I related to Goethe a wonderful dream of my boyish years, which was literally fulfilled the next morning.

“I had,” said I, “brought up three young linnets, to which I devoted my whole heart, and which I loved above all things. They flew freely about my chamber, and came towards me and settled on my hand as soon as I entered at the door.

One day at noon, I had the misfortune, that, on my entrance into the chamber, one of the birds flew over me, out of the house – I knew not whither. I sought it the whole afternoon, on all the roofs, and was inconsolable when evening came and I had discovered no traces of it.

I went to sleep with sad thoughts in my heart, and towards morning I had the following dream: Methought I roamed about the neighbouring houses in search of my lost bird. All at once I heard the sound of its voice, and saw it behind the garden of our cottage, seated upon the roof of a neighbour’s house.

I called to it, and it approached me, moved its wings towards me as if asking for food, but still it could not venture to fly down to my hand. I ran quickly through our garden into my chamber, and returned with a cup of soaked rape seed! I held the favourite food towards it, and it perched upon my hand, when, full of joy, I carried it back into my chamber to the other two.

“With this dream I awoke; and as it was then broad daylight, I quickly put on my clothes, and with the utmost haste ran down through our little garden to the house where I had seen the bird. But how great was my astonishment when the bird was really there!

Everything happened literally as I had seen it in the dream. I called the bird, it approached, but it hesitated to fly to my hand. I ran back and brought the food, when it flew upon my hand, and I took it back to the others.”

“This boyish adventure of yours,” said Goethe, “is certainly very remarkable. But there are many such things in nature, though we have not the right key to them. We all walk in mysteries. We are surrounded by an atmosphere of which we do not know what is stirring in it, or how it is connected with our own spirit.

So much is certain, that in particular cases we can put out the feelers of our soul beyond its bodily limits, and that a presentiment, nay, an actual insight into the immediate future, is accorded to it.”

“With the cuckoo,” said I, “it is not otherwise. We know that it does not brood itself, but lays its egg in the nest of some other bird. We know, furthermore, that it lays it in the nest of the grasmücke, the yellow wagtail, the monk; also in the nests of the braunelle, the robin, and the wren. This we know.

We also know that these are all insect-eating birds; and must be so, because the cuckoo itself is an insect-eating bird, and the young cuckoo cannot be brought up by a seed-eating bird. But how does the cuckoo find out that these are all actually insect-eating birds?

For all the above-mentioned birds differ extremely from each other, both in form and colour; and also in their song and their call-note. Further, how comes it that the cuckoo can trust its egg and its tender young to nests which are as different as possible with respect to structure, temperature, dryness, and moisture?

The nest of the grasmücke is built so lightly, with dry hay and horse-hair, that all cold penetrates into it, and every breeze blows through it; it is also open at the top, and without shelter; still, the young cuckoo thrives in it excellently.

The nest of the wren, on the other hand, is on the outside built firmly and thickly, with moss, straw, and leaves, and carefully lined within with all sorts of wool and feathers; so that not a breeze can pierce through it.

It is also covered at the top, and arched over, only a small aperture being left for the very small birds to slip in and out. One would think that in the hot days of June, the heat in such an enclosed hole must be suffocating; but the young cuckoo thrives there best.

Then how different is the nest of the yellow-wagtail. This bird lives by the water, by brooks, and in various damp places. It builds its nest upon damp commons, in a tuft of rushes. It scrapes a hole in the moist earth, and lines it scantily with some blades of grass, so that the young cuckoo is hatched, and must grow up in the damp and cold; and still it thrives excellently.

But what a bird this must be, to which, at the most tender age, varieties of heat and cold, dryness and damp, which would be fatal to any other bird, are indifferent. And how does the old cuckoo know that they are so, when it is so susceptible to damp and cold at an advanced age.”

“This is a mystery,” returned Goethe; “but tell me, if you have observed it, how the cuckoo places its egg in the nest of the wren, when this has so small an opening that she cannot enter, and sit upon it.”

“The cuckoo lays it upon a dry spot,” returned I, “and takes it to the nest with her beak. I believe, too, that she does this not only with the wren’s nest, but with every other. For the nests of the other insect-eating birds, even when they are open at the top, are still so small or so closely surrounded by twigs, that the great long-tailed cuckoo cannot sit upon them.

This can well be imagined; but how it happens that the cuckoo lays so unusually small an egg, nay, so small that it might be the egg of a small insect-eating bird, is a new riddle which one may silently admire without being able to unravel.

The egg of the cuckoo is only a little larger than that of the grasmücke; and, indeed, it ought not to be larger, as it has to be hatched by the small insect-eating birds.

This is good and rational; but that nature, to be wise in a particular instance, should deviate from a great pervading law, according to which there exists a certain proportion between the size of the egg and that of the bird, from the hummingbird to the ostrich, this arbitrary proceeding, I say, is enough to inspire us with astonishment.”

“It certainly astonishes us,” said Goethe, “because our point of view is too small for us to comprehend it. If more were revealed to us, we should probably find that these apparent deviations are really within the compass of the law. But go on, and tell me something more. Is it known how many eggs the cuckoo lays?

Whoever tried to say anything definite on that point would be a great blockhead. The bird is very fleeting. She is now here, now there; there is never more than one of her eggs found in a single nest. She certainly lays several; but who knows where these are, and who could look for them?

But, supposing that she lays five eggs, and that all these are properly hatched, and brought up by affectionate foster-parents, we must still wonder that nature can resolve to sacrifice at least fifty of the young of our best singing birds for five young cuckoos.”

