Thursday, May 14, 2015

Goethe a classical liberal?

One comes across Goethe in many places. Whenever I peruse a scholarly work, I go quickly to the index to see if he is listed, and often he is. I once sat next to the political scientist Charles Murray at a dinner. When he learned that my work was on Goethe, he told me about a book he was working on that ranked the most important "innovators" in various fields according to the number of sources that mentioned them and the amount of space dedicated. He told me that Goethe was one of the most referenced figures of all.

Franco Moretti's Hamlet network
The book was published in 2003 as Human Accomplishment: The Pursuit of Excellence in the Arts and Sciences, 800 B.C. to 1950. In the category "Western Literature," Goethe is in second place with an "80" ranking, right after Shakespeare. He is followed by Dante (62), Virgil (55), Homer (54), Rousseau (48), and Voltaire (47). Schiller stands at 38 between Victor Hugo (40) and Boccaccio (35). It would be interesting to see a Franco Moretti-like diagram giving a breakdown of the categories of sources that reference Goethe.

Regarding the question posed in the title of this post: Was Goethe a classical liberal? I found a piece  on that subject at the Mises Institute website, a forum on the work of the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. The piece is by the German-born economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, who refers to Goethe as a classical liberal. According to Hoppe, after the French revolution early Germans liberals became "democrats" and nationalists, while Goethe opposed the political creed of liberty and equality as well as political centralization. If anyone is surprised to learn this, Hoppe quotes Goethe from Maximen und Reflexionen: "Legislators and revolutionaries who promise equality and liberty at the same time are either psychopaths or mountebanks."

This description may well fit Goethe, although I find it difficult to imagine Goethe accepting the following summary of his politics found on an online site:

"Classical liberalism is a political ideology that values the freedom of individuals — including the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and markets — as well as limited government. It developed in 18th-century Europe and drew on the economic writings of Adam Smith and the growing notion of social progress. Liberalism was also influenced by the writings of Thomas Hobbes, who argued that governments exist to protect individuals from each other. In 19th- and 20th-century America, the values of classical liberalism became dominant in both major political parties. The term is sometimes used broadly to refer to all forms of liberalism prior to the 20th century. Conservatives and libertarians often invoke classical liberalism to mean a fundamental belief in minimal government."

Any reaction?

Image: Sherlockian-SherlockThe Stanford Literary Lab; The Libertarian Republic

No comments: