Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, and in their pleasure takes joy, even as though 'twere his own.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 174922 March 1832) was a German novelist, dramatist, poet, humanist, scientist, philosopher, and for ten years chief minister of state at Weimar.

See also:
The Sorrows of Young Werther


Art is in itself noble; that is why the artist has no fear of what is common. This, indeed, is already ennobled when he takes it up.
  • Instruction does much, but encouragement everything.
    • Letter to A. F. Oeser (9 November 1768), Early and miscellaneous letters of J. W. Goethe, including letters to his mother. With notes and a short biography (1884)
  • So gewiß ist der allein glücklich und groß, der weder zu herrschen noch zu gehorchen braucht, um etwas zu sein!
    • He alone is great and happy who fills his own station of independence, and has neither to command nor to obey.[1]
    • Alternative translation: So certain is it that he alone is great and happy, who requires neither to command nor to obey, in order to secure his being of some importance in the world.[2]
  • I hold to faith in the divine love — which, so many years ago for a brief moment in a little corner of the earth, walked about as a man bearing the name of Jesus Christ — as the foundation on which alone my happiness rests.
  • One lives but once in the world.
    • Clavigo, Act I, sc. i (1774)
  • […] misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in this world than trickery and malice. At any rate, the last two are certainly much less frequent.
  • If you inquire what the people are like here,
    I must answer, "The same as everywhere!"
  • Getting along with women,
    Knocking around with men,
    Having more credit than money,
    Thus one goes through the world.
    • Claudine von Villa Bella (1776)
  • When young, one is confident to be able to build palaces for mankind, but when the time comes one has one's hands full just to be able to remove their trash.
    • Letter to Johann Kaspar Lavatar (6 March 1780)
  • Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
    Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
    Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
    Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
    • Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
      It is the father with his child.

      He holds the boy in the crook of his arm
      He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.
Only mankind Can do the impossible: He can distinguish, He chooses and judges, He can give permanence To the moment.
  • Noble be man,
    Helpful and good!
    For that alone
    Sets hims apart
    From every other creature
    On earth.
    • Das Göttliche (The Divine) (1783)
  • As great, everlasting,
    Adamantine laws
    Dictate, we must all
    Complete the cycles
    Of our existence.
    • Das Göttliche (The Divine) (1783)
  • Only mankind
    Can do the impossible:
    He can distinguish,
    He chooses and judges,
    He can give permanence
    To the moment.
    • Das Göttliche (The Divine) (1783)
  • Let the noble man
    Be generous and good,
    Tirelessly achieving
    What is just and useful:
    Let him be a model
    For those beings whom he surmises.
    • Das Göttliche (The Divine) (1783)
  • In der Kunst ist das Beste gut genug.
  • A noble person attracts noble people, and knows how to hold on to them.
    • Torquato Tasso, Act I, sc. i (1790)
  • A talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world's torrent.
    • Torquato Tasso, Act I, sc. ii (1790)
  • Untersuchen was ist, und nicht was behagt
    • Investigate what is, and not what pleases.
      • Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt (The Attempt as Mediator of Object and Subject) (1792)
  • Die Liebe herrscht nicht, aber sie bildet; und das ist mehr!
    • Love does not dominate, it cultivates. And that is more.
      • Das Märchen (1795), as translated by Hermann J. Weigand in Wisdom and Experience (1949); also translated elsewhere as The Fairy-Tale, The Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily, and simply The Tale]
    • Variant translations:
    • Love does not rule; but it trains, and that is more.
      • As translated by Thomas Carlyle The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily (1832)
    • Love rules (and reigns) not, but it forms (builds and 'trains'); and that is more!
      • As quoted in "'Human Immortalities : The Old and the New" by Thaddeus Burr Wakeman, in The Open Court Vol. XX, No. 1 (January 1906), p. 104
  • We can't form our children on our own concepts; we must take them and love them as God gives them to us.
  • The spirits that I summoned up
    I now can't rid myself of.
  • One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is the intermixing of different genres.
    • Propylaea (1798) Introduction
  • The true, prescriptive artist strives after artistic truth; the lawless artist, following blind instinct, after an appearance of naturalness. The one leads to the highest peaks of art, the other to its lowest depths.
    • Propylaea (1798) Introduction
  • In limitations he first shows himself the master,
    And the law can only bring us freedom.
    • Was Wir Bringen (1802)
  • One never goes so far as when one doesn't know where one is going.
  • Patriotism ruins history.
    • Conversation with Friedrich Wilhem Riemer (July, 1817)
  • Who wants to understand the poem
    Must go to the land of poetry;
    Who wishes to understand the poet
    Must go to the poet's land.
    • West-östlicher Diwan, motto (1819)
  • For I have been a man, and that means to have been a fighter.
    • West-östlicher Diwan, Buch des Paradies (1819)
  • Should I not be proud, when for twenty years I have had to admit to myself that the great Newton and all the mathematicians and noble calculators along with him were involved in a decisive error with respect to the doctrine of color, and that I among millions was the only one who knew what was right in this great subject of nature?
    • Letter to Eckermann (30 December 1823)
  • All poetry is supposed to be instructive but in an unnoticeable manner; it is supposed to make us aware of what it would be valuable to instruct ourselves in; we must deduce the lesson on our own, just as with life.
    • Letter to Carl Friedrich Zelter (26 November 1825)
  • One must be something in order to do something.
    • Conversation with Eckermann (20 October 1828)
  • "I have found a paper of mine among some others in which I call architecture 'petrified music.' Really there is something in this; the tone of mind produced by architecture approaches the effect of music."
    • Conversations with Eckermann (23 March 1829) - Often quoted as "Architecture is frozen music."
  • If I work incessantly to the last, nature owes me another form of existence when the present one collapses.
    • Letter to Eckermann (4 February 1829)
  • The artist may be well advised to keep his work to himself till it is completed, because no one can readily help him or advise him with it...but the scientist is wiser not to withhold a single finding or a single conjecture from publicity.
    • Essay on Experimentation
  • Willst du immer weiterschweifen?
    Sieh, das Gute liegt so nah.
    Lerne nur das Glück ergreifen,
    denn das Glück ist immer da.
    • Do you wish to roam farther and farther?
      See the good that lies so near.
      Just learn how to capture your luck,
      for your luck is always there.
    • Variant translation:
      Do you wish to roam farther and farther?
      See! The Good lies so near.
      Only learn to seize good fortune,
      For good fortune's always here.
    • Erinnerung
  • O'er all the hilltops
    Is quiet now,
    In all the treetops
    Hearest thou
    Hardly a breath;
    The birds are asleep in the trees:
    Wait; soon like these
    Thou too shalt rest.
    • Wandrers Nachtlied (Wanderer's Nightsong)
  • Welche Regierung die beste sei? Diejenige, die uns lehrt, uns selbst zu regieren.
    • Which is the best government? That which teaches us to govern ourselves.
    • The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe as translated by Bailey Saunders (1893) Maxim 225
  • Amerika, du hast es besser—als unser Kontinent, der alte.
    • America, you have it better than our continent, the old one.
    • Wendts Musen-Almanach (1831)
  • Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others,
    And in their pleasure takes joy, even as though 'twere his own.

