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Vichian Theories of Language, Genius, and History in Goethe’s FAUST

Thomas Prendergast


Thomas Prendergast

The University of Chicago


Im Anfang war das Wort:

Vichian Theories of Language, Genius, and History in Goethe’s Faust


While traditional historiography regards Romanticism as a reaction against the dominant rationalist discourses of the eighteenth century, opposition to the Enlightenment in fact predates this movement by nearly five decades. The basic question addressed here is therefore: what do the Romantics have in common with the early “Counter-Enlightenment”? Approaching this problem from the perspective of two seminal thinkers – the Italian rhetorician and philosopher Giambattista Vico and German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – this paper identifies crucial points of tangency between these intellectual traditions. Beginning with their shared understanding of the world as a reality mediated by language and therefore imperfect, I examine the models of historical development presented in these authors' most famous works, the New Science and Faust, Part I. Both Goethe and Vico, I conclude, ultimately see culture and cultural becoming as a product of “divine” genius. Vico’s use of the term “Sensus Communis” corresponds in a number of ways to Goethe’s “Gefühl der Verhältnisse,” or “Feeling of Circumstances,” and Vico’s “poet” serves a social function quite similar to Goethe’s “Künstler,” or artist.



The mechanism of a pure nature-picture, such as the world of Newton and Kant, is cognized, grasped, dissected into laws and equations and finally reduced to system: the organism of a pure history-picture, like the world of Plotinus, Dante and Giordano Bruno, is intuitively seen, inwardly experienced, grasped as a form or symbol and finally rendered in poetical and artistic conceptions. Goethe's ‘living nature’ is a historical world-picture.

                            Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West


Nature and history, mechanism and organism – there are two realms of observation in which one attempts to situate his being, and, correspondingly, two modes of cognition by which one achieves this self-understanding. Pulling man in opposite directions, the “nature-picture” processes human actualities in terms of temporally and spatially unbounded truths, according to the exigencies of scientificism, while the “history-picture” arranges them within the framework of a developing form, of some internally sensed character. As Spengler so neatly explains, nature “assigns things-becoming their place as things-become, while history “orders things-become with reference to their becoming” (94). Of course, the fundamental opposition of these two Weltanschauungen is not a discovery of Weimar-era German political theorists, but rather a dichotomy deeply seated in Western discourse. Two centuries prior to Spengler’s publication of his wildly popular “morphology of history,” and nearly fifty years in advance of Goethe’s impassioned romanticism, a relatively obscure Italian philosopher named Giambattista Vico likewise set out to put this “historical world-picture” into words, to establish an account of humanity’s “becoming.”

            That Goethe himself found in Vico a kindred spirit, a fellow subscriber to the Geschichtsbild (historical picture), can hardly be denied; he indeed explicitly references the man and his works in one report from his Italienische Reise. Having received a copy of the Scienza Nuova, Goethe extols the “sibylline” genius of Vico’s thought:


Gar bald machte er mich mit einem alten Schriftsteller bekannt, …er heißt Johann Baptista Vico…. Bei einem flüchtigen überblick des Buches, das sie mir als ein Heiligtum mitteilten, wollte mir scheinen, hier seien sibyllinische Vorahnungen des Guten und Rechten, das einst kommen soll oder sollte, gegründet auf ernste Betrachtungen des überlieferten und des Lebens. Es ist gar schön, wenn ein Volk solch einen ältervater besitzt…


Very soon he introduced me to an old writer,…he is named Johann Baptista Vico…By a fleeting overview of the book, which they shared with me like a shrine, it seemed to me that there be Sibylline presentiments of the Good and the Right, which are to come once or should, founded upon serious considerations of tradition and life. It is quite beautiful, when a nation possesses such a patriarch… (My translation)


What are we to make of these “presentiments of the Good and the Right,” these “serious considerations of tradition and life” that Goethe finds in Vico’s Scienza Nuova? Why does Goethe seem to endorse Vico’s role as a sort of cultural patriarch? The answer to these questions lies, I will argue, in their common understanding of the world as an inescapably language-constructed, and language-mediated reality. Goethe’s Faust, the principal subject of this paper, harmonizes with the Scienza Nuova insofar as they similarly envision language not as some transparent universal, not as some perfect conveyor of ideas, but rather as a historically contingent nexus of signs, of socially produced metaphors.

