Goethe’s lessons for life

According to the Myers-Briggs personality test, Goethe was an INFJ, the same type as me. I recommend this personality test. You’ll learn many things about yourself. You can take this test online for free from many sites, including the one linked above.

Goethe liked to travel, and he traveled a lot for his time. This would be his first life lesson. Once, I realized that I have visited over twenty towns and cities in Germany, Italy, and Switzerland, where Goethe walked over 200 years before me. I do agree that the places you’ve seen do not influence you as much as the people you interact with during a lifetime or the books you read. But still, they have a small impact on you.

For these “elective affinities” I resonate with Goethe’s vision on life and the world. When I was in high school, I liked some of his quotes. “Chess is the touchstone of intellect“. Being a chess player, I shared that opinion. “One look into the book and two into life“. The ideal proportion of reading and living. My favorite quote at that age was “Life is the childhood of our immortality“.

Years have passed and I see things differently now. I do no longer rate these sayings as high as I did then.

Later, when I was a student, I read “The Sorrows of Young Werther” and “Faust“. That was all I have ever read from Goethe. But I’ve also found out many interesting things about his life. Probably I liked those books as they were inspired by real-life happenings.

In “The Sorrows of Young Werther“, Goethe writes about a sad love story ending with the suicide of Werther. In fact, the novel recounts a biographic love of the author for Charlotte Buff (Lotte) while he worked as a lawyer in Wetzlar. Goethe redirects his sufferance for the lost love in writing about it. Instead of killing himself, he writes about the suicide of Werther. Psychologically this is explained by the fact that by focusing his energy on writing, Goethe was able to pass over this painful episode. This way he offered us another life lesson. In 1939 Thomas Mann wrote “Lotte in Weimar” on the ending of this famous story.

“Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!” – Goethe, Faust

Faust” was Goethe’s most important creation and he worked on it for many years. It is also inspired by a sad story from Goethe’s biography. I don’t want to discuss it here. I knew about Faust’s story from a movie I saw in my childhood. He sold his soul to the devil and the devil made him look younger. The devil gave him anything he wanted. Only to make him say that life is so beautiful and wish that moment stay forever. If he will say “Verweile doch! Du bist so schön!” that moment he will die. This is the most famous line in German literature.

Perhaps, one life lesson behind this story is that anything is possible in life, even getting younger if you are willing to pay a price.

The first time I’ve heard about Faust’s story was during my childhood. I was impressed by the movie “La beaute du diable” with Gerard Philipe and Michel Simon. Faust signing the pact with the devil.

Over twenty years passed by and now I appreciate more some other words of wisdom from him.

If you don’t feel it, you’ll never get it” – Goethe

It did happen to me to hear people talking about their lives, their problems, and the losses they suffered. It was a lot easy for me to understand those who talked about issues I was confronted with and felt the pain myself. Even if someone was talking about greater pains, for me it was easier to understand the pains I experienced before.

Too many parents make life hard for their children by trying, too zealously, to make it easy for them.” – Goethe

Such a modern saying, we all know cases like this where having the best intentions the parents harm the lives of their children by “helping” them.

Actually, Goethe had many quotes that would categorize him as having a modern growth mindset.

I love those who yearn for the impossible.” – Goethe

We live only once, so why not try to get out of the beaten path? This is a recommendation for people at any age to move out of their comfort zone. For trying to achieve what they feel would give meaning to their life. Even if we won’t succeed at least we’ve tried and did whatever we could.

Dear reader, hopefully, by going over these lines, you’ve found something to think about.

Egmont was a play by Goethe. Beethoven composed the music for this play. Celibidache conducted it in a destroyed post-war Berlin in 1950.


“One thinks Heidelberg by day—with its surroundings—is the last possibility of the beautiful; but when he sees Heidelberg by night, a fallen Milky Way, with that glittering railway constellation pinned to the border, he requires time to consider upon the verdict.” – Mark Twain

I liked very much Heidelberg, one of the most beautiful towns I’ve seen according to my standards. For my visit I took Mark Twain as my guide, all his quotes are from the book “A tramp abroad” published in 1880.

It was a great day of April when I took a morning train from Karlsruhe to Heidelberg. My journey began with a visit to the Heidelberg castle, now in ruins, the ideal romantic place.

