Justin Trudeau’s literary sources: they’re tough to track down

by John Geddes

I once heard a pretty fair speechwriter—Michael Waldman, who used to do the job for President Bill Clinton and is now executive director of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s law school—remark that a portentous quotation used too prominently is often the warning sign of a weak speech.

It doesn’t get much more prominent than the very first line of a star candidate’s speech announcing his bid for a political party’s top job.  Justin Trudeau started his pitch for the Liberal leadership the other night in Montréal with this doozy: “Make no small dreams, they have not the power to move the soul,” which is attributed, in the prepared text released by Trudeau’s campaign, to Goethe.

That would be Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, of course, the great German writer of Romantic period. I regret to admit I’m a bit weak on Goethe, so I had no idea what Trudeau might have been reading when he came across this uplifting line. I asked his campaign. A spokesman emailed to say Trudeau thinks it’s from Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, but he’s not entirely sure. Apparently, the candidate “read it a long time ago and it stuck with him.”

I can’t help wondering if he might have refreshed his memory with a bit of Google searching. You can find the no-small-dreams line easily among online compendiums of ostensibly inspiring quotations. Some sites say Goethe penned it, others credit Victor Hugo, but none that I can find say exactly what work of literature it comes from. Oddly, it’s not in Bartlett’s Famous Quotations under either author’s name.

Andrew Piper, an associate professor in McGill University’s department of languages, literatures, and cultures, and a guy who knows his Goethe, was kind enough to search for me, but he couldn’t figure out where the quote originates, even when he ran it in German (“Träume keine kleine Träume, denn sie haben keine Kraft”) through the digitized collected works of Goethe (148 volumes, including letters). “My best guess is it is apocryphal,” Piper says, “but maybe it’s a paraphrase of something.”

A very similar quote—“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood”—is reliably attributed to Daniel Burnham, an American architect of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Who knows how words like these might get swirled around, especially in this era of digital cut and paste?

I’d be hard pressed to explain why all this fascinates me. Partly it’s that political rhetoric that tries to borrow profundity, in the way Waldman is wary of, sets my teeth on edge. In Trudeau’s particular case, I think he’d be undermining himself even if his Goethe was indisputably the genuine article. His best moments in an interview come, in my opinion, when he’s most self-effacing. But maybe that’s not going to be a dominant aspect of his public persona. We’re only just learning.

Sifting through Goethe quotes, I came upon this: “Doubt grows with knowledge.” You can look it up.




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Justin Trudeau’s literary sources: they’re tough to track down

  1. ‘His best moments in an interview come, in my opinion, when he’s most self-effacing’

    Why? Is it now wrong to sound confident in this country?

    Is ‘humbility’ the new national value?

    Or educated? That seemed to bother the media with Dion and Ignatieff too.

    In fact it was so bad the media wrongly claimed Ignatieff was quoting Mao, when both Ignatieff and Mao were quoting a classic Chinese poem.

    The low point for us as a nation was when Ignatieff felt he had to drop his ‘g’s when talking to us, (makin’, walkin’, breakin’) so we could understand him,

    • Yes. That was the worst thing that ever happened to Canada.

      • Well, except for the great Bonhomme injustice of 2010.

      • And you’re the one who claims to specialize in and promote education?

        And campaigns?

        Or did you assume I meant in all of history?

        You’d have more readers if you stopped snarking at them.

        • And he’d have more commenters if you weren’t constantly side-tracking every Macleans thread by trying to tell others how they should think.

          Not surprising you would question the value of humility. Clearly it’s not something with which you are familiar. Dare I suggest you try it sometime? You won’t much like it, but others might.

          • You don’t think much of his writing if you figure some commenter can divert everyone away with anonymous posts. LOL

            Dare I suggest you try using your brain?

          • In fact, I am in awe of your power to do just that – the online equivalent of clearing a room. Ironic that this one time you under-estimate yourself. Perhaps you are capable of humility after all.

          • LOL

      • Excellent snark Wells !

  2. This is likely to be a constant problem with JT. Some bright young[or not] aide come racing in with a cry of eureka! Look what i just googled? Maybe Justin just came across it? Whatever! I actually like it. I’d hate to disagree with such a pro as Waldman but why do even the brightest of folks make the most god awful sweeping generalizations? Why is it a “bad” speech because he starts off with an inspiring quote? I get it may arguably set a slightly high schoolish tone initially…but maybe he was actually intentionally aiming for inspiration; by those who want to be inspired, not necessarily seasoned pros and critics? I assume he went for the value of contrast with Harperism. It may indeed be chessy or slightly amatuerish as far as the chattering class is concerned, but i wonder if the Trudeau camp is not altogether unhappy with that effect?
    Edit: i see Mr Waldman did actually say that it might be a warning sign[cough] Can’t catch a pro out that easily i guess.

    • JFK quoted, Reagan quoted….I don’t remember a president that didn’t.

  3. Mr. Geddes, can you provide a link to any site which credits this quote to Victor Hugo as you claim? It seems Hugo may have said “dream no small dreams” but not this entire phrase – but I am curious if you actually came across a source that claims otherwise.

  4. I found it uninspiring as compared to say “I have a Dream” or “Ask not what your country can do for you;ask what u can do for your country. Two US examples, I know, sorry

    • It’s not as inspiring, I think, because those phrases originated with their speakers–they weren’t mined through Google and pasted onto a speech.

      • “Justin Trudeau’s literary sources: they’re tough to track down”

        Just reading the Communist Manifesto would tell you.

  5. On the subject of JT, I cannot understand why the media keep calling him “charismatic.” What is charisma? A media build-up that takes a few years to work on the population? An easy, self-effacing confidence? Is it a manner that fools people? I am very suspicious of people with charisma!

    • Try meeting him. You’ll understand then.

  6. Delusions of grandeur…“Make no small dreams, they have not the power to move the soul,”
    We need more Goethe in the political arena? No, we need more cow bell!

  7. Repost from Chris Hedges (Pulitzer Prize winner and former war
    correspondent for the New York Times):

    Harper is a poster child for corporate malfeasance and
    corporate power, just sort of dismantling everything that’s good about Canada. So he’s the kind of species that rises to
    political power and is utterly subservient to corporate interests at the
    expense of the citizenry.

    Yeah, he’s a pretty venal figure.

    http://www.straight.com/article-732826/vancouver/chris-hedges-harper-venal-us-politics-totally-rigged

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