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    Lessing, Gotthold


Man — who is he? Too bad, to be the work of God: Too good for the work of chance!

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
(Attributed)

In James Wood, Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern English and Foreign Sources (1899).
 
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Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
(Attributed)

I cannot find an original source, but as early as 1847 this phrase (or this English translation) was connected with him, and the quote is mentioned in his biography Gotthold Ephraim Lessing: His Life and His Works (1878), by Helen Zimmern, who translated a number of his pieces.

Frequently misattributed to the modern English author Doris Lessing, perhaps because it is so misattributed on Wikiquote. There it is cited to an interview by Amanda Craig, "Grand dame of letters who's not going quietly," The Times of London (2003-11-23). The reference there is behind a paywall, so it's unclear if Lessing actually says it in the interview, or it is erroneously referenced by the author.

The quotation is also attributed to the Egyptian philosopher Hypatia.
 
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The worth of a man does not consist in the truth he possesses, or thinks he possesses, but in the pains he has taken to attain that truth. For his powers are extended not through possession but through the search for truth. In this alone his ever-growing perfection consists.

[Nicht die Wahrheit, in deren Besitz irgend ein Mensch ist, oder zu sein vermeint, sondern die aufrichtige Mühe, die er angewandt hat, hinter die Wahrheit zu kommen, macht den Wert des Menschen. Denn nicht den Besitz, sondern durch die Nachforschung der Wahrheit erweitern sich seine Kräfte, worin allein seine immer wachsende Vollkommenheit bestehet.]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Eine Duplik, Part 1 (1778) [tr. Chadwick (1957)]
    (Source)

This passage (in the Scott Horton translation below) is given as the epigraph to chapter 19 of Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great (2007); this prominence gave it a fair amount of fame. It is identified in Hitchens as being from Lessing's Anti-Goeze tracts (1778), though strictly speaking the passage is actually from Eine Duplik (1778), a different writing by Lessing over the same Fragment Dispute of 1777-1778.

(Source (German)). Alternate translations:

It is not the truth that a man possesses, or believes he possesses, but the honest pains he has taken to get at truth, which makes a man's worth; for it is not by the possession of truth, but by the march after it, that his powers are extended, in which alone his perfection consists.
[Source (1884)]

The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found.
[tr. Horton (2007)]

 
Added on 11-Mar-15 | Last updated 6-Feb-24
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ORSINA: Better counsel comes overnight.
 
[Besserer Rat kommt über Nacht.]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Emilia Galotti, Act 4, sc. 3 (1772)

It is unclear if this is a traditional German saying, or was coined by Lessing. There are parallels in other languages (as well as German), but I did not find a German reference in these words that predates this play.

(Source (German))

Better counsel comes with the night.
[Source (1842)]

Morning brings better counsel.
[tr. Lewes/Taylor (1890)]

Better counsel often comes by night.
[tr. Gode-von Aesch (1959?)]

 
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For to a great man both things are needful; to treat trifles as trifles and important matters as important matters.

[Denn zu einem großen Manne gehört beides: Kleinigkeiten als Kleinigkeiten, und wichtige Dinge als wichtige Dinge zu behandeln.]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Hamburgische Dramaturgie [Hamburg Dramaturgy], Essay 34, 1767-08-25 (1767-1769) [tr. Zimmern (1890)]
    (Source)

(Source (German)). Alternate translations:

For the great man does both, that is, he treats trivialities as trivialities and important things as important things.
[tr. Arons/Figal]

It is the mark of great people to treat trifles as trifles and important matters as important.
[Source]

 
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One single grateful thought towards heaven, is the most perfect prayer!

[Ein einziger dankbarer Gedanke gen Himmel ist das vollkommenste Gebet!]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Minna von Barnhelm, Act 2, sc. 7 [Minna] (1763) [tr. Holroyd/Bell (1888)]
    (Source)

(Source (German)). Alternate translation:

A single grateful thought toward heaven is the most perfect prayer.
[Source (1884)]

 
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What have you to say against laughing? Cannot one be very serious even whilst laughing? Dear Major, laughter keeps us more rational than vexation.

