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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Born 28 August 1749(1749-08-28)
Free Imperial City of Frankfurt or Frankfurt on Main, Holy Roman Empire
Died 22 March 1832 (aged 82)
Weimar, Duchy of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach
Occupation Poet, Novelist, Playwright, Natural Philosopher, Diplomat, Civil servant
Nationality German
Period Romanticism
Literary movement Sturm und Drang; Weimar Classicism
Notable work(s) e.g. Faust; The Sorrows of Young Werther; Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship; Elective Affinities
Spouse(s) Christiane Vulpius

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (German pronunciation: [ˈjoːhan ˈvɔlfɡaŋ fɔn ˈɡøːtə]  ( listen), 28 August 1749  – 22 March 1832) was a German writer and polymath.[1] Goethe's works span the fields of poetry, drama, literature, theology, philosophy, pantheism, and science. His magnum opus, lauded as one of the peaks of world literature, is the two-part drama Faust.[2] Goethe's other well-known literary works include his numerous poems, the Bildungsroman Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship and the epistolary novel The Sorrows of Young Werther.

Goethe was one of the key figures of German literature and the movement of Weimar Classicism in the late 18th and early 19th centuries; this movement coincides with Enlightenment, Sentimentality (Empfindsamkeit), Sturm und Drang and Romanticism. The author of the scientific text Theory of Colours, his influential ideas on plant and animal morphology and homology were extended and developed by 19th century naturalists including Charles Darwin.[3][4] He also served at length as the Privy Councilor ("Geheimrat") of the duchy of Weimar.

Goethe is the originator of the concept of Weltliteratur ("world literature"), having taken great interest in the literatures of England, France, Italy, classical Greece, Persia, the Arab world, and others. His influence on German philosophy is virtually immeasurable, having major effect especially on the generation of Hegel and Schelling, although Goethe himself expressly and decidedly refrained from practicing philosophy in the specialized sense.

Goethe's influence spread across Europe, and for the next century his works were a major source of inspiration in music, drama, poetry and philosophy. Goethe is considered by many to be the most important writer in the German language and one of the most important thinkers in Western culture as well. Early in his career, however, he wondered whether painting might not be his true vocation; late in his life, he expressed the expectation that he would ultimately be remembered above all for his work on colour.


Early life

Goethe's birthplace in Frankfurt, Germany (Großer Hirschgraben)

Goethe's father, Johann Caspar Goethe (Frankfurt am Main, Hessen, 29 July 1710 – Frankfurt, 25 May 1782), lived with his family in a large house in Frankfurt, then an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire. Goethe's mother, Catharina Elisabeth Textor (Frankfurt, 19 February 1731 – Frankfurt, 15 September 1808), the daughter of the Mayor of Frankfurt Johann Wolfgang Textor (Frankfurt, 11 December 1693 – Frankfurt, 6 February 1771) and wife (married at Wetzlar, 2 February 1726) Anna Margaretha Lindheimer (Wetzlar, 23 July 1711 – Frankfurt, 18 April 1783, a descendant of Lucas Cranach the Elder and Henry III, Landgrave of Hesse-Marburg), married 38-year-old Johann Caspar when she was 17 at Frankfurt on 20 August 1748. All their children, except for Goethe and his sister, Cornelia Friederike Christiana, who was born in 1750, died at early ages.

Johann Caspar and private tutors gave Goethe lessons in all the common subjects of that time, especially languages (Latin, Greek, French and English). Goethe also received lessons in dancing, riding and fencing. Johann Caspar was the type of father who, feeling frustrated in his own ambitions by what he saw as a deficiency of educational advantages, was determined that his children would have all those advantages which he had not had. Goethe had a persistent dislike of the church, characterizing its history as a "hotchpotch of fallacy and violence" (Mischmasch von Irrtum und Gewalt). His great passion was drawing. Goethe quickly became interested in literature; Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock and Homer were among his early favourites. He had a lively devotion to theatre as well and was greatly fascinated by puppet shows that were annually arranged in his home; a familiar theme in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.

Legal career

Goethe studied law in Leipzig from 1765 to 1768. Learning age-old judicial rules by heart was something he strongly detested. He preferred to attend the poetry lessons of Christian Fürchtegott Gellert. In Leipzig, Goethe fell in love with Käthchen Schönkopf and wrote cheerful verses about her in the Rococo genre. In 1770, he anonymously released Annette, his first collection of poems. His uncritical admiration for many contemporary poets vanished as he became interested in Lessing and Wieland. Already at this time, Goethe wrote a good deal, but he threw away nearly all of these works, except for the comedy Die Mitschuldigen. The restaurant Auerbachs Keller and its legend of Faust's 1525 barrel ride impressed him so much that Auerbachs Keller became the only real place in his closet drama Faust Part One. Because his studies did not progress, Goethe was forced to return to Frankfurt at the close of August 1768.

In Frankfurt, Goethe became severely ill. During the year and a half that followed, because of several relapses, the relationship with his father worsened. During convalescence, Goethe was nursed by his mother and sister. Bored in bed, he wrote an impudent crime comedy. In April 1770, his father lost his patience; Goethe left Frankfurt in order to finish his studies in Strasbourg.

In Alsace, Goethe blossomed. No other landscape has he described as affectionately as the warm, wide Rhine area. In Strasbourg, Goethe met Johann Gottfried Herder, who happened to be in town on the occasion of an eye operation. The two became close friends, and crucially to Goethe's intellectual development, it was Herder who kindled his interest in Shakespeare, Ossian and in the notion of Volkspoesie (folk poetry). On October 14, 1772 he held a speech in his parental home in honour of the first German "Shakespeare Day". His first meeting with Shakespeare's works is described as his personally awakening in literature.[5]

On a trip to the village Sesenheim, Goethe fell in love with Friederike Brion, but, after a couple of weeks, terminated the relationship. Several of his poems, like Willkommen und Abschied, Sesenheimer Lieder and Heideröslein, originate from this time.

At the end of August 1771, Goethe was certified as a licensee in Frankfurt. He wanted to make the jurisdiction progressively more humane. In his first cases, he proceeded too vigorously, was reprimanded and lost the position. This prematurely terminated his career as a lawyer after only a few months. At this time, Goethe was acquainted with the court of Darmstadt, where his inventiveness was praised. From this milieu came Johann Georg Schlosser (who was later to become his brother-in-law) and Johann Heinrich Merck. Goethe also pursued literary plans again; this time, his father did not have anything against it, and even helped. Goethe obtained a copy of the biography of a noble highwayman from the Peasants' War. In a couple of weeks the biography was reworked into a colourful drama. Entitled Götz von Berlichingen, the work went directly to the heart of Goethe's contemporaries.

