Joseph Joubert

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We comprehend the earth only when we have known heaven. Without the spiritual world the material world is a disheartening enigma.

Joseph Joubert (7 May 17544 May 1824) was a French moralist and essayist. He published nothing during his lifetime; after his death in 1824, Joubert's widow entrusted his manuscripts to François-René de Chateaubriand, who published a short selection of them for private circulation, under the title Recueil des Pensées de M. Joubert (Collected Thoughts of Mr. Joubert) (Paris, 1838). This volume was subsequently re-edited with many additions by Paul Raynal, a nephew of the author, under the new title of Pensées, Essais, Maximes et Correspondance de J. Joubert (Thoughts, Essays, Maxims and Correspondence of J. Joubert) (Paris, 1842). A selection from his correspondence was published in 1883.

The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert (1883)[edit]

As translated by Paul Auster
  • We comprehend the earth only when we have known heaven. Without the spiritual world the material world is a disheartening enigma.
  • Some find activity only in repose, and others repose only in movement.
  • We use up in the passions the stuff that was given us for happiness.
  • God has commanded time to console the afflicted.
  • When you go in search of honey you must expect to be stung by bees.
  • The direction of the mind is more important than its progress.
  • He who has imagination without learning has wings but no feet.
  • It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it.
  • Ask the young. They know everything.
  • It is easy to understand God as long as you don't try to explain him.
  • Pleasures are always children, pains always have wrinkles.
  • Eyes raised towards Heaven are always beautiful, whatever they be.
  • Good impulses are naught, unless they become good actions.
  • All luxury corrupts either the morals or the taste.
  • When I see young people such as those of our day, I think that Heaven wishes to destroy the world.
  • To be capable of respect is, in these days, almost as rare as to be worthy of it.
  • Genius begins beautiful works, but only labor finishes them.
  • To teach is to learn twice over.
  • He who has no poetry in himself will find poetry in nothing.
  • Thought forms in the soul the same way clouds form in the air.
  • The aim of an argument or discussion should not be victory, but progress.
  • It is not facts, but rumors that cause emotions among the people. What is believed creates everything.
  • Are you listening to the ones who keep quiet?
  • Writing is closer to thinking than to speaking.
  • Wisdom is the strength of the weak.
  • The good is worth more than the best.
  • Here is the desert. In this silence, everything speaks to me: and in your noise, everything falls silent.
  • The number of books is infinite.
  • They cannot accustom themselves to lacking nothing.
  • The people. They know how to know, but not how to choose.
  • One loves to say what he knows, the other loves to say what he thinks.
  • The imagination is the eye of the soul.
  • I love to see two truths at the same time. Every good comparison gives the mind this advantage.
  • Divorce. It's existence and use should be determined only by the interests of the children.
  • To compensate absence with memory.
  • To seek wisdom rather than truth. It is more within our grasp.
  • Anger makes us adroit.
  • The mind can only create errors. Truths are not created, they exist; one can only see them, disentangle them, discover them, and expose them.
  • Democracy and slavery are inseparable. Why. Democracy as it existed among the ancients was no more than government by a number of men large enough to be called the people. But this designation is false. The true people, in such a state, the greatest number, the majority belong to the class of slaves, and slavery inevitably develops in a country governed this way, because it is impossible that those who spend their time making laws can make shoes and clothes, plant crops, work fields, etc.
  • They do not know how to apply names to things.
  • What our eyes see, our imagination can no longer see. The same thing cannot be the object of both kinds of seeing.
  • The imagination has made more discoveries than the eye.
  • When men are imbeciles, the one who is mad dominates the others.
  • God made life to be lived and not to be known.
  • Imprisoned in our bodies...and our soul has its windows.
  • Don't cut what you can untie.
  • All these philosophers are no more than surgeons.
  • The weakness of the dying slanders life.
  • The staircase that leads to God. What does it matter if it is make-believe, if we really climb it? What difference does it make who builds it, or if it is made of marble or word, of brick, stone, or mud? The essential thing is that it be solid and that in climbing it we feel the peace that is inaccessible to those who do not climb it.
  • What good is modesty? — It makes us seem more beautiful when we are beautiful, and less ugly when we are ugly.
  • To hide our eyes to make others believe we are hiding tears.
  • The truth. They make it consist of nothing they cannot prove. The greatest happiness they find in it is being able to put forth incontestable assertions. This is what they like, and they consider it a sign of prestige, a prerogative, a power, a dignity, etc., a liberation from error.
  • Stars more beautiful to the eyes than the telescope that robs them of their illusions.
