Maxims and Reflections

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Translated by Bailey Saunders (1892)



In the sphere of natural science let us remember that we have always to deal with an insoluble problem. Let us prove keen and honest in attending to anything which is in any way brought to our notice, most of all when it does not fit in with our previous ideas. For it is only thereby that we perceive the problem, which does indeed lie in nature, but still more in man.


A man cannot well stand by himself, and so he is glad to join a party; because if he does not find rest there, he at any rate finds quiet and safety.


It is a misfortune to pass at once from observation to conclusion, and to regard both as of equal value; but it befalls many a student.


In the history of science and throughout the whole course of its progress we see certain epochs following one another more or less rapidly. Some important view is expressed, it may be original or only revived; sooner or later it receives recognition; fellow workers spring up; the outcome of it finds its way into the schools; it is taught and handed down; and we observe, unhappily, that it does not in the least matter whether the view be true or false. In either case its course is the same; in either case it comes in the end to be a mere phrase, a lifeless word stamped on the memory.


First let a man teach himself, and then he will be taught by others.


Theories are usually the over-hasty efforts of an impatient understanding that would gladly be rid of phenomena, and so puts in their place pictures, notions, nay, often mere words. We may surmise, or even see quite well, that such theories are make-shifts; but do not passion and party-spirit love a make-shift at all times? And rightly, too, because they stand in so much need of it.


It is difficult to know how to treat the errors of the age. If a man oppose them, he stands alone; if he surrender to them, they bring him neither joy nor credit.


There are some hundred Christian sects, every one of them acknowledging God and the Lord in its own way, without troubling themselves further about one another. In the study of nature, nay, in every study, things must of necessity come to the same pass. For what is the meaning of every one speaking of toleration, and trying to prevent others from thinking and expressing themselves after their own fashion?


To communicate knowledge by means of analogy appears to me a process equally useful and pleasant. The analogous case is not there to force itself on the attention or prove anything; it offers a comparison with some other case, but is not in union with it. Several analogous cases do not join to form a seried row: they are like good society, which always suggests more than it grants.


To err is to be as though truth did not exist. To lay bare the error to oneself and others is retrospective discovery.


With the growth of knowledge our ideas must from time to time be organised afresh. The change takes place usually in accordance with new maxims as they arise, but it always remains provisional.


When we find facts within our knowledge exhibited by some new method, or even, it may be, described in a foreign language, they receive a peculiar charm of novelty and wear a fresh air.


If two masters of the same art differ in their statement of it, in all likelihood the insoluble problem lies midway between them.


The orbits of certainties touch one another; but in the interstices there is room enough for error to go forth and prevail.


We more readily confess to errors, mistakes, and shortcomings in our conduct than in our thought.


And the reason of it is that the conscience is humble and even takes a pleasure in being ashamed. But the intellect is proud, and if forced to recant is driven to despair.


This also explains how it is that truths which have been recognised are at first tacitly admitted, and then gradually spread, so that the very thing which was obstinately denied appears at last as something quite natural.


Ignorant people raise questions which were answered by the wise thousands of years ago.


When a man sees a phenomenon before him, his thoughts often range beyond it; when he hears it only talked about, he has no thoughts at all.


Authority. Man cannot exist without it, and yet it brings in its train just as much of error as of truth. It perpetuates one by one things which should pass away one by one; it rejects that which should be preserved and allows it to pass away; and it is chiefly to blame for mankind's want of progress.


Authority—the fact, namely, that something has already happened or been said or decided, is of great value; but it is only a pedant who demands authority for everything.


An old foundation is worthy of all respect, but it must not take from us the right to build afresh wherever we will.


Our advice is that every man should remain in the path he has struck out for himself, and refuse to be overawed by authority, hampered by prevalent opinion, or carried away by fashion.


The various branches of knowledge always tend as a whole to stray away from life, and return thither only by a roundabout way.


For they are, in truth, text-books of life: they gather outer and inner experiences into a general and connected whole.


An important fact, an ingenious aperçu, occupies a very great number of men, at first only to make acquaintance with it; then to understand it; and afterwards to work it out and carry it further.


On the appearance of anything new the mass of people ask: What is the use of it? And they are not wrong. For it is only through the use of anything that they can perceive its value.


