Johann Wolfgang von Goethe Quotations

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe / 1749–1832 / Free Imperial City of Frankfurt, Holy Roman Empire (now Germany) / Poet, Novelist, Dramatist, Memoirist, Naturalist


I call architecture frozen music.

Source: J.P. Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe, March 23, 1829 (1836).

Art is Long

Ah, God! how long is art!
And soon it is we die.
Oft when my critical pursuits I ply,
I truly grow uneasy both in head and heart.
How hard to gain the means whereby
A man mounts upward to the source!
And ere man’s ended barely half the course.
Poor devil! I suppose he has to die.

Source: Faust, Part One, Scene I (1808); Wagner.


We can’t form our children on our own concepts; we must take them and love them as God gives them to us.

Source: Hermann and Dorothea (1797).


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.

Source: “Wanderer’s Nightsong II” (1780).

Freedom without Responsibility

Everything that emancipates the spirit without giving us control over ourselves is harmful.

Source: Proverbs in Prose (1819).

How to Live

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.

Source: Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795–96).

Inspiring Others

“When we take people,” thou wouldst say, “merely as they are, we make them worse; when we treat them as if they were what they should be, we improve them as far as they can be improved.”

Source: Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795–96).

Knowledge vs. Action

Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.

Source: Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (1821).

Life vs. Theory

Dear friend, all theory is gray,
And green the golden tree of life.

Source: Faust, Part One, Scene IV (1808); Mephistopheles.


If I love you, what business is it of yours?

Source: Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795–96).


For I have been a man, and that means to have been a fighter.

Source: West-Eastern Divan (1819).


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.

Source: Elective Affinities (1809).


I am the Spirit that always denies!

Source: Faust, Part One, Scene III (1808); Mephistopheles.

Seize the Day

What’s left undone to-day, To-morrow will not do.
Waste not a day in vain digression:
With resolute, courageous trust
Seize every possible impression,
And make it firmly your possession;
You’ll then work on, because you must.

Source: Faust, Part One, “Prelude at the Theater” (1808); Manager.


He only earns his Freedom and Existence,
Who’s forced to win them freshly every day.

Source: Faust, Part Two, Act V, Scene VI (1832); Faust.


One must be something to be able to do something.

Source: J.P. Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe, October 20, 1828 (1836).

A talent is formed in stillness, a character in the world’s torrent

Source: Torquato Tasso (1790).


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.

Source: Elective Affinities (1809).


Nothing is great but truth, and the smallest truth is great. The other day I had a thought, which I put like this: Even a harmful truth is useful, for it can be harmful only for the moment and will lead to other truths, which must always become useful, very much so. Conversely, even a useful error is harmful, for it can be useful only for the moment, enticing us into other errors, which become more and more harmful.

Source: Letter to Charlotte von Stein (1787).

Nothing is more damaging to a new truth than an old error.

Source: Proverbs in Prose (1819).

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

Source: Proverbs in Prose (1819).


Woman, eternal,
Beckons us on.

Source: Faust, Part Two, Act V, Scene VII (1832); Mystic Choir.

Words and Deeds

The words you’ve bandied are sufficient;
‘Tis deeds that I prefer to see:

Source: Faust, Part One, “Prelude at the Theater” (1808); Manager.