Werther: Reception Studies

Essay 2008 21 Pages

History - Miscellaneous


“It is obvious (...) that a system arranged according to the rules of art is only concerned with proofs; that proof is a sort of demonstration, (...) rhetorical demonstration is an enthymeme, which, generally speaking, is the strongest of rhetorical proofs and lastly, that the enthymeme is a kind of syllogism.” [my Italics]1 Aristotle, one of the most reviewed ancient philosophers, whose intentions are still a highly significant counterpart in modern studies of philosophy as well as literature, emphasizes in his Rhetoric the steady necessity of rhetoric in general and its further progress particularly. Rhetoric has to be a proportion of personification, but it also ought to be a symbol underlining the importance of the political framework. The resulting question, therefore, might be, how to use persuaders or rather how to initiate an argument to be convincing. In addition Aristotle summarizes his ideas as an important part of historical review meaning the usefulness of various arguments over several centuries.2

Reception studies take care of Aristotle’s announcements. The reception of Classical sources in current texts or theories offers both an interpretation of ancient material and the connection between the Classical scholar or writer and the later receiver.3 Thus, if reception can afford a poet’s intention by creating a tragic momentum, for example, it may be also necessary to observe the reviews of various readers or an audience reflecting this poet’s idea. As a result, reception could install a processing circle of interpretation, acculturation, and transplantation.4 This paper will show the reception of Classical material during the literary period of Storm and Stress by taking into particular consideration Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Die Leiden des jungen Werther(s) 5. Additionally, the reviews of young Goethe’s tragedy and several interrelationships between Stormers, poets of German Enlightenment, and the political, social and cultural framework (regarding the receiving reader or audience) will also be investigated.6

It is common that Goethe was an enthusiastic interpreter of Homer’s Iliad and the Songs of Selma done by Ossian.7 By transferring his passion into Werther, the young Stormer shows his literarily bridge-building expectation to offer the audience or the single reader the world of Classicism.8 Rather than that, Goethe also provides several points of interpretation to the receiver, as he uses the highly critical problems of committing suicide in his tragedy. Both cases portray acculturation. “Nil igitur mors est ad nos (...)”, [my Italics]9 claims Lucretius. The ancient philosopher also calls for keeping any civilian away from politics, as it would destroy individualism. In contrast Corax and Tisias of Syracus - being defined as pioneers of rhetorical speeches - observe the distinctive relationship between politics (meaning especially the structure of democracy) and the use of rhetoric because of coming together to the most powerful aspects of human being’s interaction in the state. Consequently, democracy could offer the opportunity of participating in debates and, therefore, leading individuals jointly to communities. However, should the individual take care of Lucretius or the Syracusian’s intention?

Young Goethe attempts both.10 By doing so, Goethe follows the main arguments of Storm and Stress, because “(...) Demokratismus (...) war für die spätere Rezeption des Sturm und Drang au ß erordentlich bedeutsam (...)” [my Italics].11 During the period of Storm and Stress in late 18th century Germany (but also in between the concerns of German Enlightenment by Lessing, Mendelssohn, Möser or Sulzer) the reception of Classical material adopted a key role. Young Stormers like Schubart, Voss, Lenz or Heinse immediately recognized the destructive and oppressing haughtiness of Feudalism and the clerical body.12 Besides they were deeply concerned regarding the development of German bourgeois class, which seemed to be in a cave of fainted disability. Consequently, the reflection of the announcements of modern Humanism was expected to be in danger. The highly controversial intentions of Goethe to create an obvious and direct linkage between the problems of his own society, as well as the implication of ideas of ancient theories and literature, and the reader’s identification with Classical sources give the young Stormer’s work a truthful unmistakable status in between the literary materials of Storm and Stress. Goethe seems to be able to install an activating correlation between the Classical sources, his own ideas and experiences, and the reviews of Werther ’ s receivers. This frame is described as the horizon of experience by Jauss.13 The knowledge of bringing together both the idea of the Classical material and the reader’s political and social background, therefore, is one of the main arguments pointed out by various scholars observing the necessity of reception in early times as well as in modern cultures.14 In conclusion concerning the question of how the individual should take care of Lucretius or the Syracusian’s intention, Goethe simply stresses both types of the philosophers’ interpretations.

