Tag Archives: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The Eye Sees Only What the Mind Is Prepared To Comprehend

Henri Bergson? Robertson Davies? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Thomas Carlyle? Anais Nin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: One might see a duck when looking at the famous ambiguous image above, or one might see a rabbit. Perceiving one animal partially blocks the recognition of the other animal, and mental effort is required to switch one’s viewpoint. The influential French philosopher Henri Bergson and the Canadian novelist Robertson Davies have both been credited with a germane remark:

The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.

Would you please explore the provenance of this statement?

Quote Investigator: QI has not yet found any substantive evidence linking the quotation to Henri Bergson who died in 1941.

An exact match occurred in the 1951 novel “Tempest-Tost” by Robertson Davies. One of the primary characters in the book observed two young lovers. Emphasis added to excerpts: 1

At some distance from the path, under the trees, was a bench, and upon it were a boy and girl in a close embrace. Ordinarily Hector would not have noticed them, for the eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend. He saw them now; Hector the actor, rather than Hector the teacher of mathematics took note of what they were doing.

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  1. 1980 (Copyright 1951), Tempest-Tost by Robertson Davies, Chapter 3, Quote Page 116, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England. (Verified with scans)

One Sees What One Carries In One’s Own Heart

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Anais Nin? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: During a Rorschach test a patient is shown a series of ambiguous inkblots and his or her reactions and interpretations are recorded. This assessment reminds me of an adage. Here are two versions:

  • You see in the world what you carry in your heart.
  • They will see what they carry in their own heart.

Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: There is a strong match in the work “Faust” by the major German literary figure Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The dramatic poem begins with a prelude scene featuring a director, a poet, and a comedian. The following excerpt is an English prose translation of German verses spoken by the comedian. Emphasis added by QI: 1

Then assembles youth’s fairest flower to see your play, and listens to the revelation. Then every gentle mind sucks melancholy nourishment for itself from out your work; then one while this, and one while that, is stirred up; each one sees what he carries in his heart.

“Faust Part One” was published in 1808. The translation above from A. Hayward appeared in 1851.

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  1. 1851, Faust: A Dramatic Poem by Goethe (Johann Wolfgang von Goethe), Translation by A. Hayward, Third Edition, Prologue for the Theatre, Speaker: Merryman, Quote Page 33, Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link

Never Attribute to Malice That Which Is Adequately Explained by Stupidity

Robert Heinlein? Napoleon Bonaparte? Ayn Rand? David Hume? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Robert J. Hanlon? Arthur Cushman McGiffert? William James Laidlay? Ernst Haeckel? Thomas F. Woodlock? Nick Diamos?

Dear Quote Investigator: It is easy to impute hostility to the actions of others when a situation is actually unclear. A popular insightful adage attempts to constrain this type of bitter speculation. Here are two versions:

  1. Never ascribe to malice, that which can be explained by stupidity
  2. Don’t ascribe to malice what can be plainly explained by incompetence.

This notion has been attributed to military leader Napoleon Bonaparte, to science fiction author Robert Heinlein, and to others. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive support for ascribing the statement to Napoleon Bonaparte. Robert Heinlein did include a thematically similar remark in a 1941 short story.

The earliest close match known to QI appeared in the 1980 compilation “Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong” edited by Arthur Bloch. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

The description “Hanlon’s Razor” was used because the creator was a computer programmer named Robert J. Hanlon. The phrase “Hanlon’s Razor” was analogous to the phrase “Occam’s Razor”. Both referred to heuristics designed to prune sets of hypotheses by favoring simplicity. More details about Hanlon are presented further below based on the research conducted by quotation expert Mardy Grothe appearing in the 2011 book “Neverisms”.

Many people have expressed similar thoughts over the years and additional selected citations in chronological order are shown below. Continue reading


  1. 1980, Murphy’s Law Book Two: More Reasons Why Things Go Wrong, Compiled and Edited by Arthur Bloch, Quote Page 52, Price/Stern/Sloan Publishers Inc., Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans)

What You Get By Reaching Your Goals Is Not Nearly So Important As What You Become By Reaching Them

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Henry David Thoreau? Zig Ziglar?

achieve08Dear Quote Investigator: Many self-help and inspirational books contain this guidance:

What you get by achieving your goals is not as important as what you become by achieving your goals.

These words have been ascribed to three disparate individuals: German literary titan Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, famed transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, and popular motivational speaker Zig Ziglar. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Goethe or Thoreau employed this expression.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in the curiously titled 1974 book “Biscuits, Fleas, and Pump Handles” by Zig Ziglar. One section of the work discussed the necessity of formulating and striving for goals. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I want to emphasize that what you get by reaching your goals is not nearly so important as what you become by reaching them. What about you? Are you sold on the necessity of having goals?