“In such things, as well as others,” returned Goethe, “nature does not appear to be very scrupulous. She has a good fund of life to lavish, and she does so now and then without much hesitation. But how does it happen that so many young singing birds are lost for a single young cuckoo?”

“In the first place,” I replied, “the first brood is generally lost; for even if it should happen that the eggs of the singing bird are hatched at the same time with that of the cuckoo, which is very probable, the parents are so much delighted with the larger bird, and show it such fondness, that they think of and feed that alone, whilst their own young are neglected, and vanish from the nest.

Besides, the young cuckoo is always greedy, and demands as much nourishment as the little insect-eating birds can procure. It is a very long time before it attains its full size and plumage, and before it is capable of leaving the nest, and soaring to the top of a tree.

And even long after it has flown it requires to be fed continually, so that the whole summer passes away, while the affectionate foster-parents constantly attend upon their great child, and do not think of a second brood. It is on this account that a single young cuckoo causes the loss of so many other young birds.”

What he had just said about Napoleon was in my mind, and I endeavoured to lead the conversation back to that subject. “Still it appears to me,” I began, “that Napoleon was especially in that state of continued enlightenment when he was young, and his powers were yet on the increase, when, indeed, we see at his side divine protection and a constant fortune.

In later years, on the contrary, this enlightenment appears to have forsaken him, as well as his fortune and his good star.”

“What would you have?” returned Goethe. “I did not write my ‘love songs,’ or my ‘Werther,’ a second time. That divine enlightenment, whence everything proceeds, we shall always find in connection with youth and productiveness, as in the case of Napoleon, who was one of the most productive men that ever lived.

Yes, yes, my good friend, one need not write poems and plays to be productive; there is also a productiveness of deeds, which in many cases stands an important degree higher.

The physician himself must be productive, if he really intends to heal; if he is not so, he will only succeed now and then, as if by chance; but, on the whole, he will be only a bungler.”

“You appear,” added I, “in this case, to call productiveness that which is usually called genius.”

“One lies very near the other,” returned Goethe. “For what is genius but that productive power by which deeds arise that can display themselves before God and nature, and are therefore permanent, and produce results.

All Mozart’s works are of this kind; there lies in them a productive power which operates upon generation after generation, and still is not wasted or consumed.

It is the same with other great composers and artists. What an influence have Phidias and Raphael had upon succeeding centuries, and Dürer and Holbein also. He who first invented the forms and proportions of the old German architecture, so that in the course of time a Strasburg minster and cathedral of Cologne were possible, was also a genius; for his thoughts have a power continually productive, and operate even to the present hour.

Luther was a genius of a very important kind; he has already gone on with influence for many a long day, and we cannot count the days when he will cease to be productive in future ages.

Lessing would not allow himself the lofty title of a genius; but his permanent influence bears witness against him.

On the other hand, we have, in literature, other names, and those of importance, the possessors of which, whilst they lived, were deemed great geniuses, but whose influence ended with their life, and who were therefore less than they and others thought.

For, as I said before, there is no genius without a productive power of permanent influence; and furthermore, genius does not depend upon the business, the art, or the trade which one follows, but may be alike in all.

Whether one shows oneself a man of genius in science, like Oken and Humboldt, or in war and statesmanship, like Frederick, Peter the Great, and Napoleon, or whether one composes a song like Béranger, it all comes to the same thing; the only point is, whether the thought, the discovery, the deed, is living, and can live on.

Then I must add, it is not the mass of creations and deeds which proceed from a person, that indicates the productive man. We have, in literature, poets who are considered very productive, because volume after volume of their poems has appeared.

But, in my opinion, these people ought to be called thoroughly unproductive; for what they have written is without life and durability.

Goldsmith, on the contrary, has written so few poems that their number is not worth mentioning; but, nevertheless, I must pronounce him to be a thoroughly productive poet, and, indeed, even on that account, because the little that he has written has an inherent life which can sustain itself.”

“There was a time in my life when I had to furnish a printed sheet every day, and I accomplished it with facility. I wrote my ‘Geschwister’ (Brother and Sister) in three days; my ‘Clavigo,’ as you know, in a week. Now it seems I can do nothing of the kind, and still I can by no means complain of want of productiveness even at my advanced age.

But whereas in my youth I succeeded daily and under all circumstances, I now succeed only periodically and under certain favourable conditions. When ten or twelve years ago, in the happy time after the war of independence, the poems of the ‘Divan’ had me in their power, I was often productive enough to compose two or three in a day, and it was all the same to me whether I was in the open air, in the chariot, or in an inn.

Now, I can only work at the second part of my ‘Faust’ during the early part of the day, when I feel refreshed and revived by sleep, and have not been perplexed by the trifles of daily life. And, after all, what is it I achieve?

Under the most favourable circumstances, a page of writing, but generally only so much as one could write in the space of a hand-breadth, and often, when in an unproductive humour, still less.”

“Are there, then, no means,” said I, “to call forth a productive mood, or, if it is not powerful enough, of increasing it?”

“That is a curious point,” said Goethe, “and a great deal might be thought and talked about it.

“No productiveness of the highest kind, no remarkable discovery, no great thought which bears fruit and has results, is in the power of any one; but such things are elevated above all earthly control.

Man must consider them as an unexpected gift from above, as pure children of God, which he must receive and venerate with joyful thanks. They are akin to the demon, which does with him what it pleases, and to which he unconsciously resigns himself, whilst he believes he is acting from his own impulse.

In such cases, man may often be considered as an instrument in a higher government of the world, as a vessel found worthy for the reception of a divine influence. I say this, whilst I consider how often a single thought has given a different form to whole centuries, and how individual men have, by their expressions, imprinted a stamp upon their age, which has remained uneffaced, and has operated beneficially upon succeeding generations.

