Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Elective Affinities : Johann Goethe and Thomas Browne

Today on the 270th anniversary of the birth of  Johann Goethe (August 28th 1749-1832) its exciting to reveal and elaborate upon the fascinating relationship between the brightest star of German literature to the English physician-philosopher Thomas Browne (1605-82). 

Goethe and Browne were  both polymaths who shared a lifelong interest in topics as diverse as botany, anatomy, optics and antiquity. They also held a shared interest in esoteric topics such as Neoplatonism, Pythagorean numerology and alchemy; subjects vital to their scientific thinking and which influenced their literary symbolism.

Goethe and Browne's affinity in anatomical and botanical studies is remarkably close; for example, whilst Browne acquired the skeletal leg-bone of an elephant for his anatomy studies, Goethe somehow acquired an elephant's skull for study; whilst Browne's botanical studies included sea-holly, a plant found on Norfolk’s coastal sand-dunes, Goethe made botanical observations on sea-holly found on the sand-dunes of the Venice lido.

In his botanical studies Goethe  developed the theory that the characteristics from which all plants grow are variations which are modelled upon a prototype plant or Urpflanze. His theory that Nature follows a pre-ordained pattern, or  'inner form' is in accordance with the popular early nineteenth century German school of Naturphilosophie.Writing in terms comparable to Goethe's Urpflanze or 'Prototype plant' of German Naturphilosophie Browne  in Religio Medici proposed that nature has an invisible, prototype 'inner form' thus-

'In the seed of a Plant to the eyes of God, and to the understanding of man, there exists, though in an invisible way, the perfect leaves, flowers, and fruit thereof'.  [1]

German Naturphilosophie adhered to the Renaissance belief that Creation consists of a hierarchical ladder, as described by Browne thus -

'First we are a rude mass, we live the life of plants, the life of animals, the life of men, and at last the life of spirits, running on in one mysterious nature those five kinds of existences, which comprehend the creatures not only of the world, but of the Universe' [2].

German Naturphilosophie based itself upon the rigid numerical system of five 'evolutionary' forms of life, from there being five senses, five planets and from the many references to the number five in the Bible.  A full century and half earlier Browne in The Garden of Cyrus (1658) celebrated  'fiveness' in  Art and Nature via the quincunx pattern. Browne's idea that Nature is permeated by the number of five may have originated either from his reading of Della Porta's Villa (1592) in which the quincunx is stated to be a universal archetype  or simply from his noticing that many flowers consist of five petals. The Garden of Cyrus includes numerous sharp-eyed observations, and names in total over 140 herbs, flowers, trees and plants. 

German Naturphilosophie held the pre-Darwinian belief that Nature possesses an 'inner form' , a belief which is central to both Goethe's and Browne's botanical studies. Goethe's theory that Nature has a fixed, pre-ordained 'Inner Form' was asserted a full century and half earlier by Browne in Religio Medici (1643).

'I hold moreover that there is a phytognomy, or physiognomy, not only of men, but of plants and vegetables; and in every one of them some outward figures which hang as signs of their inward forms. [3]

The two early scientists also shared an interest in Optics; Goethe, as is well-known, stubbornly refuted Newton's theory of Colour, and his motivation for challenging Newton's discoveries remains much discussed. His Fahrenlehre (Theory of Colours) was not received as favourably by the scientific community as its author had hoped. Browne's own study of optics resulted in strikingly original optical imagery in his literary works.

For Goethe science was a source of imaginative insight which had developed from poetry;  the hasty, breathless, fractured tone of an early draught and the published text of Browne's Garden of Cyrus strongly suggests the physician-philosopher's detection of an archetype in nature, the Quincunx pattern, may,  like Goethe's  scientific insights, have originated from a sudden, quasi-poetical, vision.

