This excellent book seems at first sight to belong to an execrable genre, the sort of popularising stuff that promises happiness or enlightenment from Goethe's collected "wisdom". The sage of Weimar has attracted this kind of rubbish more than any other secular figure. The vast extent of his literary works - 150 volumes in the most comprehensive edition, to say nothing of the many volumes of conversation and anecdote - ranks him above Pepys and alongside Voltaire, and the intimate relation of his works to his life puts him in a class of his own.
He has always seemed to invite imitation, but that way dangers lie. His younger friend C. P. Moritz tried for much of his adult life to emulate Goethe, and it brought him mostly unhappiness. The beauty of Goethe's writing, its balance of the casual and the complex, is inimitable.
In what sense, then, can he be a model for happiness, or - since John Armstrong's book is more serious than its alluring title implies - what salutary ethical lessons can the documentary remains of Goethe's existence provide?
The answer lies in the story of Goethe's struggle against melancholy, variants of which can be found in all his major works. In this sense, Armstrong aligns himself with classical ethics. The way to achieve peace is to maintain a balanced and connected psychic economy. The core of this argument is a lucid and winning discussion of Goethe's Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship . Learning is about acquiring not beliefs but capacities: wisdom is flat unless grounded in experience. The chief enemy is projection, the attempt to read into the world a correlate of one's immediate emotional needs. The antithesis of this is the ethics of Spinoza, to which Goethe was strongly attracted. But Armstrong balks at the scientific view of life, which he thinks is alien to us.
There is a limit, then, to our renunciation of hopes and desires. The value of intelligence is not to understand nature but to help us face life successfully. This sounds a bit like pragmatism - or does Armstrong mean, without openly staking out the position, that nothing extends beyond life, that life is the only space where intelligence can operate? The latterview seems entirely Goethean.
Even great philosophers can make a dog's breakfast of literature, either belittling it (Plato) or attempting to force it into an ethical programme (Aristotle). Armstrong is sensitive but at times faintly Aristotelean: he has little time for the mimetic or formal aspects of art. Here Armstrong's reticence about naturalism is a little unfortunate. Goethe was committed to objectivity in science. He was equally committed to the autonomy of art. Where does this leave ethics?
Armstrong believes that Goethe does not explore the tragic gulf between the scientific and the moral world-views, but this is just what the great tragic novel The Elective Affinities is about, and the heroism of Spinozan resignation is surely its main theme. Having said this, Goethe needs advocates such as Armstrong, who can bring the whole of his achievement into focus.
Those who know Goethe will enjoy arguing with Armstrong. Those who do not may find the sage of Weimar, as his long-time partner and eventual wife Christiane did, "rich, funny, handsome, generous, famous, passionate, keen on drinking and by turns quietly domestic and outrageously dirty".
Matthew Bell is senior lecturer in German and director of the comparative literature programme, King's College London.
Love, Life, Goethe: How to Be Happy in an Imperfect World
Author - John Armstrong
Publisher - Allen Lane, Penguin
Pages - 483
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 0 7139 9679 X