    Not in the morning alone, not only at mid-day he charmeth;
    Even at setting, the sun is still the same glorious planet.
    • "Distichs" in The Poems of Goethe (1853) as translated in the original metres by Edgar Alfred Bowring
  • And now the sagacious reader, who is capable of reading into these lines what does not stand written in them, but is nevertheless implied, will be able to form some conception of the serious feelings with which I then set foot in Emmendingen.
    • Autobiography: Truth and Poetry Book xviii. London 1884 p. 115
  • Nun aber wird der einsichtige Leser, welcher fähig ist, zwischen diese Zeilen hineinzulesen, was nicht geschrieben steht, aber angedeutet ist, sich eine Ahnung der ernsten Gefühle gewinnen, mit welchen ich damals Emmendingen betrat.
  • He is a prophet and not a poet and therefore his Koran is to be seen as Divine Law, and not as a book of a human being made for education or entertainment.
    • On Muhammad, in Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Noten und Abhandlungen zum West-östlichen Diwan (1958), WA I, 7, 32; translator unknown
  • Der Handelnde ist immer gewissenlos; es hat niemand Gewissen als der Betrachtende.
    • The person engaged in action is always unconscionable; no one except the contemplative has a conscience.
      • Maxims and Reflections, Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #241
  • A burgher may acquire merit; by excessive efforts he may even educate his mind; but his personal qualities are lost, or worse than lost, let him struggle as he will. Since the nobleman, frequenting the society of the most polished, is compelled to give himself a polished manner; since this manner, neither door nor gate being shut against him, grows at last an unconstrained one; since, in court or camp, his figure, his person, are a part of his possessions, and it may be the most necessary part, — he has reason enough to put some value on them, and to show that he puts some.
  • "No matter how far our spiritual culture may continue to progress, no matter how much the natural sciences may grow, becoming ever more profound and more inclusive, no matter how much the human spirit may will to expand, that human spirit will never escape from the majesty and ethical sublimity of Christianity, as it shimmers and shines in the Gospels."
  • Mehr Licht!
    • More light!
    • Last words, as quoted in The Medico-chirurgical Review and Journal of Medical Science, Vol. 24 (1834), p. 501
  • Someone has said that world history must from time to time be rewritten. When has there been an epoch that made this as necessary as does the present one? You provided a superb example of how it should be done. The hatred of the Romans for the victor, even when he was kindly, presumption upon outmoded privileges, the desire for a different state of affairs without having anything better in view, irrational hopes, haphazard undertakings, alliances with no prospect of benefit, and whatever else is the unhappy retinue of such times—you have described all that magnificently, proving to us that such things really happened in those days.
    • As qoted by Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche: The Revolution in Nineteenth Century Thought (1991) from a letter referring to Sartorius' historical study of the rule of the Ostragoths in Italy

