I was first introduced to the name “Goethe” in my sophomore high school German language class. The textbook spelled his name as “Johann Wolfgang von Göthe”. The name was used as an example of the very common German diphthong “ö”, which is spelled in English as “oe”. The textbook not only taught us German usage and grammar, but presented short cultural snippets about Germany, too. That’s where I learned about Goethe and how highly esteemed he is in the literature and history of Germany.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born on August 28, 1749, in the Free Imperial City of Frankfurt am Main, in the Holy Roman Empire. He was schooled in a variety of subjects including foreign languages, dancing, fencing, and riding. The young boy’s early passions were drawing and literature. Homer was among his youthful favorites. Goethe’s skill in theatre manifested early with his interest in the puppet shows that were arranged each year at his home. At the age of 25, Goethe enjoyed the success of his first novel, *The Sorrows of Young Werther.
Later in life, Goethe escaped into his poetry lessons during his legal training in Leipzig from 1765 until 1768. He hated the memorization of old judicial rules by heart that was required. At the completion of his law training, Goethe tried his hand at lawyering for a few months. He then quit, to become one of the editors of a literary newspaper. By 1772, Goethe again practiced law in order to survive. Then, in 1775, Carl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, invited Goethe to Weimar. He lived in the city the rest of his life, aside from two years in Italy.
“Dream no small dreams for they have no power to move the hearts of men.”–Goethe
Goethe worked in an official capacity for the Duke, he also became a friend and confidant to the ruler. It was during the early years in Weimar that he gathered a great degree of experience that would be used in his later literary works. Goethe’s mere presence in Weimar established the town as a literary and intellectual haven. In 1794, Goethe met Friedrich Shiller. Their friendship lasted until Shiller’s death.
“Divide and rule, the politician cries; unite and lead, is watchword of the wise.”
A frightful event happened on October 13, 1806. Goethe, his mistress Christiane Vulpius and their son Julius were at home getting ready to sleep. Napoleon Bonaparte’s army had just invaded Weimar. The least disciplined of the soldiers began their occupation of Goethe’s home. Christiane managed to organize the defense of the house. The soldiers were unsuccessful in their bid to pillage the home. The next day, Goethe and Christiane legitimized their relationship in a quiet ceremony at the court chapel.
Goethe was also very interested in natural science. He took an interest in the form and structure of natural organisms. He had formulated his theory of plant metamorphosis. He also loved geology, during his life, Goethe had the largest private collection of minerals in Europe. In his studies of light with a prism, he observed that the changes of color are marked with dark edges where the colors overlap. Goethe considered his thesis “Theory of Colours” his most important work.
Goethe had a fascination with meteorology and weather phenomenon. He popularized his device called the Goethe Barometer. Goethe was one of the first scientists to find out that atmospheric pressure varies in relation to sea level locations on earth.
“Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.”
Goethe is most famous for his literary works. Most noteworthy was his lengthy play, “Faust” which was published in full posthumously. Goethe was an important figure in the Sturm und Drang school of writing. That is the extremes of emotion are given free reign. Sturm und Drang was a reaction to the rationalist writings of the middle 1700s. There are entire courses based around Goethe’s literature. A very few of his works include his autobiography My Life: Poetry and Truth, the fable “Reineke Fuches”, the dramas, “Iphigenie auf Tauris”, “Egmont”, and “Torquato Tasso”.
“Many people take no care of their money till they come nearly to the end of it, and others do just the same with their time.”
Goethe is one of the most frequently quoted men in Europe. I’ve spent many hours looking over his wise sayings. A few of my favorites include:
“Life belongs to the living, and he who lives must be prepared for changes.”
“A man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.”
“Nothing is more terrible than to see ignorance in action.”
“Hatred is something peculiar. You will always find it strongest and most violent where there is the lowest degree of culture.”
“This is the highest wisdom that I own; freedom and life are earned by those alone who conquer them each day anew.”
It was through my exposure to Goethe, that I naturally developed a love of pithy sayings. Looking beyond the wise sayings and into Goethe’s wisdom is what I advocate for anyone looking to improve the quality of one’s life.
The Blue Jay of Happiness has one more from Goethe, “If you treat an individual… as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”