There is, however, a productiveness of another kind subjected to earthly influences, and which man has more in his power, although he here also finds cause to bow before something divine.

Under this category I place all that appertains to the execution of a plan, all the links of a chain of thought, the ends of which already shine forth; I also place there all that constitutes the visible body of a work of art.

Thus, Shakspeare was inspired with the first thought of his Hamlet, when the spirit of the whole presented itself to his mind as an unexpected impression, and he surveyed the several situations, characters, and conclusion, in an elevated mood, as a pure gift from above, on which he had no immediate influence, although the possibility of conceiving such a thought certainly presupposed a mind such as his.

But the individual scenes, and the dialogue of the characters, he had completely in his power, so that he might produce them daily and hourly, and work at them for weeks if he liked.

And, indeed, we see in all that he has achieved, constantly the same power of production; and in all his plays we never come to a passage of which it could be said ‘this was not written in the proper humour, or with the most perfect faculty.’ Whilst we read him, we receive the impression of a man thoroughly strong and healthy, both in mind and body.

Supposing, however, that the bodily constitution of a dramatic poet were not so strong and excellent, and that he were, on the contrary, subject to frequent illness and weakness, the productiveness necessary for the daily construction of his scenes would very frequently cease, and would often fail him for whole days.

If now, by some spirituous drink, he tried to force his failing productiveness, and supply its deficiencies, the method would certainly answer, but it would be discoverable in all the scenes which he had written under such an influence, to their great disadvantage.

My counsel is, therefore, to force nothing, and rather to trifle and sleep away all unproductive days and hours, than on such days to compose something which will afterwards give one no pleasure.”

“But do you know my opinion on this matter? Man must be ruined again! Every extraordinary man has a certain mission which he is called upon to accomplish.

If he has fulfilled it, he is no longer needed upon earth in the same form, and Providence uses him for something else. But as everything here below happens in a natural way, the demons keep tripping him up till he falls at last.

Thus it was with Napoleon and many others. Mozart died in his six-and-thirtieth year. Raphael at the same age. Byron only a little older. But all these had perfectly fulfilled their missions, and it was time for them to depart, that other people might still have something to do in a world made to last a long while.”

“There is something more or less wrong among us old Europeans; our relations are far too artificial and complicated, our nutriment and mode of life are without their proper nature, and our social intercourse is without proper love and good will.

Every one is polished and courteous; but no one has the courage to be hearty and true, so that an honest man, with natural views and feelings, stands in a very bad position.

Often one cannot help wishing that one had been born upon one of the South Sea Islands, a so-called savage, so as to have thoroughly enjoyed human existence in all its purity, without any adulteration.”

“Your excellency,” said I, “made an excellent remark a little while ago, when you said that the Greeks turned to nature with their own greatness, and I think that we cannot be too deeply penetrated with this maxim.”

“Yes, my good friend,” said Goethe, “all depends upon this; one must be something in order to do something. Dante seems to us great; but he had the culture of centuries behind him. The house of Rothschild is rich; but it has taken more than one generation to accumulate such treasures. All these things lie deeper than is thought.

Our worthy artists who imitate the old German school know nothing of all this; they proceed to the imitation of nature with their own personal weakness and artistic incapacity, and fancy they are doing something. They stand below nature.

But whoever will produce anything great, must so improve his culture that, like the Greeks, he will be able to elevate the mere trivial actualities of nature to the level of his own mind, and really carry out that which, in natural phenomena, either from internal weakness or external obstacles, remains a mere intention.”

“There is something peculiar in that,” returned Goethe. “Wood burns because it has the proper stuff for that purpose in it; and a man becomes renowned because he has the necessary stuff in him.

Renown is not to be sought, and all pursuit of it is vain. A person may, indeed, by skilful conduct and various artificial means, make a sort of name for himself. But if the inner jewel is wanting, all is vanity, and will not last a day.

Just the same is it with popular favour. He did not seek it, and he by no means flattered people; but the nation loved him, because it felt that he had a heart for it.”

“The truth must be repeated over and over again, because error is repeatedly preached among us, not only by individuals, but by the masses. In periodicals and cyclopædias, in schools and universities; everywhere, in fact, error prevails, and is quite easy in the feeling that it has a decided majority on its side.

Often, too, people teach truth and error together, and stick to the latter. Thus, a short time ago, I read in an English cyclopædia the doctrine of the origin of Blue. First came the correct view of Leonardo da Vinci, but then followed, as quietly as possible, the error of Newton, coupled with remarks that this was to be adhered to because it was the view generally adopted.”

“We have now excellent men rising up in natural science,” he continued, after a pause, “and I am glad to see them. Others begin well, but afterwards fall off; their predominating subjectivity leads them astray.

Others, again, set too much value on facts, and collect an infinite number, by which nothing is proved. On the whole, there is a want of originating mind to penetrate back to the original phenomena, and master the particulars that make their appearance.”

Goethe then asked about my progress in French literature, and I told him that I still took up Voltaire from time to time, and that the great talent of this man gave me the purest delight.

“I still know but little of him,” said I; “I keep to his short poems addressed to persons, which I read over and over again, and which I cannot lay aside.”

“Indeed,” said Goethe, “all is good which is written by so great a genius as Voltaire, though I cannot excuse all his profanity. But you are right to give so much time to those little poems addressed to persons; they are unquestionably among the most charming of his works. There is not a line which is not full of thought, clear, bright, and graceful.”

“And we see,” said I, “his relations to all the great and mighty of the world, and remark with pleasure the distinguished position taken by himself, inasmuch as he seems to feel himself equal to the highest, and we never find that any majesty can embarrass his free mind even for a moment.”

