Maxims and Reflections

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated by Bailey Saunders (1892)

Life and Character



It is much easier to recognise error than to find truth; for error lies on the surface and may be overcome; but truth lies in the depths, and to search for it is not given to every one.


We all live on the past, and through the past are destroyed.


We are no sooner about to learn some great lesson than we take refuge in our own innate poverty of soul, and yet for all that the lesson has not been quite in vain.


The world of empirical morality consists for the most part of nothing but ill-will and envy.


Life seems so vulgar, so easily content with the commonplace things of every day, and yet it always nurses and cherishes certain higher claims in secret, and looks about for the means of satisfying them.


Confidences are strange things. If you listen only to one man, it is possible that he is deceived or mistaken; if you listen to many, they are in a like case; and, generally, you cannot get at the truth at all.


No one should desire to live in irregular circumstances; but if by chance a man falls into them, they test his character and show of how much determination he is capable.


An honourable man with limited ideas often sees through the rascality of the most cunning jobber.


If a man feels no love, he must learn how to flatter; otherwise he will not succeed.


Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then criticism will gradually yield to him.


The masses cannot dispense with men of ability, and such men are always a burden to them.


If a man spreads my failings abroad, he is my master, even though he were my servant.


Whether memoirs are written by masters of servants, or by servants of masters, the processes always meet.


If you lay duties upon people and give them no rights, you must pay them well.


I can promise to be sincere, but not to be impartial.


Ingratitude is always a kind of weakness. I have never known men of ability to be ungrateful.


We are all so limited that we always think we are right; and so we may conceive of an extraordinary mind which not only errs but has a positive delight in error.


It is very rare to find pure and steady activity in the accomplishment of what is good and right. We usually see pedantry trying to keep back, and audacity trying to go on too fast.


Word and picture are correlatives which are continually in quest of each other, as is sufficiently evident in the case of metaphors and similes. So from all time what was said or sung inwardly to the ear had to be presented equally to the eye. And so in childish days we see word and picture in continual balance; in the book of the law and in the way of salvation, in the Bible and in the spelling-book. When something was spoken which could not be pictured, and something pictured which could not be spoken, all went well; but mistakes were often made, and a word was used instead of a picture; and thence arose those monsters of symbolical mysticism, which are doubly an evil.


For the man of the world a collection of anecdotes and maxims is of the greatest value, if he knows how to intersperse the one in his conversation at fitting moments, and remember the other when a case arises for their application.


When you lose interest in anything, you also lose the memory for it.


The world is a bell with a crack in it; it rattles, but does not ring.


The importunity of young dilettanti must be borne with good-will; for as they grow old they become the truest worshippers of Art and the Master.


People have to become really bad before they care for nothing but mischief, and delight in it.


Clever people are the best encyclopaedia.


There are people who make no mistakes because they never wish to do anything worth doing.


If I know my relation to myself and the outer world, I call it truth. Every man can have his own peculiar truth; and yet it is always the same.


No one is the master of any truly productive energy; and all men must let it work on by itself.


A man never understands how anthropomorphic he is.


A difference which offers nothing to the understanding is no difference at all.


A man cannot live for every one; least of all for those with whom he would not care to live.


If a man sets out to study all the laws, he will have no time left to transgress them.


Things that are mysterious are not yet miracles.


'Converts are not in my good books.'


A frivolous impulsive encouragement of problematical talents was a mistake of my early years; and I have never been able to abandon it altogether.


I should like to be honest with you, without our falling out; but it will not do. You act wrongly, and fall between two stools; you win no adherents and lose your friends. What is to be the end of it?


It is all one whether you are of high or of humble origin. You will always have to pay for your humanity.


When I hear people speak of liberal ideas, it is always a wonder to me that men are so readily put off with empty verbiage. An idea cannot be liberal; but it may be potent, vigorous, exclusive, in order to fulfil its mission of being productive. Still less can a concept be liberal; for a concept has quite another mission. Where, however, we must look for liberality, is in the sentiments; and the sentiments are the inner man as he lives and moves. A man's sentiments, however, are rarely liberal, because they proceed directly from him personally, and from his immediate relations and requirements. Further we will not write, and let us apply this test to what we hear every day.


If a clever man commits a folly, it is not a small one.


There is a poetry without figures of speech, which is a single figure of speech.


I went on troubling myself about general ideas until I learnt to understand the particular achievements of the best men.


It is only when a man knows little, that he knows anything at all. With knowledge grows doubt.


The errors of a man are what make him really lovable.


There are men who love their like and seek it; others love their opposite and follow after it.


If a man has always let himself think the world as bad as the adversary represents it to be, he must have become a miserable person.


Ill-favour and hatred limit the spectator to the surface, even when keen perception is added unto them; but when keen perception unites with good-will and love, it gets at the heart of man and the world; nay, it may hope to reach the highest goal of all.


Raw matter is seen by every one; the contents are found only by him who has his eyes about him; and the form is a secret to the majority.


We may learn to know the world as we please: it will always retain a bright and a dark side.


Error is continually repeating itself in action, and we must unweariedly repeat the truth in word.


As in Rome there is, apart from the Romans, a population of statues, so apart from this real world there is a world of illusion, almost more potent, in which most men live.


Mankind is like the Red Sea: the staff has scarcely parted the waves asunder, before they flow together again.


Thoughts come back; beliefs persist; facts pass by never to return.


Of all peoples, the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life the best.


