Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Thomas Mann? André Gide? Arthur Koestler? Garrett Hardin? Horace Mann? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Sometimes a truthful statement can undermine a cherished belief and provide comfort to an adversary. Thus, it is tempting to embrace an untruthful statement that provides temporary solace. Yet, accepting uncomfortable truths leads to personal growth, whereas accepting errors and lies fails terribly over time. Here are three instances from a family of sayings:
- An injurious truth is better than a useful error.
- A harmful truth is better than a useful lie.
- A destructive truth is preferable to a constructive error.
These expressions have been attributed to two prominent German literary figures Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Thomas Mann. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: In 1787 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a letter to Charlotte von Stein which included a discussion of this concept. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Es ist nichts groß als das Wahre und das kleinste Wahre ist groß. Ich kam neulich auf einen Gedancken der mich sagen ließ: auch eine schädliche Wahrheit ist nützlich, weil sie nur Augenblicke schädlich seyn kann und alsdann zu andern Wahrheiten führt, die immer nützlich und sehr nützlich werden müßen und umgekehrt ist ein nützlicher Irrthum schädlich weil er es nur augenblicklich seyn kann und in andre Irrthümer verleitet die immer schädlicher werden.
Translator Heinz Norden rendered the above passage into English for the book “Goethe’s World View” in 1963: 2
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.
Goethe formulated a more compact version of this idea which was reprinted in “Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung” (“General Literature Newspaper”) in 1801: 3
Schädliche Wahrheit, ich ziehe sie vor dem nützlichen Irrthum;
Wahrheit heilet den Schmerz, den sie vielleicht uns erregt.
Penguin Books published an English translation of the above statements in 1964: 4
I prefer an injurious truth to a useful error.
Truth heals any pain it may inflict on us.
Below are additional selected citations and comments.
Friedrich Wilhelm Riemer lived from 1803 to 1812 in Goethe’s house as a language tutor to the poet’s son August. Riemer and Goethe discussed this topic in 1806: 5
Goethe said he would like one day to devise a plot dealing with the problem of whether a useful error, a useful lie, is preferable to a harmful truth. I am to remind him of this, notwithstanding that he has already treated this subject in his Iphigenio. Whereas Orestes and Pylades try to gain their end by lies and deceit, Iphigenia seeks to achieve it in her own way, by telling the truth.
In 1905 French author André Gide recorded the compact saying in his private journals. Gide wrote the sayings in the original German and not in French. The journals were published by Alfred A. Knopf of New York by 1948, and the accompanying footnote presented an English translation together with a pointer to a collection of poems by Goethe: 6
Schädliche Warheit, ich ziehe sie vor dem nützlichen Irrthum. Warheit heilet den Schmerz, den sie vielleicht in uns erregt.  (For Barrès.)
[Footnote 14] Harmful truth, I prefer thee to useful error. Truth cures the pain that it may cause in us. (Goethe: Gedichte, vier Jahreszeiten: Herbst, 49. In the Weimar edition, Vol. I, p. 352.)
In 1937 Nobel-prize-winner Thomas Mann co-founded an anti-fascist periodical “Mass und Wert” (“Standards and Values” or “Measure and Value”) in Zurich, Switzerland. He penned an essay for the foreword of the first issue which included a passage he attributed to Goethe. The text consisted of a slightly rephrased version of the passage at the beginning of this article: 7
Goethe erklärte: „Ich ziehe die schädliche Wahrheit dem nützlichen Irrtum vor. Eine schädliche Wahrheit ist nützlich, weil sie nur Augenblicke schädlich sein kann und alsdann zu anderen Wahrheiten führt, die immer nützlicher und nützlicher werden müssen; und umgekehrt ist ein nützlicher Irrtum schädlich, weil er nützlich nur einen Augenblick sein kann und in andere Irrtümer verleitet, die immer schädlicher werden.“
The launch of “Mass und Wert” achieved wide press coverage, and an English translation of Mann’s essay was published simultaneously in “The Washington Post” 8 and “The New York Times” in August 1937: 9
Goethe declared: “I prefer destructive truth to constructive error. Harmful truth is useful because it can be harmful only temporarily, and then leads to additional truths that must become more and more useful; and inversely a useful error is harmful because it can only be useful momentarily and then leads to other errors that become progressively more harmful.”