“Yes,” said Goethe, “he bore himself like a man of rank. And with all his freedom and audacity, he ever kept within the limits of strict propriety, which is, perhaps, saying still more. I may cite the Empress of Austria as an authority in such matters; she has repeatedly assured me, that in those poems of Voltaire’s, there is no trace of crossing the line of convenance.”

“To all that your Excellency says of Byron,” said I, “I agree from the bottom of my heart; but, however great and remarkable that poet may be as a genius, I very much doubt whether a decided gain for pure human culture is to be derived from his writings.”

“There I must contradict you,” said Goethe; “the audacity and grandeur of Byron must certainly tend towards culture. We should take care not to be always looking for it in the decidedly pure and moral. Everything that is great promotes cultivation as soon as we are aware of it.”

“I have continued to read Schubart,” said Goethe. “He is, indeed, a remarkable man, and he says much that is excellent, if we translate it into our own language.

The chief tendency of his book is to show that there is a point of view beyond the sphere of philosophy, namely, that of common-sense; and that art and science, independently of philosophy, and by means of a free action of natural human powers, have always thriven best.

This is grist for our mill. I have always kept myself free from philosophy. The common-sense point of view was also mine; and hence Schubart confirms what I myself have been saying and doing all my life.”

“All that is great and skilful exists with the minority. There have been ministers who have had both king and people against them, and have carried out their great plans alone.

It is not to be imagined that reason can ever be popular. Passions and feelings may become popular; but reason always remains the sole property of a few eminent individuals.”

From Cousin we passed to Indian philosophy.

“This philosophy,” said Goethe, “if what the Englishman tells us is true, has nothing foreign, but, on the contrary, the epochs through which we all pass are repeated in it.

When we are children, we are sensualists; idealists when we love, and attribute to the beloved object qualities which she does not naturally possess.

Love wavers; we doubt her fidelity, and are sceptics before we think of it. The rest of life is indifferent; we let it go as it will, and end, like the Indian philosophers, with quietism.

In the German philosophy there are still two great works to do. Kant did an infinite deal, by writing the ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ but the circle is not yet complete.

Now, some able man should write the ‘Critique of the Senses and Understanding of Man’ and, if this could be as well done, we should have little more to desire in German philosophy.”

“A new expression occurs to me,” said Goethe, “which does not ill define the state of the case. I call the classic healthy, the romantic sickly. In this sense, the ‘Nibelungenlied’ is as classic as the ‘Illiad,’ for both are vigorous and healthy.

Most modern productions are romantic, not because they are new, but because they are weak, morbid, and sickly; and the antique is classic, not because it is old, but because it is strong, fresh, joyous, and healthy. If we distinguish ‘classic’ and ‘romantic’ by these qualities, it will be easy to see our way clearly.”

“It raises my admiration,” said I, “that Napoleon, at that early age, could play with the great affairs of the world as easily and securely as if many years’ practice and experience had gone before.”

“That, my dear friend,” said Goethe, “is an inborn quality with great talents. Napoleon managed the world as Hummel his piano; both achievements appear wonderful, we do not understand one more than the other, yet so it is, and the whole is done before our eyes.

Napoleon was in this especially great – that he was at all hours the same. Before a battle, during a battle, after a victory, after a defeat, he stood always firm, was always clear and decided as to what he should do.

He was always in his element, and equal to each situation and each moment, just as it is all alike to Hummel whether he plays an adagio or an allegro, bass or treble. This facility we find everywhere where there is real talent, in the arts of peace as well as in war; at the harpsichord as behind the cannon.”

“It is bad, however, that we are so hindered in life by false tendencies, and never know them to be false until we are already freed from them.”

“But how,” said I, “shall we know that a tendency is false?”

“A false tendency,” replied Goethe, “is not productive; or if it is, what it produces is of no worth. It is not so difficult to perceive this in others; but with respect to oneself the case is different, and great freedom of mind is required.

And even knowledge of the truth is not always of use; we delay, doubt, cannot resolve – just as one finds it difficult to leave a beloved girl of whose infidelity one has long had repeated proofs. This I say, because I remember how many years were required before I could find out that my tendency to plastic art was a false one, and how many more, after I was sure of this fact, to separate myself entirely from it.”

“But,” said I, “that tendency has been of such advantage to you, one can hardly call it false.”

“I gained insight by it,” said Goethe, “and therefore I can make myself easy about it. That is the advantage we draw from every false tendency. He who with inadequate talent devotes himself to music, will never, indeed, become a master, but may learn to know and to value a masterly production.

With all my toil, I have not become an artist; but, as I tried every department of art, I have learned to take cognizance of each stroke, and to distinguish merits from defects. This is no small gain; and, indeed, false tendencies are rarely without gain.

Thus the Crusades, for the liberation of the holy sepulchre, manifestly represented a false tendency; but they did this good, they weakened the Turks, and prevented them from becoming masters of Europe.”

“It is not good for man to be alone,” said Goethe, “and especially to work alone. On the contrary, he needs sympathy and suggestion to do anything well.

I owe to Schiller the ‘Achilleis,’ and many of my ballads, to which he urged me; and you may take the credit to yourself, if I complete the second part of ‘Faust.’ I have often told you so before, but I must repeat it, that you may know it.”

Conversation now turned upon romances and plays, and their moralizing or demoralizing effect upon the public.

“It must be bad indeed,” said Goethe, “if a book has a more demoralizing effect than life itself, which daily displays the most scandalous scenes in abundance, if not before our eyes, at least before our ears.

Even with children, people need by no means be so anxious about the effect of a book or a play. Daily life is, as I said before, more instructive than the most effective book.”