The phrasing above differed from the common modern instance, e.g., the word “reaching” appeared instead of “achieving”. Nevertheless, the statement provided a strong semantic match.

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  1. 1974, Biscuits, Fleas, and Pump Handles by Zig Ziglar, Segment 4: Goals, Chapter 4: Reaching Your Goals, Quote Page 171, Published by Update Division of Crescendo Publications, Dallas, Texas. (Verified with scans)

Nine Requisites for Contented Living

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? William D. Smith? Anonymous?

health11Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe has been credited with the following group of expressions called: The Nine Requisites for Contented Living:

(1) Health enough to make work a pleasure.
(2) Wealth enough to support your needs.
(3) Strength to battle with difficulties and overcome them.
(4) Grace enough to confess your sins and forsake them.
(5) Patience enough to toil until some good is accomplished.
(6) Charity enough to see some good in your neighbor.
(7) Love enough to move you to be useful and helpful to others.
(8) Faith enough to make real the things of God.
(9) Hope enough to remove all anxious fears concerning the future.

I have been unable to find a solid citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: QI has not found any substantive ascriptions to Goethe who died in 1832. The spurious connection may have been established by the misreading of an ambiguous passage published in 1914. Details are given further below.

The earliest strong match located by QI appeared in an article titled “A New Year’s Greeting” by Reverend William D. Smith that was printed in a religious periodical called “The Christian Work and Evangelist” in January 1904. In the following passage alphabetical labels and boldface have been added to facilitate the comparison of the two sets of expressions. In addition, the text has been reformatted into multiple separate lines instead of three paragraphs. If you wish to see the original 1904 format please click on the link in the bibliographical note: 1

(A) I wish you Health enough to make work a pleasure;
(B) Wealth enough to supply all necessary needs;
(C) Grit enough to battle with difficulty and overcome it;
(D) Grace enough to confess your sins and forsake them;
(E) and Patience enough to toil until some good is accomplished.

(F) I wish you a Cheerfulness that shall make others glad;
(G) a Charity that shall see some good in your neighbor;
(H) a Love that shall move you to be useful and helpful;
(I) a Faith that shall make real the things of God;
(J) and a Hope that shall remove all anxious fear concerning the Future.

(K) I wish you the Dignity which befits the children of God;
(L) the Humility which is needed in every follower of Christ;
(M) the Prayerfulness which develops and enriches the soul;
(N) the Push and Progress which were manifested in the life and labors of our Saviour;
(O) and the Piety and Perseverance which come from the abiding presence and influence of the Divine Spirit.

In the text above there were fifteen elements instead of nine, but a close correspondence can be established between the two sets. 1 and A both discussed Health; 2 and B discussed Wealth; 3 and C matched, but they employed two different terms: Strength and Grit; 4 and D discussed Grace; 5 and E discussed Patience; there was no match for F which discussed Cheerfulness; 6 and G discussed Charity; 7 and H discussed Love; 8 and I discussed Faith; 9 and J discussed Hope; there were no matches for the remaining items K, L, M, N, and O.

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  1. 1904 January 9, The Christian Work and Evangelist, Volume 76, A New Year’s Greeting by Rev. William D. Smith, Quote Page 41, Christian Work and the Evangelist, Bible House, New York. (Google Books Full View) link

What You Can Do, or Dream You Can, Begin It; Boldness Has Genius, Power, and Magic in It

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? John Anster? William Hutchison Murray? Apocryphal?

goethe08Dear Quote Investigator: There is a wonderful quotation about the pivotal step of making a commitment to an enterprise:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.

These two lines are often attributed to the great German playwright and thinker Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. There are different versions of the quotation and some contain the following:

Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. . .

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1835 an Irish poet named John Anster published a translation of Part One of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s tragic masterwork “Faust”. Anster’s interpretation was free and poetical; thus, some pieces did not directly align with the German text written by Goethe. The passage below was from a section titled “Prelude at the Theatre” (Vorspiel auf dem Theater) and was spoken by a character called “Manager” (Direktor). Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Strong drink is what we want to gull the people,
A hearty, brisk, and animating tipple;
Come, come, no more delay, no more excuses,
The stuff we ask you for, at once produce us.
Lose this day loitering—’twill be the same story
To-morrow–and the next more dilatory;
Then indecision brings its own delays,
And days are lost lamenting o’er lost days.
Are you in earnest? seize this very minute–
What you can do, or dream you can, begin it,
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it,
Only engage, and then the mind grows heated—
Begin it, and the work will be completed!