Goethe could not subsist on being one of the editors of a literary periodical (published by Schlosser and Merck). In May 1772 he once more began the practice of law at Wetzlar. In 1774 Goethe wrote the book which would bring him worldwide fame, The Sorrows of Young Werther. Despite the immense success of Werther, it did not bring Goethe much financial gain – copyright law at the time being essentially nonexistent. (In later years Goethe would bypass this problem by periodically authorizing "new, revised" editions of his Complete Works.[6])

Early years in Weimar

Johann Wolfgang Goethe ca. 1775

In 1775, Goethe was invited, on the strength of his fame as the author of The Sorrows of Young Werther, to the court of Carl August, Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. (The Duke at the time was 18 years of age, to Goethe's 26.) Goethe thus went to live in Weimar, where he remained for the rest of his life and where, over the course of many years, he held a succession of offices, becoming the Duke's chief adviser.

Goethe, aside from official duties, was also a friend and confidant to the Duke, and participated fully in the activities of the court. For Goethe, his first ten years at Weimar could well be described as a garnering of a degree and range of experience which perhaps could be achieved in no other way. Goethe was ennobled in 1782 (this being indicated by the "von" in his name).

During Goethe's term of office as a member of the Geheime Consilium, the top deliberative circle of the Duke Carl August of Saxony-Weimar, there were three cases of the killing of a newborn infant by its mother. Whereas in 1781 Dorothea Altwein was sentenced to lifelong penal servitude (she was released after 27 years), and Maria Rost was assigned to lifelong penal servitude by the Duke without judicial sentence (she was released after 6 years), Johanna Höhn was executed. Johanna Catharina Höhn, born the 15th of April 1759 in Tannroda in Saxony-Weimar, had killed her just-born baby, a boy, in an attack of panic. Her crime exposed her to a possible death sentence by sword. But Duke Carl August sent her punishment to be adjudicated, due to arguments for its mitigation. The duke wished to save her, repealing capital punishment in her case and sentencing her to lifelong penal servitude. He therefore referred Johanna's case to members of his government and deliberative circle for consideration. The three members of the Consilium, Goethe, Fritsch and Schnauss, voted on the matter on 4 November 1783. The other counsellors, Fritsch and Schnauss, voted first. Goethe's vote decided the issue. In Saxony-Weimar capital punishment was not repealed. Duke Carl August immediately ordered Johanna's execution. Johanna Höhn was beheaded on 28 November 1783.[citation needed]


Goethe, age 38, painted by Angelika Kauffmann 1787

Goethe's journey to the Italian peninsula from 1786 to 1788 was of great significance in his æsthetical and philosophical development. His father had made a similar journey during his own youth, and his example was a major motivating factor for Goethe to make the trip. More importantly, however, the work of Johann Joachim Winckelmann had provoked a general renewed interest in the classical art of ancient Greece and Rome. Thus Goethe's journey had something of the nature of a pilgrimage to it. During the course of his trip Goethe met and befriended the artists Angelica Kauffmann and Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein, as well as encountering such notable characters as Lady Hamilton and Alessandro Cagliostro (see Affair of the Diamond Necklace).

He also journeyed to Sicily during this time, and wrote intriguingly that "To have seen Italy without having seen Sicily is to not have seen Italy at all, for Sicily is the clue to everything." While in Southern Italy and Sicily, Goethe encountered, for the first time genuine Greek (as opposed to Roman) architecture, and was quite startled by its relative simplicity. Winckelmann had not recognized the distinctness of the two styles.

Goethe's diaries of this period form the basis of the non-fiction Italian Journey. Italian Journey only covers the first year of Goethe's visit. The remaining year is largely undocumented, aside from the fact that he spent much of it in Venice. This "gap in the record" has been the source of much speculation over the years.

In the decades which immediately followed its publication in 1816 Italian Journey inspired countless German youths to follow Goethe's example. This is pictured, somewhat satirically, in George Eliot's Middlemarch.


A Goethe watercolour depicting a Liberty pole at the border to the short-lived Republic of Mainz, created under influence of the French Revolution and destroyed in the Siege of Mainz in which Goethe participated.

In late 1792, Goethe took part in the battle of Valmy against revolutionary France, assisting Duke Carl August of Saxe-Weimar during the failed invasion of France. Again during the Siege of Mainz he assisted Carl August as a military observer. His written account of these events can be found within his Complete Works.

In 1794 Friedrich Schiller wrote to Goethe offering friendship; they had previously had only a mutually wary relationship ever since first becoming acquainted in 1788. This collaborative friendship lasted until Schiller's death in 1805.

In 1806, Goethe was living in Weimar with his mistress Christiane Vulpius, the sister of Christian A. Vulpius, and their son Julius August Walter von Goethe. On 13 October, Napoleon's army invaded the town. The French "spoon guards", the least-disciplined soldiers, occupied Goethe's house.

Goethe. Painting by Luise Seidler (Weimar 1811)

The 'spoon guards' had broken in, they had drunk wine, made a great uproar and called for the master of the house. Goethe's secretary Riemer reports: 'Although already undressed and wearing only his wide nightgown … he descended the stairs towards them and inquired what they wanted from him … . His dignified figure, commanding respect, and his spiritual mien seemed to impress even them.' But it was not to last long. Late at night they burst into his bedroom with drawn bayonets. Goethe was petrified, Christiane raised a lot of noise and even tangled with them, other people who had taken refuge in Goethe's house rushed in, and so the marauders eventually withdrew again. It was Christiane who commanded and organized the defense of the house on the Frauenplan. The barricading of the kitchen and the cellar against the wild pillaging soldiery was her work. Goethe noted in his diary: "Fires, rapine, a frightful night … Preservation of the house through steadfastness and luck." The luck was Goethe's, the steadfastness was displayed by Christiane.

Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy, Ch. 5[7]

The next day, Goethe legitimized their eighteen year relationship by marrying Christiane in a quiet marriage service at the court chapel. They already had several children together by this time. Their son, Julius August Walter von Goethe (25 December 1789  – 28 October 1830), whose wife, Ottilie von Pogwisch (31 October 1796  – 26 October 1872), cared for the elder Goethe until his death in 1832. The younger couple had three children: Walther, Freiherr von Goethe (9 April 1818  – 15 April 1885), Wolfgang, Freiherr von Goethe (18 September 1820  – 20 January 1883) and Alma von Goethe (29 October 1827  – 29 September 1844). Christiane Vulpius died in 1816.

Later life

After 1793, Goethe devoted his endeavours primarily to literature. By 1820, Goethe was on amiable terms with Kaspar Maria von Sternberg. In 1823, having recovered from a near fatal heart illness, Goethe fell in love with Ulrike von Levetzow whom he wanted to marry, but because of the opposition of her mother he never proposed. Their last meeting in Carlsbad on 5 September 1823 inspired him to the famous Marienbad Elegy which he considered one of his finest and dearest works.[8]

In 1832, after a life of vast productivity, Goethe died in Weimar. He is buried in the Ducal Vault at Weimar's Historical Cemetery.