Wilhelm Meister's Lehrjahre (Apprenticeship) (1786-1830)[edit]

Not to keep from error, is the duty of the educator of men, but to guide the erring one, even to let him swill his error out of full cups—that is the wisdom of teachers. Whoever merely tastes of his error, will keep house with it for a long time, … but whoever drains it completely will have to get to know it.
  • Ich singe, wie der Vogel singt
    Der in den Zweigen wohnet.
    • I sing as the bird sings
      That lives in the boughs.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 11
  • Wer nichts wagt, gerwinnt nichts.
    Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß,
    Wer nie die kummervollen Nächte
    Auf seinem Bette weinend saß,
    Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte.
    • Nothing venture, nothing gain.
      Who ne'er his bread in sorrow ate,
      Who ne'er the mournful midnight hours
      Weeping upon his bed has sate,
      He knows you not, ye Heavenly Powers.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 13; translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • Knowst thou the land where the lemon trees bloom,
    Where the gold orange glows in the deep thicket's gloom,
    Where a wind ever soft from the blue heaven blows,
    And the groves are of laurel and myrtle and rose?
    • Bk. III, Ch. 1
  • What's it to you if I love you?
    • Philine in Bk. IV, Ch. 9
    • Variant translation: If I love you, what business is it of yours?
  • One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.
    • Bk. V, Ch. 1
  • To know of someone here and there whom we accord with, who is living on with us, even in silence — this makes our earthly ball a peopled garden.
    • Bk. VII, Ch. 5
  • Die Kunst ist lang, das Leben kurz, das Urteil schwierig, die Gelegenheit flüchtig.
    • Art is long, life short; judgment difficult, opportunity transient.
    • Bk. VII, Ch. 9
    • Cf. Hippocrates, Aphorisms 1:1
  • Die Welt ist so leer, wenn man nur Berge, Flüsse und Städte darin denkt, aber hie und da jemand zu wissen, der mit uns übereinstimmt, mit dem wir auch stillschweigend fortleben, das macht uns dieses Erdenrund erst zu einem bewohnten Garten.
    • The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit — this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.
    • "Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre," in Goethes Sämmtliche Werke, vol. 7 (Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta, 1874), p. 520
  • Not to keep from error, is the duty of the educator of men, but to guide the erring one, even to let him swill his error out of full cups — that is the wisdom of teachers. Whoever merely tastes of his error, will keep house with it for a long time, … but whoever drains it completely will have to get to know it.
    • Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, Teil 1, Buch 7, Kapitel 9
  • Wer Wissenschaft und Kunst besitzt, / Hat auch Religion / Wer jene beiden nicht besitzt / Der habe Religion
    • Who science has and art
      He has religion too
      Who neither of them owns
      Religion is his due.
    • As quoted in Jost Lemmerich's "Science and Conscience: The Life of James Franck" (2011), p. 261.
    • Variant translation: "The man who science has and art, He also has religion. But he who is devoid of both, He surely needs religion." (as quoted in "Homilies of science" by Paul Carus (1892) and The Open Court, Weekly Journal, Vol. II (1887).

Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787)[edit]

  • Seeking with the soul the land of the Greeks.
    • Act I, sc. i
  • A useless life is an early death.
    • Act I, sc. ii
  • One says a lot in vain, refusing;
    The other mainly hears the "No."
    • Act I, sc. iii
  • Pleasure and love are the pinions of great deeds.
    • Act II, sc. i
  • Life teaches us to be less harsh with ourselves and with others.
    • Act IV, sc. iv

Roman Elegies (1789)[edit]

