1. Introduction
  2. Charakter and Cultural Criticism
  3. Charakter and Politics Before the French Revolution
  4. Charakter and Politics After the French Revolution
  5. Charakter, Ethics, and Reason: Contra Kant
  6. Notes
  7. Works Cited and Further Reading


Goethe’s conception of Charakter is of interest because of its highly unusual structure and its radical departure from the main traditions of European thought.1 It is also significant because it arose out of his reception of the two most important thinkers of his time, Rousseau (1712-1778) and Kant (1724-1804). The strongest influence on Goethe’s thinking about Charakter was undeniably Rousseau. Indeed, the topics discussed in this article—Goethe’s aesthetics, his politics both before and after the French Revolution, and his views on the relation of Charakter to scholarship and science—all show the influence of Rousseauian cultural criticism. However, Goethe’s reception of Rousseau was idiosyncratic. As his friend J. C. Kestner put it, Goethe “hält [. . .] viel vom Rousseau, ist iedoch kein blinder Anbeter von demselben” (has a high regard for Rousseau, is however not a blind devotee of him).2 Goethe ignored the role of the conscience in Rousseau’s ethics—an omission that was forced on him by Rousseau’s belief that reason was essential to the proper functioning of conscience.3 A second important difference concerns politics. Rousseau’s political legacy was already contested in Germany in the 1770s—a division was evident between a minority who emphasized Rousseau’s ideal of individual and cultural authenticity and a majority who stressed his Republicanism and contractarianism. Goethe belonged to the former camp. His significance in the debate on Rousseau’s legacy was the development of a radically naturalistic and anti-Republican vision of the sources of political legitimacy. After the French Revolution, Charakter played a key role in his belief that liberalism and radicalism exaggerated the political usefulness of theoretical reason. In this regard, Goethe was partly in tune with his times, for character became a signature concept of anti-Revolutionary thought in the years before the full emergence of conservatism in the 1830s, both in Europe and North America. But even here Goethe’s position is highly distinctive—his belief that our natural complexion is more or less unalterable is far removed from the conservatism of, say, Hume and Burke, who argued that the human complexion is malleable and shaped by historical traditions and institutions. In this sense, Goethe’s theory of Charakter served as a powerful solvent, breaking down any clear or fixed conceptually or historically founded positions in ethics and politics.

Goethe’s reception of Kant was equally complex. He welcomed Kant’s discussion of morphology and organic purposiveness in the Critique of the Power of Judgment. Kant’s ethics, on the other hand, left him cold, especially the Anthropology in Pragmatic Perspective (1798), which he rejected as “prejudiced” and “ungenerous” (“bornirt,” “illiberal,” to Christian Gottlob Voigt, 19 December 1798; WA 4.13:347). His reflections on the scientific method and on the fundamentals of ontology were shaped by two arguments in Kant’s Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science (1786): the central role of attraction and repulsion in physical phenomena, which Goethe found compelling, and Kant’s insistence that all real science was mathematizable, which he utterly rejected. His thinking about Charakter after ca. 1800 needs to be seen in the context of this reception of Kant—in short, his pro-Kantian belief in nature’s capacity to form itself into meaningful structures and his anti-Kantian rejection of ethical and mathematical reason.

Charakter and Cultural Criticism

Goethe’s early writings on culture are of particular interest, since they constitute an explicit negotiation with the ideas of national character set out in Rousseau’s controversial Discourse on the Sciences and Arts (1749). The main aim of Goethe’s early writings on culture was to rescue works of art that were out of favor with eighteenth-century neoclassical aesthetics—notably the cathedral of Strasbourg and Shakespeare’s plays. He did so on the basis of a Rousseauian analysis of the condition of modern civilization. In these early essays, Charakter serves as a causal factor in the creation of great art. Charakter is operative in two ways, on the levels of the individual and of the nation. First, art bears the imprint of its creator’s Charakter, so that even fragmentary and seemingly formless works of art can possess internal coherence. Second, vibrant art is produced by nations that have retained their Charakter and not been denatured or perverted by civilization. The art produced in both of these contexts is “charakteristische Kunst” (characteristic art).4 It both bears the marks of a human individual in a particular place and time and, via these particular human characteristics, reflects fundamental anthropological constants, notably the drive for self-preservation (Selbstliebe, amour de soi). It follows that any culture, and not just Greco-Roman antiquity or neoclassical modernity, can produce works in harmonious forms. True art is generated not by following abstract rules or principles, but by the natural and universal human need for self-preservation. In his essay “Von deutscher Baukunst” (1772; On German Architecture) Goethe makes this connection between art and self-preservation explicitly and without demur:

