Gleichnis (Analogy, Likeness, Parable, Simile)

Christian Weber

The concept Gleichnis—together with original phenomenon (Urphänomen) and metamorphosis (Metamorphose)—is key to Goethe’s worldview and one of his favorite terms due to its semantic polyvalence and ambivalence in German. Primarily in religious contexts, Gleichnis means “likeness” and “parable”; in rhetoric it denotes “figurative language” in general; in poetry it refers specifically to a simile; and in philosophical terms it is grounded in “analogy.” Gleichnisse feature prominently in Goethe’s poetry as well as in his scientific and philosophical writings. Since he uses this concept self-reflexively, his oeuvre amounts to a theory of Gleichnis. This entry showcases Goethe’s poetic practice of Gleichnis in prominent examples ranging from lyric, epic, and drama, and in so doing seeks to outline the basic structure of Gleichnis as a metapoetic form of reflection which aims to harmonize and transcend the disciplinary differences between theological, philosophical, and scientific discourses.

  1. Introduction
  2. Word and Concept
  3. Significance of Gleichnis in Theology, Philosophy, and Science
  4. Goethe’s (Meta)Poetic Theory of the Gleichnis
  5. Conclusion
  6. Notes
  7. Works Cited and Further Reading


Not only poets use figurative language; prophets, philosophers, and scientists do so as well. Plato, for example, created many philosophical analogies to articulate his idealistic theory of knowledge. Jesus commonly resorted to parables to speak about an entity for which there is no equivalent on earth, namely the future Kingdom of God. Even modern scientists must resort to analogies and representations using figurative language to address what is still unknown and to articulate their hypotheses and insights so that they become comprehensible to both scientific and popular audiences. In all three examples, Gleichnis functions not just as an instrument of explanation but also operates as a medium to convey relations among things and establish contact with an ideal. As we shall see, Goethe’s use of Gleichnisse engages all three of these domains: philosophy, theology, and the sciences.

For Goethe, a Gleichnis is the outcome of a cognitive process that begins with the (aesthetic) intuition of a thing as it appears in its natural environment or cultural context, continues with the selection of an object of inquiry that is surveyed in all its relations and transformations, and ends with the imagination’s association of the now heightened virtual phenomenon with structurally or functionally similar phenomena that have been separated due to the scientific process: “Hier zeigt sich nun das Wünschenswerte der Analogie, die den Geist auf viele bezügliche Punkte versetzt, damit seine Tätigkeit alles das Zusammengehörige, das Zusammenstimmende wieder vereinige. Unmittelbar daraus erzeugen sich die Gleichnisse” (Here the analogy reveals its intrinsic value by shifting the mind’s attention to many related points so that it can actively reconjoin everything that belongs and harmonizes together. The creation of Gleichnisse follows immediately from this).1 Gleichnis is thus the outcome of a dialectical process in three stages: (1) the perception of a thing within a whole; (2) its scientific analysis through observation and experimentation; and (3) the poetic (re)synthesis of a whole in a comprehensive vision of the imagination. For this reason, Goethe regards a true Gleichnis the highlight of human cognition.

Goethe’s use of the term “wieder” (again) in the above-cited passage could also be understood in a historical and even metaphysical sense. Since the Newtonian revolution in the early eighteenth century, quantitative materialist approaches in the physical sciences increasingly became the norm (see section 3c), such that steps (1) and (3) soon dropped out of the process of scientific inquiry. As a result, Gleichnis—in the sense of analogy—lost esteem as an instrument of knowledge during Goethe’s time. The fact that Goethe nevertheless continued to insist on the usefulness of analogy—not just poetically but also scientifically—attests to his metaphysical belief in the continuity and harmony among all things in nature and to his effort to regain—at least on a poetic level—a unity lost to modernity. For Goethe, Gleichnis functions as a crucial tool to bridge the different disciplines and to (re)establish relations across discourses. It also operates as a medium for reaching the highest level of intuitive cognition and for generating, through its reception, an aesthetic idea of an all-connected totality of Being, thereby fulfilling the ultimate function of poetry.

This somewhat anachronistic attitude towards Gleichnis in the sense of analogy can be viewed as emblematic of a newly emerging “world picture” at the threshold of modernity. On the one side, Goethe’s endeavors are still driven by the quest for totality that he found prefigured in the culture of classical antiquity, in medieval Judeo-Christian theology, and in Spinoza’s monism. His production of Gleichnisse still operates within these frameworks and aspires to reveal ontological relations. Yet, on the other side, Goethe must reckon with modern experiences of contingency and dissociation. His production of Gleichnisse is therefore also an individual process of combining open-ended scientific inquiry with boundless poetic creativity.

Word and Concept

According to Grimm’s Wörterbuch and Adelung’s Grammatisch-Kritisches Wörterbuch, Gleichnis denotes a wide scope of semantic meaning ranging from abstract concepts of comparison (“identity,” “likeness,” “similarity,” “analogy,” and “homology”) to concrete types of figurative language (“metaphor,” “metonymy,” “symbol,” “example,” “emblem”) and complex poetic forms (“simile,” “allegory,” “parable,” and “fable”).2 Although the denotation of Gleichnis as a poetic term prevails in today’s linguistic usage, all these other wide-ranging denotations were in use in Goethe’s day as well, and he utilized the full semantic spectrum of the term in his work.3 No English translation of Gleichnis carries the same polyvalent potential of meaning, and for this reason I will use the German term throughout unless a specific meaning is expressed.

Since the term Gleichnis cannot be adequately defined, it is not a philosophical concept in the strict sense; rather, it denotes and even elicits associations beyond the limits of rational and linguistic differentiation. Goethe’s persistent use of this elusive and transgressive term attests to an unphilosophical, perhaps even anti-philosophical attitude. Conversely, however, his poetics of Gleichnis articulates an implicit critique of tendencies in Judeo-Christian theology and in the philosophy and sciences of his time that continues to be relevant.

