I Prefer an Injurious Truth To a Useful Error. Truth Heals Any Pain It May Inflict On Us

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.

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Notes:

  1. 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
  2. 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
  3. 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
  4. 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)