“But still,” remarked I, “with respect to children people take care not to utter things in their presence which are considered improper for them to hear.”

“That is laudable enough,” said Goethe, “and I do the same myself, but I consider the precaution quite useless. Children, like dogs, have so sharp and fine a scent, that they detect and hunt out everything – the bad before all the rest.

They also know well enough how this or that friend stands with their parents; and as they practice no dissimulation whatever, they serve as excellent barometers by which to observe the degree of favour or disfavour at which we stand with their parents.

Some one had once spoken ill of me in company; and, indeed, the circumstance appeared to me of such importance, that I wished much to discover whence the blow came. People here were generally well disposed towards me. I turned my thoughts in every direction, and could not make out with whom the odious report had originated.

All of a sudden a light dawned upon me. I one day met, in the street, some little boys of my acquaintance, who did not greet me as they had been accustomed. This was enough for me, and upon this track I very soon discovered that it was their beloved parents who had set their tongues wagging, at my cost, in so shameful a manner.”

“But tell me; if we discover a truth, must we communicate it to others?

If you make it known, you are persecuted by an infinite number of people who gain their living from the error you oppose, saying that this error itself is the truth, and that the greatest error is that which tends to destroy it.”

Error belongs to libraries, truth to the human mind, books may be increased by books, while the intercourse with living primitive law gratifies the mind that can embrace the simple, disentangle the perplexed, and enlighten the obscure.

Our conversation soon turned upon other subjects, and Goethe begged me to give him my opinion upon the Saint-Simonians.

“The principal aim of their theory,” returned I, “appears to be – that each should work for the happiness of the whole, as a necessary condition of his own happiness.”

“I think,” returned Goethe, “that each ought to begin with himself, and make his own fortune first, from which the happiness of the whole will at last unquestionably follow. Altogether, this theory appears to me perfectly impracticable. It is in opposition to all nature, all experience, and all the course of events for thousands of years.

If each one only does his duty as an individual, and if each one works rightly in his own vocation, it will be well with the whole. Never, in my vocation as an author, have I asked, – what would the multitude have, and how can I be of service to the whole, but I have always endeavoured to improve myself and sharpen my own faculties, to raise the standard of my own personality, and then to express only that which I had recognized as good and true.

This has certainly, as I will not deny, worked usefully in a large sphere; still, it was not my aim, but the necessary result, which is found in all the effects of natural powers. If, as an author, I had made the wishes of the great multitude my aim, and had endeavoured to satisfy these, I should have told them short stories, and made sport with them, like the late Kotzebue.”

“That cannot be contradicted,” returned I. “But, however, there is not merely a happiness which I enjoy as a single individual, but also one which I enjoy as a citizen and member of a great community. If one does not lay down as a principal the attainment of the greatest possible happiness for a whole people, from what basis should legislation proceed?”

“If that is what you are driving at,” said Goethe, “I have nothing to reply. But in such a case, only a very select few could make use of your principle. It would be only a receipt for princes and legislators, although it appears to me that the tendency of laws should be rather to diminish the amount of evil than to produce an amount of happiness.”

“Both,” returned I, “come pretty much to the same thing. Bad roads, for instance, appear to me a great evil. But if a prince introduce good roads into his state down to the poorest hamlet, not only is a great evil removed, but a great good is gained for his people. Again, a tardy administration of justice is a great evil. But if a prince, by establishing a public civil mode of proceeding, affords to his people speedy justice, not merely is a great evil removed, but a great good is conferred.”

“In this key,” rejoined Goethe, “I would pipe quite another song. However, we leave some evils untouched that something may remain upon which mankind can further develop their powers. In the mean while, my doctrine is this, let the father take care of his house, the artizan of his customers, and the clergy of mutual love, and the police will not disturb our joy.”

I have been reading the New Testament, and thinking of a picture which Goethe lately showed me, where Christ is walking on the water, and Peter coming towards him, on the waves, begins to sink, in a moment of faint-heartedness.

“This,” said Goethe, “is one of the most beautiful legends, and one which I love better than any. It expresses the noble doctrine that man, through faith and hearty courage, will come off victor in the most difficult enterprises, while he may be ruined by the least paroxysm of doubt.”

“Certainly,” said Goethe, “personality is everything in art and poetry; nevertheless, there are many weak personages among the modern critics who do not admit this, but look upon a great personality in a work of poetry or art merely as a kind of trifling appendage.

However, to feel and respect a great personality one must be something oneself. All those who denied the sublime to Euripides were either poor wretches incapable of comprehending such sublimity, or shameless charlatans, who, by their presumption, wished to make more of themselves, and really did make more of themselves than they were.”

Goethe then told me of the book of a young natural philosopher, which he could not help praising, on account of the clearness of his descriptions, while he pardoned him for his teleological tendency.

“It is natural to man,” said Goethe, “to regard himself as the final cause of creation, and to consider all other things merely in relation to himself so far as they are of use to him. He makes himself master of the vegetable and animal world, and while he claims other creatures as a fitting diet, he acknowledges his God, and praises His goodness in this paternal care.

He takes milk from the cow, honey from the bee, wool from the sheep; and while he gives these things a purpose which is useful to himself, he believes that they were made on that account. Nay, he cannot conceive that even the smallest herb was not made for him, and if he has not yet ascertained its utility, he believes that he may discover it in future.

Then, too, as man thinks in general, so does he always think in particular, and he does not fail to transfer his ordinary views from life into science, and to ask the use and purpose of every single part of our organic being.

This may do for a time, and he may get on so for a time in science, but he will soon come to phenomena, where this small view will not be sufficient, and where, if he does not take a higher stand, he will soon be involved in mere contradictions.