Significance of Gleichnis in Theology, Philosophy, and Science

Gleichnisse have played a crucial role in the history of theology, philosophy, and the sciences. Although these disciplines often express opposition, even hostility to using Gleichnisse and figurative speech, their discourses nonetheless abound with them. This results in a discrepancy between the theoretical self-conception of these disciplines, on the one hand, and their practice, on the other—a discrepancy which Goethe’s theory of Gleichnis exposes. Here we can observe a general shift in relevance away from Gleichnis as modes of likeness and parable, which Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–81) and the early Goethe reutilized against Christian orthodoxy, toward a more unrestricted concept of Gleichnis as analogy, which the later Goethe applied as a critical instrument to counter the reductionist trend of modern sciences based on Newton’s mathematical-analytical principles.

a) Theology: The paradox of disavowing yet employing Gleichnisse manifests itself in an exemplary manner in the foundational texts of the Judeo-Christian belief-system, as for example in the first commandment: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex 20:4). Yet the same text also maintains that “in the day that God created man, in the likeness of God he made him” (Gen 5:1). (Luther translated as “Gleichnis” what James rendered as “likeness.”) Augustine proclaimed the “similitudo spiritualis” between God and man, yet, in compliance with the commandment, he denied man the most fundamental divine power: the faculty to imagine the invisible and make images of God or other fantastic beings. (Augustine argued in his doctrine of original sin that mankind forfeited the right to use their creative faculty freely due to the Fall from Grace.) In the early stage of his literary career, Goethe struggles with this Judeo-Christian dogma in the Ur-Faust and the hymn “Prometheus” (1785, composed around 1774). For instance, Prometheus insists on making Gleichnisse and “forme Menschen / Nach meinem Bilde / Ein Geschlecht das mir gleich sei” (FA 1.1:204; forming humans in my image, a race to resemble me).4 In a letter, Goethe writes in the same spirit to Countess Stolberg: “Mußte er [Gott] Menschen machen nach seinem Bild, ein Geschlecht das ihm ähnlich sey, was müssen wir fühlen wenn wir Brüder finden, unser Gleichniss, uns selbst verdoppelt” (Briefe 1:176; If He had to form humans in His image, a race to resemble Him, what must we feel when we find brethren, our likeness, double images of ourselves).

Jesus broke with Jewish aniconism when he presented his visions of God’s Kingdom in the form of parables. As the “Parable of the Sower” illustrates, this Kingdom becomes reality to those who are willing to invest in the poeticity of his Gleichnis, i.e., who plant the Kingdom within themselves as believers and spread its seeds when sharing the parable’s message with others, thereby constituting the Kingdom as a quasi-real Gleichnis already on earth. This example reveals the intrinsic poetic und productive power of the parable (see the remarks on “poeticity” and “productivity” in section 3b below) but also its reliance on the (religious) belief of the audience to have this effect.

During Goethe’s time, faith had turned into orthodox dogmatism, against which he rebelled at an early age by identifying with the figure of Prometheus, the mythical role model of defiance. In general, though, Goethe abstains from parables and fables in his poetic work—with the one major exception of Reineke Fuchs (1794)—for two reasons: First, the poetic force of the parable was already utilized as a critical literary device, for example by Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (1715–69), to protest social and political conditions and by Lessing to criticize orthodox Christianity. Lessing’s famous “ring parable” in Nathan der Weise (1779; Nathan the Wise), for example, deconstructs the ideology of belief on which the religious parable relies and thereby exhausts this specific form of Gleichnis. Goethe recognized that he could not have surpassed Lessing’s accomplishments in parables. Second, and more importantly, the parable is genuinely allegorical in nature. (The main difference between parable and allegory is that the former discloses the referent of the comparison whereas the latter conceals it.) Parable and allegory aim for the representation of a concrete object, such as a concept or a social problem, and pursue a concrete goal or effect. They are rational constructions that operate within a closed and static system of signification. This runs counter to Goethe’s poetic nature and his dynamic worldview. His conception and poetic practice of the Gleichnis tend more toward analogy within a field of open-ended philosophical and scientific inquiry.

b) Philosophy: In his rhetorical instruction Institutio Oratoria, Quintilian identifies a fundamental epistemological problem for which the analogy (and subsequently the articulation of its outcome in form of a Gleichnis) offers at least a provisional solution:

There are special rules which must be observed both by speakers and writers. Language is based on reason, antiquity, authority and usage. Reason finds its chief support in analogy and sometimes in etymology. [. . .] But in all these cases we have need of a critical judgment, especially as regards analogy (a Greek term for which a Latin equivalent has been found in proportion). The essence of analogy is the testing of all subjects of doubt by the application of some standard of comparison about which there is no question, the proof that is to say of the uncertain by reference to the certain.5

Analogy relates to elements of certainty/visibility to infer and articulate some insight about that which is uncertain/invisible. The relationship must be established based on a “standard of comparison” by which the uncertain/invisible elements can be rendered as somewhat certain/visible. But since any analogy is marked by this fundamental difference of its components, which is amplified by further ontological differences in play between referred idea, perceived object(s), linguistic concepts and poetic means of expression, the analogy and even more so the Gleichnis remain in a constant state of oscillation and therefore ambiguous. Consequently, the relationship between the poetic product (and producer) of a Gleichnis and its recipient is marked by the same oscillating instability and hermeneutic ambiguity. Yet analogy remains the only medium to approach the uncertain/invisible through something certain/visible and to bridge this fundamental cognitive gap.

In a study devoted to iconology in philosophy, Bernhard Taureck identifies three critical features of Gleichnisse: poeticity, reflectivity, and productivity.6 To these, I will add totality as a fourth.

