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.
Nothing should be treasured more highly than the value of the day.
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.

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)
    • Alternative translation: "Correction does much, but encouragement does more."
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • But among all the discoveries and corrections probably none has resulted in a deeper influence on the human spirit than the doctrine of Copernicus…. Possibly mankind has never been demanded to do more, for considering all that went up in smoke as a result of realizing this change: a second Paradise, a world of innocence, poetry and piety: the witness of the senses, the conviction of a poetical and religious faith. No wonder his contemporaries did not wish to let all this go and offered every possible resistance to a doctrine which in its converts authorized and demanded a freedom of view and greatness of thought so far unknown indeed not even dreamed of.
    • Zur Farbenlehre, Materialien zur Geschichte der Farbenlehre (1810), Frankfurt am Main, 1991, Seite 666.
  • One never goes so far as when one doesn't know where one is going.
  • 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)
  • 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.
    • 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.
      • Zur Morphologie (On Morphology), (1817)
  • 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)
  • I am more and more convinced that poetry is the universal possession of mankind, revealing itself everywhere and at all times in hundreds and hundreds of men. ... I therefore like to look about me in foreign nations, and advise everyone to do the same. National literature is now a rather unmeaning term; the epoch of world literature is at hand, and everyone must strive to hasten its approach.
    • Conversations with Eckermann (entry for 31 January 1827)
  • One must be something in order to do something.
    • Conversations 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)
  • 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.
  • 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 [He apparently, here, asking for the shutters to be opened to admit more light, nothing more.]
  • 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 quoted 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
  • Young Schopenhauer, a zealous and thorough-going Kantian, tried to explain that light would cease to exist along with the seeing eye. "What!" he said, according to Schopenhauer's own report, "looking at him with his Jove-like eyes,"—"You should rather say that you would not exist if the light could not see you?"
  • However often we turn to it [the Qur'an] at first disgusting us each time afresh, it soon attracts, astounds, and in the end enforces our reverence... Its style, in accordance with its contents and aim is stern, grand, terrible — ever and anon truly sublime — Thus this book will go on exercising through all ages a most potent influence.
  • Nothing is great but truth, and the smallest truth is great. The other day I had a thought, which I put like this: Even a harmful truth is useful, for it can be harmful only for the moment and will lead to other truths, which must always become useful, very much so. Conversely, even a useful error is harmful, for it can be useful only for the moment, enticing us into other errors, which become more and more harmful.
    • Letter to Charlotte von Stein (1787) in Goethe’s World View: Presented in His Reflections and Maxims (1963), Edited with an Introduction by Frederick Ungar, Translated by Heinz Norden, pp. 72-73, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, New York.
  • By way of a personal compromise, he became an adept of the "noble and pure" wisdom of the Parsees as a means of escaping from the "narrow circle of Hebraic-Rabbinic thought and of reaching the depth and amplitude of Sanskrit".
    • as quoted from Poliakov, L. (1974). The Aryan myth : a history of racist and nationalist ideas in Europe p. 195

Wilhelm Meister's Lehrjahre (Apprenticeship) (1786–1830)