However there were three main points of Classical reception to be tangent to ancient Greece, as Braemer detects.15 These key factors illustrated the political, social, and cultural as well as individual background of both young Stormers and their readers/audience. As it will be shown, various writers of Enlightenment also faced the reception of Classical sources. Thus the impact of ancient texts on late 18th century and early 19th century Germany’s poets could be strong evidence regarding Hardwick’s attempt to define reception: “Reception of classical material is an index of cultural continuity and change (...).”16 The key factors of Storm and Stress in connection with Classical texts, ideas, and politics given by Braemer reflect Hardwick’s theoretical observation.

a) In 1765, Herder asked: “Man weiß, daß nach den Staatsplänen Lykurgs und Solons

(…) die Stimme des Volks, eine Stimme des Staats, ja beinahe Gottes war. Von seinem Munde hing Krieg und Frieden, Leben und Tod, Verbannung oder Erhebung ab. (…) Würde heut zu Tage auch der freieste Staat dem Pöbel den Zaum in die Hand geben (…)?“17 Herder called for democratic popularism by indirectly condemning the prevailing circumstances at his time. By doing so, Herder spoke very highly of the democratic intentions of both Solon and Lykurg to portray a possibility of change of Germany’s politics and cultural community in general. Again, important ancient figures were used to be a practical rather than a theoretical role model. Braemer, therefore, denotes Herder’s reflections as democratic popularism (Volkstümlichkeit).18 Apart from the attempt to figure out the democratic idealism in ancient Greece, it was common to place a Classical person to underline a writer’s intention during the period of Storm and Stress. This type of proven personification could be conducted as acculturation and appropriation.19

b) The second main point of Classical sources’ reception during Storm and Stress is defined as the sense of national identity (Nationalbewusstsein) by Braemer.20 Although young Stormers faced the necessity of changes due to politics, social identity, and the importance of nationality in general, the bourgeois society - being in its early emergence - was not able to act. Therefore later attempts to install a German nationality had to fail because of less support.21

By stressing the absence of both the democratic aspiration of aristocracy and the activity of society, young Goethe criticized the interaction of the obviously fainted community or rather the ignorance of the leading class. The Stormer makes his Werther say: “(...) Leute von einigem Stande [the aristocrats] werden sich immer in kalter Entfernung vom gemeinen Volke halten (...). Ich wei ß wohl, da ß wir nicht gleich sind, noch sein können; aber ich halte dafür, daß der, der nötig zu haben glaubt, vom so genannten Pöbel sich zu entfernen, um den Respekt zu erhalten, ebenso tadelhaft ist als ein Feiger (…).“ [my Italics]22 Werther is finding fault with the oppression of the lower class as well as the suggestive superiority of the upper society. Furthermore Goethe himself seems to be on the lookout for democratic changes although recognizing, that the idealism of equality will never be installed possibly.

Epictetus created a very similar idea. “Some white-haired man with many a gold ring on his fingers will come along, [saying], ‘Listen to me, my son; one ought of course to philosophize, but one ought also to keep one’s head (...). [You] know better than the philosophers what you ought to do’.”23 Epictetus shows the ignorance of the wealthy representatives regarding the usefulness of philosophy in society. Thus the dialogue - which is one of the most used forms of reception of Classical sources24 and in ancient literature in general25 - reveals the philosopher’s criticism of the location of the good into an individual interest. In this case dislocation will be introduced, which could cause a community’s destruction. “Man, why, then, do you censure me [the philosopher], if I know? What shall I say to that slave? (...) I must say, ‘Forgive me as you would lovers; (...) I am mad.”26 Dislocation, therefore, will be followed by oppression, tyranny, and seditions as well as war.

