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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (August 28, 1749 - March 22, 1832) was a German writer, scientist, and philosopher. Goethe was the author of Faust (ISBN 0385031149) and Theory of Colors (ISBN 0262570211), etc. He inspired Darwin with his independent discovery of the human premaxilla jaw bones.

Goethe was born at Frankfurt am Main, Germany. His father was a man of means and position, and he personally supervised the early education of his son. The young Goethe studied at the universities of Leipzig and Strasbourg, and in 1772 entered upon the practice of law at Wetzlar. At the invitation of Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he went in 1775 to live in Weimar, where he held a succession of political offices, becoming the Duke's chief adviser. From 1786 to 1788 he traveled in Italy, and directed the ducal theater at Weimar. He took part in the wars against France, and in the following began a friendship with Friedrich Schiller, which lasted till the latter's death in 1805. In 1806 he married Christiane Vulpius. From about 1794 he devoted himself chiefly to literature, and after a life of extraordinary productiveness died at Weimar.

The most important of Goethe's works produced before he went to Weimar were his tragedy Götz von Berlichingen (1773), which first brought him fame, and The Sorrows of Young Werther, a novel which obtained enormous popularity during the so-called Sturm und Drang period. During the years at Weimar before he knew Schiller he began Wilhelm Meister, wrote the dramas Iphigenie, Egmont, and Torquato Tasso, and his Reinecke Fuchs. To the period of his friendship with Schiller belong the continuation of Wilhelm Meister, the beautiful idyl of Hermann and Dorothea, and the Roman Elegies. In the last period, between Schiller's death, in 1805, and his own, appeared Faust, Elective Affinities, his autobiographical Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth), his Italian Journey, much scientific work, and a series of treatises on German art.

Historical Importance

It is difficult to explain the importance of Goethe on the 19th Century in this era. In many respects, he was the source -- or at least the first cogent expression -- of many ideas which would, in time, become common. Goethe produced volumes of poetry, essays and criticism, as well as engaging in scientific work, including a theory of optics and early work on evolution and linguistics. As a philosopher and writer he is one of the key figures in the transition from the Enlightenment to the Romantic.

His extraordinary productivity makes it difficult to summarize his importance, however, a few key works help give a sense of the scope of his impact on the century that came after him.

The first of these was the short epistalotory novel, "Die Leiden des jungen Werther", or "The sorrows of Young Werther", published in , which recounts the unhappy love affair that ends in suicide. Goethe admited that he "shot his hero to save himself". The novel remains in print in dozens of languages and is referenced constantly in the context of the young disaffected and moody hero - a Romeo figure. However, the form of the novel, and the ending in death, were not uncommon in the day. It was the untrammeled expression of longing for the unattainable which made it controversial, and also a model for other novels and works.

The next work was to be completed in stages, and only published in its entirety after Goethe's death, "Faust". An epic poem, its first part published in 1808, it created an almost immediate sensation. The first operatic version, by Spohr, came in 1814, and it would subsequently be the inspiration for operas by Gounod, Boito and Busoni, as well as symphonies by Liszt and and Mahler. But even more, Faust became the ur-myth of many figures in the 19th century. The basic story of "selling one's soul to the devil" for power over the physical world took on an increasing importance as technology and industrialism marched forward, but at terrible human cost.

Goethe would leave behind influence as a poet - whose words would be set by composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Wolf, and serve as models for what has been called the "interiority" of German poetry. Later poets such as Heine would use them as models. Perhaps the single most influential is "Mignon's Song" which opens with what has been called the most famous line in German poetry: "Kennst du das Land, wo die zitronen blühn?"

He was also widely quoted. Epigrams such as "Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him." and "Divide and rule, a sound motto. Unite and lead, a better one." and "Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must." are still in usage or are paraphrased.

Goethe's influence was dramatic because he understood that there was a transition in European sensibilities, an increasing focus on sense, on the indescribeable and the emotional. This is not to say that he was emotionalist or excessive; quite the contrary: he preached restraint and felt that excess was a sickness. "There is nothing worse than imagination without taste." He argued that laws came organically out of the nature of a people and their relationship to the land, and therefore rational laws could not be imposed effectively from above: a direct challenge to the attempts to form "enlightened" monarchies based on "rational" laws, such as Joseph II of Austria or, later, Napoleon's reign as emperor of France.

This change would, in time, become the basis for 19th century thought - organic rather than geometrical, evolving rather than created, and based on sensibility and intuition, rather than on imposed order. This makes him, along with Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, Ludwig van Beethoven a figure in both worlds. One one hand, devoted to the sense of taste, order and finely crafted detail which is the hallmark of the artistic sense of the Age of Reason and the neo-classical period of architecture, and on the other, seeking a personal, intuitive and personalized form of expression and polity, and having a firm belief in self-regulating and organic systems rather than systems imposed from above. Philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson would take up many of the same ideas in the 1800's, particularly the importance of the nobility of soul as being primary for nobility of dead and action. His ideas on evolution would frame the question for which Darwin and Wallace would provide the answers to.

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