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(merely tangential, but accurate)

(from http://german.about.com/library/blgermyth12.htm)

Is it by Goethe or not?

Der Worte sind genug gewechselt,
lasst mich auch endlich Taten sehn!
Enough words have been exchanged;
now at last let me see some deeds! (Goethe, Faust I)

Goethes Gartenhaus in Weimar

The Faust lines above are definitely by Goethe. But are these?

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

Sometimes the phrase “Begin it!” is also added at the end, and there is a longer version that we'll discuss below. But do these lines actually originate with Goethe, as often claimed?

As you probably know, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe is Germany's “Shakespeare.” Goethe is quoted in German as much or more than Shakespeare is in English. (Shakespeare is also popular in German. See my article about Shakespeare in German.) So it comes as no surprise that I often get questions about quotations attributed to Goethe. But this Goethe quote about “boldness” and seizing the moment seems to get more attention than others.

If Goethe said or wrote those words, they would be originally in German. Can we find the German source? Any good source of quotations—in any language—will attribute a quote to not only its author, but also the work it appears in. This leads to the main problem with this particular “Goethe” quotation.

It pops up all over the Web. There's hardly a quotation site out there that doesn't include these lines and attribute them to Goethe. But one of my big complaints about most quotation sites is a lack of any attributed work for a given quotation. Any quotation source worth its salt provides more than just the name of the author—and some really lame ones don't even do that. If you look at a quotation book such as Bartlett's, you'll notice that the editors go to great lengths to provide the source work of the quotations listed. Not so on many Web Zitatseiten.

Far too many online quotation sites (German or English) have been slapped together and seem to “borrow” quotes from each other, without much concern as to accuracy. And they share yet another failing with even reputable quotation books when it comes to non-English quotations. They list only an English translation of the quote and fail to include the original-language version. One of the few quotation dictionaries that does this right is The Oxford Dictionary of Modern Quotations by Tony Augarde (Oxford University Press). The Oxford book, for example, includes this quotation from Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951): “Die Welt des Glücklichen ist eine andere als die des Unglücklichen.” Under it is the English translation: “The world of the happy is quite different from that of the unhappy.” Beneath these lines is not only the work from which they come, but even the page: Tractatus-Philosophicus (1922), p. 184. — Which is how it's supposed to be done. Quotation, author, work cited.

So let us now consider the aforementioned, alleged Goethe quotation. In its entirety, it usually goes something like this:

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”

Okay, if Goethe said it, what is the source work? Without locating the source, we can't claim these lines are by Goethe—or any other author.

The Goethe Society of North America investigated this very subject over a two-year period ending in March 1998. The Society got help from various sources to solve the mystery of the Goethe quotation. Here's what they and others have discovered:

The “Until one is committed...” quotation often attributed to Goethe is in fact by William Hutchinson Murray (1913-1996), from his 1951 book entitled The Scottish Himalayan Expedition. The actual final lines from W.H. Murray's book end this way (emphasis added): “...which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe's couplets:
Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

So now we know that it was the Scottish mountaineer W.H. Murray, not J.W. von Goethe, who wrote most of the quotation, but what about the “Goethe couplet” at the end? Well, it's not really by Goethe either. It's not clear precisely where the two lines come from, but they are only a very loose paraphrase of some words that Goethe did write in his Faust drama. In the Vorspiel auf dem Theater part of Faust you'll find these words, “Now at last let me see some deeds!”—which we quoted at the top of this page. You can read that full passage and other works by Goethe on our Goethe-Gedichte page.

It seems that Murray may have borrowed the supposed Goethe lines from a source that had similar words labeled as a “very free translation” from Faust by a John Anster. In fact, the lines quoted by Murray are just too far from anything Goethe wrote to be called a translation, although they do express a similar idea. Even if some online quotation references correctly cite W.H. Murray as the author of the full quotation, they usually fail to call into question the two verses at the end. But they are not by Goethe.

Bottom line? Can any of the “commitment” quote be attributed to Goethe? No.
Murray's book (J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd, London, 1951) details the first Scottish expedition in 1950 to the Kumaon range in the Himalayas, between Tibet and western Nepal. The expedition, led by Murray, attempted nine mountains and climbed five, in over 450 miles of mountainous travel. The book is out of print and can cost over $100 from used book sellers.


>You realize that for your project to be truly successful, you are going to have to make an increased commitment in time and/or money.<

I suppose it's not only a commitment in time and money what's needed. I'm more than ready to give that. A bigger hurdle for me is to commit to the one particular idea, in a way I can say: "I do this and nothing else".

When you have a lot of ideas, commiting to one means abandoning the others (at least for some time).

