Moral Philosophy

Ethics Part 10: The Legacies of Kant and Goethe and the German Enlightenment


Frederick II, (1712 – 1786) was King of Prussia. Called “The Great” and “Old Fritz,” he was a powerful prince who sponsored the growth of arts and sciences across the entire spectrum of learning. As a military leader and statesman, he was among the greats and doubtless the people of Lithuania and Poland had less respectful and avuncular names for one who solidified Prussian rule in their countries. The German Enlightenment owed much to his interests both for what it did and did not dare to know. During the mid-1700’s to the early 1800’s Germany, Prussia and Austria moved almost overnight from being somewhat of a cultural backwater to world leaders in arts and sciences. Frederick got involved himself and wrote and received letters from Kant and other leading lights among his own subjects but also Voltaire, Rousseau and other big names of Enlightenment thought in other countries. His interests included esotericism and he was publicly Lutheran while also a Freemason and a proponent of Rosicrucianism (which was a Lutheran version of Freemasonry with a similarly invented past) and Illuminism that all provided a paganized neo-Platonic subtext and symbolism that became both an underground pseudo-religion and vade mecum for the intelligentsia which can be seen in Mozart’s operas (The Magic Flute, The Marriage of Figaro) and the poetry and drama of Goethe (Faust). These societies were the legatees of Renaissance Magi including Ficino and della Mirandola as well as Kabbalist and Gnostic fellow travelers whose work explored what was known to Newtonians but also what was forbidden to the orthodoxy both among devotees of older religions and the newer monks of “science.” Frederick personally censured Kant for talking out of school in his Religion Within the Bounds of Reason Alone. Frederick did not have a problem with free thinkers like Goethe pushing the boundaries of sense and sensibility but did take issue when noted professional philosophers stepped across the boundaries of pure reason and weighed in on the matters of faith. Such was the eccentricity of the age, but it meant that the realm was still essentially conservative and far from being ready to accept what might be construed as atheism from academics on the public payroll. Biblical scholarship flourished here as nowhere else. During this time, textual and historical criticism challenged what was commonly believed about the stories in The Bible, including proving that Moses could not have written the Pentateuch but rather that the first five books of The Bible are a mashup of various sources from different times and places. Scholars also took a critical look at the New Testament and suggested that Jesus, whatever else he was, was not the inventor of Christianity as it stood then but was a Jewish reformer whose death probably had more to do with creating a disturbance in The Temple than whether or not anyone in his day took seriously claims that he was The (One and Only) Son of God, which he himself may never have uttered. The work of these critical thinkers shaped how academics in other disciplines, including physical sciences and aesthetics, looked at problems. At this time the breaking apart of disciplines into walled gardens was just starting to happen and scholasticism, while never absent from universities, had not yet dictated firmly that only specialists and rigorists who had claims of certainty in their field could have anything to say about their subject and otherwise needed to stick to their knitting. It was the work of Kant and his followers who advanced this agenda most completely, whereas Goethe, who was both a literary and scientific superstar rather than an academic, went in a completely different direction. One of the greatest ironies of history is that the man who was and is known as the greatest German ever was not a stuffed shirt, invented much of what the West later “knew” about the mind, art and nature, and was not a professional academician; whereas the man who is generally thought to be the greatest philosopher Europe produced after the classical era created a system that generated obfuscation, made impenetrable writing a requirement for “serious” philosophy from then on and yet his work is plagued by internal contradiction while claiming certainty and completeness as a way of knowing (see Walter Kaufmann’s Goethe, Kant & Hegel). At the same time, Kant is considered the apotheosis of the German Enlightenment who made critical advances in the theory of knowledge and moral philosophy that formed the bases both of subsequent liberal Protestant theology and much of what underpins modern philosophy of science. What is most often appreciated about Kant is that his Critique of Pure Reason represented a mighty attempt to reconcile experience and reason to overcome the limits of both radical skepticism, a la Hume, and a rationality that is an unreal exercise in manipulating symbols without real significance. Less often appreciated is that Kant was a supporter of The French Revolution whose intellectual hero was Rousseau, not Hume, and who believed that faith in mankind and Providence went hand in hand. The difference between what was happening in France and German speaking lands was largely that both Pietism and the new Romanticism were strongly individual focused, which led back in the direction of myth and away from the inclination to confuse contempt for the corruption of officialdom with being done with any kind of spiritual and universal connection to the past. Less pressing there was the weight of atheistic materialism or the presumption that this would correct the excesses of enthusiasm without bringing about still greater horrors. Goethe not only created an antidote to ponderous academic pseudo-rigor, he also was a pivotal figure in the Romantic movement, with its emphasis on feeling and individual connection to the sublime. Goethe, and later Nietzsche, were “world beat” rather than German-centric and believed that culture was a human endowment, not a product of a particular race. Many scholars, Cassirer among them, would later blame the development of a sick version of German nationalism on this return to “mythology” and movement away from “reason.” What they miss to this day is that total war began in earnest with Sherman’s march and treating people as means, not ends (as Kant’s ethics correctly condemns) while placing naïve faith in the state and various totems of central authority including Marxist-Leninist “scientific socialism” which together would ultimately result in the deaths of hundreds of millions of people, mostly at the hands of their own governments. The remainder of this post will explore in a cursory way how the work of Goethe and Kant collided and what this meant for Western culture in general and moral philosophy in particular.


