An Animated Introduction to Goethe, Germany’s “Renaissance Man”

We all know the name Goethe — some of us even know the full name, Johann Wolf­gang von Goethe. I’ve nev­er lived in the renowned 18th- and 19th-cen­tu­ry writer, politi­cian, and cul­tur­al poly­math­’s home­land of Ger­many, but even when I lived in Los Ange­les, I reg­u­lar­ly went to my local branch of the Goethe-Insti­tute for Ger­man cul­tur­al events. Even in Korea, where I live now, Goethe has left a wide if shal­low mark: you can see The Sor­rows of Young Werther in the form of an elab­o­rate stage musi­cal, for instance, and buy almost all the goods you need in life from the enor­mous con­glom­er­ate named after the young lady on whom Werther con­cen­trates his doomed affec­tions, Lotte.

But why, more than 180 years after Goethe’s death, does his name still come up in so many dif­fer­ent con­texts? And giv­en that, why do so many of us know so lit­tle about his long, var­ied, col­or­ful, and high­ly pro­duc­tive life and career? This sounds like a job for the video wing of Alain de Bot­ton’s School of Life, whose short primers con­tin­ue to bring us up to speed on why the lega­cies of so many cul­tur­al fig­ures (with one sec­tion giv­en over to the lit­er­ary) have endured, or should endure. “Goethe is one of the great minds of Euro­pean civil­i­sa­tion, though his work is large­ly unknown out­side of the Ger­man speak­ing coun­tries,” says de Bot­ton in their video on Goethe: “He deserves our renewed atten­tion.”

To fill out the details pro­vid­ed in the School of Life’s video, you can read an overview of Goethe’s career (includ­ing details on the prop­er pro­nun­ci­a­tion of his name) in the accom­pa­ny­ing Book of Life entry online. It tells the sto­ry of not just Young Werther’s cre­ator, but “one of Europe’s big cul­tur­al heroes – com­pa­ra­ble to the likes of Shake­speare, Dante and Homer,” skilled in let­ters, of course, but also in “phys­i­ol­o­gy, geol­o­gy, botany and optics,” who also spent stretch­es of his career as “a diplo­mat, fash­ion guru, a senior civ­il ser­vant, a pornog­ra­ph­er, the head of a uni­ver­si­ty, a fine artist, an adven­tur­ous trav­eller, the direc­tor of a the­atre com­pa­ny and the head of a min­ing com­pa­ny.”

We might call Goethe, inso­far as he devel­oped his own mas­tery, span­ning so much of the human expe­ri­ence, a Renais­sance man out of time — but one who, in his way, out­did even the actu­al men of the Renais­sance. “We have so much to learn from him,” adds the Book of Life. “We don’t often hear peo­ple declar­ing a wish to be a lit­tle more like ‘Goethe.’ But if we did, the world would be a more vibrant and humane place.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Goethe’s The­o­ry of Col­ors: The 1810 Trea­tise That Inspired Kandin­sky & Ear­ly Abstract Paint­ing

The Tale of the Fox: Watch Ladis­las Starevich’s Ani­ma­tion of Goethe’s Great Ger­man Folk­tale (1937)

The Death Masks of Great Authors: Dante, Goethe, Tol­stoy, Joyce & More

Har­ry Clarke’s 1926 Illus­tra­tions of Goethe’s Faust: Art That Inspired the Psy­che­del­ic 60s

Eugène Delacroix Illus­trates Goethe’s Faust, “One of the Very Great­est of All Illus­trat­ed Books”

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. He’s at work on a book about Los Ange­les, A Los Ange­les Primer, the video series The City in Cin­e­ma, the crowd­fund­ed jour­nal­ism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Ange­les Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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