Reading Goethe used to be considered essential to Western civilization. For at least a century after his death in 1832, Goethe, alone among modern writers, was generally reckoned to be deserving of mention in the same breath as Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare. For a George Eliot or a Ralph Waldo Emerson, Goethe was the supreme high priest, not only of literature but of life itself. For Carlyle, he was “the Hero as Man of Letters.” For Matthew Arnold, he was “the physician of the Iron Age.” For T. S. Eliot, he was simply “the sage.” Thomas Mann wrote not only one novel about Goethe (Lotte in Weimar) but another (Doktor Faustus) as an homage to Goethe’s greatest work.

Nor were they exaggerating. Everything about Goethe was prodigious. He put German literature on the map under the banner of Sturm und Drang, a generation before Romanticism emerged, but transcended both movements. In 1775 he published the first true bestseller in modern history, The Sorrows of Young Werther,which created a European fashion for buff waistcoats, the costume of his melancholy hero—though the best-known factoid about Goethe, that Werther set off a spate of copycat suicides across Europe, Safranski dismisses as a myth. Napoleon told Goethe he had read Werther eight times. The novel had such an enormous impact, because it addressed a new phenomenon, pessimism or taedium vitae, which has plagued Western civilization ever since. It made Goethe the greatest literary celebrity of the age, which Germans still call the Goethezeit.

Goethe put German literature on the map.

No man of the Renaissance, not even Leonardo or Michelangelo, was as much of a Renaissance man as Goethe. He not only contributed masterpieces to almost every branch of literature—poetry and drama, fiction and nonfiction—but devoted years of his life to the sciences, making original discoveries that anticipated Darwin. For most of the fifty-seven years he spent in Weimar he was the chief minister of the little duchy, took charge of its silver mines at Ilmenau, was director of Germany’s leading theater, and gathered a unique constellation of academics at the University of Jena. As a young law student he was steeped in the ancient traditions of the Holy Roman Empire; he witnessed the “terrible” French revolution and the cannonade of its armies at Valmy in 1792 (“Here and today a new era of world history begins, and you can say you were there”). He had a private audience with Napoleon in 1806 (the emperor is supposed to have greeted him with the words: “Voilà un homme!”), but he and his family almost lost their lives when drunken French hussars with fixed bayonets burst into his house after their defeat of Prussia at the Battle of Jena. Having experienced Bonaparte’s rise and fall, Goethe lived to see Europe’s restoration at the Congress of Vienna, the reactionary years of the Holy Alliance,and even a second French revolution in 1830.

When in 1772 he first conceived a play combining the legend of Faustwith the real-life tragedy of a woman (“Gretchen”) executed for infanticide, America was still a British colony. By 1832, when he completed the second part of Faust depicting the rise of industry and capitalism, Abraham Lincoln was just beginning his political career. His life embraced whole cultural epochs. When Goethe was born in 1749, Johann Sebastian Bach was still alive, but the baroque was about to be eclipsed by Viennese classicism; when he died in 1832, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert were all dead, and Mendelssohn had revived the St. Matthew Passion. “To live a long time means outliving a lot,” Goethe wrote in old age to Countess Auguste zu Stolberg, the “Gustchen” with whom he had been briefly infatuated in his youth. “People you’ve loved, hated, didn’t care about; kingdoms, capitals, even woods and trees we sowed and planted in our youth. We outlive ourselves and thankfully register it if even a few gifts of mind and body remain to us.”

What, though, is left of the glory that was Goethe’s? For most educated English-speaking readers today, Goethe is a dusty, distant figure, rarely revived and dimly perceived in a literary pantheon crowded with twentieth-century classics. While Arnold urged his audience to “close thy Byron, open thy Goethe,” few of those who today think of themselves as well-read have ever opened either author. At most Goethe lives on for them through the musical canon, as the inspiration of operatic or symphonic works: from Beethoven and Berlioz to Massenet and Busoni, and above all as the supreme lyricist of the Lieder tradition. Mozart already set Goethe texts for songs such as “Das Veilchen,” and Schubert set more texts by Goethe than any other poet.