            These two masterworks therefore represent two sides of the same coin: while Vico’s philological analysis presents the epistemological basis for such historicist conceptions of language and Goethe’s illustrates its existential difficulties, both express a common critical disposition toward rationalism, one that agitates for a correction of their era’s intellectual oversights and deficiencies through an appreciation of the role of creative genius in bridging the painful gaps between man and truth. Just as Vico’s theory of the relation of language to history reveals the roots of, and suggests a cure for, the Faustian dilemma, Goethe’s conception of the Künstler, in opening a theoretical space for the individual and his artistic vision, clarifies the Vichian notion of divinely guided providence as one of imaginative intentionality.

            Perhaps the most fitting place to start is with their interpretations of the opening lines of the Gospel of John, that is, with their positions on the seminality of “the Word.” Goethe’s Faust in many respects revolves around this issue, its titular character devoting himself to a proper translation of the Greek Logos into his native tongue. Agonizing over the many connotations of this word, a word lying at the heart of the biblical cosmogony, Professor Faust considers a number of possibilities:


Geschrieben steht: “im Anfang war das Wort!

Hier stock’ ich schon! Wer hilft mir weiter fort?

Ich kann das Wort so hoch unmöglich schätzen,

Ich muß es anders übersetzen,

Wenn ich vom Geiste recht erleuchtet bin.

Geschrieben steht: im Anfang war der Sinn.

Bedenke wohl die erste Zeile,

Daß deine Feder sich nicht übereile!

Ist es der Sinn, der alles wirkt und schafft?

Es sollte stehn: im Anfang war die Kraft!

Doch, auch indem ich dieses niederschreibe,

Schon warnt mich was, daß ich dabei nicht bleibe.

Mir hilft der Geist! auf einmal seh ich Rat

Und schreibe getrost: im Anfang war die Tat!

(Faust 80-81)[i]


'Tis written: "In the beginning was the Word!"

Here now I'm balked! Who'll put me in accord?

It is impossible, the Word so high to prize,

I must translate it otherwise

If I am rightly by the Spirit taught.

'Tis written: In the beginning was the Thought!

Consider well that line, the first you see,

That your pen may not write too hastily!

Is it then Thought that works, creative, hour by hour?

Thus should it stand: In the beginning was the Power!

Yet even while I write this word, I falter,

For something warns me, this too I shall alter.

The Spirit's helping me! I see now what I need

And write assured: In the beginning was the Deed!


To esteem the Word (das Wort) with such creative force, to attribute to it the very power of genesis, would be, in Faust’s opinion, an absurdity. He first attempts to rectify this translational failure by replacing “the Word” with “the Thought” (der Sinn), finding necessary, it seems, the addition of a sort of res cogitans to our story of the world’s beginning. This change, however, fails to satisfy the scholar, who asks himself skeptically: “is it the Thought that brings everything into being?” Something must effect this generative act, must serve as the link between the thinking thing and the res extensa – that link, he decides next, is “the Power” (die Kraft). Yet as soon as this is written, he senses a fault in his third correction and, aided by the “Spirit,” finally, confidently (getrost) settles upon “the Deed” (die Tat). In recasting Logos as an act, in emphasizing the real, creative impact of speech, Faust subscribes to a view of verbalization in which the word enjoys an inherent power to actualize. What he lacks is faith, faith in the ability of human words to actualize truth as the divine word does. He cannot imagine a separate, temporal truth.

            An examination of the relationship of Mephistopheles to Faust reveals a dramatic foil by which the scholar comes to recognize the viability of such an epistemological distinction between divine and human knowledge. Throughout the first half of the play, Faust continually expresses this distrust of the “the Word,” yearning for a truer reality, for life in a world unlimited by human speech; Mephistopheles, on the other hand, respects, even fears, symbology, advising a disillusioned student: “An Worte läßt sich trefflich glauben/Von einem Wort läßt sich kein Jota rauben.” (Faust 122) / “Words we quite fitly can believe, Nor from a word a mere iota thieve.” Goethe makes this stark opposition apparent from the first moment of Faust and Mephistopheles’ initial meeting:


Faust. Wie nennst du dich?

Mephistopheles. Die Frage scheint mir klein,

Für einen der das Wort so sehr verachtet,

Der, weit entfernt von allem Schein,

Nur in der Wesen Tiefe trachtet. (Faust 86)


Faust. What is your name?

