Shengren – Chapter – Johann W. v. Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was an influential sponsor of Oriental thought in Germany. Since he died in 1832, he had grown into a worldwide cultural phenomenon ever since. He is no longer a person, but a cultural project. Goethe stands for Germany, and Germany stands for Goethe, abroad and in all German studies. The name Goethe also became the billboard for Germany’s cultural diplomacy: the ‘Goethe Institute’ (founded 1951; by the end of 2010 it had 131 institutes and 11 liaison offices in 92 countries),[1] funded by the national German government, counts over 800 foreign cooperation partners already. On a side note, and to stress its significance, the Goethe Institutes’ success in promoting the German cause encouraged the Chinese government to set up its own worldwide network of ‘Confucius Institutes’ (founded 2004; by the end of 2009 it has 282 institutes and 272 classrooms in 88 countries).[2] If the German language were more accessible, Goethe would easily have triumphed over Shakespeare as the greatest European writer of all time.

 Goethe is often the first name foreigners learn when they study the German language. They have, however, different expectations about Goethe than the Germans have familiarity. In the German lands, Goethe cannot be called ein Weiser (a sage); instead the Germans call him einen Dichter or einen Schriftgelehrten (a poet and writer). Both titles were proper profession (Berufsbezeichnung) in Germany, in accordance with the German believe that every man was destined (Bestimmung) for a particular profession in his life (Berufung) and to stay with it forever. That Berufung was initiated by God; and it was the duty of the good Christian to fulfill it.[3] The situation was less rigid and more flexible (meaning less divine) in the Anglophone world: the British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell in his book The Problem of China (1922) compared the life and personality of the “two sages”, Confucius to Goethe: “It was not difficult to adapt the doctrines of Confucius to such a country [China], because in the time of Confucius China was still feudal and still divided into a number of petty kingdoms, in one of which the sage himself was a courtier, like Goethe at Weimar”. Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish essayist and historian, described Goethe as the “benignant spiritual revolutionist of modernity” and “the enlightened mind”.[4] Thomas Mann, the German novelist, Lutheran, great critic of the German soul, and 1929 Nobel Prize laureate, although he refrained from calling Goethe einen Weisen, he knew Goethe was above philosophy (but not quite beyond religion): a “god-like man in his lifetime” (1932). What the English speaking world called “a sage” – having the concepts of sagacity and sagehood in mind – the German speaking word lacked a corresponding term. The German writers had to substitute English sagacious terminology with German biblical one: sagely became göttlich (god-like); and sagacious became heilig (holy).

Goethe’s teachings were sagacious, not philosophical. Unfortunately, the only country in which calling Goethe a sage (einen Weisen) was a cultural taboo, was Germany itself. Goethe ignored any philosophical system, and he escaped the limitations of the philosophical approach to provide answers. Like a true sage, he was a humanist who considered the interconnectedness of all things. Whenever the German philosophers had found new and cruel ways to destroy the harmony and point fingers at other cultures – Haeckel: “The Caucasian man has from time immemorial been placed at the head of all the races of men” – Goethe instead always called for restrain: “The Philistine not only ignores all conditions of life which are not his own but also demands that the rest of mankind should fashion its mode of existence after his own”.

Moreover, Goethe explained to the Germans the concept of the Mittelweg (Middle Way), in China: 中庸Zhong Yong (also known as Doctrine of the Mean) and in India: madhyama-pratipad. The Middle Way is not a product of the Western philosophical approach to an object (of the philosophical enquiry); but rather the Middle Way bore out of the sagacious approach toward the complexities of life. The sagacious approach to wisdom required personal experience and self-cultivation of one’s character; an approach that had been severely discouraged (and even persecuted) in Europe since the rise of Greek philosophy and Christianity. Goethe explained the sagacious approach to wisdom, German: der Mittelweg, in his “Die Lehre von der dreifachen Ehrfurcht” [The Law of the threefold Veneration]. Since Goethe’s German audience was unfailingly (even outright fanatically) Christian in mind and mentality, he resorted to biblical categories. Biblical categories were the only language the Germans would understand and could relate to. It was all they had, all they could think of, and all they wanted to hear, so Goethe took some risks in explaining something utterly un-German in completely German words. He explained that there were three categories of religions: a) the ethnische Religion or belief in God: “Ehrfurcht vor dem, was über uns (venerating the above us) ist”; b) the christliche Religion or belief in the suffering of all humankind: “Ehrfurcht vor dem, was unter uns (venerating the below us) ist”; and c) the philosophical religion or the belief in sages and in good men: “Ehrfurcht vor dem, was uns gleich (venerating the beside/equal to us) ist.” Those “über uns…, unter uns…, neben uns…” (above, below, and beside us) were developmental stages. The highest stage of religious belief was neither the über uns (above us) nor the unter us (below us); but was – according to Goethe’s Mittelweg – the neben uns (besides us). Only this neben uns or Mittelweg (Middle Way) fully recognized the existence of others and the relationship among all people as the most beautiful and valuable lesson of life:

Wir erfahren die Religiöse zunächst als Erkenntnis eines Weltherrschers; sodann als Erkenntnis unserer Bedingtheit und Kleinheit; schliesslich als Erkenntnis der Gleichnishaftigkeit im sittlichen Leben mit anderen.[5] [We experience the divine first as the verdict of the world-ruler; then in recognition of our own dependency and diminutiveness; and finally as the realization of our inter-dependency in civic life with others.]

In Germany, Goethe was considered a genius – far ahead of his time. In China, he would still be called that, even though he was 2200 years late. The idea that humans should rely on each others presence, instead of delegating responsibilities, morals, and wisdoms to a supernatural being, is as old as the East. Yet even at the end of the 20th century, 95% of the German population still confessed to a Christian faith. Goethe could write whatever he wanted about the sagacious approach – he would not find an unbiased audience.

After Goethe’s Mittelweg, the way of the Mean got another strong promoter: Hermann Hesse. Only that he referred to it as the Buddha’s way: the Goldener Mittelweg or das Maß der Mitte. The middle way was at the core of most Hindu and Buddhist traditions, as well as the Confucian tradition. Confucian China taught practicability, respect for others, tolerance, harmoniousness, and at the same time shunned aggressiveness and self-righteousness. Confucian culture relied on family values (that extended onto the entire country) and the moral lives of its citizens rather than on God’s rule or mob rule. Metaphorically, walking the Mittelweg was – according to Goethe – the Mittelzustand. The Mittelzustand was the highest stage of religious belief, and it was un-Christian and un-European. If it were ever reached, according to Goethe, then the sages would return to Europe:

[…] denn der Philosoph, der sich in die Mitte stellt, muss alles höhere zu sich herab, alles niedere zu sich herauf ziehen und nur in diesem Mittelzustand verdient er den Namen eines Weisen. [For, the philosopher who stands in the middle has to low down everything that is above him and pull up everything that is beneath him; and only in this middle state does he deserve the name of a sage.]

[1] Goethe Institute, 2011,

[2] Chinese Ministry of Education, 2011

[3] Craig, 1982, p. 129

[4] Carlyle, 1889

[5] Goethe, 1981, p. 605