Maxims and Reflections - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - ebook

How can a man come to know himself? Never by thinking, but by doing. Try to do your duty, and you will know at once what you are worth.

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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Maxims and Reflections

New Edition





New Edition

Published by Urban Romantics

This Edition

First published in 2016

Copyright © 2016 Urban Romantics

All Rights Reserved.

ISBN: 9781911495284









The translation of Goethe’s “Prose Maxims” now offered to the public is the first attempt that has yet been made to present the greater part of these incomparable sayings in English. In the complete collection they are over a thousand in number, and not more perhaps than a hundred and fifty have already found their way into our language, whether as contributions to magazines here and in America, or in volumes of miscellaneous extract from Goethe’s writings. Some are at times quoted as though they were common literary property. To say that they are important as a whole would be a feeble tribute to a work eloquent for itself, and beyond the need of praise; but so deep is the wisdom of these maxims, so wide their reach, so compact a product are they of Goethe’s wonderful genius, that it is something of a reproach to literature to find the most of them left untranslated for the sixty years they have been before the world. From one point of view, the neglect they have suffered is in no way surprising: they are too high and severe to be popular so soon; and when they meet with a wide acceptance as with other great works, much of it will rest upon authority. But even for the deeper side of his writings, Goethe has not been denied a fair measure of popular success. No other author of the last two centuries holds so high a place, or, as an inevitable consequence, has been attacked by so large an army of editors and commentators; and it might well be supposed by now that no corner of his work, and least of all one of the best, had remained almost unnoticed, and to the majority unknown. Many of these maxims were early translated into French, but with little success; and even in Germany it was only so late as the year 1870 that they appeared in a separate form, with the addition of some sort of critical comment and a brief explanation of their origin and history.[1]

But although to what is called the reading public these maxims are as yet, no less in fact than in metaphor, a closed book, its pages have long been a source of profit and delight to some of those who are best able to estimate their value. What that value is, I shall presently endeavour to explain. No one, I think, can perceive their worth without also discerning how nearly they touch the needs of our own day, and how greatly they may help us in facing certain problems of life and conduct, some of them, in truth, as old as the world itself, which appear to us now with peculiar force and subtlety.

It was in this respect that they were warmly recommended to me some years ago by my excellent friend, Professor Harnack, the historian of Dogma, a writer with a fine and prudent enthusiasm for all ennobling literature. It is to him that I owe the resolve to perform for the maxims, as far as I could, the office of translator; a humble office, but not, as I have good reason to know, without its difficulty, or, as I venture to hope, without its use. Of many of them the language is hardly lucid even to a German, and I have gratefully to acknowledge the assistance I have received from the privilege of discussing them with so distinguished a man of letters.

To Professor Huxley I am also deeply indebted. I owe him much for friendly encouragement, and still more for help of an altogether invaluable kind; for in its measure of knowledge and skill, it is admittedly beyond the power of any other living Englishman. The maxims deal, not alone with Life and Character, where most of them are admirable, but also with certain aspects of Science and Art; and these are matters in which I could exercise no judgment myself, although I understood that, while many of the maxims on Science and Art were attractive, they were not all of great merit. Professor Huxley not only did me the honour to select the maxims on Science, but he was further good enough to assist me with them, and to read and approve the translation as it now stands. The weight and the interest of his authority will thus give additional value to that section of the book, and also do much to overcome the objections that exist to making a selection at all.

For a selection is a necessary evil. It is an evil because, even if it leaves the best, it takes away something of a man’s work; if it shows us the heights he has reached, it obliterates the steps of his ascent; it endangers thoughts that may be important but imperfectly understood; and it hinders a fair and complete judgment. But in the end it is a necessity: we are concerned chiefly with the best and clearest results, and it is only the few who care to follow the elaborate details of effort and progress, often painful and obscure. There is no author with whom, for most readers, selection is so necessary as it is with Goethe; and in no other kind of literature is it so amply justified or so clearly desirable as where the aim is to state broad truths of life and conduct and method in a manner admitting of no mistake or uncertainty. When a writer attempts achievements, as Goethe did, in almost every field of thought, it need be no surprise to any one who has heard of human fallibility that in solid results he is not equally successful everywhere. In deciding what shall be omitted, there is no difficulty with maxims which time has shown to be wrong or defective; they have only an historical interest. But great care is necessary with others that are tentative, questionable, or obscure enough to need the light of a commentary, sometimes dubious; where for most of us there is never much profit and always occasion for stumbling. I count it a singular piece of good fortune that the choice of the scientific maxims should be undertaken by so eminent a judge of their practical value, who is also a scholar in the language and a great admirer of Goethe in his other and better known productions. For if a writer of this immense versatility cannot always hope to touch the highest goal, it is well that all his efforts should be weighed in a later day by the best and friendliest knowledge.

