On Goethe

Robertson’s final chapter turns to religion. Raised a Protestant, Goethe retained a soft spot for Luther’s Bible. At heightened moments he tended to recycle its phrases and imagery. Yet many of the outward manifestations of Christianity filled him with loathing. He abhorred the sight of crucifixes and the sound of church bells. By contrast, he inclined sympathetically towards Judaism and Islam, which refrain from depicting the deity in visual terms... This enduring commitment to striving, so often taken as the key to Faust’s career, is perhaps best viewed as the inevitable legacy of the Enlightenment. Its value is thrown into question by the multiple murders, brute thuggery, land-grabbing and summary evictions in which he was complicit, along with the invention of capitalism through the creation of paper money and the use of slave labour in a colonial context. Readers of The Essential Goethe may judge for themselves to what extent the early Faust foreshadows twentieth-century brutalities. If his trajectory should be followed by purification and transfiguration, that would surely be, as Gandhi is reported to have remarked of European civilization, a good idea.