Quote Origin: Nothing That Makes Us Happy Is an Illusion

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Jules Verne? Friedrich Nietzsche? Apocryphal?

“Portrait of the Young Goethe” by Angelica Kauffmann circa 1787

Question for Quote Investigator: A character in a novel by the prominent German poet and novelist Johann Wolfgang von Goethe presented a radical stance on happiness and illusion. Here are two versions:

(1) Nothing which makes us happy is an illusion?
(2) Can that be a delusion which makes us happy?

The pioneering French science fiction author Jules Verne said something similar. Would you please help me to find precise citations?

Reply from Quote Investigator: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published the epistolary novel “Die Leiden des jungen Werthers” (“The Sorrows of Young Werther”) in 1774. The main character Werther fell in love with Charlotte, but she was already committed to a relationship with Albert; hence, Werther’s connection to Charlotte was required to remain platonic.

During one episode in the novel, Werther sent a servant to speak with Charlotte. Goethe signaled Werther’s infatuation with Charlotte by describing his reaction to the servant upon his return. Werther felt joy by simply seeing the servant because he knew that Charlotte had also gazed upon the servant. Werther mentioned this unusual reaction to a friend named Wilhelm:1

Es war mir so wohl in seiner Gegenwart — Bewahre dich Gott, daß du darüber nicht lachst Wilhelm, sind das Phantomen, wenn es uns wohl wird?

Here is one possible translation into English:

I felt so happy in his presence, God forbid that you should laugh at this Wilhelm, are these things phantasms if they make us feel good?

The following translation appeared in 1784:2

… I was so happy to see him! Beware of laughing at me, my good friend: nothing which makes us happy is an illusion.

In 1868 another translation appeared:3

His presence made me so happy! Beware of laughing at me, Wilhelm. Can that be a delusion which makes us happy?

Below are additional selected citations.

In 1868 Jules Verne published “Les enfants du Capitaine Grant”, and Verne employed the quotation, but he credited Goethe:4

Il était heureux, et, comme l’a dit Goethe: « Rien de ce qui nous rend heureux n’est illusion. »

Verne’s novel was published in English under the title “In Search of the Castaways or The Children of Captain Grant”.  The line above was rendered as follows:5

He was happy and as Goethe says, “Nothing that makes us happy is an illusion.”

A dramatically different viewpoint about illusions was expressed by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche when he penned an entry in a notebook in 1888. The contents of the notebook were later published under the title “Der Wille zur Macht” (“The Will To Power”):6

Die Irrthümer sind Das, was die Menschheit am kostspieligsten zu bezahlen hat: und in’s Grosse gerechnet sind es die Irrthümer des „guten Willens”, die sie am tiefsten geschädigt haben. Der Wahn, der glücklich macht, ist verderblicher als der, welcher direkt schlimme Folgen hat: letzterer schärft, macht misstrauisch, reinigt die Vernunft, — ersterer schläfert sie ein …

Scholar Walter Kaufmann created the following translation:7

Errors are what mankind has had to pay for most dearly: and, on the whole, it is the errors of “good will” which have harmed it most profoundly. The illusion that makes happy is more pernicious than that which has immediate bad consequences: the latter sharpens and purifies reason and makes it more mistrustful — the former lulls it to sleep.—

In 2012 the 18th edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations” included an entry for the quotation:8

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749–1832
Nothing that makes us happy is an illusion.
The Sorrows of Young Werther [1774].
Book I, July 18 letter

In conclusion, in 1774 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe wrote a passage in “Die Leiden des jungen Werthers” (“The Sorrows of Young Werther”) that has been translated into English in several different ways. One translation in 1784 contained the statement: “nothing which makes us happy is an illusion”. In 1868 Jules Verne used the French version of the quotation, « Rien de ce qui nous rend heureux n’est illusion », while crediting Goethe.

Image Notes: “Portrait of the Young Goethe” by Angelica Kauffmann circa 1787. Public domain image accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Acknowledgement: Great thanks to Iustinian Oanta Lazar whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Lazar found the quotation in French in Verne’s “Les enfants du Capitaine Grant”, and Lazar found the corresponding quotation in English in “In Search of Castaways”. Lazar wanted to know whether the statement was really present in the works of Goethe.

  1. 1775, Die Leiden des jungen Werthers (The Sorrows of Young Werther) by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Erster Theil (First part), Quote Page 61, Strasburg und Hanau. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  2. 1784, The Sorrows of Werther: A German Story, Author: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, A New Edition, Volume 1, Letter 21, Date: July 18, Start Page 99, Quote Page 101, Printed for J. Dodsley, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  3. 1868, Novels and Tales by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Section: The Sorrows of Young Werther, Letter Date: July 18th, Quote Page 277, Bell & Daldy, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  4. 1868, Voyages extraordinaires: Les enfants du Capitaine Grant: Voyage autour du monde (Extraordinary Voyages: Captain Grant’s children: Trip around the world) by Jules Verne, Chapter 21: Le Fort Indépendance, Quote Page 166, Bibliothèque d’éducation et de récréation, J. Hetzel et Cie, Paris, France. (Publication year based on metadata; year is not visible in scans) (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  5. 1911 Copyright, Works of Jules Verne, Edited by Charles F. Horne, Volume 4, In Search of the Castaways or The Children of Captain Grant,  Section: South America, Chapter 21: A False Trail, Quote Page 123, Vincent Parke and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link ↩︎
  6. 1926 Copyright, Gesammelte Werke: Der Wille zur Macht (The Will To Power), by Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, Achtzehnter Band (Eighteenth Volume), Chapter 3: Wahrheit und Irrthum der Philosophen (Truth and Error of Philosophers), Section: 453. Quote Page 322, Musarion Verlag München. (Internet Archive at archive.org) link ↩︎
  7. 1968 (1967 Copyright), The Will to Power by Friedrich Nietzsche, Translation by Walter Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale, Book Two: Critique of the Highest Values Hitherto, Part 3: Critique of Philosophy, Chapter 3: Truth and Error of Philosophers, Section: 453 (Jan.-Fall 1888), Quote Page 249, Vintage Books, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  8. 2012, Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Eighteenth Edition, Original Editor John Bartlett, General Editor Geoffrey O’Brien, Section: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe 1749–1832, Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified with Kindle edition) ↩︎