Maxims and Reflections is a collection of several hundred brilliant, unforgettable paragraphs and aphorisms by the legendary German Renaissance writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, divided into the categories Life and Character, Literature and Art, Science and Nature. Like the Manual of Epictetus and Seneca’s Letters, Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections is a timeless guide to navigating the mysteries of existence.
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Maxims and Reflections
Life and Character | I
Literature and Art
Further Reading: The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus
Maxims and Reflections by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Translated by T. Bailey (Thomas Bailey) Saunders. First published in 1906. This edition published 2017 by Enhanced Media. All rights reserved.
There is nothing worth thinking but it has been thought before; we must only try to think it again.
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.
But what is your duty? The claims of the day.
The world of reason is to be regarded as a great and immortal being, who ceaselessly works out what is necessary, and so makes himself lord also over what is accidental.
The longer I live, the more it grieves me to see man, who occupies his supreme place for the very purpose of imposing his will upon nature, and freeing himself and his from an outrageous necessity,—to see him taken up with some false notion, and doing just the opposite of what he wants to do; and then, because the whole bent of his mind is spoilt, bungling miserably over everything.
Be genuine and strenuous; earn for yourself, and look for, grace from those in high places; from the powerful, favour; from the active and the good, advancement; from the many, affection; from the individual, love.
7.Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are. If I know what your business is, I know what can be made of you.
8.Every man must think after his own fashion; for on his own path he finds a truth, or a kind of truth, which helps him through life. But he must not give himself the rein; he must control himself; mere naked instinct does not become him.
9.Unqualified activity, of whatever kind, leads at last to bankruptcy.
10.In the works of mankind, as in those of nature, it is really the motive which is chiefly worth attention.
11.Men get out of countenance with themselves and others because they treat the means as the end, and so, from sheer doing, do nothing, or, perhaps, just what they would have avoided.
12.Our plans and designs should be so perfect in truth and beauty, that in touching them the world could only mar. We should thus have the advantage of setting right what is wrong, and restoring what is destroyed.
13.It is a very hard and troublesome thing to dispose of whole, half-, and quarter-mistakes; to sift them and assign the portion of truth to its proper place.
14.It is not always needful for truth to take a definite shape; it is enough if it hovers about us like a spirit and produces harmony; if it is wafted through the air like the sound of a bell, grave and kindly.
15.General ideas and great conceit are always in a fair way to bring about terrible misfortune.
16.You cannot play the flute by blowing alone: you must use your fingers.
17.In Botany there is a species of plants called Incompletæ; and just in the same way it can be said that there are men who are incomplete and imperfect. They are those whose desires and struggles are out of proportion to their actions and achievements.
18.The most insignificant man can be complete if he works within the limits of his capacities, innate or acquired; but even fine talents can be obscured, neutralised, and destroyed by lack of this indispensable requirement of symmetry. This is a mischief which will often occur in modern times; for who will be able to come up to the claims of an age so full and intense as this, and one too that moves so rapidly?
19. It is only men of practical ability, knowing their powers and using them with moderation and prudence, who will be successful in worldly affairs.
20. It is a great error to take oneself for more than one is, or for less than one is worth.
21. From time to time I meet with a youth in whom I can wish for no alteration or improvement, only I am sorry to see how often his nature makes him quite ready to swim with the stream of the time; and it is on this that I would always insist, that man in his fragile boat has the rudder placed in his hand, just that he may not be at the mercy of the waves, but follow the direction of his own insight.
22. But how is a young man to come of himself to see blame in things which every one is busy with, which every one approves and promotes? Why should he not follow his natural bent and go in the same direction as they?
23. I must hold it for the greatest calamity of our time, which lets nothing come to maturity, that one moment is consumed by the next, and the day spent in the day; so that a man is always living from hand to mouth, without having anything to show for it. Have we not already newspapers for every hour of the day! A good head could assuredly intercalate one or other of them. They publish abroad everything that every one does, or is busy with or meditating; nay, his very designs are thereby dragged into publicity. No one can rejoice or be sorry, but as a pastime for others; and so it goes on from house to house, from city to city, from kingdom to kingdom, and at last from one hemisphere to the other,—all in post haste.
24. As little as you can stifle a steam-engine, so little can you do this in the moral sphere either. The activity of commerce, the rush and rustle of paper-money, the swelling-up of debts to pay debts—all these are the monstrous elements to which in these days a young man is exposed. Well is it for him if he is gifted by nature with a sober, quiet temperament; neither to make claims on the world out of all proportion to his position, nor yet let the world determine it.