Browne's mystical insight that the Quincunx pattern embodies the mysteries of nature is not so dissimilar from Goethe's Fahrenlehre (Theory of Colours)  in which the German scientist wanders into contemplation on symbols, in particular the triangle and  the hexagon, thus-

'Colour may have a mystical allusion....The mathematician extols the value and applicability of the triangle; the triangle is revered by mystics;  much admits of being expressed in it by diagrams, and amongst other things, the law of the phenomena of colours: indeed we presently arrive at the ancient mysterious hexagon'.

But as the American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and historian of science Stephen Jay Gould (1941 - 2002) stated -

'The human mind delights in finding pattern - so much so that we often mistake coincidence or forced analogy for profound meaning'.

In the preface to his Origin of Species (1859) Charles Darwin included Goethe as one who in some way or other anticipated his own ideas. But it was also Darwin who destroyed the 'rule of five' theory of German Naturphilosophie. Before Darwin Creation theories were represented by Classical deities, notably Neptunism and Vulcanism to represent life's origins. Goethe subscribed to the view that life evolved from the element of water, as symbolised by the sea-god Neptune.  However, its the Roman god of fire Vulcan who held significance to Browne, utilizing highly-original proper-name symbolism he alludes to the Roman god in The Garden of Cyrus, in opening, second chapter and apotheosis closing chapter .

Recent scientific evidence suggests life's origins may in fact be a combination of fire and water. Fossil remains of microbes which colonised deep sea hydrothermal volcanic vents more than three billion years ago have been discovered in a region of Western Australia which was once covered by ocean.

Science for Goethe was, equally for Browne, a source of revelation which permitted the enquirer, 'to see how and where God reveals himself that is heaven on earth'. Goethe's scientific outlook has been described as peculiar for being neither inductive or deductive. As an 'intuitive' scientist, one who was suspicious of systems and mathematics in science, his scientific views, like Browne's, have been questioned.

Goethe has been described as - 'one of the last of the universal scientific minds still able to encompass the whole of nature'  and as 'a pantheistic poet wanting to create in science also'. His science has been defined as, 'Platonic ideas in the mind of a creative spirit', all of which is equally applicable to the pre-Newtonian, scientific enquiry of Thomas Browne. An accurate assessment of Goethe's science by John. R. Williams and also applicable to Browne's science, states -

'Goethe's science is an integral part of his life and work,  its flaws are those both of the man and of the age, of his personality and of the current state of knowledge'. [4]

* * * * *

However much  previously overlooked, misunderstood or denied,  both Goethe and Browne were extremely well-versed in esoteric topics such as Hermetic philosophy, Neoplatonism, the kabbalah and alchemy. This deep interest in esotericism influenced their scientific and philosophical thinking as well as their literary creativity.

Goethe first came into contact with esoteric literature while recuperating from a mystery illness during his adolescence when his doctor introduced the budding poet to the occultist circle of Fraulein von Klettenberg. Klettenberg encouraged the young poet to read the esoteric writings of Paracelsus, Boehme and Bruno. However, Goethe's interest in the occult waned once recovered, but in a letter to Klettenberg dated August 26 1770 he wrote, -'Alchemy is still my veiled love' and of her recommendation to read Agrippa the budding poet confessed - 'it set my young brains on fire for a considerable time'.

In 1786 Goethe read Christian Rosenkreutz's allegorical tale The Chymical Wedding which may well have been the inspiration for him to write his Marchen fairy-tale of 1795. Goethe's Tale of the Green Snake and the White Lily is crowded with references to various esoteric beliefs and veiled allusions to the Egyptian mysteries of Isis and Osiris, the cults of Typhon and Horus, the Vision of Zosimus, and the Gnostic Naassenes.  

Goethe found in alchemical terminology apt figures of speech which he utilized in his writings. He once stated, ‘If one deals with the poetic side of alchemy with an open mind it leads to very pleasant reflections’.

