The Ethical Dimension

I’d like to talk ethics today, with East Germany in view, though, because it was a society that allowed an alternate vision, not only of what might have been possible (good and bad), but into what we were all like back before the Wall came down in 1989. For instance, out of a sense of common land, through a convoluted and violent process, East Germany adopted a communist mode of government after the Second World War. The choice resulted, among other things, in the infamous Plattenbau (prefabricated) apartment buildings of the Soviet block. They were infamous because they were done on the cheap, had no balconies and had common public space that the residents had to landscape with their own sweat, and out of their own organizational abilities. What happened to that positive energy after reunification with the West? Balconies were added to the apartments, as you can see below in Riesa, Germany, and, in some cases, North American style adventure playgrounds were added for the kids.P1130995   Doesn’t sound like much, I know, but look at the alternatives: a communal ping pong table … P1130994… and communal laundry facilities… P1130992_2 You can bet the piping was diverted from a state-sanctioned infrastructure project, because someone’s wife was in tears. And why was she in tears? Ah, imagine. You only got a nice modern apartment like this if you were married, so you did that the instant you got out of high school, and the next day the poor girl has to do laundry, but the social code of the laundry is controlled by the building communist block warden, and the girl hasn’t earned the space to hang up her new husband’s shirts, so, chances are, they wind up in the mud, and then the tears, see? It’s not as simple as it might look, though. In 1989, upon unification with the West, East Germany had the most progressive system of women’s rights and support for mothers and children in the world. The feminist movements of the West, including the Okanagan, are deeply in debt to 18-year-old East German women dealing with blocks wardens from Hell. The Western perception that East German communism was repressive misses the vital detail (among others) that the West, too, is built upon East German communism. The repression, in other words, is just good old fashioned human oppression and exploitation, following whatever patterns it can find and take advantage of. It’s what humans, a top predator, do. In my valley in Canada, that can look like this: P1390638 A boat, a Sea-doo, a boat pulling a kid in a tube, a kayaker, a guy swimming (good luck, Dude), and another boat, all in a tiny space. This use of a post-glacial lake and a local drinking water source is surely as insane, and as liberating, as the East German Plattenbau experience, and likely a lot more destructive of the environment and human relationships with it. Sometimes, this exploitation looks like this: wine The valley is famed for wine, or tells itself it is. Here is a bottle of cheap industrial chardonnay vented by a large Eastern Canadian winery that moved into the young Okanagan wine industry a couple decades back and transformed it from a farm-based industry, based on the work of farmers with the land, to a form of investment that created sales by marketing savvy alone. This bottle of wine, half-consumed at the site of a failed winery building in Vernon, suggests that someone came for the view, with a bottle of wine, and couldn’t stand to finish the damn thing. The most sensitive grassland in the North Okanagan was sacrificed to build this vineyard to help sell houses. The class of people who would do such a thing is, I believe, exactly the class of people who waylaid Luther on The Road, after he was excommunicated in the ancient Roman-German city of Worms, and walked out expecting to be killed that night by bandits, as an outlaw. It was not safe for anyone to be on The Road at night. Instead, Luther was abducted by a prince, who kept him under house arrest, feeding him bread and water until he agreed to translate the Bible into German. The translated Bible was then used to dismantle the Catholic Church in the North of Europe, in Luther’s name but against his wishes. The class of people who did that is precisely the class of people who transformed the young romantic poet Goethe into a symbol of Germany itself, and used him to create a state quite the opposite of the one he would have wished to see. The class of people who did that is precisely the class of people who reduced local Indian reserves by a factor of 90% upon annexation of British Columbia into Canada in 1871. This is not a new story. Within it, however, there have been few people who have shown us an alternate way, who have had the ethical courage to point out alternatives. Goethe was one. Without alternatives, there is only the illusion of choice.

3 replies »

  1. Yes – all too often we believe that our circumstances were chosen – when in fact we have inherited collective legacies of violations – violence – in which we and our ancestors were not empowered with participation with large formative decisions. Though nationalist histories would tell us we chose these story lines. In the face of this the generosity of the earth washes us and sets the table of example… Human hearts arise despite diversities of repressions. It seems that a Goethean pulse is to find oneself as a loving hearted human within the mysteries of earths and heavens nature… to participate with a focused heart centered consciousness that refuses to divide the human and the cosmic earthly natures… a fusing of the wonders of mystery and the awakenings of a natural philosophy of science posing nature questions in a way that her voice may find its clarities among humans… a view more interested in the living dynamisms of flows than the deadened collections of catalogues or properties… a view which connects and enlivens…

    Thank you for sharing your insights and experience so thoughtfully and with such prescence in the living breathe traveling between our time and experience and Goethe and the landscapes connected by your experience… Quite a ponder – revealing the source of this thought about the end of wild you have been exploring… breaking out of the alienation of a kind of dualism it seems… a dualism with roots in colonial elitism discussed in romanticism perhaps…

    Most of my experience of Goethe is second hand through Rudolf Steiners work – who curated Goethe’s collected works during the time between his PhD thesis and when he started sharing his own insights that led to Biodynamics, Eurethmy, Anthroposophical Medicine, Waldorf Education, Anthroposophy – all of which he gave credit to Goethe for inspiring in him… though I have tried to read Goethe – it takes real rigor – and I have had the most success in study groups – have heard a current theoretical physicist speaking of how Goethe’s theory of light is finding new support, and is inspiring work among post Newtonian physicists… his current allies are not all poets, nationalists, spiritualists and artists but also current and present working scientists…


  2. I have been following this thread with great interest, Harold. Can’t help but wonder what Goethe would propose given the current wholesale slaughter of ethical standards in Iraq, Syria, Gaza, Israel, Egypt, South Sudan……oh, how far must we go? And I haven’t even mentioned the supposedly-non-violent slaughter going on in places not fraught by actual war, including your beloved home territory. Do you think he might be able to suggest solutions, or would he simply weep at the senseless waste and devastation?


