Sunday, January 27, 2013

Goethe and capital punishment

In connection with the paper I will be giving in September on the origins of utopian thinking in the 18th century, I am rereading Franco Venuri's Utopia and Reform in the Enlightenment. I wrote a couple of posts on this book earlier, which is what has led to my appearance at the conference in September. This book might be better entitled "Utopia versus Reform," because Venturi is showing the setbacks to government reform in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries and the rise of utopian visions, namely, the desire to wipe the slate clean, to toss tradition overboard, and to create a society unburdened with inequalities. In Weimar, at least in Goethe's experience in government, the emphasis was on reform.

Though Venturi gives principal weight to France, because of the culmination there of the Revolution, his book is masterful in portraying the interplay of intellectual activity on the continent, especially in Holland, the Italian republics, and England. For instance, a book published in France in 1755, entitled Code de la nature ou le véritable esprit des lois, was being read and discussed in Italy already the following year. This book, by Morelly, contained "the first expression of 18th-century communism." As Venturi writes: "In every group of philosophes, there was at least one who had a secret sympathy for a world in which the fatal distinction between mine and thine either never exited or had been abolished."

But what about the problem of bad people: were they bad by nature, or had society made them bad? If the former, the burning question among the philosophes was how to punish such people "reasonably," in a utilitarian manner. Thus, another much discussed book, from 1764, was by an Italian, Cesare BeccariaDei delitti e delle pene (On Crimes and Punishments). Beccaria condemned torture, a favorite method of gaining confessions, as well as the death penalty. He believed that punishment should conform to rational principles. If society was the problem, however, society itself had to be reorganized in order to expunge invidious distinctions. In a society of free and equal men, after all, there would be no crime, because everyone shared all goods. Right?

I am struck in reading Venturi how small a role he attributes to Germany in this intellectual concourse. True, Pufendorf is mentioned, and no doubt there were men in the German lands who were familiar with the philosophes. Goethe was most familiar with Diderot. On the question of punishment, Venturi writes of Diderot: "In the end, Diderot had given up all hope of saving those who had embarked on a life of crime." Which does not mean that Diderot was not a utopian: indeed, like many philosophes, he came to distrust "partial reforms." Goethe, however, seems not to have been of the opinion that "only a complete and integral transformation of society" was required. Indeed, he seemed not to have been troubled by the death penalty. He voted with his fellow ministers to carry out the execution of a woman, Johanna Höhn, a maidservant who had murdered her infant child. She was duly beheaded in the Weimar marketplace in November 1783.

The two cover designs above, by Robert Schumann for Rotbuch Verlag, were prepared for the novel  Goethes Hinrichtung  (Goethe's Execution) by Viktor Glass. I have not read it.

Picture credits: Face Out Books

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