25. But on all sides he is threatened by the spirit of the day, and nothing is more needful than to make him see early enough the direction in which his will has to steer.
26. The significance of the most harmless words and actions grows with the years, and if I see any one about me for any length of time, I always try to show him the difference there is between sincerity, confidence, and indiscretion; nay, that in truth there is no difference at all, but a gentle transition from what is most innocent to what is most hurtful; a transition which must be perceived or rather felt.
27. Herein we must exercise our tact; otherwise in the very way in which we have won the favour of mankind, we run the risk of trifling it away again unawares. This is a lesson which a man learns quite well for himself in the course of life, but only after having paid a dear price for it; nor can he, unhappily, spare his posterity a like expenditure.
28. Love of truth shows itself in this, that a man knows how to find and value the good in everything.
29. Character calls forth character.
30. If I am to listen to another man's opinion, it must be expressed positively. Of things problematical I have enough in myself.
31. Superstition is a part of the very being of humanity; and when we fancy that we are banishing it altogether, it takes refuge in the strangest nooks and corners, and then suddenly comes forth again, as soon as it believes itself at all safe.
32. I keep silence about many things, for I do not want to put people out of countenance; and I am well content if they are pleased with things that annoy me.
33. Everything that frees our spirit without giving us control of ourselves is ruinous.
34. A man is really alive only when he delights in the good-will of others.
35. Piety is not an end, but a means: a means of attaining the highest culture by the purest tranquillity of soul.
36. Hence it may be observed that those who set up piety as an end and object are mostly hypocrites.
37. When a man is old he must do more than when he was young.
38. To fulfil a duty is still always to feel it as a debt, for it is never quite satisfying to oneself.
39. Defects are perceived only by one who has no love; therefore, to see them, a man must become uncharitable, but not more so than is necessary for the purpose.
40. The greatest piece of good fortune is that which corrects our deficiencies and redeems our mistakes.
41. Reading ought to mean understanding; writing ought to mean knowing something; believing ought to mean comprehending; when you desire a thing, you will have to take it; when you demand it, you will not get it; and when you are experienced, you ought to be useful to others.
42. The stream is friendly to the miller whom it serves; it likes to pour over the mill wheels; what is the good of it stealing through the valley in apathy?
43. Whoso is content with pure experience and acts upon it has enough of truth. The growing child is wise in this sense.
44. Theory is in itself of no use, except in so far as it makes us believe in the connection of phenomena.
45. When a man asks too much and delights in complication, he is exposed to perplexity.
46. Thinking by means of analogies is not to be condemned. Analogy has this advantage, that it comes to no conclusion, and does not, in truth, aim at finality at all. Induction, on the contrary, is fatal, for it sets up an object and keeps it in view, and, working on towards it, drags false and true with it in its train.
47. The absent works upon us by tradition. The usual form of it may be called historical; a higher form, akin to the imaginative faculty, is the mythical. If some third form of it is to be sought behind this last, and it has any meaning, it is transformed into the mystical. It also easily becomes sentimental, so that we appropriate to our use only what suits us.
48. In contemplation as in action, we must distinguish between what may be attained and what is unattainable. Without this, little can be achieved, either in life or in knowledge.
49. 'Le sense commun est le génie de l'humanité.' Common-sense, which is here put forward as the genius of humanity, must be examined first of all in the way it shows itself. If we inquire the purpose to which humanity puts it, we find as follows: Humanity is conditioned by needs. If they are not satisfied, men become impatient; and if they are, it seems not to affect them. The normal man moves between these two states, and he applies his understanding—his so-called common-sense—to the satisfaction of his needs. When his needs are satisfied, his task is to fill up the waste spaces of indifference. Here, too, he is successful, if his needs are confined to what is nearest and most necessary. But if they rise and pass beyond the sphere of ordinary wants, common-sense is no longer sufficient; it is a genius no more, and humanity enters on the region of error.
50. There is no piece of foolishness but it can be corrected by intelligence or accident; no piece of wisdom but it can miscarry by lack of intelligence or by accident.
51. Every great idea is a tyrant when it first appears; hence the advantages which it produces change all too quickly into disadvantages. It is possible, then, to defend and praise any institution that exists, if its beginnings are brought to remembrance, and it is shown that everything which was true of it at the beginning is true of it still.
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