Mephistopheles. The question seems but cheap

From one who for the Word has such contempt,

Who from all outward show is quite exempt

And only into beings would delve deep.


As a riposte to Faust’s asking “what is your name?”, the devilish character points out that such a question of naming seems odd, coming from a man who, far removed from all appearances, condemns the Word and strives to delve deeply into the “essence” of things. When considered in light of Faust’s desperate desire to “recognize what holds together the world” and “no longer rummage around for words,” the protagonist’s contempt for the metaphoricity of language suggests his longing to transcend the inherently referential conceptualization of the world to which the human mind is confined (Faust 34)[ii]. Mephistopheles, portrayed to comic effect as a sociable, down-to-earth man of the people, embraces the Word as an inescapable aspect of temporal existence. For this reason, Faust’s decision to sign away his soul to evil is truly, and most basically, a decision to leave the cloistered esotericism of the poêle, to end his quest for pure, unmediated knowledge and give himself over to human society, where Mephistopheles promises to show him “how much joy and how much profit” there is to “sponge up” (Faust 126)[iii].

            It is here nearly impossible not to turn to Vico, whose work sought to prove, in opposition to Cartesian epistemology, the essential identity of philology and philosophy, i.e., the verbally structured nature of human knowledge. At the heart of such an identification lies the epistemology of the ancients, whose very language attested to both the intellectually productive capacities of speech and the essential veracity of this production. Vico opens On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians with a chapter devoted to the early Latin connotations of “verum” and “factum,” arguing that they were used synonymously and were thus conceived of as two sides of the same coin: “created truth,” that truth which the human mind makes in distinction to that which God begets, “is inherently interchangeable with what is made” (47).

            Vico finds on a sociological/anthropological level that same unity of truth and fact that Faust discovers as an individual. In his magnum opus, Scienza Nuova, he looks to the primitive poetic force of the classical tongues to define the poet’s role in verbalizing (making communicable) the sapienza of his community, in creating that which the people instinctively comprehend. Ever the classical philologist, he asserts that “poet,” to the Greeks, meant “maker,” for these men, specially attuned to divine reason, invented “sublime fable to suit the popular understanding” (The New Science 105). There are, therefore, two bodies of truth and two languages in which these truths are captured – the atemporal, God-begotten Logos, in which “all the ideas of the world…are contained,” and the man-made, which develops in historical corsi via the divinely guided poetical voice (Most Ancient Wisdom 47).

            Humanity’s knowledge is, within this schema, necessarily an imperfect impression of the truth, an incomplete, developing body of truth: “divine reason is a solid image like a statue,” while “human truth,” produced and refined by humans over the course of history, “is a monogram or surface image like a painting” (Most Ancient Wisdom 46). Returning to Faust, it becomes clear that the scholar’s disillusionment derives from his awareness of the imperfection of these “paintings,” his recognition of the insuperable distance between the depiction, the symbol, the sign, and the object, the thing-itself. Under Mephistopheles’ tutelage, he comes to trust that our human means of signification – language – will, despite its failings, ultimately orient man toward a higher, perfect reason. This might be precisely what the demon means when he introduces himself to Faust as “ein Teil von jener Kraft,/ die stets das Böse will und stets das Gute schafft.”/ “Part of that Power which would/ The Evil ever do, and ever does the Good” (Faust 86). Inclined to evil yet ever bringing about good, Mephistopheles represents the fact, at this point unrecognized by Faust, that the painful limitations of communication, the deeply troubling nature of metaphorically mediated reality, ultimately leads to, though never reaches, truth.

            Reading Vico and Goethe in tandem does not merely expose parallel lines of thought, interesting intellectual commonalities. As the foregoing analysis of the Fasutian existential conflict suggests, it offers a broader, complementary set of theoretical apparatuses by which to better understand the two thinkers in their own terms. Vico’s epistemology of language can shed light upon the nature of truth and falsity in Goethe’s Faust; Goethe’s aesthetics of genius can, in turn, bring out the individualistic qualities of Vico’s “poetic wisdom,” can draw attention to the humanity of his “divine providence.” Simply put, the two go hand-in-hand. Vico’s philosophy of history underpins Goethe’s philosophy of creativity, and Goethe’s creative genius elucidates the workings of Vico’s historical process. In order to fully grasp this relationship, their shared view of aesthetics as a historically dependent form of communication requires further explanation.