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?
  • 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
  • Man sollte alle Tage wenigstens ein kleines Lied hören, ein gutes Gedicht lesen, ein treffliches Gemälde sehen und, wenn es möglich zu machen wäre, einige vernünftige Worte sprechen.
    • 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
  • He was wont to say: "Men are so inclined to content themselves with what is commonest; the spirit and the senses so easily grow dead to the impressions of the beautiful and perfect, that ever)' one should study, by all methods, to nourish in his mind the faculty of feeling these things. For no man can bear to be entirely deprived of such enjoyments: it is only because they are not used to taste of what is excellent, that the generality of people take delight in silly and insipid things, provided they be new. For this reason," he would add, "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." With such a turn of thought in Serlo, which in some degree was natural to him, the persons who frequented his society could scarcely be in want of pleasant conversation.
    • 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
  • Nicht vor Irrthum zu bewahren, ist die Pflicht des Menschen erziehers; sondern den Irrenden zu leiten, ja ihn seinen Irrthum aus vollen Bechern ausschlürfen zu lassen, das ist Weisheit der Lehrer. Wer seinen Irrthum nur kostet, hält lange damit Haus; er freuet sich dessen als eines seltenen Glücks; aber wer ihn ganz erschöpft, der muß ihn kennenlernen.
    • 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.
      • Bk. VII, Ch. 9
  • 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, Ars longa vita brevis, Aphorisms 1:1
  • 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).
  • ‘Wenn wir sagtest Du,’ die Menschen nur nehmen, ‘wie sie sind, so machen wir sie schlechter; wenn wir sie behandeln als wären sie, was sie sein sollten, so bringen wir sie dahin, wohin sie zu bringen sind.’
    • ‘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.’
    • Variant translations:
      • When we take men only as they are, we make them worse; when we treat them as if they were what they ought to be, we bring them to the point to which they are to be brought.
        • As quoted in The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature (1881), Winged Words, pp. 163-164, M. H. Gill & Son, Dublin.
      • If we treat people as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”
        • As quoted in The Honolulu Advertiser, The Mature Parent: Friendless Nick Needs Reassurance, 29 October 1956, Not Pity by Mrs. Muriel Lawrence, Quote Page A7, Column 2, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787)

  • Seeking with the soul the land of the Greeks.
    • Act I, sc. i
  • Ein unnütz Leben ist ein früher Tod...
    • 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
  • 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)

  • 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
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.
    • Variant translation: 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.
    • Variant translation: 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
None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
There is no outward mark of politeness that does not have a profound moral reason. The right education would be that which taught the outward mark and the moral reason together.
  • 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
  • Es gibt Fälle, ... wo jeder Trost niederträchtig und Verzweiflung Pflicht ist.
    • There are occasions ... when all consolation is base and it is a duty to despair.
  • Tränenreiche Männer sind gut. Verlasse mich jeder, der trocknen Herzens, trockner Augen ist!
    • Men who give way easily to tears are good. I have nothing to do with those who hearts are dry and who eyes are dry!
  • 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
  • Dem Reichen übergibt der Baumeister mit dem Schlüssel des Palastes alle Bequemlichkeit und Behäbigkeit, ohne irgend etwas davon mitzugenießen. Muß sich nicht allgemach auf diese Weise die Kunst von dem Künstler entfernen, wenn das Werk wie ein ausgestattetes Kind nicht mehr auf den Vater zurückwirkt? Und wie sehr mußte die Kunst sich selbst befördern, als sie fast allein mit dem öffentlichen, mit dem, was allen und also auch dem Künstler gehörte, sich zu beschäftigen bestimmt war!
    • The architect hands over to the rich man with the keys to his palace all the ease and comfort to be found in it without being able to enjoy any of it himself. Must the artist not in this way gradually become alienated from his art, since his work, like a child that has been provided for and left home, can no longer have any effect upon its father? And how beneficial it must have been for art when it was intended to be concerned almost exclusively with what was public property, and belonged to everybody and therefore also to the artist!
  • 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
  • Es gibt kein äußeres Zeichen der Höflichkeit, das nicht einen tiefen sittlichen Grund hätte. Die rechte Erziehung wäre, welche dieses Zeichen und den Grund zugleich überlieferte.
    • There is no outward mark of politeness that does not have a profound moral reason. The right education would be that which taught the outward mark and the moral reason together.
  • 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

West–östlicher Divan (West–Eastern Diwan) (1819/1827)

  • Wer nicht von dreitausend Jahren
    Sich weiß Rechenschaft zu geben,
    Bleib im Dunkeln unerfahren,
    Mag von Tag zu Tage leben.
    • Those who cannot draw conclusions
      From three thousand years of learning
      Stay naïve in dark confusions
      Day to day live undiscerning.
      • Book V (Rendsch Nameh), sec. XV
  • Of old the sacred Koran did they cite,
    They named the verse and chapter ever blest,
    And each good Mussulman, as was but right,
    Reverenced, and felt his conscience was at rest.
    The modern Dervish nothing better knows,
    But prates of old and new with endless zest;
    Each day our most admired disorder grows.
    O sacred Koran! O eternal rest!
  • The folly! Every man in turn would still
    His own peculiar notions magnify!
    If Islam mean submission to God’s will,
    May we all live in Islam, and all die.
They urged me to those lips, with rapture crown'd,
Deserted me, and hurl'd me to the ground