German immigrants to the United States in the 19th Century who were known for sweeping stoops and being law abiding managed to name streets from Buffalo to Chicago after Goethe who was a cultural trail blazer and radical. His magnum opus Faust, on which he worked for decades, better resembles a more refined Rocky Horror Picture Show than it does a medieval morality play or for that matter any of the other versions of the story save for the first half of Berlioz’ Damnation of Faust, both in its humor and its take on human existence. Goethe’s life was a testament to how much one might do who is committed to always testing himself and striving for excellence in a way that is not satisfied or accepting of changelessness. For Goethe, Lessing’s comment struck home and was a launch pad and ultimately a summary of his life:

“The true value of man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectability (sic) is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent and proud. If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand.”

Goethe not only wrote the greatest poetry and prose in German but also contributed mightily to science, not only by his own effort but also for the inspiration he gave to associates including Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt (see The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf). Goethe’s view of science as an ever-unfolding process of change was a powerful influence on those whose work led in a somewhat crooked line to Darwin and the evolutionary idea that was as world-shaking as Copernicus’ cosmological shift. Goethe’s science is not out of line with the experimentalism of Rutherford or Maxwell.

Goethe was all about action and thinking for oneself. He had little use for navel gazing, especially as a profession. His Faust said it best, referring to the dreaded Proktophantasmist on Walpurgisnacht (translated by Walter Kaufman):

“Oh he!, You find him everywhere,

What others dance, he must assess;

No step has really occurred, unless

His chatter has been duly said,

And what annoys him most, is when we get ahead,

If you would turn in circles, in endless repetition,

As he does all the time in his old mill,

Perhaps he would not take it ill,

Especially if you would first get his permission.”

Goethe might have been referring to Kant here, as well as poking fun at a certain literary critic, but he certainly is lambasting the ponderous academic idiom Kant inherited from Wolff that universities and their apostles have perpetuated down to the present.

Whereas William Blake reached directly into the unconscious for his prophetic style as almost nobody else ever has in the modern age, his claiming Milton and by extension all creators are of the devil’s party was in line with Goethe’s idea. However, the character of Mephistopheles is not Goethe’s ideal nor is he an autobiographical sketch. Goethe was not against reason and did not hold science in contempt. He simply didn’t agree with the Newtonian version as being the only or best representation of what science could be. His was a more holistic and one might even say organic view. At the same time, he shared Blake’s contempt for moralizers in general but especially the species of church folk who denied life and creativity for the sake of good behavior that really represented public posturing, the elevation of cowardice or the absence of opportunity. In this regard he was the intellectual godfather of Nietzsche, who was happy to skip over Kant and most of the philosophy that followed in his wake.


The central problem that runs throughout the work of Immanuel Kant is this: how can men be “free” in a world that Newton showed us is built with mathematical precision where everything is predictable and nothing happens by accident? In effect, how can one reasonably reconcile a world that would seem to be deterministic with the requirement that individuals have moral agency if their lives are to have value beyond being mere meat machines? While aspects of what Kant created as a result were novel, he ultimately “denied reason to make room for faith,” having been unable to reconcile his biblical deontological ethics with his understanding of the science of the world and the mind. Echoes of this dilemma and quest to find the God beyond religion can be found in the comment by Einstein that “God doesn’t play dice with the universe,” as well as Stephen Hawking’s search for the theory of everything. . . a single algorithm that would comprise the mind of God. That the foundation of what Einstein and Hawking were doing was essentially Kabbalistic Jewish morality and metaphysics that was in no way dependent on either Cartesian well formed formuli or experimental verification seemed to be lost on these great thinkers and most of their followers.

Kant claimed that Hume jolted him out of a dogmatic slumber induced by Leibniz and Wolff’s rationalism, but if there is one other thinker he most looked up to it was Rousseau whose portrait was the only art hanging on the walls of Kant’s modest and simple home. Kant believed Rousseau had it right with his idea of the general will and that the development of a mass consciousness would ultimately result in world government and perpetual peace. This dream, which has befuddled revolutionists from 18th century France to the present, represents a kind of hubris that mere mythologizers and story tellers could never approach.

