Lebenskünstler: “Artist of Life”, Goethe

Freud intended

“to incorporate into scientific psychology those hidden realms of the human psyche that had been grasped intuitively by the Greek tragedians, Shakespeare, Goethe, and other great writers”. 

But none of the early psychoanalysts identified with the Greeks or Shakespeare in the same way as they did with,

Goethe, who served many as their ego ideal. 

Freud said he was inspired to study medicine by an essay on nature attributed to Goethe, and he cited Goethe (particularly Faust but also other works) so frequently that only two of the eleven volumes in the Fischer Studienausgabe do not include him in the index. 

Theodor Reik echoed Goethe’s famous phrase about his own works in the title of his autobiography Fragment of a Great Confession, which begins with his adolescent obsession to read every word Goethe wrote in the authoritative 144-volume Weimarer Ausgabe of Goethe’s works. 

And Carl Gustav Jung, who “quoted from Faust on almost any occasion,” begins his autobiography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, by denying the rumor that he was an illegitimate grandson of Goethe—a rumor that the denial, of course, did much to propagate.

Direct scientific transmission of this generalized Goethe for psychology has been traced through Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869)—gynecologist, psychologist, Naturphilosoph, painter, and important contributor to the emerging scientific formulation of the unconscious still being read by the first generation of psychoanalysts. (Carus was a personal friend of Goethe)

Carus proselytized enthusiastically for Goethe’s scientific method (morphology) and for his work in general in the first decades after the poet’s death. 

He wrote three books about Goethe and also referred to him repeatedly in Psyche, his treatise on psychology. 

This explanation of Goethe’s Lebenskunst illustrates the typical generality of such transmissions:

It is on the one hand the first and purest task of man to renounce all disruptive influences and to keep building the pyramid of his own existence without discouragement and without hesitation from base to peak ever larger and more complete, and yet, under certain circumstances, there is something so mighty and so beautiful in risking this whole existence, in being so captivated by love, that the entire building might collapse into ruins, all renunciation be given up, and the self be entirely delivered over to what is loved.

-Carl Carus, on Goethe

Carus is best known to scientists for originating the concept of the vertebrate archetype, a seminal idea in the development of Darwin’s theory of evolution. 

In 1836, he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Carus is also noted for Psyche (1846).

Carl Jung credited Carus with pointing to the unconscious as the essential basis of the psyche.

Although various philosophers, among them Leibniz, Kant, and Schelling, had already pointed very clearly to the problem of the dark side of the psyche, it was a physician who felt impelled, from his scientific and medical experience, to point to the unconscious as the essential basis of the psyche. 

“This was C. G. Carus, the authority whom Eduard von Hartmann followed.”

-Carl Jung 

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