Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER I. - Goethe's Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister's Travels; Elective Affinities)
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CHAPTER I. - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Goethe’s Works, vol. 5 (W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities) 
Goethe’s Works, illustrated by the best German artists, 5 vols. (Philadelphia: G. Barrie, 1885). Vol. 5: W. Meister’s Travels; Elective Affinities.
Part of: Goethe’s Works, 5 vols.
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Our pilgrims had performed the journey according to programme, and prosperously reached the frontier of the province in which they were to learn so many wonderful things. On their first entry they beheld a most fertile region, the gentle slopes of which were favorable to agriculture, its higher mountains to sheep-feeding, and its broad valleys to the rearing of cattle. It was shortly before the harvest, and everything was in the greatest abundance; still, what surprised them from the outset, was that they saw neither women nor men, but only boys and youths busy getting ready for a prosperous harvest, and even making friendly preparations for a joyous harvest-home. They greeted now one, and now another, and inquired about the master, of whose whereabouts no one could give an account. The address of their letter was: To the Master or to the Three, and this too the boys could not explain; however, they referred the inquirers to an overseer, who was just preparing to mount his horse. They explained their object; Felix’s frank bearing seemed to please him: and so they rode together along the road.
Wilhelm had soon observed that a great diversity prevailed in the cut and color of the clothing, which gave a peculiar aspect to the whole of the little community. He was just on the point of asking his companion about this when another strange sight was displayed to him: all the children, howsoever they might be occupied, stopped their work, and turned, with peculiar yet various gestures, towards the party riding past; and it was easy to infer that their object was the overseer. The youngest folded their arms crosswise on the breast, and looked cheerfully towards the sky; the intermediate ones held their arms behind them, and looked smiling upon the ground; the third sort stood erect and boldly; with arms at the side, they turned the head to the right, and placed themselves in a row, instead of remaining alone, like the others, where they were first seen.
Accordingly, when they halted and dismounted, just where several children had ranged themselves in various attitudes and were being inspected by the overseer, Wilhelm asked the meaning of these gestures.
Felix interposed, and said cheerfully: “What position have I to take, then?”
“In any case,” answered the intendant, “at first the arms across the breast, and looking seriously and gladly upward, without turning your glance.” He obeyed; however he soon exclaimed: “This does not please me particularly; I see nothing overhead; does it last long? But yes, indeed,” he exclaimed joyfully, “I see two hawks flying from west to east; that must be a good omen!”
“It depends on how you take to it, how you behave yourself,” rejoined the former; “now go and mingle with them, just as they mingle with each other.”
He made a sign, the children forsook their attitudes, resumed their occupations or went on playing as before.
“Will you, and can you,” Wilhelm now asked, “explain to me that which causes my wonder? I suppose that these gestures, these positions, are greetings, with which they welcome you.”
“Just so,” answered the other; “greetings, that tell me at once at what stage of cultivation each of these boys stands.”
“But could you,” Wilhelm added, “explain to me the meaning of the graduation? For that it is such, is easy to see.”
“That is the part of better people than me,” answered the other; “but I can assure you of this much, that they are no empty grimaces, and that, on the contrary, we impart to the children, not indeed the highest, but still a guiding and intelligible explanation; but at the same time we command each to keep and cherish for himself what we may have chosen to impart for the information of each: they may not chat about it with strangers, nor amongst themselves, and thus the teaching is modified in a hundred ways. Besides this the secrecy has very great advantages; for if we tell people immediately and perpetually the reason of everything, they think that there is nothing behind. To certain secrets, even if they may be known, we have to show deference by concealment and silence, for this tends to modesty and good morals.”
“I understand you,” said Wilhelm. “Why should we not also apply spiritually what is so necessary in bodily matters? But perhaps in another respect you can satisfy my curiosity. I am surprised at the great variety in the cut and color of their clothes, and yet I do not see all kinds of color, but a few only, and these in all their shades, from the brightest to the darkest. Still I observe, that in this there cannot be meant any indication of degrees of either age or merit; since the smallest and biggest boys mingled together may be alike in cut and color, whilst those who are alike in gestures do not agree with one another in dress.”
