Maxims and Reflections

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated by Bailey Saunders (1892)

Life and Character



The first and last thing that is required of genius is love of truth.


To be and remain true to oneself and others, is to possess the noblest attribute of the greatest talents.


Great talents are the best means of conciliation.


The action of genius is in a way ubiquitous: towards general truths before experience, and towards particular truths after it.


An active scepticism is one which constantly aims at overcoming itself, and arriving by means of regulated experience at a kind of conditioned certainty.


The general nature of the sceptical mind is its tendency to inquire whether any particular predicate really attaches to any particular object; and the purpose of the inquiry is safely to apply in practice what has thus been discovered and proved.


The mind endowed with active powers and keeping with a practical object to the task that lies nearest, is the worthiest there is on earth.


Perfection is the measure of heaven, and the wish to be perfect the measure of man.


Not only what is born with him, but also what he acquires, makes the man.


A man is well equipped for all the real necessities of life if he trusts his senses, and so cultivates them that they remain worthy of being trusted.


The senses do not deceive; it is the judgment that deceives.


The lower animal is taught by its organs; man teaches his organs, and dominates them.


All direct invitation to live up to ideals is of doubtful value, particularly if addressed to women. Whatever the reason of it may be, a man of any importance collects round him a seraglio of a more or less religious, moral, and aesthetic character.


When a great idea enters the world as a Gospel, it becomes an offence to the multitude, which stagnates in pedantry; and to those who have much learning but little depth, it is folly.


Every idea appears at first as a strange visitor, and when it begins to be realised, it is hardly distinguishable from phantasy and phantastery.


This it is that has been called, in a good and in a bad sense, ideology; and this is why the ideologist is so repugnant to the hard-working, practical man of every day.


You may recognise the utility of an idea, and yet not quite understand how to make a perfect use of it.


Credo Deum! That is a fine, a worthy thing to say; but to recognise God where and as he reveals himself, is the only true bliss on earth.


Kepler said: 'My wish is that I may perceive the God whom I find everywhere in the external world, in like manner also within and inside me.' The good man was not aware that in that very moment the divine in him stood in the closest connection with the divine in the Universe.


What is predestination? It is this: God is mightier and wiser than we are, and so he does with us as he pleases.


Toleration should, strictly speaking, be only a passing mood; it ought to lead to acknowledgment and appreciation. To tolerate a person is to affront him.


Faith, Love, and Hope once felt, in a quiet sociable hour, a plastic impulse in their nature; they worked together and created a lovely image, a Pandora in the higher sense, Patience.


'I stumbled over the roots of the tree which I planted.' It must have been an old forester who said that.


A leaf blown by the wind often looks like a bird.


Does the sparrow know how the stork feels?


Lamps make oil-spots, and candles want snuffing; it is only the light of heaven that shines pure and leaves no stain.


If you miss the first button-hole, you will not succeed in buttoning up your coat.


A burnt child dreads the fire; an old man who has often been singed is afraid of warming himself.


It is not worth while to do anything for the world that we have with us, as the existing order may in a moment pass away. It is for the past and the future that we must work: for the past, to acknowledge its merits; for the future, to try to increase its value.


Let every man ask himself with which of his faculties he can and will somehow influence his age.


Let no one think that people have waited for him as for the Saviour.


Character in matters great and small consists in a man steadily pursuing the things of which he feels himself capable.


The man who wants to be active and has to be so, need only think of what is fitting at the moment, and he will make his way without difficulty. This is where women have the advantage, if they understand it.


The moment is a kind of public; a man must deceive it into believing that he is doing something; then it leaves us alone to go our way in secret; whereat its grandchildren cannot fail to be astonished.


There are men who put their knowledge in the place of insight.


In some states, as a consequence of the violent movements experienced in almost all directions, there has come about a certain overpressure in the system of education, the harm of which will be more generally felt hereafter; though even now it is perfectly well recognised by capable and honest authorities. Capable men live in a sort of despair over the fact that they are bound by the rules of their office to teach and communicate things which they look upon as useless and hurtful.


There is no sadder sight than the direct striving after the unconditioned in this thoroughly conditioned world.


Before the Revolution it was all effort; afterwards it all changed to demand.


Can a nation become ripe? That is a strange question. I would answer, Yes! if all the men could be born thirty years of age. But as youth will always be too forward and old age too backward, the really mature man is always hemmed in between them, and has to resort to strange devices to make his way through.


