Nine of the most profound things ever said in German
With the wealth of great German philosophers and writers there was bound to be some pretty inspirational and profound things said in the language at some point. Here are nine quotes which will make you ponder life in all its glory and suffering.
1. "He, who is master of himself and has command over his emotions, has at his feet the whole wide world and everything therein." - Paul Fleming, 1641
("Wer sein selbst Meister ist und sich beherrschen kann, dem ist die weite Welt und alles untertan.")
Woman meditating. Photo:DPA
Paul Fleming, a famous early modern German poet ended his 1641 poem “An Sich”, or “To Oneself” with this phrase.
Written at a time when a third of the German kingdom had died from the devastation of the 30-Years War and the plague, Fleming wrote in the spirit of living, commanding himself to live compassionately but without too much reservation.
Fleming’s words still appear to hold weight in today’s society, in which the practice of mindfulness and meditation are becoming the latest trend, focusing on self-love and self-control.
You could probably imagine having to chant these words to yourself as part of a meditation practice.
2. "Live like, when you die, you will wish to have lived." - Christian Fürchtegott Gellert, 1757
("Lebe, wie du, wenn du stirbst, wünschen wirst, gelebt zu haben.")
Young people enjoying themselves around a campfire. Photo:DPA
Christian Fürchtegott Gellert is one of the biggest names in German literature that nobody seems to have heard of. He was a forerunner in Germany's golden age of literature which gave way to Goethe and Schiller almost a century later.
His advice on how to go about living your life comes from his 1757 poem "Vom Tode" (engl. From Death).
We often hear such sayings like: “Live today as if it were your last”, which thrusts people into action, not wanting to waste a moment of any day. But that perhaps limits the light and shade which comes with a long life.
Gellert encourages us to lead a full and content life, one where we can learn from our mistakes but also one where we follow our dreams and don’t live with too many regrets.
The last thing we want is to to spend our final moments ruing over what could have been.
3. "Religion is the opium of the masses." - Karl Marx, 1844
("Religion ist das Opium des Volks.")
An image of Karl Marx at an exhibition. Photo:DPA
Not only is this one of the most frequently paraphrased statements from Karl Marx, it is also one of the most frequently misinterpreted. The statement was first printed in an introduction to “A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” published in 1844.
The full quote is: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the masses.”
Marx did not feel a hatred towards religion and wasn’t even completely against it. Marx felt that religion had several practical functions in society with resembled the functions of opium, given to a sick or injured person. For the sick person, opium gave them an immediate relief from their suffering, and a strength to carry on.
Religion, when delivered to the oppressed, Marx believed, provided the people with a sense of freedom from the otherwise depressing life they were forced to lead. It fostered a sense of hope and good things to come.
But just how opium wouldn’t exactly be hailed as the backbone of a functioning society, Marx’s comment also expressed his view that religion could be harmful, especially established religion, for it gave people a false sense of protection and blinded them from the oppressive class structure around them.
In today’s significantly less religious world, Marx’s words are still poignant. What if you were to swap in “social media” for “religion”?
4. "The doctor sees all the weakness of mankind; the lawyer all the wickedness and the theologian all the stupidity." - Arthur Schopenhauer, 1851
("Der Arzt sieht den Menschen in seiner ganzen Schwäche, der Advokat in seiner ganzen Schlechtigkeit und der Priester in seiner ganzen Dummheit.")
From left to right: US doctor show Scrubs, US lawyer show Suits, bishop of Mainz Peter Kohlgraf. Photos:DPA
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer laid out this pretty pessimistic view of humanity in his "Parerga and Paralipomena" in 1851.
Picking out these three professions, Schopenhauer highlights three characteristics present in our collective humanity.
The doctor’s profession is futile if there was no weakness and illness in the world. The lawyer, particularly during the 19th century, is only needed during disputes, crime and deviance. And finally the theologian, whose task it is to study religion. Schopenhauer is definitely a little more blunt than Marx was about religion.
Schopenhauer believed that Christianity, Hinduism and Buddhism were fundamentally the same, sharing common truths but covered in mythology, stories and complicated explanations. Conversely he felt that philosophy was the medium which explained those truths with reason free from the mythology of religion.
When Schopenhauer says “stupidity” he does not have a complete distaste for all believers but comments more of humanity’s ability to be easily manipulated.
5. "What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger." - Friedrich Nietzsche, 1889
("Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich stärker.")
Kanye West, famous for his song "Stronger", performing in Chicago. Photo:DPA
Who knew Kanye and Kelly Clarkson were fans of Nietzsche. This well-known phrase originates in Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1889 "Götzen-Dämmerung" (Twilight of the Idols).