  • Tell me you stones, O speak, you towering palaces!
    Streets, say a word! Spirit of this place, are you dumb?
    All things are alive in your sacred walls
    Eternal Rome, it's only for me all is still.
    • Elegy 1
  • I'm gazing at church and palace, ruin and column,
    Like a serious man making sensible use of a journey,
    But soon it will happen, and all will be one vast temple,
    Love's temple, receiving its new initiate.
    Though you're a whole world, Rome, still, without Love,
    The world isn't the world, and Rome can't be Rome.
    • Elegy 1
  • Ah, how often I've cursed those foolish pages,
    That showed my youthful sufferings to everyone!
    If Werther had been my brother, and I'd killed him,
    His sad ghost could hardly have persecuted me more.
    • Elegy 2 (First version)
  • A world without love would be no world.
    • Elegy 2
  • Beloved, don't fret that you gave yourself so quickly!
    Believe me, I don't think badly or wrongly of you.
    The arrows of Love are various: some scratch us,
    And our hearts suffer for years from their slow poison.
    But others strong-feathered with freshly sharpened points
    Pierce to the marrow, and quickly inflame the blood.
    In the heroic ages, when gods and goddesses loved,
    Desire followed a look, and joy followed desire.
    • Elegy 3
  • I feel I'm happily inspired now on Classical soil:
    The Past and Present speak louder, more charmingly.
    Here, as advised, I leaf through the works of the Ancients
    With busy hands, and, each day, with fresh delight.
    But at night Love keeps me busy another way:
    I become half a scholar but twice as contented.
    And am I not learning, studying the shape
    Of her lovely breasts: her hips guiding my hand?
    • Elegy 5

Venetian Epigrams (1790)[edit]

  • All Nine often used to come to me, I mean the Muses:
    But I ignored them: my girl was in my arms.
    Now I’ve left my sweetheart: and they’ve left me,
    And I roll my eyes, seeking a knife or rope.
    But Heaven is full of gods: You came to aid me:
    Greetings, Boredom, mother of the Muse.
    • Epigram 27
  • Is it so big a mystery
    what god and man and world are?
    No! but nobody knows how to solve it
    so the mystery hangs on.
    • As translated by Jerome Rothenberg
  • Much there is I can stand. Most things not easy to suffer
    I bear with quiet resolve, just as a God commands it.
    Only a few things I find as repugnant as snakes and poison.
    These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs and garlic and Christ.
    • Epigram 60
  • Much there is I can stand, and most things not easy to suffer
    I bear with quiet resolve, just as a god commands it.
    Only a few I find as repugnant as snakes and poison —
    These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs, garlic, and †.
    • Variant translation: Lots of things I can stomach. Most of what irks me
      I take in my stride, as a god might command me.
      But four things I hate more than poisons & vipers:
      tobacco smoke, garlic, bedbugs, and Christ.
    • Epigram 67, as translated by Jerome Rothenberg
  • Doesn't surprise me that Christ our Lord
    preferred to live with whores
    & sinners, seeing
    I go in for that myself.
    • As translated by Jerome Rothenberg

Faust, Part 1 (1808)[edit]

Main article: Goethe's Faust
  • Was glänzt, ist für den Augenblick geboren;
    das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren.
    • What dazzles, for the Moment spends its spirit:
      What's genuine, shall Posterity inherit.
      • Prelude on the Stage
  • Das Alter macht nicht kindisch, wie man spricht,
    Es findet uns nur noch als wahre Kinder.
    • Age does not make us childish, as they say.
      It only finds us true children still.
      • Prelude on the Stage
  • Es irrt der Mensch, so lang er strebt.
    • Man errs as long as he strives.
    • Variant translation: Man will err while yet he strives.
      • Prologue in Heaven
  • Da stehe ich nun, ich armer Thor!
    Und bin so klug als wie zuvor.
    • And here, poor fool! with all my lore
      I stand! no wiser than before.
      • Night, Faust in His Study
  • Bin ich ein Gott? Mir wird so licht!
    • Am I a god? I see so clearly!
      • Night, Faust in His Study
  • Die Botschaft hör ich wohl, allein, mir fehlt der Glaube
    • The message well I hear, my faith alone is weak
      • Faust's Study
  • Zwey Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust.
    • Two souls alas! dwell in my breast.
      • Outside the Gate of the Town
  • Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint.
    • I am the Spirit that always denies!
      • Faust's Study
  • Blut ist ein ganz besondrer Saft.
    • Blood is a juice of rarest quality.
    • (Also translated as:) Blood is a very special juice.
      • Faust's Study
  • Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
    Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.
    • Dear friend, all theory is gray,
      And green the golden tree of life.
      • Mephistopheles and the Student
  • Ein echter deutscher Mann mag keinen Franzen leiden,
    Doch ihre Weine trinkt er gern.
    • A true German can't stand the French,
      Yet gladly he drinks their wines.
      • Auerbach's Cellar
  • Wer Recht behalten will und hat nur eine Zunge,
    Behält’s gewiß.
    • Whoever intends to have the right, if but his tongue be clever,
      Will have it, certainly.
    • (Sometimes translated as:) He who maintains he's right—if his the gift of tongues—
      Will have the last word certainly.
      • Faust and Gretchen. A Street
  • Meine Ruh' ist hin,
    Mein Herz ist schwer.
    • My peace is gone,
      My heart is heavy.
      • Gretchen's Room
  • Schön war ich auch, und das war mein Verderben.
    • Fair I was also, and that was my ruin.
      • A Prison
  • Gut! Ein Mittel, ohne Geld
    Und Arzt und Zauberei zu haben:
    Begib dich gleich hinaus aufs Feld,
    Fang an zu hacken und zu graben,
    Erhalte dich und deinen Sinn
    In einem ganz beschraunken Kreise,
    Ernauhre dich mit ungemischter Speise,
    Leb Mit dem Vieh als Vieh, and acht es nicht fur Raub,
    Den Acker, den du erntest, selbst zu dungen;
    Das ist das beste Mittel, glaub,
    Auf achtzig Jahr dich zu verjungenl

