Goethe's Concept of Nature: Proto-Ecological Model

Document Type

Contribution to Book

Publication Date



Johann Wolfgang Goethe's (1749-1832) famously effusive celebrations of nature earn him the well-deserved title as nature poet, though he also wrote detailed natural history works and lectures and a vast array of noteworthy scientific studies. The overall picture of nature in Goethe's works covers a wide spectrum with aesthetic, scientific, and philosophical aspects expressing tension between nature's grandiose beauty, its elemental components, and its powerfully destructive forces of which humanity is a significant agent. Already in his international best-selling epistolary novel from 1774, Die Leiden des jungen Werther (The Sorrows of Young Werther), we find a tension among the images of nature as lush landscapes of freedom, solitude into which one deliciously sinks, or more devastating forces like storms and the flooding of overpowering rivers against which we fruitlessly battle. Initially, the titular hero Werther seeks solace in nature but later bemoans its violent forces that he sees as being akin to human actions. Nature in Werther, as in most of Goethe's writings, appears as beautiful green surroundings whose shifting moodiness may merely appear to mirror Werther's inner landscape (and, indeed, many analyzes of the novel assume that to be the case), yet, we would more precisely say that they reflect the same dynamics that underpin human behavior. To think nature in Goethean terms evokes such questions as: Do we reside in nature, reflect nature, transcend nature, or transcend our "self" through nature? How do we relate to natural storms and how do we address out destruction of natural forms such as felling trees and harming other living things? Does Goethe consider nature as a location free of human constructions, or, rather, the processes and actions of elemental forces and matter that shape us as well? The overarching trajectory in Goethe's spectrum of human-nature engagements points toward a complex and inextricable interdependence, which has the potential to be proto-ecological.

This chapter traces the idea of human-nature interdependence through representative works from Goethe, beginning with Werther (and its sister-text, Triumph der Empfindsamkeit 1777, that comments on and satirizes Werther's ideas of nature), turning then to his scientific writings, particularly his 1810 scientific study of optics, Zur Farbenlehre (Theory of Color), and concluding with Faust (Part I 1808, Part II 1832). These works exemplify the overall development of Goethe's concept of nature toward what we now consider to be a "proto-ecological" perspective, in other words, a mapping out of the material interactions of all living and nonliving things, including the human, with much similarity to the complex web or, in Timothy Morton's term, "mesh" of agential processes often termed "natureculture" in material ecocriticism, as Serenella Iovino and Serpil Oppermann describe it (cf. Morton 2010; Iovino & Oppermann 2014). Nature is—as I will argue in this chapter—not merely an aesthetic space or the destructive storms in Goethe's works, but also not just a passive object of study, instead, it is the world around us in which we are active participants and on which we are dependent for every aspect of our biological life, as ecology ad complexity theory also describe. From Werther's sadness about the lost nut trees, chopped down by the pastor's new wife for a better view, to Faust's enormous dike against the sea (producing a putrid swamp), Goethe documents—albeit unknowingly—the contemporaneous emergence of modern industrial and ecological views of nature during the beginning of what Paul Crutzen and Eugene Stoermer call the "Anthropocene" around 1770 during the Industrial Revolution. This is the era of ever higher-level human impact on the entire biosphere of Earth, with colonialism spreading European agricultural, mining, and industrial processes. Mephistopheles, for example, helps Faust build a dike to contain the sea with the profits earned by what he calls the "holy trinity" of trade, war, and piracy; that is, with resources from elsewhere. Goethe's views of nature and "natural resources" thereby express an uneasy shift into modern industrial, scientific, and capitalist undertakings that accelerate extractive practices and so forge new and reshape existing connections between the local and the global practices.


Gabriele Dürbeck, Urte Stobbe, Hubert Zapf, & Evi Zemanek


Lexington Books




9781498514927, 9781498514934

Publication Information

Ecological Thought in German Literature and Culture

This document is currently not available here.