Monday, December 20, 2010

Goethe and Finance

I'm catching up on things, one of which is my mail. Back in June a friend sent me an article from Investor's Business Daily: "Faust Really Sells It." The writer for IBD, Reinhardt Krause, began: "Bankers beware. Heed author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's words of caution." Krause was quoting Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, who thought that banks could learn from "Goethe's 1830 tome on self-restraint," i.e., Faust. I was expecting much from the piece on what Goethe might tell us about the financial markets. Faust has, of course, been mined for many subjects, including Goethe's views of childbirth, heaven, hell, etc., but, in the event, the piece was very superficial, with Krause leaving out some really important facts.

For starters, Krause might have mentioned that Goethe was also a doctor of law (University of Strassburg, 1771). On his return to Frankfurt, he wrote legal briefs under the direction of his father, after which he spent a few months in Wetzlar interning at the Imperial Cameral Court. Though no legal writing is known from that experience, he was inspired to write The Sorrows of Young Werther. Later, in Weimar, he served as economic and financial minister to Duke Carl August. His legal and other official writings are contained in four volumes.

Krause might also have mentioned that Josef Ackermann, CEO of Deutsche Bank, did his post-doctoral thesis under Hans Christoph Binswanger, the Swiss economic minister, whose Geld und Magie: Eine ƶkonomische Deutung von Goethes Faust appeared in a revised edition in 205. As the word "magic" in the title indicates, Binswanger, proceeding from the thesis that the Faust of legend was an alchemist, contended that the creation of paper money in part 2 of the drama is a continuation of alchemy by other means. Paper money thus has a magical quality. According to Binswanger, Goethe forecast the potential of the modern economy to create value ex nihilo. (Here is a link to an English-language article, from 1998, by Binswanger on "The Challenge of Faust.") It should be added that money creation likewise stands at the center of things in Ackermann's postdoctoral thesis.

Back in June 2009 the finance section of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung featured an interview with Messrs. Ackermann and Binswanger (pictured above), in which they sought to illuminate what Goethe's Faust had to say bout the financial crisis of the time. In the interview Binswanger contended that Goethe could not have done his job had he not been familiar with "economic literature." In his book he mentions Goethe's acquaintance with leading contemporary German economists, including Justus Moser, Georg Sartorius, and Georg von Buquoy. (Do all these connections, including with Ackermann and Binswanger, indicate a German gene for finance? When I was a student in Germany, Ludwig Erhard had just become chancellor.)

In the painting of Goethe at the top of this post, he looks every bit the finance minister that he was. I can't help thinking that he modeled himself on Prince Metternich (at right), who knew a thing or two about finance and politics.

You can imagine that this subject interests me: in connection with my own work on Goethe's concept of world literature, I have been trying to pin down his knowledge of Scottish economic thinkers, especially the connection they made between the improvement in manners and morals and the advance of commerce. Goethe's views always seem "cutting edge," no more so than in the link he made between the free trade in goods and in ideas. Thus, "world literature," a preoccupation of the last decade of his life, the 1820s, when the different regions of the earth were tightly linked through trade and colonization. He welcomed these links, especially as they brought people into contact with like-minded individuals, but they also produced turbulence. Goethe was well aware of the disquieting effects that material changes had on our spiritual condition: "The world is in such a turbulent state that every individual is in danger of being sucked into its vortex." Sound familiar?


Anton Pinschof said...

Nice article but, where on earth did you get the notion that HC Binswanger had ever been "an economic(s) minister of Switzerland"?

Goethe Girl said...

I'm sorry for my late reply to your comment. To tell the truth, I am not sure where I got the idea that HC Binswanger had been an "economics minister." I will have to look into this. Thanks for letting me know of my error.

William Shepherd said...

According to Herman Daly...see his review of H.C. Binswanger's Money and Magic (A Critique of the Modern Economy in Light of Goethe's Faust) University of Chicago Press.
by Herman Daly (Winter, 1996) at ..."H. C. Binswanger is founder and director of the Institute for Economics and Ecology at the University of St. Gallen, Switzerland. Long an important figure in the German-speaking world, his work has been too little known among English readers. That alone makes this little volume very welcome. The importance of his theme, and the scholarship and insight with which he develops it, merits the widest possible readership.