The situation is not much better even in Germany. When I attended a provincial Gymnasium, an academic high school, for a term in 1974, Goethe was still at the heart of the curriculum—alongside Shakespeare, who was taught in the Schlegel-Tieck translations as if he had been a contemporary of Goethe. Herr Bonin, our German literature teacher, quoted Goethe constantly. Today, most Germans have only a vague idea of who Goethe was and when he lived. His legacy, too, has fallen into disuse, from the verse drama to the Bildungsroman. The highly cultivated bourgeoisie on whom the Goethe tradition depended still exists, but has lost ground; indeed, it has never fully recovered from the destruction of the German Jews.

Today, most Germans have only a vague idea of who Goethe was and when he lived.

Indeed, the decline of Goethe’s prestige in German culture has much to do with the Holocaust. Goethe himself was no philosemite: he consistently opposed Jewish emancipation, his youthful impressions of the Frankfurt ghetto having left him with a lifelong aversion to Judaism. But he appreciated individual Jews, particularly if they were talented, deferential, and (like the boy prodigy Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy) baptized. Yet from Heine onwards, German Jews admired Goethe to the point of idolatry. The history of Goethe scholarship was largely a Jewish affair until the 1930s, and the most extravagant claims for his significance came from Jewish thinkers who sought to interpret German culture as universally as possible. For the Danish critic Georg Morris Cohen Brandes, Goethe was a pioneer of the “aristocratic radicalism” advocated by his friend Friedrich Nietzsche. For the philosopher Georg Simmel in 1913, to write about Goethe’s life, which the great man had seen as one long act of confession, was to reveal one’s own innermost being too. For Friedrich Gundolf, in 1916, Goethe was the greatest incorporation (Gestalt) of the German spirit (Geist). This cosmopolitan Goethe was the personification of the Western civilization to which these Germanophile Jews fervently hoped German culture would belong, but their admiration went unrequited by the Germans themselves. These cosmopolitan interpretations might have been fulfilled after 1945, but by then the Jewish scholars were dead or abroad.

The role of national poet gradually became redundant, as Germans embraced a European identity, and with it Goethe’s place as mentor of the nation. Only in very recent times, with the migration crisis, have the Germans been forcibly reminded that the nation state is not so easily dispensable, just as Brexit has obliged the British to think not only about the European Union they are leaving, but also the European culture which they are not. Americans are likewise wondering how they can restore pride in their nation state, while preserving the transatlantic ties that still bind them to the Old World and its precarious yet precious values.

Now is a good moment, then, to rediscover Goethe. We should be grateful to Rüdiger Safranski for having written a readable, reliable, indeed remarkable biography that distills a vast corpus of material into a single volume.1 We know more about Goethe than about almost any human being in history, both because of his uniquely voluminous and self-revelatory output of works, notes, and letters, but also because his long life was so meticulously documented, his conversations recorded, his ephemera preserved. Safranski, however, has done more than assemble all that is known into a coherent portrait. His subtitle “Life as a Work of Art” adumbrates his argument: that Goethe consciously sought to give his career a definite, literary form. Goethe did not merely spend his life writing, but tried to lead the life of a writer.

Safranski is uniquely well equipped for his task. He has already written impressive biographies of the philosophers Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, besides Goethe’s contemporary E. T. A. Hoffmann and his friend Schiller, not to mention a fine study of Romanticism. I have read several of these books and can testify that Safranski is a gifted writer and an independent scholar working outside the academy who knows more than most professors. Taken together, his work represents a heroic attempt to write the intellectual history of Germany through some of its most magnetic personalities. His Goethe is his crowning achievement.