    • Good! A method can be used
      without physicians, gold, or magic,
      Go out into the open field
      and start to dig and cultivate;
      keep your body and your spirit
      in a humble and restricted sphere,
      sustain yourself by simple fare,
      live with your herd and spread your own manure
      on land from which you reap your nourishment.
      Believe me, that's the best procedure
      to keep your youth for eighty years or more.
      • A Witch's Kitchen, Mephistopheles to Faust

Elective Affinities (1809)[edit]

None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
  • Three things are to be looked to in a building: that it stand on the right spot; that it be securely founded; that it be successfully executed.
    • Bk. I, Ch. 9
  • The sum which two married people owe to one another defies calculation. It is an infinite debt, which can only be discharged through all eternity.
    • Bk. I, Ch. 9
  • One is never satisfied with a portrait of a person that one knows.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 2
  • The fate of the architect is the strangest of all. How often he expends his whole soul, his whole heart and passion, to produce buildings into which he himself may never enter.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 3
  • Let us live in as small a circle as we will, we are either debtors or creditors before we have had time to look round.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 4
  • No one would talk much in society, if he knew how often he misunderstands others.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 4
  • Niemand ist mehr Sklave, als der sich für frei hält, ohne es zu sein.
    • None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
      • Bk. II, Ch. 5; source: Die Wahlverwandtschaften, Hamburger Ausgabe, Bd. 6 (Romane und Novellen I), dtv Verlag, München, 1982, p. 397 (II.5)
  • A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows on rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 7

Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre (Journeyman Years) (1821-1829)[edit]

  • My son, whoever wishes to keep a secret, must hide from us that he possesses one. Self complaisance over the concealed destroys its concealment.
  • Alles Gescheite ist schon gedacht worden.
    Man muss nur versuchen, es noch einmal zu denken.
    • All intelligent thoughts have already been thought;
      what is necessary is only to try to think them again.
      • Variant: All truly wise thoughts have been thoughts already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.
    • Bk. II, Observations in the Minset of the Wanderer: Art, Ethics, Nature

Faust, Part 2 (1832)[edit]

  • Law is mighty, mightier necessity.
    • Act I, A Spacious Hall
  • Once a man's thirty, he's already old,
    He is indeed as good as dead.
    It's best to kill him right away.
    • Act II, The Gothic Chamber
  • What wise or stupid thing can man conceive
    That was not thought of in ages long ago?
    • Act II, The Gothic Chamber
  • I love those who yearn for the impossible.
    • Act II, Classical Walpurgis Night
  • The deed is everything, the glory nothing.
    • Act IV, A High Mountain Range
  • Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben
    Der täglich sie erobern muß.
    • Of freedom and of life he only is deserving
      Who every day must conquer them anew.
    • Freedom and life are earned by those alone
      Who conquer them each day anew (tr. Walter Kaufmann)
    • Act V, Court of the Palace
  • Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,
    Den können wir erlösen.
    • Who strives always to the utmost,
      For him there is salvation.
    • Act V, Mountain Gorges
  • Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis.
    • All perishable is but an allegory
    • Variant translation: All that is transitory is but a metaphor
    • Act V, Chorus mysticus, last sentence, immediately before:
  • Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan.
    • The Eternal Feminine draws us on.
    • Act V, Heaven, last line

Other Works[edit]

  • "I have often felt a bitter sorrow at the thought of the German people, which is so estimable in the individual and so wretched in the generality. A comparison of the German people with other peoples arouses a painful feeling, which I try to overcome in every possible way." Goethes Gespraeche, December 13, 1813
  • “Nowhere would anyone grant that science and poetry can be united. They forgot that science arose from poetry, and failed to see that a change of times might beneficently reunite the two as friends, at a higher level and to mutual advantage.” (“Von andern Seiten her vernahm ich ähnliche Klänge, nirgends wollte man zugeben, daß Wissenschaft und Poesie vereinbar seien. Man vergaß, daß Wissenschaft sich aus Poesie entwickelt habe, man bedachte nicht, daß, nach einem Umschwung von Zeiten, beide sich wieder freundlich, zu beiderseitigem Vorteil, auf höherer Stelle, gar wohl wieder begegnen könnten.”) On Morphology (Zur Morphologie), 1817

