Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe & Alchemy

Notes from Various Books
on Goethe and Alchemy

Edited by Peter Y. Chou

Goethe's Interest in Alchemy
C.A. Burland, The Arts of the Alchemists
Macmillian Company, New York, 1967, p. 125

Goethe in many ways was a child of the philosophic alchemists. He studied the literature during his illness of 1768-69, and read Swedenborg and Paracelsus. His attitude to scientific work was that of one who seeks a unity in all nature. His thought in later years was very like the best of alchemic feeling about the nature of life as an ever-changing reconciliation, separation and recombination of apparently opposed forces. He believed the life within nature was truly an expression of the unified being of God. His Stirb und werde! was very like the alchemical idea that the materia prima must die and be recreated in a higher form during the process. The final version of Faust was the culmination of a process of change within the soul of the philosopher-poet. It shows the curious world of ancient occultism, its dangers and confusions, and the means of escape from its alluring pitfalls. That Faust is not the iterant conjurer who wandered around Tübingen cadging money from students is the measure of the drama. The history of an indiidual expands into the drama of the great soul entrapped by a magic glamour which could only lead to disaster. In the philosophic statement that man must look within himself to seek the way of salvation, Goethe was already following part of the mystery tradition which had come down from the ancient world, and which was to find new prominence with the development of psychology in the 20th century.

Goethe Reading Welling's Opus Mago-cabalisticum (1768-1769)
Autobiography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Dichtung und Wahrheit)
Translated by John Oxenford, Horizon Press, New York, 1969,
Volume I, Book VIII, pp. 370-371 [Stanford: PT2027.A808]
(Google Copy: George Bell & Sons, London, 1874)

To excite and strengthen our faith in the possibility of such an universal remedy, the physician, wherever he found any susceptibility, had recommended certain chemico-alchemical books to his patients, and given them to understand, that, by one's own study of them, one could well attain this treasure for one's self, which was the more necessary, as the mode of its preparation, both for physical, and especially for moral, reasons, could not be well communicated; nay, that in order to comprehend, produce, and use this great work, one must know the secrets of nature in connection, since it was not a particular, but an universal remedy, and could indeed be produced under different forms and shapes. My friend had listened to these enticing words. The health of the body was too nearly allied to the health of the soul; and could a greater benefit, a greater mercy, be shown towards others than by appropriating to one's self a remedy by which so many sufferings could be assuaged, so many a danger averted? She had already secretly studied Welling's "Opus Mago-cabalisticum," for which, however, as the author himself immediately darkens and removes the light he imparts, she was looking about for a friend, who, in this alternation of glare and gloom, might bear her company. It needed small incitement to inoculate me also with this disease. I procured the work, which, like all writings of this kind, could trace its pedigree in a direct line up to the Neo-Platonic school. My chief labor in this book was most accurately to notice the obscure hints by which the author refers from one passage to another, and thus promises to reveal what he conceals, and to mark down on the margin the number of the page where such passages as should explain each other were to be found... We turned to the works of Theophrastus, Paracelsus, and Basilius Valentinus, as well as to those of Helmont, Starkey, and others, whose doctrines and directions, resting more or less on nature and imagination, we endeavoured to see into and follow out. I was particularly pleased with the Aurea Catena Homeri, in which nature, though perhaps in fantastical fashion, is represented in a beautiful combination; and thus sometimes by ourselves, sometimes together, we employed much time on these singularities, and spent the evenings of a long winter— during which I was compelled to keep my chamber— very agreeably since we three (my mother being included) were more delighted with these secrets than we could have been at their elucidation.

