Maxims and Reflections

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated by Bailey Saunders (1892)

Life and Character



If a man is to achieve all that is asked of him, he must take himself for more than he is, and as long as he does not carry it to an absurd length, we willingly put up with it.


Work makes companionship.


People whip curds to see if they cannot make cream of them.


It is much easier to put yourself in the position of a mind taken up with the most absolute error, than of one which mirrors to itself half-truths.


Wisdom lies only in truth.


When I err, every one can see it; but not when I lie.


Is not the world full enough of riddles already, without our making riddles too out of the simplest phenomena?


'The finest hair throws a shadow.' Erasmus.


What I have tried to do in my life through false tendencies, I have at last learned to understand.


Generosity wins favour for every one, especially when it is accompanied by modesty.


Before the storm breaks, the dust rises violently for the last time—the dust that is soon to be laid forever.


Men do not come to know one another easily, even with the best will and the best purpose. And then ill-will comes in and distorts everything.


We should know one another better if one man were not so anxious to put himself on an equality with another.


Eminent men are therefore in a worse plight than others; for, as we cannot compare ourselves with them, we are on the watch for them.


In the world the point is, not to know men, but at any given moment to be cleverer than the man who stands before you. You can prove this at every fair and from every charlatan.


Not everywhere where there is water, are there frogs; but where you have frogs, there you will find water.


Error is quite right as long as we are young, but we must not carry it on with us into our old age.

Whims and eccentricities that grow stale are all useless, rank nonsense.


In the formation of species Nature gets, as it were, into a cul-de-sac; she cannot make her way through, and is disinclined to turn back. Hence the stubbornness of national character.


Every one has something in his nature which, if he were to express it openly, would of necessity give offence.


If a man thinks about his physical or moral condition, he generally finds that he is ill.


Nature asks that a man should sometimes be stupefied without going to sleep; hence the pleasure in the smoking of tobacco, the drinking of brandy, the use of opiates.


The man who is up and doing should see to it that what he does is right. Whether or not right is done, is a matter which should not trouble him.


Many a man knocks about on the wall with his hammer, and believes that he hits the right nail on the head every time.


Painting and tattooing of the body is a return to animalism.


History-writing is a way of getting rid of the past.


What a man does not understand, he does not possess.


Not every one who has a pregnant thought delivered to him becomes productive; it probably makes him think of something with which he is quite familiar.


Favour, as a symbol of sovereignty, is exercised by weak men.


Every man has enough power left to carry out that of which he is convinced.


Memory may vanish so long as at the moment judgment does not fail you.


No nation gains the power of judgment except it can pass judgment on itself. But to attain this great privilege takes a very long time.


Instead of contradicting my words people ought to act in my spirit.


Those who oppose intellectual truths do but stir up the fire, and the cinders fly about and burn what they had else not touched.


Man would not be the finest creature in the world if he were not too fine for it.


What a long time people were vainly disputing about the Antipodes!


Certain minds must be allowed their peculiarities.


Snow is false purity.


Whoso shrinks from ideas ends by having nothing but sensations.


Those from whom we are always learning are rightly called our masters; but not every one who teaches us deserves this title.


It is with you as with the sea: the most varied names are given to what is in the end only salt water.


It is said that vain self-praise stinks in the nostrils. That may be so; but for the kind of smell which comes from unjust blame by others the public has no nose at all.


There are problematical natures which are equal to no position in which they find themselves, and which no position satisfies. This it is that causes that hideous conflict which wastes life and deprives it of all pleasure.


If we do any real good, it is mostly clam, vi, et precario.


Dirt glitters as long as the sun shines.


It is difficult to be just to the passing moment. We are bored by it if it is neither good nor bad; but the good moment lays a task upon us, and the bad moment a burden.


He is the happiest man who can set the end of his life in connection with the beginning.


So obstinately contradictory is man that you cannot compel him to his advantage, yet he yields before everything that forces him to his hurt.


Forethought is simple, afterthought manifold.


A state of things in which every day brings some new trouble is not the right one.


When people suffer by failing to look before them, nothing is commoner than trying to look out for some possible remedy.


The Hindoos of the Desert make a solemn vow to eat no fish.


To venture an opinion is like moving a piece at chess: it may be taken, but it forms the beginning of a game that is won.


It is as certain as it is strange that truth and error come from one and the same source. Thus it is that we are often not at liberty to do violence to error, because at the same time we do violence to truth.


Truth belongs to the man, error to his age. This is why it has been said that, while the misfortune of the age caused his error, the force of his soul made him emerge from the error with glory.


Every one has his peculiarities and cannot get rid of them; and yet many a one is destroyed by his peculiarities, and those too of the most innocent kind.


If a man does think too much of himself, he is more than he believes himself to be.


In art and knowledge, as also in deed and action, everything depends on a pure apprehension of the object and a treatment of it according to its nature.


When intelligent and sensible people despise knowledge in their old age, it is only because they have asked too much of it and of themselves.


I pity those who make much ado about the transitory nature of all things and are lost in the contemplation of earthly vanity: are we not here to make the transitory permanent? This we can do only if we know how to value both.


A rainbow which lasts a quarter of an hour is looked at no more.


It used to happen, and still happens, to me to take no pleasure in a work of art at the first sight of it, because it is too much for me; but if I suspect any merit in it, I try to get at it; and then I never fail to make the most gratifying discoveries,—to find new qualities in the work itself and new faculties in myself.


Faith is private capital, kept in one's own house. There are public savings-banks and loan-offices, which supply individuals in their day of need; but here the creditor quietly takes his interest for himself.


Real obscurantism is not to hinder the spread of what is true, clear, and useful, but to bring into vogue what is false.


During a prolonged study of the lives of various men both great and small, I came upon this thought: In the web of the world the one may well be regarded as the warp, the other as the woof. It is the little men, after all, who give breadth to the web, and the great men firmness and solidity; perhaps, also, the addition of some sort of pattern. But the scissors of the Fates determine its length, and to that all the rest must join in submitting itself.


Truth is a torch, but a huge one, and so it is only with blinking eyes that we all of us try to get past it, in actual terror of being burnt.


'The wise have much in common with one another.' Aeschylus.


The really foolish thing in men who are otherwise intelligent is that they fail to understand what another person says, when he does not exactly hit upon the right way of saying it.


Because a man speaks, he thinks he is able to speak about language.


One need only grow old to become gentler in one's judgments. I see no fault committed which I could not have committed myself.


The man who acts never has any conscience; no one has any conscience but the man who thinks.


Why should those who are happy expect one who is miserable to die before them in a graceful attitude, like the gladiator before the Roman mob?


Some one asked Timon about the education of his children. 'Let them,' he said, 'be instructed in that which they will never understand.'


There are people whom I wish well, and would that I could wish better.


By force of habit we look at a clock that has run down as if it were still going, and we gaze at the face of a beauty as though she still loved.


Hatred is active displeasure, envy passive. We need not wonder that envy turns so soon to hatred.


There is something magical in rhythm; it even makes us believe that we possess the sublime.


Dilettantism treated seriously, and knowledge pursued mechanically, end by becoming pedantry.


No one but the master can promote the cause of Art. Patrons help the master,—that is right and proper; but that does not always mean that Art is helped.


The most foolish of all errors is for clever young men to believe that they forfeit their originality in recognising a truth which has already been recognised by others.


Scholars are generally malignant when they are refuting others; and if they think a man is making a mistake, they straightway look upon him as their mortal enemy.


Beauty can never really understand itself.

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