The truly wise ask what the thing is in itself and in relation to other things, and do not trouble themselves about the use of it,—in other words, about the way in which it may be applied to the necessities of existence and what is already known. This will soon be discovered by minds of a very different order—minds that feel the joy of living, and are keen, adroit, and practical.


Every investigator must before all things look upon himself as one who is summoned to serve on a jury. He has only to consider how far the statement of the case is complete and clearly set forth by the evidence. Then he draws his conclusion and gives his vote, whether it be that his opinion coincides with that of the foreman or not.


And in acting thus he remains equally at ease whether the majority agree with him or he finds himself in a minority. For he has done what he could: he has expressed his convictions; and he is not master of the minds or hearts of others.


In the world of science, however, these sentiments have never been of much account. There everything depends on making opinion prevail and dominate; few men are really independent; the majority draws the individual after it.


The history of philosophy, of science, of religion, all shows that opinions spread in masses, but that that always comes to the front which is more easily grasped, that is to say, is most suited and agreeable to the human mind in its ordinary condition. Nay, he who has practised self-culture in the higher sense may always reckon upon meeting an adverse majority.


There is much that is true which does not admit of being calculated; just as there are a great many things that cannot be brought to the test of a decisive experiment.


It is just for this that man stands so high, that what could not otherwise be brought to light should be brought to light in him.

What is a musical string, and all its mechanical division, in comparison with the musician's ear? May we not also say, what are the elementary phenomena of nature itself compared with man, who must control and modify them all before he can in any way assimilate them to himself?


To a new truth there is nothing more hurtful than an old error.


The ultimate origin of things is completely beyond our faculties; hence when we see anything come into being, we look upon it as having been already there. This is why we find the theory of emboîtement intelligible.


There are many problems in natural science on which we cannot fittingly speak unless we call metaphysics to our aid; but not the wisdom of the schools, which consists in mere verbiage. It is that which was before physics, exists with it, and will be after it.


Since men are really interested in nothing but their own opinions, every one who puts forward an opinion looks about him right and left for means of strengthening himself and others in it. A man avails himself of the truth so long as it is serviceable; but he seizes on what is false with a passionate eloquence as soon as he can make a momentary use of it; whether it be to dazzle others with it as a kind of half-truth, or to employ it as a stopgap for effecting an apparent union between things that have been disjointed. This experience at first caused me annoyance, and then sorrow; and now it is a source of mischievous satisfaction. I have pledged myself never again to expose a proceeding of this kind.


Everything that we call Invention or Discovery in the higher sense of the word is the serious exercise and activity of an original feeling for truth, which, after a long course of silent cultivation, suddenly flashes out into fruitful knowledge. It is a revelation working from within on the outer world, and lets a man feel that he is made in the image of God. It is a synthesis of World and Mind, giving the most blessed assurance of the eternal harmony of things.


A man must cling to the belief that the incomprehensible is comprehensible; otherwise he would not try to fathom it.


There are pedants who are also rascals, and they are the worst of all.


A man does not need to have seen or experienced everything himself. But if he is to commit himself to another's experiences and his way of putting them, let him consider that he has to do with three things—the object in question and two subjects.


The supreme achievement would be to see that stating a fact is starting a theory.


If I acquiesce at last in some ultimate fact of nature, it is, no doubt, only resignation; but it makes a great difference whether the resignation takes place at the limits of human faculty, or within the hypothetical boundaries of my own narrow individuality.


If we look at the problems raised by Aristotle, we are astonished at his gift of observation. What wonderful eyes the Greeks had for many things! Only they committed the mistake of being over-hasty, of passing straightway from the phenomenon to the explanation of it, and thereby produced certain theories that are quite inadequate. But this is the mistake of all times, and still made in our own day.


Hypotheses are cradle-songs by which the teacher lulls his scholars to sleep. The thoughtful and honest observer is always learning more and more of his limitations; he sees that the further knowledge spreads, the more numerous are the problems that make their appearance.


Our mistake is that we doubt what is certain and want to establish what is uncertain. My maxim in the study of Nature is this: hold fast what is certain and keep a watch on what is uncertain.


What a master a man would be in his own subject if he taught nothing useless!


