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J.W. von Goethe (1749–1832). Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.
The Harvard Classics Shelf of Fiction. 1917.

Criticisms and Interpretations. III. By Sir J. R. Seeley

IT is commonly said that “Wilhelm Meister” seems to make Art the one object of life; but this is not Goethe’s intention. He was himself an artist, and, as the work is in a great degree autobiographical, art naturally comes into the foreground, and the book becomes especially interesting to artists, but the real subject of it, as I hold, is vocations in general. In the later books, indeed, art drops into the background, and we have a view of feminine vocations. The “Beautiful Soul” represents the pietistic view of life; then Therese appears in contrast, representing the economic or utilitarian view; finally, Natalie hits the golden mean, being practical like Therese, but less utilitarian, and ideal like her aunt, the pietist, but less introspective. On the whole, then, the lesson of the book is that we should give unity to our lives by devoting them with hearty enthusiasm to some pursuit, and that the pursuit is assigned to us by Nature through the capacities she has given us. It is thus that Goethe substitutes for the idea of pleasure that of the satisfaction of special inborn aptitudes different in each individual. His system treats every man as a genius, for it regards every man as having his own unique individuality, for which it claims the same sort of tender consideration that is conceded to genius.…

But we shall find much more unity in “Wilhelm Meister” if we regard it not as a theatrical novel, but as a novel of culture and education, and if we consider it in close connexion with Goethe’s Life. The story of Mignon, as we have remarked, expresses that yearning after the ancient world, which was perhaps the deepest of all his feelings. The devotion to Shakspeare was his strongest feeling at a particular period of his life, the period when he undertook “Wilhelm Meister.” That it should disappear at a particular point of the novel, answers to that change in his views on which we have enlarged and which is represented in his life by his Italian journey. The Confessions of a Beautiful Soul taken together with the philosophy of the Uncle and his Hall of the Past, represent the struggle which went on in Goethe’s mind through the greater part of his life between two forms of religion, between certain Christian ideas from which he would never consent to part, and a sort of Heathenism which at times he avowed with the utmost frankness. And all this various material he has united in “Wilhelm Meister” by means of his practical philosophy of culture, which taught him that a man should study to develop all that is in him, that a man should spare no pains to discover his true vocation, and that in doing so he will receive little help from the reigning system of education, which excites wishes instead of awakening aptitudes. Looked at then in this way, the book sets before us more fully than any other book of Goethe’s, and in a highly remarkable, if not a perfectly satisfactory way, what we may call the Goethian philosophy of culture.—From “Goethe Reviewed after Sixty Years” (1894).