[Was haben Sie denn gegen das Lachen? Kann man denn auch nicht lachend sehr ernsthast sein? Lieber Major, das Lachen erhält uns vernünftiger als der Verdruss.]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Minna von Barnhelm, Act 4, sc. 6 [Minna] (1763) [tr. Holroyd/Bell (1888)]
    (Source)

(Source (German)). Alternate translation:

What have you to say against laughing? Can we not while laughing be very serious? Laughing keeps us more rational than sadness caused by vexation.
[Source (1884)]

 
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For it’s the will
And not the gift that makes the giver.

[Denn der Wille
und nicht die Gabe macht den Geber.]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Nathan the Wise [Nathan der Weise], Act 1, sc. 5 [Lay Brother/Friar] (1779) [tr. Morgan (1955)]
    (Source)

(Source (German)). Alternate translations:

The will, and not the deed, makes up the giver.
[tr. Taylor (1790)]

'Tis
The will, and not the boon, that makes the giver.
[tr. Reich (1860)]

For the will it is
That makes the giver -- not the gift.
[tr. Jacks (1867)]

For the will and not the gift makes the giver.
[Source (1873)]

The will and not the deed perfects the giver.
[tr. Boylan (1878)]

For 'tis the will, and not the gift,
That makes the giver.
[tr. Corbett (1883)]

The will and not the gift
Doth constitute the giver.
[tr. Maxwell (1917)]

Because the intention and not the gift make the giver.
[tr. Reinhardt (1950)]

It's not the gift that makes the giver, no, but rather his good will.
[tr. Ade (1972)]

 
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You know not, will not know, what Christians are;
Their pride is to be Christians, never men;
Ay, even that which since their Founder’s time
Hath tinged their superstition with a touch
Of pure humanity, is prized by them
Never because ’tis human, but because
‘Twas preached and practised by their Jesus Christ.
‘Tis well for them he was so rare a man;
Well that they take his virtues upon trust;
But what to them the virtues of their Christ?
‘Tis was not his virtues, but his name alone
They seek to spread, that it may dominate
And cloud the names of other noble men;
Ay, ’tis the name, the name of Christ alone
Your Christian cares about.

[Du kennst die Christen nicht, willst sie nicht kennen.
Ihr Stolz ist: Christen sein; nicht Menschen. Denn
Selbst das, was, noch von ihrem Stifter her,
Mit Menschlichkeit den Aberglauben würzt,
Das lieben sie, nicht weil es menschlich ist:
Weil’s Christus lehrt; weil’s Christus hat getan.—
Wohl ihnen, daß er so ein guter Mensch
Noch war! Wohl ihnen, daß sie seine Tugend
Auf Treu und Glaube nehmen können!—Doch
Was Tugend?—Seine Tugend nicht; sein Name
Soll überall verbreitet werden; soll
Die Namen aller guten Menschen schänden,
Verschlingen. Um den Namen, um den Namen
Ist ihnen nur zu tun.]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Nathan the Wise [Nathan der Weise], Act 2, sc. 1 [Sittah] (1779) [tr. Maxwell (1917)]
    (Source)

(Source (German)). Alternate translations:

You do not know the christians.
You will not know them. 'Tis this people's pride
not to be men, but to be christians. Even
what of humane their founder felt, and taught,
and left to savour their fond superstition,
they value not because it is humane,
lovely, and good for man; they only prize it
because 'twas Christ who taught it, Christ who did it.
'Tis well for them he was so good a man:
well that they take his goodness all for granted,
and in his virtues put their trust. His virtues --
'Tis not his virtues, but his name alone
they wish to thrust upon us. -- 'Tis his name
which they desire should overspread the world,
should swallow up the name of all good men,
and put the best to shame. Tis his mere name
they care for --
[tr. Taylor (1790)]

Thou dost not know the Christians, wilt not know them.
Their pride, that is: the Christian; not the Man.
For even what, still coming from their founder,
With human worth, imbibes their superstition,
Is not adored by them, because 'tis human:
No, but because Christ taught, Christ acted so. --
'Tis well for them, that yet so good a man
He was! 'Tis well for them, that they may take
His virtue granted, and on faith! -- But what
Of virtue! -- Not his Virtue; no, his Name
They wish to spread all o'er the world; his name
Shall stigmatize the names of all good men,
And swallow them. The name, and but the name, --
That's what they cherish.
[tr. Reich (1860)]

