. From Reason, too, and its necessity, he feels independent, for the order he introduces into things is his own invention. Thus the player impresses on reality the stamp of his own subjectivity and endows the latter with objective value. The separation of the activity of the two instincts comes to an end; they become united and thereby gain freedom: in the object is spirit, and the spirit is objective. Schiller, the poet of Freedom, sees in Art a free instinctive play, on a higher level, and exclaims with enthusiasm: ‘Man is fully Man only where he plays, and he only plays where he is Man in the fullest sense of the word.’ Schiller calls the basic instinct in Art, the play-instinct or impulse to play. It produces in the artist works, which, while existing for our senses, satisfy our reason; while the reason of which they partake, is simultaneously present for our senses in objective existence. And man's nature, at this stage, shows such activity, that his physical nature acts spiritually, while his spiritual nature acts physically. Physical nature is raised to the spirit, while the spirit sinks into physical nature. The former is thereby ennobled, and the latter is brought down from its clear height into the visible world. The works which thus come to existence are, to be sure, not fully true to Nature, because, in reality, spirit and object are never fully coincident; therefore when we compare the works of Art with the works of Nature, the former appear to us as mere semblance (appearance). But they must be semblance, because they would otherwise not be true works of Art. With his conception of semblance, in this connection, Schiller occupies a unique position among the writers on Æsthetics: he is unsurpassed and unrivalled. This is where the work should have continued. The one-sided solution to the problem of the Beautiful should have been extended with the help of Goethe's reflections on Art. [See page 20 notes.] Instead of this, Schelling appeared on the scene with a completely false theory, and inaugurated an error from which the science of Æsthetics in Germany never recovered. As all modern philosophers, Schelling finds that the highest task human effort can set itself, lies in the perception of the eternal, primal types of things. The spirit sweeps beyond the world of physical reality and rises to the heights where the divine is enthroned. There all truth and all beauty is revealed to him. Only the eternal is true and also beautiful. Thus, according to Schelling, no man can behold actual beauty who does not raise himself to the highest truth, for they are one and the same. All sensuous beauty is merely a weak reflection of that endless beauty which we can never perceive with our senses. We see where this leads to: the work of Art is not beautiful for its own sake and through its own self, but because it reproduces the Idea of Beauty. It follows, then, from this theory, that the purport of Art and Science is the same, since they both adopt as a basis eternal truth, which is also beauty. For Schelling, Art is only Science that has become objective. The important question now is: On what does our feeling of pleasure in the work of Art rest? In this case it rests merely on the expression of the Idea. The sensuous image is only a means of expression, the form in which a super-sensible purport expresses itself. In this respect, all the writers on Æsthetics follow the direction of Schelling's idealism. I cannot agree with the latest writer on this subject, E. von Hartmann, when he says that Hegel essentially improved on Schelling on this point. I say on this point, for in many other respects he towered above him. Hegel says actually: ‘The beautiful is the sensuous appearance of the idea.’ This amounts to an admission that, for him, the essential in Art was the expressed idea. This stands out still more clearly in the following words: ‘The hard crust of Nature and of the ordinary world make it more difficult for the spirit to penetrate to the idea, than is the case with works of Art.’ This is surely a clear statement that the goal of Art is the same as the goal of Science, namely, to penetrate to the Idea: Art seeks only to illustrate what Science expresses directly in forms of thought. Vischer calls beauty the appearance of the Idea, and likewise identifies the purport of Art with truth. In spite of all objections, beauty can never be separated from truth, if its essence is found in the expression of the Idea. But then it is not clear what independent mission Art is to have by the side of Science. What Art offers us, we can attain by way of thought, in a purer, clearer form, with no physical veil to shroud it. If this standpoint in Æsthetics be adopted, there is no escape, except through sophistry, from the compromising conclusion that allegory in the plastic arts, and didactic poetry in the poetic art, are the highest artistic forms. The independent significance of Art cannot be grasped, and Æsthetics, from this standpoint, have proved unproductive. It would be a mistake, however, to go too far, and, in consequence, abandon every attempt to attain a science of Æsthetics that is free from contradiction. They go too far in this direction, who would have Æsthetics assimilated by the history of the fine arts. If unsupported by authentic principles, this science merely becomes a storehouse for collections of notes on artists and their works, to which more or less clever remarks are appended; these, however, originating from arbitrary and subjective reasoning, are without value. On the other hand, a kind of physiology of taste has been set up in opposition to Æsthetics. The simplest and most elementary cases in which pleasure is felt are examined; then, mounting from these to more and more complicated cases, ‘Æsthetics from below’ are set up against ‘Æsthetics from above.’ This is the plan adopted by Fechner in his Introduction to Æsthetics. It is incomprehensible that such a work should have found adherents in a country which produced a Kant. Æsthetics should start from the examination of the feeling of pleasure; as though every feeling of pleasure were æsthetical, and as though the nature of the various feelings of pleasure could be distinguished by any other means than through the object itself which caused them. We only know that pleasure is an aesthetic feeling when we recognise the object to be beautiful, for, physiologically, there is nothing to distinguish aesthetic pleasure from any other. It is always a question of ascertaining the object. By virtue of what does an object become beautiful? This is the basic question in all Æsthetics.

