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American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies (ASECS)

Goethe's Reading of Kant's "Critique of Esthetic Judgment": A Referential Guide for Wilhelm
Meister's Esthetic Education
Author(s): Geza Von Molnar
Source: Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 15, No. 4 (Summer, 1982), pp. 402-420
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Sponsor: American Society for Eighteenth Century Studies
(ASECS).
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Goethe's Reading of
Kant's "Critique of
Esthetic Judgment"
A Referential Guide for
Wilhelm Meister's Esthetic
Education
GEZA VON MOLNAR
IN JANUARY 1795 the first volume of Goethe's novel, Wilhelm
Meisters Lehrjahre (William Meister's Apprenticeship) appeared
in print; two more volumes followed in May and November of the
same year, and the last installment was published by October of
1796. As drawn out as the process of publication seems to have
been, it was preceded by nearly two decades during which the au-
thor's project grew into its final version.' Over the years the work
in progress had undergone a decisive change. It had initially been
planned as a portrayal of the protagonist's experiences with all as-
pects of theatrical practice, as it was and as it could become if the
dream of establishing a representative national tradition in the dra-
matic arts were ever to be realized. That plan was not entirely
abandoned when Goethe set out to complete the manuscript after
having neglected it for a period, roughly from 1785 to 1794. The
"theatrical mission," or rather his intended portrayal "of the entire
range of theatrical practice" (des ganzen Theaterwesens) remains,
but it can no longer be considered the novel's focal point, as had
I gratefully acknowledge the unstinting cooperation of Professor Dr. Karl-Heinz
Hahn and his staff in affording me access to the material held at the Goethe and
Schiller Archives in Weimar. I also wish to thank Northwestern University for the
grant in aid that supported my research there.
'The first recorded reference attesting to the work in progress is dated February
1777. There is reason to believe, however, that it may have been conceived as far
back as the Werther era in 1773; see Harry Maync, ed., J. W Goethe, Wilhelm
Meisters theatralische Sendung (Stuttgart and Berlin: J. G. Cotta, 191 1), p. xiv.
402
GOETHE'S READING OF KANT 403
been the case in 1778.2 By 1793 the focus had definitely shifted
from theatrical to philosophical concerns when Goethe decided that
Wilhelm's character was to be regarded as primarily significant in
terms of esthetics and ethics.3 The categories of ethics and esthetics
add a new and larger dimension to the novel which accounts for
the difference between the original manuscript and the revised ver-
sion in print, which, except for Faust, was to become Goethe's most
highly acclaimed literary achievement. Kant, as I intend to show,
helped Goethe to redefine his vision of Meister and to broaden the
horizon of inquiry open to Wilhelm's education. For the "appren-
tice" the question is no longer what might constitute an independent
national theatrical tradition the desirability of which remains un-
contested but rather what relationship prevails between stage and
world, between the artistic representation of human reality and that
reality as it is lived.4
Goethe's own relationship to art had undergone a drastic revision
in the course of his "Italian journey" (1786-88), and it has been
customary to attribute the change in Wilhelm Meister's fortunes to
this experience. No doubt that view is justified, but only in part.
There was another telling event in Goethe's life that aided him in
consolidating his Italian gains theoretically, before he revised the
novel he had begun shortly after the completion of Werther. During
the winter of 1790 Goethe studied Kant's Critique of Judgment,
and the penciled markings in his copy show very clearly what aspects
of the work had been of particular significance for him. Just as the
"teleological part" furnished the philosophical justification for
Goethe's intuitive orientation in his scientific endeavors, the "es-
thetic part" can be considered to have afforded him a clear theo-
2Goethe to Merck, 5 August 1778, in Erich Trunz, ed., Goethes Werke (Ham-
burg: Christian Wegner Verlag, 1964), VIII, 517. All references to Goethe's works
pertain to this edition. The text of Wilhelm Meister is in Volume VII and will be
cited by page and line number; for the benefit of those using other editions I have
added the book number (roman numerals) and chapter number (arabic numerals).
3From Goethe's notebook of 1793: "In Wilhelm den sittlichen Traum-In Laertes
den Wunsch, unbedingt zu leben-In Philine die reine Sinnlichkeit-Abbe pad-
agogischer Traum. Wilhelm: asthetisch-sittlicher Traum . . ." (Trunz, VIII, 518).
[In Wilhelm the ethical dream-in Laertes [another character] the wish to live
without restraints-in Philine pure sensuality-Abbe [who directs the secret "So-
ciety of the Tower" to which the "Stranger" in Book I, whose opinions will be
discussed in this article, also belongs] pedagogic dream. Wilhelm: aesthetic-ethical
dream ...]
