Goethe on the benefits of Decentralization

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Italy (1786) by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein


The benefits of smaller countries, bottom-up organic development, and a kind of robust federalism have been delineated many times over the past few centuries. The Founding Fathers of the United States certainly understood many aspects of these topics when crafting the federal government. There was another great champion of these values, though to a much more limited degree, sadly. That person was the German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). In addition to writing bestsellers, conducting experiments, collecting mineral specimens, and creating attractive watercolors, Goethe occasionally put forth well considered political positions. He was increasingly conservative, opposing both the excesses of the French as well as the nationalistic spirit of many young Germans in the early-nineteenth century. He also understood and appreciated the bottom-up nature of political power in the various types of states which had developed organically over centuries in the peculiarly named Holy Roman Empire.

At the end of his life, Goethe’s thoughts on this and other topics were recorded by Johann Peter Eckermann, a man who had gotten to know Goethe quite well through conversations over the course of years. Goethe noted the benefits of smaller states and decentralization for culture. “Germany has about twenty universities distributed about the whole empire, and about a hundred public libraries similarly distributed. There are also a great many collections of art and collections of objects belonging to all the kingdoms of nature; for every prince has taken care to bring around him these useful and beautiful objects. There are also gymnasia and schools for arts and industry in abundance — nay, there is scarcely a German village without its school. And how does France stand with respect to this last point!”[1] Goethe presented his analysis in this conversation with Eckermann in the context of contrasting German and French modes of government. During Goethe’s lifetime, what is today Germany went through several forms of government. The Holy Roman Empire, a loose collection of German principalities, bishoprics, free cities, and other states, was in serious decline (ending in 1806). A short-lived Napoleonic-dominated German confederation of states was succeeded by the German Confederation — an association of 39 German-speaking states. France, by contrast, was an absolute monarchy based in Paris. It then became the birthplace of modern political radicalism (including the coining of the word ‘terrorism’). French absolutism re-emerged under Napoleon. Centralization and cultural cleansing from the revolution onward created a less diverse and more uniform culture, from the top down. Finally, in 1815, the relatives of King Louis XVI regained the throne (though revolution was never far off).

Goethe was critical of a state having a single great city which would suck the life out of the provinces. “A clever Frenchman, I think Dupin, has sketched a chart of the state of culture in France and has exhibited the greater or lesser enlightenment of the different departments by a lighter or darker colour. Now, some departments, particularly in the southern provinces remote from the capital, are represented by a perfectly black colour, as a sign of the great darkness prevailing there. But would that be so if la belle France, instead of one great focus, had ten foci, whence the life and light might proceed?”[2]

Reflecting on Goethe’s conversation with Eckermann, I see that the United States is in danger of becoming more like France with two of three major centers — New York, Los Angeles, and the District of Columbia. These centers have far too much power and influence. I maintain that the future of a powerful United States rests with a bottom-up, decentralized approach in which regional cities (such as Pittsburgh, Denver, Saint Louis, and Austin (to name a few)) are able to develop their power and influence as a means, not only of promoting robust local economies and culture, but also checking and balancing the power of developing ‘mega-cities.’


[1] Eckermann, Johann Peter. Conversations with Goethe. p.280.

[2] Ibid.


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