Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, and in their pleasure takes joy, even as though t'were his own.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 174922 March 1832) was a German novelist, dramatist, poet, humanist, scientist, philosopher, and for ten years chief minister of state at Weimar.

See also: Faust, and The Sorrows of Young Werther, and the German version of this page.

Sourced

  • One lives but once in the world.
    • Clavigo, Act I, sc. i (1774)
  • If you inquire what the people are like here,
    I must answer, "The same as everywhere!"
  • Getting along with women,
    Knocking around with men,
    Having more credit than money,
    Thus one goes through the world.
    • Claudine von Villa Bella (1776)
  • When young one is confident to be able to build palaces for mankind, but when the time comes one has one's hands full just to be able to remove their trash.
    • Letter to Johann Kaspar Lavatar (6 March 1780)
  • Noble be man,
    Helpful and good!
    For that alone
    Sets hims apart
    From every other creature
    On earth.
    • Das Göttliche (The Divine) (1783)
  • In der Kunst ist das Beste gut genug.
  • A noble person attracts noble people, and knows how to hold on to them.
    • Torquato Tasso, Act I, sc. i (1790)
  • A talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world's torrent.
    • Torquato Tasso, Act I, sc. ii (1790)
  • Untersuchen was ist, und nicht was behagt
    • Investigate what is, and not what pleases.
      • Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt (The Attempt as Mediator of Object and Subject) (1792)
  • We can't form our children on our own concepts; we must take them and love them as God gives them to us.
  • The spirits that I summoned up
    I now can't rid myself of.
  • One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is the intermixing of different genres.
    • Propylaea (1798) Introduction
  • The true, prescriptive artist strives after artistic truth; the lawless artist, following blind instinct, after an appearance of naturalness. The one leads to the highest peaks of art, the other to its lowest depths.
    • Propylaea (1798) Introduction
  • In limitations he first shows himself the master,
    And the law can only bring us freedom.
    • Was Wir Bringen (1802)
  • One never goes so far as when one doesn't know where one is going.
  • Who wants to understand the poem
    Must go to the land of poetry;
    Who wishes to understand the poet
    Must go to the poet's land.
    • West-östlicher Diwan, motto (1819)
  • For I have been a man, and that means to have been a fighter.
    • West-östlicher Diwan, Buch des Paradies (1819)
  • Should I not be proud, when for twenty years I have had to admit to myself that the great Newton and all the mathematicians and noble calculators along with him were involved in a decisive error with respect to the doctrine of color, and that I among millions was the only one who knew what was right in this great subject of nature?
    • Letter to Eckermann (December 30, 1823)
  • All poetry is supposed to be instructive but in an unnoticeable manner; it is supposed to make us aware of what it would be valuable to instruct ourselves in; we must deduce the lesson on our own, just as with life.
    • Letter to Carl Friedrich Zelter (November 26, 1825)
  • One must be something in order to do something.
    • Conversation with Eckermann (October 20, 1828)
  • If I work incessantly to the last, nature owes me another form of existence when the present one collapses.
    • Letter to Eckermann (February 4, 1829)
  • Ich die Baukunst eine erstarrte Musik nenne.
    • I call architecture frozen music.
    • Letter to Eckermann (March 23, 1829)
  • The artist may be well advised to keep his work to himself till it is completed, because no one can readily help him or advise him with it...but the scientist is wiser not to withhold a single finding or a single conjecture from publicity.
    • Essay on Experimentation
  • Willst du immer weiterschweifen?
    Sieh, das Gute liegt so nah.
    Lerne nur das Glück ergreifen,
    denn das Glück ist immer da.
    • Do you wish to roam farther and farther?
      See the good that lies so near.
      Just learn how to capture your luck,
      for your luck is always there.
    • Variant translation:
      Do you wish to roam farther and farther?
      See! The Good lies so near.
      Only learn to seize good fortune,
      For good fortune's always here.
    • Erinnerung
  • Create, artist! Do not talk!
    • Saying
  • O'er all the hilltops
    Is quiet now,
    In all the treetops
    Hearest thou
    Hardly a breath;
    The birds are asleep in the trees:
    Wait; soon like these
    Thou too shalt rest.
    • Wandrers Nachtlied (Wanderer's Nightsong)
  • Welche Regierung die beste sei? Diejenige, die uns lehrt, uns selbst zu regieren.
    • Which is the best government? That which teaches us to govern ourselves.
    • The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe as translated by Bailey Saunders (1893) Maxim 225
  • Amerika, du hast es besser—als unser Kontinent, das alte.
    • America, you have it better than our continent, the old one.
    • Wendts Musen-Almanach (1831)
  • Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others,
    And in their pleasure takes joy, even as though 'twere his own.