Eckermann closes his famous work, Conversations with Goethe, with this passage:

Ulrike von Levetzow. This 18 year old girl inspired Goethe to the famous Marienbad Elegy

The morning after Goethe's death, a deep desire seized me to look once again upon his earthly garment. His faithful servant, Frederick, opened for me the chamber in which he was laid out. Stretched upon his back, he reposed as if asleep; profound peace and security reigned in the features of his sublimely noble countenance. The mighty brow seemed yet to harbour thoughts. I wished for a lock of his hair; but reverence prevented me from cutting it off. The body lay naked, only wrapped in a white sheet; large pieces of ice had been placed near it, to keep it fresh as long as possible. Frederick drew aside the sheet, and I was astonished at the divine magnificence of the limbs. The breast was powerful, broad, and arched; the arms and thighs were elegant, and of the most perfect shape; nowhere, on the whole body, was there a trace of either fat or of leanness and decay. A perfect man lay in great beauty before me; and the rapture the sight caused me made me forget for a moment that the immortal spirit had left such an abode. I laid my hand on his heart - there was a deep silence - and I turned away to give free vent to my suppressed tears.

(p. 426, Da Capo Press edition, John Oxenford translation)

The first production of Richard Wagner's opera Lohengrin took place in Weimar in 1850. The conductor was Franz Liszt, who chose the date 28 August in honour of Goethe, who was born on 28 August 1749.[9]


Literary work

The most important of Goethe's works produced before he went to Weimar were his tragedy Götz von Berlichingen (1773), which was the first work to bring him recognition, and the novel The Sorrows of Young Werther (called Die Leiden des jungen Werthers in German) (1774), which gained him enormous fame as a writer in the Sturm und Drang period which marked the early phase of Romanticism - indeed the book is often considered to be the "spark" which ignited the movement, and can arguably be called the world's first "best-seller". (For the entirety of his life this was the work with which the vast majority of Goethe's contemporaries associated him). During the years at Weimar before he met Schiller he began Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship, wrote the dramas Iphigenie auf Tauris (Iphigenia in Tauris), Egmont, Torquato Tasso, and the fable Reineke Fuchs.

To the period of his friendship with Schiller belong Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years (the continuation of Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship), the idyll of Hermann and Dorothea, the Roman Elegies and the verse drama The Natural Daughter. In the last period, between Schiller's death, in 1805, and his own, appeared Faust Part One, Elective Affinities, the West-Eastern Divan (a collection of poems in the Persian style, influenced by the work of Hafez), his autobiographical Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (From My Life: Poetry and Truth) which covers his early life and ends with his departure for Weimar, his Italian Journey, and a series of treatises on art. His writings were immediately influential in literary and artistic circles.

Faust Part Two was only finished in the year of his death, and was published posthumously.

Scientific work

As to what I have done as a poet,… I take no pride in it… But that in my century I am the only person who knows the truth in the difficult science of colours - of that, I say, I am not a little proud, and here I have a consciousness of a superiority to many.

Johann Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe

Although his literary work has attracted the greatest amount of interest, Goethe was also keenly involved in studies of natural science.[10] He wrote several works on plant morphology, and colour theory.

His focus on morphology and what was later called homology influenced 19th century naturalists, though his ideas of transformation were about the continuing flux of living things and did not relate to contemporary ideas of "transformisme" or transmutation of species. Homology, or as Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire called it "analogie", was used by Charles Darwin as strong evidence of common descent and of laws of variation.[3][4] Goethe's studies led him to independently discover the human intermaxillary bone in 1784, which Broussonet (1779) and Vicq d'Azyr (1780) had (using different methods) identified several years earlier.[11] While not the only one in his time to question the prevailing view that this bone did not exist in humans, Goethe, who believed ancient anatomists had known about this bone, was the first to prove its peculiarity to all mammals. In 1790, he published his Metamorphosis of Plants.[12]

Light spectrum, from Theory of Colours – Goethe observed that with a prism, colour arises at light-dark edges, and the spectrum occurs where these coloured edges overlap

During his Italian journey, Goethe formulated a theory of plant metamorphosis in which the archetypal form of the plant is to be found in the leaf - he writes, "from top to bottom a plant is all leaf, united so inseparably with the future bud that one cannot be imagined without the other".[13]

Goethe popularized the Goethe Barometer using a principle established by Toricelli (1608-1647). According to Hegel, 'Goethe has occupied himself a good deal with meteorology; barometer readings interested him particularly... What he says is important: the main thing is that he gives a comparative table of barometric readings during the whole month of December 1822, at Weimar, Jena, London, Boston, Vienna, Töpel... He claims to deduce from it that the barometric level varies in the same propoportion not only in each zone but that it has the same variation, too, at different altitudes above sea-level'. (Hegel's Philosophy of Nature, pp 128–129) [14]

In 1810, Goethe published his Theory of Colours, which he considered his most important work. In it, he contentiously characterized color as arising from the dynamic interplay of darkness and light. After being translated into English by Charles Eastlake in 1840, this theory became widely adopted by the art world, most notably J. M. W. Turner (Bockemuhl, 1991[15]). It also inspired the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, to write his Remarks on Color. Goethe was vehemently opposed to Newton's analytic treatment of color, engaging instead in compiling a comprehensive description of a wide variety of color phenomena. Although the accuracy of Goethe's observations does not admit a great deal of criticism, his theory's failure to demonstrate significant predictive validity eventually rendered it scientifically irrelevant. Goethe was, however, the first to systematically study the physiological effects of color, and his observations on the effect of opposed colors led him to a symmetric arrangement of his color wheel, 'for the colors diametrically opposed to each other… are those which reciprocally evoke each other in the eye. (Goethe, Theory of Colours, 1810[16]). In this, he anticipated Ewald Hering's opponent color theory (1872).[17]

Goethe outlines his method in the essay, The experiment as mediator between subject and object (1772).[18] In the Kurschner edition of Goethe's works, the science editor, Rudolf Steiner, presents Goethe's approach to science as phenomenological. Steiner elaborated on this in the books The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World-Conception[19] and Goethe's World View,[20] in which he emphasizes the need of the perceiving organ of intuition in order to grasp Goethe's biological archetype (i.e. The Typus).

Key works

Statues of Goethe and Schiller, Weimar

The short epistolary novel, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers, or The Sorrows of Young Werther, published in 1774, recounts an unhappy romantic infatuation that ends in suicide. Goethe admitted that he "shot his hero to save himself": a reference to Goethe's own near-suicidal obsession with a young woman during this period, an obsession he quelled through the writing process. The novel remains in print in dozens of languages and its influence is undeniable; its central hero, an obsessive figure driven to despair and destruction by his unrequited love for the young Lotte, has become a pervasive literary archetype. The fact that Werther ends with the protagonist's suicide and funeral – a funeral which "no clergyman attended" – made the book deeply controversial upon its (anonymous) publication, for on the face of it, it appeared to condone and glorify suicide. Suicide was considered sinful by Christian doctrine: suicides were denied Christian burial with the bodies often mistreated and dishonoured in various ways; in corollary, the deceased's property and possessions were often confiscated by the Church.[21] Epistolary novels were common during this time, letter-writing being a primary mode of communication. What set Goethe's book apart from other such novels was its expression of unbridled longing for a joy beyond possibility, its sense of defiant rebellion against authority, and of principal importance, its total subjectivity: qualities that trailblazed the Romantic movement.