“Out of a billowy upheaval of vivid green foliage, a rifle-shot removed, rises the huge ruin of Heidelberg Castle, with empty window arches, ivy-mailed battlements, moldering towers—the Lear of inanimate nature—deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful.” -Mark Twain

In the castle there is the largest wine cask in the world, the Heidelberg Tun built in 1751 from the trunks of 130 oak trees and has a capacity of 219000 liters. It is 8.5 meters deep by 7 meters high. The balustraded platform on top was built as a dance floor. But my guide was not impressed…

Heidelberg Tun

“Everybody has heard of the great Heidelberg Tun, and most people have seen it, no doubt. It is a wine-cask as big as a cottage, and some traditions say it holds eighteen hundred thousand bottles, and other traditions say it holds eighteen hundred million barrels. I think it likely that one of these statements is a mistake, and the other is a lie. However, the mere matter of capacity is a thing of no sort of consequence, since the cask is empty, and indeed has always been empty, history says. An empty cask the size of a cathedral could excite but little emotion in me. I do not see any wisdom in building a monster cask to hoard up emptiness in, when you can get a better quality, outside, any day, free of expense.” – Mark Twain

I continued my tour in the castle gardens, very appreciated at his time by Goethe who loved to walk here. The gardens looked indeed very nice in the spring.

I took the funicular on the way down to visit the town. Among touristic objectives, the protestant church had interesting stained glass windows. Quite different from all the churches I’ve seen before. On one of them, it was written E=mc2 and 6.8.1945 the day when a nuclear bomb was dropped over Hiroshima. There was something written in German, but I don’t understand the language.

Protestant church – Heidelberg

Maybe it’s about the dangers that science can bring to the world. I find appropriate a quote from the author of the famous equation, Albert Einstein: “Peace cannot be kept by force; it can only be achieved by understanding.”

My next stop was at University Museum. Heidelberg University was founded in 1386 and it is the oldest in Germany. In its long history, the University had famous professors and students. Hegel, Jaspers, Bunsen, Helmholtz, and Kirchhoff were some notable professors from the past. The University is ranked 13 in the world on the number of Nobel prizes won by its scholars. The future looks bright for the students in Heidelberg as their institution is currently ranked 54 in the top of the best universities in the world. However, in the museum, I also saw a picture of Goebbels having a speech at the University. He also held a Ph.D. from Heidelberg University. I think that one should never forget the dark side of history and understand what was wrong then. The university campus located over Neckar looks very modern. It has a Botanical garden and many modern buildings. It reminded me of the MIT campus only that Heidelberg has more space and looks better.

Maybe the secret of such great research successes lies in the fact that there was a University jail. I’m joking. My guide from the past saw it when it was operational and not a museum as it is today, but his description is accurate for the present as well.

“The ceiling was completely covered with names, dates, and monograms, done with candle-smoke. The walls were thickly covered with pictures and portraits (in profile), some done with ink, some with soot, some with a pencil, and some with red, blue, and green chalks; and whenever an inch or two of space had remained between the pictures, the captives had written plaintive verses, or names and dates. I do not think I was ever in a more elaborately frescoed apartment.” – Mark Twain

One of the cells in the students jail
Angel in students jail in Heidelberg

It was time to pass on the other side of the Neckar river and walk on the famous path Philosopher’s Way. One should prepare for an abrupt 200 meters climb in order to reach the path.

Philosopher’s way can be seen from a distance on the hill over Neckar river

The path is in a middle of nature and professors and philosophers used to walk and discuss ideas. There are gardens with flowers and many trees. From the Philosopher’s Way there are nice views of the town.

From the Philosophers Way, I continued my visit next to the physics institute then all the way in the part of town that is over the Neckar river until I reached the University campus. This is where my trip ended. I took a train back to Karlsruhe as that night it was the opening of the chess tournament.

For Romanian history, Heidelberg is the place where Alexandru Ioan Cuza died in 1873. He was the first Domnitor ( Ruler) of Romania from 1859 to 1866 when he was forced to abdicate and leave the country. He came in Heidelberg with his two sons to enlist them at the University but died a few days after his arrival at Hotel Europa.

Over the years many poets and writers were inspired by Heidelberg. There is a play called “Old Heidelberg” written by Wilhelm Meyer-Förster in 1901. A prince, Karl Heinrich, is sent to study at Heidelberg University. He falls in love with the innkeeper’s daughter, Käthie, but his father dies and he is called back home to rule his province. He returns to Heidelberg two years later to discover that most of the people he knew left and Käthie moved on with her life. Karl Heinrich left and decided never to return to Heidelberg.

It was a very successful play with at least five movies based upon this drama. The most notable is “The Student Prince” from 1954. The scene below is from that movie.

One can only imagine the success this song had in United States during prohibition…

Unlike Karl Heinrich I would gladly return to Heidelberg and maybe I will. I would love to see the “fallen Milky Way” that Twain wrote about.