  • To draw up in advance an exact and detailed plan is to deprive our minds of the pleasures of the encounter and the novelty that comes from executing the work. It is to make the execution insipid for us and consequently impossible in works that depends on enthusiasm and imagination. Such a plan is itself a half-work. It must be left imperfect if we want to please ourselves. We must say it cannont be finished. In fact, it must not be for a very good reason: it is impossible. We can, however, draw up such plans for works whose execution and accomplishment are a mechanical thing, a thing that depends above all others on the hand. This is suitable and even very useful for painters, for sculptors. Their senses, with each stroke of the brush or chisel, will find this novelty that did not exist for their minds. Forms and colors, which the imagination cannot represent to us as perfectly as the eye can, will offer the artist a horde of these encounters which are indispensable to giving genius pleasure in work. But the orator, the poet, and the philosopher will not find the same encouragement in writing down what they have already thought. Everything is one for them. Because the words they use have beauty only for the mind and, having been spoken in their head in the same way they are written on the page, the mind no longer has anything to discover in what it wants to say. A plan, however is necessary, but a plan that is vague, that has not been pinned down. We must have above all the notion of the beginning, the end, and the middle of our work. That is to say, we must choose its pitch and range, its pauses, and its objectives. The first word must give the color, the beginning determines the tone; the middle rules the measure, the time, the space, and the proportions.
  • It is impossible to love the same person twice.
  • To think what we do not feel is to lie to ourselves, in the same way that we lie to others when we say to others what we do not think. Everything we think must be thought with our entire being, body, and soul.
  • Memory. — It is a mirror, that retains, and retains forever. Nothing is lost in it, nothing is erased. But it can be tarnished. And then one sees nothing in it.
  • Illusion or play. Everything agreeable is in them.
  • Adventurous minds, which wait for and receieve their ideas only from chance.
  • My soul lives in a place where the passions have passed by and where I have known them all.
  • Let us remember that everything is double.
  • Everything is game except what makes the soul better or worse.
  • We are worth more when someone looks at us. And, because of this, an eye is always watching us.
  • It is impossible for me to say something foolish without being aware of it.
  • Solitude gives an I. I that gives solitude. It is in our thoughts, and the one the world gives, in our feelings. Because solitude grows accustomed to seeing, to contemplating; and the world, to acting for itself.
  • Politeness is the art of bearing boredom without being bored.
  • Pride swells the brain. Vanity carries with it smoke, minds. Hatred tightens the heart. Love warms the lungs. Admiration stops the heart. We breathe through desire. We want to pump up all that delights, and dilates. Sadness is inaction. The love that comes from the blood, the love that comes from the soul.
  • To speak with his imagination, but to think with his reason.
  • The things we know when not thinking of them.
  • Where do ideas go? They go into the memory of God.
  • Ideas never lack for words. It is words that lack ideas. As soon as the idea has come to its last degree of perfection, the word blossoms; or, if you like, it blossoms from the word that presents it and clothes it.
  • Thoughts that cannot survive the open air and that evaporate as soon as we take them out of the room. To put them to the test of isolation. Take them out of the book where you found them, they do not endure.
  • To know: it is to see inside oneself.
  • Perhaps (and probably) it would be true to say that we cannot conceive of anything except what we can see in our minds.
  • It is very difficult to be wise (through the mind); it is not difficult to be wise occasionally and by chance, but it is difficult to be wise assiduously and by choice.
  • Close your eyes and you will see.
  • Objects must be described only in order to describe the feelings they envoke in us.
  • I have not seen you since, but you have often appeared to me in my dreams.
  • The imagination is an eye where images remain forever.
  • A thought is a thing as real as a cannonball.
  • To seek the truth. But, as you are seeking and as you are waiting, what will you do, what will you think, what will you practice, what rules will you follow?
  • Do not choose for your wife any woman you would not choose for a friend if she were a man.
  • We are all old children, more or less serious, more or less filled with ourselves.
  • What will you think of pleasures when you no longer enjoy them?
  • Dream. Lost memory.
  • Speak more softly to be better heard by a deaf public.
  • If I weigh myself down, everything is lost.
  • Fear feeds the imagination.
  • There are many situations in life that we suddenly feel we have seen in dreams.
  • All beautiful words are susceptible to more than one meaning (or signification).
  • The phrase, "One dies before one has lived."
  • The truth by way of illusion.
  • A part of kindness consists in loving people more than they deserve.
  • The child speaks words with his memory long before he speaks them with his tongue.
  • Because they know all the words, they think they know all the truths.
