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Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Quotations

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) was a prolific German poet and writer. Within his body of work are many quotes (quotes, in German) that are now famous bits of wisdom passed down through the generations. A number of these have also influenced other popular musings and sage advice.

Among Goethe's best-known lines are those below. Many come from published books of the poet's work while a few are from personal correspondence. Here, we will explore them in both their original German as well as the English translations.

One of the Best-Known Goethe Quotes

"You only see what you know."

English Translation: You only see what you know.

Goethe From "The Elective Affinities"

"Elective Affinities" (Elective affinities) was Goethe's third novel published in 1809.

"Fortunately, man can only grasp a certain degree of unhappiness; what goes beyond it destroys him or leaves him indifferent."

English Translation: Fortunately, people can comprehend only a certain degree of misfortune; anything beyond that either destroys them or leaves them indifferent.

Goethe From "maxims and reflections"

"Maxims and reflections" (Maxims and Reflections) is a collection of Goethe's writings published posthumously in 1833.

"The old man loses one of the greatest human rights: he is no longer judged by his peers."

English Translation: An old man loses one of the most important rights of man: he is no longer judged by his peers.

"There is nothing more terrible than active ignorance."

English Translation: There's nothing worse than ignorance in action.

Goethe to Eckermann, 1830

Goethe and fellow poet Johann Peter Eckermann regularly corresponded with one another. This comes from a 1830 letter to Eckermann.

"Napoleon gives us an example of how dangerous it is to rise into the absolute and sacrifice everything to carry out an idea."

English Translation: Napoleon provides us an example of how dangerous it is to be elevated to the absolute and to sacrifice everything to implement an idea.

Goethe From "Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre"

"Wilhelm Meister's Wanderjahre" (Wilhelm Meister's Journeyman Years) is the third in a series of books written by Goethe. It was first published in 1821, then revised and republished in 1829.

"Of all the thieves, the fools are the worst. They rob you of both time and mood."

English Translation: Of all the thieving riff-raff, fools are the worst. They steal both your time and your good mood.

"Life belongs to the living, and whoever lives must be prepared for change."

English Translation: Life belongs to the living, and those who live must be prepared for change.

"There is no such thing as patriotic art and no patriotic science. Both, like all good things, belong to the whole world ..."

English Translation: There is no patriotic art and no patriotic science. Both belong, like all high good, to the whole world ...

Goethe From "Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship Years"

"Wilhelm Meister's apprenticeship" (Wilhelm Meister's apprenticeship) is the second volume in Goethe's famous series, published in 1795.

"Everything we encounter leaves traces behind. Everything contributes imperceptibly to our education."

English Translation: Everything we encounter leaves traces behind. Everything contributes imperceptibly to our education.

"A clever person finds the best education while traveling."

English Translation: The best education for a clever person is found in travel.

Goethe From "Proverbial"

The following are small excerpts from Goethe's poem "Sprichwörtlich" (Proverbial).

Between today and tomorrow
lies a long time.
Learn to get fast
Since you're still awake.

English Translation:

Between today and tomorrow
read a long time.
Learn quickly to take care of things
while you're still fit.

Do only what is right in your affairs;
The other will do itself.

English Translation:

Just do the right thing in your affairs;
The rest will take care of itself.

Goethe From "Reineke Fuchs"

"Reineke Fuchs" is a 12-song epic written by Goethe in 1793.

"Better to run than lazy."

English Translation: Better to run than to rot.

Goethe From "Hermann and Dorothea"

"Hermann and Dorothea" is one of Goethe's epic poems published in 1796.

"If you don't go forward, you come back."

English Translation: If you're not going forward, you're going backward.

Goethe From "Faust I (Prelude to the Theater)"

"Faust I" is a collection of Goethe's work and when combined with "Faust II," the two span 60 years of the poet's artistic writings. "Prelude to the Theater" (Prelude on the theater) is one poem examining the conflicts of drama and theater.

What shines is born for the moment
The real remains untouched for posterity.

English Translation:

That which glitters is born for the moment;
The genuine remains intact for future days.