Denn in dem Menschen ist eine bildende Natur, die gleich sich thätig beweis’t, wann seine Existenz gesichert ist. Sobald er nichts zu sorgen und zu fürchten hat, greift der Halbgott, wirksam in seiner Ruhe, umher nach Stoff ihm seinen Geist einzuhauchen. Und so modelt der Wilde mit abenteuerlichen Zügen, gräßlichen Gestalten, hohen Farben, seine Cocos, seine Federn, und seinen Körper. Und laßt diese Bildnerei aus den willkürlichsten Formen bestehen, sie wird ohne Gestaltsverhältniß zusammenstimmen, denn Eine Empfindung schuf sie zum charakteristischen Ganzen.
Diese charakteristische Kunst, ist nun die einzige wahre. Wenn sie aus inniger, einiger, eigner, selbstständiger Empfindung um sich wirkt, unbekümmert, ja unwissend alles Fremden, da mag sie aus rauher Wildheit, oder aus gebildeter Empfindsamkeit geboren werden, sie ist ganz und lebendig. (WA 1.37:148–49)
For in man there is a creative force which becomes active when his existence is secure. As soon as he has nothing to worry about or fear, this demigod, active in his tranquillity, casts about for matter to inspire with his spirit. And so too the savage decorates his coconut-fibre mats, his feathers, his body, with bizarre patterns, ghastly forms and bright colours. And even if this creative activity produces the most arbitrary shapes, it will be harmonious despite the apparent lack of proportion, for One sensibility formed it into a characteristic whole.
This characteristic art is indeed the only true art. If it springs from a sincere, unified, original, autonomous feeling, unconcerned, indeed unaware of anything alien to it, then whether born of coarse savagery or cultured sensitivity it is a living whole.

In the spirit of Rousseau, then, true genius is not concerned with anything outside itself; it is not afflicted by the perverted modern obsession with comparing oneself to one’s competitors in the struggle for social recognition (Eigenliebe, amour-propre). Therefore, artistic coherence is as likely to be found in ancient or “primitive” cultures as in the rational civilization of Enlightened Europe. In “civilized” nations this creativity may indeed have been lost. The vigor of the imagination can be dimmed by the complex arrangements of religion, class, law, and especially the social relations that generate amour-propre and interpose themselves between nature and the senses. Above all, it is our dependency on complex social relations that weakens our natural Charakter. So Goethe writes in a review published in 1772:

Sobald eine Nation polirt ist, sobald hat sie conventionelle Wege zu denken, zu handeln, zu empfinden, sobald hört sie auf Charakter zu haben. [. . .] Die Verhältnisse der Religion, die mit ihnen auf das engste verbundenen bürgerlichen Beziehungen, der Druck der Gesetze, der noch größere Druck gesellschaftlicher Verbindungen und tausend andere Dinge lassen den polirten Menschen und die polirte Nation, nie ein eigenes Geschöpf sein [. . .]. (WA 1.37:274)
As soon as a nation is polished, its ways of thinking, acting, feeling become conventional, and it ceases to have character. [. . .] The arrangements of religion, the relations of class that are so closely associated with them, the oppressive power of the law, the still greater oppressive power of social relations and a thousand other things mean that a civilized person and a civilized nation can never be truly their own creature [. . .].

On the level of the nation, then, what is at stake is individuality and difference. The threat to national Charakter is the very social, political, and legal structures that define civilization, for these are the products of human rationality, which is by definition uniform. Charakter, on the other hand, is by definition individual. A nation with Charakter cannot yet have succumbed to “the vile and deceiving uniformity that prevails in our morals,” as Rousseau wrote in his First Discourse in response to the Academy of Dijon’s prize question of “whether the restoration of the sciences and arts has contributed to the purification of morals.”5 Goethe therefore uses Charakter in two importantly different ways. The Charakter of an individual is closely associated with self-preservation, which is universal in nature. The cultural products we call “charakteristische Kunst” stem from this one universal drive. Of course, the sensibility of artists differs, as does the environment in which they create. Still, on the level of the individual, Charakter is a mixture of the particular and the universal. The Charakter of a nation, on the other hand, is the product of climate and environment and is utterly unique.