The utility-teachers say that oxen have horns to defend themselves; but I ask, why is the sheep without any – and when it has them, why are they twisted about the ears so as to answer no purpose at all?

If, on the other hand, I say the ox defends himself with his horns because he has them, it is quite a different matter.

The question as to the purpose – the question Wherefore is completely unscientific. But we get on farther with the question How? For if I ask how has the ox horns, I am led to study his organization, and learn at the same time why the lion has no horns, and cannot have any.

Thus, man has in his skull two hollows which are never filled up. The question wherefore could not take us far in this case, but the question how informs me that these hollows are remains of the animal skull, which are found on a larger scale in inferior organization, and are not quite obliterated in man, with all his eminence.

The teachers of utility would think that they lost their God if they did not worship Him who gave the ox horns to defend itself. But I hope I may be allowed to worship Him who, in the abundance of His creation, was great enough, after making a thousand kinds of plants, to make one more, in which all the rest should be comprised; and after a thousand kinds of animals, a being which comprises them all – a man.

Let people serve Him who gives to the beast his fodder, and to man meat and drink as much as he can enjoy. But I worship Him who has infused into the world such a power of production, that, when only the millionth part of it comes out into life, the world swarms with creatures to such a degree that war, pestilence, fire, and water cannot prevail against them. That is my God!”

“The difficulty in nature,” said Goethe, “is to see the law where it is concealed from us, and not to be misled by phenomena which contradict our senses. For in nature there is much which contradicts our senses, and is nevertheless true.

That the sun stands still, that he does not rise and set, but that the earth performs a diurnal revolution with incredible swiftness, contradicts the senses as much as anything, but yet no well-informed person doubts that this is the case. Thus, too, there are in the vegetable kingdom contradictory phenomena, with which we must be very careful not to be led into false ways.”

In poetry, only the really great and pure advances us; and this exists as a second nature, either elevating us to itself or rejecting us.

On the other hand, defective poetry develops our faults, inasmuch as we take into ourselves the infectious weaknesses of the poet. Yes, take them in, without knowing it, because we cannot perceive a defect in that which is consonant to our nature.

To draw advantage from both the good and the bad in poetry, we must already be in a very high position, and have such a foundation that we can regard things of the sort as objects external to ourselves.

Hence I commend an intercourse with nature, who in no wise favours our weaknesses, but either makes something out of us, or will have nothing at all to do with us.

Man is born only for the little; only what is known to him can be comprehended by him, or give him pleasure. A great connoisseur understands a picture; he knows how to combine the various particulars into the Universal, which is familiar to him; the whole is, to him, as living as the details.

Neither does he entertain a predilection for detached portions; he asks not whether a face is ugly or beautiful, whether a passage is light or dark, but whether everything is in its place, according to law and order.

But if we show an ignorant man a picture of some compass, we shall see that, as a whole, it leaves him unmoved or confused; that some parts attract, others repel him; and that he at last abides by little things which are familiar to him, praising, perhaps, the good execution of a helmet or plume.

But, in fact, we men play more or less the part of this ignorant person before the great destiny-picture of the world. The lighted part, the Agreeable, attracts us, the shadowy and unpleasant parts repel us, the whole confuses us, and we vainly seek the idea of a single Being to whom we attribute such contradictions.

Now, in human things, one may indeed become a great connoisseur, inasmuch as one may appropriate to oneself the art and knowledge of a master, but, in divine things, this is only possible with a being equal to the Highest.

Nay, if the Supreme Being attempted to reveal such mysteries to us, we should not understand them or know what to do with them; but again resemble that ignoramus before the picture, to whom the connoisseur cannot by all the talking in the world impart the premises on which he judges.

On this account it is quite right that forms of religion have not been given directly by God himself, but, as the work of eminent men, have been conformed to the wants and the understanding of a great mass of their fellows. If they were the work of God, no man could understand them; but, being the work of men, they do not express the Inscrutable.

The religion of the highly-cultivated ancient Greeks went no further than to give separate expressions of the Inscrutable by particular Deities. As these individualities were only limited beings, and a gap was obvious in the connection of the whole, they invented the idea of a Fate, which they placed over all; but as this in its turn remained a many-sided Inscrutable, the difficulty was rather set aside than disposed of.

Christ thought of a God, comprising all in one, to whom he ascribed all qualities which he found excellent in himself. This God was the essence of his own beautiful soul; full of love and goodness, like himself: and every way suited to induce good men to give themselves up trustingly to him, and to receive this Idea, as the sweetest connection with a higher sphere.

But, as the great Being whom we name the Deity manifests himself not only in man, but in a rich, powerful nature, and in mighty world-events, a representation of him, framed from human qualities, cannot of course be adequate, and the attentive observer will soon come to imperfections and contradictions, which will drive him to doubt, nay, to despair, unless he be either little enough to let himself be soothed by an artful evasion, or great enough to rise to a higher point of view.

Such a point Goethe early found in Spinoza; and he acknowledges with joy how much the views of that great thinker answered the wants of his youth. In him he found himself, and in him therefore could he fortify himself to the best advantage.

And as these views were not of the subjective sort, but had a foundation in the works and manifestations of God through the world, so were the not mere husks which he, after his own later, deeper search into the world and nature, threw aside as useless, but were the first root and germ of a plant that went on growing with equally healthy energy for many years, and at last unfolded the flower of a rich knowledge.

His opponents have often accused him of having no faith; but he merely had not theirs, because it was too small for him. If he spoke out his own, they would be astonished; but they would not be able to comprehend him.