Safranski is also a genuine public intellectual. For a decade he was co-host with the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk of In the Glass House: The Philosophical Quartet, a bi-monthly talk show about “fundamental questions for our society.” Only in Germany would such shows—its sister program The Literary Quartet has kept going on and off since 1988—attract large television audiences for an hour-long discussion about books and ideas. As befits a German philosopher, Safranski has been preoccupied by the problem of evil, on which he has written a book. Now in his seventies, he has applied a lifetime’s reflection on the ways in which liberty may become diabolical to the author of Faust, the most celebrated of all tales of temptation.

Safranski’s Goethe is not the only one-volume biography in English: there are recent works by John Williams and T. J. Reed, not to mention many studies by the doyen of classical Weimar, W. H. Bruford. But the most comprehensive biography in any language is Nicholas Boyle’s Goethe: The Poet and the Age. Two magisterial volumes have so far appeared; a third is imminent and a fourth is projected. Safranski acknowledges his debt to his British counterpart, but because Boyle’s first volume, The Poetry of Desire, appeared as long ago as 1991 and even the second, Revolution and Renunciation, in 2000, Safranski’s more concise work is more up to date than Boyle’s.

Being up to date isn’t everything, however. Safranski and Boyle, like all Goethe scholars, owe a debt to his first biographer in English, George Henry Lewes. Published in 1855, The Life and Works of Goethe was not only a pioneering piece of research, compiled while many of its subject’s contemporaries were still alive, but also the first serious attempt to assess Goethe’s significance for posterity. Seeing himself as the great man’s advocate, Lewes refused either to ignore or to condemn Goethe’s failure to abide by Victorian morality. For example, Goethe fathered five children by Christiane Vulpius, his “housekeeper,” but only married her almost two decades later. Lewes himself was, after all, living with George Eliot while separated from his wife. Lewes was not uncritical of his subject, but admired above all his ability to rise above every adversity to achieve inner harmony by means of renunciation:

I do not say he never stumbled. At times the clamorous agitation of rebellious passions misled him, for he was very human, often erring; but viewing his life as it disposes itself into the broad masses necessary for a characteristic appreciation, I say that in him, more than in almost any other man of his time, naked vigour of resolution, moving in alliance with stately clearness of intellect, produced a self-mastery of the very highest kind.

Where Lewes led, others have followed. Boyle, too, emphasizes the theme of renunciation, while Safranski, too, echoes Lewes in his concluding lines: “[Goethe] is the great example of how far you can go when you accept the lifelong task of becoming who you are.” Safranski’s leading idea, of Goethe as the supreme example of life as a work of art, is already implicit in Lewes, who concludes his biography with a firsthand account of the “grand old Goethe” by William Makepeace Thackeray, which portrays him as a monumental figure. He also includes a letter to “the venerable man” from fifteen of his British admirers, including Carlyle, Wordsworth, Scott, and Southey, which they sent with a handsome seal, to express the gratitude of “the spiritually-taught towards their spiritual teacher.” This image of Goethe as a prince among poets, receiving “the homage of Europe” as the wise old man of Weimar, impressed itself upon Victorians.

Yet for Safranski Goethe was by no means just a grand old man, but one who struggled to accept the aging process. He offers a fine account of Goethe’s last summers in Marienbad, when he fell hopelessly in love with Ulrike von Levetzow, a girl more than half a century younger. After Goethe finally proposed marriage, the offer made through his master the grand duke of Weimar, Ulrike was forced to make a decision. She was “very fond of Goethe, like a father,” she recalled, and seriously considered accepting the proposal, which came with the promise of a house and pension if she outlived him. But she worried that Goethe’s son and his family would not welcome a new young wife—rightly, because the rumors reached them and they reacted with consternation. Ulrike never explicitly rejected him; nothing more was said; but both knew that when the old man left this time, he would never return. On the return journey, Goethe wrote his late, great “Marienbad Elegy.” His friend Wilhelm von Humboldt, who was among the few privileged to read it at the time, thought it “perhaps exceeds the level of the most beautiful things he has ever done.” It is indeed beautiful, but it ends on a dark, desperate note: “The universe I’ve lost, I’ve lost myself, I who was once the darling of the gods . . . they parted us and sent me to my ruin.”