    • Goethe grew up during a French occupation of the Rhineland. The French officer billeted in his father’s house in Frankfurt turned the young Goethe towards the arts.

      Goethe was assistant to the young Duke of Xaxe-Weimar-Eisenach in the early Napoleonic battles in the Rhine, in which the German aristocracy tried to reverse the French Revolution and reinstate the monarchy, and saw first hand the murderous anarchy of war and the vast gulf between its rhetoric and its reality.

      He was in Weimar on the night that the French troops invaded after defeating Prussia above Jena. It was a night of mass looting and rape. He got through it by inviting French officers into his home and entertaining them with French stories all night, while pouring them vast quantities of wine and serving them food.

      He was still secretary of state during the Battle of Nations, with 600,000 soldiers fighting inside the city of Leipzig, and 92,000 casualties.

      What made that war so devastating was that most of the soldiers were Germans… either forced to fight for Napoleon or forced to fight against him. Germans murdering Germans for the French, who were fighting for liberty but just killing off not only their youth but that of the Germans as well, for nothing. The German Anthem (Deutschland über Alles… or Put Germany First!) came from this horror.

      Goethe learned to make do with little in terms of political budgets. Under his administration, he tightened up the Duchy finances, cut military spending, developed new sources of income, attracted the most important literary figures of the day, created the modern university out of economic necessity, supported liberalism but severed it instantly when it interfered with political realities, supported organic growth of institutions rather than revolution. He sought at all times to remake the aristocratic world within the new democratic one, in order to maintain the stability of the state and to develop rather than abandon past knowledge.

      In this, his model was often Prinz Franz of Dessau-Wörlitz, who used a deep international education in the arts (Rome) and in the administration of estates (England) to reinvent the aristocracy on a people-based model, rather than one destructive of the people, such as that of Frederick the Great. Public works, the removal of barriers to access to the prince, industrial development, and ecumenical faith were some of his qualities. His was the first central european princedom to accord Jews, Protestants and Catholics equal rights, not only as individuals but equal rights to worship and to joint burial.

      With all that, I think we’d see Goethe advising creativity, innovation, swift change built out of a society’s deep values, support of innovative intellectual rigour, the development of new ways of seeing, replacement of economies to prevent political stresses, higher intellectual standards, universities teaching pure knowledge rather than applied knowledge, and 2.5 bottles of wine per person per day, preferably low alcohol riesling. Fritz Franz would advocate trade schools.

      Goethe was liberal without being a libertarian (he was free mason) , a courtier at all times (not always for the best), an intellectual, an often sloppy poet (and occasionally great), and profoundly conservative in a way we don’t have anymore, as all of our conservatives these days are varieties of revolutionaries and liberals, or lack his desire for growth, change, openness and development.

      He was cruel to his sister and to the friends of his youth. He burnt a huge amount of his correspondence to cover up the details of his life. No saint. But for him military action was not an option, although strict police action was. Since all Germans are deeply trained in Goethe (and I am not), I’d expect that a close look at Germany will answer your question, as long as you realize that all news coming out of Germany is partisan and part of the process of government by party coalition and proportional representation. There are many types of Germany, all within the same borders, all ready to be the government at any time (although not all desirable or capable). The news needs to be approached with this in mind.

      Still, the Germans have done well at de-fusing the neo-Nazi threat, through continued police pressure, strict control of demonstrations (all are legal; all require a permit; all have police escort, and the fun is gone), and the removal of press coverage for the neo-Nazis who are in the government because of proportional representation votes. The Saxon vote for the neo-Nazis, for example, was around 10% in the middle of the last decade. It’s now around 3.7% or something, with variations. Another clue is that Chancellor Merkel’s party is the Christian Democrats, which is not the Social Democrats, but rather a bit more Goethean than that, maintaining past cultural standards while advocating for social care and democratic form. Canada does not have such a party (nor perhaps should it), but it does indicate the success of the Goethean model: growth out of your past, and in moments of crisis more creativity NOT a hardening of attitudes. The trillions spent on the war in Iraq could have made a positive difference if spent to build rather than destroy or force relationships. Goethe was a courtier. He knew that you didn’t always play cards aggressively. He would have got nowhere with the young Duke (or the older one, who he outlived) that way. Oh, and fall in love with the Duke’s mother, that helps.

      In comparison, the United States pushes its enemies into corners and expects that they will have adopted US behaviour by that point, which hasn’t happened yet. It is a pattern that led to the obliteration of first peoples across the continent, and which has been repeated in all wars since, except the very successful Marshall Plan. Canada remains colonial: it goes to war for other nations, but when it comes to maintaining sovereignty of its Arctic, is 50 years behind the ball. Its economy is not built out of its own traditions.

      Both Goethe and Prinz Franz would not have stood for farming out the state’s labour (and thus its capital) to a foreign country, such as china, for the benefit of the country’s elite. They understood that there was no elite. It was everyone together or no one at all.

      It starts with the universities. Goethe would overhaul them completely, because they’re not serving the deep needs of the state.

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