If We Treat People as If They Were What They Ought To Be, We Help Them Become What They Are Capable of Becoming

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Thomas Carlyle? Mary Shelley? Percy Bysshe Shelley? Thomas S. Monson? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a family of sayings ascribed to the prominent German literary figure Goethe. Here are two instances in the family:

If you treat people as they are, they will become worse. If you treat them as they could be, they will become better.

If we treat people as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship) in 1795 and 1796. The following passage in German presents the ideal of helping others to achieve their potential: 1

Wenn wir sagtest Du, die Menschen nur nehmen, wie sie sind, so machen wir sie schlechter; wenn wir sie behandeln als wären sie, was sie sein sollten, so bringen wir sie dahin, wohin sie zu bringen sind.

The influential Scottish essayist and translator Thomas Carlyle rendered Goethe’s novel into English in 1824. Here is Carlyle’s version of the passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

‘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.’

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

When the major English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley died in 1822 his writings were not as famous as they are today. His wife Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein, believed that his works deserved greater recognition. Among the posthumous volumes Mary published was “Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments” by Percy. In the preface dated December 1849 Mary stated that Percy followed the maxim promulgated by Goethe, and she argued for the value of that guidance: 3

He had never read “Wilhelm Meister,” but I have heard him say that he regulated his conduct towards his friends by a maxim which I found afterwards in the pages of Goethe—“When we take people 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.” This rule may perhaps admit of dispute, and it may be argued that truth and frankness produce better fruits than the most generous deceit. But when we consider the difficulty of keeping our best virtues free from self-blindness and self-love, and recollect the intolerance and fault-finding that usually blots social intercourse; and compare such with the degree of forbearance and imaginative sympathy, so to speak, which such a system necessitates, we must think highly of the generosity and self-abnegation of the man who regulated his conduct undeviatingly by it.

In 1881 “The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature” published an English rendering together with the original German: 4

When we take men only as they are, we make them worse; when we treat them as if they were what they ought to be, we bring them to the point to which they are to be brought. [Some may prefer Goethe untranslated: “Wenn wir die Menschen nur nehmen wie sie sind so machen wir sie schlechter; wenn wir sie behandeln als wären sie sein sollten, so bringin wir sie dahin wohin sie zu bringen sind.”]

In 1956 “The Honolulu Advertiser” of Hawaii printed an abbreviated version of the saying attributed to Goethe: 5

The famous poet Goethe once wrote: “If we treat people as if they were what they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

In 1971 religious leader Thomas S. Monson employed a version of the saying during a speech as recorded in “The Salt Lake Tribune” of Salt Lake City, Utah. Monson later became the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: 6

“When we treat people merely as they are, they will remain as they are.” Elder Monson explained. “When we treat them as if they were what they should be, they will become what they should be.”

In 1998 a message posted to the Usenet system included an instance attributed to Goethe. Ellipsis occurs in the original text: 7

If we treat people as they ought to be…we help them become what they are capable of becoming.

In 2015 a self-help book titled “NO is Short for Next Opportunity: How Top Sales Professionals Think” by Martin Limbeck included the following: 8

Paraphrasing the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, I say: If you treat people as they are, they will become worse. If you treat them as they could be, they will become better.

In conclusion, the German quotation in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre should be credited to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Several different English translations have been constructed over the years, and this article presents a few options.

Image Notes: Portrait of Goethe painted by Angelica Kauffman circa 1787; accessed via Wikimedia Commons. Illustration of one person helping another to ascend a hill from sasint at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Trudy Johnson-Lenz whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Johnson-Lenz asked about a longer quotation which has been attributed to Goethe. She also pointed to useful information recorded in Wikipedia and Wikiquote.)

Notes:

  1. 1801, Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre: Ein Roman, (Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship: A Novel) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Vierter Band (Volume 4), Book 8, Chapter 4, Quote Page 194, Frankfurt und Leipzig. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1824, Translations from the German by Thomas Carlyle, Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship and Travels, Translated from the German of Goethe, Volume 2 of 2,Book VIII, Chapter IV, Quote Page 93, Chapman and Hall, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1840, Essays, Letters from Abroad, Translations and Fragments by Percy Bysshe Shelley, Edited by Mrs. Shelley (Mary Shelley), Volume 1 of 2, Section: Preface by the Editor, Date on Preface: December 1839, Quote Page 17, Lea and Blanchard, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1881, The Irish Monthly: A Magazine of General Literature, Winged Words, Start Page 163, Quote Page 164, M. H. Gill & Son, Dublin. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1956 October 29, The Honolulu Advertiser, The Mature Parent: Friendless Nick Needs Reassurance, Not Pity by Mrs. Muriel Lawrence, Quote Page A7, Column 2, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1971 October 4, The Salt Lake Tribune, Morning Session: Seek God, Official Asks at LDS Meet, Start Page 1, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Salt Lake City, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1998 September 6, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: mail.ednet, From: Samuel R. Dean, Jr. @educ.umass.edu, Organization: SENDIT – North Dakota’s Educational Network, Subject: Re: Changes in Poland, Maine. (Google Groups Search; Accessed October 8, 2018) link
  8. 2015, NO is Short for Next Opportunity: How Top Sales Professionals Think by Martin Limbeck, Translated from the German by Christian Villano and Esther Lenssen, Chapter: Formula: What All Salespeople Should Know About Their Customers, Quote Page 24, Morgan James Publishing, New York. (Google Books Preview)