Johann Wolfgang von Goethe ( Frankfurt am Main , August 28 , 1749 – Weimar , March 22 , 1832 ). German poet, naturalist, and thinker. His philosophical conceptions powerfully influenced the development of European theoretical thought. Goethe defended the idea of ​​unity between theory and practice. [one]

The greatest German man of letters … and the last true universal man who walked the earth.

George Eliot


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  • 1 Biographical synthesis
    • 1 Trajectory
    • 2 Scientific interest
    • 3 Bourgeois revolution
    • 4 Literary career
    • 5 Death
  • 2 Works
    • 1 Faust
  • 3 Scientific work
    • 1 Morphology
  • 4 Significance of his work
  • 5 Sources

Biographical synthesis

He was the son of Johann Caspar Goethe, a lawyer and imperial adviser who retired from public life and raised his children himself, under the maxim of not wasting time in the least, and of Katharina Elisabeth Textor, daughter of a former burgomaster of Frankfurt . These family ties put him in touch from the beginning with the urban patriciate and political life.

Goethe’s house in Frankfurt.

Of gifted intelligence, and equipped with an enormous and sickly curiosity, he did practically everything and managed to accumulate an all-encompassing or complete culture. At first he studied languages, although his inclinations were for art and never, throughout his life, did he stop cultivating drawing ; While writing his first poems, he became interested in other branches of knowledge such as geology , chemistry, and medicine .

In 1759 he entered the University of Leipzig , beginning soon after writing dramas and poetry . In 1771 he took the degree of Doctor in Strasbourg and practiced law in Frankfurt. In 1772 he established his residence in Wetzlar as a lawyer, he had to flee from that city as a result of a love intrigue.

In 1775 he settled in Weimar, was a private adviser to the duke and a most useful civil servant. He devoted himself to the natural sciences, making remarkable discoveries in them.


Goethe studied Law at Leipzig (1765); there he met Winckelmann’s writings on Greek art and culture, but a serious illness forced him to leave his studies in 1768 and return to Frankfurt ; Katharina von Klettenberg, her mother’s friend, cared for him and introduced him to Pietistic mysticism, which placed its emphasis on feeling within the Protestant confession; at that time he composed his first poems. He resumed his studies in 1770 in Strasbourg and concluded them the following year; Those two years there were very important to him: he met Friederike Brion, who inspired most of his female characters, and became friends with the theologian and theorist of art and literature Johann Gottfriedvon Herder. Herder introduced him to German popular poetry, introduced him to the universe of William Shakespeare, and finally freed him from French Neoclassicism and confidence in the reason for German Aufklärung.

Goethe Monument in Frankfurt.

Returning again to Frankfurt , he wrote the tragedy Götz von Berlichingen (1773) and the following year his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774).

In 1772 he collaborated with Herder in the writing of On German Style and Art , the manifesto of the Sturm und Drang movement (‘tempest and momentum’), considered the prelude to Romanticism in Germany . In this work the poetry of James MacPherson (Ossian) and William Shakespeare is vindicated .

Herther’s inspiration came from the middle of 1772, when, while practicing as a lawyer in the Wetzlar court, he fell in love with Charlotte Buff, the girlfriend and fiancé of his colleague, at that time also practicing lawyer, Johann Christian Kestner. Concomitantly, a young jurist tormented by unrequited love committed suicide using a pistol borrowed from Kestner. These dramatic events caused Goethe to finally abandon Wetzlar and inspired in 1774 the composition of the novel, in part epistolary. The misadventures of the young Werther had such great success and represented so well in the figure of the protagonist the disenchantment of the young generations that it sparked an epidemic of adolescent suicides in the country. [one]

In the spring of 1775 Goethe became engaged to the daughter of a Frankfurt banker , Lili Schönemann, an engagement which, due to social and lifestyle incompatibilities of the respective families, did not materialize in marriage. This courtship ended in the fall of that same year.

Between 1772 and 1775 he also wrote the dramas Clavijo (1774) and Stella (1775). While trying to open a law firm in Frankfurt with little luck , and since he had also broken his marriage commitment to Lili Schömemann, he did not hesitate in 1775 to accept the invitation to the Weimar Court of Charles-Augustus, heir to the Duchy of Saxony -Weimar, and he went there practically fleeing from both things, from the legal profession and from the sentimental commitment.

Scientific interest

At that time he began his scientific investigations. Interested in optics, he conceived a theory different from Isaac Newton’s on colors and also investigated geology , chemistry and osteology, the latter discipline in which he discovered intermaxillary bone in March 1784, which lays one of the first stones in the theory of the evolution of man, although in this a French anatomist narrowly passed him, which caused him great frustration. The letters to Charlotte von Stein attest to this time in her life, involved in all kinds of assignments and efforts to reform the very small and humble state of Weimar.