4The original manuscript is known as Wilhelm Meisters theatralische Sendung
[Wilhelm Meister's Theatrical Mission] as opposed to the final version which bears
the title Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre [Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship].
404 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES
retical framework within which the function and nature of art could
be defined in its relationship to the overall enterprise of human
existence.5
The introduction of the "Stranger" and the ensuing debate on
esthetics constitute the most important addition to the first book of
the eight that were to make up the text of Wilhelm Meister's Ap-
prenticeship. The encounter is part of the last chapter and occurs
at a point in Wilhelm's career when his lifelong love for the theater
has become indistinguishable from his love for Mariane, an actress.
The dual strands of this love intertwine throughout the preceding
narrative, until their fusion is complete with the young man's de-
cision to marry Mariane and make his living on the stage. It is the
sort of decision Werther would have made since it comes purely
from the heart and recognizes no other criteria. As in Werther's
case, the catastrophe is inevitable, since the world is not "Wahl-
heim" not an idyllic setting of one's own choice that stands ready
to fulfill the heart's demands. In the Theatrical Mission, the Werth-
erian "sickness" is not "unto death,"6 but it runs its natural course
from self-delusion to disillusion without interruption.7 At that time,
there was no one to diagnose Wilhelm's ailment, whereas in the
final version of the novel a diagnosis of his condition is offered just
before its ill effects are about to surface. There is a corrective,
Wilhelm is told, but he fails to respond because he does not consider
himself to be in need of one certainly not of one he believes to be
as patently unrelated to his immediate affairs as the Stranger's
advice concerning matters of esthetic judgment.
Even for the reader the full implication of the Stranger's discourse
will only gradually unfold as the novel progresses. It serves as a
referential guide that continues to point forward as it puts the past
in critical perspective. The Stranger's own identity is never fully
revealed. He is the first and most important of four delegates from
the "Society of the Tower" (Turmgesellschaft), an organization that
secretly watches over Wilhelm's education and later on (VII, 9)
declares his apprenticeship to be successfully concluded. Wilhelm
5See Julia Gauss, "Goethe und die Prinzipien der Naturforschung bei Kant,"
Studia Philosophica, 29 (1969), 54-71, and Fritz-Joachim von Rintelen, "Goethe
und Kant," Wissenschaft und Weltbild, 26 (April 1973), 91-97.
6Werther, Trunz, VI, 48, 22. Letter of 12 August. "... wir nennen das eine
Krankheit zum Tode. . ." [we call this a sickness unto death].
7Maync, p. 62; I, 23.
GOETHE'S READING OF KANT 405
receives a diploma that is not so clear a mark of his accomplishment
as is the initiation ceremony itself. The latter is a performance
staged solely for Wilhelm's benefit but without his active partici-
pation, so that the distinction between audience and actor is clearly
kept.8 That is the very distinction Wilhelm is unable to make at the
time of his wedding plans; he really cannot be sure whether love of
Mariane decided him for the stage or love of art for the girl.
With the addition of the Stranger's reflections on esthetics to the
text Goethe gives a new direction to his novel by showing that
Wilhelm suffers from a fundamental tendency to confuse life with
art and that his task will be to gain the insights necessary to arrive
at more discriminating judgments. Both the protagonist's problem
and its potential resolution pertain to the very topic Kant treats in
his third Critique, and the passages Goethe marked parallel the
novel's central theme to a surprising degree. Because Schiller had
been so intimately involved in the Meister project it has usually
been taken for granted that his esthetics may have found their way
to Goethe's pen in the course of their close collaboration; however,
that collaboration cannot possibly have had any effect on the first
two books since they were already in print at the time it began.
Evidently Goethe had redefined the problematic context of his novel
before his acquaintance with Schiller; however, he did so only after
he had read the Critique of Judgment. I intend to present the
verifiable record of this initial intellectual encounter and relate it
to Wilhelm's discourse with the Stranger not in order to prove any
causal influence but in order to offer some insight into the process
by means of which Goethe came to understand his own concerns
with the question of esthetics, concerns that were to be reflected
in the redirection of Wilhelm Meister's career.
The Critique of Judgment had appeared in 1790;9 that same year
Goethe obtained his copy and, as his markings indicate, studied the
text most carefully. It was his first serious attempt to familiarize
8For the definition of the ceremony as a staged performance, see Rosemarie
Haas, Die Turmgesellschaft in "Wilhelm Meisters
Lehrjahren". Zur Geschichte
des Geheimbundromans und der Romantheorie im 18. Jahrhundert, Regensburger
Beitrage zur deutschen Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft, Reihe B, VII (Bern/
Frankfurt: Herbert und Peter Lang, 1975); of particular relevance are pages 84
and 101.
