The idea that the mind and body are distinct entities is one that originated in seventeenth century philosophy and has informed cultural attitudes ever since. Goethe accepts this divide in The Sorrows of Young Werther; he depicts emotion and intellect as conflicting and irreconcilable forces, with the heart incessantly needing love and attention, and the mind trying to moderate these needs to little avail. Rather than coming down in favor of the rational influence of the mind (as is culturally conventional), however, Goethe advocates for emotions over reason, and the heart over the mind. By using his title character, Werther, to embody emotion, Goethe argues for the beauty of a passionate existence over the rational and deadening influence of the intellect.
As the reader is naturally aligned with Werther (the protagonist), Werther’s opinions and desires carry significant weight. Thus, Goethe’s choice to wholly align Werther with emotions, rather than intellect, is itself an implicit argument for body over mind. Werther allows himself to be fully driven by his passions and desires, and he actively rejects any tempering that either his own mind or the advice of his friends supply. Early evidence of this comes when a minor character advises Werther not to fall in love with Lotte, the beautiful (but taken) young woman he meets shortly thereafter, but Werther fails to rationally consider the situation and instead falls deeply in love with a woman engaged to someone else. This initial abandonment of rationality in favor of emotion is repeated throughout the book, becoming its primary conflict. For example, when Werther has fled from Lotte and sensibly taken up employment, he finds himself unable to concentrate on his work or abide by the restrictions it places on his life. Instead of allowing work to distract him from his destructive emotions, he quits his job to return to Lotte, who is by then married. Werther is unable ever to temper the needs of his heart.
While Werther comes to embody emotion and the heart, Goethe uses Werther’s friends—particularly Wilhelm, with whom Werther corresponds throughout the novel—to stand in for reason and intellect by giving practical advice or making rational observations. While well-meaning, these characters tend to underestimate the hold that Werther’s emotions have on him, and their advice has little effect. Wilhelm, for example, tries to reason with Werther, often regarding the folly of his love for Lotte. While Wilhelm’s letters are not included in the novel, Werther’s responses to them make clear that Wilhelm has been fruitlessly advocating clearheaded thought. Werther’s servants, seeing the increasingly disheveled appearance and erratic comings and goings of their employer, respond only with silence. In this, they recognize the fruitlessness of trying to rationalize with Werther. Goethe, by highlighting the servants’ silence, shows just how evident Werther’s runaway emotions are to those around him. As mentioned previously, Lotte advises Werther that their situation cannot continue in its current state. Embodying the heart, Werther naturally goes into a rage at this. Lotte’s suggestion, however, is merely a sensible one, suggesting that if he wishes to continue seeing her, he need only modify his behavior somewhat.
While the above conflict may seem as though the story laments Werther’s inability to control his emotions, Goethe is instead showing that the cultural norm of trusting input from the mind more than input from the heart is arbitrary and baseless. If readers take heart and mind to be of equal value, or the heart to be of greater value, then Werther’s story is not one of tragically succumbing to the vagaries of love; instead, it’s a story of choosing emotion over reason in order to live, for at least a short while, fully and passionately. Goethe shows the value of choosing emotion over reason through his writing itself; the book’s most beautiful language comes during the moments when Werther is seized by emotions, and especially when he speaks of Lotte. By contrast, the text becomes especially bland when the fictional editor steps in, offering a wholly abstract, intellectual view. Not only does this contrast magnify the audience’s identification with Werther (and thus with emotion), but it also suggests that the beauty in life is to be found in passion rather than in intellect. This argument is strengthened by the fact that Werther, more than any other character in the novel, is known for his intellectual prowess and worldliness. He doesn’t choose emotion, in other words, because intellect is unavailable to him or because he doesn’t understand its appeal. This is a choice that he makes with full comprehension of the stakes, and thus (ironically) Goethe is presenting emotion as not simply the more beautiful choice, but a choice that can withstand rational scrutiny, as well. Thus, neither Goethe nor Werther regrets that Werther decided to allow himself to become caught up in his sorrows, despite the consequences.
It’s notable that Goethe wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther at the age of twenty-four, and he disowned the book shortly thereafter, coming to despise the Romantic movement and its obsession with emotion over reason, and calling it “everything that is sick.” Despite that Goethe outgrew his conviction that Werther was wise to choose his heart over his mind, he did once remark that, "It must be bad, if not everybody was to have a time in his life, when he felt as though Werther had been written exclusively for him." Thus, whether or not Goethe ultimately stood by the book’s unequivocal endorsement of passion, he remained, throughout his life, able to relate to the passions that consumed Werther and the wild popularity of the book, particularly among lovestruck youths.
The Heart vs. The Mind ThemeTracker
The Heart vs. The Mind Quotes in The Sorrows of Young Werther
Dear friend! do I need to tell you that you who have so often endured seeing me pass from sorrow to excessive joy, from sweet melancholy to destructive passion? And I am treating my poor heart like an ailing child; every whim is granted.
You ask why the torrent of genius so rarely pours forth, so rarely floods and thunders and overwhelms your astonished soul?—Because, dear friends, on either bank dwell the cool, respectable gentlemen…
When I was younger there was nothing I loved better than novels. God knows how good it felt to be able to sit in some corner on a Sunday and share with my whole heart in Miss Jenny's happiness and sorrows. Nor do I deny that that kind of writing still has its charms for me. But since I so rarely come by a book, it has to be one that is quite to my taste. And I like that author best who shows me my own world, conditions such as I live in myself and a story that can engage my interest and heart as much as my own domestic life does.
It is good that my heart can feel the simple and innocent pleasure a man knows when the cabbage he eats at table is one he grew himself; the pleasure he takes not only in eating the cabbage but in remembering all those good days, the fine morning he planted it, the mellow evenings he watered it and the delight he felt in its daily growth.
We don't know who planted that one. Some say it was one vicar and some say another. But the younger one over there is as old as my wife, fifty years old come October. Her father planted it in the morning and that same evening she was born.
My dear fellow, that is the uncertainty I am left in; and my consolation is that perhaps she did turn to look at me! Perhaps!
No, I am not deceiving myself! …Yes, I can feel—and I know I may trust my own heart in this—Oh, dare I utter the words, those words that contain all heaven for me?—I can feel that she loves me!
I grind my teeth and mock my own misery…I go rambling in the woods, and if my walk takes me to Lotte's and I find Albert sitting in the summerhouse with her in the greenery, and I cannot bear it any more.
True, it is wrong to steal: but if a man goes thieving to save himself and his family from starvation, are we to pity him or punish him? Who will first cast a stone if a husband sacrifices his unfaithful wife and her worthless seducer in the heat of his righteous wrath? or if a girl abandons herself for one joyful hour to the irresistible pleasures of love?
But I was meaning to tell you of Miss von B. She has a great soul, which gazes straight at one from her blue eyes. Her rank is a burden and satisfies none of the wishes of her heart. She is longing to put all this brouhaha behind her, and we spend many an hour imagining country scenes of unadulterated bliss…
All of these reflections prompted a profound realization, albeit one which she was not consciously aware of, that her secret heart's desire was to keep him for herself, yet at the same time she reminded herself that she could not and might not keep him; her pure and beautiful nature, which at other times was so lighthearted and readily found a way out of predicaments, sensed the oppressive power of melancholy, banishing the prospect of happiness. Her heart was heavy, and her vision was clouded by sadness.