The next work, his epic closet drama Faust, was to be completed in stages, and only published in its entirety after his death. The first part was published in 1808 and created a sensation. The first operatic version, by Spohr, appeared in 1814, and was subsequently the inspiration for operas and oratorios by Schumann, Berlioz, Gounod, Boito, Busoni, and Schnittke as well as symphonic works by Liszt, Wagner, and Mahler. Faust became the ur-myth of many figures in the 19th century. Later, a facet of its plot, i.e., of selling one's soul to the devil for power over the physical world, took on increasing literary importance and became a view of the victory of technology and of industrialism, along with its dubious human expenses. In 1919, the Goetheanum staged the world premiere of a complete production of Faust. On occasion, the play is still staged in Germany and other parts around the world.

Goethe in the Roman Campagna (1786) by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. Oil on canvas, 164 x 206 cm.[22]

Goethe's poetic work served as a model for an entire movement in German poetry termed Innerlichkeit ("introversion") and represented by, for example, Heine. Goethe's words inspired a number of compositions by, among others, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Berlioz and Wolf. Perhaps the single most influential piece is "Mignon's Song" which opens with one of the most famous lines in German poetry, an allusion to Italy: "Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn?" ("Know thou the land where the lemons bloom?").

He is also widely quoted. Epigrams such as "Against criticism a man can neither protest nor defend himself; he must act in spite of it, and then it will gradually yield to him", "Divide and rule, a sound motto; unite and lead, a better one", and "Enjoy when you can, and endure when you must", are still in usage or are often paraphrased. Lines from Faust, such as "Das also war des Pudels Kern", "Das ist der Weisheit letzter Schluss", or "Grau ist alle Theorie" have entered everyday German usage.

It may be taken as another measure of Goethe's fame that other well-known quotations are often incorrectly attributed to him, such as Hippocrates' "Art is long, life is short", which is found in Goethe's Faust ("Art is something so long to be learned, and life is so short!") and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship.


Many of Goethe's works, especially Faust, the Roman Elegies, and the Venetian Epigrams, depict hetero- and homosexual erotic passions and acts. For instance, in Faust, the first use of Faust's power after literally signing a contract with the devil is to fall in love with and impregnate a teenage girl. In fact, some of the Venetian Epigrams were held back from publication due to their sexual content. In his 1999 book The Tiger's Tender Touch: The Erotic Life of Goethe, Karl Hugo Pruys argued (with great controversy in Germany) that Goethe's writings suggest he may have been gay.[23] Goethe's sexual portraitures and allusions may have been inspired by his sojourn in Italy, where some men, trying to avoid both the prevalence of venereal disease among prostitutes, and the demand of marriage among 'maidens', embraced homosexuality.[24] Whatever the case, Goethe clearly saw sexuality as a topic worthy of poetic and artistic depiction—an idea that was uncommon in a time when the private nature of sexuality was rigorously normative, and one which may make him a more modern thinker than he is typically considered.[25]


Born into a Lutheran family, Goethe's early faith was shaken by news of such events as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and the Seven Years' War. In July 1782, he described himself as "not anti-Christian, nor un-Christian, but most decidedly non-Christian."[26] His later spiritual perspective evolved among pantheism, humanism, and various elements of Western esotericism, as seen most vividly in Part II of Faust.

A year before his death he expressed an identification with the Hypsistarians, an ancient Jewish-pagan sect of the Black Sea region. After describing his difficulties with mainstream religion, Goethe laments:

…I have found no confession of faith to which I could ally myself without reservation. Now in my old age, however, I have learned of a sect, the Hypsistarians, who, hemmed in between heathens, Jews and Christians, declared that they would treasure, admire, and honour the best, the most perfect that might come to their knowledge, and in as much as it must have a close connection to the Godhead, pay it reverence. A joyous light thus beamed at me suddenly out of a dark age, for I had the feeling that all my life I had been aspiring to qualify as a Hypsistarian. That, however, is no small task, for how does one, in the limitations of one's individuality, come to know what is most excellent?

from a letter to Sulpiz Boisserée dated 22 March 1831[27]


In politics Goethe was conservative. At the time of the French Revolution, he thought the enthusiasm of the professors of the students and professors to be a perversion of their energy and remained skeptical of the ability of the masses to govern. [28] Likewise, he "did not oppose the War of Liberation (1813–15) waged by the German states against Napoleon, but remained aloof from the patriotic efforts to unite the various parts of Germany into one nation; he advocated instead the maintenance of small principalities ruled by benevolent despots." [29]

Historical importance

"Science and art belong to the whole world, and before them vanish the barriers of nationality." (Goethe)

Goethe had a great effect on the nineteenth century. In many respects, he was the originator of many ideas which later became widespread. He produced volumes of poetry, essays, criticism, a theory of colours and early work on evolution and linguistics. He was fascinated by mineralogy, and the mineral goethite is named after him.[30] His non-fiction writings, most of which are philosophic and aphoristic in nature, spurred the development of many philosophers, including G.W.F. Hegel, Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ernst Cassirer, Carl Jung, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Along with Schiller, he was one of the leading figures of Weimar Classicism.

Goethe's work and philosophy had great impact on Mohammad Iqbal,[citation needed] one of the greatest poets of Persian and Urdu language in Indian subcontinent.[citation needed] Iqbal has mentioned Goethe in various poems and compared him to Mirza Ghalib.[citation needed]

Goethe embodied many of the contending strands in art over the next century: his work could be lushly emotional, and rigorously formal, brief and epigrammatic, and epic. He would argue that classicism was the means of controlling art, and that romanticism was a sickness, even as he penned poetry rich in memorable images, and rewrote the formal rules of German poetry. Even in contemporary culture, he stands in the background as the author of the ballad upon which Disney's The Sorcerer's Apprentice is based.

His poetry was set to music by almost every major Austrian and German composer from Mozart to Mahler, and his influence would spread to French drama and opera as well. Beethoven declared that a "Faust" Symphony would be the greatest thing for Art. Liszt and Mahler both created symphonies in whole or in large part inspired by this seminal work, which would give the 19th century one of its most paradigmatic figures: Doctor Faustus.

Second Goetheanum

The Faust tragedy/drama, often called Das Drama der Deutschen (the drama of the Germans), written in two parts published decades apart, would stand as his most characteristic and famous artistic creation. Followers of the twentieth century esotericist Rudolf Steiner built a theatre named the Goetheanum after him - where festival performances of Faust are still performed.

