Goethe observes that people make a mistake in that they try to be original—this is especially true with the young but it’s a general condition today, just as it was in his time. People think that they need to say something “new”—the whole media is like that, really (it’s driven by the quest for the novel but it is actually dull and repetitive in its concerns). Goethe holds that the truths are all the same but what each generation needs to do is absorb them and explain them in their own words.
This isn’t the same as when a pious commentator who wants to “preserve the cultural patrimony of the West” tells us that the young must “respect the classics”. Goethe doesn’t mean that people should just blindly worship inherited works and truths—rather, he suggests that you need to put “your own clothes on them”. In essence, you only really know something when you’ve mixed your consciousness with it—a facet of wisdom, as it turns out.
So to read a classic and then put it in your own words is the most “original” thing you can do—and it’s only when you’ve done that that you have really experienced it, just like you can talk about what it’s like to drive a car but you don’t know until you’ve actually driven a car.
This idea that you need to mix your consciousness with something could also be connected to Locke’s theory of property—he held ownership occurs when you mix your labour with something, hence you only “own knowledge” when you’ve mixed your consciousness with it. People who have just learned to parrot ideas—most students are like this, always have been—do not really “know” anything.
I think we all understand the sensation where you’ve said something many times but then, on some occasion, you connect it with an experience and you suddenly realise you didn’t really know it—it was just something you said. A common example: when I broke up with my first girlfriend all the songs on the radio in cafes suddenly seemed permeated with meaning, because the emotions they expressed were emotions I hadn’t experienced before (although, theoretically, I understood the lyrics all along).
Hence Goethe refers, in the realm of knowledge, to what is experiential—knowledge does have an experiential aspect but it is not as apparent as in other areas, so that you wouldn’t take someone seriously who had never driven a car but who told you all about how he knew how to do it; and yet, in knowledge, it being abstract, we fall for that all the time—and also believe that we need to find some “original truth” to express that is somehow “out there” in a tantalising way.
Yet, paradoxically, the representation of constant truths, as filtered through your own consciousness, will strike people as “original”—whereas self-conscious attempts to be “original” almost never will.
This situation is perhaps most evident in teenagers and women, who make strenuous efforts to be original (fashionable) and yet somehow always end up all about the same and all about as shallow. The media, fashion, teenagers, women—all the same thing, in the end.
To take an example from a contemporary of Goethe’s—Clausewitz has an observation that in war you should concentrate on one objective, and this is a central lesson (to identify your objective and suppress distractions, sub-objectives, constitutes a key aspect to war). This sounds really obvious: you should concentrate on one goal, don’t be distracted by sub-goals—suppress sub-goals. Yet it is, in fact, very difficult to concentrate on one goal in a relentless way—as much in politics as in war, the two, per Clausewitz, being related.
The adage is wise—and Clausewitz was wise, because he also expressed the old truth “the actions required are simple, but nothing is so difficult as to be simple”.
People will say, in a blasé way, “Yeah, duh, of course I only have one objective in sight—that’s obvious. I mean, it’s simple, isn’t it?”. They will then immediately pursue multiple objectives in a convoluted and complex way, just as men like Clausewitz said they would—he himself, having learned through experience in war, knew that in the pressured and highly emotional environment generals face it is hard to retain a cool and detached intelligence; and so it is easy to forget what your actual objective is, to become side-tracked into sub-objectives, and in the process to over-complicate the situation.
“The rascal has ‘common-sense’ bordering on wit,” observed Marx, as regards Clausewitz, in a letter to Engels. Notably, Marx tried to be witty but came over as facetious—because he did things like make extensive over-complicated commentaries on how the economy should be run when he’d never run a factory in his life, and, in fact, barely held a job (relying instead on hand-outs from Engels—his “guardian angel”, in translation).
Reality is expressed in simple terms, and these simple terms are witty—like “treat her mean, keep her keen” or “a stitch in time saves nine”. Actual observations about reality tend to be sharp, acute, and funny—because these are statements of the obvious, but nothing is more difficult than to state the obvious.
The reason these statements tend to be funny is that humans over-layer reality with so many considerations about politeness, morality, deference, pride, servility, flattery, and so on that the obvious becomes obscured—humour occurs where there is a sudden reversal of expectations; hence to make a statement about reality will reverse social expectations in a radical way, and that produces humour.
That’s why Clausewitz was so witty to Marx—common-sense is witty. It’s why people will say “are you trying to be clever with me?” if you make a remark that is almost but not quite about reality—but if you make an actual observation about reality they’ll either laugh or be silent, and then you‘ll know you told the truth.