Goethe’s Conservative Imagination


“History, Science, Art, Human Activity under every aspect…nothing escaped him, nothing that he did not look into, that he did not see into. Consider too the genuineness of whatsoever he did; his hearty idiomatic way; simplicity with loftiness, and nobleness, and serial grace.” Thomas Carlyle, Death of Goethe

The term “romanticism” is both alluring and, at the same time, frightening to most educated Americans today regardless of where they sit along the political aisle. Conservatives like romantic poetry, music, and art because it is pretty and old fashioned and much less vulgar than much of the dross of twentieth century art (compare a romantic landscape painting JMW Turner with one of the nihilist Francis Bacon if you don’t believe me). Leftists like romanticism because, well, it’s romantic, and romanticism is a fundamentally revolutionary movement: many of the major romantic figures were much more intelligent, educated, and better looking prototypes of the Social Justice Warriors who pollute the left today. Lord Byron fought for Greek independence from the Ottomans. Percy Shelley wrote The Mask of Anarchy to commemorate radicals who had been killed at the 1819 Peterloo Massacre. Although not typically political, John Keats, like many failed millennial gauchistes abandoned Christianity, became really depressed, and then attempted to retreat in opiates and art, which, for some reason did not save him. However, romanticism was not all nightingales, laudanum, and rebellion.

 In his staggeringly colossal work, The Birth of the Modern, the conservative historian Paul Johnson tells the story of the contrasting responses of two very different romantics, J.W. Goethe and Ludwig Von Beethoven  to encountering Hapsburg royalty in Teplitz, Austria in 1812. The disheveled radical Beethoven rudely and clumsily walked in between the Austrian empress and her entourage while the more sober Goethe stepped to the side and bowed, removing his cap. It is this elegance and courtesy demonstrated by Goethe that is so desperately absent in contemporary conservativism, and as conservatives look for a way out of the degeneration of morals, manners, and good taste among our leaders, we can turn to a much neglected German Romantic for solace and guidance: Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.

 J.W. Goethe (1749-1832) grew up in the ideal, and, yes, romantic, German city of Frankfurt. Goethe, in his Poetry and Truth, describes his life looking out from the third floor of his house: “There I studied my lessons in the summers, waited out the thunderstorms and could never see enough of the setting sun.”  This vision for tranquil beauty stayed with Goethe throughout most of his life. Whether studying in the humming intellectual city of Leipzig or finishing his studies in the Gothic town of Strasbourg, Goethe lived in a world that was truly enchanted. Describing the ghostly gothic Strasbourg Cathedral in On German Architecture, Goethe writes “How often in the twilight was my eye, wearing from inquiring scrutiny, refreshed by the friendly peace when the countless parts melted into one expanse, which now stood, simple and grand, before my soul, making possible the blissful evolution of my ability to enjoy and understand.” This vision to see beyond the mundane and feed on the nourishing power of beauty is something so desperately lost and modernity, and it is this imaginative power that defines both Goethe’s life and work.  

Goethe himself was conservative in the deepest and best sense. It wasn’t just that he spent time working as a functionary for the aristocratic Carl August Duke of Weimar for much of his life, or that he worried about the dangerous of the French revolution. Rather what is best about Goethe is that he had the soul of a conservative; Goethe was always a conservative driven by a zest for life. He sought out this relish for life with other great souls like Duke Carl August himself whom Goethe depicts, “he spent long evenings with me, deep in conservation about matters of art and nature and other worthy things. He was like a fine wine, still fermenting. He didn’t know what to do with his energy…. Riding wildly over hedges and ditches, through rivers, uphill and down, wearing himself out all day long, and then camping under the wide sky at night, perhaps by a fire in the woods: that is what he liked best.” More than anything, Goethe shows that life does not have to be dumb and boring; it is possible to pursue wisdom and beauty with eagerness and not tedium.

While his life was marked by energy and passion, this passion was tamed by a reverence for duty and industry that developed as the German poet grew older. In 1779 at the age of 30, Goethe advised, “The press of duties is liberating for the soul; when they have been discharged, it is freed and enjoys life. There is nothing more miserable than a person who does not try to work; he finds that the loveliest of gifts to be loathsome.” Impelled by zeal and a sense of duty, Goethe sought to “seize the day” in the best, truest, and most conservative sense, writing in Poetry and Truth, “Time is endlessly long and each day a vessel in which much can be poured if one really want to fill it.” However, Goethe was no fool or busy body obsessed with activity. As he grew older, Goethe saw the world increasingly changing and speeding up and thus increasingly deteriorating into the hyperactive but sad and bored modernity in which we now live: “Wealth and speed are what the world admires, and are aspired to be all. Railways, mail-coaches, steamships and possible means of communication—those in the civilized world try to outdo each other in producing these things, thereby only to persist in mediocrity.” Goethe was, for better or worse, a romantic of the soul who pursued the growth of the mind and the heart, and he was wise enough to see that the progress of science was not always for the best. As things have only sped up into a nauseating and volatile hyperactivity, Goethe’s wisdom is all the more needed. 

In the end, Goethe is by no means a conservative in the way we would want him to be. He held to a curiously and typically progressive view of evolution as being the basis of all life. He was not an orthodox Christian by any means, and while not a Don Juan, the German poet’s whole philosophia vitae was centered around the passionate pursuit of love—at one point, the 74 year old court vainly attempted to court the 17 year old Ulrike von Levetzow to the dismay of both the young girl and her family. Nonetheless, Goethe shows in a man what so many of contemporary conservatives in our fractured and weary state are looking for: a noble life in pursuit of an ideal, and as the poet himself reminds us, “Whoe’er aspires unweariedly / Is not beyond redeeming.”



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