Anster wrote the phrase “What you can do” and not “Whatever you can do” which has become common in modern times. QI believes that the lines above should be credited to Anster with an inspiration from the words of Goethe.

The passage containing the word “hesitancy” that was also mentioned by the questioner was from neither Goethe nor Anster. An explanation is given together with the 1951 citation presented further below.

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  1. 1835, Faustus, A Dramatic Mystery; The Bride of Corinth; The First Walpurgis Night, Translated from the German of Goethe, and Illustrated with Notes by John Anster, Section: Prelude at the Theatre, (Spoken by Manager), Quote Page 15, Printed for Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman, London. (Google Books Full View) link

Shake Was a Dramatist of Note; He Lived by Writing Things to Quote

Shake? William Shakespeare? Mulleary? Go-ethe? Henry Cuyler Bunner? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: While studying English in school I heard the following humorous rhyme about The Bard of Avon:

Shakespeare was a dramatist of note who lived by writing things to quote.

These words are from a longer poem, but I have not been able to locate it. Could you trace this phrase?

Quote Investigator: The full poem was titled “Shake, Mulleary and Go-ethe” and the subject was three famous literary figures: William Shakespeare, Molière (stage name of Jean-Baptiste Poquelin), and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. It was published in the humor magazine Puck in 1880, and the author was listed as “V. Hugo Dusenbury”. But that name was a pseudonym for Henry Cuyler Bunner who was the long-time editor of Puck.

Below is the second stanza of the poem containing the lines about Shakespeare who was referred to as “Shake”. The author of the poem discussed busts of Shakespeare, Molière, and Goethe on top of a bookcase. The illustration that accompanied the piece is shown at the beginning of this article: 1

Shake was a dramatist of note;
He lived by writing things to quote.
He long ago put on his shroud:
Some of his works are rather loud.
His bald-spot’s dusty, I suppose.
I know there’s dust upon his nose.
I’ll have to give each nose a sheath–
Shake, Mulleary and Go-ethe.

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  1. 1880 January 28, Puck, Volume 6, Number 151, Shake, Mulleary and Go-ethe by V. Hugo Dusenbury [Pseudonym of Henry Cuyler Bunner], Page 762, Keppler & Schwarzmann, New York. (Google Books full view) link

You Can Easily Judge the Character of a Man by How He Treats Those Who Can Do Nothing for Him

Ann Landers? Abigail Van Buren? Johann Wolfgang von Goethe? Samuel Johnson? Malcolm Forbes? Paul Eldridge? Charles Haddon Spurgeon? James D. Miles? Dan Reeves?

Dear Quote Investigator: I am attempting to verify the following quotation because it will appear in a forthcoming book, but I have discovered multiple attributions:

You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.

As I searched further I found a similar quotation with additional attributions:

The true measure of an individual is how he treats a person who can do him absolutely no good.

Can you help determine the origin of this saying?

Quote InvestigatorQI agrees that these two expressions and several others can be grouped together because they are semantically closely aligned. Interestingly, members of this set have been employed by (or attributed to) a wide variety of individuals including: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Samuel Johnson, Ann Landers, Abigail Van Buren, Malcolm Forbes, Paul Eldridge, James D. Miles, and Dan Reeves.

The earliest close match for this saying that QI has located appeared in the popular newspaper column of Earl Wilson. He credited the well-known magazine publisher Malcolm Forbes in 1972 [EWMF]:

Remembered Quote: “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.”—Malcolm S. Forbes.

In 1978 Forbes published a collection of his own quotations called “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” [SCMF]. This title was constructed as wordplay on the well-known doctrinal work “The Sayings of Chairman Mao” also called “Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung” or “The Little Red Book”.

A close variant of the saying under investigation was presented in the book and featured prominently in multiple advertisements that appeared in the New Yorker magazine for the collection in 1979 [SCMF] [NYMF]:

“You can easily judge the character of others by how they treat those who can do nothing for them or to them.”

—from The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm

Today a visitor to the Forbes magazine website can search a quotation database maintained by the publisher called “Thoughts on the Business of Life” that contains more than 10,000 entries. The version of the adage in “The Sayings of Chairman Malcolm” is available in the database [TBMF].

The famous advice giving sisters Abigail Van Buren and Ann Landers used versions of this saying in the 1970s. But QI has not yet located any evidence of use before 1974 for either woman. The attachment of the quotation to the notable figures Samuel Johnson and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe appears to be unsupported by current evidence.

QI has also examined a related saying: If you want to know what a man’s like, look at how he treats his inferiors. Click here to read the other article.

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