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Transcendental Roots

Emerson and Goethe

Bryan Hileman, VCU

Emerson's first real contact with Goethe was his perusal of Wilhelm Meister  Web Site in 1828, in Carlyle's translation.  He didn't start learning to read German until 1836, and never read more than passingly well.  He owned a 55-volume edition of Goethe's works and read many of them in the original.  Goethe was a lifelong influence, and in Representative Men (1850), Emerson's essay on Goethe was titled "Goethe, or, the Writer." Web Site  Emerson granted Goethe a position near the very top of mankind, though his relationship with his works was problematical.  Goethe was a bit too expansive for Emerson's tastes, too much a man of the world, for Goethe can never be dear to men.  His is not even the devotion to pure truth; but to truth for the sake of culture." Goethe was nevertheless for Emerson a giant of a man, broad and deep, a "Representative Man."

Romanticism by its very nature implied a rejection of classical modes of thought, though it does also involve a certain digestion of these forms in order to reject the more fully.  The classic/romantic dichotomy is best viewed and most influential upon Emerson in the works of Goethe.  Emerson takes the Goethian notion that the heroic Golden Age is not a specific period, but rather an idea that may have existed before and may exist again, and runs with it.  What is golden is golden for its age only.  A miner's knowledge is helpful primarily in that it assists in present day alchemy.

Entelechy is the Goethean term for "what is irreducibly individual in a person's development." (Van Cromphout, 7) Emerson shared and to a degree received from Goethe a strong interest in the sciences, and a tendency to draw parallels between scientific, philosophical and emotional matters.  Goethe was, to Emerson, the great man of his age, and the paragon of modernity, the man who "explained the distinction between the antique and the modern spirit and art." Emerson shared and profited from Goethe's desire to merge science and poetry.  They also shared a fundamental similarity in their tendency to apprehend poetically rather than metaphysically.  Goethe offered Emerson a warmer, more poetic philosophy than the strict and dense metaphysics of Kant and his successors.  Emerson also echoes Goethe in the materialistic strain to his otherwise idealistic though, that the existence of the concrete is necessary to the existence of the ideal.  Thus their systems are both retain and thrive upon a great deal of fluidity.

Though by no means primarily an aesthetician, Emerson thoughts on the nature of art are derived significantly from those of Goethe.  Indeed, "Many of his most emphatic and most characteristically 'Emersonian' statements on art are reexpressions of Goethean ideas." (Van Cromphout, 60) Emerson was also a great admirer of Goethe's prose style though not without reservation.  The importance of the symbol, particularly as opposed to the allegory, was a significant achievement of Goethe's, which in a sense is the line of demarcation between classicism and romanticism.  Emerson appreciated this achievement, Goethe's practice of "putting ever a thing for a word," though his own use of symbol was less specific.  From Goethe as well was derived much of the underlying mutability of the soul, the circular self-realization, the entelechy.

Goethe's influence upon Emerson is not so immediate and pronounced as that of Coleridge and thus the German transcendental idealists in that it is far more multifarious.  Emerson did not experience a single epiphany but rather a series of small eruptions emanating from his lifelong appreciation.  Goethe is often lurking there somewhere, but only occasionally does he rise resplendently to the surface.

See also Sheri Gietzen's essay on "Transcendence: The Yin and Yang of Emerson and Goethe."

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