Among philosophical idealists Kant’s most salient early to mid-19th century German successors included Hegel and Schopenhauer. Kant’s work provided ground-work both formally and spiritually not only for academic philosophy but also for both sympathetic and antagonistic critics of Christianity like Kierkegaard and Feuerbach and also created the paradigms for all systematic theology to come. Paul Tillich was perhaps the 20th Century’s most exemplary liberal protestant theologian. His notion of the God beyond God and the courage to be drew proximately from the existence philosophy of Heidegger and Jaspers but no less vitally from the patterns and framework of Kant’s system as laid down in his three critiques. Kant’s system was no less important for the development of the neo-orthodoxies of Karl Barth and Martin Buber.

Kant’s ethics as explored in the 2nd and 3rd Critiques along with the Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics and The Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals are about duty. Kant’s moral philosophy is usually reduced to two salient features. His Categorical Imperative says we must act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law. This means don’t do things that you think make you special and don’t apply to others. Your being a member of the aristocracy or having victim status due to some local legal peculiarity do not exempt you from the duty to be human. The second feature is treat people as ends in themselves, not means to ends. This means don’t be a sociopath. Kant’s moral philosophy is essentially stoic and universalist. He does not hold with relativistic notions of culture or time. His view is about duty, rather than self-interest, in sharp contrast to Bentham or J.S. Mill whose Utilitariansm became the default ethics of a modern philosophy that would soon find itself disconnected from its ethical basis and heritage and would for practical purpose become largely irrelevant. Walter Kaufman says Kant’s ethics is Mosaic rather than post-enlightenment. For Kaufman, Kant got away with oracular pronouncements because readers had already been conditioned to confuse bad writing with rigor. When you strip away the page long sentences and get down to brass tacks, what Kant is saying is not so very different from the aesthetic moral sense of Shaftesbury or the attempts to reintegrate the reason to live a moral life with what we know about the nature of being from Leibniz or for that matter the Cambridge Neo-Platonists and Common-Sense Philosophers. A key difference between Kant and Goethe, with Blake and later Nietzsche lining up on the side of the latter, is whether we need to see beyond mere good and evil to appreciate what is most critical to our being whole persons. In this regard the existentialists and depth psychologists especially Jung were more in the camp of Goethe than that of Kant and more with the analogous Taoists over against the Confucians of the Kantian tradition. For much of what came later, moral relativism and the absence of any universal ground for human goodness became a given. The strength of Kant’s ethics was that it foresaw this and provided a powerful alternative, albeit spuriously connected to his ideas about problems of knowledge which are narrowly viewed as his greatest contribution divorced from what he thought was his most important issue: namely why people matter at all as beings with moral agency and the possibility of individual and collective improvement.

Where This Takes Ethics

While Kant’s ethics are essentially Unitarian, if not exactly Spinozist, and Biblical rather than consistent with his own conception of the categories of reason in the First Critique, that doesn’t make him wrong. The best Kant scholars, such as Cassirer, have pointed out that you can’t just read the Cliff Notes on The Critique of Pure Reason and be done with Kant. Goethe’s idea of always striving is more consistent with how most people would like to see themselves today. That doesn’t mean his viewpoint is less Enlightenment oriented than Kant’s. If anything, Goethe was more committed to the notion of human autonomy and self-improvement than his contemporary but his idea is far more like Diderot’s and less like Newton’s. He was simply not weighed down by trying to reconcile the irreconcilable contraries of a rigidly pre-determined and unchanging world view with belief in the potential given humans by nature that extends well beyond what we might call reason. Goethe, like a Taoist, had no special need for ethics and didn’t much believe that people really did or could live by maxims. Kant, on the other hand, was a dyed-in-the-wool follower of Rousseau and successor to Leibniz who wanted the world to be at peace and thought that figuring out the system of everything by which the world and our minds worked was the key. The failing in the Enlightenment, at least according to orthodox theologians like Barth, is that it puts too much faith in our own ability to correct what is wrong with us both individually and as political organizations and too little in the divine spirit that directs affairs (Providence) and the active participation of that which gives life to all of us in our continued existence or chances for ultimate redemption. For them, it is the Law that came from the Mountain along with the sacrifice God makes for us that matter. Practical ethics is therefore like the 12 step process of Alcoholics Anonymous that works if and only if it starts from surrender to what is absolute, however the individual conceives of this. Inability to confront this moral failing is the catastrophe of modern man and not the return to pre-rational mythologizing. An ethics of information that proceeds from the uncritical assumption that moderns must be relativistic and utilitarian since Hume “killed” natural rights theory (Not!) misses what is best in both Kant and Goethe without resolving what is unique to each and challenging to the other. To protect people you must be able to see them as ends, not means. You must also have a place to stand that is not quicksand. At the same time, you must not fall for the illusion that you must know best because you have some book, tradition or system based authority that backs you up. In that sense we are each on our own. Our souls must guide us because that is what is unique to each of us but common to us all. We mostly act based on the wellspring of our unconscious with our consciousness as rationalizer after the fact. This does not excuse us from making the effort to be reasonable and empathetic, nor does it prove that ancient insights about what makes us human are meaningless because, well, “science.”

By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

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