Tag: Advice

The Best of Goethe’s Aphorisms

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749–1832) Maxims and Reflections is a terrific source of philosophical wisdom. The German writer, statesman, lawyer, playwright, and polymath was brilliant at distilling complex questions and concepts into simple, reflective statements. His wisdom was derived from a life spent learning, thinking, and transmitting knowledge across a wide variety of fields. He crafted volumes of poetry, dramas, and thought pieces on botany, human anatomy, and even the science of color. From his 590 aphorisms, here are our favorites which we hope you enjoy pondering:

#2. How can a man come to know himself? Never by thinking, but by doing. Try to do your duty and you will know at once what you are worth.

#7. Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are. If I know what your business is, I know what can be made of you.

#19. It is only men of practical ability, knowing their powers and using them with moderation and prudence, who will be successful in worldly affairs.

#20. It is a great error to take oneself for more than one is, or for less than one is worth.

#33. Everything that frees our spirit without giving us control of ourselves is ruinous.

#34. A man is really alive only when he delights in the good-will of others.

#37. When a man is old he must do more than when he was young.

#60. Wisdom lies only in truth.

#65. Generosity wins favor for every one, especially when it is accompanied by modesty.

#91. Certain minds must be allowed their peculiarities.

#102. So obstinately contradictory is man that you cannot compel him to his advantage, yet he yields before everything that forces him to his hurt.

#124. One need only grow old to become gentler in one’s judgments. I see no fault committed which I could not have committed myself.

#130. Hatred is active displeasure, envy passive. We need not wonder that envy turns so soon to hatred.

#131. There is something magical in rhythm; it even makes us believe that we possess the sublime.

#134. The most foolish of all errors is for clever young men to believe that they forfeit their originality in recognizing a truth which has already been recognized by others.

#143. No one should desire to live in irregular circumstances; but if by chance a man falls into them, they test his character and show how much determination he is capable of.

#152. Ingratitude is always a kind of weakness. I have never known men of ability to be ungrateful.

#162. There are people who make no mistakes because they never wish to do anything worth doing.

#184. We may learn to know the world as we please: it will always retain a bright and a dark side.

#211. Enthusiasm is of the greatest value, so long as we are not carried away by it.

#223. We cannot escape a contradiction in ourselves; we must try and resolve it. If the contradiction comes from others, it does not affect us: it is their affair.

#231. Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.

#239. To live in a great idea means to treat the impossible as though it were possible. It is just the same with a strong character; and when an idea and a character meet, things arise which fill the world with wonder for thousands of years.

#264. A man’s manners are the mirror in which he shows his portrait.

#270. Against the great superiority of another there is no remedy but love.

#276. Fools and wise folk are alike harmless. It is the half-wise and the half-foolish, who are the most dangerous.

#278. Difficulties increase the nearer we come to our aim.

#320. A man is not deceived by others, he deceives himself.

#324. It is not enough to know, we must also apply; it is not enough to will, we must also do.

#332. Nothing is more highly to be prized than the value of each day.

#345. A man is well equipped for all the real necessities of life if he trusts his senses, and so cultivates them that they remain worthy of being trusted.

#346. The senses do not deceive; it is the judgment that deceives.

#383. Every man hears only what he understands.

#485. There is no surer way of evading the world than by Art; and no surer way of uniting with it than by Art.

#486. Even in the moments of highest happiness and deepest misery we need the Artist.

#488. The dignity of Art appears perhaps most conspicuously in music; for in music there is no material to be deducted. It is wholly form and intrinsic value, and it raises and ennobles all that it expresses.

#529. We more readily confess to errors, mistakes and shortcomings in our conduct than in our thought.

#554. A man must cling to the belief that the incomprehensible is comprehensible; otherwise he would not try to fathom it.

#579. There are two things of which a man cannot be careful enough: of obstinacy if he confines himself to his own line of thought; of incompetency, if he goes beyond it.

#584. Every one knows how to value what he has attained in life; most of all the man who thinks and reflects in his old age. He has a comfortable feeling that it is something of which no one can rob him.


If you enjoyed reading these you may also be interested in digesting similar lists of aphorisms we wrote about:

From Eastern Philosophy: Aphorisms for Thirsty Fish: The Lost Writings of Wu Hsin 

From the mind of Nassim Taleb: The Bed of Procrustes — 20 Aphorisms from Nassim Taleb

And an interesting discussion criticizing aphorisms: Susan Sontag: Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom

Don’t Get “Should” Mixed Up with “Is”

The hardest truth to swallow is that the world isn’t really fair, and it isn’t a world you’d necessarily draw up from scratch. It’s not usually what you suppose it should be. None of what’s around us came about by grand design: From a spark many billion years ago, things evolved in a fairly undirected manner (as far as we can tell).