Elsewhere, in a statement allusive to the primary template of much esoteric thought, that of polarity or opposites, Goethe declared -

'To sever the conjoined, to unite the severed, that is the life of Nature; that  is the eternal drawing together and relaxing, the eternal syncrisis and diacris'. 

Goethe's allusion to Nature's forces drawing together and separating, strongly resembles the polarity of the alchemical maxim 'solve et coagula'  to dissolve and bind, a fact not unnoticed by a younger English contemporary, the poet and scholar Coleridge (1772-1834).  An enthusiastic admirer of Thomas Browne, Coleridge in 1818 speculated-

Sometimes, it seems as if the alchemists wrote like the Pythagoreans on music, imagining a metaphysical and inaudible music as the basis of the audible. It is clear that by sulphur they meant the solar rays or light, and by mercury the principle of ponderability, so that their theory was the same with that of the Heraclitic physics, or the modern German Naturphilosophie, which deduces all things from light and gravitation, each being bipolar; gravitation = north and south, or attraction and repulsion: light = east and west, or contraction and dilation; [5]

German 'Naturphilosophie' advocated the principle of polarity or opposition, one of the last attempts to reconcile the symbolism of the alchemists to modern chemistry. In Polarity, that is oppositions in nature, German 'Naturphilosophers' perceived the rhythm of the Universe.

As long ago as 1895 the critic R.M.Meyer in the Goethe Jahrbuch proposed that German Naturphilosophie resembled Browne's 'inner form' and that the Swiss theologian Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) may have recommended Browne's Religio Medici to Goethe. [6] Browne spiritual testament was first translated into German in 1746. Lavater read it enthusiastically, primarily for its assertive physiognomic statements, such as-

'there are mystically in our faces certain characters which carry in them the motto of our souls, wherein he that cannot read A.B.C.may read our natures'. [7]

Physiognomy,  the questionable belief that the human face can be interpreted is mentioned in each of Browne's major literary works; as an unreliable, yet theoretical diagnostic tool for physicians, Browne's interest in physiognomy was kindled from his reading the Italian polymath Giambattista Della Porta's (1535-1615)  Celestial Physiognomy.

Lavater vigorously promoted physiognomy, became a famous author on the subject and was subsequently shunned by a skeptical Goethe. It remains unknown as to whether or not Goethe read Browne's Religio Medici.

Goethe's many esoteric interests included numerology which originated from his admittance, shortly before his residence in Weimar, to the Order of the Illuminati, whose teachings were based upon Pythagoras. In his novel Der Wahlverwandtscaften (Elective Affinities) of 1809. Goethe describes the number five as - 'a beautiful odd, sacred number'. Browne's own interest in numerology is admitted frankly in Religio Medici thus - ' I have often admired the mystical way of Pythagoras, and the secret magic of  numbers.'  [8]

In essence, Goethe's personal philosophy was not unlike Browne's, home-spun, flexible and idiosyncratic. In his semi-autobiographical Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) Goethe confessed -

'Neoplatonism lay at the foundation of my personal religion, the hermetical, the  mystical, the cabalistic, also contributed their share; and thus I built for myself a world that looked strange enough'.

The restless scholar Faust in Goethe's tragic drama shares some psychological traits to those exhibited by the newly qualified Doctor Browne.  After completing many years of study at Oxford and abroad at the Universities of Padua, Montpellier and Leiden, Browne utters as wearily as Faust -

'There is yet another conceit that hath sometimes made me shut my books; which tells me it is a vanity to waste our days in the blind pursuit of knowledge'. [9]

Not unlike Faust, Browne expresses occasional, intense spiritual angst in Religio Medici.