Also I guess, the more concrete the idea the better the result. But how many details are necessary? For example, when I say: "I'm commiting myself to start a business" is probably not enough. How about: "I want to create games and make people play together". Probably still not detailed enough.

Fred if you feel like it, I'd love to hear more of your thoughts about the stage between fiddling with initial curiosity and commiting to a concrete idea. What quality should an idea have that I can commit to it?


This "do what you love and money will follow" stuff works only for a few people.

The problem is: things most people would love to do - like becoming a movie actor, writing a novel, being an inventor etc. -, are the hardest to make a living with because there're thousands of other people who like to do the same but only a few are needed.

I know some of those people and most them live almost in poverty.


You need to read my post from September 22, 2005 entitled Finding Your Calling.

Frequently it is not enough to follow some general passion like "acting" or "writing" and find success. You need to hone in to find a place where more than one passion intersect. Those places tend to be more fertile.

By the way, passions and fantasies are not necessary the same thing. Even though Pete Rose is highly discredited for his gambling and dubious morality, he did excel on the baseball field. He said something that described his passion for the game that is food for thought when considering our own pursuits. He said he would go through Hell in a gasoline suit to play baseball. If you ever saw him play, you saw a player with unparalleled passion, intensity, tenacitiy and exurberance. You just know he would have played the game even if there were never any money involved.


Pete Rose passion is something to get inspired by, no doubt. The thing is: I never met someone who has this kind of passion about what he does.

Instead, the sad truth is: 99,9% of all human beings will never reach that kind of state. Only greed for money, sex, drugs or some extreme spiritual practices will lead to something comparable. However, these are just escapes from reality and almost never result in a fullfilled and successful life, quite the opposite.

Why is that so? I don't know. It could be because
* the idea that every human being is born with a passion about one thing that makes him/her special is nothing but a myth
* most people never really try to find out what their passion is
* cirumstances/environments like living in poverty, the need to feed kids and families prevents finding or even asking for passion
* people don't know how to find their passion
* they're just not lucky enough

The equation: "commitment + passion + find a fruitful intersection = success" may be true. However, there're so many unknown elements in it, that it's almost impossible to apply to everyone in the world.

On the other hand, we all need some kind of hope or we would go berserk, so I continue trying (and feeding this tremendous self-help/motivation industry) :)


Dear Josh,
Everyone is unique. Everyone has gifts. And everyone has baggage. The key is to identify and then exploit those gifts and to navigate as creatively as possible while carrying the baggage.

I know that each and every person is cosmic and divine and immensely powerful and creative and intelligent. I know each has an unlimited capacity to love and do great things.

Regrettably most people abdicate their wonderful uniqueness to spend half their lives in cubicles performing meaningless tasks that perpetuate businesses whose activities have absolutely no redeeming value.

I am just trying to point out that there is a way out of that mess and it is easy, and fun, and deeply satisfying.

Peter Gibbons

That's a great quote from Pete Rose, there is no doubt in my mind that he meant it when he said it, too.

Unfortunately, Pete Rose never seemed like a particularly happy person. It seems that his passion for baseball may have overwhelmed him to the point that it detracted from his life.

Have you seen people whose healthy passions have turned into unhealthy obsessions? Any thoughts on recognizing the difference?


Dear Fred,

> I know that each and every person is
> cosmic and divine and immensely powerful
> and creative and intelligent. I know each
> has an unlimited capacity to love and do
> great things.

If only every child would be told this from their first day on this planet, where instead from the day on they enter school they learn the exact opposite - that they are only so much worth as how better they are compared to others. If every human being truly knew about their divine capacity - what a world we would live in!

> By the way, passions and fantasies are
> not necessary the same thing.

I believe, what makes a huge difference is the amount of trust one has in him/her-self. Putting fantasies into passion and reality requires a lot of boldness. How can I build this trust? How can I learn to believe my inner voice?

Fred, you say the way out of this mess is easy and joyful. I don't think it is that easy, not for most people. This would only be true if one had this absolute trust into his abilities. The problem: who has this? Most people have to overcome many doubts and fears, and this is not easy. I can only be lazy and creative if I'm free of fear.

What you say makes perfect sense to me, but the application is very very difficult.

Thank you for your time and answers.

Pretty Polly

JCOHEN, I realise it's been four and a half years since you posted your comment, but I want to thank you.
I actually landed here (very nice blog, BTW) precisely while searching for the exact source of this supposedly Goethe's quote.

Google and the internet at large being what they are, I never expected to find such a comprehensive "report" on the origins of the quote so soon into my search! ;)



gone through the posts! you guys keep it up!

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