Charakter and Politics Before the French Revolution

Charakter plays an important role in the distinctive political philosophy that Goethe developed in the 1770s from his reading of Spinoza, Rousseau, and Justus Möser (1720–1794). As in his early writings on the arts, Goethe is concerned with both the individual and the national Charakter. The fullest formulation of this philosophy is in the play Egmont (1774–1788), which dramatizes the events leading up to the revolt of the Low Countries against Spain in the third quarter of the sixteenth century, and which employs the concept of Charakter in complex ways, again in response to Rousseau. Only a schematic analysis can be given here of the play’s complex and nuanced portrayal of conflicting political ideas and practices. Suggestions for further reading are given at the end of this entry.

The play is structured around the antithesis of Charakter, in the person of its hero Egmont, versus the political rationalism of his ally Oranien (William of Orange) and their Spanish antagonist the Duke of Alba. The allies Egmont and Oranien agree that the traditional political arrangements of the Low Countries must be preserved, but they disagree about how to achieve this. Egmont believes that the Spanish authorities should be trusted to adhere to the laws and conventions of the Holy Roman Empire. However, his trust in the authorities is misplaced: it delivers him into their hands and enables Alba to have him executed. Viewed in narrow terms then, Egmont is a failure, for he misreads the intentions of the Spaniards and is executed before his people rise up in rebellion. In this sense, Egmont’s aspiration to live freely according to one’s natural Charakter is attractive but out of step with the emergence of political modernity.

The different tactics of Egmont and Oranien stem from their quite different attitudes to politics. A positive construal of Egmont’s politics would be that the traditions of the Low Countries express a shared experience, or, as he puts it to Alba: a citizen of the Low Countries will trust his leaders among the local nobility “weil er weiß wie er geführt wird, weil er von ihnen Uneigennutz, Theilnehmung an seinem Schicksal hoffen kann” (WA 1.8:268; because he knows how he will be led and can expect from these leaders unselfishness, concern with the people’s fate). At the root of Egmont’s conception of politics is trust. Oranien’s attitude is one of mistrust, and it breeds further mistrust. The Spanish Regent Margarete von Parma describes Oranien as follows: “soll ich aufrichtig reden; ich fürchte Oranien [. . .] Oranien sinnt nichts Gutes, seine Gedanken reichen in die Ferne, er ist heimlich” (WA 1.8:189; To be frank, I fear Oranien [. . .]. Oranien is up to no good, his thoughts extend into the distance, he is secretive). The Regent is not alone in portraying Oranien as scheming and untrustworthy. Oranien describes himself as a chess-player, constantly guessing his opponent’s next move and therefore trapped in a logic of reaction.6 He does not give any indication of his own values and beliefs. Goethe allows Oranien no private hinterland outside of the public world of politics. The modern malaise of amour-propre has entirely consumed him. (The portrayal of William of Orange as a Machiavellian character goes right back to one of Goethe’s seventeenth-century sources.)7 The private-public antithesis emerges most strikingly when Egmont visits his beloved Clärchen in Act III. He admits to her that his public self is “ein verdrießlicher, steifer, kalter Egmont, der an sich halten, bald dieses bald jenes Gesicht machen muß” (WA 1.8:243; an irascible, stiff, cold Egmont. Who has to keep up appearances, now make this face, now that). By contrast, his private self is calm, happy, and at ease. Oranien resembles the “stiff, cold” public-facing Egmont, not the warm and loving one. Indeed, this public, hollowed-out self is typical of modern civilization. As Goethe wrote in the review quoted above, in a civilized nation people can “nie ein eigenes Geschöpf sein” (WA 1.37:274; never be one’s own creature). Civilization destroys Charakter and remakes human nature in conformity with a rational socio-political order. This is what alarms Egmont about the Spanish King’s plans for the Low Countries:

Die Kraft seines Volks, ihr Gemüth, den Begriff den sie von sich selbst haben, will er schwächen, niederdrücken, zerstören, um sie bequem regieren zu können. Er will den innern Kern ihrer Eigenheit verderben [. . .]. Er will sie vernichten, damit sie etwas werden, ein ander Etwas. (WA 1.8:270)
The vigor of his people, their spirit, the conception they have of themselves — he wants to weaken, oppress, destroy these, in order to be able to rule them easily. He wants to corrupt the very core of their individuality [. . .]. He wants to annihilate them so that they will become something, a different something.

In the later stages of the play, we see what the process of denaturing will lead to. In Act IV, one of the Brussels citizens describes Alba’s Spanish soldiers marching through the streets of Brussels “wie Maschinen, in denen ein Teufel sitzt” (WA I.8:246; like machines with a a devil inside them)—a stark example of what an annihilated and refashioned people will look like. Egmont makes a similar point about the Spanish soldiers guarding him on the eve of his execution: they are commanded by “ein hohles Wort des Herrschers, nicht ihr Gemüth” (WA 1.8:305; the ruler’s hollow words, not their own spirit).