9Immanuel Kant, Critik der Urtheilskraft (Berlin und Libau: Lagarde und Fried-
erich, 1790). Goethe's copy is part of the collection at Weimar, where I received
permission to have pertinent pages photographed for publication.
406 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES
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GOETHE'S READING OF KANT 407
himself with Kantian philosophy, and the impression it made on
him can be summarized from the passages he considered sufficiently
important for annotation. Those he marked in the Preface and In-
troduction, for example, attest to his expert editorial technique be-
cause, when read together, they amount to a succinct definition of
the faculty Kant wishes to examine, the faculty he calls "power of
judgment," as distinct from the powers of cognition and desire (Er-
kenntnisvermogen and Begehrungsvermogen) with which the pre-
vious Critiques had dealt respectively. Simply put, judgment entails
the ability "to think the specific as contained under the general,"'"
with the additional stipulation that a judgment is "definitive" (bes-
timmend) when the general is given, but reflective (reflektierend)
if the case is reversed. Reflective judgments are the ones that will
concern Kant in this treatise; that is to say he intends to explore
the nature, limits, and employment of the mental process by virtue
of which we insist on gathering the given phenomena of our exper-
iential cognition under the hypothesis of a purposive or teleological
whole, a process that not only guides the progress of our scientific
discoveries but our esthetic judgment as well."
After having assured himself of the general foundation from which
Kant's investigation will proceed, Goethe refrains from marking
Kant's text again until ?42 of the first part of the Critique, the
"esthetic" part. In effect, he becomes actively engaged by the text
only when the discussion turns to the topic of an esthetic judgment's
moral relevance. In the initial section of the argument, Kant asks
what sort of interest it is that attracts us to the phenomenon of
beauty and whether it may be related to moral interest. The con-
ventional reply would, indeed, have equated the two interests, but
there is little overt evidence on the part of art enthusiasts to support
this contention, so that "it would seem as though interest in the
beautiful is not basically related to moral interest" (298, 26-28).
Goethe takes note of these lines not, as has been asserted,'2 to
underline the disparity between esthetic and moral interest but rath-
'OP. 179, 19-26. Since the 1790 edition of Kant's Critique, which Goethe used,
is not easily available in most libraries, all specific references pertain to the standard
Akademieausgabe of 1908, Volume V; only page and line numbers will be indi-
cated. Translations are mine, unless otherwise indicated.
"Goethe's markings, to which my comments refer, occur in "Vorrede" (168,
14-22) and "Einleitung" (177,4-12; 179, 19-26; 183, 34-184, 21).
'2Karl Vorlander, Kant. Schiller. Goethe (Leipzig: Verlag der Duirr'schen Buch-
handlung, 1907), p. 208.
408 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY
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GOETHE'S READING OF KANT 409
er to acknowledge that they merely "seem" to be in conflict. Kant
offers to resolve the dilemma by turning his attention to the sort of
immediate interest that has the beauty of nature as its object, and
Goethe responds with evident enthusiasm to pronouncements de-
claring such interest to be in agreement with a moral disposition.
The reasons that Kant marshals to justify his claim occasion Goethe's
first marginal comment and several other entries. The passage in
question develops two very different concepts of beauty, which
Goethe underlines and complements with the categorizing numerals
"1" and "2" in the margin. The one refers to beauty as an artful
product with which human beings surround themselves as a matter
of social self-indulgence and prideful conceit; the other refers to
beauty of nature. The marginal comment is difficult to decipher,
but it most certainly does not carry the meaning that has become
the accepted version for Goethe scholars. The standard interpre-
tation has Goethe finding fault with Kant's critical dismissal of
art,13 but this constitutes a misreading of the primary text and of
the marginal comments as well. 14 In the first place, Kant's remarks
are not directed at art but rather at the motives that may make it
the object of our interest, motives that are absent in the interest we
take in the beauties of nature; second, the words in the margin
cannot possibly be construed to mean: "Is there not more to the
products of art than the mere entertainment of social conceit?""5
The point has been argued in greater detail elsewhere;'6 let it suffice
here to state that Goethe is entirely in agreement with Kant's cat-
egorization since his remarks are meant to specify that interest in
the beauty of nature is not an interest at all, at least not in the
sense given the term when it entails elements of pride and social
conceit."7 The distinction is important because it characterizes es-
thetic pleasure as free of any self-interest.
