Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Wilhelm von Humboldt, fully Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt

Prussian Philosopher, Government Functionary, Diplomat and Founder of the University of Berlin

"Every occupation, of whatever nature is more efficiently performed if pursued for its own sake alone, rather than for the results to which it leads."

"The ancients sought for happiness in virtue; the moderns have too long been endeavoring to develop the latter from the former."

"The moral law obliges us to regard every man as an end in himself."

"All growth toward perfection is but a returning to original existence."

"Coercion may prevent many transgressions; but it robs even actions which are legal of a part of their beauty. Freedom may lead to many transgressions, but it lends even to vices a less ignoble form."

"All situations in which the interrelationships between extremes are involved are the most interesting and instructive."

"As soon as one stops searching for knowledge, or if one imagines that it need not be creatively sought in the depths of the human spirit but can be assembled extensively by collecting and classifying facts, everything is irrevocably and lost."

"Besides the pleasure derived from acquired knowledge, there lurks in the mind of man, and tinged with a shade of sadness, an unsatisfactory longing for something beyond the present, a striving towards regions yet unknown and unopened."

"All merit ceases the moment we perform an act for the sake of its consequences. Truly, in this respect "we have our reward.""

"Death is but a word to us. One’s own experience alone can teach us the real meaning of the word. The sight of the dying does little. What one sees of them is merely what precedes death: dull unconsciousness is all we see. Whether this be so,—how and when the spirit wakes to life again,—this is what all wish to know, and what never can be known until it is experienced."

"Even by means of our sorrows we belong to the eternal plan."

"Even sleep is characteristic. How beautiful are children in their lovely innocence! how angel-like their blooming features! and how painful and anxious is the sleep of the guilty!"

"Every man, however good he may be, has a yet better man dwelling in him, which is properly himself, but to whom nevertheless he is often unfaithful. It is to this interior and less mutable being that we should attach ourselves, not to be changeable, every-day man."

"For even if we know very little that is certain about spirit or soul, the true nature of the body, of materiality, is totally unknown and incomprehensible to us."

"Fancy brings us as many vain hopes as idle fears."

"Faith can be interested in results only, for a truth once recognized as such puts an end to the believer's thinking."

"How a person masters his fate is more important than what his fate is."

"Freedom is but the possibility of a various and indefinite activity; while government, or the exercise of dominion, is a single, yet real activity. The longing for freedom, therefore, is at first only too frequently suggested by the deep-felt consciousness of its absence."

"Governmental regulations all carry coercion to some degree, and even where they don't, they habituate man to expect teaching, guidance and help outside himself, instead of formulating his own."

"Happiness is so nonsynonymous with joy or pleasure that it is not infrequently sought and felt in grief and deprivation."

"However benevolent may be the intentions of Providence, they do not always advance the happiness of the individual. Providence has always higher ends in view, and works in a pre-eminent degree on the inner feelings and disposition."

"However great an evil immorality may be, we must not forget that it is not without its beneficial consequences. It is only through extremes that men can arrive at the middle path of wisdom and virtue."

"Human nature must be something which always remains one and the same, but which may be carried out in manifold ways."

"If it were not somewhat fanciful to suppose that every human excellence is presented, as it were, in one kind of being, we might believe that the whole treasure of morality and order is enshrined in the female character."

"If something possesses no capacity for activity whatever, it is nothing; it may be wholly penetrated, but it cannot be touched. Therefore passivity and reaction are everywhere equal."

"I lay very little stress either upon asking or giving advice. Generally speaking, they who ask advice know what they wish to do, and remain firm to their intentions. A man may allow himself to be enlightened on various points, even upon matters of expediency and duty; but, after all, he must determine his course of action, for himself."

"I am more and more convinced that our happiness or our unhappiness depends far more on the way we meet the events of life than on the nature of those events themselves."

"If it were possible to make an accurate calculation of the evils which police regulations occasion, and of those which they prevent, the number of the former would, in all cases, exceed that of the latter."