We readily bow to antiquity, but not to posterity. It is only a father that does not grudge talent to his son.


There is no virtue in subordinating oneself; but there is virtue in descending, and in recognising anything as above us, which is beneath us.


The whole art of living consists in giving up existence in order to exist.


All our pursuits and actions are a wearying process. Well is it for him who wearies not.


Hope is the second soul of the unhappy.


Love is a true renovator.


Mankind is not without a wish to serve; hence the chivalry of the French is a servitude.


In the theatre the pleasure of what we see and hear restrains our reflections.


There is no limit to the increase of experience, but theories cannot become clearer and more complete in just the same sense. The field of experience is the whole universe in all directions. Theory remains shut up within the limits of the human faculties. Hence there is no way of looking at the world, but it recurs, and the curious thing happens, that with increased experience a limited theory may again come into favour.

It is always the same world which stands open to observation, which is continually being contemplated or guessed at; and it is always the same men who live in the true or in the false; more at their ease in the latter than in the former.


Truth is at variance with our natures, but not so error; and for a very simple reason. Truth requires us to recognise ourselves as limited, but error flatters us with the belief that in one way or another we are subject to no bounds at all.


That some men think they can still do what they have been able to do, is natural enough; that others think they can do what they have never been able to do, is singular, but not rare.


At all times it has not been the age, but individuals alone, who have worked for knowledge. It was the age which put Socrates to death by poison, the age which burnt Huss. The ages have always remained alike.


That is true Symbolism, where the more particular represents the more general, not as a dream or shade, but as a vivid, instantaneous revelation of the Inscrutable.


Everything of an abstract or symbolic nature, as soon as it is challenged by realities, ends by consuming them and itself. So credit consumes both money and itself.


Mastery often passes for egoism.


With Protestants, as soon as good works cease and their merit is denied, sentimentality takes their place.


If a man knows where to get good advice, it is as though he could supply it himself.


The use of mottoes is to indicate something we have not attained, but strive to attain. It is right to keep them always before our eyes.


'If a man cannot lift a stone himself, let him leave it, even though he has some one to help him.'


Despotism promotes general self-government, because from top to bottom it makes the individual responsible, and so produces the highest degree of activity.


A man must pay dear for his errors if he wishes to get rid of them, and even then he is lucky.


Enthusiasm is of the greatest value, so long as we are not carried away by it.


School itself is the only true preparation for it.


Error is related to truth as sleep to waking. I have observed that on awakening from error a man turns again to truth as with new vigour.


Every one suffers who does not work for himself. A man works for others to have them share in his joy.


Men's prejudices rest upon their character for the time being and cannot be overcome, as being part and parcel of themselves. Neither evidence nor common-sense nor reason has the slightest influence upon them.


Characters often make a law of their failings. Men who know the world have said that when prudence is only fear in disguise, its scruples cannot be conquered. The weak often have revolutionary sentiments; they think they would be well off if they were not ruled, and fail to perceive that they can rule neither themselves nor others.


Common-sense is born pure in the healthy man, is self-developed, and is revealed by a resolute perception and recognition of what is necessary and useful. Practical men and women avail themselves of it with confidence. Where it is absent, both sexes find anything necessary when they desire it, and useful when it gives them pleasure.


All men, as they attain freedom, give play to their errors. The strong do too much, and the weak too little.


The conflict of the old, the existing, the continuing, with development, improvement, and reform, is always the same. Order of every kind turns at last to pedantry, and to get rid of the one, people destroy the other; and so it goes on for a while, until people perceive that order must be established anew. Classicism and Romanticism; close corporations and freedom of trade; the maintenance of large estates and the division of the land,—it is always the same conflict which ends by producing a new one. The best policy of those in power would be so to moderate this conflict as to let it right itself without the destruction of either element. But this has not been granted to men, and it seems not to be the will of God.


A great work limits us for the moment, because we feel it above our powers; and only in so far as we afterwards incorporate it with our culture, and make it part of our mind and heart, does it become a dear and worthy object.


It is no wonder that we all more or less delight in the mediocre, because it leaves us in peace: it gives us the comfortable feeling of intercourse with what is like ourselves.


There is no use in reproving vulgarity, for it never changes.


We cannot escape a contradiction in ourselves; we must try to resolve it. If the contradiction comes from others, it does not affect us: it is their affair.


There are many things in the world that are at once good and excellent, but they do not come into contact.


Which is the best government? That which teaches us to govern ourselves.


When men have to do with women, they get spun off like a distaff.


It may well be that a man is at times horribly threshed by misfortunes, public and private: but the reckless flail of Fate, when it beats the rich sheaves, crushes only the straw; and the corn feels nothing of it and dances merrily on the floor, careless whether its way is to the mill or the furrow.


However probable it is that a desire may be fulfilled, there is always a doubt; and so when the desire is realised, it is always surprising.


Absurdities presented with good taste rouse disgust and admiration.


Of the best society it used to be said: their speech instructs the mind, and their silence the feelings.


Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.


Beauty and Genius must be kept afar if one would avoid becoming their slave.


We treat the aged with consideration, as we treat children.


An old man loses one of the greatest of human privileges: he is no more judged by his peers.


In the matter of knowledge, it has happened to me as to one who rises early, and in the dark impatiently awaits the dawn, and then the sun; but is blinded when it appears.


Great primeval powers, evolved in time or in eternity, work on unceasingly: whether to weal or to woe, is a matter of chance.

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