“People always fancy,” said Goethe, laughing, “that we must become old to become wise; but, in truth, as years advance, it is hard to keep ourselves as wise as we were. Man becomes, indeed, in the different stages of his life, a different being; but he cannot say that he is a better one, and in certain matters he is as likely to be right in his twentieth as in his sixtieth year.
“We see the world one way from a plain, another way from the heights of a promontory, another from the glacier fields of the primary mountains. We see, from one of these points, a larger piece of the world than from the other; but that is all, and we cannot say that we see more truly from anyone than from the rest. When a writer leaves monuments on the different steps of his life, it is chiefly important that he should have an innate foundation and good will; that he should, at each step, have seen and felt clearly, and that, without any secondary aims, he should have said distinctly and truly what has passed in his mind. Then will his writings, if they were right at the step where they originated, remain always right, however the writer may develop or alter himself in after times.” [February 17.1831; from Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann]
Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann counted for Nietzsche as “the best German book there is” [dem besten deutschen Buche, das es gibt]. He rated Eckermann’s record of these conversations higher than Goethe’s Faust, on which Kaufmann wittily commented that fortunately, we don’t have to choose between the two – we can read both.
Goethe and the History of Ideas – essay by Walter Kaufmann
Reflections in the Spirit of the Wanderers – maxims from Goethe’s novel, Wilhelm Meister’s Journeyman Years (translated by Krishna Winston)
Goethe’s Conversations with Eckermann, 1823-1832
This book records conversations between Goethe and Johann Peter Eckermann, a young friend, during the last decade of Goethe’s life. Their conversations at table, in the garden, in the study, and driving in a carriage through the Weimar countryside cover an astonishing range of topics and illuminate Goethe’s wide-ranging and incisive knowledge. His insights into Shakespeare, Byron, and Shelley are brilliant. He makes fascinating observations on Voltaire, Napoleon, Raphael, Mozart (whom he had met when a youth), Carlyle, and Walter Scott. Of particular value are his thoughts about the craft of writing – writing on what one knows, the importance of details, the dangers of specialization, the relations between art and politics.
The personality of Goethe comes through clearly in these conversations. Born to wealth and station, blessed with physical beauty and good health, acclaimed as a brilliant writer while still a young man, an acknowledged civil administrator and political advisor in his thirties, thought a genius by his contemporaries, lauded by luminaries around the world, Goethe was, simply put, a great man.
These faithfully recorded conversations give us an intimate portrait of this German master that can be found nowhere else.
Goethe; or, the Writer – essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson
Goethe on BBC Radio 4 – presented by Melvyn Bragg