Sunday, November 30, 2008

Goethe and Money

In 1765, when the 16-year-old Goethe was a student in Leipzig, his sister passed on the following question from their father back in Frankfurt: how much of his allowance did he still have? This was his response:

"If I had twice as much as I have now, and in addition to that, half again and one-third and three-sixths of that which I have: then I would have 100 louisdors."

(Very clever of Goethe, testing his sister like that! To find the answer, you will have to go to the end of this post.)

Goethe came from a well-off bourgeois family that lived quite comfortably. (Yes, it could be done in the 18th century, without hot running water and central heat.) Thomas Mann's novel Buddenbrooks is an excellent portrait of the comfort as well as the priorities of a 19th-century bourgeois family, and these would not have been much different in the Goethe family household in Frankfurt in the 1750s and 1760s. In the 18th century Europeans were beginning to experience discretionary spending on a large scale, to enjoy the commodities that international trade was introducing to town and city alike. People began to dress better, to eat better, to be better informed about the world (newspapers, book production). People's "taste" improved; indeed, taste, usually applied to aesthetics, was intimately bound up with the progress of material life in Europe. After all, in order to be well read and to appreciate art, you had to have some disposable income. As a sign of his own taste, Goethe's father had a considerable library, and he also commissioned local Frankfurt artists to create works of art for his home. Like good bourgeois families not all that long ago, his father also kept a detailed record of family income and expenses as well as purchases.

Goethe also kept a pretty good financial record, and we know that in his youth his expenses outweighed what he earned. In fact, he didn't start earning real money until he went to Weimar and became a member of Duke Carl August's privy council in 1776. Up until 1781 he was paid 300 talers quarterly, a salary that would be increased over time. He also began to earn goodly sums from his writings and became the first German writer not only to earn enough to keep a roof over his head but, in addition, to accumulate considerable wealth.

In 1829, three years before he died, he said to Eckermann: "One has to have enough money to be able to pay for one's experiences. Half a million [talers] have gone through my hands in order to learn what I have learned." According to the Goethe-Handbuch (an indispensable source of information for Goethe scholars), for instance, the costs for his stay in Italy -- from October 1786 to May 1788 -- came to about 5,600 talers. The half a million paid for many books, works of art, collections of minerals, rocks, cameos, and such as well as his travels to the spas of Bohemia. He employed secretaries to whom he dictated much of his writing and his voluminous correspondence. In his later years, after 1810, he maintained a good table, from 1 to 4 p.m., where guests enjoyed his discriminating taste in food and wine. Besides plenty of fruit and vegetables from his own garden, eggs, milk, butter, and meat from local producers, and out of season vegetables from the ducal greenhouse, his household records show sums spent on trout, pike, carp, and crabs, also local products. Luxury items came from farther afield: chestnuts, grapes, fermented mustard, honey, artichokes. The records show that Goethe remained partial to wines from the Rhine region. From Berlin the household obtained caviar, cervelat wurst, pike-perch; chocolate was ordered from Vienna. A sign of the growing trade between nations were purchases of the following from 1820: fois gras, truffles, mussels, salmon, rum, Spanish raisins, tea, rice, and ginger.

In 1827 Goethe said this about money to Eckermann: "In our youth, when we possess nothing or are unable to appreciate what it is to be in secure possession of much, we are 'democratic.' If we live a long life and accumulate some substance, we not only want to safeguard it but also wish that our children and grandchildren might comfortably enjoy the fruits of what we have earned." Indeed, at his death, Goethe's estate was worth over 63,000 talers. When he wrote his will, in 1831, in reference to the value of his collection of art, he said that a real estimate of these relatively inestimable objects was not possible. In the event, in 1834, two years after his death, an estimate of 16,000 talers was made. Real estate can always be appraised and given a dollar (or taler) value.

Beyond such figures there is something incalculable about Goethe's legacy. When his last surviving descendant died in 1885, he bequeathed all of Goethe's collections, including the literary works, to the Grand Duchess Sophie of Sachsen-Weimar-Eisenach. She founded the Goethe Archive, which, along with the Schiller Archive, now forms the core of the collections of the Klassik Stiftung Weimar. Thus, Goethe's wealth continues to provide spiritual enrichment for the generations.

As to the answer to that questions posed at the beginning, here is the calculation:

2X + X/2 = 2.5X; X/3 + 3X/6 = 2X/6 + 3X/6 = 5X/6; 2.5X/1 + 5X6 = 15X/6 + 5X/6 = 21X/6 = 3.5X

Got all that? In other words, he would have to have 3.5 times the monetary units that he has (talers? Rheinish gulden?) in order to have the equivalent of 100 louisdors. I have a feeling that most Americans don't have such a firm understanding of money, nor of its value, as did Goethe. For a great illustration of current ignorance (which seems to extend to the government, which is now throwing bad money after badder), go to Maggie's Farm for a hilarious video of non-Goethean arithmetic.

1 comment:

ranranshi said...

Sie haben Goethe etwas armer gemacht als er tatsächlich war. Die Rechnung ist: 20.x/6=100 und nicht 21.x/6=100. Liebe Grüße vom Unteren Niederrhein