Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Goethe and money

Every now and then while reading Safranski's biography of Goethe, I have to laugh out loud. Such was my reaction today when I learned that Goethe made a 100 Thaler bet in the Hamburg Lottery in May 1797; the main prize was an estate (Landgut) in Silesia. The numbers he chose included, among other calculations, his own and Schiller's birth dates. As Safranski writes, "er zog eine Niete." The next year Goethe purchased a property in Oberroßla, 10 km northeast of Weimar. Five years later, he was glad to be get rid of it at a loss.

I have posted on the subject of Goethe and money before, long ago, in fact, in 2008. Back then my focus was on what the possession of money allowed Goethe to do and enjoy. He was the recipient of a considerable inheritance, accumulated by his grandfather. While his father did not deplete the fortune, he lived off the income from that legacy, somewhat like the landed gentry portrayed in Jane Austen's novels. Goethe's expenditures in Weimar, as he sank roots there, became considerable. Like his father, he kept an accurate record of his financial outlays. In his last decades, one can see that he enjoyed good food and good wines.

I came across a post today on a site called Brain Pickings, which aims to tell readers "What Goethe can teach us about cultivating a healthy relationship with our finances." The blogger draws on a book How to Worry Less About Money, by John Armstrong, "philosopher-in-residence" at Melbourne's Business School. Armstrong earlier wrote a book (Love, Life, Goethe: Lessons of the Imagination from the Great German Poet, 2006) that I reviewed, negatively, in volume 15 of Goethe Yearbook. It is a bit tiring to return to Goethe on the subject of life lessons, but here I go again.

Life lessons from Goethe
The Brain Pickings' blogger, Maria Popova, has many musings on how to have a "healthy relationship" with finances, focusing on our emotional problems with money. For most people, I would hazard that their worries about money are very existential: they don't have enough to pay their bills, in contrast to Goethe, who never feared the loss of a roof over his head. Thus, her advice is for people who have enough. She quotes from Armstrong's new book to demonstrate Goethe correct relationship:

"From his many writings about his own experiences, we know that he was determined to get well paid for his work. He came from a well-off background but sought independence. He switched careers, from law to government adviser so as to be able to earn more (which made sense then; today the trajectory might be in the opposite direction). He coped with serious setbacks. His first novel was extremely popular but he made no money from it because of inadequate copyright laws. Later, he negotiated better contracts. He was very competent in financial matters and kept meticulous records of his income and expenditure. He liked what money could buy — including … a stylish house-coat (his study had no heating). But for all this, money and money worries did not dominate his inner life. He wrote with astonishing sensitivity about love and beauty. He was completely realistic and pragmatic when it came to money but this did not lead him to neglect the worth of exploring bigger, more important concepts in life."

Well, yes and no. It is true that money worries did not dominate Goethe's inner life, which may have contributed to his ability to write "with astonishing sensitivity about love and beauty." Friedrich Schiller, as Safranski points out, was burdened by this difference between himself and Goethe. Goethe's serenity, such as it was, however, was hard won, although having money perhaps gave him opportunity to work on his serenity.

What I find interesting about Goethe on the subject of money is his failure to increase his paternal inheritance. Aside from a few bad financial ventures (the property in Oberroßla), he remained very conservative. Some of his contemporaries were making a killing in the market in the 18th century, e.g., Voltaire. (See my earlier post in this connection.) This conservatism is somewhat strange, since, as financial minister of the duchy and because of his attempts to increase the duchy’s tax revenues, Goethe was up to date on the Europe-wide discussion of modern economic issues. He was acquainted with the writings of Adam Smith via Georg Friedrich Sartorius, economist and historian at the University of Göttingen, who was the first mediator of Smith’s writings in Germany. The Jena Allgemeine Zeitung kept abreast: in 1804 Sartorius reviewed Henry Thornton’s An Enquiry into the Nature and Effects of the Paper-Credit of Great Britain; in 1808 JAZ reviewed F.H. Hegewisch’s German translation of Malthus’s essay Principles of Population; and, in 1817, Georg Graf von Buquoy’s Die Theorie der Nationalwirtschaft. In recent years there has of course been increasing interest in Goethe’s understanding of finance and economics, beginning with Bernd Mahl, Goethes ökonomisches Wissen (1982).

Goethe's legacy, well expressed
Yet, the fact remains that Goethe did nothing to increase the wealth he inherited, wealth that his ancestors had labored to provide. On the other hand, of course, Goethe enriched the Western cultural inheritance, of which we are all in his debt.

Picture credits: Navona Numismatics; Carpe Diem Moments

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