The elegy was published as part of a “Trilogy of Passion,” and the last of these poems, “Reconciliation,” was dedicated to another young friend from Marienbad, the Polish pianist Maria Szymanowska, to whom Goethe was also inordinately attached. Safranski describes their tearful final parting in Weimar, when “Goethe was overcome with a panic attack.” “It was,” says Safranski, “the farewell of one who knew now that he really had become an old man.”

Goethe remains a guide for the perplexed even in our skeptical times.

As a rare example of a creator whose genius lasted unimpaired into old age, Goethe remains a guide for the perplexed even in our skeptical times. But his monumental stature has not rendered him immune from the scurrilous attentions of those who would like to prove that Goethe was a closet homosexual, or a misogynist, or that he was nothing but a toady of princes.

That he enjoyed intense masculine friendships, expressed in the flowery language customary at the time, is undoubtedly true; that he enjoyed nude bathing with other men in Switzerland does not prove that Goethe’s primary orientation was homoerotic, still less that he ever engaged in homosexual activity. In the absence of evidence, that seems most improbable. No such rumors surfaced in his lifetime, despite Goethe being the most gossiped-about person in Germany, not even when he spent nearly two years in Italy, where morals were lax and the great art historian Winckelmann had notoriously been murdered by a male lover. The occasional mentions of homosexual desire in his works don’t prove anything either, except that Goethe was alive to the power of such urges. Thus Faust Part Two depicts the lecherous ogling of androgynous angels by Mephistopheles, which distracts the devil from Faust’s ascension. Safranski does not take the “gay Goethe” thesis very seriously.

Likewise, the notion of Goethe as a misogynist, advocated by some revisionist academics, does not really hold water. Of his many close intellectual as well as erotic relationships with women, one in particular suggests that Goethe was unusual in his day by seeking out the companionship of women writers. Among his most important and accessible works, the great Persian poetry cycle West–östlicher Divan, was a collaboration with a woman, the poet and musician Marianne Willemer. To say that Goethe treated her as his poetic equal, or even his superior in her knowledge of the culture of the Near East, is no exaggeration. A year before he died, Safranski relates, Goethe reread his correspondence with Marianne, which reminded him of when they had worked together, “the most beautiful days of my life.” He sent her their letters with the request that they be opened after his death, along with an effusive verse dedicated to these “testaments to a glorious time.”

More plausible is the charge that Goethe was a reactionary, comfortable with the semi-feudal society in Germany and protective of his role at the court of Weimar. Goethe certainly had a profound antipathy to the revolutionary changes that swept across Europe in his lifetime. He told his friend Eckermann that everybody is a democrat in youth, when they have nothing to lose, and an aristocrat in later life, when they hope to pass on something to their children. Goethe certainly had much to lose, but he yearned for stability because the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars that followed had a devastating impact on the Europe he cherished. He had seen the new warfare firsthand on the battlefield and he knew that Germany would bear the brunt of the fighting, just as it had done in the Thirty Years’ War in the previous century and the Seven Years’ War in living memory. The Napoleonic era culminated in the Battle of Leipzig, where Goethe had studied in his youth. There, over three days in October 1813, some 600,000 men fought, of whom at least 80,000 were killed, wounded, or missing. Bloodshed on such a scale was unprecedented in Europe, and it filled Goethe with foreboding.

