Maxims and Reflections - by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The man who understands finds almost everything laughable, the man of reason practically nothing.

What kind of shortcomings are we allowed to keep, indeed cultivate in ourselves? The kind that flatter, rather than hurt, other people.

Association with women is the basic element of good manners.

Behaviour is a mirror in which everyone shows his image.

Voluntary dependence is the best of all states to be in, and how could this be possible without love!

There is something horrifying about a man of outstanding excellence of whom stupid people are proud.

Fools and intelligent people are equally undamaging. Half-fools and half-sages, these are the most dangerous of all.

Certain books are apparently written not so that we may learn from them, but to demonstrate the fact that the author knew something.

The greatest respect an author can have for his public is never to produce what is expected but what he himself considers right and useful for whatever stage of intellectual development has been reached by himself and others.

One doesn't find frogs wherever there is water; but there is water where you hear frogs.

Anyone who doesn't know foreign languages knows nothing of his own.

Human nature needs to be numbed from time to time, but without being put to sleep; hence smoking, spirits, opiates.

What matters to an active man is to do the right thing; whether the right thing comes to pass should not bother him.

What you don't understand, you don't possess.

A school of thought is to be viewed as a single individual who talks to himself for a hundred years and is quite extraordinarily pleased with himself, however silly he may be.

A false doctrine cannot be refuted because it is, of course, based on the conviction that false is true. But one can, may, and indeed must, again and again, stress the opposite truth.

A merry companion is like a cart to give us a lift as we wander along on our way.

A state of affairs which leads to daily vexation is not the right state.

One phenomenon, one experiment, cannot prove anything; it is the link in a great chain, only valid in its context. If someone were to cover up a string of pearls and only show the most beautiful one, expecting us to believe that all the rest were like that, it is very unlikely that anyone would risk the deal.

Real obscurantism doesn't operate by blocking the spread of what is true, clear and useful, but by circulating and validating what is false.

It is much easier to recognize error than to find truth; the former lies on the surface, this is quite manageable; the latter resides in depth, and this quest is not everyone's business.

One should not wish anyone disagreeable conditions of life; but for him who is involved in them by chance, they are touchstones of character and of the most decisive value to man.

Anyone who tells on my faults is my master, even if it happens to be my servant.

Ingratitude is always a kind of weakness. I have never known competent people to be ungrateful.

A collection of anecdotes and maxims is the greatest treasure for a man of the world – as long as he knows how to weave the former into apposite points of the course of conversation, and to recall the latter on fitting occasions.

There are people who never make mistakes because they never have sensible projects.

You often say to yourself in the course of your life that you ought to avoid having too much business, ‘polypragmosyne', and, more especially, that the older you get, the more you ought to avoid entering on new business. But it's all very well saying this, and giving yourself and others good advice. The very fact of growing older means taking up a new business; all our circumstances change, and we must either stop doing anything at all or else willingly and consciously take on the new role we have to play on life's stage.

You really only know when you know little; doubt grows with knowledge.

It's really a person's mistakes that make him endearing.

Mastery is often seen as egoism.

Everything excellent limits us momentarily because we feel unable to match up to it; only in so far as we subsequently accept it into our own culture, absorb it as belonging to our own mental and temperamental powers, do we come to love and value it. No wonder that we more or less prefer to be surrounded by mediocrity because it leaves us in peace; it gives us the cosy feeling of consorting with the likes of our own selves.

There is nothing more dreadful than active ignorance.

Begin by instructing yourself, then you will receive instruction from others.

There's nothing clever that hasn't been thought of before – you've just got to try to think it all over again.

How can we learn self-knowledge? Never by taking thought but rather by action. Try to do your duty and you'll soon discover what you're like. But what is your duty? The demands of the day.

Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are; if I know how you spend your time, then I know what might become of you.

‘You don't play the flute just by blowing – you've got to move your fingers.'

People who think deeply and seriously are on bad terms with the public.

Superstition is innate in the human make-up, and when you think you have completely ousted it, it takes refuge in the strangest nooks and crannies and then suddenly emerges when one thinks one is tolerably safe.

Everything that liberates our mind without at the same time imparting self-control is pernicious.

One is really only alive when one enjoys the good will of others.

A duty absolved still feels like an unpaid debt, because one can never quite live up to one's expectations.

It is our greatest good fortune to have our failings corrected and our faults adjusted.

Nothing is more disagreeable than a majority; for it consists of a few powerful people in the lead, rogues who are adaptable, weak people who assimilate with the rest, and the crowd that trundles along behind without the slightest notion of what it's after.

There can be no such thing as an eclectic philosophy, but there can be eclectic philosophers.

One is never deceived, one deceives oneself.

Knowledge is not enough, we have to apply it; wanting is not enough, there has to be action.

‘In the spring and autumn one doesn't easily think about a fire on the hearth, and yet if we happen to see one in passing, we find the feeling it gives us so pleasant that we want to linger. This might be seen as analogous to any temptation.'

One can recognize the usefulness of an idea and yet fail to understand just how to make the best use of it.

Duty: where one loves what one orders oneself to do.

A right-minded man always considers himself to be more distinguished and more powerful than he actually is.

It is our qualities we should cultivate, not our idiosyncrasies.

He who doesn't see his lover's faults as virtues is not in love.

When two people are really happy about one another, one can generally assume that they are mistaken.

There is no art in turning a goddess into a witch, a virgin into a whore, but the opposite operation, to give dignity to what has been scorned, to make the degraded desirable, that calls either for art or for character.

There is no situation which cannot be ennobled by work or else by endurance.

There are people who ponder about their friends' shortcomings: there's nothing to be gained by that. I have always been on the look-out for the merits of my opponents and this has been rewarding.

There are many people who imagine that what they experience they also understand.

Try to consolidate your own authority: it is established wherever there is mastery.

We're only really thinking when we can't think out fully what we are thinking about!

It is not fitting for an aged person to yield to fashion, either in his way of thinking or in his dress. But one must know where one stands and where others are heading.

The public wants to be treated like women: on no account must they be told anything except what they want to hear.

The public would rather complain incessantly about how badly it is served than take any trouble to ensure better service.

Somebody said: ‘Why do you bother about Homer? Especially since you don't understand him?' I don't understand the sun, the moon, the stars high above my head, and I recognize myself in them even as I look at them and contemplate their wonderful regular course, wondering as I gaze whether I too might one day come to some good.

Higher demands, even unfulfilled, are in themselves more worthy of esteem than lower demands completely fulfilled.

A concept is summation, an idea is the result of experience; to arrive at the former you need understanding, at the latter reasoning power.

Two feelings most difficult to get over: to have found something that has already been found, and not to find something that one should have found.

He who has the understanding to declare his limitations is closest to perfection.

We must note the curious fact that people are not content with what is simple to understand, but go straight for the more complex problems which they will perhaps never grasp. What is simple to grasp is quite usable and useful, and can keep us occupied for a whole lifetime if it satisfies and stimulates us.

The phenomenon is not detached from the observer, but intertwined and involved with him.

In order to make something theoretical popular you have to describe it as absurd. You yourself must first of all introduce it as practical; then it's valid for the world at large.

When we find something known to us explained via a different method, or possibly even in a foreign language, it takes on a curious charm of novelty and a fresh look.

To take pleasure in one's limitation is a miserable state to be in; to feel one's limitation in the presence of the best is indeed frightening, but this kind of fear elevates us.