Goethe was also a cultural force, and by researching folk traditions, he created many of the norms for celebrating Christmas, and argued that the organic nature of the land moulded the people and their customs—an argument that has recurred ever since. He argued that laws could not be created by pure rationalism, since geography and history shaped habits and patterns. This stood in sharp contrast to the prevailing Enlightenment view that reason was sufficient to create well-ordered societies and good laws.

Hafez-Goethe memorial in Weimar.

It was to a considerable degree due to Goethe's reputation that the city of Weimar was chosen in 1919 as the venue for the national assembly, convened to draft a new constitution for what would become known as Germany's Weimar Republic.

The Federal Republic of Germany’s cultural institution, The Goethe-Institut is named after him, and promotes the study of German abroad and fosters knowledge about Germany by providing information on its culture, society and politics.

The literary estate of Goethe in the Goethe and Schiller Archives was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2001 in recognition of its historical significance.[31]


Goethe's influence was dramatic because he understood that there was a transition in European sensibilities, an increasing focus on sense, the indescribable, and the emotional. This is not to say that he was emotionalistic or excessive; on the contrary, he lauded personal restraint and felt that excess was a disease: "There is nothing worse than imagination without taste". He argued in his scientific works that a "formative impulse", which he said is operative in every organism, causes an organism to form itself according to its own distinct laws, and therefore rational laws or fiats could not be imposed at all from a higher, transcendent sphere; this placed him in direct opposition to those who attempted to form "enlightened" monarchies based on "rational" laws by, for example, Joseph II of Austria or, the subsequent Emperor of the French, Napoleon I. A quotation from his Scientific Studies will suffice:

We conceive of the individual animal as a small world, existing for its own sake, by its own means. Every creature is its own reason to be. All its parts have a direct effect on one another, a relationship to one another, thereby constantly renewing the circle of life; thus we are justified in considering every animal physiologically perfect. Viewed from within, no part of the animal is a useless or arbitrary product of the formative impulse (as so often thought). Externally, some parts may seem useless because the inner coherence of the animal nature has given them this form without regard to outer circumstance. Thus…[not] the question, What are they for? but rather, Where do they come from?

Suhrkamp ed., vol 12, p. 121; trans. Douglas Miller, Scientific Studies

This change later became the basis for 19th century thought; organic rather than geometrical, evolving rather than created, and based on sensibility and intuition, rather than on imposed order, culminating in, as he said, a "living quality" wherein the subject and object are dissolved together in a poise of inquiry. Consequently, he embraced neither teleological nor deterministic views of growth within every organism. Instead, the world as a whole grows through continual, external, and internal strife. Moreover, he did not embrace the mechanistic views that contemporaneous science subsumed during his time, and there with he denied rationality's superiority as the sole interpretation of reality. Furthermore, he declared that all knowledge is related to humanity through its functional value alone and that knowledge presupposes a perspectival quality. He also stated that the fundamental nature of the world is aesthetic.

His views make him, along with Adam Smith, Thomas Jefferson, and Ludwig van Beethoven, a figure in two worlds: on the one hand, devoted to the sense of taste, order, and finely crafted detail, which is the hallmark of the artistic sense of the Age of Reason and the neo-classicistic period of architecture; on the other, seeking a personal, intuitive, and personalized form of expression and society, firmly supporting the idea of self-regulating and organic systems. Thinkers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson would take up many similar ideas in the 1800s. His ideas on evolution would frame the question which Darwin and Wallace would approach within the scientific paradigm.


  • Goethe: The History of a Man by Emil Ludwig
  • Goethe by Georg Brandes
  • Goethe: his life and times by Richard Friedenthal
  • Lotte in Weimar: The Beloved Returns by Thomas Mann
  • Conversations with Goethe by Johann Peter Eckermann
  • Goethe's World: as seen in letters and memoirs ed. by Berthold Biermann
  • Goethe: Four Studies by Albert Schweitzer
  • Goethe and his Publishers by Siegfied Unseld
  • Goethe: The Poet and the Age (2 Vols.), by Nicholas Boyle
  • Goethe's Concept of the Daemonic: After the Ancients, by Angus Nicholls
  • Goethe and Rousseau: Resonances of ther Mind, by Carl Hammer, Jr.
  • Goethe and Schiller , Essays on German Literature, by Hjalmar Hjorth Boyesen
  • Tales for Transformation, trans. Scott Thompson
  • Goethe Wörterbuch (Goethe Dictionary, abbreviated GWb). Herausgegeben von der Berlin-Brandenburgischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, der Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen und der Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften. Stuttgart. Verlag W. Kohlhammer. ISBN X-0000-2730-6

