Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
On this date in 1749, Germany's most famous poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was born in Frankfurt am Main, to a comfortable bourgeois family. He began studying law at Leipzig University at the age of 16, and practiced law briefly before devoting most of his life to writing poetry, plays and novels. In 1773, Goethe wrote the powerful poem "Prometheus" [quoted below], which urged human beings to believe in themselves, and not in the gods. His first novel was The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), a semi-autobiographical tragedy about a doomed love affair. A line from that novel: "We are so constituted that we believe the most incredible things: and, once they are engraved upon the memory, woe to him who would endeavor to erase them." In his 1797 Hermann and Dorothea, Goethe observed: "The happy do not believe in miracles." Goethe typified the Sturm und Drang romantic movement, celebrating the individual. The Grand Duke of Weimar appointed him an administrator in 1775, where, according to historians, Goethe turned Weimar into "the Athens of Germany." In supervising the arts and sciences, Goethe discovered the human intermaxilary bone, also known as the Goethe bone (1784), among other discoveries. After a sojourn in Italy from 1786 to 1788, Goethe returned to his art, writing for a journal edited by freethinker Friedrich von Schiller and starting his own. Inspired by Christopher Marlowe's play "Faust," Goethe wrote part 1 of his most famous play, published in 1808. Part 2 was published in 1832. From Part 1, Scene 9: "The church alone beyond all question/ Has for ill-gotten gains the right digestion." Although Goethe's beliefs ebbed and flowed, he was uniformly anti-Christian and, at most, a pantheist. D. 1832.
Cover thy spacious heavens, Zeus,
With clouds of mist,
And, like the boy who lops
The thistles' heads,
Disport with oaks and mountain-peaks,
Yet thou must leave
My earth still standing;
My cottage too, which was not raised by thee;
Leave me my hearth,
Whose kindly glow
By thee is envied.
I know nought poorer
Under the sun, than ye gods!
Ye nourish painfully,
And votive prayers,
Ye would e'en starve,
If children and beggars
Were not trusting fools.
While yet a child
And ignorant of life,
I turned my wandering gaze
Up tow'rd the sun, as if with him
There were an ear to hear my wailings,
A heart, like mine,
To feel compassion for distress.
Who help'd me
Against the Titans' insolence?
Who rescued me from certain death,
Didst thou not do all this thyself,
My sacred glowing heart?
And glowedst, young and good,
Deceived with grateful thanks
To yonder slumbering one?
I honour thee! and why?
Hast thou e'er lighten'd the sorrows
Of the heavy laden?
Hast thou e'er dried up the tears
Of the anguish-stricken?
Was I not fashion'd to be a man
By omnipotent Time,
And by eternal Fate,
Masters of me and thee?
Didst thou e'er fancy
That life I should learn to hate,
And fly to deserts,
Because not all
My blossoming dreams grew ripe?
Here sit I, forming mortals
After my image;
A race resembling me,
To suffer, to weep,
To enjoy, to be glad,
And thee to scorn,
—-Goethe, "Prometheus," 1773
Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor
© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.
C. Wright Mills
On this date in 1916, C. Wright Mills (Charles Wright Mills) was born in Waco, Texas. Mills grew up without friends, books or music, and, at the behest of his insurance broker father, initially planned for a career in engineering. Enrolled at Texas Agricultural and Mechanical College in the mid-1930s, Mills frequently wrote for the student newspaper, often about his anger at upperclassmen taunting freshman. When students criticized his writing for lacking "guts," he wrote in response: "Just who are the men with guts? They are the men who have the ability and the brains to see this institution's faults . . . the men who have the imagination and the intelligence to formulate their own codes; the men who have the courage and the stamina to live their own lives in spite of social pressure and isolation." These were less the words of an engineer and more the early musings of one of the 20th century's great sociologists. After one year at Texas A & M, Mills transferred to the University of Texas Austin, where he excelled in philosophy, sociology, cultural anthropology, economics and social psychology. At UT Austin, Mills received a bachelor's in sociology and a master's in philosophy, while developing interest in the theories and writings of Karl Marx, Thorstein Veblen and John Dewey. In 1939, he entered the doctoral program in sociology with a research fellowship at the University of Wisconsin. After completing his coursework in 1941, Mills joined the faculty at the University of Maryland, avoiding military service due to high blood pressure. Mills involved himself in public affairs in Washington, D.C., and began writing for progressive magazines like the New Republic. In 1945, he joined Columbia University's Bureau of Applied Social Research, where he attempted to combine his progressive political passions with empirical research.
Mills authored some of the most radical books of the 20th century, including New Men of Power (1948), White Collar (1951) and The Power Elite (1956), all published when the FBI and Attorney General were compiling lists of "subversives," which put Mills in great personal and professional danger. Interested in the Cuban revolution under Fidel Castro, Mills visited Cuba in 1960, interviewing Che Guevara and Castro. Mills, who refused to identify with any political party, movement or religion, adamantly criticized what he called "cheerful robots," or those who happily follow without questioning authority. He said, "If there is one safe prediction about religion in this society, it would seem to be that if tomorrow official spokesmen were to proclaim XYZism, next week 90 percent of religious declaration would be XYZist" ("A Pagan Sermon to the Christian Clergy," 1958). The Sociological Imagination (1959), Mills' most lasting legacy, which also helped found the subfields of public and critical sociology, calls on sociologists to communicate with publics, instead of just one another, and make relevant peoples' personal troubles by connecting them to public issues. At the age of 45, Mills suffered a massive heart attack. D. 1962.
“ . . . [A]re not all the television Christians in reality armchair atheists? In value and in reality they live without the God they profess; despite ten million Bibles sold each year, they are religiously illiterate.”
“According to your belief [Christian clergy], my kind of man — secular, prideful, agnostic and all the rest of it — is among the damned. I'm on my own. You've got your God.”
—-C. Wright Mills, "A Pagan Sermon to the Christian Clergy," an address before the annual meeting of the Board of Evangelical and Social Service, United Church of Canada, Feb. 27, 1958
Compiled by Bonnie Gutsch
© Freedom From Religion Foundation. All rights reserved.