The Purpose of Life Is To Be Defeated by Greater and Greater Things

Rainer Maria Rilke? Tim O’Reilly? Louise Bogan? Robert Bly? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A recent book by technology guru and computer book publisher Tim O’Reilly contained the following appeal: 1

Pursue something so important that even if you fail, the world is better off for you having tried.

O’Reilly illustrated this idea by referring to a resonant poem by Rainer Maria Rilke based on an episode from the Book of Genesis. Jacob wrestled with a transcendent angelic figure and was defeated, but he was also strengthened. O’Reilly offered the following compressed reading of the poem:

What we fight with is so small, and when we win, it makes us small. What we want is to be defeated, decisively, by successively greater things.

Would you please help me to find this piece by Rilke?

Quote Investigator: In 1901 the monthly journal “Deutsche Arbeit” (“German Labor”) published a work by Rainer Maria Rilke under the title “Gedicht” (“Poem”). The following was the final verse. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

Wen dieser Engel überwand,
Welcher so oft auf Kampf verzichtet,
Der geht gerecht und aufgerichtet
Und groß aus seiner harten Hand,
Die sich, wie formend, an ihn schmiegte.
Die Siege laden ihn nicht ein;
Sein Wachstum ist: Der Tiefbesiegte
Von immer Größerem zu sein.

The poem was translated by poet Robert Bly in 1981, and these were the last three lines: 3

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1920 “The Nation” journal in New York published five poems by Rilke translated by Ludwig Lewisohn. The target poem was given the title “The Seer”. This was the final verse: 4

Whom this great Angel overcame
That oft the humbler foe rejected,
In light and righteousness erected
From that stern hand goes forth his frame
By molding as of God completed.
No victories can set him free,
His triumph is to be defeated
By ever loftier powers than he.

In 1938 the poet and literary critic Louise Bogan referred to two lines of the poem without attribution: 5

“Great from the hard forming hand” Hopkins had chosen in youth “he triumphs, utterly defeated.”

In 1943 a translation of Rilke’s poem by Jessie Lemont was published under the title “He Who Visions”. The following appeared as the final five lines: 6

The hard hand that moulded him like clay
While shaping, caressed him silently.
Triumph no more spreads beckoning wings:
For growth is profoundly conquered to be
By ever greater things.

In 1960 “The Mind of Germany: The Education of a Nation” by Hans Kohn referred to the poem without naming it: 7

In an earlier poem Rilke defined growth as being deeply defeated by ever greater obstacles.

In 1993 the motivational book “Fear of Failure” by James Marshall Galbraith included a chapter epigraph attributed to Rilke: 8

The purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things.
Rainer Maria Rilke

In conclusion, Rainer Maria Rilke did publish a poem in German in1901 that matched Tim O’Reilly’s description. The English title has varied, e.g., “The Man Watching”, “The Seer”, and “He Who Visions”. The final lines expressed the desirability of being defeated by ever greater challenges.

Image Notes: A portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke; accessed via Wikimedia Commons; declared as public domain. Picture called “Jacob Wrestles with the Angel” by Gustave Doré from Doré’s English Bible. Images have been cropped, retouched, and resized.

(Great thanks to Jon Boyd whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Boyd’s inquiry was motivated by a tweet from Oliver Burkeman. Thanks also to Tim O’Reilly for his book “WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us”.)

Notes:

  1. 2017, WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us by Tim O’Reilly, Chapter 16: Work on Stuff That Matters, Quote Page 352 and 353, HarperCollins Publishers, New York. (Amazon Look Inside)
  2. 1901 October, Deutsche Arbeit: Monatichrift sür das geistige Leben der Deutichen in Böhmen, (German Labor: Monthly for the Spiritual Life of the Germans in Bohemia), Volume 1, Gedicht (Poem) by Rainer Maria Rilke, Start Page 19, Quote Page 20, Verlag von Georg D. W. Callwey in München, Germany. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 2001, Who Lives Better Than We Do? Poems by Reggie Marra, Epigraph on title page, (Acknowledgement to “The Man Watching” of “Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke”, edited and translated by Robert Bly, 1981), From the Heart Press: An Imprint of Integral Journeys for Pilgrims, Poets, Fools and Saints, New Milford, Connecticut. (Google Books Preview)
  4. 1920 December 1, The Nation, Volume 111, Number 2891, Five Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated by Ludwig Lewisohn, Poem 1: The Seer, Start Page 618, Quote Page 618, The Nation Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1955, Selected Criticism: Prose, Poetry by Louise Bogan, Review dated 1938 of The “Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins”, Start Page 42, Quote Page 47, The Noonday Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1943, Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Translated by Jessie Lemont, Poem: He Who Visions, Start Page 56, Quote Page 57, Columbia University Press, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  7. 1960 Copyright, The Mind of Germany: The Education of a Nation by Hans Kohn, Chapter 10: European Horizons, Quote Page 228, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1993, Fear of Failure by James Marshall Galbraith, (Epigraph of Part III: A Question of Success), Quote Page 73, Benchmark Books, San Marino, California. (Verified with scans)