Sprüche in Prosa (Proverbs in Prose, 1819)[edit]

Of all peoples the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life best.
  • Neuere Poeten tun viel Wasser in die Tinte.
    • Modern poets mix a lot of water with their ink.
  • Individuality of expression is the beginning and end of all art.
  • Nothing is more damaging to a new truth than an old error.
  • Doubt grows with knowledge.
  • The greatest happiness for the thinking man is to have fathomed the fathomable, and to quietly revere the unfathomable.
  • First and last, what is demanded of genius is love of truth.
  • A man's manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.
  • All intelligent thoughts have already been thought; what is necessary is only to try to think them again.
  • Es ist nichts schrecklicher als eine tätige Unwissenheit.
    • Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.
  • Of all peoples the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life best.
  • Everything that emancipates the spirit without giving us control over ourselves is harmful.
  • Der umgang mit frauen ist das element guter sitten.
    • Translation: The society of women is the foundation of good manners.
    • Alternate: Intercourse with women is the element of good manners.

Maxims and Reflections (1833)[edit]

A mathematician is only perfect insofar as he is a perfect man, sensitive to the beauty of truth.

Full text in German

  • Die Kunst an und für sich selbst ist edel; deßhalb fürchtet sich der Künstler nicht vor dem Gemeinen. Ja indem er es aufnimmt, ist es schon geadelt, und so sehen wir die größten Künstler mit Kühnheit ihr Majestätsrecht ausüben.
    • Art is in itself noble; that is why the artist has no fear of what is common. This, indeed, is already ennobled when he takes it up.
      • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. Maxim #61
  • Und doch sehr oft, wenn wir uns von dem Beabsichtigten für ewig getrennt sehen, haben wir schon auf unserm Wege irgend ein anderes Wünschenswerthe gefunden, etwas uns Gemäßes, mit dem uns zu begnügen wir eigentlich geboren sind.
    • Very often when we have found ourselves forever separated from what we had intended to achieve, we have already, on our way, found something else worth desiring.
      • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. Maxim #68
  • Ich bedauere die Menschen, welche von der Vergänglichkeit der Dinge viel Wesens machen und sich in Betrachtung irdischer Nichtigkeit verlieren. Sind wir ja eben deßhalb da, um das Vergängliche unvergänglich zu machen; das kann ja nur dadurch geschehen, wenn man beides zu schätzen weiß.
    • I’m sorry for people who make a great to-do about the transitory nature of things and get lost in meditations of earthly nothingness. Surely we are here precisely so as to turn what passes into something that endures; but this is possible only if you can appreciate both.
      • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. Maxim #155
  • Man sagt: „Studire, Künstler, die Natur!” Es ist aber keine Kleinigkeit, aus dem Gemeinen das Edle, aus der Unform das Schöne zu entwickeln.
    • People say, “Artist, study nature!” But it is no small matter to develop what is noble out of what is common, beauty out of what lacks form.
      • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #191
  • Die Welt ist eine Glocke, die einen Riß hat: sie klappert, aber klingt nicht.
    • The world is a bell that is cracked: it clatters, but does not ring out clearly.
      • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #193
  • Mysteries do not as yet amount to miracles.
    • Goethe, Maxims and Reflections, Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #210
  • Man darf nur alt werden, um milder zu sein; ich sehe keinen Fehler begehen, den ich nicht auch begangen hätte.
    • You’ve only got to grow old to be more lenient; I see no fault committed of which I too haven’t been guilty.
      • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #240
  • Der Handelnde ist immer gewissenlos; es hat niemand Gewissen als der Betrachtende.
    • The man of action is always unprincipled; none but the contemplative has a conscience.
      • Maxim #241
  • Just as, out of habit, one consults a run-down clock as though it were still going, so too one may look at the face of a beautiful woman as though he still loved her.
    • Maxim #246
  • Der thörigste von allen Irrthümern ist, wenn junge gute Köpfe glauben, ihre Originalität zu verlieren, indem sie das Wahre anerkennen, was von andern schon anerkannt worden.
    • It is the most foolish of all errors for young people of good intelligence to imagine that they will forfeit their originality if they acknowledge truth already acknowledged by others.
      • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #254
  • One often says to oneself … that one ought to avoid having too many different businesses, to avoid becoming a jack-of-all-trades, and that the older one gets, the more one ought to avoid entering into new business. But … the very fact of growing older means taking up a new business; all our circumstances change, and we must either stop doing anything at all or else willing and consciously take on the new role we have to play on life’s stage.
    • Maxim #259
  • Die Wahrheit widerspricht unserer Natur, der Irrthum nicht, und zwar aus einem sehr einfachen Grunde: die Wahrheit fordert, daß wir uns für beschränkt erkennen follen, der Irrthum schmeichelt uns. wir seien auf ein- oder die andere Weise unbegränzt.
    • Truth demands that we should recognize ourselves as limited, error flatters us that, in one way or another, we are unlimited.
      • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #310
  • Der Irrthum verhält sich gegen das Wahre wie der Schlaf gegen das Wachen. Ich habe bemerkt, daß man aus dem Irren sich wie erquickt wieder zu dem Wahren hinwende.
    • Error is related to truth as sleeping is to waking. … When one has been in error, one turns to truth as though revitalized.
      • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #331
  • Die Wissenschaft hilft uns vor allem, daß sie das Staunen, wozu wir von Natur berufen find. Die Wissenschaft hilft uns vor allem, daß sie das Staunen, wozu wir von Natur berufen find.
    • Scientific knowledge helps us mainly because it makes the wonder to which we are called by nature rather more intelligible.
      • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #417
  • Theories usually result from the precipitate reasoning of an impatient mind which would like to be rid of phenomena and replace them with images, concepts, indeed often with mere words.
    • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #428
  • Piety is not an end but a means to attain … the highest degree of culture. This is why … those who parade piety as a purpose and an aim mostly turn into hypocrites
  • Wenn mancher sich nicht verpflichtet fühlte, das Unwahre zu wiederholen, weil er’s einmal gefügt hat, fo wären es ganz andere Leute geworden.
    • If some people hadn’t felt obliged to repeat what is untrue simply because they had at one point maintained it, they would have turned into quite different people.
      • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #586
  • When you see some evil you proceed to immediate action, you make an immediate attack to cure the symptom.
    • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #598
  • A mathematician is only perfect insofar as he is a perfect man, sensitive to the beauty of truth.
    • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #609
  • The desire to explain what is simple by what is complex, what is easy by what is difficult, is a calamity .
    • Elisabeth Stopp, trans. (Penguin: 1998) #611
  • Alles ist einfacher, als man denken kann, zugleich verschränkter, als zu begreifen ist.
    • Everything is simpler than we can imagine, at the same time more complex and intertwined than can be comprehended.
      • Maxim #1209