The greatest piece of folly is that every man thinks himself compelled to hand down what people think they have known.


If many a man did not feel obliged to repeat what is untrue, because he has said it once, the world would have been quite different.


Every man looks at the world lying ready before him, ordered and fashioned into a complete whole, as after all but an element out of which his endeavour is to create a special world suited to himself. Capable men lay hold of the world without hesitation and try to shape their course as best they can; others dally over it, and some doubt even of their own existence.

The man who felt the full force of this fundamental truth would dispute with no one, but look upon another's mode of thought equally with his own, as merely a phenomenon. For we find almost daily that one man can think with ease what another cannot possibly think at all; and that, too, not in matters which might have some sort of effect upon their common weal or woe, but in things which cannot touch them at all.


There is nothing more odious than the majority; it consists of a few powerful men to lead the way; of accommodating rascals and submissive weaklings; and of a mass of men who trot after them, without in the least knowing their own mind.


When I observe the luminous progress and expansion of natural science in modern times, I seem to myself like a traveller going eastwards at dawn, and gazing at the growing light with joy, but also with impatience; looking forward with longing to the advent of the full and final light, but, nevertheless, having to turn away his eyes when the sun appeared, unable to bear the splendour he had awaited with so much desire.


We praise the eighteenth century for concerning itself chiefly with analysis. The task remaining to the nineteenth is to discover the false syntheses which prevail, and to analyse their contents anew.


A school may be regarded as a single individual who talks to himself for a hundred years, and takes an extraordinary pleasure in his own being, however foolish and silly it may be.


In science it is a service of the highest merit to seek out those fragmentary truths attained by the ancients, and to develop them further.


If a man devotes himself to the promotion of science, he is firstly opposed, and then he is informed that his ground is already occupied. At first men will allow no value to what we tell them, and then they behave as if they knew it all themselves.


Nature fills all space with her limitless productivity. If we observe merely our own earth, everything that we call evil and unfortunate is so because Nature cannot provide room for everything that comes into existence, and still less endow it with permanence.


Everything that comes into being seeks room for itself and desires duration: hence it drives something else from its place and shortens its duration.


There is so much of cryptogamy in phanerogamy that centuries will not decipher it.


What a true saying it is that he who wants to deceive mankind must before all things make absurdity plausible.


The further knowledge advances, the nearer we come to the unfathomable: the more we know how to use our knowledge, the better we see that the unfathomable is of no practical use.


The finest achievement for a man of thought is to have fathomed what may be fathomed, and quietly to revere the unfathomable.


The discerning man who acknowledges his limitations is not far off perfection.


There are two things of which a man cannot be careful enough: of obstinacy if he confines himself to his own line of thought; of incompetency, if he goes beyond it.


Incompetency is a greater obstacle to perfection than one would think.


The century advances; but every individual begins anew.


What friends do with us and for us is a real part of our life; for it strengthens and advances our personality. The assault of our enemies is not part of our life; it is only part of our experience; we throw it off and guard ourselves against it as against frost, storm, rain, hail, or any other of the external evils which may be expected to happen.


A man cannot live with every one, and therefore he cannot live for every one. To see this truth aright is to place a high value upon one's friends, and not to hate or persecute one's enemies. Nay, there is hardly any greater advantage for a man to gain than to find out, if he can, the merits of his opponents: it gives him a decided ascendency over them.


Every one knows how to value what he has attained in life; most of all the man who thinks and reflects in his old age. He has a comfortable feeling that it is something of which no one can rob him.


The best metempsychosis is for us to appear again in others.


It is very seldom that we satisfy ourselves; all the more consoling is it to have satisfied others.


We look back upon our life only as on a thing of broken pieces, because our misses and failures are always the first to strike us, and outweigh in our imagination what we have done, and attained.


The sympathetic youth sees nothing of this; he reads, enjoys, and uses the youth of one who has gone before him, and rejoices in it with all his heart, as though he had once been what he now is.


Science helps us before all things in this, that it somewhat lightens the feeling of wonder with which Nature fills us; then, however, as life becomes more and more complex, it creates new facilities for the avoidance of what would do us harm and the promotion of what will do us good.


It is always our eyes alone, our way of looking at things. Nature alone knows what she means now, and what she had meant in the past.

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