The maxims on Art were at first a matter of some little difficulty. It is plain, I think, that they are below the others in value and interest; and in any collection of sayings the less there is of general worth, the more delicate becomes the task of choosing the best. If I omitted them all, the selection would not be duly representative, and it seemed likely that some at least were worthy of being preserved, if only to illustrate Goethe’s theories. I therefore sought the best advice; and here again I have to tender my thanks for assistance second to none in skill and authority,—that of Sir Frederick Leighton, kindly given under circumstances which much increase my obligation. For it is my duty to say that Sir Frederick Leighton had no desire, but rather reluctance, to make a selection from maxims on Art which he was often not prepared to endorse, or to regard as in any way commensurate with Goethe’s genius; and nevertheless he did me the honour to point out a few which I might insert, as being of interest partly for their own sake, partly also for the name of their author.

The maxims on Science and Art are, however, when taken together, hardly a fifth of this volume. The others I have selected on the simple and I hope blameless principle of omitting only what is clearly unimportant, antiquated, of past or passing interest, of purely personal reference, or of a nature too abstruse to stand without notes of explanation, which I should be sorry to place at the foot of any of these pages. I have also omitted eleven maxims drawn from Hippocrates On Diet; fifteen containing an appreciation of Sterne, together with some twenty more which Goethe himself translated from a curious work wrongly attributed to that writer. It will be convenient if I state that I have thus omitted some hundred and twenty out of the six hundred and fifty-five which make up the section styled in the original Ethisches, which I translate by Life and Character, the section which also contains the maxims on Literature, now collected and placed in a separate section with those on Art. Sir Frederick Leighton chose thirty-five out of a hundred and eighteen on Art, and Professor Huxley seventy-six out of two hundred and eighty on Science.


Having thus acknowledged but in no way discharged a triple debt of gratitude, it will be next in order if I briefly state the history of the work which now appears in an English dress, before attempting to speak of its nature and value.

The publication of the maxims belongs to the later, that is to say, the last thirty, years of Goethe’s life; and the greater number of them appeared only in the last ten, while some are posthumous.

It is impossible to say with certainty at what period he began the observations which were afterwards to come before the world in this shape; nor is the question of any real interest except to pedantic students of such matters. It is probable that, like most writers, Goethe was in the habit of noting transient thoughts of his own, as well as opinions of others that suggested more than they actually conveyed; and of preserving for further use what he had thus, in his own words, written himself and appropriated from elsewhere—Eigenes and Angeeignetes. The maxims grew out of a collection of this character. It was a habit formed probably in early life, for somewhere in the Lehrjahre—a work of eighteen years’ duration, but begun at the age of twenty-seven—he makes Wilhelm Meister speak of the value of it. But there are reasons for thinking that most of the maxims, as they now stand, were not alone published but also composed in his last years. The unity of meaning which stamps them with a common aim; the similarity of the calm, dispassionate language in which they are written; the didactic tone that colours them throughout, combine to show that they are among the last and ripest fruits of his genius. Some were certainly composed between the ages of fifty and sixty; more still between that and seventy; while there is evidence, both internal and external, proving that many and perhaps most of them were his final reflections on life and the world. This it is that adds so much to their interest for as he himself finely says in one of the last of them, “in a tranquil mind thoughts rise up at the close of life hitherto unthinkable; like blessed inward voices alighting in glory on the summits of the past.”

