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Goethe - Goethe And Spinoza - Der Ewige Jude 1773-4

( Originally Published 1913 )



IF we are to accept Goethe's own statement, during the years 1773-4----the distracted period, that is to say, which followed his experiences at Wetzlar, and of which Wert her and Clavigo are the characteristic products—he came under the influence of a thinker who transformed his conceptions, equally of the conduct of life and of man's relations to the universe—the Jewish thinker, Benedict Spinoza. The passage in which he expresses his debt to Spinoza is one of the best known in all his writings, and is, moreover, a locus classicus in the histories of speculative philosophy. " After looking around me in vain for a means of disciplining my peculiar nature, I at last chanced upon the Ethica of this man. To say exactly how much I gained from that work was due to Spinoza or to my own reading of him would be impossible ; enough that I found in him a sedative for my passions and that he appeared to me to open up a large and free outlook on the material and moral world. But what specially attached me to him was the boundless disinterestedness which shone forth from every sentence. That marvellous saying, Whoso truly loves God must not desire God to love him in return,' with all the premises on which it rests and the consequences that flow from it, permeated my whole thinking. To be disinterested in everything, and most of all in love and friendship, was my highest desire, my maxim, my constant practice ; so that that bold saying of mine at a later date, ' If I love Thee, what is that to Thee ?' came directly from my heart."'

What is surprising is that of this spiritual and intellectual transformation which Goethe avouches that he underwent there should be so little evidence either in his contemporary correspondence or in the conduct of his own life. In his letters of the period to which he refers he frequently names the authors with whom he happened to be engaged, but Spinoza he mentions only once, and certainly not in terms which confirm his later testimony. In a letter to a correspondent who had lent him a work of Spinoza we have these casual words : " May I keep it a little longer? I will only see how far I may follow the fellow (Menschen) in his subterranean borings." Whether he actually carried out his intention, or what impression the reading of the book made upon him, we are nowhere told, though, if the impression had been as profound as his Autobiography suggests, we should naturally have expected some hint of it. In his Prometheus, indeed, as we have seen, there are suggestions of Spinozistic pantheism, but these may easily have been derived from other sources, and, moreover, in the passage quoted, the pantheistic conceptions of Spinoza are not specifically emphasised. We know, also, that in preparing his thesis for the Doctorate of Laws he had consulted Spinoza's Tractatus Theologico-Politieus, and the scathing criticism on the perversions of the teaching of Christ in that treatise may have suggested certain passages in a poem presently to be noted.' Yet, so far as his own contemporary testimony goes, we are led to conclude that in his retrospect he has assigned to an earlier period experiences which were of gradual growth, and which only at a later date were realised with the vividness he ascribes to them. If we turn to his actual life during the same period, it is equally hard to trace in it the results of the tranquillising influence which he ascribes to Spinoza. As we have seen him, he was in mind distracted by uncertainty regarding the special function for which nature intended him ; and in his affections the victim of emotions which by their very nature could not receive their full gratification. Nor can we say that his relations to his father, to Kestner, or Brentano were characterised by that " disinterestedness " which he claims to have attained from his study of Spinoza. As we shall presently see, Goethe was so far accurate in his retrospect that at the period before us he was already attracted by the figure of Spinoza, but it was not till many years later that a close acquaintance with Spinoza's writings resulted in that indebtedness to which he gave expression when he said that, with Linnaeus and Shakespeare, the Jewish thinker was one of the great formative influences in his development.

To the same period to which Goethe assigns his transformation by Spinoza he also assigns the original conception of a work in which Spinoza was, at least, to find a place. As has been said, there are passages in the fragments of this poem that were actually written which may have been suggested by the Tractatus Theologico-Politicus of Spinoza, but the general tone and tendency of the fragments are equally remote from the temper and the contemplations of the Spinoza whom the world knows. The dominant note of Der Ewige Jude, as the fragments are designated, is, indeed, suggestive, not of Spinoza, but of him who may already have been in embryo in Goethe's mind—Mephistopheles. Mephistophelian is the ironical presentment in Der Ewige Jude of the follies, the delusions of man in his highest aspirations.

Near the close of his life it was said of Goethe that the world would come to believe that there had been not one but many Goethes, and the contrast between the author of Werther and the author of Der Ewige Jude is an interesting commentary on the remark. Yet the subject of the abortive poem, as we have it—the perversions of Christianity in its historical development—was not a new interest for him. During his illness after his return from Leipzig he had, as we saw, assiduously read Arnold's History of Heretics, with the result that he excogitated a religious system for himself. His two contributions to the short-lived. Review also show that religion, doctrinal and historical, was still a living interest for him. Moreover, as was usually the case with all his creative efforts, there were external promptings to his choice of the subject which is the main theme of the fragments in question. The religious world of Germany at this period was distracted by the controversies of warring theologians. There were the rationalists, who would bring all religion, natural and revealed, to the bar of human reason ; there were the dogmatists, who thought religion could never rest on a secure foundation except it were embodied in an array of definite formulas ; and, lastly, there were the pietists, or mystics, for whom religion was a matter of pious feeling independent of all dogma. In the spectacle of these Christians reprobating each others' creeds Goethe saw a theme for a moral satire which, fragment as it is, takes its place with the most powerful efforts of his genius.