See also


  1. ^ According to Gregory Maertz, Goethe was "Germany's greatest man of letters… and the last true polymath to walk the earth." Cf. Eliot, George (2004) [1871]. Note by editor of 2004 edition, Gregory Maertz at link. ed. Middlemarch. Broadview Press. pp. 710. ISBN 1551112337. http://books.google.com/books?vid=ISBN1551112337&id=4MopnRJ-HmMC&pg=PA710&lpg=PA710&sig=4nAO63zmLS9Ua-x0mevpZA7kSIY. 
  2. ^ "Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th Ed. (2001-2005)". http://www.bartleby.com/65/go/Goethe-J.html. 
  3. ^ a b Darwin, C. R. (1859). On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life (1st ed.). John Murray. http://darwin-online.org.uk/content/frameset?itemID=F373&viewtype=text&pageseq=165&keywords=goethe. 
  4. ^ a b Opitz, John (2004). "Goethe's bone and the beginnings of morphology". American Journal of Medical Genetics Part A 126A (1): 1–8. doi:10.1002/ajmg.a.20619. 
  5. ^ Originally speech of Goethe to the Shakespeare's Day by University Duisburg
  6. ^ see Goethe and his Publishers
  7. ^ Safranski, Rüdiger (1990). Schopenhauer and the Wild Years of Philosophy. Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674792750. 
  8. ^ "Goethe's third summer". http://www.hamelika.cz/SHAMELIKA/1974/1974_16/h74_16.htm. 
  9. ^ Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, 5th ed., 1954
  10. ^ "Johann Wolfgang von Goethe". The Nature Institute. http://www.natureinstitute.org/about/who/goethe.htm. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  11. ^ K. Barteczko and M. Jacob (1999). "A re-evaluation of the premaxillary bone in humans". Anatomy and Embryology 207 (6): 417–437. doi:10.1007/s00429-003-0366-x. 
  12. ^ Metamorphosis of Plants. Google Books. http://books.google.com/books?id=0Fjuaog1_E0C&pg=PA86&lpg=PA86&ots=ezKJugQmvs&dq=intermaxillary+bone+prove&ie=ISO-8859-1&output=html&sig=jkPjZ1STzEfso5aFHxmFqxeof18. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  13. ^ Goethe, J.W.. Italian Journey. Suhrkamp ed., vol 6. 
  14. ^ Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Hegel's Philosophy of Nature: Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical Sciences (1830), Part 2 Translated by A. V. Miller illustrated, reissue, reprint Oxford University Press, 2005 ISBN 0199272670, ISBN 9780199272679 [1]
  15. ^ Bockemuhl, M. (1991). Turner. Taschen, Koln. ISBN 3822863254. 
  16. ^ Goethe, Johann (1810). Theory of Colours, paragraph #50. 
  17. ^ "Goethe's Color Theory". http://webexhibits.org/colorart/ch.html. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  18. ^ [2]
  19. ^ "The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception". http://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA002/English/AP1985/GA002_index.html. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  20. ^ "Goethe's World View". http://wn.rsarchive.org/Books/GA006/English/MP1985/GA006_index.html. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  21. ^ "The Stigma of Suicide - A history". Pips Project. http://pipsproject.com/Understanding%20Suicide.html.  See also: "Ophelia's Burial". http://elsinore.ucsc.edu/burial/burialSuicide.html. 
  22. ^ "Goethe in the Roman Campagna". Städel. http://www.staedelmuseum.de/index.php?id=442. Retrieved 2008-08-28. 
  23. ^ Karl Hugo Pruys, The Tiger's Tender Touch: The Erotic Life of Goethe. Trans. Kathleen Bunten. (Edition Q, 1999). ISBN 1883695120.
  24. ^ Outing Goethe and His Age, edited by Alice A. Kuzniar (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1996) p.97. ISBN 0804726159. Outing+Goethe+and+His+Age&printsec=frontcover&source=bn&hl=en&ei=vSu5SvakI87ZlAeikNTTDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=5#v=snippet&q=venereal&f=false
  25. ^ Outing Goethe and His Age; edited by Alice A. Kuzniar (page number needed)
  26. ^ Boyle 1992, 353
  27. ^ quoted in Peter Boerner, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1832/1982: A Biographical Essay. Bonn: Inter Nationes, 1981 p. 82]
  28. ^ McCabe, Joseph. 'Goethe: The Man and His Character'. pp. 343
  29. ^ [www.history.com/encyclopedia.do?articleId=210582]
  30. ^ Webmineral.com. Retrieved 8-21-2009,
  31. ^ "The literary estate of Goethe in the Goethe and Schiller Archives". UNESCO Memory of the World Programme. 2008-05-16. http://portal.unesco.org/ci/en/ev.php-URL_ID=23224&URL_DO=DO_TOPIC&URL_SECTION=201.html. Retrieved 2009-12-15. 

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010
(Redirected to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe article)

From Wikiquote

Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others, and in their pleasure takes joy, even as though 'twere his own.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 174922 March 1832) was a German novelist, dramatist, poet, humanist, scientist, philosopher, and for ten years chief minister of state at Weimar.

See also: Faust, and The Sorrows of Young Werther, and the German version of this page.



  • One lives but once in the world.
    • Clavigo, Act I, sc. i (1774)
  • If you inquire what the people are like here,
    I must answer, "The same as everywhere!"
  • Getting along with women,
    Knocking around with men,
    Having more credit than money,
    Thus one goes through the world.
    • Claudine von Villa Bella (1776)
  • When young one is confident to be able to build palaces for mankind, but when the time comes one has one's hands full just to be able to remove their trash.
    • Letter to Johann Kaspar Lavatar (6 March 1780)
  • Wer reitet so spät durch Nacht und Wind?
    Es ist der Vater mit seinem Kind;
    Er hat den Knaben wohl in dem Arm,
    Er faßt ihn sicher, er hält ihn warm.
    • Who rides, so late, through night and wind?
      It is the father with his child.

      He holds the boy in the crook of his arm
      He holds him safe, he keeps him warm.
  • Noble be man,
    Helpful and good!
    For that alone
    Sets hims apart
    From every other creature
    On earth.
    • Das Göttliche (The Divine) (1783)
  • In der Kunst ist das Beste gut genug.
  • A noble person attracts noble people, and knows how to hold on to them.
    • Torquato Tasso, Act I, sc. i (1790)
  • A talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world's torrent.
    • Torquato Tasso, Act I, sc. ii (1790)
  • Untersuchen was ist, und nicht was behagt
    • Investigate what is, and not what pleases.
      • Der Versuch als Vermittler von Objekt und Subjekt (The Attempt as Mediator of Object and Subject) (1792)
  • We can't form our children on our own concepts; we must take them and love them as God gives them to us.
  • The spirits that I summoned up
    I now can't rid myself of.
  • One of the most striking signs of the decay of art is the intermixing of different genres.
    • Propylaea (1798) Introduction
  • The true, prescriptive artist strives after artistic truth; the lawless artist, following blind instinct, after an appearance of naturalness. The one leads to the highest peaks of art, the other to its lowest depths.
    • Propylaea (1798) Introduction
  • In limitations he first shows himself the master,
    And the law can only bring us freedom.
    • Was Wir Bringen (1802)
  • One never goes so far as when one doesn't know where one is going.
  • Who wants to understand the poem
    Must go to the land of poetry;
    Who wishes to understand the poet
    Must go to the poet's land.
    • West-östlicher Diwan, motto (1819)
  • For I have been a man, and that means to have been a fighter.
    • West-östlicher Diwan, Buch des Paradies (1819)
  • Should I not be proud, when for twenty years I have had to admit to myself that the great Newton and all the mathematicians and noble calculators along with him were involved in a decisive error with respect to the doctrine of color, and that I among millions was the only one who knew what was right in this great subject of nature?
    • Letter to Eckermann (December 30, 1823)
  • All poetry is supposed to be instructive but in an unnoticeable manner; it is supposed to make us aware of what it would be valuable to instruct ourselves in; we must deduce the lesson on our own, just as with life.
    • Letter to Carl Friedrich Zelter (November 26, 1825)
  • One must be something in order to do something.
    • Conversation with Eckermann (October 20, 1828)
  • If I work incessantly to the last, nature owes me another form of existence when the present one collapses.
    • Letter to Eckermann (February 4, 1829)
  • The artist may be well advised to keep his work to himself till it is completed, because no one can readily help him or advise him with it...but the scientist is wiser not to withhold a single finding or a single conjecture from publicity.
    • Essay on Experimentation
  • Willst du immer weiterschweifen?
    Sieh, das Gute liegt so nah.
    Lerne nur das Glück ergreifen,
    denn das Glück ist immer da.
    • Do you wish to roam farther and farther?
      See the good that lies so near.
      Just learn how to capture your luck,
      for your luck is always there.
    • Variant translation:
      Do you wish to roam farther and farther?
      See! The Good lies so near.
      Only learn to seize good fortune,
      For good fortune's always here.
    • Erinnerung
  • Create, artist! Do not talk!
    • Saying
  • O'er all the hilltops
    Is quiet now,
    In all the treetops
    Hearest thou
    Hardly a breath;
    The birds are asleep in the trees:
    Wait; soon like these
    Thou too shalt rest.
    • Wandrers Nachtlied (Wanderer's Nightsong)
  • Welche Regierung die beste sei? Diejenige, die uns lehrt, uns selbst zu regieren.
    • Which is the best government? That which teaches us to govern ourselves.
    • The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe as translated by Bailey Saunders (1893) Maxim 225
  • Amerika, du hast es besser—als unser Kontinent, der alte.
    • America, you have it better than our continent, the old one.
    • Wendts Musen-Almanach (1831)
  • Who is the happiest of men? He who values the merits of others,
    And in their pleasure takes joy, even as though 'twere his own.

