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. This is not a coincidence. It is state-sponsored. Goethe is no longer a person, but a national, civilizational 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 only the German language was more accessible and widely spoken, Goethe could have easily 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. 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 or ‘Berufsbezeichnung’ in Germany, in accordance with the Luteran belief 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 for. 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 taboo is Germany. Goethe ignored any fixed philosophical system (so he cannot be dissembled, ever), and he escaped the limitations of the philosophical approach to provide decisive 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 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: compromise. The sagacious approach to wisdom required personal experience, sacrifice, and self-cultivation of one’s character. Goethe explained the sagacious approach to wisdom, German: the 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, the poet had to resort to biblical categories: Biblical categories were the only language the Germans would understand and could relate to.

Goethe explained that there were three categories of religion: 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:

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. [5]

In Germany, Goethe’s romantic drabble into Chinese ideology [again the Mittelweg or ch. Zhongyong is a key notion in Confucian thought] was considered genius and far ahead of its time, even if it clocked away 2000 anniversaries in China. The idea that humans should rely on each others presence, instead of delegating responsibilities, morals, and wisdom to a supernatural being, is as old as East-Asia. 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 to wisdom – he would not find an unbiased audience. So he had to do it the German way.

After Goethe announced the German Mittelweg, the way of the Mean got another strong promoter: Hermann Hesse. Only that Hesse 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, but to be honest it was quite un-Christian and un-European. And if it ever were to be attained, according to Goethe, then sages would have to return to Europe:

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.[6]

A brief excursion into hyper-celebrity may be required at this point. Whenever a professional attains some national fame and, literally, everything he says is being quoted in some newspapers, magazines, and books, let alone in state-sponsored advertisement and textbook indoctrination, he then tends to comment on absolutely everything – freedom, world peace, education, the human condition, and so on – in the hope that he will be quoted for a thousand years after that, just like Confucius. Einstein, the German-American Jewish physicist, is the prime example of such hyper-celebrity, who turned into a state-sponsored sage, feulliotonist, political commentator, inspirational coach, and pop icon. It is a sort of moral corruption in those intellectual circles with a few fabricated ‘thought-superstars’ taking the credit for what most human beings have said or thought at some point in their lives too [‘In the beginning was the deed’[7]], and independently of Jesus, Einstein, or Goethe, only that the average thinker has less than a hundredth of a millionth’s chance ever to be featured like said Goethe. The establishment dictates ‘a new age of literature’ and dedicates it to him. There was a before Goethe, and now there is an after Goethe. His poems are mostly base and mediocre, yet that’s why they are so immensely popular with the masses and appeal to everyone, even the moron and stupid [Goethe: ‘Truth is a torch.’]. His plays, endlessly edited by agents and publishers, are a little better in quality, but still: nobody with a high school diploma can be intimidated by the writings of Goethe. And his science, Die Farbenlehre, is charlantry, plain and simple. Goethe couldn’t care less. If your’e THAT FAMOUS, you keep on reeling the words in. Next became the chief commentator also on Indian, Chinese, and Middle Eastern thought [Goethe: ‘The Koran’s consecrated mystery unchanged I keep’]. Standing as the greatest Universalist, the German government today guards Goethe’s ‘intellectual property’ against the very universe he took it from: everyone.

[1] Goethe Institute, 2011,

[2] Chinese Ministry of Education, 2011

[3] Craig, 1982, p. 129

[4] Carlyle, 1889

[5] Goethe, 1981, p. 605: ‘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.”

[6] Ibid.: ‘[…] 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.”

[7] Seldes (1985)

Pattberg, Thorsten (2011), Shengren – Above Philosophy and Beyond Religion, LoD Press, New York