  • Misery is almost always the result of thinking.
  • Someone said of an asthmatic who was being very sweet and patient in his suffering: "One would like to breathe for him."
  • The voice is an aid to intelligence.
  • They speak to the ear. I want to speak to the memory.
  • Everything that is exact is short.
  • "But he doesn't finish his sentences," (he said). And they don't finish their thoughts. — To finish their thoughts. — To finish one's thought! It is a long process, it is rare. It gives intense pleasure. Because every finished thought easily enters the mind. They don't have the same need to be beautiful in order to please. It is enough for them to be finished. The situation of the soul that has had such thoughts communicates itself to other souls and transfers its repose to them.
  • These thoughts form not only the foundation of my work, but of my life.
  • Its not mental repose they seek, but mental laziness.
  • Enter oneself (we say). When one enters oneself, one sees God.
  • They want to shake up the world, not make it wiser.
  • The time I once lost in pleasure I now lose in suffering.
  • When you write easily, you always think you have more talent than you really do.
  • There is nothing serious in civil life except good and evil, vice and virtue. Everything else in it should be a game.
  • It is not my words that I polish, but my ideas.
  • In the same way crimes have increased laws, errors have increased explanations.
  • Those thoughts that come to us suddenly and that are not yet ours.
  • I know too well what I am going to say. I know it too well before writing.
  • Thoughts that are light, clear, distinct, finished; and words that resemble their thoughts. Words that often retain their meaning even when they are detached from others and that please when isolated as sounds.
  • For simple light is perhaps still more beautiful than colors.
  • Glory. Lovelier to desire than to possess.
  • All things that are easy to say have already been perfectly said.
  • Once we have tasted the juice of words, our mind can no longer pass them by. We drink thought from them.
  • We must try, as much as possible, not to mistrust anyone.
  • My ideas! It is the house for lodging them that costs me so much to build.
  • All these young minds the revolution has heated up and brought to flower before their time, before their age.
  • When we speak, we write what we are saying in the air.
  • Does talent have any need of passions? Yes, of many passions — repressed.
  • To judge things of taste, we must give ourselves time to taste them.
  • Let us look to beautiful poetry for the material of a beautiful prose.
  • An oratorical style often has the same drawbacks as those operas in which the music prevents you from hearing the words. Here the words prevent you from seeing the thoughts.
  • All reflection is art.
  • This poetic nudity within words.
  • One can advance a long time in life without aging.
  • The soul speaks to itself in parables.
  • Like those dreams that have pleased us. They escape us and we vainly try to hold onto them.
  • My dreams are more amorous than my actions have ever been.
  • Genius is the aptitude for seeing invisible things, for stirring intangible things, for painting things that have no features.
  • Conversation. — Because they have many of those ideas that, to be shown, have need of eyes, gestures, voice, a whole multitude of signs that the written word does not accompany. One sees the soul in operation.
  • To see the world means judging the judges.
  • It is not simply a matter of distinguishing between good and evil, but also of not confusing what is laughable with what is not. To make laughable what is not is in some way to make bad what was good.
  • We are afraid of having and showing a small mind and we are not afraid of having and showing a small heart.
  • One ruins the mind with too much writing. — One rusts it by not writing at all.
  • All ways of expressing ourselves are good if they make us understood. Thus, if the clarity of our thoughts comes through better in a play of words, then the wordplay is good.
  • One must know how to enter the ideas of others and how to leave them. One must know how to leave one's own ideas and how to come back to them.
  • It seems there is something spiritual in wine.
  • In every kind of debauch there enters much coldness of soul. It is a conscious and voluntary abuse of pleasure.
  • What man knows only through feeling can be explained only through enthusiasm.
  • It is above all the language for expressing these truths that have not yet been found.
  • A person who is never duped cannot be a friend.
  • I don't like to write anything down on paper that I would not say to myself.
  • The important business of man is life, and the important business of life is death.
  • To descend into ourselves, we must first lift ourselves up.
  • One must be an illusionary rather than a visionary.
  • Illusions comes from heaven and mistakes come from us.
  • Tacitus. And all those words that are obscure only once.
  • In these times when, to express ourselves, we must speak in a way others do not.
  • Think nothing outside their paper.
  • I did not have good eyes nor light in my mind that day.
  • Available. A thought is perfect only when it is perfectly available, that is to say when one can place it and detach it at will.
  • All those whom for style is not a game but a labor.
  • ...burdened with the unbearable weight of ourselves.
  • All clear and transparent words appear to be beautiful sounds. Yes and no are not precisely clear words, but definite words. In clear words, there is more light than movement or attitude.
