Thursday, March 7, 2013

Goethe and utopia

Military in the Communist Utopia of North Korea
My reading on utopia has lent some insight into why Goethe seems not to have been tempted by wishful visions of a harmonious society. In an essay entitled "The City and Utopia," Louis Mumford writes of the immunity to change of Plato's ideal Republic:

"Once formed, the pattern of order remains static, as in the insect societies to which it bears a close resemblance. ... From the first, a kind of mechanical utility afflicts all utopias. On the most generous interpretation, this is due to the tendency of the mind, or at least of language, noted by Bergson, to fix and geometrize all forms of motion and organic change: to arrest life in order to understand it, to kill the organism in order to control it, to combat the ceaseless process of self-transformation which lies at the very origin of the species. All ideal models have this same life-arresting, if not life-denying, property."

(The essay appeared in the Spring 1965 issue of Daedalus on the subject of utopia.)

As early as The Sorrows of Young Werther one hears in Goethe's writings a complaint against the scholar who removes life from the object of study. "Dogmatiker" is another term for the "Gelehrten," as in a letter to Merck: "Es gibt eine andere Art Eigentum für den Gelehrten oder den Dogmatiker, das ist die Gewohnheit, die Begriffe, die er schon erworben hat, die Gesetze, die er gefunden hat, als festgesetzt anzusehen."

Goethe went on to have lots of contact with scholars, in particular scientific men, but his orientation was not to set up systems. Utopias are about "Dauer," not "Wechsel," and they are accompanied by mechanisms that keep things static, fixed, regimented, and standardized. I wonder if Goethe's ambivalent attitude toward military matters plays a role here. After all, before the advent of the factory age, which institution in society was more regimented?

Photo credit: The Politics e-Zine

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