            For both Goethe and Vico, “philology,” understood in the broad sense of symbolic, metaphoric communication, develops organically within a society and progresses through stages of refinement. Language itself delineates the boundaries of our knowledge. With these fundamental premises in mind, the logic behind their shared historicist aesthetics comes into view. One of Goethe’s early theoretical essays, Von Deutscher Baukunst (1772), marks a radical break with contemporary classicist criticism, presenting an aesthetics informed by the notion of creative genius and by an appreciation of geographic, cultural, and temporal context. Critics should, he avers in this essay, judge a work against its time, its milieu, rather than against some universal ideal. Arguing for the “truth” of the much maligned Gothic cathedral at Strasbourg, he offers a theory of aesthetics in which the “poet,” in this case the architect, hearing the “blissful melodies” of life’s interconnectivity, articulates his distinctive (charakteristich) personal and cultural sense of self:


Diese charakteristische Kunst ist nun die einzige wahre. Wenn sie aus inniger, einiger, eigner, selbständiger Empfindung um sich wirkt…sie ist ganz und lebendig. Da seht ihr bei Nationen und einzelnen Menschen dann unzählige Grade. Je mehr sich die Seele erhebt zu dem Gefühl der Verhältnisse,… in denen sich allein das Leben des gottgleichen Genius in seligen Melodien herumwälzt… desto herrlicher ist der Künstler. (“Von Deutscher Kunst” 36)


This distinctive art is the only true sort. If it involves ​​inner, unique, personal, autonomous feeling…is it complete and alive. You can then see in nations and individuals countless degrees. The more the soul raises itself up to the feeling of the which alone the life of the God-like genius dances around to blissful melodies...the more beautiful is the artist. (My translation)


On both the individual and societal level, “divine genius” accesses a unique Empfindung, an inner sensibility, and “can speak, god-like” this feeling, put it, via symbols, into a communicable form.

            It might be argued that Vico’s “ages of men,” “poets,” and “poetic wisdom” correspond, respectively, to the Goethian categories of “Charakter,” “Künstler,” and “Godlike genius.” For Vico, poetic genius is the capacity to put the sensus communis, what Goethe terms society’s Empfindung, into words; the meaning of these words depends upon the matrix of words available to poets at that time and place, and thus any aesthetic appraisal must, first and foremost, grasp the “character” of the world in which that communication was produced. Vico manages to tie together these main facets of his aesthetics with his groundbreaking assertion of Homer’s nonexistence.

            Calling the author of the Iliad and Odyssey a symbol of local tradition, a stand-in for the whole body of “vulgar customs of the barbarous Greece of his day,” Vico resituates Homeric poetry in its appropriate historical context and thereby calls for a total reevaluation of its aesthetics. In the face of a widespread belief in the esoteric wisdom of this ancient voice, Vico matches the “truculent and savage style” of the poet’s language to the “wild vulgar” of the heroic age from which he arose; his genius, his ability to reproduce ancient Greece’s “imaginative universal,” is in this way not a timeless absolute, but a historically contingent objectification of their particular truths (New Science 271). Such a historicist approach eviscerates the dominant classicism of his time, arguing that the “civilized” and “humanized” mind of the modern age has not, as many claimed, lost touch with some beautiful truth, but rather has progressed to new heights.

            Vico in this sense similarly contends that languages, owing to the “indefinite nature of the human mind,” express not a universal meaning, but rather a contingent one (New Science 785). Just as Goethe’s 18th-century contemporaries, unaware of the radical structural difference of the medieval mindset, dismissed and reviled the Gothic cathedral as a creation which falls short of some arbitrarily determined set of rules, Vico’s conceited scholars neglect to consider the imaginative contours of the society from which a given work of literature was born, ignore the histoire des mentalités in which art must be placed. Language reflects, at every step, these mentalités. This conceptualization allows Vico to judge particular cultural products, such as the Strasburger Münster or the Iliad, according to their own terms, according to the quality with which the poet (or architect) expresses the wisdom of his particular era and culture.

            Humanity therefore never is in the Vichian and Goethian imaginations, but rather always becomes. The driving force behind this endless Verwandlung is, however, somewhat differently expressed: while Vico’s history projects itself temporally, that is, forward into time, via “poetic wisdom” and in accord with the logic of “divine providence,” Goethe’s seems to lack a definite direction, driven by individual humans and their particular Genien. Vico’s human creativity operates, prima facie, at a level above individual agency, without a significant degree of free will – it is directed from above and invariably moves toward a certain end. But what exactly constitutes this “divine providence” by which society is guided? Is there a space for autonomous man within this conception?