From such an important position he had the opportunity to interact with the upper aristocracy and met notable figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte , Ludwig van Beethoven , Friedrich von Schiller and Arthur Schopenhauer . In 1782 the particle von was added to his surname by Duke Carlos Augusto himself despite the protests of the nobility, to form part of the Court with a position comparable to that of the other ministers, all of whom belonged to it.

He entered Masonry on February 11, 1783, although according to the Masonic writer Lorenzo Frau Abrines, the date of his entry is earlier, on June 23 , 1780, within the ephemeral Amalia lodge, which knocked down columns two years later. In 1830, two years before his death, Goethe composed a poem entitled “For the Feast of Saint John” in 1830, on the occasion of his fiftieth anniversary as a member of Freemasonry. His status as a Freemason and his time in Freemasonry, as well as other hobbies that he apparently cultivated, is attributed influence in his work, especially in Faust.

On the other hand, he continued to delve into the study of the theater by William Shakespeare and Pedro Calderón de la Barca , some of whose works (for example, “The Constant Prince of Calderón”) successfully represented as manager of the theater in the Court of Weimar ; In these functions he began to correspond with Friedrich von Schiller . Theatrical readings of these authors remarkably broaden the horizons of their spirit. He is also dominated by enthusiasm for Ossian’s false Celtic poetry and writes a famous monologue of the great god of Romanticism , Prometheus, who personified the rebellious genius of the creators and of whom he was justly proud. [one]

Bourgeois revolution

The French Revolution caused Goethe a great upheaval; some of his Venetian epigrams already deal with this subject, but as his thought was completely imbued with the balance and harmony of classicism and saw being as an organic whole from Kant’s philosophy , the development of the revolution and the change brought about because of the violence they seemed an atrocity. This was reflected in some works of that time, such as the collection of short novels Conversations of German Emigrants (1795), the epic work Germán and Dorotea (1797) and the tragedy La hija natural (1799) and so on.). Somewhat later the maturity novels appear: The elective affinities (1809) and Wilhelm Meister’s Years of Pilgrimage (1821, revised in 1829), as well as a diary of his journey byItaly , Italian Travels (1816), his autobiography Poetry and Truth in various installments (1811–1833) and a collection of poems, Divan of East and West (1819), where the influence of Eastern poetry is felt somewhat.

Literary race

As for his literary career, Goethe began it in the midst of an exasperated Romanticism indebted to the Sturm und Drang, whose most representative work he was in charge of writing himself: Las cuitas del joven Werther. The trip to Rome meant for him to corner that aesthetic in an evolution that made him eventually deny Romanticism and identify with the classical Greco-Latin balance, ending his stormy interior life. That was the revelation of Classicism , the true root with which German culture could identify. “Now I understand the meaning of marble,” he will write in one of his Roman Elegies.

Venetian Epigrams are also the result of this trip through Italy , among which there are some profound meditations on the contemporary French Revolution or the meaning of life and culture. Goethe’s political stance, however, is conservative: “I prefer injustice to disorder,” he will write. This gave him some misgivings on the part of other artists who did not care in the least not to agree with their social context, such as Beethoven. In the two versions of his complex and grandiose Faust is the last myth that European culture was capable of engendering, that of how intellectual greatness and the all-encompassing thirst for knowledge can, however, engender moral and spiritual misery. On the other hand, in the reading and study of Spinoza he also finds a consolation to the romantic imbalance that seized him, as he tells in Poetry and truth, where he extends himself to comment especially on his phrase that

“He who loves God well, should not demand that God love him.”

Goethe already enjoyed a lifetime of fame, respect, prestige, and admiration. Delacroix portrayed him in a lithograph in 1827, in addition to illustrating Faust and Götz von Berlichingen. For this reason, there were many young people of his time who wanted to meet him in person or, which is pedantic enough to say: vera effigies. On the other hand, his secretary, Eckermann, carefully recorded his conversations with the teacher over the years and wrote Conversations with Goethe, which reflects the opinions that in his later years he held about those visits and also about everything divine and the human.


Goethe died at Weimar on March 22, 1832. The final version of his great choral poem Faust appeared posthumously that same year.


In 1771 he wrote the ” Gotz of Berlichingen “, ” The Walker ,” and the ” Walker’s Tempest Song “. In 1773 he wrote the ” Prometheus ,” some burlesque satires , the comedy ” Edwin and Elvira ,” and the beginning of ” Faust .” In 1774 ” The misfortunes of Werther ” and ” Clavijo “.

