April 9, 2013

Glenn Alexander Magee - Goethe the Alchemist

Glenn Alexander Magee is Chairman of the Department of Philosophy and an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Long Island University (LIU). Here is a background of his work (Source: LIU):
If there is a unifying theme to my scholarship and my teaching, it is this: I am interested in the relationship of philosophy to "the irrational." Mysticism claims to provide wisdom in a non-discursive form and typically rejects philosophy's insistence that all truths must be established by reason. However, as my scholarly work demonstrates, throughout history philosophers have in fact been influenced by the mystics, and there are points in their work where the line between philosophy and mysticism—and myth and poetry—becomes blurred.

My first book, "Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition," was published by Cornell University Press in 2001. (A revised, paperback edition was brought out by Cornell in 2008.) The thesis of the book is that Hegel was influenced by the Hermetic "counter-tradition" in intellectual history, which has its roots in the "Corpus Hermeticum," a collection of anonymous philosophical and mystical texts originating in Alexandrian Egypt. Over the course of the centuries, and especially in the Renaissance, Hermeticism became fused with such "esoteric" currents of thought as alchemy, Kabbalism, magic, millenarianism, Rosicrucianism, Freemasonry and Christian mysticism.
Below is an excerpt from Glenn Alexander Magee's book, "Hegel and the Hermetic Tradition." 2001. Cornell University Press: Ithaca. Pg. 57-61.
"The life of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) provides a fascinating case study of an eighteenth century Hermeticist. His example makes it vividly clear that an eminent scientist and man of letters could still be deeply immersed in Hermeticism as late as the second half of the eighteenth century.

Most scholars treat the Enlightenment as a single, unitary phenomenon: the effort to emancipate mankind from tradition, superstition, and despotism. But in fact the Enlightenment took radically different shapes in different countries. This is especially true of Germany. Christopher MacIntosh writes that when the Enlightenment "fell on German soil it often took root in strange and contradictory ways." An example of this is the German phenomenon of the "Enlightened despot," exemplified by Frederick the Great. In particular, the scientific spirit of the Enlightenment took longer to gain ground in Germany. Well into the time of Hegel and Goethe, Hermeticism was still seen in many quarters as a progressive influence. Alchemy survived much later in Germany than it did in the rest of Europe.

Ronald Gray, who has produced an entire study of the influence of alchemy on Goethe, writes that "At the time of Goethe's birth, in . . . Mannheim, alchemy was all the rage. Many of the most respectable citizens had established alchemical laboratories, and so widespread was the enthusiasm that the city authorities felt themselves obliged to suppress it by law, on the grounds that the numerous ill-guarded fires and the waste of labour and materials were dangerous, and harmful to the economy of the state." As a young man, Goethe read Paracelsus, Basil Valentine, van Helmont, Swedenborg, and the Kabbalah. In particular, as Gray notes, Goethe was influenced by an anonymous alchemical work entitled Aurea Catena Homeri (ca.1723). Goethe's letter to E. Th. Langer of May 11, 1770, discusses the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trismegistus. Goethe's notebook from Frankfurt and Strasbourg contains many references to Paracelsus and Agrippa. According to Richard Friedenthal, for Goethe "alchemy was a thing of the present, not of the past, a still living survival from the middle ages." Indeed, Gray claims that "The degree to which alchemy had established control over Goethe's interests in early manhood can scarcely be over-emphasized."

In September of 1768, Goethe, exhausted, took leave from Leipzig University and spent the winter at home. He was much of the time in the company of Susanna von Klettenberg, who belonged to the sect of Herrnhuter, a Pietist movement founded by the notorious Hermeticist Count von Zinzendorf (1700-60). An alchemical adept, Klettenberg introduced Goethe to the Opus Mago-Cabbalisticum et Theosophicum of Georg von Welling. Together, they engaged in alchemical experiments in Goethe's father's attic. Friedenthal describes their work in dramatic detail:
The pious Fräulein von Klettenberg stood with the young Goethe in front of a wind furnace, with sand-bath and chemical flasks. They stirred up the 'ingredients of Macrocosm and Microcosm.' They tried to produce silicic acid by melting quartz pebbles from the river Main. They discussed mysterious salts, to be conjured up by unheard-of means, a 'virgin soil' with extraordinary powers. . . . Even in his [later] natural science he remained far truer to the world of prima materia and the Chemical Marriage, as the text-book of the Rosicrucians was called, than subsequent opinion has been willing to admit. 
In later years, Goethe was far more critical of alchemy: "It is a misuse of genuine and true ideas, a leap from the ideal, the possible, to the reality, a false application of genuine feelings, a lying promise, which flatters our dearest hopes and aspirations." However, Goethe's disapproval appears to have extended only to the actual practice of laboratory alchemy. He continued to be influenced by alchemical theory and symbolism. In 1795 he composed an alchemical fairy tale laden with Hermetic imagery of all sorts---such as, for instance, the image of the ouroboros (the snake biting its tail).

The conception of a unity of the world's religions is joined in Goethe's thought, as it is in Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, to a quasi-pantheistic nature mysticism. In words that call to mind Schiller's poem Die Freundschaft (1782), which is quoted---or rather deliberately misquoted---by Hegel in the final passage of the Phenomenology of Spirit, Goethe writes in the Sorrows of the Young Werther (1774):
From the inaccessible mountains across the desert that no foot has trodden, and on to the end of the unknown ocean, breathes the spirit of the eternally creating One, rejoicing in every speck of dust that hears Him and is alive.---Ah, in those days, how often did my longing take the wings of a crane that flew overhead and carried me to the shore of the uncharted sea, to drink from the foaming cup of the infinite that swelling rapture of life, and to taste but for an instant, despite the limited force of my soul, one drop of the bliss of that being which produces all things in and by means of itself.
David Walsh notes that "Goethe made frequent use of the idea of unifying opposites in the sense derived from the alchemical symbolism, both in his literary and scientific writings." His aim, as Gray puts it, was "an incorruptible permanence which embraces in itself all opposites." Goethe writes: "I was pleased to imagine to myself a divinity [Gottheit] which reproduces itself from all eternity, but since production cannot be thought of without multiplicity [Mannigfaltigkeit], this divinity necessarily appeared to itself at once as a Second Person [ein Zweites], whom we recognize by the name of the Son." The similarity to Böhme's doctrine is obvious here. Goethe continues, speaking of the Father and Son: "These two had now to continue the act of creation, and appeared to themselves again as a Third Person [im Dritten], who was now just as living and eternal as the whole. But with this the circle of divinity was closed, and even they would have found it impossible to create again a being fully equal to themselves."  
Goethe was an active and enthusiastic Mason. He even composed songs and orations in honor of deceased Masonic brethren, in which he elaborated his own views of the true mission of Masonry. Some of these views may be inferred from his 1784 fragment Die Geheimnisse, a fable about a spiritual order of knights (modeled, it seems, on the Templars). The knights are led by a Humanus, who unites in his person the underlying "truth" of the various religious faiths---again, we find the conception of the invisible church. More than once in Die Geheimnisse, Goethe uses the imagery of the cross and roses. Goethe's name and reputation served to lend a measure of respectability to Hermeticism throughout his lifetime. Many were undoubtedly introduced to aspects of Hermeticism through Goethe, and his work was a major conduit for the indirect influence of alchemy, Böhme, Kabbalah, and various other Hermetic offshoots."