Back in August, Safranski tells us, Goethe had visited Dresden and saw Napoleon inspecting the fortifications. He dined with the family of his friend Christian Gottfried Körner, whom he had been advising about the literary career of his son. Theodor, then just twenty-one, had recently joined the Free Corps, a militia raised to fight the French by Major von Lützow, under the “black, red, and gold” colors that to this day are the flag of the German Federal Republic. Theodor had already been wounded by a treacherous French officer, and his fiercely patriotic songs and verses, such as his “Farewell to Life,” were already popular. Also at what would be one of the young Körner’s last suppers was Ernst Moritz Arndt, the chief propagandist of German nationalism, who later recalled the occasion in his memoirs. We can imagine that the table talk would have been intensely martial, but Goethe was unmoved by what he saw as mere braggadocio: “Rattle your chains to your heart’s content; the man [Napoleon] is too big for you. You will not break them.” Just a few days later, Theodor was killed by the French in a hail of bullets. In my library is a copy of the third edition of Theodor Körner’s Complete Works, published in 1831 while Goethe was still alive. It includes letters from Goethe to the father of the poet, in which he repeatedly urges him to send his gifted son to Weimar so that Goethe can take him under his wing. That was not to be. We may well imagine the anguish of the grand old man of letters, listening to the ferocious words of the doomed young poet at the dinner table, warning him in vain against sacrificing his future for a grand gesture. The family evidently never recovered from their loss: Theodor’s sister and father both died within a few years. Körner’s martial pathos, which Goethe’s dismissed, anticipates by a century the modern German cult of death. The late J. P. Stern called the idea that value is conferred only through sacrifice “the dear purchase.” Goethe believed that any political end that required such sanguinary means was too costly to be justifiable.

Goethe was always a conservative, never a reactionary.

For Goethe, Napoleon was in any case not a tyrant, but “my emperor.” Goethe’s career had begun in an era when French had been the language of polite society in Germany; even in old age, he admired Stendhal, Hugo, and Balzac or Scott, Carlyle, and Byron far more than his contemporary compatriots. “He didn’t trust his dear Germans—as he called them ironically—an inch,” Safranski reminds us. “He preferred to keep them at a distance. And as for freedom, he had always cherished it but never demanded it rhetorically as a political goal.” In the eyes of Goethe, the death of Körner—like that of another patriotic poet, Heinrich von Kleist, who had committed suicide a few years earlier—was merely a terrible waste of talent. Already in the 1770s, during his first years at Weimar, he had supported another wild man of the Sturm und Drang, J. M. R. Lenz, only to find that his friend’s offensive behavior required Goethe to keep his distance. Lenz was banished from Weimar, suffered periods of mental instability, and died young—only to be immortalized in a short story by a radical writer of a later generation, Georg Büchner. Only Heinrich Heine, whose quest for freedom led him into lifelong Parisian exile, sympathized with Goethe’s distrust of German nationalism.

Yet Goethe was always a conservative, never a reactionary. He believed neither in revolution nor restoration, but in reform. In his younger days, he too had inspired his countrymen with poems and plays about freedom. Egmont, Goethe’s great drama about the revolt of the Netherlands, so impressed Beethoven that he composed a superb overture and incidental music for it. Admittedly, when the two great men encountered one another at Teplitz in 1812, Goethe bowed to the passing imperial family while Beethoven ostentatiously ignored them and mocked the writer for “delighting in the court atmosphere far more than is becoming for a poet.” Beethoven’s talent “astounded me,” Goethe told his musical friend Zelter, but he had never seen such an “utterly untamed personality, not completely wrong in thinking the world detestable, but hardly making it more pleasant for himself or others by his attitude.”

Yet Goethe was no less radical in his field than Beethoven in his. Most of his novels and plays boldly address political or social questions, not to mention sexual politics. Some of his erotica, including not only bawdy occasional verses but major works such as some of the Roman Elegies and Venetian Epigrams, were too risqué to be published until long after his death. The Diary, though a humorous study of male sexual fantasies and impotence anxieties, is also a subtle polemic against extramarital sex.