    Not in the morning alone, not only at mid-day he charmeth;
    Even at setting, the sun is still the same glorious planet.
    • The Poems of Goethe Translated in the original metres by Edgar Alfred Bowring
  • Without haste, but without rest.
    • Motto
  • Mehr licht.
    • More light!
    • Last words.

Wilhelm Meister's Lehrjahre (Apprenticeship) (1786-1830)

  • Ich singe, wie der Vogel singt
    Der in den Zweigen wohnet.
    • I sing as the bird sings
      That lives in the boughs.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 11
  • Wer nichts wagt, gerwinnt nichts.
    Wer nie sein Brod mit Tränen ass,
    Wer nie die kummervollen Nächte
    Auf seinem Bette weinend sass,
    Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte.
    • Nothing venture, nothing gain.
      Who ne'er his bread in sorrow ate,
      Who ne'er the mournful midnight hours
      Weeping upon his bed has sate,
      He knows you not, ye Heavenly Powers.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 13; translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • Knowst thou the land where the lemon trees bloom,
    Where the gold orange glows in the deep thicket's gloom,
    Where a wind ever soft from the blue heaven blows,
    And the groves are of laurel and myrtle and rose?
    • Bk. III, Ch. 1
  • What's it to you if I love you?
    • Philine in Bk. IV, Ch. 9
    • Variant translation: If I love you, what business is it of yours?
  • One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.
    • Bk. V, Ch. 1
  • To know of someone here and there whom we accord with, who is living on with us, even in silence—this makes our earthly ball a peopled garden.
    • Bk. VII, Ch. 5
  • Art is long, life short; judgment difficult, opportunity transient.
    • Bk. VII, Ch. 9

Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787)

  • Seeking with the soul the land of the Greeks.
    • Act I, sc. i
  • A useless life is an early death.
    • Act I, sc. ii
  • One says a lot in vain, refusing;
    The other mainly hears the "No."
    • Act I, sc. iii
  • Pleasure and love are the pinions of great deeds.
    • Act II, sc. i
  • Life teaches us to be less harsh with ourselves and with others.
    • Act IV, sc. iv

Roman Elegies (1789)

  • Tell me you stones, O speak, you towering palaces!
    Streets, say a word! Spirit of this place, are you dumb?
    All things are alive in your sacred walls
    Eternal Rome, it's only for me all is still.
    • Elegy 1
  • I'm gazing at church and palace, ruin and column,
    Like a serious man making sensible use of a journey,
    But soon it will happen, and all will be one vast temple,
    Love's temple, receiving its new initiate.
    Though you're a whole world, Rome, still, without Love,
    The world isn't the world, and Rome can't be Rome.
    • Elegy 1
  • Ah, how often I've cursed those foolish pages,
    That showed my youthful sufferings to everyone!
    If Werther had been my brother, and I'd killed him,
    His sad ghost could hardly have persecuted me more.
    • Elegy 2 (First version)
  • A world without love would be no world.
    • Elegy 2
  • Beloved, don't fret that you gave yourself so quickly!
    Believe me, I don't think badly or wrongly of you.
    The arrows of Love are various: some scratch us,
    And our hearts suffer for years from their slow poison.
    But others strong-feathered with freshly sharpened points
    Pierce to the marrow, and quickly inflame the blood.
    In the heroic ages, when gods and goddesses loved,
    Desire followed a look, and joy followed desire.
    • Elegy 3
  • I feel I'm happily inspired now on Classical soil:
    The Past and Present speak louder, more charmingly.
    Here, as advised, I leaf through the works of the Ancients
    With busy hands, and, each day, with fresh delight.
    But at night Love keeps me busy another way:
    I become half a scholar but twice as contented.
    And am I not learning, studying the shape
    Of her lovely breasts: her hips guiding my hand?
    • Elegy 5

