Sunday, September 9, 2018

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

While reading a volume of The Story of Civilization by Durant, I’ve spent the last few days reading about the life of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, perhaps the greatest poet of the eighteen and nineteenth century. I’ve found most of his writing quoted by Durant as fascinating as any I’ve read.

At his death he left a confused mass of writings which were published as his Opus postumumin 1882-84. In one of these he described the “thing-in-itself”—the unknowable substratum behind phenomena and ideas—as “not a real thing . . . not an existing reality, but merely a principle . . . of the synthetic a priori knowledge of the manifold sense-intuition. He named it Gedankending, a thing existing only in our thoughts. And he applied the same skepticism to the idea of God:

God is not a substance existing outside me, but merely a moral relation within me. . . . The categorical imperative does not assume a substance issuing its commands from on hight, conceived therefore as outside me, but is a commandment or a prohibition of my own reason. . . . The categorical imperative represents human duties as divine commandments not in the historical sense, as if [a divine being] had given commands to men, but in the sense that reason . . . has power to command with the authority and in the guise of a divine person . . . The idea of such being, before whom all bend the knee, etc., arises out of the categorical imperative, and not vice versa. . . . The Ens Summum [Supreme Being] is an ens rationis [a creation of reason], . . . not a substance outside me.

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