Ten Quotes by Goethe from ‘Maxims and Reflections’

A portrait painting of Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe by Gerhard von Kügelgen.

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German polymath and renaissance man. Often referred to as the last universal genius of the West, there were few subjects or fields he didn’t explore. Goethe was a prolific writer, multi-disciplinary scientist, a naturalist, an artist, musician, poet, classicist, traveller, fictional novelist, and philosopher. The German scholar and savant drew deep inspiration from the wellsprings of global literary wisdom that preceded him. He was also driven by an uncompromising search for truth, and sought to understand and explain the world and its deeper undercurrents and interconnections.

Although his name cropped-up here and there in books I read during my life, I first truly became aware of Goethe after reading The Invention of Nature by German-British historian Andrea Wulf. The book is a biography about the life and work of the Prussian naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. Goethe, who appears frequently in Wulf’s story, is a close friend and interlocutor to Humboldt.

I recently picked up Goethe’s Maxims and Reflections, a collection of over 1,400 of his aphorisms on seemingly every topic imaginable. I thought it would be a good first book of his to read, and a primer on his other writing and ideas. Many of his aphorisms demonstrate, upon reflection, a mind committed to unveiling the hidden nature of things.

Here are ten of Goethe’s quotes in his Maxims and Reflections that struck a chord:

– “Difficulties increase the nearer we get to the goal.”

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

– “Imaginary equality: the first way to show inequality in action.”

– “Just as in Rome, besides the Romans, there was also a people of statues, so, too, apart from this real world, there is also an illusory world.”

– “Truth is a torch, but a monstrously huge one; which is why we are all just intent on getting past it, our eyes blinking as we go, even terrified of getting burnt.”

– “Scholarly knowledge is greatly retarded by our preoccupation with what is not worth knowing and with what is unknowable.”

– “Truth is contrary to our nature, not so error, and thus for a very simple reason: truth demands that we should recognize ourselves as limited, error flatters us that, in one way or another, we are unlimited.”

– “Error is related to truth as sleeping is to waking. I have observed that when one has been in error, one turns to truth as though revitalized.”

–  “There is now a really bad habit of being abstruse in the sciences; one gets away from ordinary sense without opening up a higher meaning, one transcends, fantasizes, dreads live perception, and when at last one wants and needs to enter the practical sphere, one suddenly becomes atomistic and mechanical.”

–  “Everything is simpler than one can imagine, at the same time more involved than can be comprehended.”