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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889


By John Albee (1833–1915)

[From “Goethe’s Self-Culture,” a Lecture at the Concord School of Philosophy. 1885.]

IN the moral world, as in the natural, we shall not go far wrong if we seek for truth and reality in the direct opposite of what appears. The apparent is something adjusted to the measure of the senses. Although Goethe laid strong hold of this apparent, there was for once a man who turned it, not half or quarter, but clear round, and saw the other, the real spirit, or ideal face.

He turned the plant clear round, and discovered its secret, the law of its life. And as ever appearances are confusing, while the reality is simple and satisfying, so now botany, which, when one looks into a textbook or upon a garden of flowers, is the most bewildering of studies, becomes by Goethe’s discovery as clear and beautiful as a remembered single line of perfect poetry. In fact it is poetic; and it distinguishes nearly all of his scientific investigation that it is resolved into poetry. He is the first modern man who has well succeeded in working this transformation; thus restoring for us the manner of the most ancient natural philosophers, who rendered everything in verse. It seems to have been his aim in natural science to satisfy the desire for a productive thought,—one that should be a further means of self-cultivation. His investigations in osteology resulted in nearly the same law as in botany,—a simple principle on which the structure of animals and plants is built up alike. What is its value? Chiefly to the imagination in man. There is no final good in scientific discoveries unless they furnish us something beyond the useful; this also has its value, but not the entire. As Goethe himself said, “Whatever is useful is only a part of what is significant.” When a simple, pregnant generalization, like Goethe’s in botany, is given us, we are not hindered by default of technical knowledge from the highest possible perception of the central idea in the plant world. We no more stand before the simplest flower ashamed of our ignorance because we cannot call it by name; or when we can, satisfied with our knowledge. But there is now freedom for the imagination, and an invitation to reflection. Then truly pansies will be for thoughts; and the “flower in the crannied wall” will answer, not what God and man is, but as much as it knows about itself. And though some flowers recommend themselves by their beauty or rarity, and others by their commonness, and some even because they are fashionable, all of them, when we are acquainted with the law of their inward being, help us to draw nearer to the spiritual symbols and resemblances which connect each province of nature with every other, and all with man.

Goethe teaches us after a method, and to a point where we can teach ourselves. In every direction to which he turned his mind, this is one of his chief merits, that he takes you where you can go alone if you will. This makes him for adults, for poets and writers especially, the most helpful master that has ever lived. How he becomes so is easy to see; it is because he is trying to teach himself; in short, we come again upon his self-culture as the fruitful source of his achievements and influence. His studies and investigations were private, unprofessional, with no worldly or ulterior aim. What he puts into the mouth of Makaria in “Wilhelm Meister’s Travels” expresses his habit very nearly: “We do not want to establish anything, or to produce any outward effect, but only to enlighten ourselves.” When, therefore, Goethe, a man of ample acquirements and genius, sits down to study something that he wishes to know, and gives us not only the results, but the steps and the method of his effort, he becomes a great teacher.

Yet we do not wish to follow any master too far; he is the best who leads us from himself to self-reliance. A man needs many, to whose influence he can surrender himself, and recover himself again and again. In Goethe’s self-cultivation it is striking how often he meets with persons and objects, and gives himself up to them until he has learned all they have to impart which can help him, or discovers his own false tendency or position. Then he abandons them without regret or apology. Without regret, except the poetic, inspiring regrets of his love affairs, which cannot be omitted from the account of the sources and circumstances of his inward culture. In these there were usually two productive phases or periods; one while elevated by passion, the other when tormented by remorse. It is said by H. Grimm that Margaret grew out of the latter. But usually he had no time or taste for repenting himself of anything that had happened. In his self-complacent way he foresaw compensation, and was not afflicted to know all sides of himself, the weak, the strong, the excellent, and the evil. He confessed that his striving to become an artist was a mistake, but added that mistakes also give us insight. This calm, quite superhuman characteristic has prejudiced many good people against Goethe; they think that he sacrificed everybody to his own selfish purposes. The French call love the egoism of two; but some say Goethe’s love was still no more than that of one,—self-love, in short.