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Imagine Living in a Time When Things Are Moving in a Good Direction

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While reading Goethe's autobiographical writing Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) recently, I was struck by this passage. It struck me because at that time and place --Germany in the 1770s or so-- he could feel things moving in a positive direction, an experience so unlike what we've been having to cope with in America in our times.

Here's the passage from Goethe:

Because there is a general interconnection at every period of time, with prevailing opinions and views branching out in multiple ways, the same maxims that had been applied to religion and morality were gradually being followed in jurisprudence also. Humanism was spreading among the attorneys, or yournger men, and then among the judges, or older men; and everyone strove to be very humane also in juridical matters. Prisons were improved, crimes excused, punishments eased, legitimations facilitated, divorce encouraged in misalliances-- and one of our prominent attorneys won himself the greatest praise by successfully contending the right of a hangman's son to enter the college of physicians. Guilds and corporations resisted in vain; one dam after another was broken. Mutual tolerance between religious parties was not only taught but practiced, and the civil constitution was threatened with a still stronger influence when a rational, intelligent, and vigorous attempt was made to persuade this kindly age to extend tolerance to the Jews. These new subjects for juridical treatment, which were neither in the law nor tradition, could only make an appeal to fair judgment and general interest, also required a more natural and livelier style. Here we, the youngest ones, saw a bright field open up for us, in which we gladly took our exercise, and I still remember quite well that the agent of an imperial counselor sent me a very nice letter praising me for a case like that. The French plaidoyers served as our models and inspiration.


Here are the thoughts that this passage from Goethe inspired in me:

Though I find myself wondering just how the Goethe of the moment of this writing feels about this humanizing movement --did he become so conservative in his older years that he thought of extending tolerance to the Jews as some kind of "threat"-- I myself feel clear that the movement he describes is a movement toward the good.

Yes, there are some dangers of going too far in the direction of excusing crimes and relaxing their consequences. But the truly humane spirit is not the same thing as a sloppy and indulgent spirit. And humanizing with understanding and compassion and respect for the other is always a step in the right direction. And that is what I think is happening here in Goethe's world.

As Goethe says, "there is a general interconnection in every period," and that goes for the larger world of many societies as well as within societies. Just as the "prevailing opinions and views" meant that, in Germany, the direction of movement in religion and morals would be the same as that in the juridical world, so also what Goethe is describing here in the Germany of the 1770s, takes place on a planet where the Americans are establishing the world's first liberal enlightenment democracy, and the France of Voltaire and Rousseau is about to erupt into an overthrow, in the name of the people, of the old monarchical regime.

But what ties me emotionally to this passage is the yearning I feel when I read it. I think, What must it be like to live in an age where the forces that are prevailing are those that humanize, that value fairness and tolerance and those other fundamental restraints to the human wolf being allowed to take more than its fair and to make war upon everything that is different!?

In our day, too, "the prevailing opinions and views [have been] branching out in multiple ways."

In our day, too, "the same maxims that had been applied to religion and morality were gradually being followed in jurisprudence also."

But such different maxims!

The maxims of our times --i.e. its organizing principles and animating spirit-- are not about tolerance. Ours are not about fairness. Ours do not humanize people.

But when we look around at the various realms of our society --our politics, our media, our corporate world, our healthcare system, our way of living at the level of individuals and families-- we do indeed see some "maxims" running through the realms as a thread. We do indeed see that there is a spirit that infects every dimension. But this is a spirit that runs in a degrading --rather than an uplifting-- direction.

As Goethe's age was a time when the forces of the Good had the capacity to shape the way the world was evolving, with all those fruits of the Enlightenment, we now live in an age where Evil has achieved pervasive influence on the direction of our society's evolution.

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Andy Schmookler, an award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Virginia's 6th District. His new book -- written to have an impact on the central political battle of our time -- is (more...)
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