“As concerns this, too,” their companion replied, “I cannot explain any further; yet I shall be much mistaken if you depart hence without being enlightened about all that you may wish to know.”
They were now going in search of the master, whom they thought that they had found; but now a stranger could not but be struck by the fact, that the deeper they got into the country the more they were met by a harmonious sound of singing. Whatsoever the boys set about, in whatever work they were found engaged, they were forever singing, and in fact it seemed that the songs were specially adapted to each particular occupation, and in similar cases always the same. If several children were in any place, they would accompany each other in turns. Towards evening they came upon some dancing, their steps being animated and guided by choruses. Felix from his horse chimed in with his voice, and, in truth, not badly; Wilhelm was delighted with this entertainment, which made the neighborhood so lively. “I suppose,” he observed to his companion, “you devote a great deal of care to this kind of instruction, for otherwise this ability would not be so widely diffused, or so perfectly developed.”
“Just so,” replied the other; “with us the art of singing forms the first step in education; everything else is subservient to it, and attained by means of it. With us the simplest enjoyment, as well as the simplest instruction, is enlivened and impressed by singing; and even what we teach in matters of religion and morals is communicated by the method of song. Other advantages for independent ends are directly allied; for, whilst we practise the children in writing down by symbols on the slate the notes which they produce, and then, according to the indication of these signs, in reproducing them in their throats, and moreover in adding the text, they exercise at the same time the hand, ear, and eye, and attain orthography and calligraphy quicker than you would believe; and, finally, since all this must be practised and copied according to pure metre and accurately fixed time, they learn to understand much sooner than in other ways the high value of measure and computation. On this account, of all imaginable means, we have chosen music as the first element of our education, for from this equally easy roads radiate in every direction.”
Wilhelm sought to inform himself further, and did not hide his astonishment at hearing no instrumental music.
“We do not neglect it,” replied the other, “but we practise it in a special place, enclosed in the most charming mountain-valley; and then again we take care that the different instruments are taught in places lying far apart. Especially are the discordant notes of beginners banished to certain solitary spots, where they can drive no one crazy; for you will yourself confess, that in well-regulated civil society scarcely any more miserable nuisance is to be endured than when the neighborhood inflicts upon us a beginner on the flute or on the violin. Our beginners, from their own laudable notion of wishing to be an annoyance to none, go voluntarily for a longer or shorter period into the wilds, and, isolated there, vie with one another in attaining the merit of being allowed to draw nearer to the inhabited world; on which account they are, from time to time, allowed to make an attempt at drawing nearer, which seldom fails, because in these, as in our other modes of education, we venture actually to develop and encourage a sense of shame and diffidence. I am sincerely glad that your son has got a good voice; the rest will be effected all the more easily.”
They had now reached a place where Felix was to remain, and make trial of his surroundings, until they were disposed to grant a formal admission. They already heard from afar a cheerful singing; it was a game, which the boys were now enjoying in their play-hour. A general chorus resounded, in which each member of a large circle joined heartily, clearly, and vigorously in his part, obeying the directions of the superintendent. The latter, however, often took the singers by surprise, by suspending with a signal the chorus-singing, and bidding some one or other single performer, by a touch of his baton, to adapt alone some suitable song to the expiring tune and the passing idea. Most of them already showed considerable ability, a few who failed in the performance willingly paid their forfeit, without exactly being made a laughing-stock. Felix was still child enough to mix at once among them and came tolerably well out of the trial. Thereupon the first style of greeting was conceded to him: he forthwith folded his arms on his breast, looked upwards, and with such a droll expression withal, that it was quite plain that no hidden meaning in it had as yet occurred to him.
The pleasant spot, the kind reception, the merry games, all pleased the boy so well, that he did not feel particularly sad when he saw his father depart; he looked almost more wistfully at the horse as it was led away; yet he had no difficulty in understanding, when he was informed that he could not keep it in the present locality. On the other hand, they promised him that he should find, if not the same, at all events an equally lively and well-trained one when he did not expect it.
