Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von (1749–1832)
Probably the most celebrated of all German writers. Goethe
had strong interest in mysticism and occult subjects. He was
born at Frankfurt-on-Main, August 28, 1749. His father was a
lawyer of some eminence. At an early age the boy showed a persistent
fondness for drawing and learned with surprising ease.
In 1759 a French nobleman of aesthetic tastes came to stay with
the Goethes, and a warm friendship developed between him
and the future author. The friendship accelerated young Goethe’s
intellectual development.
Shortly after this, a French theater was founded at Frankfurt,
and there Goethe became conversant with the plays of Racine;
he also made some early attempts at original writing and
began to learn Italian, Latin, Greek, English, and Hebrew.
He soon moved from his native town to Leipzig, where he
entered the university, intending to become a lawyer. At Leipzig,
Goethe showed little affection for the actual curriculum; instead
he continued in essay writing and drawing and even took
lessons in etching. He also found time for a love affair, but this
was cut short in 1768 when he developed a serious illness. On
his recovery he decided to leave Leipzig and go to Strasbourg.
There he became friendly with Jung-Stilling (see Johann
Heinrich Jung), and his taste for letters was strengthened,
Homer and Ossian being his favorites among the masters. Although
he continued to appear indifferent to the study of law,
he succeeded in becoming an advocate in 1771 and returned
to Frankfurt.
Goethe had already written a quantity of verse and prose,
and he began to write critiques for some of the newspapers in
Frankfurt. At the same time he started writing Goetz von Berlichingen
and Werther. These works were soon followed by Prometheus,
and in 1774 the author began working on Faust.
The following year saw the production of some of Goethe’s
best love poems, written for Lilli Schönemann, daughter of a
Frankfurt banker. Nothing more than poetry, however, resulted
from this new devotion. Scarcely had it come and gone before
Goethe’s whole life was changed, for his writings had become
famous. As a result the young duke Carl August of
Weimar, anxious for a trusty page, invited the rising author to
his court. The invitation was accepted. Goethe became a member
of the privy council; subsequently he was raised to the rank
of Geheimrat (privy counselor) and then ennobled.
Goethe’s life at Weimar was a very busy one. Trusted implicitly
by the duke, he directed the construction of public roads
and buildings, attended to military and academic affairs, and
founded a court theater. As occupied as he was, he continued
to write voluminously. Among the most important works he
produced during his first years at the duke’s court were Iphigenie
and Wilhelm Meister.
In 1787 he had a lengthy stay in Italy, visiting Naples, Pompeii,
Rome, and Milan. Returning to Weimar, he began writing
Egmont. In 1795 he made the acquaintance of poet and dramatist
Friedrich von Schiller, with whom he quickly became
friendly and with whom he worked on the Horen, a journal designed
to elevate the literary tastes of the masses.
About this period, too, Goethe wrote his play Hermann und
Dorothea and also began translating Voltaire, Diderot, and Benvenuto
(For an account of a strange psychic experience at Weimar,
when Goethe saw the projected double of a friend, see double.)
The year 1806 was a significant one in Goethe’s life, marked
by his marriage and also by the entry of Napoleon into Weimar.
The conquering general and the German poet found much in
each other to admire, and Napoleon decorated Goethe with
the cross of the Legion of Honour.
In 1811 Goethe wrote Dichtung und Wahrheit, Wilhelm Meister’s
Wanderjahre; in 1821 he began working at a second part
of Faust. During this time he had two famous visitors—
Beethoven from Vienna and Thackeray from London. Although
the composer thought himself coldly received, the novelist
spoke with enthusiasm of the welcome accorded him. Goethe
was then well advanced in years, however, and his health
was beginning to fail. He died March 22, 1832.
Few great writers—not even Disraeli or Sir Walter Scott—
had fuller lives than Goethe. His love affairs, besides those
mentioned here, were many, and his early taste for the graphic
arts continued to the end of his days, resulting in a vast collection
of treasures.
His interest in mysticism manifested itself in various forms
besides the writing of Faust. With a temperament aspiring to
the unattainable, Goethe’s mind was essentially a speculative
one. During his childhood at Frankfurt he did symbolic drawings
of the soul’s aspirations to the deity, and he later became
immersed in the study of the Christian religion. Eventually he
grew skeptical on this subject, his ideas being altered not only
by his own ruminations but by reading various iconoclastic philosophers,
especially Rousseau. Later his intellect was seemingly
less engaged by Christianity than by ancient Eastern faiths,
as demonstrated by some of his works, notably Westöstliche
One of his notebooks shows that, while a young man at
Strasbourg, Goethe made a close study of Giordano Bruno and
other early scientists. As a boy he was a keen student of alchemy,
reading deeply in Welling, Jean Baptiste van Helmont,
Basil Valentine, and Paracelsus, and even fitting up a laboraEncyclopedia
of Occultism & Parapsychology • 5th Ed. Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von
tory where he spent long hours in arduous experiments. No
doubt it was while thus engaged that Goethe first conceived the
idea of writing a drama on the subject of Faust, and his alchemistic
and other scientific research certainly proved advantageous
when he was composing that work.
The story’s main outlines are visible in Calderon’s and Marlowe’s
versions, as well as in the operas of Gounod, Schumann,
and Berlioz. It is mainly because of Faust that Goethe is considered
a great mystic, for his rendering of the immortal theme
is acknowledged as among the finest in the whole of mystical
Cottrell, Alan P., ed. Goethe’s Faust Seven Essays. Chapel Hill,
N.C. University of North Carolina Press, 1976.
Davidson, Thomas. Philosophy of Goethe’s Faust. Boston,
1906. Reprint, Haskell, 1969.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. The Autobiography of Johann
Wolfgang von Goethe. 2 vols. Chicago University of Chicago
Press, 1975.
Gray, Ronald D. Goethe, the Alchemist A Study of Alchemical
Symbolism in Goethe’s Literary & Scientific Works. Cambridge
Cambridge University Press, 1952. Reprint, New York AMS
Press, 1979.
Lewes, George H. The Life of Goethe. London, 1864. Reprint,
Norwood Editions, 1979.
Reed, T. J. Goethe. Oxford Oxford University Press, 1984.
Steiner, Rudolph. Goethe’s Conception of the World. Reprint,
Brooklyn Haskell, 1972.
———. The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe’s World Conception.
Hudson, N.Y. Anthroposophic Press, 1978.