If political effectiveness is bought at the cost of becoming soulless and mechanical, Egmont’s insistence on retaining his individuality, even at the cost of political failure, seems all the more admirable. Unlike Oranien or the Spanish soldiers, Egmont expressly refuses to let other people’s thoughts govern his own. He justifies this with two poetic images. First, he compares himself to a sleepwalker on a rooftop whose friends should not wake him for fear that he might fall to his death (WA 1.8:218–19), and then to a charioteer driven headlong by horses he cannot steer (WA 1.8:220). The two images together convey Goethe’s unique reworking of Spinoza and Rousseau. Character is a powerful mental resource, unconscious and unaffected by external influences, largely beyond the control of puny human reason. Any attempt to change our character, whether from without or within, is at best doomed to failure and at worst dangerous.

Needless to say, the play’s political meaning cannot be reduced to the beliefs of any of its characters. For one thing, the success of the struggle for independence in the Low Countries will depend on both Egmont and Oranien. By devoting himself to political prudence and consuming his selfhood with anxious anticipation of the actions of others, Oranien saves his own life and ensures the people will have a leader in the battles to come. However, the rebellion will only begin because of Egmont’s martyrdom, charisma, and political obtuseness. Here lies the key to the play’s politics. In order to be an ideal, Egmont must be a failure in political reality. This is because politics can only be meaningful, as distinct from merely effective, if it imagines something outside of and better than its own machinations, if it can convey a vision of the good life. Egmont’s richness of character motivates the rebellion by giving the people that vision. The people will rebel in Egmont’s name and in the cause of a life worth living. However, Oranien shows that the corrosive and denaturing effect of modern politics has made a good life hard to find. The ending of the play is therefore open, and although we know that part of the Low Countries will be liberated from Spanish rule, it is unclear what modernity will look like.8 Certainly Goethe himself did not believe that modernity was unalloyed progress. As he noted in his diary in Venice in October 1786, with the manuscript of Egmont packed in his trunk and awaiting completion: “die Zeit des Schönen ist vorüber, nur die Noth und das strenge Bedürfniß erfordern unsre Tage” (WA 3.1:266; the age of beauty has passed, our days call only for need and rigid necessity).

Charakter and Politics After the French Revolution

In modern conservative thought, character is deployed as a counterargument to liberal and radical arguments for the power of reason in politics. Reason is powerless because in reality different rational principles are in competition with one another, and reason has no way of adjudicating between them. In place of or as a supplement to reason, soundness of character becomes the resource with which we make political judgments. Thus, character became a key concept for those like Goethe who pre-empted the emergence of conservatism around 1830. Two examples will show character at work in politics, both written under the shadow of the War of the First Coalition against France: Goethe’s unfinished drama Die Aufgeregten (1793; Agitated), and his autobiographical account of the recapture of the city of Mainz from the French revolutionary armies in 1793, Belagerung von Mainz (The Siege of Mainz), written in the early 1820s. In both works again Charakter is a central concern.

The action of Die Aufgeregten takes place in a fictional petty German principality ruled by a moderate and progressive countess. Her attempts to improve the principality’s roads are being delayed by a standoff with the local peasantry over the imposition of extra duties on them under the corvée. The standoff cannot be resolved, because for his own financial gain a corrupt court official has stolen an ancient legal document that sets out the peasantry’s rights and duties. The countess and her chief advisor devise a plan to reclaim the document, by giving the official’s nephew a job in the court archives and tasking him with finding the document. However, as the countess’s daughter Friederike correctly observes, the plan to employ the official’s nephew would amount to rewarding the corrupt official for his crime and would therefore be an injustice. Before the plan can be activated, Friederike on a whim threatens the corrupt official at gunpoint and forces a confession from him. She averts the rebellion, restores peace to the principality and punishes the official, as justice demands. There are two reasons to interpret Friederike’s solution as conservative. One is that she is portrayed as an arch-conservative. She loathes the Revolution, wants to hunt in the peasants’ fields even before the crops have been brought in, and when she is told the peasants have just complaints about the corvée, she suggests shooting them (WA 1.18:43). The other reason is that she is a person of sound character who judges others simply as she finds them. When she is informed of the corrupt official’s criminality and incompetence, she draws the only conclusion available to her plain person’s view of the world: the official is a rogue and must be punished (WA 1.18:70). It is this straightforwardness that is the key to her character. Her solution to the problem—pointing a gun at the official—is the spontaneous, unreflecting action of a person of sound character. The play implies that reason is incapable of finding a just solution, for the political rationality of the countess and her advisor, though no doubt clever and likely to be effective, was morally repugnant. Friederike’s spontaneous act demonstrates that Charakter has more political force than reason.

