The Theosophical Forum April 1949

ON DEATH AND IMMORTALITY

From a conversation between Goethe and Johannes Falk on the day of Wieland's (1) funeral, 25th January, 1813.

. . . "You have known for a very long time," said Goethe, "that Ideas which have no firm foundation in the world of the senses, even with all their other values, do not bring conviction to my mind, because I want to know about nature, not merely to suppose and to believe. Now as concerning the continued existence of our soul after death, this puts it out of my province. It stands not at all in contradiction to the observations of many years which I have made as to the qualities of our being and of all beings in nature, but quite the contrary, it proceeds from them with new power of proof.

"But however much or however little of this personality deserves to continue in existence is another question and a point which we must leave to God. For the moment I will only make this remark: I accept various classes and degrees of the ultimate ingredients of all beings, as also of the beginning-points of all the phenomena in nature, which I should like to call souls, because the ensoulment of the whole proceeds from them, or rather I would call them Monads let us always keep to this expression of Leibnitz! There could hardly be a better word to express the simplicity of the simplest being. Now some of these Monads or beginning-points, as experience shows us, are so small and so insignificant that they are suitable at the very most only for a subordinate service and existence.

"Others on the other hand are quite strong and powerful. Thus the latter have a way of dragging everything which approaches them into their circle and changing it into something belonging to them for instance, a body, or a plant, or an animal, or even into something higher, such as a star. They continue this until the small or great world, whose intention (2) lies spiritually within them, also comes outward to bodily appearance. I would call only the latter really souls.

"It follows from this that there are world-monads, world-souls, just as there are ant-monads, ant-souls.

"Every sun, every planet bears in itself a higher intention, a higher task, by reason of which its development must come about just as regularly and under the same law as the development of a rosebush through leaf, stem and crown. You may call this an idea or a monad, as you like; I have nothing to say against that. Sufficient to say that this intention is present invisibly and prior to the development out of it in nature. The chrysalids of the intermediate condition which this idea assumes in the transition should not mislead us.

"It is ever only the same metamorphosis or capacity for change in nature which produces from the leaf a flower, a rose, from the egg a caterpillar and from the caterpillar a butterfly. Moreover the lower monads obey a higher one, because they needs must do so, not that there is any special pleasure to them in doing so. In a general way this takes place quite naturally.

"For instance, observe this hand. It contains parts which stand at every moment at the service of the chief monad, which it was able at the moment of its coming into being to attach inseparably to itself. I can play this or that piece of music by means of it; I can at will cause my fingers to fly over the keys of a piano. In this way they indeed create for me a spiritually beautiful enjoyment; but they themselves are deaf, only the chief monad hears.

"Thus I may assert that little or nothing at all of my hand or my fingers is laid upon my piano. The monad-playing, by which I prepare an intense pleasure for myself, does no good to my subordinates, except that maybe I make them a little tired. How much better it would be for their sense-pleasure if, following the disposition present in them, they could rove industriously about the meadow, something like busy bees, or if they could sit on a branch of a tree or regale themselves on its blossoms instead of flying around busily on the keys of my piano.

"The moment of death, which may with good reason also be called a release, is precisely that moment when the ruling chief monad releases all those who have hitherto been its subjects from their faithful service. Like coming into existence, I consider also the passing away as an independent act of this chief monad which in its real being is completely unknown to us.

"But all monads are by nature so indestructible that at the moment of their release they do not cease their activity or lose it, but continue without pause. They thus leave their old conditions only to enter new ones on the spot. In this change everything depends on the power of the intention which is contained in this or that monad. There is an enormous difference between the monad of an educated man and that of a beaver or of a bird or fish.

"That brings us once more to the question of degrees of souls which we are forced to assume even if we only want, to some extent, to explain the appearances of nature. . . .

"Each monad goes where it belongs, into the water, the air, into the earth, the fire, the stars; indeed, the secret urge which leads it thereto, contains at the same time the secret of its future destiny.

"Annihilation is not to be thought of; but to be stopped on the way by some powerful and at the same time low or common monad and to become subject to it is a danger which has something serious in it, and I am not able entirely to set aside the fear of it as a mere observation of nature of my own. . . ."

Falk asked if Goethe believed that the transition from these conditions was connected with consciousness for the monads themselves, and Goethe replied: "I cannot deny that there may be a general historical survey or that there may be among the monads higher natures than we ourselves.