            Here Vico’s appreciation of the etymological roots of the word “divine” comes into play. Ever careful in his wording, the philologist intends the “full meaning of applying the term ‘divinity,’” a word derived from divinari, to divine, to “understand what is hidden from man,” to “foretell the future” (New Science 7). The realization of providence, the historical direction of humankind, depends on the individual poet, who grabs hold of what is to come and actualizes it, through verbalization, in the world of the present, or, considered somewhat differently, uses words to pull the present into the future. Upon closer inspection, it appears that Vico’s “divine providence” can be better understood along the lines of Goethe’s “godlike genius,” that is, not as some pawn in a fixed, heavenly plan, but as one who, ingeniously detecting the Gefühl der Verhältnisse, the Zeitgeist, the sensus communis, pushes their society one step closer to a higher reason.

            Considered together, Vico’s providence and Goethe’s genius offer a complete picture of historical change, one driven by individuals, structured by the metaphorical communicative media of their world, directed toward truth. To overlook this second element, this engagement with and fundamental reliance on the truth of the human community, to attempt a direct, ahistorical connection to truth, as does Faust, would be to struggle in vain, to fall into the perilous traps of the static, temporally insensitive Naturbild of Descartes. In the words of Edward Saïd, “history is the passage from the obscure birth of things to their developed, institutional state,” is the “becoming more definite” of man’s “indefinite nature” (Saïd 347). The crystallization of the individual’s, the “nation’s,” and, most generally, humanity’s self-understanding, its truth can only be achieved through a historical narrative, a narrative of conscious beginning and imagined, “divined” plot points. Intentionality, the basic mark of the “poet,” of the artistic genius, is therefore the key to knowledge.

            Disguised at one point as the university professor, Mephistopheles wryly imparts the following advice upon an eager student: “vor allen andern Sachen/ Müßt ihr euch an die Metaphysik machen!/ Da seht, daß ihr tiefsinnig faßt,/ Was in des Menschen Hirn nicht paßt.”/ “To Metaphysics you must give attention,/ And see that you profoundly strive to gain/ What is not suited for the human brain” (New Science 120). Since its initial publication, critics have, noting the sarcasm of such comments, rightly considered Goethe’s Faust a Lehrstück, a moralized “teaching piece” intended to check the bloated ego of the philosophes – while such a reading is basically correct, one cannot fully appreciate the strength of his case without first determining what befits des Menschen Hirn and what belongs to the realm of metaphysics. This is precisely where Vico’s epistemological dichotomization comes into play. Contemplating God not in “the order of natural things,” as “hitherto philosophers have contemplated Him,” but in the “world of human minds,” the historical “world of nations,” it would seem that the Italian rhetorician understood Mephistopheles’ irony, his devilish, sarcastic call to delve into the logic of the God-begotten, several decades before its Goethian expression (New Science 5). He understood that a fusion of imagination and erudition, Vico’s ingenium, and Goethe’s Genie, represents not a flight from the strictures of rationalism, but rather, in a sense, a return to it. This fusion guarantees reason, the long developing reason of the human community, rather than perverts it under the banner of absolute truth.


Works Cited


Goethe, Johann. Faust. Die Tragödie erster Teil, Tübingen: 1806.

Goethe, Johann. “Von Deutscher Kunst,” Kunsttheoretische Schriften und Übersetzungen. Berlin: 1960.

Saïd, Edward. Beginnings: Intention and Method. New York: Columbia University Press, 1975.

Spengler, Oswald, translator Atkinson, Charles. The Decline of the West. New York: Alfred. A. Knopf, 1926.

Vico, Giambattista, translator Palmer, J.M.. On the Most Ancient Wisdom of the Italians. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Vico, Giambattista, translator Bergen, Thomas Goddard, Frisch, Max. The New Science. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1948.


[i] Unless otherwise noted, translations of Faust are by George Mason Priest (A. A. Knopf, 1941)

[ii] Original: Daß ich erkenne, was die Welt
/Im Innersten zusammenhält,/ Schau’ alle Wirkenskraft und Samen,/ Und thu’ nicht mehr in Worten kramen.


[iii] Original: Mit welcher Freude, welchem Nutzen,/ Wirst du den Cursum durchschmarutzen!



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