The devaluation of art in ?42 is a temporary one designed to
eliminate the possibility of confusing unmediated interest in beauty
with interest mediated by any reference to the self's state of physical
dependence, which inspires the sum total of our pragmatic concerns.
'3Vorliinder, pp. 280-81.
'4Refer to Goethe's marginal comment on p. 166. I read it as "ist etwas nicht
int. [eressantes]"-"is something not interesting."
'5Vorlinder, pp. 280-81.
'6See Geza von Molnair, "Conceptual Affinities Between Kant's Critique
of
Judg-
ment and Goethe's Faust," to be published in the Lessing Yearbook of 1982.
'7Refer to note 14, above.
410 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES
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GOETHE'S READING OF KANT 411
As Goethe's entries indicate, he is not at all disturbed by the preem-
inence Kant assigns nature over art; on the contrary, he recognizes
full well the philosopher's intent-Kant wishes to remind us that
all too often the self hides even behind the most beautiful of masks
designed by human hands, but that the blade of grass in the forest
or the radiance of the sun knows neither the artist's desire for fame
nor the jealous pride of owners and critics who bask in social rec-
ognition. This is not to say that our relationship to art is necessarily
determined by such motives but rather that it can all too easily be
the case, and if art is to assume its rightful place as an object of
our esthetic judgment, it must be regarded in the same spirit of
detached interest with which we regard the beauty of nature.
In ?42, and also in ?44 where Goethe again marks a central
passage, the point Kant wishes to make is fundamental to his es-
thetics: regardless of any other possible definition, esthetic appre-
ciation is distinct from all interests that find their consummation
in self-gratification. With respect to art, the danger of perverting
our judgment stems from the opportunities for self-aggrandizement
offered within the social context, the very context to which the social
phenomenon of art belongs; that danger is removed if art becomes
like nature in its appeal, which is unmediated by any concern for
social reward. Nature, on the other hand, must become like art, if
its esthetic appreciation is not to be prevented by considerations
that seek to enlist nature in the service of the beholder's physical
welfare and maintenance. A little further on in ?44, Kant reduces
his deliberations on this topic to a precise formula: "Nature was
beautiful when it appeared at the same time as art; and art can
only be called beautiful when we are conscious that it is art and
yet it appears to us as nature" (306, 20-23). While Goethe did not
mark the passage at the time, he cited it a few years later as having
been highly significant for him.'8
The novelty in Kant's approach was not so much his insistence
that there be a moral aspect to esthetics but rather his basic con-
tention that the self's freedom as an autonomous being furnished
the essential validating criterion for any judgment, be it moral,
esthetic or, for that matter, theoretical. As he himself admits in
?42, it was a truism of his time that moral and esthetic concerns
must be of one mold. How that mold had been cast and whether it
'8See "Campagne in Frankreich," as indicated by Vorlander, p. 152.
412 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES
could perform the assigned task was the question that confronted
him. At one extreme was the proposition that esthetic feelings were
at one with moral values, which rapport Lord Shaftesbury envi-
sioned as the phenomenon of "moral grace"; at the other extreme,
more-or-less refined versions of Wolffian rationalism attempted the
same fusion with a reverse emphasis that tended to foster the di-
dacticism of a graceful morality."9 The problem was that feelings,
although they may be esthetically inspired, are not reliable indi-
cators of moral validity just as considerations of moral purpose are
equally unreliable as esthetic criteria. At the beginning of the first
passage Goethe marked in the actual text of the Critique (?42),
Kant called attention to the general neglect of this disparity among
his contemporaries, and it is a similar neglect that is at the root of
Wilhelm's persistence in confusing art with life and life with art.
Kant was able to resolve the dilemma because he viewed the entire
question in a different context, one created by his typical shift in
perspective away from the object. It was no longer the esthetic object
but rather the self's state of freedom in relating to it that determined
an esthetic experience. The self is free when it is not motivated by
self-interest, and, according to Kant, a judgment does not qualify
as an esthetic judgment unless it is free in this sense. Goethe ac-
cepted Kant's definition, and if Wilhelm could do the same, it would
prevent the confusion from which he suffers; moreover, it would
also prevent his enthusiasm from blinding him to his moral obli-
gations, because moral judgments as well require a suspension of
self-interest, even though they differ categorically from esthetic
judgments.