Mir ist das All, ich bin mir selbst verloren,
Der ich noch erst den Göttern Liebling war;
Sie prüften mich, verliehen mir Pandoren,
So reich an Gütern, reicher an Gefahr;
Sie drängten mich zum gabeseligen Munde,
Sie trennen mich, und richten mich zugrunde.

To me is all, I to myself am lost,
Who the immortals' fav'rite erst was thought;
They, tempting, sent Pandoras to my cost,
So rich in wealth, with danger far more fraught;
They urged me to those lips, with rapture crown'd,
Deserted me, and hurl'd me to the ground.

Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre (Journeyman Years) (1821–1829)

  • 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 Mindset of the Wanderer: Art, Ethics, Nature
  • Art is long, life short, judgment difficult, opportunity transient. To act is easy, to think is hard; to act according to our thought is troublesome. Every beginning is cheerful: the threshold is the place of expectation. The boy stands astonished, his impressions guide him: he learns sportfully, seriousness comes on him by surprise. Imitation is born with us: what should be imitated is not easy to discover. The excellent is rarely found, more rarely valued. The height charms us, the steps to it do not: with the summit in our eye, we love to walk along the plain. It is but a part of art that can be taught: the artist needs it all. Who knows it half, speaks much, and is always wrong: who knows it wholly, inclines to act, and speaks seldom or late. The former have no secrets and no force : the instruction they can give is like baked bread, savory and satisfying for a single day; but flour cannot be sown, and seed-corn ought not to be ground. Words are good, but they are not the best. The best is not to be explained by words. The spirit in which we act is the highest matter. Action can be understood and again represented by the spirit alone. No one knows what he is doing while he acts aright, but of what is wrong we are always conscious. Whoever works with symbols only is a pedant, a hypocrite, or a bungler. There are many such, and they like to be together. Their babbling detains the scholar: their obstinate mediocrity vexes even the best. The instruction which the true artist gives us opens the mind; for, where words fail him, deeds speak. The true scholar learns from the known to unfold the unknown, and approaches more and more to being a master.
    • Book VII Chapter IX
  • The child's desire to have distinctions made in his ideas grew stronger every day. Having learned that things had names, he wished to hear the name of every thing supposing that there could be nothing which his father did not know. He often teased him with his questions, and caused him to inquire concerning objects which, but for this, he would have passed without notice. Our innate tendency to pry into the origin and end of things was likewise soon developed in the boy. When he asked whence came the wind, and whither went the flame, his father for the first time truly felt the limitation of his own powers, and wished to understand how far man may venture with his thoughts, and what things he may hope ever to give account of to himself or others. The anger of the child, when he saw injustice done to any living thing, was extremely grateful to the father, as the symptom of a generous heart. Felix once struck fiercely at the cook for cutting up some pigeons. The fine impression this produced on Wilhelm was, indeed, erelong disturbed, when he found the boy unmercifully tearing sparrows in pieces and beating frogs to death. This trait reminded him of many men, who appear so scrupulously just when without passion, and witnessing the proceedings of other men. The pleasant feeling, that the boy was producing so fine and wholesome an influence on his being, was, in a short time, troubled for a moment, when our friend observed, that in truth the boy was educating him more than he the boy.
    • Book VIII – Chapter 1
  • 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
  • I know a little of navigation: / War, trade, and piracy, allow, / As three in one, no separation.
    • Act V, Scene 3
  • 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.
    • Variant translations:
      • Freedom and life are earned by those alone
        Who conquer them each day anew.
        • trans. Walter Kaufmann
      • He only earns his freedom and existence,
        Who daily conquers them anew.
        • trans. Bayard Taylor
    • 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

Maxims and Reflections (1833)

Of all peoples the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life the best.
A mathematician is only perfect insofar as he is a perfect man, sensitive to the beauty of truth.

