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Goethe’s Aphorisms


“Aphorisms are rogue ideas,” Susan Sontag wrote in her notebooks. She continues: “Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details.”

Aphorisms are not like reading a novel, argues Nassim Taleb: “reading a 200 page novel is less taxing than 20 short stories of 10 pages each. Extend to aphorisms: one should read a small number of them per sitting.”

If we are to avoid the sound-byte culture and the illusion of knowledge, we must move slowly. The aphorism requires us to think. We must chew on, deconstruct, and translate the author’s thoughts into our own.

In devouring Goethe’s Poems and Aphorisms one cannot help but feel that while few of us have the time to properly digest these nuggets of gold, we must make time.

It took me a week to go through all of Goethe’s aphorisms and I’d like to point out eight for you to digest if you will.

Tell me with whom you spend associate and I will tell you who you are. If I know with what you busy yourself, I know what you amount to.

Men who think deeply and seriously have a hard time with the public at large.

I keep silent with regard to many things, for I do not like to perplex people, and I am quite content when they are pleased with things that vex me.

Whoever demands too much and takes joy in complexity is likely to fall prey to error.

To know is not enough, one has to apply knowledge; it is not enough to will, one has to act.

If I err everybody can notice it. This is not the case if I lie.

If many a man did not feel himself in duty bound to repeat what is untrue merely because he once said it we should have had men of different calibre.

Art is the true interpreter. To speak about art is to attempt to interpret the interpreter and yet from that there has resulted to us much that is precious and beautiful.

Goethe’s Poems and Aphorisms is full of timeless wisdom and worth reading.