In 1777 he began ” The Learning Years of William Meister ” and published it in 1821, a mixture of different fragments ordered by his secretary.

He wrote ” Iphigenia ,” in prose , in 1779; and in verse in 1786. He finished the ” Egmont ” in 1787, and the ” Tasso ” in 1789. In 1791 he was director of the court theater in Weimar, and from 1794 to 1805 he associated with Schiller, both directing the literary magazine Horen . He finished ” Herman and Dorotea ” in 1797; ” The elective affinities ” in 1809; the ” Color Doctrine ” in 1810, and his autobiography, ” Fantasy and Truth ” in 1811. In 1815 he published the volume of poetry titled ” Eastern and Western Divan “.


Goethe’s best dramatic work is undoubtedly Faust , which has become a classic work of Universal Literature . The first version, the original Urfaust or Faust, was finished in 1773. But the author continued to tweak it until 1790; already in April 1806 it was complete, but the Napoleonic wars delayed publication for two years until 1808; the second part would only be published in 1833, one year after the author’s death.

The first part of this complex tragedy is articulated around two fundamental centers; the first is the story of how Fausto, tired of life and disappointed in science, makes a pact with the devil that gives him back his youth in exchange for his soul; the second is the love story between Faust and Gretchen, which Mephistopheles manipulates so that Faust reaches homicide – he kills his beloved’s brother and Gretchen has an unwanted pregnancy, leading first to infanticide and then to being executed for murdering your son.

Faust’s story is inspired, like many legends, by certain facts. There was a certain Johann Faust who was born around 1490 in southern Germany and received his doctorate at the University of Heidelberg in 1509. After leaving university, he undertook a life of adventure marked by constant flight due to the multiple accusations of witchcraft that were they made him. He left a library that included books on medicine, mathematics, and black magic. This picturesque life gave rise to the popular legend, exploited by authors of puppet and puppet pieces, and had also served to inspire popular legends.

The first book on this myth was published in 1587 by Johannes Spiess , who, in his foreword, warned that he had failed to refer to magic formulas to prevent those who had the book from being accused of witchcraft. Other books and theatrical scripts dealt with the subject of the pact with the devil to achieve dominance over nature: in the puppet theater between the 16th and 17th centuries, the story was always closed with the demons taking Fausto, but Goethe altered this argument causing Gretchen to be saved at the end of the first part, anticipating Fausto’s salvation at the end of the second, when the demons who want to take his soul have than to retreat before the arrival of a legion of angels. Furthermore, Goethe changes the impulse that moves Faust: the desire that brought him closer to witchcraft is not greed, wickedness or laziness, but the desire to know, the desire for greatness, for fullness, for totality. The moral that the work may have is that this desire for knowledge carries moral misery.

The work has been interpreted modernly by Walter Benjamin and also by Klaus Mann , who, in his novel Mephisto, conceives of the pact with the devil as a metaphor for Germany’s pact with Hitler .

Scientific work


Goethe’s scientific thinking, like literary, is also very original. Although he has often been regarded as one of the most prominent representatives of the Naturphilosophie, in reality his scientific output falls somewhere between Romanticism and Classicism, distancing himself, for example, from Schelling’s speculative excesses . Goethe’s morphology is built around two nuclear concepts: type and metamorphosis:

  • Regarding the type, his works on the intermaxillary bone stand out, whose existence proved common to all vertebrates. This was a fundamental discovery, as it demonstrated the existence of an osteological type common to all vertebrates.
  • The concept of metamorphosis was developed in the field of plant morphology. According to the Goethian theory, all the floral organs of plants are variations of an original form from which they derive by metamorphosis.

In The Metamorphosis of Plants (Versuch die Metamorphose der Pflanzen zu erklären), published in 1790, Goethe presents all plant structures as variations of the leaf, understood as an ideal structure. Goethe begins with the cotyledons, which he considers to be imperfect leaves. The latter, under the generative and increasingly refined influence of the sap, metamorphose into the sepals, petals, stamens and pistils. In this way, all plant organs are conceived as identical appendages, varieties of an abstract plant appendix, which differ from each other by their shape and degree of expansion.

Significance of his work

Covering genres such as the novel, lyric poetry, drama, and even controversial scientific treatises, his work left a deep mark on important later writers, composers, thinkers, and artists, being incalculable in later German philosophy and a constant source of inspiration for all kinds of works. His ideas about plants and animal morphology and homology were developed by various nineteenth-century naturalists, including Charles Darwin . His last name gives name to the Goethe-Institut, an organization in charge of spreading German culture throughout the world.


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