Full text in German. Translation by Elisabeth Stopp (Penguin, 1998) follows Max Hecker's canonical German edition (1907). Bailey Saunders' selection, The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe (1893), translates 590 of Goethe's 1413 maxims.

  • Wenn die Menschen recht schlecht werden, haben sie keinen Anteil mehr als die Schadenfreude.
    • People have to become really bad before they care for nothing but mischief, and delight in it.
  • Der umgang mit frauen ist das element guter sitten.
    • Association with women is the basic element of good manners.
      • Maxim 31, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation: The society of women is the foundation of good manners.
    • Variant translative: Intercourse with women is the element of good manners.
  • Behaviour is a mirror in which everyone shows his image.
    • Maxim 39, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation: A man's manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.
  • 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.
      • Maxim 61, trans. Stopp
  • 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.
      • Maxim 68, trans. Stopp
  • Wer fremde Sprachen nicht kennt, weiß nichts von seiner eigenen.
    • He who does not speak foreign languages knows nothing about his own.
      • Maxim 91
  • 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.
      • Maxim 155, trans. Stopp
  • 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.
      • Maxim 191, trans. Stopp
  • 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.
      • Maxim 193, trans. Stopp
  • Mysteries do not as yet amount to miracles.
    • Maxim 210, trans. Stopp
  • 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.
      • Maxim 240, trans. Stopp
  • 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.
      • Maxim 241, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation: The man of action is always unprincipled; none but the contemplative has a conscience
  • 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 she were still in love.
    • Maxim 246, trans. Stopp
  • 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.
      • Maxim 254, trans. Stopp
  • You often say to yourself in the course of your life that you ought to avoid having too much business, 'polypragmosyne' [incessant activity], and, more especially, that the older you get, the more you ought to avoid entering on new business. But it's all very well saying this, and giving yourself andothers good advice. 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, trans. Stopp
  • You really only know when you know little. Doubt grows with knowledge.
    • Maxim 281, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation: Only when we know little do we know anything. Doubt grows with knowledge.
  • Unter allen Völkerschaften haben die Griechen den Traum des Lebens am schönsten geträumt.
    • Among all peoples, the Greeks have dreamt life's dream most beautifully.
    • Maxim 298, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation by Saunders: Of all peoples the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life the best. (189)
  • 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 is contrary to our nature, not so error, and this for a very simple reason; truth demands that we should recognize ourselves as limited, error flatters us that, in one way or another, we are unlimited.
      • Maxim 310, trans. Stopp
  • 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. I have observed that when one has been in error, one turns to truth as though revitalized.
      • Maxim 331, trans. Stopp
  • Welche Regierung die beste sei? Diejenige, die uns lehrt, uns selbst zu regieren.
    • You ask which form of government is the best? Whichever teaches us to govern ourselves.
      • Maxim 353, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation by Saunders: Which is the best government? That which teaches us to govern ourselves. (225)
  • The first and last thing demanded of genius is love of truth.
    • Maxim 382, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation: First and last, what is demanded of genius is love of truth.
  • 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.
      • Maxim 417, trans. Stopp
  • Translators are like busy match-makers: they sing the praises of some half-veiled beauty, and extol her charms, and arouse an irresistible longing for the original.