Venetian Epigrams (1790)

  • All Nine often used to come to me, I mean the Muses:
    But I ignored them: my girl was in my arms.
    Now I’ve left my sweetheart: and they’ve left me,
    And I roll my eyes, seeking a knife or rope.
    But Heaven is full of gods: You came to aid me:
    Greetings, Boredom, mother of the Muse.
    • Epigram 27
  • Is it so big a mystery
    what god and man and world are?
    No! but nobody knows how to solve it
    so the mystery hangs on.
    • As translated by Jerome Rothenberg
  • Much there is I can stand. Most things not easy to suffer
    I bear with quiet resolve, just as a God commands it.
    Only a few things I find as repugnant as snakes and poison.
    These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs and garlic and Christ.
    • Epigram 60.
  • Much there is I can stand, and most things not easy to suffer
    I bear with quiet resolve, just as a god commands it.
    Only a few I find as repugnant as snakes and poison —
    These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs, garlic, and †.
    • Variant translation: Lots of things I can stomach. Most of what irks me
      I take in my stride, as a god might command me.
      But four things I hate more than poisons & vipers:
      tobacco smoke, garlic, bedbugs, and Christ.
    • Epigram 67, as translated by Jerome Rothenberg
  • Doesn't surprise me that Christ our Lord
    preferred to live with whores
    & sinners, seeing
    I go in for that myself.
    • As translated by Jerome Rothenberg

Elective Affinities (1808)

  • Three things are to be looked to in a building: that it stand on the right spot; that it be securely founded; that it be successfully executed.
    • Bk. I, Ch. 9
  • The sum which two married people owe to one another defies calculation. It is an infinite debt, which can only be discharged through all eternity.
    • Bk. I, Ch. 9
  • One is never satisfied with a portrait of a person that one knows.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 2
  • The fate of the architect is the strangest of all. How often he expends his whole soul, his whole heart and passion, to produce buildings into which he himself may never enter.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 3
  • Let us live in as small a circle as we will, we are either debtors or creditors before we have had time to look round.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 4
  • No one would talk much in society, if he knew how often he misunderstands others.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 4
  • A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows on rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 7

Faust, Part 1 (1808)

  • Das Alter macht nicht kindisch, wie man spricht,
    Es findet uns nur noch als wahre Kinder.
    • Age does not make us childish, as they say.
      It only finds us true children still.
      • Prelude on the Stage
  • Es irrt der Mensch, so lang er strebt.
    • Man errs as long as he strives.
      • Prologue in Heaven
  • Da stehe ich nun, ich armer Thor!
    Und bin so klug als wie zuvor.
    • And here, poor fool! with all my lore
      I stand! no wiser than before.
      • Night, Faust in His Study
  • Bin ich ein Gott? Mir wird so licht!
    • Am I a god? I see so clearly!
      • Night, Faust in His Study
  • Die Botschaft hör ich wohl, allein, mir fehlt der Glaube
    • The message well I hear, my faith alone is weak
      • Faust's Study
  • Zwey Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust.
    • Two souls alas! dwell in my breast.
      • Outside the Gate of the Town
  • Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint.
    • I am the Spirit that always denies!
      • Faust's Study
  • Blut ist ein ganz besondrer Saft.
    • Blood is a juice of rarest quality.
    • (Also translated as:) Blood is a very special juice.
      • Faust's Study
  • Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
    Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.
    • Dear friend, all theory is gray,
      And green the golden tree of life.
      • Mephistopheles and the Student
  • Ein echter deutscher Mann mag keinen Franzen leiden,
    Doch ihre Weine trinkt er gern.
    • A true German can't stand the French,
      Yet willingly he drinks their wines.
      • Auerbach's Cellar
  • Wer Recht behalten will und hat nur eine Zunge,
    Behält’s gewiß.
    • Whoever intends to have the right, if but his tongue be clever,
      Will have it, certainly.
    • (Sometimes translated as:) He who maintains he's right—if his the gift of tongues—
      Will have the last word certainly.
      • Faust and Gretchen. A Street
  • Meine Ruh' ist hin,
    Mein Herz ist schwer.
    • My peace is gone,
      My heart is heavy.
      • Gretchen's Room
  • Schön war ich auch, und das war mein Verderben.
    • Fair I was also, and that was my ruin.
      • A Prison
  • Gut! Ein Mittel, ohne Geld
    Und Arzt und Zauberei zu haben:
    Begib dich gleich hinaus aufs Feld,
    Fang an zu hacken und zu graben,
    Erhalte dich und deinen Sinn
    In einem ganz beschraunken Kreise,
    Ernauhre dich mit ungemischter Speise,
    Leb Mit dem Vieh als Vieh, and acht es nicht fur Raub,
    Den Acker, den du erntest, selbst zu dungen;
    Das ist das beste Mittel, glaub,
    Auf achtzig Jahr dich zu verjungenl