But Goethe is far from believing that he knows the Highest Being as it is. All his written and oral expressions intimate that it is somewhat inscrutable, of which men can only have approximating perceptions and feelings.

For the rest, nature and we men are all so penetrated by the Divine, that it holds us; that we live, move, and have our being in it; that we suffer and are happy under eternal laws; that we practise these, and they are practised on us, whether we recognize them or not.

The child enjoys his cake without knowing anything of the baker; the sparrow the cherries, without thinking how they grew.

We spoke of higher maxims, whether it was good or possible to communicate them to others. “The capacity of apprehending what is high,” said Goethe, “is very rare; and therefore, in common life, a man does well to keep such things for himself, and only to give out so much as is needful to have some advantage against others.

We touched upon the point that many men, especially critics and poets, wholly ignore true greatness, while they assign an extraordinary value to mediocrity.”

“Man,” said Goethe, “recognizes and praises only that which he himself is capable of doing; and as certain people have their proper existence in the mediocre, they get a trick of thoroughly depreciating that in literature which, while faulty, may have good points, that they may elevate the mediocre, which they praise, to a greater eminence.”

We discussed the question whether the errors now perceptible in some young German artists had proceeded from individuals, and spread abroad by intellectual contagion, or whether they had their origin in the general tendency of the time.

“They come,” said Goethe, “from a few individuals, and have now been in operation for forty years. The doctrine was, that the artist chiefly needs piety and genius to be equal to the best. Such a doctrine was very flattering, and was eagerly snatched up.

For, to become pious, a man need learn nothing, and genius each one inherited from his mother. One need only utter something that flatters indolence and conceit, to be sure of plenty of adherents among commonplace people.”

“Water-colour painting,” said Goethe, “is brought to a very high degree in this picture. There are some silly folks who say that Herr von Reutern is indebted to no one in his art, but has everything from himself, as if a man could have anything from himself but clumsiness and stupidity.

If this artist has had no master so called, he has nevertheless had intercourse with excellent masters, and from these, as well as from great predecessors and ever present nature, he has acquired what he now possesses.

Nature has given him an excellent talent, and nature and art together have perfected him. He is excellent, and in many respects unique, but we cannot say that he has everything from himself. Of a thoroughly crazy and defective artist, we may, indeed, say he has everything from himself; but of an excellent one, never.”

We conversed upon some subjects of natural science; particularly upon the imperfection and insufficiency of language, by which errors and false views which afterwards could not easily be overcome were spread abroad.

“The case is simply this,” said Goethe. “All languages have arisen from surrounding human necessities, human occupations, and the general feelings and views of man. If, now, a superior man gains an insight into the secret operations of nature, the language which has been handed down to him is not sufficient to express anything so remote from human affairs.

He ought to have at command the language of spirits to express adequately his peculiar perceptions. But as this is not the case, he must, in his views of the extraordinary in nature, always grasp at human expressions, with which he almost always falls too short, lowering his subject, or even injuring and destroying it.

“If you say this,” said I, “you who always pursue your subjects very closely, and, as an enemy to phrases, can always find the most fitting expressions for your higher perceptions, there is something in it. But I should have thought that, generally, we Germans might be contented. Our language is so extraordinarily rich, elaborated, and capable of progress, that even if we are obliged sometimes to have recourse to a trope, we can still arrive pretty nearly at the proper expression.

The French are at a great disadvantage when compared with us. With them the expression for some higher view of nature by a trope, generally borrowed from a technicality, is at once material and vulgar, so that it is by no means adequate to a higher view.”

“How right you are,” said Goethe, “has appeared to me lately, on the occasion of the dispute between Cuvier and Geoffrey de St. Hilaire. Geoffrey de St. Hilaire is a man who has certainly a great insight into the spiritual workings of nature; but his French language, so far as he is constrained to use traditional expressions, leaves him quite in the lurch.

And this not only in mysteriously spiritual, but also in visible, purely corporeal subjects and relations. If he would express the single parts of an organic being, he has no other word but materialien: thus, for instance, the bones, which, as homogeneous parts, form the organic whole of an arm, are placed upon the same scale of expression as the stones and planks with which a house is built.”

“In the same inappropriate manner,” continued Goethe, “the French use the expression composition, in speaking of the productions of nature. I can certainly put together the individual parts of a machine made of separate pieces, and, upon such a subject, speak of a composition; but not when I have in my mind the individual parts of an organic whole, which produce themselves with life, and are pervaded by a common soul.”

“It appears to me,” added I, “that the expression composition is also inappropriate and degrading to genuine productions of art and poetry.”

“It is a thoroughly contemptible word,” returned Goethe, “for which we have to thank the French, and of which we should endeavour to rid ourselves as soon as possible. How can one say, Mozart has composed (componirt) Don Juan! Composition!

As if it were a piece of cake or biscuit, which had been stirred together out of eggs, flour, and sugar! It is a spiritual creation, in which the details, as well as the whole, are pervaded by one spirit, and by the breath of one life; so that the producer did not make experiments, and patch together, and follow his own caprice, but was altogether in the power of the dæmonic spirit of his genius, and acted according to his orders.”

“The French look upon Mirabeau as their Hercules and they are perfectly right. But they forget that even the Colossus consists of individual parts, and that even the Hercules of antiquity is a collective being – a great supporter of his own deeds and the deeds of others.

But, in fact, we are all collective beings, let us place ourselves as we may. For how little have we, and are we, that we can strictly call our own property? We must all receive and learn both from those who were before us, and from those who are with us. Even the greatest genius would not go far if he tried to owe everything to his own internal self.

