Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is barely known in the United States, even among students of Western literature. When I say “barely,” I have three categories in mind: those who have heard of Goethe but know so little that they can’t even pronounce his name correctly; those who have heard of Goethe in connection with his works but who have read none of them; and those who have read him, usually Faust, Part 1 or The Sorrows of Young Werther.

One might add a fourth category, those who have not read Faust but speak sagely about the “Faustian” temptation. 

The great German deserves wider repute (though not without qualification, as I hope to make clear), which, for the most part, he enjoys in Europe. He certainly gets his due in Rüdiger Safranski’s Goethe: Life As a Work of Art. Born in 1749 in Frankfurt, Goethe lived most of his adult life in the precincts of Weimar, dying in 1832, a life that spanned the peak of the Enlightenment, the rise of Romanticism, and the beginning of both Utilitarian capitalism and socialism.

Reared by his father to enter the legal profession, Goethe attended university at Leipzig and later studied law at Strasbourg, taking degrees that would have qualified him for the bar—and did. But the young Goethe had no real interest in the courtroom as such. He had originally wanted to study the classics at Göttingen and slowly gravitated toward a literary career. Even his legal briefs had a playful wit that impressed their readers even as they failed to win cases.

A man to whom composition was all too easy, Goethe soon produced his first major work Götz von Berlichingen (1773), a play based loosely on the life of a free-wheeling medieval knight whose “will,” in Goethe’s words, “collides with the necessary course of the world.” The play was a colossal hit and promised a string of similar successes. They did indeed appear, yet, as Safranski notes, although Goethe could write almost at will, he had a tendency to tire of what he’d begun.

Throughout his life, he would begin a play, novel, or poem cycle with great expectations, which he hardly kept secret as his letters attest, only to set it aside permanently unfinished or completed years later. When he traveled to Italy in 1786, he carried unfinished copies of Faust (incomplete until 1831), Egmont (done by 1788), Iphigenia (started in 1779, finished 1786), Torquato Tasso (begun in 1780; finished 1788), and Wilhelm Meister (more or less complete by 1829).

However, that weakness was not indicative of laziness. Like so many young men of the middle-to-late eighteenth century, Goethe was attracted to the intellectual and aesthetic crazes of the day—Sturm und Drang and Sentimentalism (an indulgence in feelings)—but as early as 1775 he had an urge to eschew the clouds and place his feet on solid ground.

The opportunity came in the person of Karl August, Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. When still a young man just short of his majority, he developed a deep admiration for Goethe, mainly The Sorrows of Young Werther, and invited him to stay in Weimar. The visit, supposed to last only a few weeks, lasted for the poet’s remaining fifty-seven years. He quickly won a place in the duke’s affections and gallivanted with the younger man over the countryside, hunting, drinking, and womanizing. More to the point, Goethe’s soon secured public office in Weimar that enabled him to be “active” in practical affairs.

Throughout Goethe’s Weimar years, activity became a touchstone to how he evaluated himself. He may not have completed everything he conceived as a writer, but he was far from idle. Compared to others a tireless man, he served the duchy in various capacities. He analyzed roads for military transport, served as an inspector of mines, directed the theater (naturally), oversaw the reconstruction of the palace after a fire, offered diplomatic advice in the touchy rivalry of Prussia and France, and, notably, served in the field of war for a few weeks during the woefully ill-judged campaign of the Prussian-Austrian Alliance to overthrow revolutionary France in 1792.

He also avidly studied mineralogy and optics—the latter perhaps too avidly since he spent many fruitless years developing his Theory of Colours that gained only scorn from the scientific community. But on the balance, if being active served as his motto, he was anything but a failure.

With respect to the greater questions of existence, Goethe’s thinking marked him as a man of the age into which he was born, increasingly skeptical of traditional faith and religious institutions, empiricist by inclination and profession, and ultimately, in my judgment, an atheist. As a young man, he flirted with German Quietists and the Herrnhuters (Moravians) but rejected both without regret, finding he could not believe in a personal God or man’s sinful nature. His God seemed, for the most part, to be himself. A man’s inner sense worth and judgment were good enough for him, as were the wonderful workings of visible, measurable nature.

The main philosopher-theologian to whom Goethe was deeply and abidingly drawn was Spinoza. So if I say that Goethe was, in the final analysis, an atheist, it is largely due to the strong current of Spinozism flowing through his work and personal musings. As much as historians of philosophy may object to labeling Spinoza an atheist (a common charge even in the eighteenth century), what is one to make of a man who thinks God is impersonal, everywhere, and in everything? One may speak all he wishes of the Absolute and life forces, but such a God can hardly be said to exist; all “He” amounts to is exalted materialism and motion—or, if one prefers, cosmic activity.

It’s easy enough to see that Goethe would be attracted to such a pattern in things; but say what you will, it’s a poor substitute for traditional Christianity.

A highly distinguished man, Goethe rubbed elbows with many of the great men of his day, and they all appear in Safranski’s biography though sometimes rather curiously. Herder, Schiller, Fichte, von Humbolt, August and Friedrich Schlegel are all there, as is Napoleon who, to the irritation of many, decorated Goethe with the Légion d’honneur. Yet oddly when Schiller died, we never learn the nature of his illness; similarly, Herder’s demise is sprung on the reader with an off-hand reference to “Herder’s widow.”

As for Goethe the lyric poet, the verse is translated, as is the entire book, by David Dollenmayer, and, as far as I can judge, it is delightful. But true enjoyment can come only from knowing the German. Those who don’t, and I’m one of them, will do well to listen to musical versions; Richard Goode and Dawn Upshaw produced a superb collection of Goethe lieder on disc in the nineties (or listen to Elizabeth Watts singing Schubert’s setting of “Suleika I.”

All said Safranski manages to create a detailed and interesting picture of his subject. Is it as thorough as possible? Nicholas Boyle’s two volumes on Goethe doubtless offer more, but his third volume remains unfinished with no publication date in sight. Until that project is complete, Goethe: Life As a Work of Art may be the best way to learn about the life of the misguided but undeniably great Goethe. For many readers, Boyle or no Boyle, it may be all they need.