At issue in Kant's theory of esthetics is the elimination of a false
teleological predisposition. Even at the most basic level of feelings-
or rather, especially there-the self tends to regard its own well-
being as the sole criterion for its judgments, in effect declaring itself
to be the purpose, or telos, of the world. There is no question that
nature, for example, can and even must be regarded as serving the
'9Kant had himself been trained in the Wolffian tradition of Leibniz's philosophy;
Alexander Baumgarten, whose work Kant mentions in his Critique of Pure Reason,
was the most noted esthetician of that school. For the Kant-Goethe relationship
in broader historical perspective, see Ernst Cassirer, Rousseau. Kant. Goethe
(Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1945). I am not certain whether Cassirer is
entirely correct in stating that Goethe's "motto remains the words of Shaftesbury:
'All Beauty is Truth"' (p. 85). I would definitely argue, though, that Goethe, like
Kant (p. 54) would not declare all Beauty to be Good.
GOETHE'S READING OF KANT 413
self's purposes if that self is to prevail physically, but it is equally
true that such service is certainly not the purpose of nature. What
that purpose might be, or rather how that question enters into the
function of rational understanding, remains to be discussed in the
second (the "teleological") part of the Critique. At the level of
feeling, where the sensations occur that are associated with the
phenomenon of beauty, release from the teleological premise of
subjective absolutism is effected in that state of emotive engagement
in which all self-centered interest remains suspended.
The term "subjective absolutism," as I employ it here, is meant
to convey a frame of reference within which any object, be it the
product of nature or of human craft, is assigned value only in terms
of its relative suitability for satisfying the validating individual's
personal need. The object's value is exhausted in this purpose, which
is purely subjective, and the state of sensation that constitutes the
terminal goal in this interrelation remains private and unshareable
in its subjective isolation. Esthetic delight (Lust), however, does not
appeal to the standards set by the individual's need for self-main-
tenance which govern the range of pleasant (angenehm) and un-
pleasant sensations. Whenever a person regards an object as some-
thing beautiful, a relationship has been established that is
independent of any purposive reference to the individual's depen-
dence for survival and comfort on the conditions of nature, which
include those mediated by society.
In the state of esthetic appreciation, the individual is free of
purposive engagement and confronts the beautiful object in its own
freedom; that is to say the object confronted is not subject to any
purpose. Of this relationship based on mutual freedom, we have a
felt rather than a conceptual awareness; it is conveyed by a sense
of pleasure that lays claim to general communicability and recog-
nition because, unlike all other pleasant sensation, it is not restricted
to the purpose of insuring a purely subjective state of well-being
conducive to the sustenance of the individual's continued existence.
The state of esthetic appreciation is possible only with reference to
the human potential for freedom from determination by nature,
which includes a corollary reference to nature's freedom from hu-
man purpose. That human potential, however, is equivalent to the
capacity for moral agency, for action according to validating criteria
that are independent of the dictates decreed by the causal nexus
comprising the phenomenal realm we consider to be the concrete
414 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES
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GOETHE'S READING OF KANT 415
given of physical reality. This is the relationship Kant envisions when
he maintains that esthetic judgments are morally qualified, and
Goethe's markings throughout the final nineteen paragraphs of the
Critique's first part indicate his understanding and acceptance of
the author's position.
Some of the remaining paragraphs are of specific pertinence to
key features in Wilhelm Meister's esthetic education. In ?52 Goethe
marked four passages, which collectively develop the theory that
form, not content, is the essential feature in the work of art. The
content, as Kant points out and Goethe acknowledges, appeals to
interests arising from the individual's state of dependency, whereas
esthetic appreciation demands that they be silenced in order for the
individual to assume a vantage point of freedom. Kant connects
beauty of form with "moral ideas" (an expression Goethe underlines
in the text after having marked the entire passage along the mar-
gin)20 since they alone assure the sort of pleasure that is not based
on need. If art is merely enjoyed for its appeal to interests born of
want or desire and is not, sooner or later, referred in some manner
to moral ideas, the result will inevitably be a sense of emptiness
and a condition of inner conflict brought about by the neglect of
the self's true and objective nature as a free entity.2' Kant goes on
to declare that early conditioning in the appreciation of nature's
beauty is the best course toward the appreciation of art for its formal
rather than contentual aspects, and, again, Goethe adds his mark
of obvious approval. From these pronouncements, and those made
as the argument continues, it becomes ever more evident that es-
thetic appreciation in nature initiates a state of freedom from prag-
matic determination, whereas this same sense of freedom-trans-
lated into a predisposition for its enactment through moral agency-
is required in the social context, if any aspect of human expression
is to qualify as an esthetic phenomenon.22 It also becomes evident
that a person's expertise in esthetic judgment is no trivial matter
since it depends on the correct adjustment of conflicting claims
20There is a varying assortment of lines extending from 326, 8 to 326, 18. For
the original, see page 212 of Goethe's copy.
