On the uniqueness of the human being

“The Godlike” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

by Winfried Pogorzelski

The first two well-known verses of this hymn already make high demands on us humans when we are urged to be noble, helpful and good. The justification follows promptly: the abilities mentioned would distinguish us humans from all other known beings. Despite the lack of certainty as to whether gods exist and what their nature may be, man should live and work in such a way that one can assume the existence of gods, the second stanza continues: “Ihnen gleiche der Mensch” (Let man resemble them.)
   A series of arguments follows. The view of nature underpins the unique position of man: it knows no empathy, behaves completely the same towards everyone: For unfeeling/
Nature is ever:
On bad and on good
“The sun alike shineth/
 And on the wicked/
As on the best/
The moon and stars gleam.” We are all exposed without distinction to nature’s misfortunes, such as storms and thunderstorms. Like nature, luck in the sense of fate does not choose its victims or its lucky children. For it neither judges nor rewards. But like a man struck with blindness, “Even so, fortune
Gropes/mid the throng
Innocent boyhood’s
/ Curly head seizing/
Seizing the hoary
Head” of the sinner. Thus, completely independent of the reputation of the one it catches.
    In contrast to nature and fate, the human being in its special position is able to do the seemingly “impossible”: it can differentiate, allow itself to make a judgement; moreover, the human being has a certain freedom of choice. He also has the gift of being creative through art: He to the moment
“Endurance can lend”. Poetry, music and visual art capture what the artist was thinking about when he created his work.
    What results from this for human existence is a considerable amount of responsibility: “He and he only
/ The good can reward/
The bad can he punish/
Can heal and can save”; those are responsible tasks that man has to face with his abilities. And he is in a position to pursue science for the good of man and the world: “All that wanders and strays
(he)/ Can usefully blend.”
    We humans imagine the gods as idealised human beings. Consequently, we can now speak of the “noble man”; whereas at the beginning in the subjunctive (“Noble be man”) there was still talk of man having the task of being noble, it is now certain: Be the man that is noble/Both helpful and good. The noble man shall be helpful and good, and as such he alone has the task under heaven of always achieving what is just and useful, so that he can be a model in the sense of a “role model” of the still only “imagined beings” – namely the gods. In the divine, which remains vague, the human being, who is always striving for morality, is reflected.
    Except for the sixth stanza, which is about man as a natural being being subject to the laws of nature (“After laws mighty, Brazen, eternal”), all the other stanzas have six verses (lines); from the seventh onwards, the results of the train of thought follow. The poet dispenses with a regular verse meter, i.e., a regular sequence of unaccented and accented syllables. The sentence structures are also plain: Substantive clauses with enumerations (“Tempest and torrent/ Thunder and hail/ Can heal and can save/ All that wanders and strays”), sparingly used adjectives and adverbs, sometimes a subordinate clause, some appeals and repeated words underline the poem’s message. These formal peculiarities lend the poem the sustained, solemn keynote of a hymn. 
    The epoch for which reflective poetry of this kind is characteristic and towards which Goethe is moving is the Weimar Classicism. It begins with the friendship and artistic collaboration between Goethe and Friedrich Schiller (from 1794) and ends with Schiller‘s death (1805). The representatives of the epoch basically share the goals of the French Revolution, but reject any use of violence and instead focus on evolutionary development. In involvement with the history, literature and art of ancient Greece, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, there is a growing conviction that education can produce people who reconcile duty and inclination and are committed to the general moral law; Schiller coined the term “beautiful soul”.
    Goethe wrote the poem as early as 1783. Eight years earlier he had come to Weimar at the request of the Hereditary Prince of Saxe-Weimar Carl August and the Duchess Mother Anna Amalia; he left behind the years of “Sturm und Drang” (*) and the “cult of genius” and turned to the study of antiquity and history. From the beginning, however, he was also involved in numerous duties of the administration of the small state: He was responsible for mining and was chairman of two permanent commissions, the road construction commission and the war commission, important functions in the troubled times. He increasingly develops self-discipline, a sense of duty and responsibility, also under the influence of Charlotte von Stein, court lady of Anna Amalia and close friend of Goethe, and of the theologian Johann Gottfried Herder. Goethe had met and come to appreciate him in Strasbourg; at his request, Herder came to Weimar and took on important offices there, such as those of general superintendent and the first preacher at the city church of Peter and Paul. The poet owed valuable inspiration to him. Above all, Herder’s basic conviction about the nature of man appealed to him, as he later wrote down in his “Letters for the Promotion of Humanity” (1793-1797): “Humanity is the character of our race, but it is only innate to us in dispositions and must actually be trained”.
    In 1786 Goethe left for Rome in a hurry. He had increasingly found life at court and the duties associated with it confining and not very conducive to his literary work. In the Eternal City he continued his studies of nature and devoted himself to antiquity and the Renaissance. After his return to Weimar in 1788, he was relieved of his numerous administrative duties and instead took over the supervision of the Weimar theatre, which subsequently occupied him completely alongside his work as a poet.

*a literary and artistic movement in Germany in the late 18th century, influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and characterised by the expression of emotional unrest and a rejection of neoclassical literary norms. (editor’s note)


Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. “Das Göttliche” (The Godlike), in: Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Sämtliche Werke in 18 Bänden, Bd. 1. Gedichte. (Complete Works in 18 Volumes, Vol. 1. Poems.) Zurich 1977, p. 324 f.

“Gedanken und Aphorismen aus der Feder von Johann Gottfried Herder” (Thoughts and Aphorisms penned by Johann Gottfried Herder).


Best, Otto F.; Schmitt, Hans-Jürgen. Die deutsche Literatur, Ein Abriss in Text und Darstellung 7 (German Literature, An Outline in Text and Presentation 7), Stuttgart 1974, p. 120ff.

Nürnberger, Helmuth. Geschichte der deutschen Literatur (History of German Literature). Munich, Düsseldorf, Stuttgart 2006, p. 137ff.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe: The Godlike


Noble be man,
Helpful and good!
For that alone
Distinguisheth him
From all the beingsUnto us known.

Hail to the beings,
Unknown and glorious,
Whom we forebode!
From his example
Learn we to know them!

For unfeeling
Nature is ever:
On bad and on good
The sun alike shineth;
And on the wicked,
As on the best,
The moon and stars gleam.

Tempest and torrent,
Thunder and hail,
Roar on their path,
Seizing the while,
As they haste onward,
One after another.

Even so, fortune
Gropes ‘mid the throng
Innocent boyhood’s
Curly head seizing,
Seizing the hoary
Head of the sinner.

After laws mighty
Brazen, eternal,
Must all we mortals
Finish the circuit
Of our existence.

Man, and man only
Can do the impossible;
He ‘tis distinguisheth,
Chooseth and judgeth;
He to the moment
Endurance can lend.

He and he only
The good can reward,
The bad can he punish,
Can heal and can save;
All that wanders and strays
Can usefully blend.

And we pay homage
To the immortals
As though they were men,
And did in the great,
What the best, in the small,
Does or might do.

Be the man that is noble,
Both helpful and good.
Unweariedly forming
The right and the useful,
A type of those beings

Our mind hath foreshadow’d!

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