    • Good! A method can be used
      without physicians, gold, or magic,
      Go out into the open field
      and start to dig and cultivate;
      keep your body and your spirit
      in a humble and restricted sphere,
      sustain yourself by simple fare,
      live with your herd and spread your own manure
      on land from which you reap your nourishment.
      Believe me, that's the best procedure
      to keep your youth for eighty years or more.
      • A Witch's Kitchen, Mephistopheles to Faust

Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre (Journeyman Years) (1821-1829)

  • Alles Gescheite ist schon gedacht worden.
    Man muss nur versuchen, es noch einmal zu denken.
    • All intelligent thoughts have already been thought;
      what is necessary is only to try to think them again.
      • Variant: All truly wise thoughts have been thoughts already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.
    • Bk. II, Observations in the Minset of the Wanderer: Art, Ethics, Nature

Faust, Part 2 (1832)

  • Law is mighty, mightier necessity.
    • Act I, A Spacious Hall
  • Once a man's thirty, he's already old,
    He is indeed as good as dead.
    It's best to kill him right away.
    • Act II, The Gothic Chamber
  • What wise or stupid thing can man conceive
    That was not thought of in ages long ago?
    • Act II, The Gothic Chamber
  • I love those who yearn for the impossible.
    • Act II, Classical Walpurgis Night
  • The deed is everything, the glory nothing.
    • Act IV, A High Mountain Range
  • Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben der täglich sie erobern muss.
    • Of freedom and of life he only is deserving
      Who every day must conquer them anew.
    • Freedom and life are earned by those alone
      Who conquer them each day anew (tr. Walter Kaufmann)
    • Act V, Court of the Palace
  • Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,
    Den können wir erlösen.
    • Who strives always to the utmost,
      For him there is salvation.
    • Act V, Mountain Gorges
  • Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis.
    • All perishable is but an allegory
    • Variant translation: All that is transitory is but a metaphor
    • Act V, Chorus mysticus, last sentence, immediately before:
  • Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan.
    • The Eternal Feminine draws us on.
    • Act V, Heaven, last line

Sprüche in Prosa (Proverbs in Prose, 1819)

  • Individuality of expression is the beginning and end of all art.
  • Nothing is more damaging to a new truth than an old error.
  • Doubt grows with knowledge.
  • The greatest happiness for the thinking man is to have fathomed the fathomable, and to quietly revere the unfathomable.
  • First and last, what is demanded of genius is love of truth.
  • A man's manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.
  • All intelligent thoughts have already been thought; what is necessary is only to try to think them again.
  • Es ist nichts schrecklicher als eine tätige Unwissenheit.
    • Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.
  • Of all peoples the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life best.
  • Everything that emancipates the spirit without giving us control over ourselves is harmful.

Unsourced

Whoever, in middle age, attempts to realize the wishes and hopes of his early youth, invariably deceives himself. Each ten years of a man's life has its own fortunes, its own hopes, its own desires.
  • A collection of anecdotes and maxims is the greatest of treasures for the man of the world, for he knows how to intersperse conversation with the former in fit places, and to recollect the latter on proper occasions.
  • A man can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days.
  • A reasonable man needs only to practice moderation to find happiness.
  • Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him.


