Tag Archives: Goethe

The tables turned

Like many of us, I spend far too much time in front of a computer screen. I’m feeling the symptoms now – my eyes are strained, there’s a faint headache starting and my wrist tells me it’s time to swap hands or stop using the mouse.

At such moments, I try to take the advice in Wordsworth’s poem, “The Tables Turned”. In his day, of course, it was books rather than screens that caused eyestrain but the remedy is the same – get out into Nature and focus your eyes on blue skies and green trees.

William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon © National Portrait Gallery, London

William Wordsworth by Benjamin Robert Haydon © National Portrait Gallery, London

UP! up! my Friend, and quit your books;
Or surely you’ll grow double:
Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;
Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun, above the mountain’s head,
A freshening lustre mellow
Through all the long green fields has spread,
His first sweet evening yellow.

Books! ’tis a dull and endless strife:
Come, hear the woodland linnet,
How sweet his music! on my life,
There’s more of wisdom in it.

And hark! how blithe the throstle sings!
He, too, is no mean preacher:
Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.

She has a world of ready wealth,
Our minds and hearts to bless–
Spontaneous wisdom breathed by health,
Truth breathed by cheerfulness.

One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;
Our meddling intellect
Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:–
We murder to dissect.

Enough of Science and of Art;
Close up those barren leaves;
Come forth, and bring with you a heart
That watches and receives.

William Wordsworth,Lyrical Ballads,1798.

It seems likely that Wordsworth shared with his near-contemporary in Germany, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, an instinct for experiencing through observation the mysterious reality behind nature – a kind of simultaneous integration of spirit and matter.

Goethe had discovered not only through his own insights but also by way of the ideas of the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza, that there was a deeper dimension in plant life, the realm of the “supersensuous plant archetype” lying beyond the empirically visible, touchable, smellable, classifiable plant.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

To quote from Gordon L Miller’s introduction to his edition of Goethe’s The Metamorphosis of Plants:

 Goethe echoed Spinoza’s holistic vision of reality in his conviction that “spirit and matter, soul and body, thought and extension…are the necessary twin ingredients of the universe, and will forever be.” And in order for us to comprehend not only the outer material aspect but also the inner, ideal, or archetypal aspect of natural things, Goethe discovered that we correspondingly must employ both the eyes of the body and the “eyes of the mind,” both sensory and intuitive perception, “in constant and spirited harmony.” Goethe was especially struck by Spinoza’s proposition that “the more we understand particular things, the more we understand God,” and he coupled rigorous empiricism with precise imagination to see particular natural phenomena as concrete symbols of the universal principles, organizing ideas or inner laws of nature. Starting from sense perception of the outer particulars, Goethe’s scientific approach seeks the higher goal of an illuminating knowledge from within. This way of knowing – from the inside – is rooted ultimately in a harmony or identity between the human spirit and the informing spirit of nature, wherein “speaks one spirit to the other”  (Faust, line 425).

It’s particularly exciting in our present times to see the techniques of Goethean observation being extended into the social realm, thus providing new ways of working effectively with processes of social change. This development has been led by Allan Kaplan and Sue Davidoff of the South Africa-based Proteus Initiative – so it’s great news that they will be bringing a series of workshops to Emerson College (Sussex UK) in February and March 2015 (declaration of interest – I’m now working for Emerson College). The workshops are for all those whose work engages in the realm of human relationships and social change. Please email suzy.miller@emerson.org.uk if you would like to receive further details.

But my eyes are still straining and my wrist is aching – time to leave the computer for a while and see what one can discover through some Goethean or Wordsworthian observation. It’s time for a walk in Nature!


Filed under Emerson College UK, Goethe, Goetheanism