But whenever all or any of them were written, and whatever revision they may have undergone, none were published until 1809, when Goethe was sixty years of age. It was then that he brought out Die Wahlverwandschaften. A few of the maxims on Life and Character were there inserted as forming two extracts from a journal often quoted in the earlier part of the story. “About this time,” writes Goethe, as he introduces the first of these extracts, “outward events are seldomer noted in Ottilie’s diary, whilst maxims and sentences on life in general, and drawn from it, become more frequent. But,” he adds, “as most of them can hardly be due to her own reflections, it is likely that some one had given her a book or paper, from which she wrote out anything that pleased her.” A few more maxims appeared eight years later in Kunst und Alterthum, a magazine founded by Goethe in 1816 and devoted to the discussion of artistic questions; and a larger number first saw the light in the same publication at various dates until its extinction in 1828. Some of the observations on Science had meanwhile been incorporated with two treatises on branches of that subject.

Eckermann tells a curious story of the way in which Goethe then continued the publication of the maxims. Wilhelm Meisters Wanderjahre had appeared in its first form in 1821. Afterwards, in 1829, Goethe decided to remodel and lengthen it, and to make two volumes out of what had originally been only one. His secretary was employed to copy it out in its revised form. He wrote in a large hand, which gave the impression that the story might well fill even three volumes; and directions to this effect were sent to the publisher. But it was soon discovered that the last two volumes would be very thin, and the publisher asked for more manuscript. Goethe, in some perplexity, sent for Eckermann, and producing two large bundles of unpublished papers, containing, as he said, some very important things,—”opinions on life, literature, science and art, all mingled together,” proposed to him to lengthen out the volumes by inserting selections from them. “You might,” he suggested, “fill the gaps in the Wanderjahre by making up some six or eight sheets from these detached pieces. Strictly speaking, they have nothing to do with the story; but we may justify the proceeding by the fact that I mention an archive in Makarie’s house, in which such miscellanies are preserved. In this way we shall not only get over our difficulty, but find a good vehicle for giving much interesting matter to the world.” Eckermann approved the plan, and divided his selection into two parts; and when the new edition of the Wanderjahre appeared, one of them was styled Aus Makariens Archiv, and the other Betrachtungen im Sinne der Wanderer: Kunst, Ethisches, Natur. The remainder of the unpublished maxims appeared posthumously, either in the Nachgelassene Werke in 1833, or in the quarto edition of 1836.

Instructions had been given to Eckermann to collect all the maxims, arrange them under different heads, and include them in appropriate volumes; but he resolved to deviate from his instructions to the extent of publishing them all together; and the alteration is certainly an advantage. A slight re-arrangement was made by von Loeper, who was deterred from undertaking a more radical one, although he thought it might be done with profit, by the consideration that when a literary work of undesigned and fortuitous form has lived any number of years in a certain shape, that fact alone is a weighty argument against any change in it. In a translation, perhaps, where the work is presented anew and to a fresh public, the change might be allowable; and I should have undertaken it, had there not been a more serious reason, which von Loeper also urges, against any attempt at systematic re-arrangement: the further fact, namely, that many of the maxims have a mixed character, placing them above our distinctions of scientific and ethical, and making it difficult to decide under which heading they ought to fall. I have, therefore, generally followed the traditional order; with this exception, that, for obvious reasons, the maxims dealing with Literature are here placed together; and as only a few of those on Art appear in these pages, I have included them in the same section. In one or two cases I have united closely connected maxims which are separated in the original; and, for the sake of a short title, I have slightly narrowed the meaning of the word Spruch, which applies to any kind of shrewd saying, whether it be strictly a maxim or an aphorism. Some little liberties of this kind may, I think, be taken by a translator anxious to put the work before his own public in an orderly and convenient form.

The last section in this book requires a word of explanation. It is a little essay on Nature which is to be found with a variety of other fragments in the last volume of Goethe’s collected works. Too short to stand by itself, if it appears at all, it must be in company with kindred matter; and as a series of aphorisms, presenting a poetic view of Nature unsurpassed in its union of beauty and insight, it is no inappropriate appendage to the maxims on Science. It is little known, and it deserves to be widely known. I venture to think that even in Germany the ordinary reader is unaware of its existence. For us in England it was, so to speak, discovered by Professor Huxley, who many years ago gave a translation of it as a proem to a scientific periodical. Perhaps that proem may yet be recovered as good salvage from the waters of oblivion, which sooner or later overwhelm all magazines. Meanwhile I put forward this version.