Saturday, August 27, 2011

Intellectuals and Power

A scholar from whom I much profited while writing the introduction to my volume on the history of freedom of speech was J.G.A. Pocock, especially articles on the problematic nature of the concepts of "Europe" and "the West" generally. As Pocock wrote in the article "Some Europes and Their History," Europe is a word used to denote "a great many things that are important in human experience." It was in another work, Pocock's multivolume study of Edward Gibbon, however, that I came across an interesting quote: "Power and philosophy seek each other." It comes from the book Utopia and Reform by the Italian historian Franco Venturi. Recently I got Venturi's volume out of the library and read it in several sittings, finally finding the quote in the last chapter. I will say more about this work in succeeding postings, but I wanted to mention something today because it sheds some light on why Goethe chose to stay in Weimar.

Venturi's starting point, as the title indicates, was the perceived need, beginning in the early 18th century, for a solution to a felt political crisis. The absolutist states, with their desire for expansion and power, were placing intolerable burdens on the population and on the functions of government, while the still existing independent republics had insurmountable problems of their own. As Venturi writes, ideas of reform and utopia were linked by the attempt to modify aspects of society inherited from the past and to bring about practical change. The absolutist governments of Prussia, the Hapsburgs, and Russia were in this sense top-down reformist. Catherine the Great, for instance, ordered the translation of Western works in the 1760s. There was, as Venturi writes, a "determination to change things," which derived from a common language and center in France, in particular the writings of the Encyclopedie circle.

In this reform of existing institutions, the philosophes, according to Venturi, were asking to be allowed to act as guides: "Everywhere in Europe, one finds this pretension, this determination to lead and guide society." I will try not to get ahead of myself -- by the 1770s, especially in France, reform of existing institutions had been abandoned in favor of a total transformation -- and now turn to Goethe.

Goethe went to Weimar in 1775, as the Duke's guest, and initially played a role that fit in with the cultural policies of Anna Amalia. Weimar was becoming a literary center, one of the most important signs of which was the Teutscher Merkur, established by Wieland. Still, Weimar was remote and backward, even in comparison with Goethe's native Frankfurt. Moreover, as is well known, the first decade in Weimar was a backwards step in Goethe's literary production, something Goethe himself acknowledged by fleeing to Rome in 1786.

His reasons for remaining in Weimar touch on the very issues that Venturi mentions. In "enlightened Europe" of the 1760s and 1770s, the new intelligensia became conscious of its own strength in "speaking truth to power." Indeed, Goethe's Sturm und Drang works might be said to voice these challenges to traditional authority -- church, state, or otherwise. Within Goethe's first year in Weimar, Carl August had appointed him as one of his privy councilors. Did it seem to Goethe that he might be able to help transform a small, impoverished duchy through "enlightened" reforms?

Nicholas Boyle, the most recent biographer of Goethe, thinks so. As he writes: "Weimar offered him an entrée to the court life that he had hitherto seen only briefly and from outside, and like any other autocracy, untrammeled by constitutions and traditions, it offered to young, ambitious, and gifted men the prospect of far more rapid advancement in the exercise of administrative power than could be hoped for in the cautious city-states, where promotion came essentially only with age ... Goethe saw in Weimar's offer the possibility of doing something -- perhaps even useful to his fellow men ... certainly of fulfilling the ambitions that his father had had perforce to renounce when the door closed on his own political career."

In the end, the experiment failed, and in 1785 Goethe withdrew from his governing duties and ended his political career. His one success at "reform" seems to have been in helping the Duke to subdue, according to Boyle, "both the martinet and the playboy within" and making of him "a benevolent despot." In this respect, Goethe was more successful than Voltaire had been with Frederick the Great. (See Lytton Strachey's entertaining account of that relationship.) Power and philosophy sought each other, to paraphrase Venturi, and the result was disillusion on both sides.

Picture credits: Felix Petruska; Helmut Roewer; Roger Payne

No comments: