Monday, November 17, 2008

Goethe on Beggars

While reading the third volume of Goethe's On Art and Antiquity (Über Kunst und Altertum), from 1822, I came across some observations concerning various beggars whom Goethe encountered in his travels, including a comparison of Protestant beggars and their counterparts.

Of the former, Goethe writes that, on receiving alms, they say matter-of-factly, "May God reward you for your generosity," without offering to put in a good word for the giver with the Almighty, after which the two of you then go your separate ways. The Catholic, however, declares he will pray for you, will storm God and his saints with petitions, until they shower you with the holiest material blessings. Goethe finds a certain irony in these claims:

When one is in the right mood, it is really touching to see someone who, despite claiming a direct relationship with the highest being, is unable to entreat for himself a resonable improvement in his own condition, yet nevertheless believes himself able to be the patron of another, making an appearance before God, accompanied by his many clients, with supplications.

The essay in which this quotation appears concerns coincidences and the seemingly accidental nature of good fortune -- for example, the unexpected beneficence of a handful of coins from a toff like Goethe. For Goethe, the prayers of Catholics suggested superstition. Like many Germans raised in the Protestant tradition, he was both fascinated by Catholic practices and repelled by what he would have called mysticism. (Mother Angelica: "Angels could kill 260,00 peoples in one night. One angel went through Egypt and killed the firstborn humans, cows, sheeps, dogs, cats, locusts -- everything that was firstborn went. That angel was powerful.")

Goethe's anecdote hits on a distinguishing point that has been elucidated by Max Weber and that underlies the different direction in which Protestantism traveled with the onset of modernity. To men of the Enlightenment like Goethe, Catholicism seemed downright impractical in a worldly sense. And it continues (except among the "liberation theologian" types)  to reflect this unworldliness.

It is a truism that, in our modern worldliness, we often have little sense for the miraculous. I venture to say that our present worldliness affects our relationship with beggars. I was struck by this today, as I passed one of these forlorn humans on my way to the grocery store. One feels a decided skepticism about their condition. (For instance, how much of their condition is self-inflicted, because of, say, drugs or alcohol?) Moreover, how much money have Americans spent since Lyndon Johnson promised an end to poverty, and yet it still stares us in the face? In the face of our own affluence, beggars also seem something of a reproach to the good life that most of us manage to lead, even while often struggling to keep a roof over our head. Why do so many people remain failures despite all the money that has been poured into welfare, despite all the opportunities (free schooling, free breakfast and lunch programs for schoolchildren)?

Interestingly, it is the Protestants (in their contemporary liberal incarnation) who believe in miracles, expecting the welfare system to fix broken lives. Catholics seem more clear-sighted about the human condition.

1 comment:

Zentrist said...

I think Goethe would admire our Holy Father, perhaps even convert if he were around, today. Pope Benedict's genius, in part, is his poetic imagination. His recent homilies (since becoming pope) are works of art, working in evolution, quantum physics, history of ideas, his own "liturgical studies" and, of course, his mastery of the Bible and the history of its interpretation. These homilies will startle any reader, and few have even noticed--that I know of.