Heinrich Christoph Kolbe’s 1806 painting of Goethe© Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, photo: Jan-Peter Kasper
Today’s sharings are more excerpts from Pierre Hadot ‘s ‘N’oublie pas de vivre’ essay, subtitled: ’Goethe et la tradition des exercises spirituels’. Albin Michel. 2008. Our working translation from the original French.
Stand firm to the present moment
‘Stand firm to the present moment. Every circumstance, every moment is of an infinite value, because it is the representation of a whole eternity’ Goethe, from’Letters to Eckermann’.
Goethe often hints to the relationship between the moment and eternity, for example in a letter to August von Bernstorff: ‘If Eternity is felt by us at each moment, we do not suffer from the ephemeral character of time.’ Or in this verse-sequence of a poem titled, ‘Vermächtnis’ (testament): ‘May reason be present everywhere where life is rejoicing about life.’ This point of view where life is rejoicing about life, it is exactly the present moment. ‘Then’, the poem goes on: ‘past finds itself consistent, the future pre-existent, the moment is eternity.’ In the ‘Divan’, Souleika speaks: ‘The mirror tells me: I am beautiful! You tell me that growing old is also my fate; before God everything stands in eternity. Love Him in me in the moment of a glance.’
If we put ourself, in a manner of speaking, in God’s point of view, which means for Goethe, of Nature’s point of view, as it gives birth to the perpetual becoming, the beauty of a moment is eternal, as it is partaking to this perpetual becoming. To love Souleika’s beauty, it is to love, in a moment, the beauty of Being. We can say that every moment is the ‘symbol’ of Being, if we remember that Goethe defined the symbol as ‘the living revelation, in the moment, of the inexorable.’ The notion of ‘inexorable’ corresponds for Goethe to what he considers the unfathomable mystery that is at the heart of Nature and reality. It is this very ephemeral, transient character that define the moment as the symbol of eternity- ‘Everything transient is symbol’-because the ephemeral character reveals the cosmic becoming, the eternal metamorphosis that is at the same time the eternal presence of being: ‘The eternal carries on its course through all things. With awe tie yourself to Being’. Every moment passes and is heralding what is to come to us. It offers the possibility of a renewed creation in the becoming of being and the becoming of the world. It is ceaselessly, as life is too, destruction and creation, that is novelty always renewed, infinitely.
Divinity’s intent, says Goethe in ‘Poetry and Truth’, is that on one hand we are building our self (verselbstigen), we individualize ourselves, and on the other hand, in a regular pulse, we, without failing, prune ourselves of our self (entselbstigen), de-individualizing ourselves. Sometimes, this theme takes a mystical resonance: ‘To find himself in the infinite, the individual is eager to disappear, to abandon oneself is a pleasure.’ It is exactly the meaning of the famous poem ‘Selige Sehnsucht’ (benevolent nostalgy): ‘I want to praise the living willing to die in the flame; As long as you do not understand this: ‘Die and become! You are only a shadowy dweller of gloomy Earth.’
The kernel of Goethe’s attitude towards the present moment is therefore that by focusing only upon the present moment, upon existence, we partake in this very moment; we, thus, reach a bliss and the very consciousness of our duty of living within the cosmos. A deep feeling arises, of participation to a reality that outflanks the limits of the individuality.
‘Great is the joy to be here (Freude des Dasein), but even greater is the joy we feel towards existence itself (Freude am Dasein).
We reach here the heights of the consciousness of existence.
But Goethe does not forget another aspect of the focus upon the present moment. At every moment, we must strive to what our daily duties require us, according to Goethe’s expression (Die Forderung des Tages), that is to accomplish one’s duty in the present moment. This care towards the present moment’s duty, is for Goethe somehow sacred. For him, his true religion manifests within this accountability to fulfil his daily terrestrial duty.
There is, to conclude, two different but connected aspects of Goethe’s notion of the present moment: On one hand, the exceptional moment, the providential moment granted by Fate, and on the other hand, the daily moments towards which we are ought to give, as would the ancient philosophers, an infinite value by witnessing, in their ‘presence’, the flowing of the eternal becoming and the eternal renewal of Being.