  • What you call weakness comes from the strength of friendship.
  • Beyond the brain, there is something that observes the brain itself.
  • Undoubtedly, philosophy caused the Revolution. But what caused philosophy? Theological arrogance.
  • Those who never back down love themselves more than they love the truth.
  • From the center we should perceive the circle.
  • One always adds a little of one's soul to what one thinks.
  • All gardeners live in beautiful places because they make them so.
  • I have too much brain for my head. It cannot play comfortably in its box.
  • There must be several voices together in one voice for it to be beautiful. And several meanings in one word for it to be beautiful.
  • For in spite of ourselves we respect those whom we see respected.
  • Man loves what is small; and he loves what is big, through the same weakness.
  • I stop when I see no more light; it is impossible for me to write by feeling my way.
  • What is promised to you in dreams is given to you in dreams!
  • Those who have judgment use it as much as in judging stones as in judging men.
  • Beauty is something animal, the beautiful is something celestial.
  • What we say is similar to what we are.
  • In living, one learns how to read. (How, and with what result.)
  • Little people have few passions, they hardly have anything but needs.
  • Speak for the ear and write for the memory.
  • A book that reveals the mind is worth more than one that only reveals its subject.
  • Poetry of ideas.
  • Few minds are spacious; few even have an empty place in them or can offer some vacant point. Almost all have narrow capacities and are filled by some knowledge that blocks them up. What a torture to talk to filled heads, that allow nothing from the outside to enter them! A good mind, in order to enjoy itself and allow itself to enjoy others, always keeps itself larger than its own thoughts. And in order to do this, this thoughts must be given a pliant form, must be easily folded and unfolded, so they are capable, finally, or maintaining a natural flexibility. All those short-sighted minds see clearly within their little ideas and see nothing in those of others; they are like those bad eyes that see from close range what is obscure and cannot perceive what is clear from afar. Night minds, minds of darkness.
  • During our youth, there is something in us that is better than ourselves, I mean better than our desires, our pleasures, our yieldings, and our inclinations. Our soul is good then, even though our intelligence and will are not.
  • Whoever does not see his friends in a good light loves them little. To see in a good light. — Whoever does not see in a good light is a bad painter, a bad friend, a bad lover. Whoever does not see in a good light has not been able to lift his mind up to what is there or his heart to what is good.
  • Strength is not energy. Some writers have more muscles than talent.
  • A stupid lie is one that can never make itself believed.
  • People of intelligence often treat business in the way ignorant people treat books: they understand nothing.
  • No, men are not born to know, but they are destined for it.
  • Of those who want us to be wrong and those who want us to be right.
  • When the last word is always the one that offers itself first, the work becomes difficult.
  • All religions = all women.
  • Properly speaking, man inhabits only his head and his heart. All other places are vainly before his eyes, at his sides, and under his feet: he himself is not there at all.
  • I am like Montaigne: "unsuited to continuous discourse."
  • Wicked people have nothing human about them except passions: they are almost their virtues.
  • The truth! Only God sees it.
  • Maxims, because what is isolated can be seen better.
  • Necessity can make a doubtful action innocent, but it cannot make it commendable.
  • Sloth waiting for inspiration.
  • The breath of the mind is attention.
  • Animals love the people who talk to them.
  • The great inconvenience of new books is that they prevent us from reading the old ones.
  • Abuse of words, foundation of ideology.
  • The punishment of those who have loved women too much is to love them forever.
  • Everything we can measure seems small.
  • Tenderness is the repose of passion.
  • Whoever consults the light within himself (it is within everyone) excels at judging the object this light illumines.
  • A work is perfectly finished only when nothing can be added to it and nothing taken away.
  • The hordes of words that fill our books proclaim our ignorance, reveal the obscurities that flood our knowledge. If we were perfectly enlightened, our moral books would contain only maxims and our books on physics and spirituality would contain only axioms and facts. Everything else is clutter and shows no more than our gropings, our efforts, and our difficulties.
  • He must not cultivate his friends, but cultivate his friendships within himself. They must be kept, cared for, watered.
  • We always lose the friendship of those who lose our esteem.
  • Reason leads man back to his instincts.
  • Without fixed ideas, no fixed feelings. (Whoever has no constant opinions has no constant emotions.)
  • There is an infinity of things one does well only through necessity.
  • The talkative person is one who speaks more than he thinks. Someone who thinks a great deal and talks a great deal is never considered a talkative person. The talkative man speaks from his mouth, the eloquent man speaks from his heart.