As the superior could not be found, the overseer said: “I must now leave you, to pursue my own avocations; but still I will take you to the Three who preside over holy things: your letter is also addressed to them, and together they stand in place of the superior.”
Wilhelm would have liked to learn beforehand about the holy things, but the other replied: “The Three in return for the confidence with which you have left your son with us will certainly, in accordance with wisdom and justice, reveal to you all that is most necessary. The visible objects of veneration, which I have called holy things, are included within a particular boundary, are not mingled with anything, or disturbed by anything; only at certain times of the year, the pupils, according to the stages of their education, are admitted to them, in order that they may be instructed historically and through their senses; for in this way they carry off with them an impression, enough for them to feed upon for a long time in the exercise of their duty.”
Wilhelm now stood at the entrance of a forest-valley, enclosed by lofty walls; on a given signal a small door was opened, and a serious, respectable-looking man received our friend. He found himself within a large and beautifully verdant enclosure, shaded with trees and bushes of every kind, so that he could scarcely see some stately walls and fine buildings through the dense and lofty natural growth; his friendly reception by the Three, who came up by-and-bye, ultimately concluded in a conversation, to which each contributed something of his own, but the substance of which we shall put together in brief.
“Since you have intrusted your son to us,” they said, “it is our duty to let you see more deeply into our methods of proceeding. You have seen many external things, that do not carry their significance with them all at once; which of these do you most wish to have explained?”
“I have remarked certain seemly yet strange gestures and obeisances, the significance of which I should like to learn; with you no doubt what is external has reference to what is within, and vice versâ; let me understand this relation.”
“Well-bred and healthy children possess a great deal; Nature has given to each everything that he needs for time and continuance: our duty is to develop this; often it is better developed by itself. But one thing no one brings into the world, and yet it is that upon which depends everything through which a man becomes a man on every side. If you can find it out yourself, speak out.”
Wilhelm bethought himself for a short time, and then shook his head. After a suitable pause, they exclaimed: “Veneration!”
Wilhelm was startled.
“Veneration,” they repeated. “It is wanting in all, and perhaps in yourself. You have seen three kinds of gestures, and we teach a threefold veneration, which when combined to form a whole, only then attains to its highest power and effect. The first is veneration for that which is above us. That gesture, the arms folded on the breast, a cheerful glance towards the sky, that is precisely what we prescribe to our untutored children, at the same time requiring witness of them that there is a God up above, who reflects and reveals Himself in our parents, tutors and superiors. The second, veneration for that which is below us. The hands folded on the back as if tied together, the lowered, smiling glance, bespeak that we have to regard the earth well and cheerfully; it gives us an opportunity to maintain ourselves; it affords unspeakable joys; but it brings disproportionate sufferings. If one hurts one’s self bodily, whether faultily or innocently; if others hurt one, intentionally or accidentally; if earthly chance does one any harm, let that be well thought of, for such danger accompanies us all our life long. But from this condition we deliver our pupil as soon as possible, directly we are convinced that the teachings of this stage have made a sufficient impression upon him; but then we bid him be a man, look to his companions, and guide himself with reference to them. Now he stands erect and bold, yet not selfishly isolated; only in a union with his equals does, he present a front towards the world. We are unable to add anything further.”
“I see it all,” replied Wilhelm; “it is probably on this account that the multitude is so inured to vice, because it only takes pleasure in the element of ill-will and evil speech; he who indulges in this soon becomes indifferent to God, contemptuous towards the world, and a hater of his fellows; but the true, genuine, indispensable feeling of self-respect is ruined in conceit and presumption.”
“Allow me, nevertheless,” Wilhelm went on, “to make one objection: has it not ever been held that the fear evinced by savage nations in the presence of mighty natural phenomena, and other inexplicable foreboding events, is the germ from which a higher feeling, a purer disposition, should gradually be developed?”