  • "Smoking stupefies a man, and makes him incapable of thinking or writing. It is only fit for idlers, people who are always bored, who sleep for a third of their lifetime, fritter away another third in eating, drinking, and other necessary or unnecessary affairs, and don’t know—though they are always complaining that life is so short—what to do with the rest of their time. Such lazy Turks find mental solace in handling a pipe and gazing at the clouds of smoke that they puff into the air; it helps them to kill time. Smoking induces drinking beer, for hot mouths need to be cooled down. Beer thickens the blood, and adds to the intoxication produced by the narcotic smoke. The nerves are dulled and the blood clotted. If they go on as they seem to be doing now, in two or three generations we shall see what these beer-swillers and smoke-puffers have made of Germany. You will notice the effect on our literature—mindless, formless, and hopeless; and those very people will wonder how it has come about. And think of the cost of it all ! Fully 25,000,000 thalers a year end in smoke all over Germany, and the sum may rise to forty, fifty, or sixty millions. The hungry are still unfed, and the naked unclad. What can become of all the money? Smoking, too, is gross rudeness and unsociability. Smokers poison the air far and wide and choke every decent man, unless he takes to smoking in self-defence. Who can enter a smoker’s room without feeling ill ? Who can stay there without perishing?"
    • Heinrich Luden, Rueckblicke in mein Leben, Jena 1847
  • The ever-changing display of plant forms, which I have followed for so many years, awakens increasingly within me the notion: The plant forms which surround us were not all created at some given point in time and then locked into the given form, they have been given… a felicitous mobility and plasticity that allows them to grow and adapt themselves to many different conditions in many different places. …How they can be brought together under one concept has slowly become clear to me and that this conception can be enlivened at a higher level [of consciousness]: thus I began to recognize, in the sense perceptible form, a supersensible archetype. Whoever has felt what a rich, saturated thought… has to say, will admit what a passionate movement comes to life in the spirit when we are enthused, and we anticipate the totality of what will evolve step by step…”
  • The fashion of this world passeth away and I would fain occupy myself with the things that are abiding.