"The intention of a world-monad can and will bring forth much out of the dark bosom of its memory which looks like soothsaying and yet at bottom is only a dim memory of a past condition and is therefore remembrance; just as human genius discovered the tables of the law as to the coming into existence of the universe, not through dry efforts but through a lightning flash of memory falling into the darkness, because it was present at its very conception. It would be presumptuous to set a limit to such lightning flashes in the remembrance of higher spirits, or the degree to which such enlightenment must restrict itself. So in general and taken historically I find nothing at all unthinkable in the continued existence of personality of a world-monad.

"So far as concerns ourselves directly it almost appears as if the earlier conditions through which this planet has passed were in general so insignificant and so mediocre that there is not much in them which in the eyes of nature would be worth a second remembrance. Even our present condition might be in need of a great selection and our chief monad will probably just summarize it at some future time, that is, in some great historical focus points."

"If we want to go into theories or suppositions," proceeded Goethe in his observations, "I really do not see what is to prevent the monad for which we have to thank the appearance of Wieland on our planet, from entering in its new condition into the highest connections of this universe. By its diligence, by its zeal, by its spirit with which it took to itself so many conditions of world-history, it is entitled to everything. I should not wonder, in fact I should find it quite in accord with my views, if after thousands of years I again met and saw this Wieland as a world-monad, as a star of the first magnitude, and if I were to be witness of the way in which he enlivened and illuminated with his lovely light all that came anywhere near him. Verily, to compose the nebular being of some comet in light and clarity, that is what we might call a joyous task for the monad of our Wieland, because indeed as soon as one thinks of the eternity of this world-condition, one cannot think of any other destiny for monads than that they for their part should share the joys of the gods as blessed co-creative powers.

"The coming into being of creation is entrusted to them. Whether summoned or not summoned they come of themselves by every path, from every mountain, from all the seas, from every star; who can prevent them? I am as certain as that you see me here that I have been here already a thousand times and I hope to come again a thousand times." Falk interposed that he did not know whether he could call a return without consciousness a return at all, for he only returned who knew that he had been here before. He would be disposed to demand greater certainty than that which we gain by intuitions and flashes of genius such as sometimes lighten the dark abyss of creation, and he asked:

"Would we not come closer to our goal if we presuppose a living chief monad in the centre of creation, one which makes use of all the subordinate monads of this whole universe in the same manner as our soul makes use of the smaller subordinate monads which serve it?"

"I have nothing against this proposition, considered as a belief or faith," replied Goethe, "only I am accustomed to attribute no exclusive value to ideas which have no basis in sense-perception. Yes, if we only knew our brain and its connection with Uranus and the thousandfold threads which cross one another! But we only recognize the flashes of thought when they strike. . . . In one of our earlier conversations I called man the first speech which nature holds with God. I have no doubt that this speech can be held on other planets in a higher, deeper and more intelligent way. What we lack is self-knowledge; all the rest follows. Strictly speaking I can know nothing more of God than that to which the somewhat narrow circle of vision of the sense-perceptions on this planet gives me the right, and that is little enough in all conscience.

"But this in no way means that through this limitation of our observations of nature, limits are also placed to belief. On the contrary, through the direct divine perception in us the case could quite easily come about that knowledge must appear an unfinished thing, especially on a planet which, considered as torn out of its connection with the sun, makes all and every observation incomplete, and for that very reason can only have its complete fullness through belief or faith. I have already remarked in regard to the teachings as to colors that there are basic phenomena which we must not disturb and degrade in their divine simplicity by our useless experiments, but must leave to common-sense and faith. If we try boldly to force our way forward on both sides we only keep the boundaries strictly separated while doing so. Let us not prove what is in no way to be proved.

"Where knowledge suffices, we certainly have no need of faith-but where knowledge loses its power or appears insufficient we must not deny faith its rights. So long as one only proceeds from the principle that knowledge and faith are not there to destroy one another, but to fulfil one another, the right will everywhere be found."

           Philip A. Malpas, translator

FOOTNOTES:

1. Christoph Martin Wieland, (1733-1813) German epic poet who made the first translation into German of Shakespeare's plays. In his first great poem, Die Natur der Dinge (The Nature of Things), he showed the quality of lofty spiritual aspiration that characterized much of his work. In his later years he was influenced by the philosophy of Plato. The heroic poem Oberon was his best-known work. The friend of Goethe, the two great poets were at the same Period attached to the brilliant court at Weimar. Wieland said of Goethe at this time that "his soul was as full of him as a dewdrop of the morning sun." (return to text)

2. Intention: used by Goethe obviously with a special meaning. We understand it to convey the idea of an innate will and native characteristic: self-becoming what in Sanskrit Theosophical terminology would be called swabhava. It presupposes the latent particular genius of every evolving being, making it at once one with the All, and distinct in its own individuality. (return to text)


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