To this the other replied: “Fear, no doubt, is consonant with nature, but not reverence; people fear a known or unknown powerful being: the strong one tries to grapple with it, the weak to avoid it; both wish to get rid of it, and feel happy when in a short space they have conquered it, when their nature in some measure has regained its freedom and independence. The natural man repeats this operation a million times during his life; from fear he strives after liberty, from liberty he is driven back into fear, and does not advance one step further. To fear is easy, but unpleasant; to entertain reverence is difficult but pleasing. Man determines himself unwillingly to reverence, or rather never determines himself to it; it is a loftier sense which must be imparted to his nature, and which is self-developed only in the most exceptionally gifted ones, whom therefore from all time we have regarded as saints, as gods. In this consists the dignity, in this the function of all genuine religions, of which also there exist only three, according to the objects towards which they direct their worship.”
The men paused, Wilhelm remained silent for a while in thought; as he did not feel himself equal to pointing these strange words, he begged the worthy men to continue their remarks, which too they at once consented to do.
“No religion,” they said, “which is based on fear, is esteemed among us. With the reverence which a man allows himself to entertain, whilst he accords honor, he may preserve his own honor; he is not at discord with himself, as in the other case. The religion which rests on reverence for that which is above us, we call the ethnical one; it is the religion of nations, and the first happy redemption from a base fear; all so-called heathen religions are of this kind, let them have what names they will. The second religion, which is founded on that reverence which we have for what is like ourselves, we call the Philosophic; for the philosopher, who places himself in the middle, must draw downward to himself all that is higher, and upward to himself all that is lower, and only in this central position does he deserve the name of the sage. Now, whilst he penetrates his relations to his fellows, and therefore to the whole of humanity, and his relations to all other earthly surroundings, necessary or accidental, in the cosmical sense he only lives in the truth. But we must now speak of the third religion, based on reverence for that which is below us; we call it the Christian one, because this disposition of mind is chiefly revealed in it; it is the last one which humanity could and was bound to attain. Yet what was not demanded for it? not merely to leave earth below, and claim a higher origin, but to recognize as divine even humility and poverty, scorn and contempt, shame and misery, suffering and death; nay, to revere and make lovable even sin and crime, not as hindrances but as furtherances of holiness! Of this there are indeed found traces throughout all time; but a track is not a goal, and this having once been reached, humanity cannot turn backwards; and it may be maintained, that the Christian religion having once appeared, can never disappear again; having once been divinely embodied, cannot again be dissolved.”
“Which of these religions do you then profess more particularly?” said Wilhelm.
“All three,” answered the others, “for, in point of fact, they together present the true religion; from these three reverences outsprings the highest reverence, reverence for one’s self, and the former again develop themselves from the latter, so that man attains to the highest he is capable of reaching, in order that he may consider himself the best that God and nature have produced; nay, that he may be able to remain on this height without being drawn through conceit or egoism into what is base.”
“Such a profession of faith, thus developed, does not estrange me,” replied Wilhelm; “it agrees with all that one learns here and there in life, only that the very thing unites you that severs the others.”
To this the others replied: “This confession is already adhered to by a large part of the world, though unconsciously.”
“How so, and where?” asked Wilhelm.
“In the Creed!” exclaimed the others, loudly; “for the first article is ethnical, and belongs to all nations: the second is Christian, for those struggling against sufferings and glorified in sufferings; the third finally teaches a spiritual communion of saints, to wit, of those in the highest degree good and wise: ought not therefore in fairness the three divine Persons, under whose likeness and name such convictions and promises are uttered, to pass also for the highest Unity?”
“I thank you,” replied the other, “for having so clearly and coherently explained this to me—to whom, as a full-grown man, the three dispositions of mind are not new; and when I recall, that you teach the children these high truths, first through material symbols, then through a certain symbolic analogy, and finally develop in them the highest interpretation, I must needs highly approve of it.”
“Exactly so,” replied the former; “but now you must still learn something more, in order that you may be convinced that your son is in the best hands. However, let this matter rest for the morning hours; rest and refresh yourself, so that, contented and humanly complete, you may accompany us farther into the interior to-morrow.”