Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Goethe everywhere

I have mentioned on many occasions that Goethe crops up in unsuspected contexts. Today I came across another intellectual touchstone. As always when checking out a work of non-fiction, I consult the index to see if Goethe is mentioned, and today I came across a reference in a biography of Thomas Henry Huxley, which appeared in the well-known Twayne's English Authors Series in 1969. The biography was written by my friend Albert Ashforth, who died this past year. Al had been an English professor before he became a writer of novels about the war on terror, and his first book had been the Huxley biography.

Huxley, a supporter of Charles Darwin's work on evolution against the outrages of clerics and others, called himself "Darwin's bulldog." Huxley is an early example of a public intellectual who promotes certain ideas, which, if repeated often enough, become familiar to people and lead to the ideas being institutionalized. There is some doubt whether Huxley actually accepted the theory of evolution, but he was skeptical of theology and abhorred "humbug." As Al writes in his Huxley bio, "Huxley's differences with Christian ecclesiastics were almost without exception academic, centering generally on abstruse points of theology; on the essential there was no quarrel." As Huxley himself wrote in 1892:

"I have a great respect for the Nazarenism of Jesus. But the only religion that appeals to me is prophetic Judaism. Add to it something from the best Stoics and something from Spinoza and something from Goethe, and there is a religion for men."

Huxley's salute to Goethe underlines the penetration of Goethe's ideas in Britain in the 19th century, which was the subject of my blogpost last year in connection with Greg Maertz's book on Goethe in Victorian Britain.

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