Date of Award

Summer 8-15-2017

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Germanic Languages and Literatures

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



This dissertation explores the role of the Tower Society in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. The Tower Society is a semi-secret society of male and female characters who work together to promote common social, economical, and political interests. In Goethe’s novel, the Tower Society focuses on the education of Wilhelm Meister, a young man from a prominent merchant family. The members of the Tower Society endeavor to prepare him for initiation into their group as a productive early nineteenth-century father-citizen.

The goal of Tower Society’s founders is for their descendants to dare to be happy. Those who desire to dare to be happy must strive to understand conditions in the environment exactly as they are and must employ this understanding to motivate their behavior. In addition, the founders exhort their descendants to apply their knowledge of the environment to flourish despite unpredictable changes in conditions.

Wilhelm’s main challenge in the novel is his inability to distinguish a perceived threat from genuine danger in the environment. He cannot, moreover, identify what measures he needs to take to maintain his well-being consistently. This inability prevents him from daring to be happy. The Tower Society takes an interest in Wilhelm’s development because its pedagogues view him as someone who possesses the capacity to dare to be happy but struggles to transform this desire into reality.

The Tower Society’s method is unfortunately faulty. The abbé, its chief pedagogue, does not teach Wilhelm how to detach from his emotions. His pedagogy does not endow Wilhelm with the power to question his perceptions about the environment. Wilhelm derives these perceptions from his reactions to changing conditions. He assumes that the emotions that he generates when he reacts to unpredictable circumstances provide reliable information about the environment. This assumption conflicts with the founders’ desire for their descendants.

The abbé’s intervention reinforces Wilhelm’s reliance on his perceptions about the environment and dependence on his emotions. This pedagogy thus achieves the very opposite of what the teachers of the Tower Society have in mind. This is because they employ what Robert Tobin defines as “pious frauds” to instruct Wilhelm. Pious frauds are ineffective because they obscure the relations among objects in the environment. The uncle asserts that the most effective way to understand the environment is to determine the relations among objects and phenomena in it.

In this dissertation, I use Benedict de Spinoza’s Ethics (1677) to develop a model of authentic happiness that corresponds to the ideas of the Tower Society’s founders. I examine several important theories in the Ethics to analyze the abbé’s motivations for teaching Wilhelm and to ascertain why his pedagogy fails. Spinoza’s principles of necessity, activity, self-preservation, and adequate cause inform the Tower Society’s pedagogy; furthermore, his definition of an emotion illuminates Wilhelm’s dilemma.

I conclude that Wilhelm is unable to dare to be happy at the end of the novel despite his engagement to Natalie. His happiness is a manifestation of what Spinoza terms passive joy; it reflects an inaccurate understanding of environmental conditions and indicates that he remains in bondage to emotions that do not aid him in his quest for survival.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Lynne Tatlock

Committee Members

Kurt Beals, Mary Ann Dzuback, Matt Erlin, Gerhild Williams,


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