Maxims and Reflections

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated by Bailey Saunders (1892)



In the world people take a man at his own estimate; but he must estimate himself at something. Disagreeableness is more easily tolerated than insignificance.


You can force anything on society so long as it has no sequel.


We do not learn to know men if they come to us; we must go to them to find out what they are.


That we have many criticisms to make on those who visit us, and that, as soon as they depart, we pass no very amiable judgment upon them, seems to me almost natural; for we have, so to speak, a right to measure them by our own standard. Even intelligent and fair-minded men hardly refrain from sharp censure on such occasions.


But if, on the contrary, we have been in their homes, and have seen them in their surroundings and habits and the circumstances which are necessary and inevitable for them; if we have seen the kind of influence they exert on those around them, or how they behave, it is only ignorance and ill-will that can find food for ridicule in what must appear to us in more than one sense worthy of respect.


What we call conduct and good manners obtains for us that which otherwise is to be obtained only by force, or not even by force.


Women's society is the element of good manners.


How can the character, the peculiar nature of a man, be compatible with good manners?


It is through his good manners that a man's peculiar nature should be made all the more conspicuous. Every one likes distinction, but it should not be disagreeable.


The most privileged position, in life as in society, is that of an educated soldier. Rough warriors, at any rate, remain true to their character, and as great strength is usually the cover for good nature, we get on with them at need.


No one is more troublesome than an awkward civilian. As his business is not with anything brutal or coarse, he might be expected to show delicacy of feeling.


When we live with people who have a delicate sense of what is fitting, we get quite anxious about them if anything happens to disturb this sense.


No one would come into a room with spectacles on his nose, if he knew that women at once lose any inclination to look at or talk to him.


A familiar in the place of a respectful demeanour is always ridiculous.


There is no outward sign of politeness that will be found to lack some deep moral foundation. The right kind of education would be that which conveyed the sign and the foundation at the same time.


A man's manners are the mirror in which he shows his portrait.


There is a politeness of the heart, and it is allied to love. It produces the most agreeable politeness of outward demeanour.


Voluntary dependence is the best state, and how should that be possible without love?


We are never further from our wishes than when we fancy we possess the object of them.


No one is more of a slave than he who thinks himself free without being so.


A man has only to declare himself free to feel at the same moment that he is limited. Should he venture to declare himself limited, he feels himself free.


Against the great superiority of another there is no remedy but love.


It is a terrible thing for an eminent man to be gloried in by fools.


It is said that no man is a hero to his valet. That is only because a hero can be recognised only by a hero. The valet will probably know how to appreciate his like,—his fellow-valet.


There is no greater consolation for mediocrity than that the genius is not immortal.


The greatest men are linked to their age by some weak point.


We generally take men to be more dangerous than they are.


Fools and wise folk are alike harmless. It is the half-wise, and the half-foolish, who are the most dangerous.


To see a difficult thing lightly handled gives us the impression of the impossible.


Difficulties increase the nearer we come to our aim.


Sowing is not so painful as reaping.


We are fond of looking to the future, because our secret wishes make us apt to turn in our favour the uncertainties which move about in it hither and thither.


It is not easy to be in any great assembly without thinking that the chance which brings so many people together will also make us meet our friends.


A man may live never so retired a life but he becomes a debtor or a creditor before he is aware of it.


If anyone meets us who owes us a debt of gratitude, it immediately crosses our mind. How often can we meet some one to whom we owe gratitude, without thinking of it!


To communicate oneself is Nature; to receive a communication as it is given is Culture.


No one would speak much in society if he were aware how often we misunderstand others.


It is only because we have not understood a thing that we cannot repeat it without alteration.


To make a long speech in the presence of others without flattering your audience, is to rouse dislike.


Every word that we utter rouses its contrary.


Contradiction and flattery make, both of them, bad conversation.


The pleasantest society is that in which there exists a genial deference amongst the members one towards another.


By nothing do men show their character more than by the things they laugh at.


The ridiculous springs from a moral contrast innocently presented to the senses.


The sensual man often laughs when there is nothing to laugh at. Whatever it is that moves him, he shows that he is pleased with himself.


An intelligent man finds almost everything ridiculous, a wise man hardly anything.


A man well on in years was reproved for still troubling himself about young women. 'It is the only means,' he replied, 'of regaining one's youth; and that is something every one wishes to do.'


A man does not mind being blamed for his faults, and being punished for them, and he patiently suffers much for the sake of them; but he becomes impatient if he is required to give them up.


Certain faults are necessary to the individual if he is to exist. We should not like old friends to give up certain peculiarities.


It is said of a man that he will soon die, when he acts in any way unlike himself.


What kind of faults in ourselves should we retain, nay, even cultivate? Those which rather flatter other people than offend them.


The passions are good or bad qualities, only intensified.


Our passions are, in truth, like the phoenix. When the old one burns away, the new one rises out of its ashes at once.


Great passions are hopeless diseases. That which could cure them is the first thing to make them really dangerous.


Passion is enhanced and tempered by avowal. In nothing, perhaps, is the middle course more desirable than in confidence and reticence towards those we love.


To sit in judgment on the departed is never likely to be equitable. We all suffer from life; who except God can call us to account? Let not their faults and sufferings, but what they have accomplished and done, occupy the survivors.


It is failings that show human nature, and merits that distinguish the individual; faults and misfortunes we all have in common; virtues belong to each one separately.

Monadnock Valley Press > Goethe