“Those things which we call parts are inseparable from the Whole”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was an important literary and cultural figure in the German-speaking world, who not only wrote novels and poetry, but also penned essays on botany, anatomy and colour.
A humanist and universalist freethinker, his rejection of Christianity in favour of his own brand of pantheistic spirituality, plus his opposition to nationalism, led to him being regarded with suspicion by some contemporaries.
Goethe’s theories about the underlying structure of nature form a crucial philosophical and scientific basis for the organic radical outlook and stand in direct contrast to the mechanistic approach of industrial Western thinking.
After all, the existence of an inherent self-regulating structure and order to life, including human communities, implies that there is no need for any artificial order to be imposed from the outside.
Goethe’s starting point for this rich area of thought was botany – his first important scientific work was 1790’s Versuch die Metamorphose der Pfanzen zu erklären (Metamorphosis of Plants).
He developed the idea of archetypes in living nature, principles which lent a sense of direction and purpose to individual organisms.
Oswald Spengler later contrasted the “living nature” of Goethe with the “dead nature” of Newton. (1) He commented that “to the spiritual eye of Goethe the idea of the prime plant was clearly visible in the form of every individual plant that happened to come up, or even that could possibly come up”. (2)
Anne Harrington writes: “In contrast to the meaningless fragmentation of Newton’s universe, Goethe had imagined a rich and colourful world shaped by aesthetic principles of order and patterning. The whole messy diversity of visible nature, he thought, could in fact be shown to be a product of a small number of fundamental forms or Gestalten.
“By observing and comparing the various metamorphoses of one or another form, he felt that the original or primal form of the type in question could be deduced using the pure judgments of the mind, in a manner akin to seeing the ‘form’ of something in Plato’s philosophy”. (3)
After grasping the existence of these primal forms, the next step for Goethe was to understand the teleological principles, the innate sense of purpose, within living nature as a whole.
He wrote: “In every living being, we find that those things which we call parts are inseparable from the Whole to such an extent that they can only be conceived in and with the latter; and the parts can neither be the measure of the Whole, nor the Whole be the measure of the parts. So a circumscribed living being takes part in the Infinite; it has something of infinity within itself”. (4)
In his poem ‘Hegire’, Goethe invoked the life-giving spring of Khidr, the Middle Eastern and Asian mythological character known as The Green One, an archetype representing the cosmic forces of vitality and renewal. (5)
Goethe’s Faust has been described as the single book that most influenced the psychoanalyst Carl Jung, whose theories regarding archetypes and the collective unconscious are very much in the Goethean tradition. (6)
Video link: The Young Goethe (29 mins)
Audio link: Forgotten Thinkers: Goethe (1hr 3 mins)
1. Anne Harrington, Reenchanted Science: Holism in German Culture from Wilhelm II to Hitler (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 106.
2. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 72.
3. Harrington, p. 5.
4. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, cit. Harrington, p. 5.
5. Paul Cudenec, The Green One (Sussex: Winter Oak, 2017), p.114.
6. Frank McLynn, Carl Gustav Jung (New York: St Martin’s Griffin, 1998) p. 24.