Goethe and how having no ambition is heroic
John Armstong’s highly original biography of Goethe Love, Life, Goethe: How To Be Happy In An Imperfect World pretty much head-on tackles the question of what the fuck one should do with their life.
The British philosopher writes beautifully about Goethe’s experiences and books. But what makes it such a lively read is that it brings to the fore what the great German thinker had to say about how to live a happy life.
A particularly wonderful section is when Goethe stumbles across the writings of Baruch Spinoza, the influential 17th century rationalist.
As Armstrong writes:
“There was a particular attitude to life, which he discovered as he flicked through the pages of Spinoza’s Ethics, that deeply impressed Goethe. He saw Spinoza as a kind of hero of resignation. People like Spinoza, Goethe thought, fix their view of life quite early on. They attempt to see the core of life, to see fundamentally how life goes, and then try to live in the light of those beliefs. Spinoza thought that all efforts to make life pleasant and comfortable were, ultimately, doomed.
Goethe sums it up as follows.
‘Our physical as well as our social life, our manners, habits, worldly wisdom, philosophy, religion, indeed many a chance occurrence, all proclaim to us that we must renounce. Many an inward, very personal quality is not destined to be developed for outward use; we are deprived of what we require from without to supplement our existence; and on the other hand a great deal is thrust upon us which we find alien and burdensome. We are robbed of hard won gains, or privileges graciously bestowed, and before we really know what is happening we find ourselves compelled to abandon our personality, at first bit by bit, and then altogether. At the same time, however, it is customary not to have regard for someone who rebels at this: instead, the bitterer the cup, the sweeter the expression one is supposed to assume, so that the tranquil spectator may not be offended by any grimace.”
The core idea, here, is that expressed in the famous opening lines of Ecclesiastes: ‘Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.’ Most people, Goethe thinks, come to a conclusion rather like this by the end of their lives: the things we strive for turn out to be less rewarding than we hoped; our best efforts and ideas are without influence; ‘the forts of folly’ (as Matthew Arnold calls the ordinary range of common thought) never fall: if you sacrifice your life assaulting them you are not a hero, only a fool.
It is not that Goethe endorsed or believed such an extremely gloomy account of the human condition. What impressed him was the way in which Spinoza—who did believe this—faced up to and tried to accept it. Having come to this conclusion Spinoza attempted to life his life accordingly. He didn’t publish his major work during his lifetime, he worked as a lens grinder: quite a sophisticated trade, but still a trade, an occupation with no glamour or power or worldly rewards."
Goethe regards such an approach to life as heroic. Someone who seeks to go through life without illusions, without hope and without ambition is not exactly human. It is not that they are subhuman or degraded but they are attempting, as it were, to stand above the human condition, to escape from what it is to be human. They are, as Goethe puts it … ‘superhuman’ — a term which was to play an enigmatic role in Neitzsche’s later philosophy.”