  • Let's go; and follow your mistake.
  • Anger, which purges resentment.
  • To let the reader complete the symmetry between words and do no more than suggest it.
  • In this painting of our life given to us by our memories, everything is moving and depends on our point of view.
  • Never the mind without the soul.
  • Having found nothing worth more than emptiness, he leaves space vacant.
  • When I had the strength, I did not have the patience. I have the patience today and I no longer have the power.
  • Fortunately, when he lacks reason he also lacks words.
  • Let anger pass, make a place for it; do not impede its progress; do not disturb its development, give it the time it needs to die out, open a wide path for it.
  • There are words agreeable to the eye (in the same way there are words agreeable to the ear). By a fortunate combination of the letters that form them or by the harmony of these letters. For each letter has its shape.
  • In political institutions, almost everything we call an abuse was once a remedy.
  • What is clear should not be drawn out too much. These useless explanations, these endless examinations are a kind of long whiteness and lead to boredom. It is the uniformity of a wall, of a long piece of laundry.
  • In order to know men, something must be chanced. Who risks himself of nothing knows nothing.
  • Logic works, metaphysics contemplates.
  • To be pathetic when we cry, we must cry without wanting to and without knowing it.
  • Half myself mocks the other half.
  • A frightening thing, which is perhaps true: "old men want to survive."
  • You want to explain everything by the facts that are known to you. But the facts that are not known to you? What do they say?
  • Everyone makes and has need of making a world other than the one he sees.
  • Nothing is better than a justified enthusiasm.
  • Let us look for our light in our feelings. There is a warmth in them that contains many clarities.
  • Neither in the arts, nor in logic, nor in life should an idea by in any way treated as a thing.
  • There is nothing perfectly true for man; I mean in human opinions. Just like there is nothing perfectly round.
  • Courage (in a soldier) is maintained by a certain anger; anger is a little blind and likes to strike out. And from this follows a thousand abuses, a thousand evils and misfortunes that are impossible to predict in an army during war.
  • Retreat often into your sphere, rest yourself in your center, plunge yourself into your element: good advice, which must be remembered.
  • Tormented by the cursed ambition always to put a whole book in a page, a whole page in a sentence, and this sentence in a word. I am speaking of myself.
  • You go to truth by way of poetry and I go to poetry by way of truth.
  • To write his views or his observations, his ideas, but not his judgments. Our judgments limit our views of things. Some enclosures, but no walls. The man who always write his judgments places before his eyes the calpe and abyla. He goes no further and creates a nec plus ultra. Thus, in the study of wisdom, many views and few judgments.
  • When we find what we have been looking for, we don't have time to say it. We must die.
  • One must die lovable (if one can).
  • Reason does not reason. It goes straight to the fact or the consequence.
  • When a truth is better conceived through abstraction, use the abstraction; if not, don't.
  • Words, like glass, obscure when they do not aid vision.
  • It is not light that burns, that purifies, that consumes, that divides, and that recomposes; it is fire. And this fire we are talking about always follows light.
  • Of what must be said and what must not be said. The importance of knowing.
  • In such times, if you want neither to lie nor to wound, you are reduced to being silent.
  • Melancholy: when we have sorrows without a name.
  • It is better to be concerned with being than with nothingness. Dream therefore of what you still have rather than what you have lost.
  • You want to talk to someone: first open your ears.
  • Madness is an illness of the brain, not of the mind.
  • Luminous words, like those drops of light we see in fireworks.
  • And perhaps there is no advice to give a writer more important than this: — Never write anything that does not give you great pleasure.

Quotes about Joubert and his writings[edit]

  • Joubert had this gift. He never wrote a book. He only prepared to write one, resolutely seeking the exact conditions that would allow him to write it. Then he forgot even his plan.
    • Maurice Blanchot : from his Afterword to The Notebooks of Joseph Joubert : edited and translated by Paul Auster (1983), published by North Point Press/SF, p. 164
  • In selecting from the “Thoughts” I have sought those that are the largest and deepest, that are the least one-sided or partial, those that combine originality with beauty, brevity with weight, freshness with truth ; and thence I have passed over most of those that were written under dogmatic influences, and which, therefore, seem to me partial or one-sided. At the same time, to any who shall find themselves profited by what is here given them in English, may be cordially recommended the original volume, of which scarcely the half is here translated.
    • George H. Calvert, editor and translator of Some of the ‘Thoughts’ of Joseph Joubert (1867), pub. William V. Spencer (from the preface, Notice of Joseph Joubert, p. xxvi)

External links[edit]

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