Both Goethe and Epictetus agreed with each other because of underlining the foolish behaviour of the leading class of their societies. This type of correlation between Classical material (or its intention) and the later writer is defined as intervention by Hardwick.27

c) Braemer puts the third key factor of the reception of ancient material during Storm and Stress into the sense of individual activity (Aktivität).28 Concerning the substantially contribution of activity, there is a lot of evidence, which can be found in young Goethe’s works. In 1774, for example, the Stormer wrote “Schwager Chronos”, that shows the idea of activity distinctly.

“(...) Frisch, holpert es gleich, Über Stock und Steine den Trott Rasch in ’ s Leben hinein! (…) Auf denn, nicht träge denn, Strebend und hoffend hinan! (…)

Rings ins Leben hinein (…).“ [my Italics]29

The necessity of activity is even more considerable installed in Werther. After Werther had arrived at the envoy on 20th of October in 1771, the young man shows his annoyance facing problems of bureaucracy and the aristocracy’s haughtiness. Besides Werther directly criticizes the unavailability of the people: “Aktivität! Wenn nicht der mehr tut, der Kartoffeln legt (...), als ich, so will ich zehn Jahre noch mich auf der Galeere abarbeiten (...). Und das glänzende Elend, die Langeweile unter dem garstigen Volke (…)! [Die] Rangsucht unter ihnen, wie sie nur wachen und aufpassen, einander ein Schrittchen abzugewinnen (…). Sieh, ich kann das Menschengeschlecht nicht begreifen (…)“ [my Italics]30 Goethe uses his tragic hero to examine the stagnation of late 18th century Germany. The young Stormer also emphasizes both the difference of social status in society and the laziness of the ordinary people. Accordingly Goethe calls for the breakdown of social captivity with the help of activity.31 By doing so Goethe obviously follows ancient Stoic’s intentions of normative attitudes.32 Stoics claimed, that it was the nature of human beings to live together in communities and, consequently, they criticized a lack of any interaction. Especially Plato33 and Gorgias34 pointed out, that every isolated behaviour could conduct self-destruction. However Goethe’s Werther lost the necessary connection to his social environment. Because of the crucial sum of isolation, Lotte’s rejection of the tragic hero causing inner loneliness35 as well as the permanent insults via the aristocracy36


1 Aristotle: Rhetoric, book 1.11. In: Aristotle in 23 Volumes. Vol. 22. Translated by J. H. Freese. Cambridge/London 1926. Online Source: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/cgibin/ptext?lookup=Aristot.+Rh.+1.1.1, online on Friday, 31th of October 2008, 8.35 am. In the following cit. as Aristotle: Rhetoric.

2 Batstone, W. W.: Provocation. The Point of Reception Theory. In: Martindale, M. M.; Thomas, R. F.: Classics and the Uses of Reception. Oxford 2006, pp. 14-20, pp. 15-16.

3 Martindale, C.: Redeeming the Text. Latin Poetry and the Hermeneutics of Reception. Cambridge 1993, pp. 3- 4. In the following cit. as Martindale 1993.

4 Hardwick, L.: Reception Study. Oxford 2003, pp. 5 and 9-10. In the following cit. as Hardwick 2003.

5 Goethe, J. W. von: Die Leiden des jungen Werther. Hrsg. v. E. Trunz. München 199312. Trunz‘ publication was the most important source during the process of illustrating the reception of Classical material in Goethe’s Werther. In the following cit. as Goethe: Werther 1993. Goethe, J. W. von: Die Leiden des jungen Werthers. Vol. II - Text and Facsimile. Frankfurt am Main 1967 (Reprint of the Edition first published by Weygand in Leipzig 1774). This publication was mainly used to reflect on young Goethe’s type of rhetoric and general linguistic aspects. Goethe, J. W. von: The sorrows of Werter. Translated by D. Malthus. New York/Oxford 1991. This publication could offer the paper’s author an impression of the obviously subjective influences by translating any kind of text.