We come much nearer to solving this question if we follow Goethe's lead. Merck describes Goethe's creative activity in the following words: ‘You create quite differently from the rest; they seek to embody the so-called imaginative — this produces only rubbish; you, however, seek to endow reality with a poetic form.’ These words convey about the same meaning as Goethe's own words in the second part of Faust: ‘Consider what thou will'st; still more consider how thou will'st.’ It is clearly stated what Art stands for. Not for the embodiment of the super-sensible, but for the transformation of the physical and the actual. Reality is not to be lowered to a means of expression: no, it is to be maintained in its full independence; only it must receive a new form, a form in which it satisfies us. If we remove any single being from its surroundings and observe it in this isolated condition, much in connection with it will appear incomprehensible. We cannot make it harmonise with the idea, the conception we necessarily apply to it. Its formation within reality is, in fact, not only the consequence of its own conformity to law; surrounding reality had a direct determining influence as well. Had it been able to develop itself independently, and free from external influence, only then would it have become a living presentment of its own Idea. The artist must grasp and develop this Idea on which the object is based, but whose free expansion within reality has been hampered. He must find within reality the point, starting from which, an object can be developed in its most perfect form. Nature falls short of her intention in every single instance; by the side of one plant she creates a second, a third, and so on; in no single plant is the whole Idea represented in concrete life; in one plant one side, in another plant another side is given, as circumstances permit. The artist must revert to Nature's tendency, as this appears to him. This is what Goethe means when he declares of his own creative activity: ‘I seek in everything a point from which much may be developed.’ In the artist's work the whole exterior must express the whole interior; in Nature's product the exterior falls short of the interior, and man's inquiring spirit must first ascertain it. Thus the laws in accordance with which the artist goes to work are none other than the eternal laws of Nature, pure, uninfluenced and unhampered. Artistic creation rests not on what is, but on what might be; not on the actual, but on the possible. The artist creates according to the same principles as Nature, but applies these principles to the individual, whereas, to use Goethe's own words, Nature pays no heed to the individual, [See page 23 and 24 notes.] ‘She ever builds and ever destroys,’ because her aim is perfection, not in the unit but in the totality. The content of any work of Art is any physical reality — this is what the artist wills; in giving it its form, he directs his efforts so as to excel Nature in her own tendency, and to achieve to a still higher degree than she is capable of, the results possible within her laws and means.

The object which the artist sets before us is more perfect than it is in its natural state, but it contains none other than its own inherent perfection. Where the object excels its own self — though on the basis of what is already concealed within it — there beauty is found. Beauty is therefore nothing unnatural: Goethe can say with good reason, ‘Beauty is a manifestation of secret laws, which, failing beauty, would have ever remained concealed;’ or, in another passage: ‘He to whom Nature reveals her manifest secret, yearns for Art, Nature's worthiest interpreter.’ If it may be said that beauty is unreal, since it represents something which can never be found within Nature in such perfection, so, too, can it be said in the same sense, that beauty is truer than Nature, since it represents what Nature intends to be but cannot be. On this question of reality in Art, Goethe says — and we may extend his words to apply to the whole of Art: ‘The poet's province is representation. This reaches its highest level when it competes with reality, that is, when the descriptions are so lifelike, through the spirit, that they may stand as present for all men.’ Goethe finds that ‘nothing in Nature is beautiful which is not also naturally true, in its underlying motive’ (Conversations with Eckermann, iii. 79). And the other side of appearance or semblance, when the being excels its own self, we find expressed as Goethe's view in the proverbs in prose, No. 978: ‘The law of vegetable growth appears in its highest manifestation in the blossom, and the rose is but the pinnacle of this manifestation. The fruit can never be beautiful, for there the vegetable law reverts to its own self — back to the mere law.’ Here we surely have it plainly stated: Where the Idea develops and unfolds, there beauty sets in — where we perceive the law directly in the outward phenomenon; where, on the other hand, as in the fruit, the outward phenomenon appears formless and gross, because there is no sign in it of the fundamental law underlying vegetable growth — there beauty in the natural product ceases. For this reason the same proverb goes on to say: ‘The law, as it engages itself in the phenomenon with the greatest freedom and according to its own inherent conditions, produces the objective-beautiful, which, to be sure, must find a worthy subject by which to be perceived.’ This view of Goethe's we find most definitely stated in a passage in the Conversations with Eckermann (ii. 106). ‘The artist, to be sure, must faithfully and devotedly follow Nature's pattern in the detail ... only in the higher regions of artistic activity, where actually a picture becomes a picture — there he has free play and may even proceed to fiction.’ Goethe gives as the highest goal of Art: ‘Through semblance to give the illusion of a higher reality. It were, however, a false effort to retain the semblance so long within reality, that finally a common reality were left.’