You do not, will not, know the Christian race.
It is their pride not to be men, but Christians.
The virtue which their founder felt and taught,
The charity He mingled with their creed,
Is valued, not because it is humane,
And good, and lovely, but for this alone,
That it was Christ who taught it, Christ who did it.
;Tis well for them He was so good a man.
Well that they take His goodness all on trust.
And in His virtues put their faith. His virtues!
'Tis not His virtues, but His name alone
They wish to thrust upon us -- His mere name,
Which they desire should overspread the world,
Should swallow up the name of all good men.
And put the rest to shame. 'Tis for His name
Alone they care.
[tr. Boylan (1878)]

Thou knowest not the christians, will'st not know them:
Their pride is to be Christians, and not men.
For even that which from their Founder's time
Seasons their superstition with humanity, --
That love they not because 'tis human; -- no,
Because Christ taught it and Christ practised it.
'Tis well for them that he was really such
A good man! Well, that they can take on trust
His virtue! Yet what speak I of his virtue?
'Tis not his virtue, 'tis his name alone,
That over all the earth shall spread abroad,
To put to scorn and swallow up the name
Of every other good man. 'Tis the name,
The name alone they care for, they.
[tr. Corbett (1883)]

Thou knowest the Christians not -- wilt not know them.
Their pride is to be Christians -- not men. For
Even that humanity, which by their Founder
Was rooted in their superstition, that love they
Not because it is humane, but because
He taught it -- because so Christ hath done.
Tis well for them He was indeed so
Good a man. 'Tis well for them that they
His virtue can accept on faith, and on belief.
His virtue say I? Not His virtue. His name alone
Shall over all be spread, and shall the name
Of all good men shame and destroy. The name --
And nothing but the name -- is their concern.
[tr. Jacks (1894)]

You do not know the Christians, don’t want to know them. Their pride is to be Christians, not men. Because even what leavens superstition with mitigating aspects, -- dating back to their founder -- they don’t love because it is human. (They love it) because Christ teaches it, because Christ has done it. Lucky they that such a good man existed yet! Lucky they that they can take his virtue on faith and belief! But what virtue? Not his virtue, his name is to be propagated everywhere, is to desecrate the name of all good men, devour it. For the name, for the name only, they care.
[tr. Reinhardt (1950)]

You do not know the Christians, will not know them.
Their pride is to be Christians, and not men.
For even that which from their Founder’s day
With human nature spices superstition
They don’t love for its human worth: because
Their Jesus taught it, by him it was done. --
O well for them, that he was a good man!
And well for them, that they can take his virtue
On faith! -- But what of virtue? -- It’s not that
Shall overspread the world, but just his name;
That name shall swallow all the names of men,
Put them to shame. The name, the name alone,
Is all they care for.
[tr. Morgan (1955), l. 72ff]

You don't know Christians, and you'll never know them. Their pride's not to be men, its to be Christians. Even humanity -- which from the days of their dear Lord Jesus Christ has lessened superstition -- they love, not for its human quality, but only because Christ taught it and showed it in His deeds. It is indeed a blessing that He was so good a man, a man in whose virtues they can place their entire faith! But are His virtues really theirs? No, not at all, it's not His virtues but His name that they attempt to spread throughout the world and, in so doing, cloud with slander and obliterate the names of all good men. The name alone is everything to these Christians.
[tr. Ade (1972)]

 
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The superstition into which we’re born,
Even when we recognize it, loses not
Its power on us! Not all those are free
Who ridicule their chains.

[Der Aberglaub’, in dem wir aufgewachsen,
Verliert, auch wenn wir ihn erkennen, darum
Doch seine Macht nicht über uns. — Es sind
Nicht alle frei, die ihrer Ketten spotten.]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Nathan the Wise [Nathan der Weise], Act 4, sc. 4 [Templar] (1779) [tr. Corbett (1883)]
    (Source)

(Source (German)). Alternate translations:

Yet the superstition
in which we have grown up, not therefore loses
when we detect it, all its influence on us.
Not all are free that can bemock their fetters.
[tr. Taylor (1790)]

The superstition in which we grew up,
Does not cease influencing us, e'en after
We have discover'd its absurdity.
Not all are free who do bemock their fetters.
[tr. Reich (1860)]

The superstition in which we were brought up never loses its power over us, even after we understand it.
[Source (1866)]