Experiments in Preparing Liquor Silicum
Autobiography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Dichtung und Wahrheit)
Translated by John Oxenford, Horizon Press, New York, 1969,
Volume I, Book VIII, pp. 372-373 [Stanford: PT2027.A808]
(Google Copy: George Bell & Sons, London, 1874)

No sooner was I in some measure restored, and, favoured by the change in the season, once more able to occupy my old gable chamber, then I also began to provide myself with a little apparatus. A small air-furnace with a sand-bath was prepared; and I very soon learned to change the glass alembics, with a piece of burning match-cord, into vessels in which the different mixtures were to be evaporated. Now were the strange ingredients of the macrocosm and microcosm handled in an odd, mysterious manner; and, before all, I attempted to produce neutral salts in an unheard-of way. But what, for a long time, kept me busy most, was the so-called Liquor Silicum (flint juice), which is made by melting down pure quartz flint with a proper proportion of alkali, whence results a transparent glass, which melts away on exposure to the air, and exhibits a beautiful clear fluidity. Whoever has once prepared this himself, and seen it with his own eyes, will not blame those who believe in a maiden earth, and in the possibility of producing further effects upon it by means of it. I had become quite skilful in preparing this Liquor Silicum; the fine white flints which are found in the Main furnished a perfect material for it: and I was not wanting in the other requisites, nor in diligence. But I wearied at last, because I could not but remark that the flinty substance was by no means so closely combined with the salt as I had philosophically imagined, for it very easily separated itself again, and this most beautiful mineral fluidity, which, to my greatest astonishment, had sometimes appeared in the form of an animal jelly, always deposited a powder, which I was forced to pronounce the finest flint dust, but which gave not the least sign of anything productive in its nature from which one could have hoped to see this maiden earth pass into the maternal state.
    Strange and unconnected as these operations were, I yet learned many things from them. I paid strict attention to all the crystallisations that might occur, and became acquainted with the external forms of many natural things: and, inasmuch as I well know that in modern times chemical subjects were treated more methodically, I wished to get a general conception of them; although, as a half adept, I had very little respect for the apothecaries and all those who operated with common fire. However, the chemical Compendium of Boerhaave attracted me powerfully, and led me on to read several of his writings, in which (since, moreover, my tedious illness had inclined me toward medical subjects) I found an inducement to study also the Aphorisms of this excellent man, which I was glad to stamp upon my mind and in my memory.

Goethe Hides from Herder his Alchemical Studies
Autobiography of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (Dichtung und Wahrheit)
Translated by John Oxenford, Horizon Press, New York, 1969,
Volume II, Book X, pp. 19-22 [Stanford: PT2027.A808]
(Google Copy: Francis A. Niccolls & Co., Boston, 1902)

One may well make this demand of himself; for to a man's capability of cultivation, comes, with friendly aid, the light of nature, which is always active in enlightening him about his condition: and generally, in many moral points of culture, one should not construe the failings too severely, nor look about after the most serious and remote means of correcting them; for certain faults may be easily and even playfully removed. Thus, for instance, by mere habit, we can excite gratitude in ourselves, keep it alive, and even make it necessary to us.
    In a biographical attempt, it is proper to speak of one's self. I am, by nature, as little grateful as any man; and, on forgetting the benefit received, the violent feeling of a momentary disagreement could very easily beguile me into ingratitude...
    Before I turn my attention from my connection with Herder, which was so important and so rich in consequences for me, I find yet something more to adduce. Nothing was more natural than that I should by degrees become more and more reserved toward Herder, in communicating those things which had hitherto contributed to my culture, but especially such as still seriously occupied my attention at the moment. He had destroyed my enjoyment of so much that I had loved before, and had especially blamed me in the strongest manner for the pleasure I took in Ovid's Metamorphoses...
    I most carefully concealed from him my interest in certain subjects which had rooted themselves into poetic form. These were Götz von Berlichingen and Faust. The biography of the former had seized my inmost heart. The figure of a rough, well-meaning self-helper, in a wild anarchical time, awakened my deepest sympathy. The significant puppet-show fable of the latter resounded and vibrated many-toned within me. I had also wandered about in all sorts of science, and had early enough been led to see its vanity. I had, moreover, tried all sorts of ways in real life, and had always returned more unsatisfied and troubled. Now, these things, as well as many others, I carried about with me, and delighted myself with them during my solitary hours, but without writing anything down. But, most of all, I concealed from Herder my mystico-cabalistical chemistry, and everything relating to it; although at the same time, I was still very fond of secretly busying myself in working it out more consistently than it had been communicated to me. Of my poetical labours, I believe I laid before him "Die Mitschuldigen"; but I do not recollect that on this account I received either correction or encouragement on his part. Yet, with all this, he remained what he was: whatever proceeded from him had an important, if not a cheering effect; and even his handwriting exercised a magic power over me. I do not remember having ever torn up or thrown away one of his letters, or even a mere envelope from his hand; yet, with my various changes of place and time, not one document of those strange, foreboding, and happy days is left.