(i) Poeticity: Metaphors and Gleichnisse consist of epistemically impossible combinations which are presented and understood as if they were possible (Taureck, Metaphern und Gleichnisse, 74). Both metaphor and Gleichnis are outcomes of an analogy determined not by the congruence of reference and object (i.e., truth) but by the congruence of poetic expression and object (Taureck, Metaphern und Gleichnisse,78). This is a crucial distinction also observed by Goethe, but one Goethe further complicates by conceiving the analogy and resulting Gleichnis not just as constituting congruence between object and language but also as mediating the poetic expression in direct reference to this object. On the one hand, Goethe fully embraces the freedom of analogy’s poetic mode of expression:

Die Poesie hat in Absicht auf Gleichnisreden und uneigentlichen Ausdruck sehr große Vorteile vor allen übrigen Sprachweisen, denn sie kann sich eines jeden Bildes, eines jeden Verhältnisses nach ihrer Art und Bequemlichkeit bedienen. Sie vergleicht Geistiges mit Körperlichem und umgekehrt; den Gedanken mit dem Blitz, den Blitz mit dem Gedanken, und dadurch wird das Wechselleben der Weltgegenstände am besten ausgedrückt. (FA 1.23/1:704–5)
Poetry has great advantages in relation to figurative language over all other modes of speech because it can apply with ease any image in relation to the mode of association. Figurative language compares the spiritual with the physical (and vice versa) and combines the succession of thinking with the lightning-speed spontaneity of an insight (and vice versa). This movement back and forth best enables the expression of the alternating states of all living things in the world.

As Goethe demonstrates here through the example of the metaphor “Geistesblitz,” poeticity is driven by the urge to transform the physical limitations of the human condition into the blissful spiritual experience of ignorance through the imagination’s lightning-fast associative power of unconditioning and replacing the “things in the world” with poetic thought-images: “Worte und Bilder sind Correlate, die sich immerfort suchen, wie wir an Tropen und Gleichnis genugsam gewahr werden” (FA 1.13:22; Words and images are correlates which search for each other unceasingly, as we effectively realize in the case of tropes and Gleichnisse). On the other hand, however, Goethe does not lose sight of the referent’s material reality (or its historical dialectic); for a relevant Gleichnis to form, the metaphorical basis of poeticity must be grounded in the truthful reference to a real, natural object: “Gleichnisse [setzen] das unmittelbarste Anschauen des Natürlichen voraus” (FA 1.3/1:181; Gleichnisse are conditioned by the most immediate intuition of what is natural). This caveat prevents the imagination from going astray in speculation and from becoming excessive in the production of metaphors without real meaning.

(ii) Reflectivity: In contrast to the metaphor, which articulates the poetic congruence between image and object without conditions and thus with lightning-fast speed, Gleichnis hints at a congruence among entities as if their conditions were known (Taureck, Metaphern und Gleichnisse, 75) and maintains and honors the reference to something real and visible. Hence reflectivity is always present in the Gleichnis and often exhibited by a comparative marker (“wie” or “gleich”).

(iii) Productivity refers here to Gleichnis’s capacity to embrace and create difference (in a move akin to Jacques Derrida’s notion of différance). Goethe articulates this insight in a crucial passage of the Farbenlehre (1810; Theory of Colors), where he recapitulates one of Rogerus Bacon’s (1220–92) main doctrines according to which “sich nämlich jede Tugend, jede Kraft, jede Tüchtigkeit, alles dem man ein Wesen, ein Dasein zuschreiben kann, ins Unendliche vervielfältigt und zwar dadurch, daß immerfort Gleichbilder, Gleichnisse, Abbildungen als zweite Selbstheiten von ihm ausgehen, dergestalt daß diese Abbilder sich wieder darstellen, wirksam werden, und indem sie immer fort und fort reflektieren, diese Welt der Erscheinungen ausmachen” (FA 1.23/1:705; each virtue, each faculty, each deed, each existing being multiplies and diversifies endlessly by ceaselessly creating simulacra, Gleichnisse, representations as second identities from itself. Ceaselessly reproducing and representing themselves, these images become productive, and by ceaselessly reflecting themselves, they create this world of appearances).

(iv) Totality: It follows from the above and a corresponding passage of the Farbenlehre about how light and colors are material “Gleichnisse” derived from the original divine virtue (FA 1.23/1:629) that the idea of an ontological continuity and relatability among all things forms the core of Goethe’s “Weltanschauung”: “Jedes Existirende ist ein Analogon alles Existirenden; daher erscheint uns das Daseyn immer zu gleicher Zeit gesondert und verknüpft” (FA 1.13:46; Each existing being is an analogy of everything that exists; thus, all beings appear to us always separate and connected at the same time).7 The Gleichnis must therefore aspire to express this idea; it strives toward a representation of totality. Yet, since no representation can ever reach this goal and at best capture only the individual relationships between things or of one being in the process of time, each Gleichnis with such aspiration is symbolic. If it were otherwise, if “man der Analogie zu sehr [folgt], so fällt alles identisch zusammen” (ibid; if one follows analogy too closely, everything collapses and becomes identical). Totality as such is—like the allegory—a false absolute, that is, death. The closest any Gleichnis could come to a total expression of harmony among all living beings—though it would be a harmony tottering on the brink of silence and death—is the peculiarly resonating lyrical mode of a reflection articulated in one of Goethe’s best-known poems—“Ein gleiches” (1780/1827; Another Night Song)—in which he articulates a totality that is philosophical rather than religious. Ever since reason has replaced religion, totality no longer resides in an external divine maker and shaker. Spinoza regarded any being integral to Being, and Leibniz found totality within any individual existence.8 Herder fostered these ideas in a student he tutored in Strasbourg, young Goethe. Goethe’s Gleichnis—as embodied by “Ein gleiches”—is like a monad that incorporates a cosmos of its own and as such reflects the entire universe.