A similar argument is made in an infamous anecdote in Belagerung von Mainz (WA 1.33:311–15). For the most part the events Goethe narrates in his account of the siege tally with the historical record, but the strange anecdote is reported in no other historical documents and is most likely fictional.9 Under the treaty of surrender, the French garrison was given safe passage out of Mainz, along with any native Mainz Jacobin sympathizers who had burnt their boats in their hometown and might prefer to emigrate to France. The anecdote begins as the departing garrison passes in front of the quarters of Goethe’s Duke Carl August, a major-general in the Prussian cavalry. Some loyalist citizens of Mainz who had fled the French occupation are waiting to take violent reprisals on the departing Mainz Jacobins. Goethe imagines himself at an upper window of Carl August’s quarters, looking down on the departing column as they run the gauntlet of the angry loyalists. At his side is Carl August’s English friend Charles Gore. A contingent of French infantry is passing below, accompanied by some young women of Mainz at whom a crowd of loyalist bystanders hurl abuse. Next, a man on horseback draws the crowd’s attention. Some in the crowd identify the man as an architect who during the French occupation has allegedly plundered the cathedral chapter and set fire to it. There are shouts of “Stop him! Kill him!” The crowd is about to attack the architect, when Goethe races downstairs and out into the square shouting “Stop!” Having distracted the crowd, he tells them that “hier sei das Quartier des Herzogs von Weimar, der Platz davor sei heilig” (WA 1.33:313; these are the quarters of the Duke of Weimar, and the square in front is sacred). His impromptu lecture pacifies the crowd, and the architect is allowed to pass unharmed. On going indoors, Goethe is upbraided by Gore for his audacity. A semi-humorous debate ensues, which Goethe ends with what he feels is a clinching argument:

Ich wies ihn immer scherzhaft auf den reinen Platz vor dem Hause und sagte zuletzt ungeduldig: es liegt nun einmal in meiner Natur, ich will lieber eine Ungerechtigkeit begehen als Unordnung ertragen. (WA 1.33:315)
I kept pointing out to him in jest the clean square in front of the house and finally said impatiently: it is simply in my nature, I prefer to commit an injustice than to endure disorder.

There has been much debate concerning the meaning of the anecdote. One possibility is that by preventing harm to the architect Goethe wanted to protect the Duke’s reputation for humanity and Weimar’s status as a beacon of intellectual liberality.

However, on a more theoretical level, the anecdote articulates the same principle as the arch-conservative Friederike’s spontaneous intervention in Die Aufgeregten. Goethe’s answer to Gore is that he intervened because it is in his nature to do so: “es liegt nun einmal in meiner Natur, ich will lieber eine Ungerechtigkeit begehen als Unordnung ertragen” (WA 1.33:315; it is simply in my nature, I prefer to commit an injustice than to endure disorder). This is in reply to Gore bemusedly asking what bug has bitten Goethe to make him behave so rashly. Gore’s question and Goethe’s answer are designed to show that Goethe acted on impulse, just as Friederike did when she pointed her gun at the corrupt official. In racing down to the street and plunging into the angry crowd, Goethe acted spontaneously and instinctively, prompted simply by his nature. His lecture to the bystanders was a piece of improvisatory theater. The whole anecdote is a display of his spontaneous genius. Both episodes therefore express a conservative view of what happens when political rationality confronts complex realities. In Die Aufgeregten, the Countess’s and her adviser’s clever plan conflicts with the manifest injustice of rewarding the official for his crime. In Belagerung von Mainz, it is the principles of justice and order that are in conflict. If the architect is handed over to the mob, justice will be done at the expense of order. If the architect is spared, order will be preserved at the expense of justice. How are we to resolve these conflicts of political principle? Goethe’s answer is that, when political principles (justice, order, etc.) are in conflict, as is commonly the case, theoretical reflection cannot help us, and only our resources of good character can cut the Gordian knot. In this sense, Charakter enjoys priority over political rationality. Charakter is a resource quite distinct from reason, its origins hidden deep in the psyche—hence the spontaneity both of Friederike’s confrontation with the corrupt official and of Goethe’s audacious intervention outside the Duke’s quarters.