When the world doesn’t quite agree with our ideas, we often begin distorting our own cognition. We confuse should with is, and then complain or rationalize when reality shows we’ve gotten the wrong answer.

The history of Marxist political ideology is a pretty good example. It’s not unreasonable to think that the world should, in some cosmic sense, be a bit more egalitarian. We’re all born and we all die just the same — why should some among us enjoy the spoils while some among us wallow? Capitalism encourages that outcome to an extent, and it sometimes accidentally rewards behavior that is anti-social or simply not adding anything to the world. (A thousand derivatives traders and casino operators just cringed.)

The problem is that reality is way more complex than a simple fairness test would hope to show.

A really large-scale egalitarian society has never worked for a few interrelated reasons, chief among them that: groups don’t have power, people have power (raising the question, who specifically decides how to allocate society’s resources?); utopia doesn’t scale; market forces provide very effective carrots, sticks, and signals that directed egalitarianism lacks, among other reasons. Reaching for extreme levelness in outcomes has always been deeply problematic and always will be, because that’s how reality is constructed.

Inevitably when certain people who get into power run the experiment again, and it does not work as intended, its deepest acolytes return to first principles instead of acknowledging a flawed premise. Well, that wasn’t real Marxism. Yes the proposed system of economic distribution didn’t work, but that’s not our fault. It still should be this way. Things should be fairer. We just did it wrong. Let’s run it again!

Results like that show the brain performing some real acrobatics to keep its desired and cherished idea intact. The Greek statesman Demosthenes, living about 350 years before the birth of Christ, put it best by saying “What a man wishes, he also believes.” In other words, because we want it to be true, we make it so in our minds, evidence be damned.

We’re all subject to this bias from time to time.

In the financial world, many an investor has seen his investment go south only to complain about how unfair the damn world is, how things shouldn’t have gone that way — the CEO should have been more attentive, the creditors should have been more fair, competitors should have been more rational. It’s not supposed to go like this! Far from the investor’s mind is the thought that he simply misdiagnosed a complex situation with a range of outcomes, including bad ones. But reality is irreducibly complicated — it doesn’t ignore things just because you do. It isn’t supposed to be anything. It’s just hard.

This isn’t to be harsh. It’s just the way things are. It’s not about you. Nature just doesn’t care too much about your should.

This happens in relationships all the time. It’s almost an iron rule of life that marrying someone with the intent of changing them is not going to work. Who wants to be chiseled, molded, and nagged by their spouse? Who’s really been successful at that? Most of us seek acceptance, and when we don’t get it, we fight for our independence. That’s just human nature.

And yet how many divorces happen due to traits that were plainly present before the marriage began? Is a continuation of long-held traits the fault of the non-compliant spouse, or was there a willful misunderstanding from Day 1?

That’s not to say that a good spouse shouldn’t work to improve themselves. Of course they should. It is a recognition of the base rate that major improvements are not very common.

Think of the last major personality flaw you had that you actually shed for good. I’ll wait…

And so our lack of understanding human nature and of the complex reality leads us to bad results, frequently because we wish the world was another way. We think it ought to be another way, and we keep that conclusion even after the world shows us we’re wrong, leading to one mistake after another as we rationalize repeated errors with ought style thinking.

Start resolving to test yourself with the basic question: Do I believe this because I wish it was so, or because it actually is so? Have I acted in some way because I wish that action caused success, or because it actually does? If you can’t tell the difference, it’s likely to be wishful. And if you simply don’t know, then leave it at that: You don’t know. Resolve to find out the truth as best you can.

Instead of beating our heads against the wall, we should spend more time trying to understand the world as it is, and live accordingly. Or, in the brilliant words of Joseph Tussman:

“What the pupil must learn, if he learns anything at all, is that the world will do most of the work for you, provided you cooperate with it by identifying how it really works and aligning with those realities. If we do not let the world teach us, it teaches us a lesson.”

Still Interested? Check out some related posts:

The Powerful Predictor Behind Successful Relationships — When does a broken relationship start to go wrong? Whatever you’re thinking — an awkward conversation with your boss, the white lie you told about being busy that was discovered, the time you were supposed to be out with friends but were really somewhere else — you’re probably wrong.

Recognizing Our Flaws is The Beginning of Wisdom — “We are drunks looking for our lost keys under a lamppost not because that’s where we lost our keys but because that’s where the light is.”