The best defense of Goethe’s reputation as a humane, decent, and above all enjoyable writer is provided by Johann Peter Eckermann’s Gesprache mit Goethe, a contemporaneous record of their conversations over the nine years during which Eckermann served as Goethe’s personal assistant. Its three volumes are as full of acute and timeless observations about everything under the sun as Boswell’s Life of Johnson, with which it is often compared. I happen to own a first edition of Eckermann and it is one of the most precious books in my large German library—indeed, Nietzsche thought it “the best German book there is.”

It is in these conversations that Goethe expressed his mature views most succinctly; what emerges there and in his Maxims and Reflections is a version of classical liberalism in economics underpinned by a pragmatic conservatism in politics. “Legislators and revolutionaries who promise equality and liberty at the same time,” he declared in a remarkable anticipation of Alexis de Tocqueville, “are either psychopaths or mountebanks.” Goethe was strongly opposed to the centralization of Germany, fearing that the Berlin bureaucracy would ultimately destroy the cultural diversity and localized liberties that had emerged under the benign neglect of the Holy Roman Empire. That is exactly what happened, first under Bismarck and then, catastrophically, under Hitler. But Goethe’s objection applies equally to despotism in the name of humanitarian ideals. He could be talking about today’s liberals when he warns that “you never hear so much talk about freedom as when one party wants to subjugate another and aims at nothing less than shifting power, influence, and treasure from one hand to another.” Two years before his death, he tells Eckermann why he rejects socialism, then emerging in France under the leadership of Saint-Simon: “That doctrine seems to me quite impracticable and would never work. It contradicts all nature, all experience, and the course of things for thousands of years.”

A recent example of the disastrous effects of such policies was Angela Merkel’s decision to invite Syrian refugees into Germany in 2015. Well over a million Muslim migrants arrived within a matter of months, while the entire German media peddled the myth that everybody supported what they dubbed the Wilkommenskultur (“welcome culture”). The predictable consequences included a rise in terrorism and sexual assaults, followed by a backlash against foreigners and urban decay. Groups of Muslim youths living on welfare hang around city centers, which are increasingly avoided by Germans. Safranski has been prominent among the critics of Mrs. Merkel’s migration policy: those who can read German can find his views set out in a long interview he gave recently to the Neue Zürcher Zeitung last May. Safranski denounces the conformism of journalists who preach to their readers rather than informing them. Any German who defends the nation state and its borders, or who rejects mass immigration, is smeared as a “cultural racist,” he says. Safranski is not ashamed to call himself a conservative, pointing out that Kant wrote of “perpetual peace” and a borderless global republic with “a certain irony,” but his ideas are now promoted with deadly seriousness. Safranski finds it shameful to have to explain that a welfare state can only survive if it retains the right to decide who belongs and who does not—the right to exclude foreigners. When his Swiss interviewer reproaches Safranski—“you sound like the AfD [a right-wing German party that opposes immigration]—he refuses to be intimidated: “We all know that Islam, as it exists in political form, represents a genuine threat to the liberal West. The Angst is there, but everybody whistles in the dark, especially in the public square, to reassure ourselves.”

Goethe would, I think, be pleased that his biographer has not succumbed to the complacency of the German intelligentsia, but thinks for himself. “Which is the best government?” Goethe asks. “That which teaches us to govern ourselves.” It was in the context of a discussion of Islam, in his learned notes for the West–östlicher Divan, that Goethe contrasts the prophet and the poet: Muhammad commands obedience to a collectivist moral code, while the poet seeks the freedom of the individual. “Goethe becomes uncomfortable with the Koran unless he is allowed to take it poetically,” Safranski says. Just as intellectuals once did not take the dangers of nationalism and socialism as seriously as Goethe, today they do not take Islam as seriously as he did. But we should take Goethe seriously as the antidote to all ideologies. For that reason we should be grateful to Rüdiger Safranski for bringing Goethe back to life.


1Goethe: Life as a Work of Art, by Rüdiger Safranski; Liveright, 651 pages, $35.

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