Charakter, Ethics, and Reason: Contra Kant

Goethe’s most extensive reflections on Charakter appear in his untitled and anonymous essay on Winckelmann (1717-1768) in the volume Winckelmann und sein Jahrhundert (1805; Winckelmann and his Century) and the essay “Newtons Persönlichkeit” in the Farbenlehre (1810; Newton’s Personality, Theory of Colour). The Winckelmann essay contains a section titled “Charakter” (WA 1.46:60–62); the essay on Newton (1624-1726) contains an excursus on Charakter (WA 2.4/2:97–104). What follows will treat these two texts as a single argument. Goethe’s high opinion of Winckelmann is well known. His opinion of Newton was mixed: he was willing to grant Newton’s genius, especially in mathematics; his judgment of Newton’s personality was generally positive; and although he accused Newton of deceit and dogmatism in the polemical part of the Farbenlehre, in “Newtons Persönlichkeit” he blames Newton’s followers more than the man himself. Two further points need to be made by way of context. In the late 1790s, Goethe reacted strongly against what he saw as an unhealthy tendency to focus on the self: examples of the tendency included some of the new Romantic literature and the tendency of Kant and his followers to re-describe objective facts as states of mind. Second, in 1798 Goethe tried and failed to apply Kant’s philosophy to his stalled work on optics. Although he does not mention Kant by name in either of the passages under discussion here,10 both passages are obviously shaped by his reaction to Kant.

In contrast to the strongly normative function of Charakter in his earlier writings, Goethe now treats it as a more neutral psychological descriptor. Charakter is a force of nature. All beings possess it, not only humans. To possess Charakter, a being must merely experience itself as a unity; it must have some kind of self that it wants to preserve as “ungetrennt und unverrückt” (WA 2.4/2:99; undivided and undeflected). Charakter is “eine ewige nothwendige Gabe der Natur” (WA 2.4/2:99; an eternal necessary gift of nature). To have Charakter is to be driven by an inner force or propension. Even a worm possesses it, insofar as the worm will writhe if disturbed. In this sense, Charakter is close to Rousseauian self-preservation (Selbstliebe, amour de soi). Again, in contrast to his earlier understanding, Goethe now extends Charakter to all persons, not only to those whom civilization has not denatured, and not only to those to whom we might attribute moral or psychological strength. Hence weak or cowardly persons possess Charakter just as much as strong persons do. An example of a weak person possessing Charakter might be someone who has renounced the social capital of honor and good repute in order to preserve their individuality (WA 2.4/2:99). Charakter therefore denotes the resources of a person’s intrinsic nature, whatever those resources are.

In defining Charakter as a natural force, Goethe establishes his distance from Kant. The attributes of Charakter belong entirely to the phenomenal realm. They are quite unrelated to the moral ideas of Kant’s ethics or to Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception, with their source in the noumenal realm—except insofar as Charakter might be said to occupy a similar position in Goethe’s moral psychology to the transcendental unity of apperception in Kant’s theory of mind, lying at the focal point of all expressions of behavior and beyond all mere contingency. Whereas the Kantian moral subject is motivated by a noumenal will (Wille), character is a matter of asserting the desire for life through willing (“Wollen,” WA 2.4/2:100). The Kantian Wille is orientated only and always towards what is right: its focus is on moral ideas within the self; it is grounded in autonomy; through the categorical imperative, it has a connection with the very idea of lawfulness. Goethe’s Wollen has no regard for moral ideas: its focus is on external objects; it is grounded in nature.11 This should not be taken to mean that Wollen is morally inferior to Wille; on the contrary, our natural Wollen is just as capable of attaining those moral ends that we judge to be good. It should be noted, then, that Goethe does not reject outright moral systems such as Kant’s, at least not at this point in his argument. He simply thinks that there is a perfectly adequate way of describing good behavior that makes no reference to moral judgments. More generally, where the terms good and evil occur in his writing, they often appear together, so as to suggest that in humans the one is not found without the other: judgment in the straightforward terms of good or evil is facile,12 for life in all its nuance and complexity will always elude clumsy human attempts to force it into tidy categories. Similarly, in the notes to the West-östlicher Divan (1819; West-Eastern Divan) he redefines the term “ethisch” (ethical) so as to strip out of it any moral content whatsoever; ethical descriptions relate to “Ereignisse und Andeutungen, die sich auf den Menschen überhaupt und seine Zustände beziehen, ohne daß dabei ausgesprochen werde, was gut oder bös sei” (WA 1.7:151; events and intimations relating to human beings in general and their circumstances, without any verdict as to whether something is good or evil). The Winckelmann essay as a whole can be understood as an ethical typology, in Goethe’s peculiar sense of the term ethical.13 In the same way, it is possible to describe Winckelmann’s behaviour without reference to morality. Winckelmann is an example of goodness resulting from instinct and emotion, and with no need for moral principles (WA 1.46:61). All his motives can be formulated satisfactorily in terms of his natural character, even the motives that result in the very highest moral ends, such as Kantian duty. (Winckelmann was notable, Goethe says, for doing his duty [WA 1.46:27].) Charakter, therefore, can in some cases fully replace and be equal to a system of morality based on reason.