'I feel sometimes a hell within myself, Lucifer keeps his court in my breast'.  [10]

Faust, not unlike the enquiring Browne, yearns in his study of Nature for, 'a glance into the earth! To see below its dark foundations / Life's embryo seeds before their birth / And Nature's silent operations'. [11] 

In his quest for forbidden knowledge Faust 'ponders over spells and signs, symbolic letters, circles and signs'. Such hieroglyphs fascinated Browne who declared -

'surely the Heathens knew better how to join and read these mystical letters than we Christians, who cast a more careless eye on these common Hieroglyphics'. [12]

Although Browne's confessional shares traits exhibited by Goethe's Faust it departs abruptly from it once the pact is made between Faust and Mephistopheles. Browne located Mephistopheles as dwelling internally rather than externally, stating - 'The heart of man is the place the devil dwells in'. [13]

Browne's Christian faith lays at the heart of his medical practise, enquiries into nature and even his rare excursions into the literary world.  Goethe however held an ambiguous and luke-warm opinion of Christianity, objecting to the clanging sound of church-bells in particular.

Whilst Browne's Urn-Burial shares Goethe's antiquarian interests, The Garden of Cyrus shares a number of thematic and symbolic traits to Goethe's late masterpiece Faust II.  As digressive and disjointed in its construction as Goethe's drama and in its associative thought and imagery, with little concern of intelligibility to its reader, it too employs proper-names from Greek mythology to represent scientific and psychological speculations.

During their long, settled, and relatively undisturbed lives, Goethe and Browne became extremely well-read, not only in the scientific advances of their era, but also in Classics of Greek and Roman literature, as the catalogues of their respective libraries reveal. The Classical world, especially Ancient Greece, with its scientific discoveries was for both scholars of great interest and both display a thorough knowledge of Classical literature. The same symbolic names can be found in their respective yet neglected works of fantasy, Faust II and The Garden of Cyrus.

The Greek mythological god Proteus is a good example of a symbolic name shared by the two literary figures. In Cyrus Proteus is 'the symbol of the first mass' whilst  in Faust II   Proteus represents organic metamorphosis. The warrior Achilles, the wanderer Ulysses and the nature-god Pan are also mentioned in both works, as is Greek philosopher and botanist Theophrastus, the first to attempt to categorise plants. But  perhaps above others it may be the Greek god Apollo ruler of beauty of form, order, prophecy, medicine and music who represents symbolic significance and artistic importance to both literary polymaths.

Browne's survey of the artistic, natural, botanical and mystical precedents of the Quincunx  in The Garden of Cyrus may be described in Goethe's words as a delight in-
'Formation, transformation, The eternal Mind's eternal delectation' [14] 

The learned doctor in a drowsy soliloquy concluding The Garden of Cyrus observes that, 'the phantasms of sleep which often continueth precogitations making cables of cobwebs', alerts one to Faust's meditation that -

'How logical and clear the daylight seems
Till the night weaves us in its web of dreams'.

This shared imagery of dreams and  the illusory web is evidence that, like the alchemists before them, Goethe and Browne utilized highly-charged poetic symbolism in their attempt to portray  the unconscious psyche.

Goethe's monumental drama Faust held great meaning to C.G.Jung. For the Swiss psychologist Faust is a work which from its beginning to end is full of alchemical themes and imagery. C.G.Jung even regarded his work on alchemy as a sign of his inner relationship to Goethe and never suppressed or denied the persistent rumour that his grandfather was an illegitimate offspring of Goethe's.

Jung often referred to Goethe's drama Faust in order to amplify a psychological observation.  Of Part II of Faust  he stated -

'The second part of  Faust, was more than a literary exercise. It is a link in the Aurea Catena (The Golden or Homeric Chain in alchemy is the series of great wise men, beginning with Hermes Trismegistus, which links earth with heaven) which has existed from the beginnings of philosophical alchemy and Gnosticism down to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra. Unpopular, ambiguous, and dangerous, it is a voyage of discovery to the other pole of the world. [15]  

Although Goethe's Faust Part I and Browne's Urn-Burial are firmly established works of world literature, their respective, other halves, Faust II and The Garden of Cyrus have baffled and perplexed most readers, resulting in neither work achieving the popularity of their counterparts.