Yet, as originally conceived, Der Ewige Jude was apparently to have been worked out along other lines. What this original conception was, Goethe tells in some detail in his Autobiography ; and, as it is there expounded, we see the scope of a poem which, if the power apparent in the existing fragments had gone to the making of it, would have taken its place with Faust among the great imaginative works of human genius. The theme of the poem was to be the Wandering Jew, with whose legend Goethe was familiar from chap-books he had read in childhood. The poem was to open with an account of the circumstances in which the curse of Cain was incurred by Ahasuerus, the name assigned in the legend to the Wandering Jew. Ahasuerus was to be represented as a shoemaker of the type of Hans Sachs---a kind of Jewish Socrates who freely plied his wit in putting searching questions to the casual passers-by. Recognised as an original, persons of all ranks and opinions, even the Sadducees and Pharisees, would stop by the way and engage in talk with him. He was to be specially interested in Jesus, with whom he was to hold frequent conversations, but whose idealism his matter-of-fact nature was incapable of understanding. When, in the teeth of his protestations, Jesus pursued his mission and was finally condemned to death, Ahasuerus would only have hard words for his folly. Judas was then to be represented as entering the workshop and explaining that his act of treachery had been intended to force Jesus to become the national deliverer and declare himself king, but Judas receives no comfort from Ahasuerus, and straightway takes his own life. Then was to follow the scene retailed in the legend—Jesus fainting at Ahasuerus's door on his way to death ; Simon the Cyrenian relieving him of the burden of the Cross ; the reproaches of Ahasuerus addressed to the Saviour for neglecting his counsel ; the transfigured features on the handkerchief of St. Veronica ; and the words of the Lord dooming his stiff-necked gainsayer to wander to and fro on earth till his second coming. As the subsequent narrative was to be developed, it was to illustrate the outstanding events in the history of Christianity—one incident in the experience of the Wanderer marked for treatment being an interview with Spinoza.

In concluding the sketch of the poem as he originally conceived it, Goethe remarks that he found he had neither the knowledge nor the concentration of purpose necessary for its adequate treatment ; and in point of fact, in the fragment as it exists there is little suggestion of the original conception. The title which Goethe himself gave it at a later date, Gedicht der Ankunft des Herrn, more fitly describes it than the title Der Ewige Jude. Of the two main sections into which the poem is divided, the first, extending to over seventy lines, corresponds most closely to the original conception. In twenty introductory lines the poet describes how the inspiration to sing the wondrous experiences of the much-travelled man had come to him. The note struck in these lines is maintained throughout the remainder of the fragment. It is a note of ironic persiflage which is plainly indicated to the reader. In lack of a better Pegasus, a broomstick will serve the poet's purpose, and the reader is invited to take or leave the gibberish as he pleases. Then follows a description of the shoemaker, who is represented as half Essene, half Methodist or Moravian, but still more of a Separatist—certainly not the type originally conceived by Goethe as that of the Wandering Jew. The shoemaker is, in fact, a sectary of Goethe's own time, discontented with the religious world around him, and convinced that salvation is only to be found in his own petty sect. Equally as a picture of historical Christianity in all ages is meant the satirical presentment of the religious condition of Judaea—of indolent and luxurious church dignitaries, fanatics looking for signs and wonders, denouncing the sins of their generation, and giving themselves up to the antics of the spirit.

But it is in the last and longest segment of the poem that its real power and interest are to be found. Its theme is the second coming of Christ and his experiences in lands professing his religion. In a scene, compared with which the Prologue in Heaven of Faust is decorous, God the Father ironically suggests that the Son would find scope for his friendly feeling to the human kind if he were to pay a visit to the earth. Alighting on the mountain where Satan had tempted him, the Son, filled with tender yearning for the race for whom he had died, has already anxious forebodings of woe on earth. In a soliloquy, which we may take as the expression of Goethe's own deepest feelings, as it is the expression of his finest poetic gift, he gives utterance to his boundless love for man, and his compassion for a world where truth and error, happiness and misery, are inextricably linked. Continuing his descent, he first visits the Catholic countries where he finds that in the multitude of crosses Christ and the Cross are forgotten. Passing into a land where Protestantism is the professed religion, he sees a similar state of things. He meets by the way a country parson who has a fat wife and many children, and " does not disturb himself about God in Heaven." Next he requests to be conducted to the Oberpfarrer of the neighbourhood, in whom he might expect to " a man of God," and the fragment ends with an account of his interview with the Oberpfarrer's cook, Hogarthian in its broad humour, but disquieting even to the reader who may hold with Jean Paul that the test of one's faith is the capacity to laugh at its object, Goethe forbade the publication of Der Ewige Jude, and we can understand his reason for the prohibition.1 To many persons for whose religious feelings he had a genuine respect—to his mother among others—the poem would have been a cause of offence of which Goethe was not the man to be guilty. Moreover, a continuous work in such a vein was alien to Goethe's own genius. As we have them, the fragments are but another specimen of that " godlike insolence " which, in his later years, he found in his satires on Herder, Wieland, and others.

It was first published in 1836, four years after his death.

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