Guided by Goethe

I had the pleasure of attending a talk entitled “Goethe: Past & Present” that was co-sponsored by the Aspen Institute’s Society of Fellows and the Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork. The talk was given by nationally renowned Goethe Scholar and University of Michigan professor Dr. Frederick Amrine. The talk took place in a private Aspen home and was moderated by local Goethe historian Steven Wickes.

The evening’s topic, Goethe past and present, is one that is close to the heart of Aspen residents as it is well known that the Aspen Institute was initially called the Goethe Institute. It was christened in 1949 with a convocation speech given by the late great Dr. Albert Schweitzer, marking the only occasion he would visit America, displaying the great respect which he held for Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his way of thinking.

But Schweitzer wasn’t the only great thinker of that time who held Goethe in such high regard. The Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner discovered Goethe’s unique method of thinking when asked at the age of 28 to edit Goethe’s scientific writings by the Goethe Society in Weimar Germany, a task that took him several years to complete.

Steven Wickes’ comfort with his task as moderator gave a warmth and humorous sincerity to the evening’s Q&A between he and Dr. Amrine, who told us that Goethe shouldn’t be considered a German philosopher per se but rather a thinker of cosmopolitan proportions, whose breadth of knowledge moved beyond the nationalism of his own country to embrace a broader understanding of human nature in general.

Dr. Amrine was asked what he thought Goethe would think of the Aspen Idea as it is expressed today as human flourishing, doing good and living well. Cutting to the chase Amrine said that a new method of thinking needs to be learned if Goethe’s way of perceiving man and nature is to lead the way into this 21st century. Goethe’s synthetic way of thinking — and by this Dr. Amrine meant synthetic as bringing together parts, synthesizing and fusing them into a whole picture — is what is required to balance out the numbing effects of our analytic technological age.

Questions from the audience turned to education and the STEM approach, to which Dr. Amrine replied that its approach to the intellect would be appropriate in the high school curriculum but before that, a more imaginative and inspired method of learning should happen. He said Goethe would be very taken by Rudolf Steiner’s Waldorf pedagogy and how it educates the body, soul and spirit of the child, addressing their thinking, feeling and will in a developmental manner appropriate at each age. This synthetic approach to education is what is needed more of, Dr Amrine said, if Goethe’s world view is to be updated to present day.

Charles Andrade