211 have here paraphrased the passages to which Goethe's attention had been
drawn; refer to page 212 of Goethe's copy.
22Kant concludes the esthetic part of his Critique with words that emphasize
the fostering of a moral predisposition as the "propaedeutic" for establishing re-
liability in esthetic judgment; Goethe, with equal emphasis, singles them out for
his attention (356, 20-24).
416 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES
between the self as a dependent and free entity, a conflict that, left
unsettled, can lead the individual on the path to self-destruction
through an inner unbalance and outer disorientation of purpose.
The danger of inner unbalance was pointed out in ?52; the com-
plement of external disorientation and error is treated in the next
paragraph, where Goethe also marked a number of passages.23 Here,
the definition of art as "play" is introduced, with the attendant
warning that any confusion between the spheres of play and world
would necessarily preclude clear judgment in either sphere. Feelings
inspired by esthetic appeal would interfere with the exercise of
rationally determinative judgments required in response to prag-
matic and moral interests, whereas those same interests would over-
come the feeling on which the reflective judgment of esthetic eval-
uation must be based. It is this very confusion that characterizes
Wilhelm's attitude, so that both his illness and his cure, his source
of error and his means of enlightenment, constitute aspects of an
esthetic education within the framework of precepts Goethe had
outlined in Kant's Critique.
Wilhelm had long been living in a dream where life was indis-
tinguishable from its played version on stage, when he encounters
the Stranger's critical opinion of his sleepwalker's existence, just
before he is to be startled into painful, though only temporary wake-
fulness. From his beginnings as a puppeteer to his triumph in the
role of Hamlet, Wilhelm has only played himself, and he reinforces
this confusion in reverse order by his tendency to identify staged
reality with the one he is supposed to live. His lack of discrimination
in the former direction serves to disqualify him, in the end, from
an acting career since one's role in life is simply not identical with
preformulated roles assumed under the license of play.24 The same
lack of discrimination in the latter direction, if left unchecked,
would finally have disqualified him also as a human being since the
illusory nature of his reality condemns him to a life of disoriented
23Pp. 326, 24-327, 3, and the words "den obersten Rang" underlined; p. 327,
22-23 and the words "blosse deutliche Begriff dieser Arten von menschlicher
Angelegenheit" underlined.
24Wilhelm's tendency to concentrate on the content of a drama is exemplified
by his predilection for heroes' roles and for fifth acts exclusive of the first four
(Trunz, p. 21, 14-15; Trunz, p. 23, 28-30; I, 6); his tendency to play himself is
best illustrated by the gala performance for which no one had bothered to select
a play since Wilhelm and his companions had thought it sufficient merely to step
on the elaborate stage and be themselves.
GOETHE'S READING OF KANT 417
ineffectuality and constant disappointment that must inevitably re-
sult in the sense of despair to which his forerunner along this sorry
path, the unfortunate Werther, had fallen victim. The most illus-
trative example of Wilhelm's errant way is his relationship with
Mariane, which also happens to furnish the setting Goethe chose
for introducing the dialogue with the Stranger. In his confused man-
ner, Wilhelm had fallen in love with the actress and believed the
girl in his arms to be the same creature whom he had beheld with
awe on a stage made radiant by the reflected glow of his ideals. He
had no eye for the far more sobering reality of her human situation
and was, therefore, destined to suffer the shattering impact of dis-
illusionment, which also caused him, bereft of all capability for
judgment, to betray her in the hour of her greatest need.
Before this particular episode draws to a close, the momentum
of the action is retarded by a reflective discourse that serves much
more to instruct the reader than it does Wilhelm. Apparently, the
topic under discussion deals with issues entirely unrelated to the
plot in the background; the problematic nature of the affair has not
yet surfaced, so that Wilhelm, who is at the height of his bliss, has
just decided to commit the rest of his life to Mariane and, char-
acteristically enough, to the theater. Rather than dwell on the more
obvious questions that might arise from such a decision, the con-
versation turns to esthetics. After the Stranger identifies himself as
the person who had been instrumental twelve years before in bring-
ing about the sale of the art collection that had been in the possession
of Meister's family, the painting Wilhelm prized above all others is
mentioned. The Stranger recalls it well but cannot share in Wil-
helm's enthusiasm because the formal execution of the work must
be judged inferior. Wilhelm admits quite frankly to his lack of
concern for those standards of criticism and confesses that his judg-
ment in such matters is based entirely on an appreciation of the
content. The Kantian framework of reference for this difference in
opinion becomes apparent when the Stranger accuses Wilhelm of
being able to see only himself and his inclinations in any given work
of art.25 The accusation leaves no doubt that there is more at stake
25"
. . der Gegenstand ist es, der mich an einem Gemalde reizt, nicht die Kunst."