The later Goethe continued to find new philosophical support for his obsession with producing Gleichnisse. In the Kritik der reinen Vernunft (1781; Critique of Pure Reason), Kant utilized the epigenetic hypothesis of organic development as an analogy for his transcendentally evolving theory of the mind’s faculties, and Goethe considered the main idea of Kant’s Kritik der Urtheilskraft (1790; Critique of Judgment) “ganz analog” (FA I.24:444; entirely compatible) with his own worldview: “das innere Leben der Kunst so wie der Natur, ihr beiderseitiges Wirken von innen heraus war in dem Buche deutlich ausgesprochen. [. . .] Mich freute, daß Dichtkunst und vergleichende Naturkunde so nah miteinander verwandt seien, indem beide sich derselben Urteilskraft unterwerfen” (ibid; the arts as well as nature’s inner life, their reciprocally effective inner dynamisms were clearly addressed in this work. [. . .] I was pleased that poetry and the comparative study of nature are considered so closely related since both are subject to the same power of judgment). Goethe drew inspiration as well from the natural philosophy of German Idealism (esp. F. W. J. Schelling) in as far as it supported his innermost conviction about the ontological interconnectedness and general comparability of all things and beings.

In the “analogy” chapter of her book on Goethe’s morphology, Eva Geulen refers to the above-cited passage to establish an analogy between the Kantian and Goethean analogy: “Understood as the schematism of Goethe’s logic reception, analogy functions neither as a heuristic instrument to establish coherence among things nor as a medium to create relations with the divine. It is nothing but the generic term for substitutive operations (analogically derived from Kant) in which one (e.g., nature, experience, Kant) is taken for another (e.g., art, idea, Goethe) while maintaining the relation in which each stands to the other.”9 While this technical conception of analogy certainly fits her book’s subject matter, the Hefte zur Morphologie (1817–24; Notebooks on Morphology), a caveat should be added to counter a possible misconception or potential misunderstanding of Geulen’s rigorous analysis. If Goethe’s analogical thinking is not per se concerned with relations among things, then this is the case only because it already marks the final step in his method of scientific inquiry. As outlined in “Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt” (1793; The Experiment as Mediator between Object and Subject, FA I.25:26–36) and in a complementing essay called “Das reine Phänomen” (1798; The Pure Phenomenon, FA I.25:125–27), the imagination is free to engage in analogies only after the “empirical phenomenon” has been secured as a “scientific phenomenon” through meticulous observations and serial experiments under various conditions and elevated to a “pure phenomenon” which reflects all changes in the sequence of their appearance. From this viewpoint, Goethe’s analogical thinking and its poetic expression in the Gleichnis are nevertheless driven by a philosophical and even religious aspiration toward the highest form of scientia intuitiva.10 The Goethean Gleichnis aims to reflect the communion of beings in a spiritual vision of Being that has been commonly reserved for God.

c) Science: Two main trends in the sciences, one since the seventeenth century and the other since the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, have made Goethe’s holistic worldview look obsolete. First, Galileo’s and Newton’s modern principles of physics have reduced complex phenomena to general laws, and these laws’ representation in mathematical formulae has led to an increased mechanization of nature and subsequently to its technical-industrial exploitation and transformation.11 Second, the discovery of new natural forces like electricity, magnetism, vitalism, atomism, etc. has promoted the emergence of new scientific disciplines and contributed to the specialization of knowledge. Reality thus differentiated into plural realities.

Instead of embracing these scientific trends and modifying his worldview accordingly, Goethe insisted ever more vehemently on the relevance of his analogical thinking and scientific methods that emphasize the attentive observation of the object of inquiry in its relations to neighboring objects and the changes it undergoes over time. Without entirely refuting the modern developments of science, Goethe at least hoped for his morphological studies to establish a complementary science and his poeto-scientific Gleichnisse to gain recognition as equally valid and precise outcomes of inquiry as the formulae of physics and chemistry. He emphasizes that these Gleichnisse “desto mehr Wert haben, je mehr sie sich dem Gegenstande nähern, zu dessen Erleuchtung sie herbeigerufen worden. Die vortrefflichsten aber sind: welche den Gegenstand völlig decken und identisch mit ihm zu werden scheinen” (Briefe 3:501; are the worthier the more they strive to equal the subject matter that they are supposed to illuminate. The most exquisite ones are those that enfold their subject matter completely to the point where they appear to become identical with it). In other words, the ideal of Goethe’s relational science is simulation.

Nonetheless, Goethe also subscribed to the common saying “jedes Gleichnis hink[t]” (FA 1.13:707–8; each Gleichnis limps), which indicates the impossibility of a total correlation between representation and object and thus of the ideal’s realization. Without a hint of resignation, he identifies as the cause of this incongruence the insufficiency of language and signs in general: “Alle unsere Erkenntnis ist symbolisch. Eins ist das Symbol vom andern: die magnetische Erscheinung Symbol der elektrischen, zugleich dasselbe und zugleich ein Symbol der andern. [. . .] Und so ist die Wissenschaft ein ‘künstliches’ Leben, aus Tatsache, Symbol, Gleichnis wunderbar zusammengeflossen” (All our knowledge is symbolic; one thing is the symbol of the other: the magnetic phenomenon is a symbol of the electrical, simultaneously itself and symbol of the other. [. . .] Henceforth, science amounts to an ‘artificial’ life, wonderfully composed from fact, symbol, and Gleichnis).12

When, however, the association between linguistic symbol and object (as a mere means of expression) is confused with the relation between reference and object (that is, conventional truth), the valuable Gleichnis turns into a negatively connoted figure of speech:

Die Formeln der Mathematik [an enumeration of diverse scientific disciplines follows], der Sittlichkeit, Religion und Mystik werden alle durcheinander in die Masse der metaphysischen Sprache eingeknetet [. . .]. [I]n der komplizierten höhern Kunstsprache hat es jetzt schon sehr üble Folgen, daß man das Symbol, das eine Annäherung andeutet, statt der Sache setzt, [. . .] und sich auf diesem Wege aus der Darstellung in Gleichnisreden verliert. (To Wilhelm von Humboldt, Briefe 4:484–85)
Mathematical, [any other scientific], ethical, religious, and mystical formulas are all kneaded into one mass of metaphysical language [. . .]. The fact that the symbol, which only indicates an approach, is substituted for the thing itself, already has a very detrimental effect on the complicated, elevated artificial language of science [. . .] whereby the process of representation fades into mere figures of speech.