This idea has been referenced many, many times since, and has become a cliché saying, with few people today aware that they’re quoting Nietzsche. And while is has been cited again and again, modern psychological research doesn't exactly support it.
While there is such a thing as post-traumatic growth (PTG), I'm not sure if many suffers of the more common post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) would whole-heartedly agree with Nietzsche.
According to Psychology Today, those who suffer trauma are more, not less, likely to suffer it again later in life. What is more, those who grow up in tough areas will find later life harder than those who didn't, which all in all seems pretty obvious.
But these psychological findings don't mean that what Nietzsche and Kanye and Kelly Clarkson is wrong. We often reflect in our own lives how small hardships have formed our character for the better. One childhood bully inspired us to prove them wrong and become more successful in the future.
Another constantly-touted saying: "we learn from our mistakes", seems to fit together with what Nietzsche said, when a bad thing happens to us we are better equipped to dealing with something similar the next time round.
6. "Anyone who holds on to the ability to see beauty never grows old." - Franz Kafka
("Jeder, der sich die Fähigkeit erhält, Schönes zu erkennen, wird nie alt werden.")
This statement is attributed to the writer Franz Kafka in the book “Gespräche mit Kafka” (Conversations with Kafka) by friend Gustav Janouch.
This is the kind of quote you’d want to have stuck to your kitchen fridge or in your bedroom, to remind you of the beauty all around us.
Obviously what Kafka is saying cannot be taken literally. If so we’d all have replaced any beauty regime we follow with reading Kafka and looking at flowers a long time ago. But although we know his words only have a figurative sense they still are powerful.
As small children we find such pleasure in nature or in a strange, new object. Our senses seem programmed to appreciated the beauty of the world all around us, wherever we happen to be. As we get older, we seem to lose that childish wonder and think of beauty as adjustments and changing things.
If we were to follow the advice of Kafka and see the beauty all around us we may just be able to hold on to that childlike awe as well.
7. "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; but I’m still not completely sure about the universe." - Albert Einstein
("Zwei Dinge sind unendlich, das Universum und die menschliche Dummheit, aber bei dem Universum bin ich mir noch nicht ganz sicher.")
Albert Einstein. Photo: DPA
This quote has been attributed to Einstein many a time. Like Schopenhauer he doesn’t hold back with identifying humanity’s stupidity.
Perhaps a pessimistic thought that humankind will always suffer from our own stupidity, but at least we’re aware of that. At least we’re not completely bathing in our own ignorance.
Besides, human stupidity has got us this far. So even if it’s infinite, they’ll still be those great minds who make scientific breakthroughs or come up with the most profound of sayings.
8. "Think of all the beauty still left around you and be happy!" - Anne Frank, 7th March 1944
("Denke an all das Schöne, was in dir selbst und dich herum wächst und sei glücklich!")
Anne Frank. Photo: DPA
Anne Frank’s positive outlook on life is down-right inspirational, especially considering the circumstances in which she put them to pen and paper. Similar to what Kafka said about holding on to the ability to see beauty, Frank’s advice for life was to focus on the beauty still around you.
This statement came in one of her diary entries when she was commenting on the differences between her outlook and her mother’s. She wrote that her mother used to say: “Think of all the misery in the world and be happy that you don’t have to go through that”.
The level of wisdom she held at just 14 years old is pretty amazing. She felt that why should we focus on misery when we can focus on beauty.
Kafka may have said it was her age itself which allowed her to have such a positive outlook at such a negative time.
9. "We all live under the same sky, but we don’t all have the same horizon." - Konrad Adenauer
("Wir leben alle unter dem gleichen Himmel, aber wir haben nicht alle den gleichen Horizont.")
Konrad Adenauer giving a speech in Bonn in 1952. Photo:DPA
Konrad Adenauer was the first chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. Born in 1876 he lived through both the First and Second World Wars and came out the other end wanting to lead Germany into a future of peace.
You can imagine the inspiration for the above statement as the division between East and West Germany, but his words are still relevant in today’s world.
Everyone on this planet lives under the same sky, with the same sun to light up our days and the same moon to shine light in the darkness of night. But figuratively the citizens of East and West Germany, like the citizens of the world today, don’t share the same horizon.
We think of reaching out towards the horizon as achieving personal success, fulfilling our goals and making our dreams come true. For some, however, certain political and economic circumstances push the horizon further away from reach; the same opportunities aren’t not always possible.
Adenauer's words are a chillingly eloquent description of the inequality that surrounds us.