Goethe—The Star of Hope


Goethe’s Iphigenie is a work that occupied him over many years and it exists in several forms; it clearly plays a central role in his intellectual life. And it’s interesting to see it in the context of the intellectual currents and countercurrents of his time. About this time, Mozart has composed and performed Die Zauberflöte and Beaumarchais is busy at work on Figaro. Goethe’s work can be placed alongside these two in many levels. He is consumed by the idea that humanity can save itself through the use of reason, that it develops social conventions which it can quickly outgrow and must therefore necessarily reform, that religion if left static and if appreciated only at a superficial level can be more a hinderance than help to humanity. On the other hand, Goethe’s work is highly stylized and soaked with earnestness; it lacks the lightness of tone and the humor which act as saving graces for Mozart and Beaumarchais. Still, Goethe’s work is as far as could be imagined from the Enlightenment’s countercurrent–the early Romanticists, with their stress of emotional rupture, natural language and political reaction (and in the case of Germany especially, an extreme nationalism). Goethe turns his back on the national; he stresses the universal, or at least the European common roots. He sees a humanity plagued by barbarity and always poised to sink back into it at times of political crisis. He praises as noble those who resist such a temptation, who are moved by a religious spirit but not captive to an excessive celebration of tradition, and who see in humankind the prospect of something greater and better than its current state. Iphigenie is about this civilizing force, and indeed the character of Iphigenie herself is its embodiment.
- Harper's Magazine