However, 'though overlooked by all', Goethe's dramatic works, Faust parts 1 and II have a remarkable relationship to Browne's Urn-Burial  and The Garden of Cyrus.  For just as  Urn-Burial and The Garden of Cyrus are structured upon the time-honoured schemata of Hermeticism, namely the polarity of Microcosm and Macrocosm, so too are Goethe's Faust I and II 

In conversation with Eckermann Goethe provided clues for employing the concept of polarity in the 'conjoining of Faust I with 'the second part of the tragedy' as he termed it.

'Not all our experiences can be expressed in the round and directly communicated. For this reason I have chosen the means of revealing the more secret meanings to attentive hearts by creative formations which face each other and mirror each other'.

Goethe's understanding of the alchemical quest for Unity necessitated that the 'small world' or Microcosm of Part 1 of Faust, with its subjective world of Faust's love for Gretchen, needed to be balanced with the larger objective world or Macrocosm of Part 2 which, as it wanders through time and space, concludes with Faust's redemption.

Browne's diptych discourses also adhere to the basic tenet of Hermeticism, that of the correspondence between Microcosm and Macrocosm.  Just as Urn-Burial's concern is the earth-bound 'little world' of Man, his suffering, mortality, unknowingness and death, in essence the Microcosm,  The Garden of Cyrus in complete symmetry and polarity features many examples of the Eternal forms and  astral imagery of the heavens, the Macrocosm no less. Equally, just as Faust I concerns itself with the small, little world of man so too the extraordinary settings ranging through time and space of Faust II represent the Macrocosm at large.   As with Goethe’s literary diptych so too with Browne’s diptych Discourses. Only when 'conjoining' the two respective halves of each literary work can  one fully understand and appreciate their total artistic vision.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

Goethe's many duties and social life in the Weimar Court, his travels and love-affairs, mark him  a much worldlier person than the devout physician. Ultimately Goethe was a humanist, his message being – He who strives on and lives to strive can earn redemption still. Thomas Browne was likewise affirmative of all that is good in man, asserting  - 

'Me thinkes there is no man bad, and the worst, best; that is, while they are kept within the circle of those qualities, wherein they are good:there is no mans mind of such discordant and jarring a temper to which a tuneable disposition may not strike a harmony.  [16] 

Julian Huxley in Religion without Revelation (1967) nominated Goethe, alongside Blake, Wordsworth, Thomas Browne and Dante as, 'one of the immortal spirits waiting to introduce the reader to his own unique and intense experience of reality'. Today Goethe and Thomas Browne are remembered not so much for their scientific endeavours but for the originality of their literary creativity.  Through their respective literary creations both writers have bequeathed their own special vision of Humanity and reality which distinguishes them as 'Universal Citizens', or 'World Sages'.  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, like Browne before him, belongs to the category of men to whom the improvement of Mankind was a deep concern. Goethe's science and literary creativity has a close, if little recognised elective affinity to Thomas Browne’s.

[1] R.M.Part I:50
[2] R.M Part 1:34
[3] R.M. Part 2:2

[4] The Life of Goethe: A Critical Biography by John R. Williams pub. John Wiley  and Sons Ltd. Blackwell 2001
[5] Lecture notes of 1818 Lecture XII Miscellaneous criticism Collected works of Coleridge
[6] Richard Meyer 'Zur inner form?' Goethe Jahrbuch 1895 vol. 16 pp. 190 - 191
[7] R.M.Part 2:2
[8] R.M.Part I.12
[9] R.M.Part 2:8
[10] R.M.I:51
[11] Faust Part I Night
[12] R.M.Part 1:16
[13] R.M. Ibid
[14]  Faust Part 2  ed. David Luke Oxford University Press 2008  lines 6287-8
[15]  Memories, Dreams, Reflections C.G.Jung  chapter 6
[16] R.M. 2 :11