Goethe the Alchemist
Ronald D. Gray, Goethe the Alchemist
A Study of Alchemical Symbolism in Goethe's Literary & Scientific Works
Cambridge University Press, London, 1952 [Stanford: 832.62.DG78]
(Book Review: Modern Language Notes, Vol. 69, No. 1, Jan. 1954, pp. 55-57)

This book sets out to show that Goethe was profoundly influenced throughout his life by the religious and philosophical beliefs he derived from his early study of alchemy. Alchemy can be interpreted in many ways: as the art of gold-making, as a symbolical representation of mystical doctrines, or, as in the writings of C.G. Jung, as a projection of the unconscious mind, concerned wiht the integration of the personality. As Goethe knew it, it was primarily concerned with mysticism. In his hands, however, it underwent some transformation: the mystical aspect became less important, while he attempted to provide more logical, more scientific evidence of the symbolical truth of alchemy.
    Alchemy was, however, the form in which Goethe first encountered neo-Platonism, and it is in alchemical symbols that Goethe expresses himself in his scientific works. Equally obvious is the fact that Goethe was not a mystic in the sense that Meister Eckhart and St John of the Cross were mystics. On the other hand, he made practical use of the tenets of mysticism in his day-to-day life, and thereby achieved that inner solidarity and harmony which is one of his claim to fame. He whole striving was, not to reject one world in favour of another, but to combine the two, to find the ideal in the real. (p. ix)
    The question at stake in any discussion of Goethe's science is the validity of the artist's conscience. Goethe believed that an artist or for that matter a scientist, who was fully awake to all the facts and did not attempt to impose his will upon them, would be led by an inward impulse inevitably to the true and the beautiful. This impulse would be as it were a manifestation of a higher power, which lay dormant until released by the fullest renunciation on the part of the artist, but once released would guide him along its own true paths...
    Two ideas characterize Goethe's whole endeavour: on the one hand his insistence on the need to employ the whole of man's faculties, the systolic rational and the diastolic irrational, in the search for truth; on the other hand his realization that, given human limitations, the task was an impossible one. The irrational, imaginative part of him saw analogies between all things: left to itself it would quickly have abolished all distinctions. The unity which it seemed to discover, however, would be entirely subjective. Reason, its limiting counterpart, broke up and dissolved the analogies, denied their existence, and thus equally prevented a unitive view of the world. Yet without the irrational, life would be impossible, and without the rational it would burst with its own impetuosity. The choice was thus between a comprehensive but possibly baseless belief, and no belief at all. In the event, Goethe chose to believe, or better, his nature led him towards affirmation. He preferred to reclaim the land, to cultivate the fruitful soil of belief, rather than to cast himself adrift on the ocean of doubt. He was aware, however, that such reclamation work was in the long run insufficient. As in Faust, the dam which held back the sea had been built by magical, that is, by irrational means, and there is something of Goethe's own tragic sense of inadequacy in the lines [ Faust, II.V]:

        I'm left to struggle still towards the light:
        Could I but break the spell, all magic spurning,
        And clear my path, all sorceries unlearning,
        Free then, in Nature's sight, from evil ban,
        I'd know at last the worth of being man.

Having believed in magic all his life, he now confesses that his foothold is valid only if magic ceases to impose its help. The firm ground gained is at best a means of clinging to existence and the final synthesis lies beyond the transitory world. The concluding lines of Faust indicate the ultimate humility in Goethe's attitude. (pp. 260-262)

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