15 Great Goethe Quotes

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Here are fifteen quotes by German poet, novelist, playwright, scientist and social critic, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832). For context, both Mozart and Beethoven lived and died during his life and extended career. This period of history also saw both the American and French Revolutions and later Europe’s years of turbulence during the Napoleonic wars. Schooled at home, Goethe entered law school in Leipzig at age 16, but was taken ill for an eighteen month period before graduating, a time during which he lived as a recluse. I think of many whose long term careers were influenced by unanticipated personal hardships early in life. (Francis Ford Coppola and Teddy Roosevelt come to mind at this moment.) Perhaps this kind of experience is at the root of the oft quoted maxim by another famous German, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.”*

Two of Goethe’s most significant works were his novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, a famously sentimental journey, and his tragic play Faust, which became “the mouthpiece of Goethe’s own struggles and aspirations.”** His work on Faust pre-occupied the second half of his life, having been initiated in the mid-1770s and finished in 1831.

After his passing the importance of his life and work grew in prestige so that his name was even linked with the likes of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare. How is it, then, that today eight out of ten people are more likely to know who’s on Dancing with the Stars than who Goethe was, and fewer there are who have read a word of his works. Here are some of the many Goethe quotes one can readily find with a sixteen second Google search. Any one of them would be suitable for a meditation of the day and could be elaborated on for an essay. Take your time, if able, a let each one roll about in your mind…

~A man can stand anything except a succession of ordinary days.

~A man’s manners are a mirror in which he shows his portrait.

~A person hears only what they understand.

~A really great talent finds its happiness in execution.

~An unused life is an early death.

~Be generous with kindly words, especially about those who are absent.

~If you wish to know the mind of a man, listen to his words.

~Every person above the ordinary has a certain mission that they are called to fulfill.

~Everybody wants to be somebody; nobody wants to grow.

~Everything in the world may be endured except continual prosperity.

~First and last, what is demanded of genius is love of truth.

~To create something you must be something.

~We always have time enough, if we will but use it aright.

~He is dead in this world who has no belief in another.

~He who does not think much of himself is much more esteemed than he imagines.

*Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

** Encyclopedia Americana, 1963 edition

Originally published at on April 6, 2010.

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An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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