That is not intellectualism nor exaggerated idealism, it is the appreciation of truth as the real salvation of life. The same great German also said: “Patriotism corrupts history”.
Mann’s essay appeared in other periodicals; for example, the London journal “Life And Letters To-Day” published a different translation: 10
Goethe declared: “I prefer the harmful truth to the useful error. A harmful truth is useful, because it can be harmful but for a moment and then leads to other truths which must be ever more and more useful; whereas a useful error is harmful, because it can be useful but for a moment and leads to other errors which are more and more harmful.”
That is no intellectualism ; nor is it outworn idealism. It is a sense for truth as a sense for the true good conduct of life. The same great German has also said: “ Patriotism corrupts history.”
By 1938 the Hungarian literary figure Arthur Koestler had become disenchanted with the communist party . He delivered an address to the German Émigré Writers’ Association in Paris which included three comments designed to aggravate party members. Interestingly, Koestler credited one memorable comment to Thomas Mann instead of Goethe. In 1949 Koestler wrote about his experiences for the influential essay collection “The God That Failed”: 11
The theme of the speech was the situation in Spain; it contained not a single word of criticism of the Party or of Russia. But it contained three phrases, deliberately chosen because to normal people they were platitudes, to Communists a declaration of war. The first was: “No movement, party or person can claim the privilege of infallibility.” The second was: “Appeasing the enemy is as foolish as persecuting the friend who pursues your own aim by a different road.” The third was a quotation from Thomas Mann: “A harmful truth is better than a useful lie.”
In 1959 ecologist Garrett Hardin within his book “Nature and Man’s Fate” attributed the saying to Thomas Mann: 12
To this one can only reply with Thomas Mann’s courageous words, A harmful truth is better than a useful lie. If social work cannot find a firmer foundation than a noble lie, then so much the worse for it.
In 1967 “The Great Quotations” compiled by George Seldes included the following; 13
A harmful truth is better than a useful lie.
[Thomas Mann: Quoted by Arthur Koestler.
In 1972 by G. R. Urban edited and published “Can We Survive Our Future?: A Symposium”. Urban’s introduction contained an instance credited to Goethe: 14
Our trust in the free pursuit of knowledge as an activity that is its own justification has been too unquestioning. We believed with Plato that ‘we shall be better, braver … men if we think it right to look for what we don’t know’; we believed with Bacon that ‘knowledge frees the human condition’; we believed with Goethe that ‘harmful truth is useful because it can be harmful only temporarily’. Today we are less sure. Enlightenment carried to excess may itself become an obscurantism.
In 1993 the “Macmillan Dictionary of Political Quotations” oddly credited the saying to a different person with the surname Mann: 15
A harmful truth is better than a useful lie.
Horace Mann (1796-1859), American educator, founder and 1st President, Antioch College, Yellow Springs, OH. Attributed.
In conclusion, this saying originated with the words of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in a letter dated 1787. Goethe formulated a compact statement in the late 1790s that appeared in “Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung” in 1801. Thomas Mann published a version of Goethe’s words with credit in the inaugural 1937 issue of “Mass und Wert”. In 1938 Arthur Koestler delivered a speech crediting Thomas Mann with an instance of the saying. Koestler’s description of the speech appeared in the 1949 book “The God That Failed”. The saying was reassigned to Horace Mann by 1993.
Image Notes: Painting of “Goethe in the Roman Campagna” by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein circa 1787. Image has been cropped and resized.
(Great thanks to Ko Ricker and Alexander whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Additional thanks to Graeme Rymill and Daphne Drewello of Project Wombat who back in 2013 responded to my mailing list request and identified Goethe’s 1787 letter. Special thanks to German quotation expert Gerald Krieghofer for his valuable research on this topic.)