    Not in the morning alone, not only at mid-day he charmeth;
    Even at setting, the sun is still the same glorious planet.
    • The Poems of Goethe Translated in the original metres by Edgar Alfred Bowring
  • Without haste, but without rest.
    • Motto
  • Mehr licht.
    • More light!
    • Last words.

Wilhelm Meister's Lehrjahre (Apprenticeship) (1786-1830)

  • Ich singe, wie der Vogel singt
    Der in den Zweigen wohnet.
    • I sing as the bird sings
      That lives in the boughs.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 11
  • Wer nichts wagt, gerwinnt nichts.
    Wer nie sein Brod mit Tränen ass,
    Wer nie die kummervollen Nächte
    Auf seinem Bette weinend sass,
    Der kennt euch nicht, ihr himmlischen Mächte.
    • Nothing venture, nothing gain.
      Who ne'er his bread in sorrow ate,
      Who ne'er the mournful midnight hours
      Weeping upon his bed has sate,
      He knows you not, ye Heavenly Powers.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 13; translation by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
  • Knowst thou the land where the lemon trees bloom,
    Where the gold orange glows in the deep thicket's gloom,
    Where a wind ever soft from the blue heaven blows,
    And the groves are of laurel and myrtle and rose?
    • Bk. III, Ch. 1
  • What's it to you if I love you?
    • Philine in Bk. IV, Ch. 9
    • Variant translation: If I love you, what business is it of yours?
  • One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.
    • Bk. V, Ch. 1
  • To know of someone here and there whom we accord with, who is living on with us, even in silence—this makes our earthly ball a peopled garden.
    • Bk. VII, Ch. 5
  • Art is long, life short; judgment difficult, opportunity transient.
    • Bk. VII, Ch. 9
  • Die Welt ist so leer, wenn man nur Berge, Flüsse und Städte darin denkt, aber hie und da Iemand zu wissen, der mit uns übereinstimmt, mit dem wir auch stillschweigend fortleben, das macht uns dieses Erdenrund erst zu einem bewohnten Garten.
    • The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers and cities; but to know someone here and there who thinks and feels with us, and though distant, is close to us in spirit - this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.
    • "Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre," in Goethes Sämmtliche Werke, vol. 7 (Stuttgart: J. G. Cotta, 1874), p. 520.

Iphigenie auf Tauris (1787)

  • Seeking with the soul the land of the Greeks.
    • Act I, sc. i
  • A useless life is an early death.
    • Act I, sc. ii
  • One says a lot in vain, refusing;
    The other mainly hears the "No."
    • Act I, sc. iii
  • Pleasure and love are the pinions of great deeds.
    • Act II, sc. i
  • Life teaches us to be less harsh with ourselves and with others.
    • Act IV, sc. iv

Roman Elegies (1789)

  • Tell me you stones, O speak, you towering palaces!
    Streets, say a word! Spirit of this place, are you dumb?
    All things are alive in your sacred walls
    Eternal Rome, it's only for me all is still.
    • Elegy 1
  • I'm gazing at church and palace, ruin and column,
    Like a serious man making sensible use of a journey,
    But soon it will happen, and all will be one vast temple,
    Love's temple, receiving its new initiate.
    Though you're a whole world, Rome, still, without Love,
    The world isn't the world, and Rome can't be Rome.
    • Elegy 1
  • Ah, how often I've cursed those foolish pages,
    That showed my youthful sufferings to everyone!
    If Werther had been my brother, and I'd killed him,
    His sad ghost could hardly have persecuted me more.
    • Elegy 2 (First version)
  • A world without love would be no world.
    • Elegy 2
  • Beloved, don't fret that you gave yourself so quickly!
    Believe me, I don't think badly or wrongly of you.
    The arrows of Love are various: some scratch us,
    And our hearts suffer for years from their slow poison.
    But others strong-feathered with freshly sharpened points
    Pierce to the marrow, and quickly inflame the blood.
    In the heroic ages, when gods and goddesses loved,
    Desire followed a look, and joy followed desire.
    • Elegy 3
  • I feel I'm happily inspired now on Classical soil:
    The Past and Present speak louder, more charmingly.
    Here, as advised, I leaf through the works of the Ancients
    With busy hands, and, each day, with fresh delight.
    But at night Love keeps me busy another way:
    I become half a scholar but twice as contented.
    And am I not learning, studying the shape
    Of her lovely breasts: her hips guiding my hand?
    • Elegy 5

Venetian Epigrams (1790)

  • All Nine often used to come to me, I mean the Muses:
    But I ignored them: my girl was in my arms.
    Now I’ve left my sweetheart: and they’ve left me,
    And I roll my eyes, seeking a knife or rope.
    But Heaven is full of gods: You came to aid me:
    Greetings, Boredom, mother of the Muse.
    • Epigram 27
  • Is it so big a mystery
    what god and man and world are?
    No! but nobody knows how to solve it
    so the mystery hangs on.
    • As translated by Jerome Rothenberg
  • Much there is I can stand. Most things not easy to suffer
    I bear with quiet resolve, just as a God commands it.
    Only a few things I find as repugnant as snakes and poison.
    These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs and garlic and Christ.
    • Epigram 60.
  • Much there is I can stand, and most things not easy to suffer
    I bear with quiet resolve, just as a god commands it.
    Only a few I find as repugnant as snakes and poison —
    These four: tobacco smoke, bedbugs, garlic, and †.
    • Variant translation: Lots of things I can stomach. Most of what irks me
      I take in my stride, as a god might command me.
      But four things I hate more than poisons & vipers:
      tobacco smoke, garlic, bedbugs, and Christ.
    • Epigram 67, as translated by Jerome Rothenberg
  • Doesn't surprise me that Christ our Lord
    preferred to live with whores
    & sinners, seeing
    I go in for that myself.
    • As translated by Jerome Rothenberg

Elective Affinities (1808)