"If the mind loves solitude, it has thereby acquired a loftier character, and it becomes still more noble when the taste is indulged in."

"If we glance at the most important revolutions in history, we are at no loss to perceive that the greatest number of these originated in the periodical revolutions of the human mind."

"In order to bring about the transition from the condition of the present to another newly resolved on, every reform should be allowed to proceed as much as possible from men's minds and thoughts."

"If we reason that we want happiness for others, not for ourselves, then we ought justly to be suspected of failing to recognize human nature for what it is and of wishing to turn men into machines."

"If we would indicate an idea which, throughout the whole course of history, has ever more and more widely extended its empire, or which, more than any other, testifies to the much-contested and still more decidedly misunderstood perfectibility of the whole human race, it is that of establishing our common humanity — of striving to remove the barriers which prejudice and limited views of every kind have erected among men, and to treat all mankind, without reference to religion, nation, or color, as one fraternity, one great community, fitted for the attainment of one object, the unrestrained development of the physical powers. This is the ultimate and highest aim of society."

"In the moral world there is nothing impossible if we can bring a thorough will to it. Man can do everything with himself, but he must not attempt to do too much with others."

"It is an absolutely vain endeavor to attempt to reconstruct or even comprehend the nature of a human being by simply knowing the forces which have acted upon him. However deeply we should like to penetrate, however close we seem to be drawing to truth, one unknown quantity eludes us: man's primordial energy, his original self, that personality which was given him with the gift of life itself. On it rests man's true freedom; it alone determines his real character."

"It is a truly sublime spectacle when in the stillness of the night, in an unclouded sky, the stars, like the world's choir, rise and set, and as it were divide existence into two portions,--the one, belonging to the earthly, is silent in the perfect stillness of night; whilst the other alone comes forth in sublimity, pomp, and majesty. Viewed in this light, the starry heavens truly exercise a moral influence over us; and who can readily stray into the paths of immorality if he has been accustomed to live amidst such thoughts and feelings, and frequently to dwell upon them? How are we entranced by the simple splendors of this wonderful drama of nature!"

"It is a characteristic of old age to find the progress of time accelerated. The less one accomplishes in a given time, the shorter does the retrospect appear."

"It is resignation and contentment that are best calculated to lead us safely through life. Whoever has not sufficient power to endure privations, and even suffering, can never feel that he is armor proof against painful emotions,--nay, he must attribute to himself, or at least to the morbid sensitiveness of his nature, every disagreeable feeling he may suffer."

"It is continued temperance which sustains the body for the longest period of time, and which most surely preserves it free from sickness."

"It is usually more important how a man meets his fate than what it is."

"Joy mingled with sadness, even with grief, is the deepest human joy. It winds itself about the soul with indescribable sweetness, with a dim but unerring sense for what will someday be born of it."

"Man reconciles himself to almost any event, however trying, if it happens in the ordinary course of nature. It is the extraordinary alone that he rebels against. There is a moral idea associated with this feeling; for the extraordinary appears to be something like an injustice of heaven."

"Possession, it is true, crowns exertion with rest; but it is only in the illusions of fancy that it has power to charm us."

"Language makes infinite use of finite media."

"Man is more disposed to domination than freedom; and a structure of dominion not only gladdens the eye of the master who rears and protects it, but even its servants are uplifted by the thought that they are members of a whole, which rises high above the life and strength of single generations."

"Prayer is intended to increase the devotion of the individual, but if the individual himself prays he requires no formula; he pours himself forth much more naturally in self-chosen and connected thoughts before God, and scarcely requires words at all. Real inward devotion knows no prayer but that arising from the depths of its own feelings."

"Only what we have wrought into our character during life can we take away with us."

"Providence certainly does not favor just certain individuals, but the deep wisdom of its counsel, instruction and ennoblement extends to all."

"Real inward devotion knows no prayer but that arising from the depths of its own feelings."

"Results are nothing; the energies which produce them and which again spring from them are everything."