A Call to Life and Deeds: Goethe’s Maxims

by Mark Chmiel

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Maxims and Reflections  
Translated by Elisabeth Stopp; edited with an introduction and notes by Peter Hutchinson; Penguin Books, 1998

I’ve been reading Pierre Hadot’s 2008 book, N’oublie pas de vivre: Goethe et la tradition des exercises spirituels, which sent me back to Goethe’s works.   The following are some of the maxims I noted in my reading of this book back in 2006…

‘Nothing should be treasured more highly than the value of the day.’ [789]

Anyone who doesn’t know foreign languages knows nothing of his own. [91]

If our teaching in schools always continues to point to Antiquity and promotes the teaching of the Greek and Latin languages, we can congratulate ourselves that these studies, so essential for any higher culture, will never suffer decline. [659]

May the study of Greek and Roman literature ever remain the basis of higher education!  [762]

A German should learn all languages so that no foreigner could discomfort him at home and he himself could be at home everywhere when abroad. [978]

What you don’t understand, you don’t possess.  [106]

It used to happen, and still does, that I dislike a work of art because I’m not up to appreciating it; but if I sense some merit there, I try to get at it and this often leads to the happiest discoveries: new qualities are revealed to me in these things, new capacities in myself. [162]

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. [190]

Begin by instructing yourself, then you will receive instruction from others. [427]

Ways of effective progress to be looked out for if we really want to get on are those of a kind that prepare, accompany, reinforce, help along, further, strengthen, hinder, confirm.  [536]

Knowledge is not enough, we have to apply it; wanting it is not enough, there has to be action. [689]

’Nothing in the world except health and virtue is more to be treasured than knowledge and learning; nor is anything so easily attainable and so cheap to acquire: all you have to do is be still, all you have to spend is time, something we cannot save in any other way than by spending it.’ [747]

It is the same with history as with nature, as with all profound problems, whether past, present or future: the more deeply and seriously one enters into problems, the more difficult are those that arise. If you are unafraid and forge ahead boldly, you increase in stature and feel intellectually furthered and more at ease. [944]

The sublime, gradually divided into separate entities as we grow into knowledge, does not readily merge again in our mind; this means that we are deprived in stages of the best thing granted to us, of the sense of oneness which lifts us up completely into sharing a sense of the infinite; and, on the other hand, we are all the time diminishing in stature as we grow in knowledge. Whereas before we were like giants in view of the whole, we now see ourselves as dwarfs in the face of separate sections. [1139]  

All love is connected with presence; what is agreeable to us by its presence always shows itself to us when it is absent and constantly makes us want its renewed presence, and, when this wish is granted, is accompanied by lovely delight; when this joy persists we are filled by an ever-equal happiness—this is what we really love, and this means that we can love everything that can enter our presence; indeed, to formulate an ultimate statement: love of the divinity always strikes to make what is highest present to us. [388] 

That is why the Bible is an eternally effective book, because as long as the world goes on, no one will appear and say: I grasp it as a whole and understand it in detail. We, however, say modestly: as a whole it is venerable and in detail we can make use of it. [335]

There is, and there will continue to be, much argument about the usefulness and the damage of disseminating the Bible. It is clear to me that it will do damage, as hitherto, if it is used dogmatically and in a fantastic way: it will be useful, as heretofore, if it is accepted educationally and sensitively. [373]  

I am convinced that the Bible becomes more and more beautiful the more one understands it, that is, the more one realizes and sees that every word which we take as being of general application and as special for ourselves had an individual, particular and immediate relevance according to certain conditions and circumstances of time and place. [672] 

The great thing about the Ancients, especially the Socratic school, is that they set before us the sources and guidelines of all life and action, not for the purpose of idle speculation, but as a call to life and deeds. [658]

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