Maxims and Reflections

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated by Bailey Saunders (1892)

Life and Character



The secret places in the way of life may not and cannot be revealed: there are rocks of offence on which every traveller must stumble. But the poet points to where they are.


It would not be worth while to see seventy years if all the wisdom of this world were foolishness with God.


The true is Godlike: we do not see it itself; we must guess at it through its manifestations.


The real scholar learns how to evolve the unknown from the known, and draws near the master.


In the smithy the iron is softened by blowing up the fire, and taking the dross from the bar. As soon as it is purified, it is beaten and pressed, and becomes firm again by the addition of fresh water. The same thing happens to a man at the hands of his teacher.


What belongs to a man, he cannot get rid of, even though he throws it away.


Of true religions there are only two: one of them recognises and worships the Holy that without form or shape dwells in and around us; and the other recognises and worships it in its fairest form. Everything that lies between these two is idolatry.


It is undeniable that in the Reformation the human mind tried to free itself; and the renaissance of Greek and Roman antiquity brought about the wish and longing for a freer, more seemly, and elegant life. The movement was favoured in no small degree by the fact that men's hearts aimed at returning to a certain simple state of nature, while the imagination sought to concentrate itself.


The Saints were all at once driven from heaven; and senses, thought, and heart were turned from a divine mother with a tender child, to the grown man doing good and suffering evil, who was later transfigured into a being half-divine in its nature, and then recognised and honoured as God himself. He stood against a background where the Creator had opened out the universe; a spiritual influence went out from him; his sufferings were adopted as an example, and his transfiguration was the pledge of everlastingness.


As a coal is revived by incense, so prayer revives the hopes of the heart.


From a strict point of view we must have a reformation of ourselves every day, and protest against others, even though it be in no religious sense.


It should be our earnest endeavour to use words coinciding as closely as possible with what we feel, see, think, experience, imagine, and reason. It is an endeavour which we cannot evade, and which is daily to be renewed.

Let every man examine himself, and he will find this a much harder task than he might suppose; for, unhappily, a man usually takes words as mere make-shifts; his knowledge and his thought are in most cases better than his method of expression.

False, irrelevant, and futile ideas may arise in ourselves and others, or find their way into us from without. Let us persist in the effort to remove them as far as we can, by plain and honest purpose.


As we grow older, the ordeals grow greater.


Where I cannot be moral, my power is gone.


A man is not deceived by others, he deceives himself.


Laws are all made by old people and by men. Youths and women want the exceptions, old people the rules.


It is not the intelligent man who rules, but intelligence; not the wise man, but wisdom.


To praise a man is to put oneself on his level.


It is not enough to know, we must also apply; it is not enough to will, we must also do.


Chinese, Indian, and Egyptian antiquities are never more than curiosities; it is well to make acquaintance with them; but in point of moral and aesthetic culture they can help us little.


The German runs no greater danger than to advance with and by the example of his neighbours. There is perhaps no nation that is fitter for the process of self-development; so that it has proved of the greatest advantage to Germany to have obtained the notice of the world so late.


Even men of insight do not see that they try to explain things which lie at the foundation of our experience, and in which we must simply acquiesce.

Yet still the attempt may have its advantage, as otherwise we should break off our researches too soon.


From this time forward, if a man does not apply himself to some art or handiwork, he will be in a bad way. In the rapid changes of the world, knowledge is no longer a furtherance; by the time a man has taken note of everything, he has lost himself.


Besides, in these days the world forces universal culture upon us, and so we need not trouble ourselves further about it; we must appropriate some particular culture.


The greatest difficulties lie where we do not look for them.


Our interest in public events is mostly the merest philistinism.


Nothing is more highly to be prized than the value of each day.


Pereant qui ante nos nostra dixerunt! This is so strange an utterance, that it could only have come from one who fancied himself autochthonous. The man who looks upon it as an honour to be descended from wise ancestors, will allow them at least as much common-sense as he allows himself.


Strictly speaking, everything depends upon a man's intentions; where these exist, thoughts appear; and as the intentions are, so are the thoughts.


If a man lives long in a high position, he does not, it is true, experience all that a man can experience; but he experiences things like them, and perhaps some things that have no parallel elsewhere.

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