    • Maxim 426; translation by Bailey Saunders
  • Theories usually result from the precipitate reasoning of an impatient mind which would like to be rid of phenomena and replaces them with images, concepts, indeed often with mere words.
    • Maxim 428, trans. Stopp
  • There's nothing clever that hasn't been thought of before — you've just got to try to think it all over again.
    • Maxim 441, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation: All intelligent thoughts have already been thought; what is necessary is only to try to think them again.
  • Everything that liberates our mind without at the same time imparting self-control is pernicious.
    • Maxim 504, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation: Everything that emancipates the spirit without giving us control over ourselves is harmful.
  • Piety is not an end but a means to attain by the greatest peace of mind the highest degree of culture.
    • Maxim 519, trans. Stopp
  • This is why we may say that those who parade piety as a purpose and an aim mostly turn into hypocrites
    • Maxim 520, trans. Stopp
  • Es ist nichts schrecklicher als eine tätige Unwissenheit.
    • Nothing is more frightful than to see ignorance in action.
      • Maxim 542, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation by Saunders: Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action. (231)
  • 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.
      • Maxim 586, trans. Stopp
  • When you see some evil you proceed to immediate action, you make an immediate attack to cure the symptom.
    • Maxim 598, trans. Stopp
  • A mathematician is only perfect insofar as he is a perfect man, sensitive to the beauty of truth.
    • Maxim 609, trans. Stopp
  • The desire to explain what is simple by what is complex, what is easy by what is difficult, is a calamity affecting the whole body of science, known, it is true, to men of insight, but not generally admitted.
    • Maxim 611, trans. Stopp
  • Nothing is more damaging to a new truth than an old error.
    • Maxim 715, trans. Stopp
  • Individuality of expression is the beginning and end of all art.
    • Maxim 739, trans. Stopp
  • Neuere Poeten tun viel Wasser in die Tinte.
    • Modern poets put a lot of water into their ink.
      • Maxim 749, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation: Modern poets mix a lot of water with their ink.
A thinking man's greatest happiness is to have fathomed what can be fathomed and to revere in silence what cannot be fathomed. Maxim 1207
  • Nichts ist höher schätzen als der Werth des Tages.
    • Nothing should be treasured more highly than the value of the day.
      • Maxim 789, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation by Saunders: Nothing is more highly to be prized than the value of each day. (332)
    • Variant translation: Nothing is worth more than this day.
  • Das Klassische nenne ich das Gesunde und das Romantische das Kranke.
    • What is Classical is healthy; what is Romantic is sick.
      • Maxim 1031, trans. Stopp
  • A thinking man's greatest happiness is to have fathomed what can be fathomed and to revere in silence what cannot be fathomed.
    • Maxim 1207, trans. Stopp (p153)
    • Variant translation: The greatest happiness for the thinking man is to have fathomed the fathomable, and to quietly revere the unfathomable.
  • Alles ist einfacher, als man denken kann, zugleich verschränkter, als zu begreifen ist.
    • Everything is simpler than one can imagine, at the same time more involved than can be comprehended.
      • Maxim 1209, trans. Stopp
    • Variant translation: Everything is simpler than we can imagine, at the same time more complex and intertwined than can be comprehended.
  • Hypotheses are scaffoldings erected in front of a building and then dismantled when the building is finished. They are indispensable for the workman; but you mustn't mistake the scaffolding for the building.
    • Maxim 1222, trans. Stopp
  • Es ist so gewiß als wunderbar, daß Wahrheit und Irrthum aus Einer Quelle entstehen; deßwegen man oft dem Irrthum nicht schaden darf, weil man zugleich der Wahrheit schadet.
    • It is as certain as it is marvelous that truth and error come from one source. Therefore one often may not injure error, because at the same time one injures truth.


