Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Goethe and Saint-Simon

Saint-Simon, from painting by
Adelaide Labille-Guyard
Goethe always turns up in surprising conjunctions, for instance, meeting with Aaron Burr, on which I posted not too long ago. His interest in Saint-Simonianism is not unknown, though it is a small area of Goethe research. Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon, was the early socialist theorist praised in a somewhat backhanded way by Engels in "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" in Anti-Dühring. He died in 1825, but his disciples, the Saint-Simonists, quickly spread their version of the master's ideas. It was in particular through the transmission of these ideas in Le Globe, of which Goethe was a subscriber, that he learned of the new doctrine. (By the way, Saint-Simon fought in the American Revolutionary war.)

In The Saint-Simonian Religion in Germany, the prolific E.M. Butler wrote about the sympathizers of the movement in Germany, including the Varnhagens, Heine, and several "Young Germany" writers. It is marvelous to witness Goethe, during the last years of his life, from 1829 to 1832, engaging with this new social manifestation. Saint-Simonism was a young man's movement, his followers having included young men who turned out to be up-and-coming. First among them was Auguste Comte, who later betrayed the master. According to Butler, France suffered at the beginning of the 19th century from "great spiritual depression. ... The fierce joy of those who had slain the giants of oppression and superstition [i.e., the French revolutionaries] could not warm the hearts of their sons."

Barthelmy Prospher Enfantin,
follower of Saint-Simon
Johannes John wrote the entry on "Saint-Simonismus" in the Goethe-Handbuch. According to John, it was the July 1830 revolution in France that was the source of Goethe's interest. Goethe also heard from Carlyle shortly thereafter (August 31, 1830), who reported having obtained some Saint-Simonist writings from Paris. Goethe had several objections to their doctrines, in particular what John calls their centralizing and dirigiste plans for restructuring social and economic relations. He voiced another objection to Frederic Soret: "Je ne sais pas pourquoi on veut sacrifier l'intérêt des individues à celui des masses. ... Ainsi, dire que chacun doit se sacrifier au bien de tous me paraît un faux principle; chacun doit se sacrifier à sa propre conviction." This sounds like Marx avant la lettre, but it was a common notion among utopian thinkers in pre-Revolutionary France, which indicates that Goethe may have been familiar, e.g., with Morelly's Code de la Nature (1755).

What he most objected to was the wishful thinking, amounting to presumption, of the Saint-Simonians. As he wrote to Zelter in May of 1831: they seem like bright people, they understand the shortcomings of our time, they know how to present what is desired. "But they fail in how they presume to eliminate the present terrible state of affairs and bring about the desired goal. The fools imagine they are able to manipulate Providence and assure everyone that he will be rewarded according to his merits if he joins them with body and soul" (summarized translation).

At the same time, Goethe felt sympathy for the Saint-Simonian analysis of contemporary social relations, e.g., excessive competition, the exploitation and impoverishment of the working population, the workers' increasing social "declassification," and the overriding role to be played in the future by technology and industrialization.

This is getting too long-winded for today. I hope to add more on this subject in my next posting.

Picture credit: Dark Government;

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