6 See furthermore Table 1: “Classical Influences and the Reception of Goethe’s Werther in 19th Century Germany”.

7 Goethe: Werther 1993, pp. 177 and 204-208.

8 Goethe: Werther 1993, p. 10 when Werther describes his emotions in a letter on 13th of May 1771 and pp. 108- 114, when Werther read the songs to Lotte on 20th of December 1771.

9 Lucretius: De Rerum Natura, Book 3. In: Lucretius: The way things are. The De Rerum Natura. Translated by R. Humphries. Indiana 1968. In the following cit. as Lucretius: De Rerum Natura, Book 3.

10 Trunz, E.: Weltbild und Dichtung im Zeitalter Goethes. Acht Studien. Weimar 1993.

11 Braemer, E.: Goethes Prometheus und die Grundpositionen des Sturm und Drang. Beiträge zur deutschen Klassik - Abhandlungen VIII. Weimar 1959, pp. 155 and 157.

12 Lukács, G.: Goethe and his age. Translated by R. Anchor. London 1968, p. 36.

13 Jauss, H. R.: Towards an Aesthetic of Reception. Translated by T. Bahti. Minneapolis 1982, pp.4-5 and 141- 143.

14 Hexter, R.: Literary History as a Provocation to Reception Studies. In: Martindale, M. M.; Thomas, R. F.: Classics and the Uses of Reception. Oxford 2006, pp. 23-31, p. 27. Prettejohn, E.: Reception and Ancient Art. The Case of the Venus de Milo. In: Martindale, M. M.; Thomas, R. F.: Classics and the Uses of Reception. Oxford 2006, pp. 227-249, pp. 228-230. Martindale 1993, pp. 4-5 and 17.

15 Braemer, p. 157.

16 Hardwick 2003, p. 11.

17 Braemer, p. 158.

18 Braemer, p. 157.

19 Martindale 1993, p. 6. See more detailed Hardwick 2003, p. 11. Furthermore see Machor; Goldstein, p. 321.

20 Braemer, p. 157.

21 Various historical examples show the problems of protest rallies during Congress of Vienna in 1815 or so- called Wartburgfest held in Eisenach in 1817, when liberal students tried to call for the freedom of community and democratic policy in whole Germany. They even led to deep depressions of Gemany’s public community after the ratification of Karlsbader Beschlüsse in 1819.

22 Goethe: Werther 1993, p. 11.

23 Epictetus: On praecognitions, book 1.22. In: Epictetus.

24 Hardwick 2003, p. 9.

25 See for example Gorgias, Plato, Protagoras, or Quintilian and others.

26 Epictetus book 1.22: On praecognitions. In: Epictetus.

27 Hardwick 2003, p. 9.

28 Braemer, p.157.

29 Goethe, J. W. von: Schwager Chronos. 1774. In: Braemer, p. 165.

30 Goethe, J. W. von: Werther 1993, p. 62-63.

31 The phrase “(...) wie sie nur wachen und aufpassen, einander ein Schrittchen abzugewinnen (...)”, therefore, could be seen as a substitute of Goethe’s far-sighted works. After the ratification of Karlsbader Beschlüsse and the following Biedermeier Period or Vormärz, Germany’s liberal community went into an individualistic faint, when the freedom of both speech and getting together had to be broken down because of political or rather aristocrat pressure. See especially Table 2: “Denker-Club”. A typical caricature of Biedermeier Period / Vormärz. See furthermore Source 1: Song Text “Die Gedanken sind frei” (c. 1780).

32 For further reading of Stoic’s normative attitude see Foucault.

33 Plato: Plato in Twelve Volumes. Vols. 5 & 6. Translated by P. Shorey. Cambridge/London 1969. Here: Plato: Republic, book 7.514a. In the following cit. as Plato: Republic.

34 Gorgias: Helena, B 11.8/ B 11.14

35 Goethe, J. W. von: Werther 1993, pp. 93-94.

36 Goethe, J. W. von: Werther 1993, pp. 64 and 66-67.


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Title: Werther: Reception Studies