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The Sorrows of Werter

By Johann Wolfgang Goethe


May 22.

THAT life is but a dream, is the opinion of many; and it is also mine. When I see the narrow limits which confine the penetrating, active genius of man; when I see that all his powers are wasted to satisfy mere necessities, the only end of which is to prolong a miserable existence; that our seeming care, with regard to certain inquiries, is but a blind resignation; and we only amuse ourselves with painting brilliant pictures and smiling landscapes on the walls of our prison, whilst we see on all sides of us the boundary which confines us: when I consider these things, my dear friend, I am silent: I examine myself; and what do I find? Alas! {15} more vague desires, presages, and visions, than I find of conviction, truth, and reality: then all is chaos and confusion before my eyes; and dreaming like others, I let myself be carried away by the stream.

All wise institutors and learned teachers agree, that children are ignorant of the cause which excites their will. But that the great children, as well as the little ones, should wander upon this earth, without knowing whence they came, or whither they go; without any certain motives for their conduct, but guided, like them, by biscuits, sugar-plums, and rods; this is what nobody is willing to acknowledge, and yet nothing, I think, can be more evident.

I foresee what you will say in answer to this; and I will allow, that the happiest amongst us are those, who, like children, think not of the morrow, amuse themselves with playthings, dress and undress their dolls, watch with great respect before the cupboard where mama keeps the sweet- {16} meats, and when they get any, eat them directly and cry for more: These are certainly happy beings. Many also are to be envied, who dignify their paltry employments, sometimes even their passions, with pompous titles; and who represent themselves to mankind as beings of a superior order, whose occupation is to promote their welfare and glory. But the man who in all humility acknowledges the vanity of all these things; observes with what pleasure the wealthy citizen transforms his little garden into paradise; with what patience the poor man bears his burthen; and that all with equally to behold the sun yet a little longer; he too may be at peace; he creates a world of his own, and is happy also because he is a man: but however limited his sphere, he preserves in his bosom the idea of liberty, and feels that he has it in his power to quit his prison.