But many very good men do not comprehend that; and they grope in darkness for half a life, with their dreams of originality. I have known artists who boasted of having followed no master, and of having to thank their own genius for everything. Fools! as if that were possible at all; and as if the world would not force itself upon them at every step, and make something of them in spite of their own stupidity.

Yes, I maintain that if such an artist were only to survey the walls of this room, and cast only a passing glance at the sketches of some great masters, with which they are hung, he would necessarily, if he had any genius at all, quit this place another and a higher man. And, indeed, what is there good in us, if it is not the power and the inclination to appropriate to ourselves the resources of the outward world, and to make them subservient to our higher ends.

I may speak of myself, and may modestly say what I feel. It is true that, in my long life, I have done and achieved many things of which I might certainly boast. But to speak the honest truth, what had I that was properly my own, besides the ability and the inclination to see and to hear, to distinguish and to choose, and to enliven with some mind what I had seen and heard, and to reproduce with some degree of skill.

I by no means owe my works to my own wisdom alone, but to a thousand things and persons around me, who provided me with material. There were fools and sages, minds enlightened and narrow, childhood, youth, and mature age – all told me what they felt, what they thought, how they lived and worked, and what experiences they had gained; and I had nothing further to do than to put out my hand and reap what others had sown for me.

It is, in fact, utter folly to ask whether a person has anything from himself, or whether he has it from others; whether he operates by himself, or operates by means of others. The main point is to have a great will, and skill and perseverance to carry it out. All else is indifferent.

Mirabeau was therefore perfectly right, when he made what use he could of the outer world and its forces. He possessed the gift of distinguishing talent; and talent felt itself attracted by the demon of his powerful nature, so that it willingly yielded itself to him and his guidance.

Thus he was surrounded by a mass of distinguished forces, which he inspired with his ardour, and set in activity for his own higher aims. This very peculiarity, that he understood how to act with others and by others, this was his genius – this was his originality – this was his greatness.”

“I am thoroughly of your opinion,” returned Goethe. “Still, there are two points of view from which biblical subjects may be contemplated. There is the point of view of a sort of primitive religion, of pure nature and reason, which is of divine origin. This will always be the same, and will last and prevail as long as divinely endowed beings exist. It is, however, only for the elect, and is far too high and noble to become universal.

Then there is the point of view of the Church, which is of a more human nature. This is defective and subject to change; but it will last, in a state of perpetual change, as long as there are weak human beings. The light of unclouded divine revelation is far too pure and brilliant to be suitable and supportable to poor weak man.

But the Church steps in as a useful mediator, to soften and to moderate, by which all are helped, and many are benefited. Through the belief that the Christian Church, as the successor of Christ, can remove the burden of human sin, it is a very great power. To maintain themselves in this power and in this importance, and thus to secure the ecclesiastical edifice, is the chief aim of the Christian priesthood.

This priesthood, therefore, does not so much ask whether this or that book in the Bible greatly enlightens the mind, and contains doctrines of high morality and noble human nature. It rather looks upon the books of Moses, with reference to the fall of man and the origin of a necessity for a Redeemer; it searches the prophets for repeated allusion to Him, the Expected One, and regards, in the Gospels, His actual earthly appearance, and His death upon the cross, as the atonement for our human sins.

You see, therefore, that for such purposes, and weighed in such a balance, neither the noble Tobias, nor the Wisdom of Solomon, nor the sayings of Sirach, can have much weight. Still, with reference to things in the Bible, the question whether they are genuine or spurious is odd enough.

What is genuine but that which is truly excellent, which stands in harmony with the purest nature and reason, and which even now ministers to our highest development! What is spurious but the absurd and the hollow, which brings no fruit – at least, no good fruit!

If the authenticity of a biblical book is to be decided by the question, whether something true throughout has been handed down to us, we might on some points doubt the authenticity of the Gospels, since those of Mark and Luke were not written from immediate presence and experience, but, according to oral tradition, long afterwards; and the last, by the disciple John, was not written till he was of a very advanced age.

Nevertheless, I look upon all the four Gospels as thoroughly genuine; for there is in them the reflection of a greatness which emanated from the person of Jesus, and which was of as divine a kind as ever was seen upon earth. If I am asked whether it is in my nature to pay Him devout reverence, I say – certainly! I bow before Him as the divine manifestation of the highest principle of morality.

If I am asked whether it is in my nature to revere the Sun, I again say – certainly! For he is likewise a manifestation of the highest Being, and indeed the most powerful which we children of earth are allowed to behold. I adore in him the light and the productive power of God; by which we all live, move, and have our being – we, and all the plants and animals with us.

But if I am asked – whether I am inclined to bow before a thumb-bone of the apostle Peter or Paul, I say – ‘Spare me, and stand off with your absurdities!’”

The conversation turned upon the great men who had lived before Christ, among the Chinese, the Indians, the Persians, and the Greeks; and it was remarked, that the divine power had been as operative in them as in some of the great Jews of the Old Testament. We then came to the question how far God influenced the great natures of the present world in which we live?

“To hear people speak,” said Goethe, “one would almost believe that they were of opinion that God had withdrawn into silence since those old times, and that man was now placed quite upon his own feet, and had to see how he could get on without God, and his daily invisible breath.

In religious and moral matters, a divine influence is indeed still allowed, but in matters of science and art it is believed that they are merely earthly, and nothing but the product of human powers.

Let any one only try, with human will and human power, to produce something which may be compared with the creations that bear the names of Mozart, Raphael, or Shakspeare.

I know very well that these three noble beings are not the only ones, and that in every province of art innumerable excellent geniuses have operated, who have produced things as perfectly good as those just mentioned. But if they were as great as those, they rose above ordinary human nature, and in the same proportion were as divinely endowed as they.”

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe & Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe (1836)