  • All the knowledge I possess everyone else can acquire, but my heart is all my own.
  • As soon as you trust yourself, you will know how to live.
  • Correction does much, but encouragement does more.
  • Destiny grants us our wishes, but in its own way, in order to give us something beyond our wishes.
  • Distrust those in whom the desire to punish is strong.
    • Also rendered: Mistrust all in whom the desire to punish is imperative. (Similar statements have definitely been made by Nietzsche, and attributed to Dostoevsky)
  • Divide and rule, a sound motto. Unite and lead, a better one.
  • Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must.
  • Even the lowliest, provided he is whole, can be happy, and in his own way, perfect.
  • Everybody wants to be somebody; nobody wants to grow.
  • Everything in the world may be endured except continued prosperity.
  • Everything is simpler than you think and at the same time more complex than you imagine.
  • He is happiest, be he king or peasant, who finds peace in his home.
  • He who wishes to exert a useful influence must be careful to insult nothing. Let him not be troubled by what seems absurd, but concentrate his energies to the creation of what is good. He must not demolish, but build.
  • How can you come to know yourself? Never by thinking, always by doing. Try to do your duty, and you'll know right away what you amount to.
  • If any man wish to write in a clear style, let him be first clear in his thoughts; and if any would write in a noble style, let him first possess a noble soul.
  • If I accept you as you are, I will make you worse; however if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming, I help you become that.
  • If Switzerland were flat as a pancake, it would be larger than Prussia.
  • If you must tell me your opinions, tell me what you believe in. I have plenty of doubts of my own.
  • In art the best is good enough.
  • It's not that age brings childhood back again, age merely shows what children we remain.
  • Joy and sorrow both have part in my solitude.
  • Know thyself? If I knew myself, I'd run away.
  • Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.
  • Live dangerously and you live right.
  • Man is not born to solve the problem of the universe, but to find out what he has to do; and to restrain himself within the limits of his comprehension.
  • Mathematicians are [like] a sort of Frenchmen; if you talk to them, they translate it into their own language, and then it is immediately something quite different.
  • Men show their characters in nothing more clearly than in what they think laughable.
  • None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
  • One has only to grow older to become more tolerant. I see no fault that I might not have committed myself.
  • Only when we know little do we know anything; doubt grows with knowledge.
  • [Prague is the] prettiest gem in the stone crown of the world...
  • Reason can never be popular. Passions and feelings may become popular, but reason will always remain the sole property of a few eminent individuals.
  • Should I not be proud, when for twenty years I have had to admit to myself that the great Newton and all the mathematicians and noble calculators along with him were involved in a decisive error with respect to the doctrine of color, and that I among millions was the only one who knew what was right in this great subject of nature?
  • Talent develops in quiet places, character in the full current of human life.
  • The best genius is that which absorbs and assimilates everything without doing the least violence to its fundamental destiny — that which we call character — but rather improving it and enhancing it as far as possible.
  • The deed is everything, the glory naught.
  • The effects of good music are not just because it's new; on the contrary music strikes us more the more familiar we are with it.
  • The first and last thing required of genius is the love of truth.
  • The intelligent man finds almost everything ridiculous, the sensible man hardly anything.
    • Sometimes phrased as: An intelligent man finds almost everything ridiculous, a wise man hardly anything.
  • The decline in literature indicates a decline in the nation. The two keep pace in their downward tendency.
  • The man is born with a talent which he has meant to use finds his greatest happiness in using it.
  • The phrases that men hear or repeat continually, end by becoming convictions and ossify the organs of intelligence.
  • The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit — this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.
  • There are two things children should get from their parents: roots and wings.
  • Things that matter most must never be at the mercy of things that matter least.
  • To be pleased with one's limits is a wretched state.
  • To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is not to have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything.
  • We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.
  • We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.
  • We lay aside letters never to read them again, and at last we destroy them out of discretion, and so disappears the most beautiful, the most immediate breath of life, irrecoverable for ourselves and for others.
  • What one knows, one sees.
    • Variant translation: What man knows, man sees.
  • When a man stops to ponder his physical or moral condition, he generally finds he is ill.
  • When ideas fail, words come in very handy.
  • Whoever, in middle age, attempts to realize the wishes and hopes of his early youth, invariably deceives himself. Each ten years of a man's life has its own fortunes, its own hopes, its own desires.
  • You must be either the servant or the master, the hammer or the anvil.
  • There is nothing more dreadful than imagination without taste.

Misattributed

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