Goethe depicted the negative effects of confusing the symbol with the thing in his novel Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities, see section 4b). Two scientific maxims to avoid this fatal confusion are, first, “das unmittelbarste Anschauen des Natürlichen, Wirklichen” (FA 1.3/1:181; the most immediate intuition of the natural and real) and, second, the emergence of the scientific Gleichnis “aus dem Grunde eines reinen ausgebildeten Gefühls” (ibid.; from the bottom of a pure, mature emotion), that is, based on the moral education of the heart. Hence, scientific inquiry must be supplemented by an ethical foundation that reconnects to the original virtue from which all symbols and Gleichnisse ultimately derive.

For Goethe, however, it does not mean the end of science if no adequate symbolic system is available to represent reality as real and whole. To the contrary, the productive impulse of science is driven by the very impossibility of total simulation, because identity would mean the collapse of difference and result in death (see section 3b above). The challenge is thus to create a “living Gleichnis” that strikes a balance between natural phenomenon and symbolic sign, body and concept, experience and idea, perception and reason, feeling and understanding, object and subject, scientific fact and poetic fiction.13 If it succeeds in representing at once (phenomenal) difference and (noumenal) identity, the Gleichnis can mediate between individual perspectives and affective states, bridge the divisions between specialized forms of knowledge, and communicate—as Goethe’s elegy “Die Metamorphose der Pflanzen” (1798; The Metamorphosis of Plants) does—a vision of universal wisdom.

Goethe’s (Meta)Poetic Theory of the Gleichnis

The entry “Gleichniß” in Sulzer’s Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste (1792; General Theory of the Beautiful Arts) defines the term exclusively in its poetic meaning of “simile” as an “extended comparison” (ausgeführte[n] Vergleich).14 To make similes requires a contemplative mind which composes a comprehensible image in association with an object or abstract concept either “to better grasp it and to give it a physical appearance” or “to experience it more vividly [. . .], to intensify its impression, and to enjoy it better” (424). From what we have seen so far, Goethe’s poetry tends to the former “instructive” (424) type of simile. This impression is further supported by a quick survey of his literary works that contain similes across all genres. Goethe employs philosophical similes even in drama, which Sulzer regards as unfit, especially for their philosophical-contemplative type, due to the genre’s physical action (426). Since Goethe’s poetic similes tend to reflect on their own intrinsic poeticity, reflectivity, and productivity, they amount to a metapoetical theory of Gleichnis.

a) Lyric Poetry: The “Ur”-Gleichnis of Goethe’s lyric poiesis is found in the first three line of his early poem “Mahomets Gesang” (1773; Mahomet’s Song): “Seht den Felsenquell / Freudehell / Wie ein Sternenblick!” (FA 1.1:193.1–3; See the mountain spring / Flash gladdening / Like a glance of stars!). One would assume that the “glance of stars” (Sternenblick) functions as the connotation to the denotating “mountain spring” (Felsenquell), but in fact the reverse is the case: the stars reflect (back on) themselves in the mirroring and sparkling surface of the water. The reflected stars have literally created a Gleichnis of themselves when their light attaches itself to water and reflects (on) itself—thereby becoming spirit—in their glance. In this specular, both self-reflective and other-receptive act of the Gleichnis, the spirit of light enjoys itself in this vision and discovers therein a potential for creating further Gleichnisse. From this perspective, the Gleichnis of “Mahomets Gesang” performs a metapoetic reflection of the Gleichnis’s poeticity, reflectivity, and continued productivity. The successful Gleichnis, in other words, begets further Gleichnisse and thus marks the origin and beginning of a poiesis.15

Over the course of Goethe’s lyric production, the connotative image of the original Gleichnis in “Mahomets Gesang” changes. A Gleichnis occurs in poems in which the lyrical subject, that is, the present persona of the poietic spirit reflects on how to overcome a crisis of creativity. The Gleichnis arrives like a heavenly gift that regenerates the spirit. Each of the following poems performs this regeneration to announce a new period of revitalized lyric productivity in Goethe’s oeuvre.

By contrast, “Auf dem See” (1775/1789; On the Lake)—written two years later than “Mahomets Gesang”—no longer connotes an exuberantly gushing rivulet, but a self-contained lake, indicating the maturity of the poietic spirit which has evolved as the poiesis progressed. In this poem, the lyric subject suffers from an emotional crisis and drowns itself in a “golden dream” from the past. It reemerges when it attaches itself to the pleasant images of nature that surround it: “Weg, du Traum! So Gold du bist; / Hier auch Lieb und Leben ist” (FA 1.1:297.11–12; Dream, though gold, away with you: Life is here and loving too). The lyric subject thus experiences a variant of the former Gleichnis: “Auf der Welle blinken / Tausend schwebende Sterne, / [. . .] / Und im See bespiegelt / Sich die reifende Frucht” (ll. 13–14, 19–20; Over the ripples twinkle a thousand hovering stars [. . .] And in the water reflects itself ripening fruit).16

Some twenty years later, in the sonnet “Mächtiges Überraschen” (1808/1815; Mighty Surprise), the Gleichnis returns to initiate yet another cycle of renewed life: “Sie [die Welle] schwankt und ruht, zum See zurückgedeichet; / Gestirne, spiegelnd sich, beschaun das Blinken / Des Wellenschlags am Fels, ein neues Leben” (FA 2:250.12–14; [The wave] rolls and rests, dammed into a lake; constellations, mirrored, fix their gaze on the flash of waves on the rock, [creating] a new life). Again, the Gleichnis initiates a new poetic momentum like the spark of a catalyst by refreshing the poietic spirit’s creativity through a new set of beautiful images to reflect upon and by echoing the previous poetic Gleichnisse as milestones and turning points for the evolving poiesis.