It does not look well for monarchs to speak through the press, for power should act and not talk. The projects of the liberal party always bear being read: the man who is overpowered may at least express his views in speech, because he cannot act. When Mazarin was shown some satirical songs on a new tax, 'Let them sing,' said he, 'as long as they pay.'


Vanity is a desire of personal glory, the wish to be appreciated, honoured, and run after, not because of one's personal qualities, merits, and achievements, but because of one's individual existence. At best, therefore, it is a frivolous beauty whom it befits.


The most important matters of feeling as of reason, of experience as of reflection, should be treated of only by word of mouth. The spoken word at once dies if it is not kept alive by some other word following on it and suited to the hearer. Observe what happens in social converse. If the word is not dead when it reaches the hearer, he murders it at once by a contradiction, a stipulation, a condition, a digression, an interruption, and all the thousand tricks of conversation. With the written word the case is still worse. No one cares to read anything to which he is not already to some extent accustomed: he demands the known and the familiar under an altered form. Still the written word has this advantage, that it lasts and can await the time when it is allowed to take effect.


Both what is reasonable and what is unreasonable have to undergo the like contradiction.


Dialectic is the culture of the spirit of contradiction, which is given to man that he may learn to perceive the differences between things.


With those who are really of like disposition with himself a man cannot long be at variance; he will always come to an agreement again. With those who are really of adverse disposition, he may in vain try to preserve harmony; he will always come to a separation again.


Opponents fancy they refute us when they repeat their own opinion and pay no attention to ours.


People who contradict and dispute should now and then remember that not every mode of speech is intelligible to every one.


Every man hears only what he understands.


I am quite prepared to find that many a reader will disagree with me; but when he has a thing before him in black and white, he must let it stand. Another reader may perhaps take up the very same copy and agree with me.


The truest liberality is appreciation.


For the strenuous man the difficulty is to recognise the merits of elder contemporaries and not let himself be hindered by their defects.


Some men think about the defects of their friends, and there is nothing to be gained by it. I have always paid attention to the merits of my enemies, and found it an advantage.


There are many men who fancy they understand whatever they experience.


The public must be treated like women: they must be told absolutely nothing but what they like to hear.


Every age of man has a certain philosophy answering to it. The child comes out as a realist: he finds himself as convinced that pears and apples exist as that he himself exists. The youth in a storm of inner passion is forced to turn his gaze within, and feel in advance what he is going to be: he is changed into an idealist. But the man has every reason to become a sceptic: he does well to doubt whether the means he has chosen to his end are the right ones. Before and during action he has every reason for keeping his understanding mobile, that he may not afterwards have to grieve over a false choice. Yet when he grows old he will always confess himself a mystic: he sees that so much seems to depend on chance; that folly succeeds and wisdom fails; that good and evil fortune are brought unexpectedly to the same level; so it is and so it has been, and old age acquiesces in that which is and was and will be.


When a man grows old he must consciously remain at a certain stage.


It does not become an old man to run after the fashion, either in thought or in dress. But he must know where he is, and what the others are aiming at.

What is called fashion is the tradition of the moment. All tradition carries with it a certain necessity for people to put themselves on a level with it.


We have long been busy with the critique of reason. I should like to see a critique of common-sense. It would be a real benefit to mankind if we could convincingly prove to the ordinary intelligence how far it can go; and that is just as much as it fully requires for life on this earth.


The thinker makes a great mistake when he asks after cause and effect: they both together make up the indivisible phenomenon.


All practical men try to bring the world under their hands; all thinkers, under their heads. How far each succeeds, they may both see for themselves.


Shall we say that a man thinks only when he cannot think out that of which he is thinking?


What is invention or discovery? It is the conclusion of what we were looking for.


It is with history as with nature and with everything of any depth, it may be past, present, or future: the further we seriously pursue it, the more difficult are the problems that appear. The man who is not afraid of them, but attacks them bravely, has a feeling of higher culture and greater ease the further he progresses.


Every phenomenon is within our reach if we treat it as an inclined plane, which is of easy ascent, though the thick end of the wedge may be steep and inaccessible.


If a man would enter upon some course of knowledge, he must either be deceived or deceive himself, unless external necessity irresistibly determines him. Who would become a physician if, at one and the same time, he saw before him all the horrible sights that await him?


How many years must a man do nothing before he can at all know what is to be done and how to do it!


Duty: where a man loves what he commands himself to do.

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