And yet the superstitions we have learned
From education, do not lose their power
When we have found them out; nor are all free
Whose judgment mocks the galling chains they wear.
[tr. Boylan (1878)]

The superstition in which we have grown up
Does not lose (even if we see through it)
Its power on us, on that account;
All are not free who mock their chains.
[tr. Jacks (1894)]

The superstitions of our early years,
E'en when we know them to be nothing more,
Lose not for that their hold upon our hearts;
Not all are free who ridicule their chains.
[tr. Maxwell (1917)]

The superstition in which we have grown up does not lose its power over us even for the reason that we recognize it as such. Not all are free who mock their chains.
[tr. Reinhardt (1950)]

The superstition in which we grew up,
Though we may recognize it, does not lose
Its power over us -- Not all are free
Who make mock of their chains.
[tr. Morgan (1955)]

Merely because we see the defects of the superstition we grew up in, it doesn't lose its hold upon our souls! Those men who mock their chains are not all free!
[tr. Ade (1972)]

 
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The worst of superstitions is, to think
Your own to be the most endurable.
[…] Yours, the only one,
to which dim-sighted mankind may be trusted,
Till they can bear the brighter light of truth.

[Der Aberglauben schlimmster ist, den seinen
Für den erträglichern zu halten […] dem allein
Die blöde Menschheit zu vertrauen, bis
Sie hellern Wahrheitstag gewöhne.]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Nathan the Wise [Nathan der Weise], Act 4, sc. 4 [Templar] (1779) [tr. Reich (1860)]
    (Source)

Some of the translations leave out the second part.

(Source (German)). Alternate translations:

The worst of superstitions is to think
One's own most bearable.
[tr. Taylor (1790)]

That superstition is the worst of all
Which thinks itself the easiest to be borne --
[...] And to trust
To it alone a blind humanity
Till it is used to truth's more brilliant light.
[tr. Boylan (1878)]

The very worst
Of superstitions is, to hold one's own
The most endurable [...]
That only to entrust
Purblind humanity, till it learn to bear
The light of truth's clear day.
[tr. Corbett (1883)]

The worst of superstitions is, to think
One's own the most supportable. [...]
To it alone trust simple human-kind
Until to truth's bright rays it grows accustomed.
[tr. Jacks (1894)]

The worst of superstitions is to deem
Our special chains the most endurable --
[...] And to these alone
To trust purblind humanity until
Its eye can bear the brilliant noon of truth.
[tr. Maxwell (1917)]

The worst superstition is to consider one's own superstition the more tolerable one [...] to which alone to entrust weak-minded mankind until it will grow used to the brighter light of truth.
[tr. Reinhardt (1950)]

That superstition
Is worst which takes itself to be of all
The most endurable [...] and to which alone one may
Entrust dull-witted humankind, till it's
Accustomed to the brighter light of truth.
[tr. Morgan (1955)]

The most bigoted of superstitions is to hold one's own faith to be the only right one [...] which poor, blind men must trust until they see the light.
[tr. Ade (1972)]

 
Added on 19-Dec-23 | Last updated 27-Dec-23
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ARIDÄUS: What is a hero without love for mankind?

[Was ist ein Held ohne Menschenliebe?]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Philotas, Act 1, sc. 7 (1759) [tr. Heitner (1963)]
    (Source)

Often misattributed to Doris Lessing (as with so many other Gotthold Lessing quotes).

(Source (German)). Alternate translation:

What is a hero void of human love?
[tr. Bohn's (1878)]

 
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It is infinitely difficult to know when and where one should stop, and for all but one in thousands the goal of their thinking is the point at which they have become tired of thinking.

[Es ist unendlich schwer, zu wissen, wenn und wo man bleiben soll, und Tausenden für einen ist das Ziel ihres Nachdenkens die Stelle, wo sie des Nachdenkens müde geworden.]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Letter to Moses Mendelssohn (9 Jan 1771)
 
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Trust no friend without faults,
And love a maiden, but no angel.

[Trau keinem Freunde sonder Mängel,
Und leib’ ein Mädchen, kienem Engel.]

Gotthold Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramaturg, writer
Note in a Family Register (1778)

Alt. trans.: "Trust in no friend, rather forebear; / Love a sweet maid, no angel rare."
 
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