The final instance of a Gleichnis in Goethe’s lyric poiesis occurs in “Proœmion” (1817), which opens an encyclopedic collection of philosophical poems on Gott und Welt (1827; God and World). This ensemble represents the closing chapter of Goethe’s lyric poiesis and formulates a metapoetic résumé of its significance. In this opening poem, the lyrical subject (the self-addressing “du”/“you”) utters a conclusive metapoetic statement while surveying the poetic creations of its poietic spirit (“Ihm”/“Him”):

So weit das Ohr, so weit das Auge reicht
Du findest nur Bekanntes das Ihm gleicht,
Und deines Geistes höchster Feuerflug
Hat schon am Gleichnis, hat am Bild genug;
Es zieht dich an, es reißt dich heiter fort,
Und wo du wandelst schmückt sich Weg und Ort:
Du zählst nicht mehr, berechnest keine Zeit,
Und jeder Schritt ist Unermeßlichkeit. (FA 1.2:489.7–14).
As far as ear and eye are reaching, you only find semblances of Him, and your spirit’s most exalted fiery flight is satisfied with symbolic semblance and image. The symbol attracts and blithely pushes you forward, and wherever you roam, it adorns your path and place: You cease to count and calculate time, and every stride is immeasurability.

The final step toward the poiesis’s completion is the self-restraining immersion of the lyrical “you” in the a-temporality and non-spatiality of the Gleichnisse that the poietic spirit has created over time. (Of course, “Him” could be also interpreted as God and the “Gleichnis” as His Creation.) Thus, Goethe’s poiesis ends by making his own poetic Gleichnisse the subject matter of one of his last poems, whereby the poietic spirit’s life-long poetic self-reflection and reflection on the Gleichnis collapse by becoming identical.

b) Narration: Gleichnis also lies at the poetic core of Goethe’s Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809; Elective Affinities). In an anonymously published announcement of his new novel, the author leaves no doubt about the centrality of the titular metaphor:

Es scheint, daß den Verfasser seine fortgesetzten physikalischen Arbeiten zu diesem seltsamen Titel veranlaßten. Er mochte bemerkt haben, daß man in der Naturlehre sich sehr oft ethischer Gleichnisse bedient, um etwas von dem Kreise menschlichen Wissens weit Entferntes näher heranzubringen; und so hat er auch wohl in einem sittlichen Falle, eine chemische Gleichnisrede zu ihrem geistigen Ursprunge zurückführen mögen, um so mehr, als doch überall nur eine Natur ist [. . .]. (FA 1.8:974)
It seems that the author has been inspired to choose this strange title by his continued scientific studies. He may have realized that in natural sciences one very often employs ethical analogies/similes to bring closer phenomena that are quite remote from the circle of human knowledge; and so, presumably, he also wanted, in a moral case, to trace back a chemical figure of speech to its spiritual origin, all the more so since there is just one nature.

As in the letter to Wilhelm von Humboldt cited in sect. 3c, Goethe clearly distinguishes between the (generally appreciated) “ethischen Gleichnisse” (ethical analogies/similes) in the scientific discourse from the (generally skeptically viewed) “chemische Gleichnisrede” (chemical figure of speech) which sets the novel’s plot in motion. The protagonist Eduard, his wife Charlotte, and their mutual friend Otto—called “der Hauptmann” (the captain) because of his military rank—discuss the chemical reaction of double displacement, which the Swedish chemist Torbern Bergman (1735–84) attempted to illustrate through the ethical Gleichnis of “Wahlverwandtschaften” (elective affinities). The characters proleptically apply his formula of four elements to their current situation: “Nun denn! fiel Eduard ein: bis wir alles dieses mit Augen sehen, wollen wir diese Formel als Gleichnis betrachten, woraus wir die Lehre zum unmittelbaren Gebrauch ziehen.” (FA 1.8:306; Well now, said Eduard, until we can see all these things with our own eyes, let us regard this formula as a Gleichnis and derive from it a lesson for our immediate use.) To complete the applicability of the formula to their little group, he decides to add Charlotte’s orphaned niece Ottilie as the last element to the mix, which sets in motion a series of cruel displacements and tragic events in the novel’s plot. The four characters embody and literally act out the effects and consequences of “elective affinities,” but certainly not according to the chemical formula and also not as they envisioned when they used the “Gleichnisrede” as a prognostic tool for making decisions about their future lives. Thus, the novel does not intend to be a narrative extension of the ethical Gleichnis to illustrate a chemical process, but rather a critical Gleichnis by running a poetical simulation of what may occur when a Gleichnis is mistaken for a Gleichnisrede and what serious consequences this confusion and the careless substitutions of images for things, concepts for images, tropes for concepts can bring about in reality. Die Wahlverwandtschaften, then, is a meta-discourse and meta-Gleichnis that contrasts the positive workings of its title metaphor or Gleichnis in scientific discourses with its negative effects as a social Gleichnisrede.17

c) Drama: The similes that Goethe uses in his life-long project Faust (1808/1828–29) are not flattering for humans. This is clear from the beginning when Mephistopheles declares before the Lord: “Der kleine Gott der Welt bleibt stets von gleichem Schlag, / Und ist so wunderlich als wie am ersten Tag [. . .] Er scheint mir, mit Verlaub von Ew. Gnaden, / Wie eine der langbeinigen Zikaden, / Die immer fliegt und fliegend springt / Und gleich im Gras ihr altes Liedchen singt; / Und lägʼ er nur noch immer in dem Grase!” (FA 1.7/1. ll. 281–82, 287–91 and Atkins, 9–10; Earth’s little gods still do not change a bit, are just as odd as on the primal day. [. . .] Saving Your Grace’s presence, to my mind they’re like those crickets with long legs who won’t stop flying though they only hop, and promptly sing the same old song down in the grass again.) The Lord even tops his opponent in diminishing the human being, represented by Faust, when he compares him to a young tree in a nursery: “So werdʼ ich ihn bald in die Klarheit führen. / Weiß doch der Gärtner, wenn das Bäumchen grünt, / Daß Blütʼ und Frucht die künft’gen Jahre zieren” (ibid. ll. 309–11 and Atkins, 10; I soon shall lead him into clarity—the gardener knows, when the sapling turns green, that blossoms and fruit will brighten future years). Eventually, Faust himself recognizes in a moment of deep depression that he is not “Ebenbild der Gottheit” (l. 614; God’s likeness), as he had fancied himself, but only a worm: “Dem Wurme gleichʼ ich, der den Staub durchwühlt; / Den, wie er sich im Staube nährend lebt, / Des Wandrers Tritt vernichtet und begräbt” (ll. 653–55 and Atkins, 20; My counterpart’s the worm that grovels in the dust and, as in dust it eats and lives, is crushed and buried by a vagrant foot).