"Da schien lhr Grossvater anders zu denken; denn der grosste
Teil seiner Samm-
lung bestand aus trefflichen
$achen,
in denen man immer das Verdienst ihres
Meisters bewunderte, sie mochten vorstellen, was sie wollten. . ."
[Wilhelm:]".. . it is the content that attracts me to a painting,
not the art [that
gave it form]."
418 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES
than merely one's reputation among a select circle of experts, be-
cause the Stranger instantly extends his criticism to identify Wil-
helm's trusting fatalism as a corollary misconception. Succinctly
stated, he faults the young man for his immaturity in not having
lived up to the human potential of freedom.26 Wilhelm's wrong-
headed esthetics and nafve ethics of irresponsibility are both found-
ed on the underlying premise of the self's utter dependency within
[The Stranger:] "Your grandfather seems to have had a very different opinion on
this matter; because the most sizable part of his collection consisted of excellent
pieces in which one would always admire the master artist's merit, no matter what
they might portray" (p. 70, 9-15; I, 17. Translations are mine).
"Diese Gefuihle sind freilich sehr weit von jenen Betrachtungen entfernt, unter
denen ein Kunstliebhaber die Werke grosser Meister anzusehen pflegt; wahr-
scheinlich wuirde Ihnen aber, wenn das Kabinett ein Eigentum Ihres Hauses ge-
blieben waire, nach und nach der Sinn fur die Werke selbst aufgegangen sein, so
dass Sie nicht immer nur sich selbst und Ihre Neigung in den Kunstwerken gesehen
haitten."
[The Stranger:] "These feelings [Wilhelm had just voiced as those aroused by the
content of his favorite painting] are certainly very far removed from the thoughts
that would customarily preoccupy an art lover as he views the works of great
masters; however, had the collection remained in your family's possession you would
probably have learned to appreciate the works for their own sakes, so that you
would not have continued to see only yourself and your inclinations in those works
of art" (p. 70, 31-38; I, 17).
26"So glauben Sie kein Schicksal? Keine Macht, die fiber uns waltet und alles
zu unserm Besten lenkt?"
"Es ist hier die Rede nicht von meinem Glauben. .. hier ist nur die Frage,
welche Vorstellungsart zu unserm Besten gereicht. Das Gewebe dieser Welt ist aus
Notwendigkeit und Zufall gebildet; die Vernunft des Menschen stellt sich zwischen
beide und weiss sie zu beherrschen; sie behandelt das Notwendige als den Grund
ihres Daseins; das Zufaillige weiss sie zu lenken, zu leiten und zu nutzen, und nur,
indem sie fest und unerschtitterlich steht, verdient der Mensch ein Gott der Erde
genannt zu werden. Wehe dem, der sich von Jugend auf gewohnt, in dem Not-
wendigen etwas Willkuirliches finden zu wollen, der dem Zufalligen eine Art von
Vernunft zuschreiben mochte, welcher zu folgen sogar eine Religion sei. Heisst
das etwas weiter, als seinem eignen Verstande entsagen und seinen Neigungen
unbedingten Raum geben?"
[Wilhelm:] "Then you do not believe in fate? In no power that reigns over us and
directs everything in our best interest?"
[The Stranger:] "My beliefs [or faith] are not at issue here . . . at issue is the
question, what manner of concept [concerning our position in the world] is in our
best interest. The cloth of this world is woven by necessity and chance; our intel-
lective faculty establishes its position between the two and knows how to govern
them; it treats necessity as the basis of its existence; chance, it knows how to direct,
to guide, and to use, and only insofar as it maintains this position firmly and
unshakably does man deserve to be called a god on earth. Woe to him who ac-
customs himself from early youth on to suppose an arbitrary will where there is
only necessity, who wishes, moreover, to ascribe to chance some sort of higher
reason, which-he would claim-it even is a matter of religion to obey. Does this
attitude not simply mean that one denies one's rational faculty in order to follow
one's inclinations unconditionally?" (p. 71, 13-15; p. 71, 17-31; I, 17).
