Sunday, November 6, 2011

Goethe's Father and Aestheticism


As a brief addendum to my most recent post, this passage from Book II of Goethe's autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit, shows that Goethe was well aware of the danger of withdrawing from politics and choosing to live an apolitical, "aesthetic" life because of the example of his own father:
In a city like Frankfurt, where the inhabitants are divided among three religions into three unequal groups, where only a few men, even from among the ruling classes, can join the regiment, there must be many a prosperous and educated man who retreats into himself and constructs for himself his own closed-off existence with his studies and hobbies...Now, my father was one those men who had retreated, who never form a partnership among each other. They assume a position as isolated from each other as from the whole [of society], and even more so because in their isolation they develop idiosyncratic qualities that set them off even more starkly from each other. My father had acquired on his journeys and in the free world a conception of a more elegant and more liberal way of life than was perhaps usual among his fellow citizens. He certainly had predecessors and companions [in this regard].
Goethe then proceeds to describe a number of men from his childhood in Frankfurt who, in one way or another, lived a quieter, more "aesthetic" life. They were men of means who enjoyed poetry and who often collected antiques, paintings, and plants, to the point that their houses must have been small museums. Goethe's father, for example, had a room filled with pictures of Italy and had very strong views concerning poetry (he hated Klopstock).

But, as devoted as these men were to their own private hobbies, they did not abandon the public sphere. One wrote didactic novels in an attempt to foster morality among the aristocracy and bourgeoisie, and another wrote a book advocating toleration for Calvinists as well as Lutherans in Frankfurt. One man gave alms regularly and encourage the poor to reform their lives. A doctor transformed his large home into a state-of-the-art medical school. Goethe characterized all these men as having withdrawn from public life, but they were by no means hermits. What made them unusual for their time and place was that they were wealthy yet did not enter into politics or assume a public office.

The example of these apolitical, yet publicly-minded men leaves open the question of what kind of life a publicly-minded man should lead, a question that concerned Goethe throughout his life. Goethe's ideal in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre was the active (tätig) man. But, what kind of activity was ideal? Should the active man vie for public honors, or should he simply carry out his profession well? Should he perhaps establish a private association intended to benefit the public, such as providing medical care to the poor? As Goethe recognizes, it is impossible in our age for many of those who enjoy some modicum of financial security to enter into politics. Yet what Goethe here criticizes in Dichtung und Wahrheit would actually seem better than the alternative: it is better to find some small way to increase the common weal rather than to indulge in what Goethe calls the bourgeois tendency to become engaged in politics simply by giving an opinion on every distant world event.
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