In Faust. Der Tragödie zweiter Teil (1832; Faust, Part Two), it is the hubris and depression associated with Faust that makes Nereus cringe over the sound of human voices: “Wie es mir gleich im tiefsten Herzen grimmt! / Gebilde, strebsam Götter zu erreichen, / Und doch verdammt sich immer selbst zu gleichen!” (ll. 8095–97, and Atkins, 206; What sudden fury fills my heart with rage! Those creatures—striving to be peers of gods yet doomed never to change one bit!).18 In this context, it seems consistent when Faust, toward the end of his earthly life, calls anybody foolish who strives for absolute knowledge as he had done: “Der Erdenkreis ist mir genug bekannt. / Nach drüben ist die Aussicht uns verrannt: / Tor! wer dorthin die Augen blinzelnd richtet, / Sich über Wolken seines gleichen dichtet; / Er stehe fest und sehe hier sich um!” (ll. 11441–46, and Atkins, 289; I know this mortal sphere sufficiently, and there’s no seeing into the Beyond; he is a fool who casts a sheep’s eye at it, invents himself some peers above the clouds—let him stand firm and look at what’s around him: no good and able man finds this world mute!). Considering the previous Gleichnisse of the play, we must conclude that eventually Faust has come to his senses and realized that striving toward the absolute is not for humans. The aniconism articulated in the first commandment (Ex. 20:4) seems, ultimately, justified: humans shall refrain from creating Gleichnisse and from the hubris of considering themselves the likeness of a god.


As physically limited but spiritually unlimited, ever-aspiring creative beings, humans do experience the divinity of Being simultaneously by feeling creative power within themselves and by experiencing it in the forces of nature. The creation of a Gleichnis can make both elementary dynamics coalesce in a fleeting, yet poetically enduring and hermeneutically repeatable moment of specular correspondence and bliss. Gleichnisse fulfill, for Goethe, an existential urge and purpose: “Gleichnisse dürft ihr mir nicht verwehren, / Ich wüßte mich sonst nicht zu erklären” (FA 1.2:859; You cannot deny me Gleichnisse. I would not know how else to explain myself). Humans’ flawed existence drives them inevitably to uncondition their existential limitations through the creation of Gleichnisse which render the impossible poetically possible. This poetic act mirrors the divine spirit when it has conditioned itself through the creation of life: “Wie das Unbedingte sich selbst bedingen, / Und so das Bedingte zu seines Gleichen machen kann” (FA 1.13:60; How the unconditional can condition itself and thus make the conditioned in its likeness; see also Goethe’s account of his “private religion” in FA 1.14:382–85). For Goethe, it is a sacred task to approach this mystery of nature’s creation again and again through the incessant poetic creation of Gleichnisse. As discussed here, Goethe’s imagination forms Gleichnisse per analogies based on the systematic study of nature, informed by an understanding of the symbolic means and limits of signification, and restrained by a pure moral conscience.

  1. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethes Briefe und Briefe an Goethe, ed. Karl Robert Mandelkow, 6 vols. (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988), 3:501. Hereafter cited as (Briefe) in the body of the text. All translations are the author’s own.
  2. See the entry “Gleichnis” in Deutsches Wörterbuch, ed. Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm et al., 33 vols. (Leipzig and Munich: S. Hirzel and Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1854–1972), 7:columns 8185–204. and the entry “Gleichniß” in Johann Christoph Adelung, ed. Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der hochdeutschen Mundart, ed. Franz Xaver Schönberger, 4 vols. (Vienna: B. Ph. Bauer, 1811) 2:columns 715–18,, accessed April 2022.
  3. See the entry “Gleichnis” by Nikolaus Lohse in Goethe-Wörterbuch, ed. Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, and Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften (Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1978–2020), 4:columns 297–300, See also the entry “Gleichnis” by Robert Stockhammer in the Goethe Handbuch, ed. Bernd Witte, et al., 4 vols. (Stuttgart & Weimar: Metzler, 1996), 4.1:388–91.
  4. Unless otherwise noted, works by Goethe are cited by section, volume, and page numbers according to the Frankfurt edition, abbreviated FA: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Sämtliche Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche, eds. Hendrik Birus, Dieter Borchmeyer, Karl Eibl, et. al., 40 vols. (Frankfurt a.M.: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1987–2013). All translations are the author’s own.
  5. Quintilian, Institutio Oratoria, ed. with an English translation by Harold Edgeworth Butler, 4 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1920), 1:6.
  6. Bernhard H. F. Taureck, Metaphern und Gleichnisse in der Philosophie: Versuch einer kritischen Ikonologie der Philosophie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2004), esp. 72–85.
  7. Many more similar examples could be cited from Goethe’s work. Among those, Goethe’s personal hermetic myth of life’s creation in Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811–14/1833; Poetry and Truth; see FA 1.14:382
    –85) is most relevant.
  8. Goethe rehabilitated the superior cognitive status analogy held in Leibniz’ philosophy and has lost ever since. On “Analogia and Expressio bei Leibniz,” see Hans Poser, Leibniz’ Philosophie. Über die Einheit von Metaphysik und Wissenschaft, ed. Wenchao Li (Hamburg: Meiner, 2016), 312–22.
  9. Eva Geulen, Aus dem Leben der Form. Goethes Morphologie und die Nager (Berlin: August, 2016), 89 (my translation).
  10. In Spinoza’a Ethics the third and highest form of cognition. About Goethe’s reception of Spinoza and the concept of “scientia intuitiva” see Eckart Förster, Die 25 Jahre der Philosophie. Eine systematische Rekonstruktion (Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2012), 103–8.
  11. On Goethe’s (polemical) altercation with Newton over colors see Albrecht Schöne, Goethes Farbentheologie (München: Beck, 1989). For a general introduction to Goethean science, see the essays in David Seamon and Arthur Zajonc, eds., Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).
  12. Goethe to Riemer in 1805, as cited in Goethes Gespräche. Eine Sammlung zeitgenössischer Berichte aus seinem Umgang, ed. Flodoard von Biedermann and Wolfgang Herwig, 5 vols. (Zürich & Stuttgart: Artemis, 1965–87), 2:45.
  13. See in general Christine Lehleiter, ed., Fact and Fiction: Literary and Scientific Cultures in Germany and Britain (Toronto: Toronto UP, 2016).
  14. Johann G. Sulzer, Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste, 4 vols., 2nd ed. (Leipzig: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1792) 4:422–30 (my translation).
  15. See Christian P. Weber, Die Logik der Lyrik: Goethes Phänomenologie des Geistes in Gedichten (Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach, 2013), 151–93.
  16. The poem mirrors this transformative self-reflection and self-reflective transformation through the linguistic Gleichnis of a palindrome: “Leben” (l. 12; life) and “Nebel” (l. 15; mist)—both associated with “Liebe” (love).
  17. See Christian P. Weber, “Elective Affinities/Wahlverwandtschaften: The Career of a Metaphor,” in Fact and Fiction: Literary and Scientific Cultures in Germany and Britain, ed. Christine Lehleiter (Toronto: Toronto UP, 2016), 97–129.
  18. In a more literal translation, the line “verdammt sich immer selbst zu gleichen” means “doomed to always resemble oneself” or “doomed to endless sameness with oneself.”

