Robert Richards
University of Chicago
In a late reminiscence, Goethe recalled that during his close association with the poet Friedrich Schiller, he was constantly defending “the rights of nature" against his friend's “gospel of freedom.”1 Goethe’s characterization of his own view was artfully ironic, alluding as it did to the French Revolution's proclamation of the "Rights of Man." His remark implied that values lay within nature, values that had authority comparable to those ascribed to human beings by the architects of the Revolution. During the time Goethe made his defense, he also faced another revolution, in which Schiller was a partisan—that of Kant in the intellectual sphere. Both upheavals had undermined the autonomy of nature, replacing her authority with that of human will and understanding. Previous papers in this volume have recorded the shifting fortunes of nature that brought her to this stage of jeopardy. In the early classical period, nature as a unified whole had not yet arisen. Animate and inanimate objects had natures— characteristic modes of action—but there was as yet, according Slatkin, no articulate concept of nature as a whole standing over against human beings. Park has described a long period of transition, when nature became personified in the form of a didactic female, a figure imaginatively based, it would seem, upon the system of a 1 natural philosophy that stood in contrast to the revealed wisdom of God. Nature in this guise yet derived her authority and nurturing capacity from that higher, divine power. During the seventeenth century, writers like Mandeville, as Allen has shown, began to suspect that nature might be a chimera, a fictive creature that disguised humanity's own hidden desires and inclinations. These doubts grew during the next century—with the likes of Hume accelerating the skepticism— till finally, in the two revolutions that so troubled Goethe, nature was completely stripped of her authority. Goethe had become confirmed in his defense of the rights of nature during his travels to Italy during the years 1786-1788.
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