Maxims and Reflections

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated by Bailey Saunders (1892)

Life and Character



People often say to themselves in life that they should avoid a variety of occupation, and, more particularly, be the less willing to enter upon new work the older they grow. But it is easy to talk, easy to give advice to oneself and others. To grow old is itself to enter upon a new business; all the circumstances change, and a man must either cease acting altogether, or willingly and consciously take over the new role.


Of the Absolute in the theoretical sense, I do not venture to speak; but this I maintain: that if a man recognises it in its manifestation, and always keeps his gaze fixed upon it, he will experience very great reward.


To live in a great idea means to treat the impossible as though it were possible. It is just the same with a strong character; and when an idea and a character meet, things arise which fill the world with wonder for thousands of years.


Napoleon lived wholly in a great idea, but he was unable to take conscious hold of it. After utterly disavowing all ideals and denying them any reality, he zealously strove to realise them. His clear, incorruptible intellect could not, however, tolerate such a perpetual conflict within; and there is much value in the thoughts which he was compelled, as it were, to utter, and which are expressed very peculiarly and with much charm.


He considered the idea as a thing of the mind, that had, it is true, no reality, but still, on passing away, left a residuum—a caput mortuum—to which some reality could not be altogether refused. We may think this a very perverse and material notion; but when he entertained his friends with the neverending consequences of his life and actions, in full belief and confidence in them, he expressed himself quite differently. Then, indeed, he was ready to admit that life produces life; that a fruitful act has effects to all time. He took pleasure in confessing that he had given a great impulse, a new direction, to the course of the world's affairs.


It always remains a very remarkable fact that men whose whole personality is almost all idea, are so extremely shy of all phantasy. In this case was Hamann, who could not bear the mention of "things of another world." He took occasion to express himself on this point in a certain paragraph, which he wrote in fourteen different ways; and still, apparently, he was never quite satisfied with it.

Two of these attempts have been preserved to us; a third we have ourselves attempted, which we are induced to print here by the preceding observations.


Man is placed as a real being in the midst of a real world, and endowed with such organs that he can perceive and produce the real and also the possible.

All healthy men have the conviction of their own existence and of an existence around them. However, even the brain contains a hollow spot, that is to say, a place in which no object is mirrored; just as in the eye itself there is a little spot that does not see. If a man pays particular attention to this spot and is absorbed in it, he falls into a state of mental sickness, has presentiments of "things of another world," which are, in reality, no things at all; possessing neither form nor limit, but alarming him like dark, empty tracts of night, and pursuing him as something more than phantoms, if he does not tear himself free from them.


To the several perversities of the day a man should always oppose only the great masses of universal history.


No one can live much with children without finding that they always react to any outward influence upon them.


With any specially childish nature the reaction is even passionate, while its action is energetic.


That is why children's lives are a series of refined judgments, not to say prejudices; and to efface a rapid but partial perception in order to make way for a more general one, time is necessary. To bear this in mind is one of the teacher's greatest duties.


Friendship can only be bred in practice and be maintained by practice. Affection, nay, love itself, is no help at all to friendship. True, active, productive friendship consists in keeping equal pace in life: in my friend approving my aims, while I approve his, and in thus moving forwards together steadfastly, however much our way of thought and life may vary.

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