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The translation of Goethe's "Prose Maxims" now offered to the public is the first attempt that has yet been made to present the greater part of these incomparable sayings in English. In the complete collection they are over a thousand in number, and not more perhaps than a hundred and fifty have already found their way into our language, whether as contributions to magazines here and in America, or in volumes of miscellaneous extract from Goethe's writings. Some are at times quoted as though they were common literary property. To say that they are important as a whole would be a feeble tribute to a work eloquent for itself, and beyond the need of praise; but so deep is the wisdom of these maxims, so wide their reach, so compact a product are they of Goethe's wonderful genius, that it is something of a reproach to literature to find the most of them left untranslated for the sixty years they have been before the world. From one point of view, the neglect they have suffered is in no way surprising: they are too high and severe to be popular so soon; and when they meet with a wide acceptance as with other great works, much of it will rest upon authority. But even for the deeper side of his writings, Goethe has not been denied a fair measure of popular success. No other author of the last two centuries holds so high a place, or, as an inevitable consequence, has been attacked by so large an army of editors and commentators; and it might well be supposed by now that no corner of his work, and least of all one of the best, had remained almost unnoticed, and to the majority unknown. Many of these maxims were early translated into French, but with little success; and even in Germany it was only so late as the year 1870 that they appeared in a separate form, with the addition of some sort of critical comment and a brief explanation of their origin and history.
But although to what is called the reading public these maxims are as yet, no less in fact than in metaphor, a closed book, its pages have long been a source of profit and delight to some of those who are best able to estimate their value. What that value is, I shall presently endeavour to explain. No one, I think, can perceive their worth without also discerning how nearly they touch the needs of our own day, and how greatly they may help us in facing certain problems of life and conduct, some of them, in truth, as old as the world itself, which appear to us now with peculiar force and subtlety.
It was in this respect that they were warmly recommended to me some years ago by my excellent friend, Professor Harnack, the historian of Dogma, a writer with a fine and prudent enthusiasm for all ennobling literature. It is to him that I owe the resolve to perform for the maxims, as far as I could, the office of translator; a humble office, but not, as I have good reason to know, without its difficulty, or, as I venture to hope, without its use. Of many of them the language is hardly lucid even to a German, and I have gratefully to acknowledge the assistance I have received from the privilege of discussing them with so distinguished a man of letters.