From the Memoirs of a Superflous Man (1943), Albert Jay Nock[edit]

  • Niebuhr was right when he saw a barbarous age coming. It is already here, we are in it, for in what does barbarism consist, if not in the failure to appreciate what is excellent?
    • p. 97
  • "As Goethe remarked, all eras in a state of decline and dissolution are subjective, while in all great eras which have been really in a state of progression, every effort is directed from the inward to the outward world; it is of an objective nature. I have always believed, as Goethe did, that here one comes on a true sense of the term classic."
    • p. 184
  • "Goethe suggested, in the interest of clearness one might very well make a clean sweep of all terms like classic, modernist, realist, naturalist and substitute the simple terms healthy and sickly."
    • p. 184
  • [Those who make the assumption that literacy carries with it the ability to read] do not know what time and trouble it costs to learn to read. I have been working at it for eighteen years, and I can't say yet that I am completely successful.
    • Goethe at the age of seventy-nine
      • p. 194
  • Man will become more clever and sagacious, but not better, happier or showing more resolute wisdom; or at least, only at periods.
    • p. 214
  • Was uns alle bändigt, das Gemeine.
    • That which holds us all in bondage, the common and ignoble.
      • p. 227
  • [The next sentence after predicting that great progress is coming:] I foresee the time when God will have no further pleasure in man, but will break up everything for a new creation.
    • p. 273


  • If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.
    • As quoted in Human Development : A Science of Growth (1961) by Justin Pikunas, p. 311; this might be based on a translation or paraphrase by Viktor Frankl, to whom it is also sometimes attributed; reportedly in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, Book VIII chapter 4

In Wilhelm Meister’s Lehrjahre (Book VIII, Chapter four) Goethe writes: “Wenn wir” sagtest Du, “die Menschen nur nehmen, wie sie sind, so machen wir sie schlechter; wenn wir sie behandeln als waeren sie, was sie sein sollten, so bringen wir sie dahin, wohin sie zu bringen sind"

(- Goethe Werke, Hamburger Ausgabe in 14 Baenden, Verlag C.H. Beck Muenchen, Herausgegeben von Erich Trunz )

    • Variant translations:
    • Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.
      • As quoted in My Country Vol. 2, No. 3 (September 1968) by Litchfield Historical Society, p. 23
    • "‘When we take people,’ thou wouldst say, ‘merely as they are, we make them worse; when we treat them as if they were what they should be, we improve them as far as they can be improved.’"
    • I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather. I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis is escalated or de-escalated, and a person is humanized or de-humanized. If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.
      • Widely attributed to Goethe, but also claimed to be a distortion of a passage by Haim Ginott.


Quotes about Goethe[edit]

  • I have been reading a translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. Is it good? To be it seems perhaps the very worst book I ever read. No Englishman could have written such a book. I cannot remember a single good page or idea,, and this priggishness is the finest of its kin that I can call to mind. Is it all a practical joke? If it really is Goethe's Wilhelm Meister that I have been reading, I am glad I have never taken the trouble to learn German.
    • Samuel Butler, Letter to Eliza Savage, 6 November 1874, in Letters between Samuel Butler and E.M.A. Savage, 1871-1885 (1935)
  • He admired nature's moving order and conceived of form as a pattern of relationships within an organized whole—a conception that is at the forefront of contemporary systems thinking. "Each creature," wrote Goethe, "is but a patterned gradation of one great harmonious whole.
  • Germanic philosophical idealism is also reflected in the work of Johann Goethe, whom Hayek often read as a young man. [...] What Goethe apparently meant is that mind must first have a way of interpreting experience; next, experience is interpreted by mind. Thus, “all that is factual is already theory,” because the way that facts (experience) are interpreted is mentally constructed. There are no atomistic facts in this perspective, because all experience is interpreted.
    • Alan Ebenstein, Hayek's Journey: The Mind of Friedrich Hayek (2003), Ch. 2. German and Viennese Intellectual Thought
  • Whereas Newton had maintained that colours already exist blended together in sunlight, Goethe insisted that they arise from the conjunction of polar opposites—just look, he said, at the coloured fringes you see against a sharp black/white edge. ...Many Romantic experimenters (including Samuel Coleridge, an important conduit for Naturphilosophie into Britain) welcomed Goethe's emphasis on polarity, which resonated with their own investigations into magnetic, electrical, and chemical activity—north and south, positive and negative, attractive and repulsive. Just as Goethe used his own eye as a recording instrument, they made their own bodies part of electric circuits.
  • Of Goethe it may be said that he created to a large extent the language and style of that which is best in the modern literature of his country. No such supreme influence belonging to a single individual can probably be found in any other German, French, or English writer in our century...
  • Every male copulating with a woman returns to his origins in the womb. Goethe postponed intercourse until he was forty. This must be related to his self-imposed distance from his forceful mother.
  • Goethe wondered at what point our instruments might be creating what we think we see out there in the world. ...his question is still a good one. Every science of observation must take care not to get lost among its own artifacts.
    • Theodore Roszak, The Gendered Atom: Reflections on the Sexual Psychology of Science (1999)


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