GOETHE'S READING OF KANT 419
a state of nature. From that vantage point the purpose of being is
"to be," which leads to the highly unsatisfactory, if inescapable,
conclusion that all action and thought can have no other effect but
to ensure, at best, yet another day's turn at the wheel of a treadmill
grinding away into eternity. Werther had already beheld this dismal
vision, which he communicated to his correspondent in one of the
early letters, dated 22 May; he also added that the illusion of brighter
vistas, of an ideal purpose, would have to hide the gaping abyss of
nothingness if life was to be tolerated at all.27 Of course, illusion
can only fulfill this function as long as it is not recognized as an
illusion, as long as the dreamer has not been wakened to find himself
bereft of his dream, bereft of the meaning and purpose he had held
to be identical with life. Werther knew all this, yet he closed his
eyes to go on dreaming, and the tale of his "sickness unto death"
that follows is the tale of his forced awakening from the illusory
presence of meaning and purpose to the pain and despair of hopeless
longing.
Once more that same tale has been told, only this time captured
in a pictorial image that leaves the tragic outcome undecided, and
again, a "Wilhelm" is its recipient. Whether it will have to be told
to its bitter end one more time is up to him. The danger is there,
27"Dass das Leben des Mecschen nur ein Traum sei, ist manchem schon so
vorgekommen, und auch mit mir zieht dieses Gefuihl immer herum. Wenn ich die
Einschrankung ansehe, in welcher die tatigen und forschenden Krafte des Mensch-
en eingesperrt sind; wenn ich sehe, wie alle Wirksamkeit dahinaus lIuft, sich die
Befriedigung von Beduirfnissen zu verschaffen, die wieder keinen Zweck haben,
als unsere arme Existenz zu verldngern, und dann, dass alle Beruhigung uber
gewisse Punkte des Nachforschens nur eine traumende Resignation ist, da man
sich die Wande, zwischen denen man gefangen sitzt, mit bunten Gestalten und
lichten Aussichten bemalt-Das alles, Wilhem, macht mich stumm. Ich kehre in
mich selbst zuruick, und finde eine Welt! Wieder mehr in Ahnung und dunkler
Begier als in Darstellung und lebendiger Kraft. Und da schwimmt alles vor meinen
Sinnen, und ich lachle dann so traumend weiter in die Welt."
"That the life of man is but a dream is a thought which has occurred to many
people, and I myself am constantly haunted by it. When I see the limitations which
imprison the active and speculative faculties of man; when I see how all human
activity is directed toward procuring satisfaction for needs that have no other
purpose than prolonging our miserable existence; when I see, moreover, how any
comfort we may derive from certain points of inquiry is merely a dreamlike kind
of resignation, in which we paint our prison walls with gaily colored figures and
luminous prospects-all this, Wilhelm, leaves me speechless. I withdraw into my
inner self and there discover a world-a world, it is true, rather of vague perceptions
and dim desires than of creative power and vital force. And then everything swims
before my senses, and I go on smiling at the outer world like someone in a dream"
(Trunz, VI, 13, 9-25; Elizabeth Mayer and Louise Bogan, trans., The Sorrows of
Young Werther [New York: Vintage Books, 1973], pp. 11-12).
420 EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STUDIES
and he is quite right in identifying with the "ailing prince" in his
favorite painting. He too, is host to the ailment's germs and will
shortly have to suffer its full force in an attack that would almost
have him share in Werther's fate. But, unlike Werther's case, there
is hope for a cure; it is the one the Stanger outlines. Wilhelm will
have to leave the state of nature; he will have to learn that the self
is not only determined but that it is also free to determine its own
being as the artist forms the material, or content, of his work. This
much the Stranger tells him28 and what he says is, point for point,
in accord with the passages that had elicited Goethe's documented
agreement in Kant's "Critique of Esthetic Judgement." True, Wil-
helm fails to understand him, at the time; however, the course of
his education has been mapped out, and he progresses along his
path, slowly learning to separate form from content, stage from
world, until he meets the Stranger again (494,15-24; VII, 9) in whose
company he is told that "his years of apprenticeship are over" and
that "nature has released him into freedom."29
Northwestern University
28". . . Jeder hat sein eigen Gliick unter den Handen, wie der Kuinstler eine rohe
Materie, die er zu einer Gestalt umbilden will. Aber es ist mit dieser Kunst wie
mit allen; nur die Fahigkeit dazu wird uns angeboren, sie will gelernt und sorgfaltig
ausgeuibt sein."
[The Stranger:] "Everyone has his own fortune in his hands, as the artist has the
material to which he wants to give form. But it is with this art as with everything
else; we are born with only a capacity for it that has to be trained and carefully
exercized." The entire conversation with the Stranger is in Trunz, pp. 68, 11-72,
13; in this instance, my comments refer to the very end, p. 72, 8-13; I, 17).
29Trunz, pp. 497, 37-38: "Heil dir, junger Mann! deine
Lehrjahre sind voruiber;
die Natur hat dich losgesprochen."