  • Three things are to be looked to in a building: that it stand on the right spot; that it be securely founded; that it be successfully executed.
    • Bk. I, Ch. 9
  • The sum which two married people owe to one another defies calculation. It is an infinite debt, which can only be discharged through all eternity.
    • Bk. I, Ch. 9
  • One is never satisfied with a portrait of a person that one knows.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 2
  • The fate of the architect is the strangest of all. How often he expends his whole soul, his whole heart and passion, to produce buildings into which he himself may never enter.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 3
  • Let us live in as small a circle as we will, we are either debtors or creditors before we have had time to look round.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 4
  • No one would talk much in society, if he knew how often he misunderstands others.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 4
  • None are more enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 5
  • A teacher who can arouse a feeling for one single good action, for one single good poem, accomplishes more than he who fills our memory with rows on rows of natural objects, classified with name and form.
    • Bk. II, Ch. 7

Faust, Part 1 (1808)

It has been suggested that Goethe's Faust be merged into this article or section. (Discuss)
  • Was glänzt, ist für den Augenblick geboren;
    das Echte bleibt der Nachwelt unverloren.
    • What dazzles, for the Moment spends its spirit:
      What's genuine, shall Posterity inherit.
      • Prelude on the Stage
  • Das Alter macht nicht kindisch, wie man spricht,
    Es findet uns nur noch als wahre Kinder.
    • Age does not make us childish, as they say.
      It only finds us true children still.
      • Prelude on the Stage
  • Es irrt der Mensch, so lang er strebt.
    • Man errs as long as he strives.
      • Prologue in Heaven
  • Da stehe ich nun, ich armer Thor!
    Und bin so klug als wie zuvor.
    • And here, poor fool! with all my lore
      I stand! no wiser than before.
      • Night, Faust in His Study
  • Bin ich ein Gott? Mir wird so licht!
    • Am I a god? I see so clearly!
      • Night, Faust in His Study
  • Die Botschaft hör ich wohl, allein, mir fehlt der Glaube
    • The message well I hear, my faith alone is weak
      • Faust's Study
  • Zwey Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust.
    • Two souls alas! dwell in my breast.
      • Outside the Gate of the Town
  • Ich bin der Geist der stets verneint.
    • I am the Spirit that always denies!
      • Faust's Study
  • Blut ist ein ganz besondrer Saft.
    • Blood is a juice of rarest quality.
    • (Also translated as:) Blood is a very special juice.
      • Faust's Study
  • Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
    Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.
    • Dear friend, all theory is gray,
      And green the golden tree of life.
      • Mephistopheles and the Student
  • Ein echter deutscher Mann mag keinen Franzen leiden,
    Doch ihre Weine trinkt er gern.
    • A true German can't stand the French,
      Yet willingly he drinks their wines.
      • Auerbach's Cellar
  • Wer Recht behalten will und hat nur eine Zunge,
    Behält’s gewiß.
    • Whoever intends to have the right, if but his tongue be clever,
      Will have it, certainly.
    • (Sometimes translated as:) He who maintains he's right—if his the gift of tongues—
      Will have the last word certainly.
      • Faust and Gretchen. A Street
  • Meine Ruh' ist hin,
    Mein Herz ist schwer.
    • My peace is gone,
      My heart is heavy.
      • Gretchen's Room
  • Schön war ich auch, und das war mein Verderben.
    • Fair I was also, and that was my ruin.
      • A Prison
  • Gut! Ein Mittel, ohne Geld
    Und Arzt und Zauberei zu haben:
    Begib dich gleich hinaus aufs Feld,
    Fang an zu hacken und zu graben,
    Erhalte dich und deinen Sinn
    In einem ganz beschraunken Kreise,
    Ernauhre dich mit ungemischter Speise,
    Leb Mit dem Vieh als Vieh, and acht es nicht fur Raub,
    Den Acker, den du erntest, selbst zu dungen;
    Das ist das beste Mittel, glaub,
    Auf achtzig Jahr dich zu verjungenl

    • Good! A method can be used
      without physicians, gold, or magic,
      Go out into the open field
      and start to dig and cultivate;
      keep your body and your spirit
      in a humble and restricted sphere,
      sustain yourself by simple fare,
      live with your herd and spread your own manure
      on land from which you reap your nourishment.
      Believe me, that's the best procedure
      to keep your youth for eighty years or more.
      • A Witch's Kitchen, Mephistopheles to Faust

Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre (Journeyman Years) (1821-1829)

  • Alles Gescheite ist schon gedacht worden.
    Man muss nur versuchen, es noch einmal zu denken.
    • All intelligent thoughts have already been thought;
      what is necessary is only to try to think them again.
      • Variant: All truly wise thoughts have been thoughts already thousands of times; but to make them truly ours, we must think them over again honestly, till they take root in our personal experience.
    • Bk. II, Observations in the Minset of the Wanderer: Art, Ethics, Nature

Faust, Part 2 (1832)

  • Law is mighty, mightier necessity.
    • Act I, A Spacious Hall
  • Once a man's thirty, he's already old,
    He is indeed as good as dead.
    It's best to kill him right away.
    • Act II, The Gothic Chamber
  • What wise or stupid thing can man conceive
    That was not thought of in ages long ago?
    • Act II, The Gothic Chamber
  • I love those who yearn for the impossible.
    • Act II, Classical Walpurgis Night
  • The deed is everything, the glory nothing.
    • Act IV, A High Mountain Range
  • Nur der verdient sich Freiheit wie das Leben der täglich sie erobern muss.
    • Of freedom and of life he only is deserving
      Who every day must conquer them anew.
    • Freedom and life are earned by those alone
      Who conquer them each day anew (tr. Walter Kaufmann)
    • Act V, Court of the Palace
  • Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,
    Den können wir erlösen.
    • Who strives always to the utmost,
      For him there is salvation.
    • Act V, Mountain Gorges
  • Alles Vergängliche ist nur ein Gleichnis.
    • All perishable is but an allegory
    • Variant translation: All that is transitory is but a metaphor
    • Act V, Chorus mysticus, last sentence, immediately before:
  • Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan.
    • The Eternal Feminine draws us on.
    • Act V, Heaven, last line

Sprüche in Prosa (Proverbs in Prose, 1819)

  • Individuality of expression is the beginning and end of all art.
  • Nothing is more damaging to a new truth than an old error.
  • Doubt grows with knowledge.
  • The greatest happiness for the thinking man is to have fathomed the fathomable, and to quietly revere the unfathomable.
  • First and last, what is demanded of genius is love of truth.
  • A man's manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.
  • All intelligent thoughts have already been thought; what is necessary is only to try to think them again.
  • Es ist nichts schrecklicher als eine tätige Unwissenheit.
    • Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.
  • Of all peoples the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life best.
  • Everything that emancipates the spirit without giving us control over ourselves is harmful.


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Up to date as of January 15, 2010

Definition from Wiktionary, a free dictionary



Proper noun




  1. Johann Wolfgang Goethe, a German writer


Proper noun


  1. A surname, notably of Johann Wolfgang Goethe.

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