From J. W. von Goethe, GeheimratDear Professor Worthy,
To J. W. Worthy, Professor
After reading and re-reading your last letter I find its style almost as confusing as are the Gospels themselves. Here is what I gather that you were trying to say. The great historical processes are difficult to comprehend in all their roots and ramifications, therefore history tends to personify them. You offer as examples the development of monotheism in the person of Abraham, the drawing of its ethical implications in the person of Moses. Similarly, the thousands and thousands of crucifixions, over many centuries are concentrated into the one figure of Jesus, so that the Old Covenant's universal promise is fulfilled in the personified god. This strikes me as a simple and agreeable insight. I wonder, therefore, at your somewhat garbled presentation. Are you intentionally making Pastor Wesley puzzle over the sense of your letter, so that he may have the satisfaction of at last formulating it for himself?
I hope so, for that might get our correspondence off this all too pious track, and back onto the topic which attracted me in the first place: just exactly what is a "classical" work? Obviously it is one which provokes thought, demanding that the reader put a good deal of effort into it. I suppose every good teacher, every public speaker knows his audience must participate in order to get his point. When I was young, I thought poetry was self-expression--or, as Herder put it, the self-expression of a native genius (like me). The poems of my old age, on the other hand, are much leaner, if the reader wants meaning, he must supply it himself. Actually, I use the French word suppléer, he must supplement my sparse words so as to produce meaning, each reader's own unique meaning. Perhaps that is the way I react to your letter: I believe you are trying to challenge Pastor Wesley to solve the problem in his own way.
Luther likes to compare Virgil with "Moses," presumed author of the Pentateuch. The Bible, he says, uses few words but carries great meaning. In this sense, of course, Luther thinks Jesus is the greatest classic, "He combines heaven and earth into one morsel when he speaks." If Luther is right, and I think he may be, then the greatest classic is the work which accumulates the most extensive midrash, or perhaps I should say, the midrash which best suits you. The Gospels might then constitute our greatest classic, a summation of the best minds throughout recent millennia. One might observe, however, that the sayings of Jesus are themselves midrash on the Old Testament. In any case, I think you may be making a contribution to what is really meant by the term "classical work of literature."
In that case, the concept of a "classic" refers us back to the Augustinian notion of time, which he obviously feels to be God's great productive force (Book 11 of his Confessions). However wonderful we think a work is, it is not a classic until layer upon layer of readings and commentary is passed down and accumulated from one generation to the next. It becomes something different for every epoch. Cicero as individual is heard but once before the Senate. Classical Cicero, the one you and I know, is part of the development of the Western mind, as it feeds and ruminates upon the pasture of time.
With most sincere good wishes,
Please return to Professor Worthy's Page, Home
or see the correspondence with Goethe, but in any case please send your comments.