Goethe's Magical Philosophy and Possession of Nature

Khagan Parker

After hearing comments from the class, and especially Professor Miall, about Goethe's appropriation of nature I began to wonder about the argument I had presented in our presentation. I decided to do further research and found some interesting arguments that both supported and detracted from my original statement.

Although I think Goethe's relationship to nature is undeniable, perhaps his "appropriation" of nature is less clear. I think the term "appropriation" is the cause of the problem in identifying his true relationship to nature. In our presentation (Anne Privett, Luke Inberg and myself) we presented examples of the appropriation of nature through Romantic literature. The most direct example of this was in Anne's detailed description of English landscape gardening where nature was physically appropriated to create the picturesque. Here we can see the distinction between any concept of Goethe's appropriation of nature and the real and physical appropriation by English landscapers.

The term appropriation denotes and connotes possession on the part of the appropriator. The question of possession therefore becomes central to an idea of Goethe's appropriation of nature. Indeed, the landowners of England commissioned landscape architects to transform their grounds into models of the picturesque and this process was demonstrative of an actual possession over the land. However, I find it difficult to reduce Goethe to materialism and believe that he would take a more engaged and emotional approach to nature. It is obvious that Goethe never actually appropriated any of nature, especially when compared with the English landscapers, but I'm not sure if this satisfies an understanding of his relationship to nature.

From Bruce MacLennan's definitions found in his introduction to his seminar on Goethe, it seems that Goethe would most likely accept the magical philosophy rather than the mechanical philosophy. "[T]he magical philosophy also promised control over the material world, but it was restrained by its reverence for Nature. In common with the Aristotelian philosophers, they believed that knowledge of nature…would help to free humanity from misery and to ensure peace and plenty, in cooperation with nature, for all..." (MacLennan). From MacLennan's site, it is not entirely clear how the magical philosophy can be both cooperative and controlling over nature. But this dilemma seems to reflect greatly on the issue of appropriation of nature.

I believe this relates to Faust, in that the struggle seems to relate succinctly with Goethe own understanding of nature. "Faust, in typical Romantic fashion, conflates Neoplatonism, which opposes a transcendent mind to an immanent world, with Kantianism, which opposes an internal subject to an external object; thus, sometimes Faust has two souls, one of which longs for transcendence, the other for the world (the Neoplatonist version of the Romantic dialectic), and at other times he feels imprisoned within himself and unable to apprehend the world outside his mind (the Kantian version of the Romantic dialectic). (Brown)" The opposition in this sense between internal and external exposes Goethe's own struggle between subjective and objective, which I touched on in my presentation.

Goethe's possession of nature is never a physical appropriation, and justifiably so, since Goethe favored sensation and reason over physical interaction with nature. After all, he is drawn through Italy by coach, not walking through Europe like Wordsworth. Goethe's distance with nature seems to reflect his unwillingness to become a part of nature and rather to observe it as a spectator. But Goethe believes himself to be a participant in nature through this observation just as he was a participant in his science. For Goethe, his relationship with nature is direct and mutual, though it may not necessarily be a mastery of nature.

As I quoted in my presentation, Goethe said: "I shall never rest until I know that all my ideas are derived…from my real living contact with the things themselves" (Italian Journey 347). Goethe needs nature to reaffirm his ideas, but he does not necessarily discover these ideas through nature. He asserts his preconceptions over nature in many situations in Italian Journey, such as when he relates his theory of gravity and its effect on weather (31). "L.L. Whyte writes that Goethe's central ambition '...was nothing less than to see all nature as one, to discover an objective principle of continuity running through the whole, from the geological rocks to the processes of aesthetic creation. Moreover, this discovery of the unity of nature implies the simultaneous self-discovery of man, since man could thereby come to understand himself better'" (Seamon). It seems that Goethe both wants to be essential part of nature (as a man) and assert himself as a self-realized and understood being.

Returning to the mechanical philosophy of Bruce MacLennan, which he relates through his site on "Goethe, Faust and Science", we can understand why in this definition Goethe could not accept a materialist worldview. "The mechanical philosophy, however, shifted man's primary relation to Nature, from the reverent contemplation, appreciation, and cooperation of the other two philosophies, to limitless domination and exploitation" (MacLennan). Mechanical philosophy is evidently an appropriation of nature, and since it seems that Goethe maintained much contemplation and appreciation for nature it would be difficult to claim that he would accept mechanical philosophy. However, MacLennan's definition of the magical philosophy implies that there is still some intention for "control over the material world" like its mechanical counterpart.

Interestingly, MacLennan touches indirectly on another topic that came up in one of our class presentations. In Bethany and Sarah's presentation on Nature as Woman we found nature to be described predominantly by men in the female. MacLennan describes the Cartesian understanding that "Woman could be said to be creative only in the inferior sense of supporting the growth of the preformed embryo, whereas man provided essence of humanity, the rational mind and immortal soul, the creative word (idea) in another form" (MacLennan). He compares the female to the "creative body" and the male to the "creative word" in order to expose a materialistic philosophical understanding of nature. MacLennan says "the superior, male World Mind corresponds to the immortal spirit, a realm of abstract Ideas, whereas the subordinate, female World Soul nurtures the changeable World Body. Similarly, whereas woman has a creative body, which creates by means of matter, man has a creative mind, which creates by means of ideas and words."

In such a dichotomy, it would be apparent that the male (creative word) would wish to control the female (creative body) much like man appeared to wish to control nature. "In all cases the creative body was considered inferior to the creative word, and the superiority of the word was proved by its ability to dominate Nature, for "knowledge is power" (Bacon)" (MacLennan). However, this is an understanding that would fall into the mechanical philosophy of MacLennan, which does not seem to follow Goethe's own philosophy.

Perhaps Goethe does not appropriate nature in the sense of English landscapers, nor does he seek to control nature in the Cartesian tradition of mechanical philosophy, but his relationship with nature seems more multifaceted than cooperation. It is also interesting how this problem expands into Goethe's Faust and Italian Journey and seems to be the basis of a greater theme in his literature. The question of Goethe's appropriation of nature could be whether he subscribes to a mechanical or magical philosophy in MacLennan's terms. Either master to nature or companion, Goethe's relationship with nature is dynamic and complex.

Works Cited

Brown, Jane K. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. http://worldroots.com/brigitte/goethe1.htm 19 Feb. 2005.

Goethe, Johann. Italian Journey. London: Penguin Classics, 1962.

MacLennan, Bruce. Introduction to 'Goethe, Faust, and Science' seminar. http://www.cs.utk.edu/~mclennan/Classes/UH348/Intro-IIC5.html 19 Feb. 2005.

Seamon, David. "Goethe, Nature, and Phenomenology". http://www.arch.ksu.edu/seamon/book%20chapters/goethe_intro.htm 18 Feb. 2005.