Goethe and the Indo-European religiosity
The greatest ideas of mankind have been conceived in the lands between India and Germania, between Iceland and Benares (where Buddha began to teach) amongst the peoples of Indo-European language; and these ideas have been accompanied by the Indo-European religious attitude which represents the highest attainments of the mature spirit. When in January 1804, in conversation with his colleague, the philologist Riemer, expressed the view that he found it “remarkable that the whole of Christianity had not brought forth a Sophocles”, his knowledge of comparative religion was restricted by the knowledge of his age, yet he had unerringly chosen as the precursor of an Indo-European religion the poet Sophocles, “typical of the devout Athenian… in his highest, most inspired form”,41 a poet who represented the religiosity of the people, before the people (demos) of Athens had degenerated into a mass (ochlos). But where apart from the Indo-Europeans, has the world produced a more devout man with such a great soul as the Athenian, Sophocles?
Where outside the Indo-European domain have religions arisen, which have combined such greatness of soul with such high flights of reason (logos, ratio) and such wide vision (theoria)? Where have religious men achieved the same spiritual heights as Spitama Zarathustra, as the teachers of the Upanishads, as Homer, as Buddha and even as Lucretius Carus, Wilhelm von Humboldt and Shelley?
Indo-European outlook renewed itself in Germany, recalling a world of the spirit which was perfected by great German poets and thinkers during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.wished that Homer’s songs might become our Bible. Even before the discovery of the spiritual heights and power of the pre-Christian Teuton, but especially after Lessing, Winckelmann and Heinrich Voss, the translator of Homer, the
had a premonition of this decline of the West: even in October 1801 he remarked in conversation with the Countess von Egloffstein, that spiritual emptiness and lack of character were spreading — as if he had foreseen what today characterises the most celebrated literature of the Free West. It may be that had even foreseen, in the distant future, the coming of an age in which writers would make great profits by the portrayal of sex and crime for the masses. As said to Eckermann, on 14th March 1830, “the representation of noble bearing and action is beginning to be regarded as boring, and efforts are being made to portray all kinds of infamies”. Previously in a letter to Schiller of 9th August 1797, he had pointed out at least one of the causes of the decline: in the larger cities men lived in a constant frenzy of acquisition and consumption and had therefore become incapable of the very mood from which spiritual life arises. Even then he was tortured and made anxious, although he could observe only the beginnings of the trend, the sight of the machine system gaining the upper hand; he foresaw that it would come and strike (Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre, Third Book, Chapter 15, Cotta’s Jubilee edition, Vol. XX, p. 190). In a letter to his old friend Zelter, on 6th June 1825, he pronounced it as his view that the educated world remained rooted in mediocrity, and that a century had begun “for competent heads, for practical men with an easy grasp of things, who […] felt their superiority above the crowd, even if they themselves are not talented enough for the highest achievements”; pure simplicity was no longer to be found, although there was a sufficiency of simple stuff; young men would be excited too early and then torn away by the vortex of the time. Therefore exhorted youth in his poem Legacy of the year 1829:
|Join yourself to the smallest host!|
In increasing degree since approximately the middle of the nineteenth century poets and writers as well as journalists — the descendants of the “competent heads” by whomwas alarmed even in the year 1801 — have made a virtue out of necessity by representing characterlessness as a fact. With this heartless characterlessness first gained world renown. Mann used his talent to conceal his spiritual desolation by artifices which have been proclaimed by contemporary admirers as insurpassable. But the talent of the writers emulating no longer sufficed even to conceal their spiritual emptiness, although many of their readers, themselves spiritually impoverished, have not noticed this.
The freedom of the Press, which was introduced through the constitution of May 1816 into the Duchy of Weimar and which had already been demanded by Wieland with his superficial judgment would,declared, do nothing more than give free rein to authors with a deep contempt of public opinion (Zahme Xenien, Goethes Sämtliche Werke, Cotta’s Jubilee edition, Vol. IV, p. 47; Annalen (Annals) 1816, same edition, Vol. XXX, p. 298). In the Annalen of 1816, he remarked that every right-thinking man of learning in the world foresaw the direct and incalculable consequences of this act with fright and regret. Thus even in his time, must have reflected how little the men of the Press, were capable of combining freedom with human dignity.
When the descendants of the competent heads of the beginning of the nineteenth century rose, through their talents, to the upper classes, where due to a lower birthrate their families finally died out, the eliminating process of social climbing in Europe seized hold of less capable heads and bore them away into the vortex of the time. Their culture has been described most mercilessly by Friedrich in his lectures of the year 1871-72: Concerning the Future of Our Educational Institutions (Pocket edition, Vol. I, 1906, pp. 314, 332-333, 396). Nietzsche above all concentrated on famous contemporary writers, “the hasty and vain production, the despicable manufacturing of books, the perfected lack of style, the shapelessness and characterlessness or the lamentable dilution of their expressions, the loss of every aesthetic canon, the lust for anarchy and chaos” — which he described as if he had actually seen the most celebrated literature of the Free West, whose known authors no longer mastered their own languages even to the extent still demanded by popular school teachers around 1900. These vociferous heralds of the need for culture in an era of general education were rejected by Nietzsche who in this displayed true Indo-European views — as fanatical opponents of the true culture, which holds firm to the aristocratic nature of the spirit. If Nietzsche described the task of the West as to find the culture appropriate to Beethoven, then the serious observer today will recognise only too well the situation which Nietzsche foresaw and described as a laughing stock and a thing of shame.
In the year 1797, Friedrich Schiller composed a poem: Deutsche Grösse. Full of confidence in the German spirit he expressed the view that defeat in war by stronger foes could not touch German dignity which was a great moral force. The precious possession of the German language would also be preserved. Schiller (Das Siegesfest) certainly knew what peoples had to expect of war:
|For Patrocles lies buried
and Thersites comes back;
but he must have imagined that the losses of the best in the fight could be replaced. The dying out of families of dignity and moral stature (megalopsychia and magnanimitas), had then not yet begun in Europe.
In the year 1929, just a decade after the First World War had ended, that Peloponnesian war of the Teutonic peoples, which caused both in England and in Germany excessively heavy losses of gifted young men, of officers and aristocrats, Oskar Walzel (Die Geistesströmungen des 19. Jahrhunderts, 1929, p. 43), Professor of German literature at the university of Bonn, gave it as his opinion that after this war the trend to de-spiritualise Germany had gained ground far more rapidly than hitherto: “Is there in German history in general such an identical want of depth in men to be observed as at present?” But for the Germans it is poor consolation that this “de-spiritualising” is just as marked in other Western countries. Another sign of this trend is that today many famous writers are no longer capable of preserving the precious possession of the German language. Other Western languages are also neglecting their form and literature, but this again is poor consolation for the Germans. Such neglect is considered by many writers today as characteristic of, and part of the process of gaining their freedom and liberation from all traditional outlooks. criticised this as a false idea of freedom (Maxims and Reflections, Goethes Sämtliche Werke, Cottas Jubiläumsausgabe, Vol. IV, p. 229) in the following words:
“Everything which liberates our spirit, without increasing our mastery of ourselves, is pernicious.”
Thus, by freedomalso understood the dignity of the freeborn, not the nature and mode of life of the freed slave.
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From The Religious Attitudes of The Indo-Europeans, London 1967. Translated by Vivian Bird. Original Source.