  • 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.
  • Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.
  • Wir sprechen überhaupt viel zu viel. Wir sollten weniger sprechen und mehr zeichnen. Ich meinerseits möchte mir das Reden ganz abgewöhnen und wie die bildende Natur in lauter Zeichnungen fortsprechen.
    • People should talk less and draw more. Personally, I would like to renounce speech altogether and, like organic nature, communicate everything I have to say visually.
    • Attributed to Goethe by Johannes Falk in Goethe aus näherm persönlichen Umgange dargestellt (1832).


  • 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.
  • Encourage the beautiful, the useful will take care of itself.
    • widely attributed to Goethe without citation from the works of Goethe


  • What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.
  • 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. Actual quotation in context: "He [Muhammad] vehemently asserts and protests that he is a prophet and not a poet; furthermore, that his Qur'an is to be regarded as divine law, not as a human book meant to instruct or to entertain." West-Eastern Divan: Complete, annotated new translation by Eric Ormsby (Gingko Library, 2019).
  • Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.
    • Attributed to Goethe by popular British novelist Marie Corelli in her essay "The Spirit of Work" as published in The Queen's Christmas carol : an anthology of poems, stories, essays, drawings and music / by British authors, artists and composers in 1905 by The Daily Mail of London.
    • Attributed to Goethe by William Hutchinson Murray, in his book The Scottish Himalayan Expedition (1951), this has been shown to be a misattribution at "German Myth 12: The Famous 'Goethe' Quotation", and "Popular Quotes: Commitment", Goethe Society of North America
    • However, perhaps it has not been misattrbuted after all: in John Anster's 1867 translation of Faust (Bernhard Tauchnitz, Leipzig, 1867), we find the following on p14:

Lose this day loitering - 'twill be the same story
Tomorrow - the next more dilatory,
Then indecision brings its own delays
And days are lost lamenting o'er lost days,
Are you in earnest? seize this very minute -
What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated -
Begin it and the work will be completed

  • They abandon themselves credulously to every fanatic scoundrel who speaks to their baser qualities, confirms them in their vices, teaches them nationality means barbarism and isolation.
    • Attributed to Goethe by German novelist Thomas Mann in his novel The Beloved Returns. The line was Mann's invention, though it was later quoted during the Nuremburg trials by prosecutor Sir Hartley Shawcross, who quoted the passage as if it truly had been written by Goethe.[7]

Quotes about Goethe

  • I have been reading a translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister. Is it good? To me 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.
  • Goethe said: “You close your eyes and you dip your hand into your society and you bring up a little bit of the truth.” And that is the material of your writing.
  • I discovered such a treasure house of human nature in a conversation I had with Goethe. It was the most enjoyable moment in my life.
    • Friedrich Hölderlin, He'erdelin wenji (Works of Holderlin) (Beijing: Commercial Press, 1999), p. 367, as quoted in Reflections on "Dream of the Red Chamber" (2008) by Liu Zaifu, p. 72
  • But even the distant reader must allow that Clifford's mental personality belonged to the highest possible type to say no more. The union of the mathematician with the poet, fervor with measure, passion with correctness, this surely is the ideal. And if in these modern days we are to look for any prophet or saviour who shall influence our feelings towards the universe as the founders and renewers of past religions have influenced the minds of our fathers, that prophet, if he ever come, must, like Clifford, be no mere sentimental worshipper of science, but an expert in her ways. And he must have what Clifford had in so extraordinary a degree—that lavishly generous confidence in the worthiness of average human nature to be told all truth, the lack of which in Goethe made him an inspiration to the few but a cold riddle to the many.
    • William James, 'Clifford's "Lectures and Essays"' (1879) in Collected Essays and Reviews (1920) pp. 138-139. Review of Lectures and Essays and Seeing and Thinking by William Kingdon Clifford, London and New York (1879). Reprinted from Nation (1879) 29, pp. 312-313.
  • Goethe and Romain Rolland paint psychological landscapes, depicting both characters and spiritual conditions, but the Japanese-Flaubertian analytical tanka is a form alien to them.
    • Osip Mandelstam THE NINETEENTH CENTURY translated into English in The complete critical prose (1997)
  • The rule which he [Carlyle] adopts is that laid down by Goethe,—“Do the duty which lies nearest thee.”
    • On Carlyle By Giuseppe Mazzini (1805–1872)
  • 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...
  • To have travelled over the whole circumference of the modern soul, and to have sat in all its corners — my ambition, my torment, and my happiness. Veritably to have overcome pessimism, and, as the result thereof, to have acquired the eyes of a Goethe—full of love and goodwill.
  • In the middle of the war there was Heine, there was Goethe, there was Schiller. I did posters for the German club, in the middle of the war. When I think back to how happy I was, studying German and flunking algebra, and I think what was going on for other Jewish teenagers on the other side of the world, I'm so puzzled by those dates.
  • 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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