Goethe considers the Kantian system of morality to suffer from a poorly balanced relation to external reality, whereas a sound character enjoys a healthy relation to its world. In order for this argument to work, Goethe’s definition of Charakter needs to be more than just a force of nature. On the one hand, therefore, he is careful to define Charakter so as to include attention to one’s mental and emotional states. Indeed, Winckelmann attended to the full range of his own mental experience, from the mundane to the sublime (WA 1.46:61). On the other hand, a character like Winckelmann’s has no need for self-observation, by which Goethe means a constant focus on the self, with all its pathological consequences (WA 1.46:61). The distinction between attending to and observing the self enables Goethe to argue that Charakter consists in a healthy balance between self and world. Undue focus on the self disturbs and distorts our relationship to the world. If one focuses too much on the self, one risks creating unhealthy expectations. The most obvious of these is the belief in a personal God who guarantees salvation. Winckelmann had no need for a God of this kind. His God was purely external—it was the source of natural and artistic beauty (WA 1.46:61). Here Goethe clearly has in mind Spinoza’s “intellectual love of God” (amor dei intellectualis) and his principle that “whoever loves God, cannot desire that God should love him in return.”14 A tendency to indulge in self-observation will upset our relation to the world and contravene Spinoza’s principle.

Goethe is also concerned to distance himself from Kant in his analysis of the character of Winckelmann’s scholarship and Newton’s science. A love of truth can be rooted in our character; however, the pursuit of truth can go awry in a person who is excessively orientated towards reason. Winckelmann enjoyed an “angeborne Wahrheitsliebe” which “entfaltete sich immer mehr und mehr, je selbständiger und unabhängiger er sich fühlte” (WA 1.46:61; innate love of truth [. . .] manifested itself more strongly the more autonomous and independent he felt himself). The more he was able to rise above his constrained circumstances, the more robust his attitude to error became, and the less indulgent he was towards the errors of others, and properly so (WA 1.46:61). This is how a person will develop who is deeply concerned with truth and has a balanced relation to external objects.

Newton’s case is different. Although Newton’s Charakter was sound, his relation to external objects was unbalanced by the fact that the “Organ” (organ) with which he apprehended the world was mathematics (WA 2.4/2:97). It is not possible to go into detail here on Goethe’s attitude toward the role of mathematics in natural science. Suffice it to say that, like Kant, Goethe equates mathematics with reason, but unlike Kant, he considers the non-inductive nature of mathematical proofs to mean that mathematics has no necessary relation to natural phenomena. He agrees with Kant that mathematical knowledge is a priori, or as Goethe puts it “rein und sicher” (WA 2.4/2:98; pure and certain). However, he disagrees with Kant’s view that mathematics is the touchstone of science, or as Kant states in the Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science: “in any special doctrine of nature there can be only as much proper science as there is mathematics therein.”15 On the contrary, Goethe believes that mathematics is liable to diverge from empirical phenomena, and that it “[kann] eben so gut, wie jede anderer ausgeübte Maxime, zum Irrtum verleiten, ja den Irrtum ungeheuer machen und sich künftige Beschämungen vorbereiten” (WA 2.4/2:98; [can], like any thoroughly applied maxim, lead to error and indeed make the error enormous and pave the way for future embarrassments). The same is true of (Kantian) ethics and reason: “je moralischer, je vernünftiger ein Mensch ist, desto lügenhafter wird er” (WA 2.4/2:102; the more moral and rational a person is, the more deceitful he is likely to be). One might compare the view of humankind that Mephistopheles puts to the Lord in the “Prolog im Himmel” (Prologue in Heaven):

Ein wenig besser würd’ er leben,
Hätt’st du ihm nicht den Schein des Himmelslichts gegeben;
Er nennt’s Vernunft und braucht’s allein,
Nur thierischer als jedes Thier zu sein. (WA 1.14:20, ll. 283–6)
He’d live a little better, if you’d not given him a glimpse of heaven’s light; he calls it reason and uses it only to be more bestial than any beast.

