Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) is often ranked with Shakespeare and Dante as one of the three most important poets in history. He spent the most important part of his life in Weimar and served the duchy in many official capacities. Although his interests ranged from biology to the theory of color, it is his literature, with its powerful presentation of human freedom and the search for meaning in life, that has been of enduring value.
Goethe's most famous work, Faust, presents the story of its title character, who makes a wager with the devil. Doctor Faust represents all humankind, and his exploits are arranged to capture the human condition in its entirety, making Faust a work of epic proportions. The play immediately addresses the limits of knowledge with a presentation by three of the archangels on this subject and Mephistopheles' analysis of the unhappiness reason has brought to humanity. The angels suggest that only God fully understands the universe, although they have a limited understanding of the universe's timeless aspects, conflicts, and characteristics. More important, the angels fully understand that even though they do not comprehend the whole, they can still rejoice in its majesty:
Its aspect gives the angels power,
Since none can solve Thee or Thy ways;
And all Thy works beyond us tower,
Sublime as on the first of days.1
Mephistopheles answers the angels by remarking that he does not know much about the nature of the planets, but he does know that men are miserable because of the reason with which they are endowed. The conversation then turns to Faust, whom the Lord refers to as his servant. It becomes clear that although Faust is now haunted by reason and knowledge, God has a plan for him and "shall lead him forth where all is clear."2 The rest of the play depicts the process by which the devil, in his efforts to win Faust's soul, leads the doctor to a point where he may be saved. It is the route to salvation taken by the two tragic characters, Gretchen and Faust, that brings out Goethe's vision about the role of knowledge and the way to salvation.
The salvation of Gretchen and Faust makes it clear that Goethe found the proper role of knowledge to be limited to dispelling myth. In Goethe's world, humans are not unlimited in their ability to accomplish things. Even with supernatural help and the depths of his own knowledge, Faust is unable to bring even his most basic desires to fruition. Faust admits that:
Well do I know the sphere of earth and men.
The view beyond is barred to mortal ken.3
Through love, however, he is able to achieve an intuitive understanding of human worth and God's importance. Faust's refusal to be satisfied with what Mephistopheles has to offer is a sign of his continued search for the meaning that only God can provide. The Lord notes in the prologue,
A good man, though his striving be obscure,
Remains aware that there is one right way.4
Faust's restless search seems to be a realization of the fact that he has not yet found that way. Faust's final project, a scheme that will benefit humankind (and is ultimately unsuccessful), symbolizes his recognition of human worth and brings a host of angels to save him. The angels recognize Faust's continued search for meaning as they bear his soul to heaven:
Who e'er aspiring, struggles on,
For him there is salvation.5
Man is saved, it seems, by this insight, not by any earthly achievement.
Gretchen also demonstrates the importance of a simple, intuitive understanding of human worth. Although she is destroyed by love, she is able to rebuild herself and achieve moral independence by accepting responsibility for the murders of her family members rather than fleeing. It is not a great intellectual understanding of the natural forces that saves her, but simple faith.
Goethe's overall message is difficult to capture. Although he struggled with the limits of human knowledge, he made important contributions to the natural sciences. Fundamentally, however, he was concerned with the human condition. Goethe realized that freedom is essentially limited in this world, and his characters constantly run into situations that constrain their aspirations. Additionally, Goethe depicted the danger inherent in zealous idealism. Faust's great projects cause great suffering, despite his best intentions.
 Goethe, Faust, trans. George M. Priest (New York: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1988), p. 7.
 Ibid., p. 8.
 Ibid., p. 278.
 Ibid., p. 9.
 Ibid., p. 290.
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang. Works. 7 vols. Translated by John Oxenford, Thomas Carlyle, R.D. Boylan, A.J.W. Morrison, Anna Swanwick, Sir Walter Scott, George Henry Lewes, Sir Theodore Martin, and John Stover Cobb. Boston: Dona Estes, & Company, 1883.
The biographical material about the author originally appeared on The Goodrich Room: Interactive Tour website.
Last modified April 13, 2016