10 Goethe Maxims For Creative Thinkers

German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s poem Courage was largely responsible for my decision to pursue an independent creative career by ignoring my engineering course and my life has never been the same:

CARELESSLY over the plain away,
Where by the boldest man no path
Cut before thee thou canst discern,
Make for thyself a path!

But it’s not just that poem. His Faust and Sorrow of Young Werther have been equally responsible for keeping me on the literature train. Its wobbliness would have otherwise meant I would have gotten out of it and looked for a comfortable house for myself a long time ago. Time and again I come back to his words and travel through them to mental and emotional places I wouldn’t have even been able to imagine had I had stuck to my country’s and the world’s mainstream culture — where Goethe doesn’t hold much significance anymore.

But he does for me and I am sure he does for all inquisitive and creative minds of the world. Minds that want to go a bit deeper and a bit wider to live life to the fullest — which isn’t possible without drinking a great amount of literary wisdom.

Here I have compiled 10 of his maxims from the first part of his maxim collections. These are sure to illuminate unseen horizons. Through his list, I hope to ensure that I have understood what I think I have understood from the maxims I have highlighted on my Kindle and taken photos of on my phone.

10. Everything that frees our spirit without giving us control of ourselves is ruinous — Maxim 33

It could be the collective slogan of TikTok, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter.

9. Men do not come to know one another easily, even with the best will and the best purpose. And then ill-will comes in and distorts everything — Maxim 67

Understanding each other and the human nature is a difficult task. We get more confused the more we sit and talk with a person whom we trust and love, with whom we can share everything with honesty and who shares everything with us with the same.

And then there are those who live only through lies and deception. The real problem begins when we mistake such people for people whom we should trust and love.

8. Truth belongs to the man, error to his age. This is why it has been said that, while the misfortune of the age caused his error, the force of his soul made him emerge from the error with glory — Maxim 109

Perhaps all these speedy-technologies are errors. Nation-states may have always been a mistake. Life feels stifling at times. I feel hopeless about being human most of the time.

It feels nice to imagine that the things I find burdensome might actually be the world’s error. It feels good to hear that there is a force on our souls. It feels even better to hear that we can use it to emerge from all these errors with glory!

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

I will share a personal stuff:

A few months ago, I had a solid hatred towards certain types of characters. Characters that have pettiness, stinginess, and cleverness in them. If I reflect on my school days, I realize that the people I was envious of were the ones who possessed those characters. When I asked myself deeper, I found myself thinking I may never possess things that those characters do. But today, I have settled on the idea that those things are not what I should desire in life. Those are not for me.

It is our human way of telling ourselves we are better than the ones we envy. Better check and remove envy in time. We don’t wanna be wasting our lives hating anyone.

6. For the man of the world a collection of anecdotes and maxims is of greatest value, if he knows how to intersperse the one in his conversation at fitting moments, and remember the other when a case arises for their application — Maxim 156

One of the reasons I have decided to compile these maxims and publish them here.

5. Raw matter is seen by everyone; the contents are found only by him who has his eyes about him; and the form is a secret to the majority — Maxim 183

One can smell Schopenhauer and Nietzsche in this. Both of them were inspired by Goethe.

There’s something special in being the person who sees a new thing. It is not something that everyone can do. It is not something that happens everyday. It is rare and it is something that cannot be taught.

Seeing something no one else has seen takes a special ability. Detaching ourselves from the worldview of the majority might be a good beginning because for the majority the major thing is always hidden.

4. At all times it has not been the age, but the individuals alone, who have worked for knowledge. It was the age which put Socrates to death by poison, the age which burnt the Huss. The ages have always remained alike — Maxim 201

This is important for all of us writing and reading on a platform like Medium.

At times the nuances of other human beings in platforms like Tiktok, Twitter, and YouTube make us doubt our decision to pursue knowledge. Even AI makes us wonder if we need to know at all anymore. But these are all distractions. We have to remember all those who fought for knowledge and seek inspiration from them if we really care about knowing.

It is unlikely that any of us will be poisoned or burnt in this day and age! (Things get poisoned and burnt in a different manner these days.)

3. However probable it is that a desire may be fulfilled, there is always a doubt; and so when the desire is realized, it is always surprising — Maxim 228

We can never be sure of the future. It gets even more difficult if the thing we are trying to know about the future concerns us at the core

Desires are what makes us and desires are what we live for. Desires make us skeptic due to their intense significance. The act of crossing fingers while anticipating something about to happen illustrates how sensitive we are to our desires. If we were to be convinced about some desire being fulfilled, the desire wouldn’t hold charm for us — that’s their mysticism. The world is full of uncertainties.

However probable that my desire to have this story read will be fulfilled, I have a doubt (and so I don’t have the audacity to write ‘when’ so I will write if) if the desire is realized, I will be surprised.

I am doubtful because it matters to me. I have no doubt that a celebrity’s tweet will be read by millions today. Since I am indifferent. Perhaps that celebrity is.

2. It is a terrible thing for an eminent man to be glorified in by fools — Maxim 271

Why would a person who has spent his life mastering himself and his craft, want to be a viral sensation on social media?

Why should I want to be glorified by the same people who worship their sportsmen?

Both would be terrible!

1. We are fond of looking to the future, because our secret wishes make us apt to turn in our favor the uncertainties which move about in it hither and thither — Maxim 280

Hundreds of times in the past year I have asked Google and ChatGPT about the future of literature! What more do I say?

BONUS (and the BEST):

From time to time I meet with a youth in whom I can wish for no alteration or improvement, only I am sorry to see how often his nature makes him quite ready to swim with the stream of the time; and it is on this that I would always insist, that man in his fragile boat has the rudder placed in his hand, just that he may not be at the mercy of the waves, but follow the direction of his own insight — Maxim 21.

This is the pressure that all of us have to go through — especially in the creative landscape.

We get carried away to do what’s flowing at great pace because there’s fame in it. There’s security in it. It is easier that way. What Goethe wants certain people to do is to rise above such temptations and do things based on their insight. According to Goethe, everyone has the ability to steer their own boat based on their insight. And we really have!