A mathematician like Newton will have a problematic relation to empirical fact. Those like Newton who possess strength of Charakter and apprehend the world through mathematics or reason will be in constant disagreement with their own experience of the world. They may achieve some degree of awareness of this disagreement, but the awareness will only be sporadic and short lived, for nobody can tolerate living in constant disagreement with themselves. There is an easy way out of this bind: one could simply blame one’s errors on circumstances or other people. However, a strong Charakter like Newton’s will be too honest to do this, and so is bound to end up in a relationship to itself that Goethe terms “ironic”:

So entsteht zuletzt aus dem Conflict eines vernünftig richtenden Bewußtseins mit der zwar modificablen aber doch unveränderlichen Natur eine Art von Ironie in und mit uns selbst, so daß wir unsere Fehler und Irrthümer, wie ungezogene Kinder, spielend behandeln, die uns vielleicht nicht so lieb sein würden, wenn sie nicht eben mit solchen Unarten behaftet wären. (WA 2.4/2:103)
So finally, out of the conflict between a rationally judging consciousness and our certainly modifiable but ultimately unalterable nature, there arises a kind of irony in and with ourselves, so that we playfully treat our flaws and errors like badly behaved children, who would perhaps be less dear to us if they were not afflicted by such bad habits.

Goethe thus arrives at his settled view of Newton’s Charakter and work. Newton’s commitment to mathematics puts him in the paradoxical position of feeling obliged to tolerate his flaws precisely on account of their being flaws. Put simply, the irony of Newton’s science consisted in his being able to affirm two contradictory beliefs: a commitment to the phenomenon as presented to us by experimentation, and a commitment to mathematical reason which inevitably takes the scientist on a long detour away from the phenomena. The same is true of any strong character who apprehends the world through reason. The “new philosophy” and the modern craze for introspection have the same effect. They take one on a long and circuitous journey, which can only lead back to where one started. Winckelmann was a paradigm of the opposite approach: by remaining fully committed to sensuous phenomena and by dint of sheer Charakter, he could reach the heights of aesthetic and moral understanding by the most direct route.

  1. For a more detailed statement of the arguments in this entry, see Matthew Bell, Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology: Man and Other Plants (Oxford: OUP, 1994).
  2. Goethe, Begegnungen und Gespräche, eds. Ernst and Renate Grumach, 18 vols. (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1965–), 1:214–15.
  3. Jason Neidleman, Rousseau’s Ethics of Truth: A Sublime Science of Simple Souls (London: Routledge, 2017), chapter 7.
  4. Compare Peter Müller, “Charakteristische Kunst,” in Goethe-Handbuch: Personen, Sachen, Begriffe (A–K), ed. Bernd Witte, Theo Buck, Hans-Dietrich Dahnke, Regine Otto and Peter Schmidt (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1998), 160–63.
  5. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, trans. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: CUP, 1997), 8.
  6. John M. Ellis, “The Vexed Question of Egmont’s Political Judgement,” in Tradition and Creation: Essays in Honour of Elizabeth Mary Wilkinson, ed. C. P. Magill, Brian A. Rowley and Christopher A. Smith (Leeds: Maney, 1978), 124.
  7. Heinrich Clairmont, “Die Figur des Machiavell in Goethes Egmont,” Poetica, 15 (1963): 295.
  8. Peter Michelsen, “Egmonts Freiheit,” Euphorion, 65 (1971): 286.
  9. Gustav Seibt, Mit einer Art von Wut. Goethe in der Revolution (Munich: dtv, 2017), 124–29.
  10. He does however refer to Kant in the section titled “Philosophie” (WA 1.46:55).
  11. Contrast the account of Goethe’s ethics in Helmut Koopmann, “Ethik,” in Goethe-Handbuch: Personen, Sachen, Begriffe (A–K), ed. Bernd Witte, Theo Buck, Hans-Dietrich Dahnke, Regine Otto and Peter Schmidt (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1998), 280–2. Koopmann does stress the practical and active orientation of Goethe’s moral thinking, but does not distinguish between Goethe’s use of the term “ethisch” and the Kantian understanding of morality.
  12. Thomas Zabka, “Gutes/Böses,” in Goethe-Handbuch: Personen, Sachen, Begriffe (A–K), ed. Bernd Witte, Theo Buck, Hans-Dietrich Dahnke, Regine Otto and Peter Schmidt (Stuttgart: Metzler, 1998), 449.
  13. Bell, Goethe’s Naturalistic Anthropology, 273.
  14. Baruch Spinoza, Ethics, trans. Edwin Curley (London: Penguin, 1996), 169, revised by MB.
  15. Immanuel Kant, Metaphysical Foundations of Natural Science, trans. Michael Friedman (Cambridge: CUP, 2004), 5.

Works Cited and Further Reading