Let us now ask ourselves what is the reason of pleasure felt in works of Art. We must realise that pleasure and satisfaction in the object of beauty are in no way inferior to the purely intellectual pleasure which we feel in the purely spiritual. It always points to a distinct decadence in Art when its province is sought in mere amusement and in the satisfaction of lower inclinations. The reason for pleasure in works of Art is none other than the reason for the joyful exultation which we feel in view of the world of Ideas generally, uplifting man out of himself. What is it, then, that gives us such satisfaction in the world of Ideas? Nought else than the heavenly inner tranquillity and perfection which it harbours. No contradiction, no dissonance stirs in the thought-world which rises within our inner self, for it is itself an infinite. Inherent in this picture is everything which makes it perfect. This native perfection of the world of Ideas — this is the reason of our exultation when we stand before it. If beauty is to exalt us in the like manner, then it must be fashioned after the pattern of the Idea. This is quite a different thing from what the German writers on Æsthetics of the idealist school would have. This is not the Idea in the form of a phenomenon; it is just the contrary; it is a phenomenon in the form of the Idea. The content of Beauty, the material basis on which it rests, is thus always an actual positive reality, and the form in which it is presented is the form of the Idea. We see exactly the contrary is true to what German Æsthetics say; the latter simply turned things upside down. Beauty is not the divine in a cloak of physical reality; no, it is physical reality in a cloak that is divine. The artist does not bring the divine on to the earth by letting it flow into the world; he raises the world into the sphere of the divine. Beauty is semblance, because it conjures before our senses a reality which, as such, appears as an ideal world. Consider what thou will'st, still more consider how thou will'st — for on the latter everything turns. What is given remains physical, but the manner of its appearance is ideal. Where the ideal form appears in the physical to best advantage, there Art is seen to reach its highest dignity. Goethe says here: ‘The dignity of Art appears perhaps most eminently in music, because in music there is no material factor to be discounted. Music is all form and figure, exalting and ennobling everything it expresses.’ A science of Æsthetics starting from this definition: ‘Beauty is a physical reality appearing as though it were Idea’ — such a science does not exist: it must be created. It can be called straight away the ‘Æsthetics of Goethe's world-conception.’ And this is the science of Æsthetics of the future. E. von Hartmann, one of the latest writers on this subject and the author of an excellent ‘Philosophy of Beauty,’ also cherishes the old error, that the content of Beauty is the Idea. He says quite rightly that the basic conception from which the science of the beautiful should proceed, is the conception of aesthetic semblance. Yes, but how can the manifestation of the world of Ideas, as such, ever be regarded as semblance. The Idea is surely the highest truth: when the Idea appears, it does so out of truth, and not as semblance. It is a real semblance, however, when the natural (physical) and the individual, arrayed in the imperishable raiment of eternity, appear with the character of the Idea; for reality falls short of this.

Taken in this sense, the artist appears as the continuator of the cosmic Spirit. The former pursues creation where the latter relinquishes it. The closest tie of kinship seems to unite the artist with the cosmic Spirit, and Art appears as the continuation of Nature's process. Thus the artist raises himself above the life of common reality, and he raises us with him when we devote ourselves to his work. He does not create for the finite world, he expands beyond it. This conception we find expressed by Goethe in his poem, ‘The Artist's Apotheosis,’ where he makes the Muse call to the Poet in the following words:

‘So doth the Hero mightily inspire
His equals through the chain of centuries:
The heights a noble spirit can attain
May not be mastered in life's narrow span.
Hence also after death his soul continues,
Not less creative now than when he lived;
The noble deed, the beautiful idea
Strives deathless on, as mortally it strove.
So thou, [The Poet.] too, livest through unmeasured time
In fields of immortality sublime.’

[Rendered into English by Meredith Starr.]

In this poem, Goethe's thoughts on what I may call the cosmic mission of the artist are most aptly expressed.

Who, like Goethe, ever grasped in Art such deep significance? Who ever endowed Art with such dignity? It speaks sufficiently for the whole depth of his conceptions, when he says: ‘The great works of art are brought into existence by men, as are the great works of Nature, in accordance with true and natural laws; all arbitrary phantasy falls to the ground; there is Necessity, there is God.’ A science of Æsthetics in his spirit were certainly no bad thing. And this might apply also to other departments of modern science.

When, at the death of the poet's last heir, Walter von Goethe, 15th April, 1885, the treasures of the Goethe House became accessible to the nation, many, no doubt, shrugged their shoulders at the zeal of the scholars as they seized on the smallest posthumous remnant and handled it as a precious relic — the value of which, in connection with research should by no means be despised. But Goethe's genius is unfathomable; it cannot be taken in at a glance; we can only draw near to it gradually from different sides. And for this purpose we must welcome everything; what appears a worthless detail, gains significance when we consider it in connection with the poet's comprehensive view of the world. Only when we traverse the whole gamut of expressive activity in which this universal spirit gave vent to his life — only then does the essential in him, his own tendency, from which everything with him originated, and which represents a culmination of humanity, appear before our soul. Only when this tendency becomes the common property of all who strive spiritually; when the belief becomes general that we have not only to understand Goethe's conception of the world, but that we must live in it and it must live in us — only then will Goethe have fulfilled his mission. This conception of the world must be a sign for all members of the German people and far beyond it, in which they can meet and know each other in a life of common endeavour.

Last Modified: 22-Jun-2024
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