Believing A Lie: Goethe, The 100th Monkey, & More

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!

Goethe is often credited with some variation on this quote. However, the quote is actually from W. H. Murray in The Scottish Himalaya Expedition, 1951:

‘But when I said that nothing had been done I erred in one important matter. We had definitely committed ourselves and were halfway out of our ruts. We had put down our passage money–booked a sailing to Bombay. This may sound too simple, but is great in consequence. Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, the providence moves too. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamt would have come his way. I learned a deep respect for one of Goethe’s couplets:

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it!’

But just as many people incorrectly cite Goethe for Murray’s words, Murray, himself, incorrectly cites Goethe for the two couplets. Goethe is not, in fact, responsible for even this couplet either. Instead, a very loose translation of Faust is responsible (see source).

One Hundred Monkeys

The Goethe quote ranks up there with the urban sham story of the so-called 100th Monkey Principle in which a scientific study (or a set of studies) is claimed to show evidence that a new behavior spreads slowly (i.e., washing sweet potatoes) until the 100th monkey adopts it, after which every monkey somehow magically adopts the new behavior (see this source for just one debunk) even if they’ve never been exposed to it.

What Murray/Goethe/Faust and the 100th monkey sham have in common, I believe, is that when people want something to be true, we will find a way to believe it. For more on this, see this article on intimacy strategies or this one on “positive” thinking. So, we credit Goethe because it sounds better that he said it. We believe the 100th monkey because it gives us hope. But, we do so, by distorting reality, sometimes with consequences, sometimes without. I would suggest, however, that if we, as a culture, continue to avoid reality in small and large ways, the consequences can be enormous (e.g., climate change). Indeed, one can make the case that our current culture is the largest, most unethical failure in human history. Why? Because we avoid reality to feel pleasant emotion.


Here’s another myth: that the Chinese word for crisis is composed of two hanzi, one meaning “danger” and one meaning “opportunity” — crisis is where danger meets opportunity. We repeat this over and over because it fits the dominant narrative we want to believe, and, its constant repetition, further reinforces our belief. So much so, that you might be thinking: “How do you know this is a myth, you don’t have a PhD in Chinese!” True. But two points here. First, here is the PhD Scholar of Chinese who debunks this myth. Second, notice whether your skepticism is resolved by this expert and then notice what you do if it is NOT resolved: do you research further, comment below, or simply shrug your shoulders at the mystery and continue to believe another falsity?

‘First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they attack you. Then you win.’ – Mohandas Gandhi

This Christian Science Monitor article, “Political misquotes: The 10 most famous things never actually said”, sets us straight on the correct source:

“We don’t know where this quote came from, but it is strikingly similar to something that the trade unionist Nicholas Klein gave in a 1918 address to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America in Baltimore:

“First they ignore you. Then they ridicule you. And then they attack you and want to burn you. And then they build monuments to you. And that, is what is going to happen to the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.”

They occur in favor and against both sides of the U.S. political aisle, including Gore’s inventing the internet and Palin’s seeing Russia from her house, both of which were never said by Gore or Palin respectively.








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  1. Pingback: Be kinder than necessary, everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle. | One Planet Thriving

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