Works Cited and Further Reading

  • Adelung, Johann Christoph. Grammatisch-kritisches Wörterbuch der Hochdeutschen Mundart: mit beständiger Vergleichung der übrigen Mundarten, besonders aber der Oberdeutschen, 2nd rev. ed. Edited by Franz Xaver Schönberger. 4 vols. Vienna: B. Ph. Bauer, 1811. Accessed April 2022.
  • Bennett, Benjamin. “‘Über allen Gipfeln’: The Poem as Hieroglyph.” In Goethe’s Ghosts: Reading and the Persistence of Literature. Ed. Simon Richter and Richard Block, 56–76. Rochester NY: Camden House, 2013.
  • Deutsches Wörterbuch von Jacob Grimm und Wilhelm Grimm. Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften and Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen. 33 vols. Leipzig and Munich: S. Hirzel and Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1854–1972. Accessed April 2022.
  • Förster, Eckart. Die 25 Jahre der Philosophie. Eine systematische Rekonstruktion. Frankfurt am Main: Klostermann, 2012.
  • Geulen, Eva. Aus dem Leben der Form. Goethes Morphologie und die Nager. Berlin: August, 2016.
  • Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Sämtliche Werke, Briefe, Tagebücher und Gespräche. Edited by Hendrik Birus, Dieter Borchmeyer, Karl Eibl, et al. 40 vols. Frankfurt am Main: Deutscher Klassiker Verlag, 1987–2013.
  • ———. Goethes Briefe und Briefe an Goethe. Edited by Karl Robert Mandelkow. 6 vols. München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1988.
  • ———. Goethes Gespräche. Eine Sammlung zeitgenössischer Berichte aus seinem Umgang. Edited by Flodoard von Biedermann and Wolfgang Herwig. 5 vols. Zürich & Stuttgart: Artemis, 1965–1987.
  • ———. Faust I & II. Edited and translated by Stuart Atkins. Boston: Suhrkamp/Insel, 1984.
  • ———-. Selected Poems. Edited by Christopher Middleton. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1984.
  • Goethe Handbuch. Edited by Bernd Witte, et al. 4 vols. Stuttgart & Weimar: Metzler, 1996.
  • Goethe-Wörterbuch. Edited by Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Berlin, Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, and Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1978–2020. Accessed April 2022.
  • Kaiser, Gerhard. Goethe—Nähe durch Abstand. Vorträge und Studien. Weimar: VDG, 2001.
  • King James Bible. Standard Version.
  • Lehleiter, Christine, ed. Fact and Fiction: Literary and Scientific Cultures in Germany and Britain. Toronto: Toronto UP, 2016.
  • Noé-Rumberg, Dorothea-Michaela. Naturgesetze als Dichtungsprinzipien. Goethes verborgene Poetik im Spiegel seiner Dichtungen. Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach, 1993.
  • Poser, Hans. Leibniz’ Philosophie. Über die Einheit von Metaphysik und Wissenschaft. Edited by Wenchao Li. Hamburg: Meiner, 2016.
  • Quintilian. Institutio Oratoria. Edited with an English translation by Harold Edgeworth Butler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1920.
  • Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturwissenschaft. Edited by Georg Braungart et al. 3 vols. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010.
  • Schöne, Albrecht. Goethes Farbentheologie, München: Beck, 1989.
  • Seamon, David and Zajonc, Arthur, eds. Goethe’s Way of Science: A Phenomenology of Nature. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998.
  • Sulzer, Johann G. Allgemeine Theorie der schönen Künste. 4 vols. 2nd ed. Leipzig: Weidmannsche Buchhandlung, 1792.
  • Taureck, Bernhard H. F. Metaphern und Gleichnisse in der Philosophie: Versuch einer kritischen Ikonologie der Philosophie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2004.
  • Weber, Christian P. Die Logik der Lyrik: Goethes Phänomenologie des Geistes in Gedichten. Freiburg im Breisgau: Rombach, 2013.
  • Weber, Christian P. “Elective Affinities/Wahlverwandtschaften: The Career of a Metaphor.” In Fact and Fiction: Literary and Scientific Cultures in Germany and Britain. Edited by Christine Lehleiter. 97–129. Toronto: Toronto UP, 2016.
  • Wellbery, David E. The Specular Moment. Goethe’s Early Lyric and the Beginnings of Romanticism. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1996.