Neither Conformism Nor Eccentricity

John Armstrong, Love, Life, Goethe:
Lessons of the Imagination from the Great German Poet

Farrar Straus Giroux, 2007

Almost twelve years ago I read this book, and the themes of Bildung and mastery were most striking. I recall theologian Matthew Fox’s distinction between religion and spirituality—religion is what you believe because of what someone else experienced; spirituality is what you believe because of what you’ve experienced. The following passages give a taste of Armstrong’s investigations into Goethe’s spirituality…


In his writings, Goethe was trying to understand his own life. Goethe was not primarily ‘confessing’ his private failings; he wanted to do something more risky and more valuable: confess his strengths and grasp what had gone well: how he had been happy and successful. He thought, as most writers secretly do, that we could learn from him how to lead better our own lives. 4

The moral is simple: don’t just stare at my life as if it were a puppet show: create your own life, and feel free to take your plots from me. 20

Goethe set himself to conquer this fear [of heights] and gradually, by repeated attempts, completely overcame his fear and was able to enjoy the wonderful prospect without anxiety. 44

The point of self-mastery isn’t to keep oneself good or pure or to resist temptation; we may need to overcome our fears to do some of the things we most want. Self-mastery, here, is the means to pleasure, not the mechanism for resisting its allure. 44

Goethe’s underlying ambition was concerned with personal growth, with the mutual exchange of inner and outer. He did not long to write more and more successful novels, but to become a particular kind of person. Weimar was to offer him a great opportunity. It was his chance to ‘get real.’ The imaginative and expressive powers so evident in the writing of Werther might be raised to even high worth if they could somehow be integrated with a deep appreciation of everyday life. 102

The meaning of Weimar, for Goethe, can be understood in terms of a ‘solution’ to the problem of personal development. Goethe had absorbed, and enriched the prevailing idea of self-improvement. He had traced both the impetus to this and the dangers it seemed to bring with it. Self-cultivation is good—but it often results in excessive introspection and over-dependence on the flow of mood. On the other hand, he is concerned with political or social development and improvement. 143

He was afraid of heights—very well, that hindrance must be overcome. He had a tendency to flit from object to object: very well, he would discipline his mind. He would force himself to notice, compare, remember. 152

Goethe’s whole life was an attempt to feed himself—as it were—by his own efforts. 156

Broadly, he had three major interests. The first—which occupied him early in the mornings—was to complete the literary tasks he had set himself: the revision of the plays for the Collected Works. Later in the day he would go and study the great works of antiquity—forcing himself to look carefully. Thirdly, he was deeply interested in drawing; he practiced a great deal and took lessons from the artists he knew. 173

Goethe’s tower avoids flattery: it does not say to Wilhelm—or to any serious person—you are just fine as you are; instead it says: to become the best possible version of yourself is a long and difficult undertaking, but we will be at your side. The message of mass culture in effect is to say: there is nothing you don’t know that is worth knowing; there are no interests or capacities you need to acquire: you are fine as you are. And this, in other words, amounts to a systematic denial of adulthood. 274

The purpose of life is to be happy: this means being fully ourselves. The core problem is that ‘being fully ourselves’ isn’t a matter of doing whatever we happen to like. It lies, rather, in fully developing the capacities we have—which must be physical as well as mental. 329

Goethe is at odds with both conformism and eccentricity. Conformism is the desire to be like other people, just because we want to fit in. Eccentricity is the condition of wanting to be different from other people, because one fears being like others. What’s wrong in each case is that the focus is on other people. Being oneself is an independent project. 330

The core of Goethe’s maturity was self-discipline. And the cost of this was that he appeared—to some people—to be indifferent or numb to the things that are supposed to be affecting. 343

Genuine development, which enriches and strengthens the mind, introduces new arenas of distress, new ways of being unhappy. 354

We spoil our lives by not addressing the practical things we could do to improve out lot. Instead of attacking straight away the things that interfere with our real concerns, we linger and live with them. 445

Clearness, energy and stamina are the qualities he is commending here. 445

In Goethe’s mind there can be no such ideals: the point of life is self-cultivation: the harmonious development of one’s character. To die for a feudal lord or to kill oneself for the sake of love are not noble or admirable—they cut short, rather than fulfill, the central business of life. 448

One of the points he keeps making is that we need to master ourselves. To live well we need to be able to say “no” to ourselves—but this is not a life-denying, fearful attitude to pleasure. On the contrary, it is a discipline which allows us to do the larger things that are important to us, to allow our more worthwhile projects to be undertaken and to enjoy what pleasures we can without being ruined by them, without finding that all of our time is taken up with them, or that we are endlessly combating the ill-consequences of our moments of gratification. 460

For the message Goethe is trying to send us isn’t a plea to understand him, or the impotent command that we become like him, but rather, that like him we should take courage in an infinitely more worthwhile task—that of becoming ourselves. 462


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