- 1902, Title: Goethe-Briefe: Mit Einleitungen und Erläuterungen, (Goethe’s Letters: With Introductions and Explanations), Volume 3: Wiemar und Italien 1784-1792, Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Editor: Philipp Stein, (Letter dated June 8, 1787 from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe to Charlotte von Stein), Start Page: 163, Quote Page: 165, Publisher: von Otto Eisner, Berlin (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1963, Goethe’s World View: Presented in His Reflections and Maxims by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Edited with an Introduction by Frederick Ungar, Translated by Heinz Norden, (Untitled passage), Quote Page 72 and 73, Frederick Ungar Publishing Company, New York. (HathiTrust Full View) link ↩
- 1801 January, Allgemeine Literatur-Zeitung (General Literature Newspaper), Number 2, Schöne Künste (Fine Arts): (Review of Göthe’s neue Schriften: 1795-1800 (Göthe’s new writings)), Quote Number 50, Start Column 9, Quote Column 15, Jena, in der Expedition dieser Zeitung. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1986 (1964 Copyright), Goethe Selected Verse, Introduced and Edited by David Luke, Section: Vier Jahreszeiten (The Four Seasons), Quote Page 130, Penguin Classics: Penguin Books, New York. Verified with scans) ↩
- 1966, Conversations and Encounters by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Edited and Translated by David Luke and Robert Pick, Item Number: 63, Comment from: Riemer, Date: December 24, 1806, Quote Page 65 and 66, Oswald Wolff, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1948 (1947 Copyright), The Journals of André Gide, by André Gide, Volume 1: 1889 to 1913, Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien, Journal Date: June 1905 on Tuesday, Quote Page 140, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1937 September / Oktober, Periodical: Mass und Wert (Standards and Values), Volume 1, Editors: Thomas Mann and Konrad Falke, Section: Vorwort (Foreword), Author: Thomas Mann, Quote page 7, Publisher: Oprecht Verlag, Zürich. (Citation data and text from researcher Gerald Krieghofer and from Google snippets; QI has not verified this information with hardcopy) ↩
- 1937 August 15, The Washington Post, Thomas Mann Charts Course for New German Magazine by Thomas Mann from “Mass und Wert” (“Standards and Values”), Published Today in Zurich, Switzerland, Translated from German by Agnes E. Meyer, Section 3, Star Page B1, Quote Page B1, Column 4, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1937 August 15, The New York Times, Article: Mann Opens War on Nazi Concepts; Asks Recruits in Moral Struggle by Thomas Mann from “Mass und Wert” (“Standards and Values”), Published today in Zurich, Switzerland, Translated from German by Mrs. Eugene Meyer (Agnes E. Meyer), Section 2, Start Page 1, Quote Page 6, Column 3, New York, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1937 Winter, Life And Letters To-Day, Volume 17, Number 10, Measure and Value by Thomas Mann, Start Page 16, Quote Page 19 and 20, Brendin Publishing Company, London. (Internet Archive at archive.org) ↩
- 1963 (1949 Copyright), The God That Failed, Edited by Richard Crossman, Part 1: The Initiates, Essay by Arthur Koestler, Start Page 15, Quote Page 72 and 73, Harper Colophon Books: Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1961 (1959 Copyright), Nature and Man’s Fate by Garrett Hardin, Chapter 8: Genes and the Acceptance of Others, Quote Page 170, A Mentor Book: The New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1967, The Great Quotations, Compiled by George Seldes, Topic: Truth, Quote Page 927, Pocket Books. New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1972, Can We Survive Our Future?: A Symposium, Edited by G. R. Urban in collaboration with Michael Glenny, Note: This symposium consists of edited versions of interviews originally broadcast, in 1970-71, over Radio Free Europe, Introduction by G. R. Urban, Start Page 9, Quote Page 22, St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1993, Macmillan Dictionary of Political Quotations, Edited by Lewis D. Eigen and Jonathan P. Siegel, Chapter 30: Ethics and Conflict of Interest, Quote Page 189, Column 2, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