Here are the first 11 verses in the "Nacht" scene, from Goethe's Faust I:


Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,

Juristerei und Medizin,

Und leider auch Teologie

Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn.

Da steh' ich nun, ich armer Tor,

Und bin so klug als wie zuvor!

Heiße Magister, heiße Doktor gar,

Und ziehe schon an die zehen Jahr'

Herauf, herab und quer und krum

Meine Schüler an der Nase herum -

Und sehe, daß wir nichts wissen können!

My question is about the expression "an der Nase herumziehen".

In this context, I've understood that Faust has been trying to teach his students everything he knows in every way possible for ten years, but ended up reaching the conclusion that all this effort is pointless afterall.

However, I've found a commentated bilingual edition (german + portuguese) where the translator explains that Faust is confessing to have been intentionally deceiving his students for ten years, which is definitely not the same thing.

Maybe I just don't know the whole context of the play (I've just started reading it), maybe I misinterpreted the expression "an der Nase herumziehen", but this is bugging me.

What do you think?

  • 4
    English has "lead someone (around) by the nose", which is similar.
    – Carsten S
    Apr 14, 2021 at 17:01
  • @CarstenS I didn't know that, thank you
    – rmdmc89
    Apr 14, 2021 at 17:05
  • I know this is off-topic, but I can't ignore the fact how strange it is that you can read Goethe and yet prefer to ask this question in English.
    Apr 16, 2021 at 21:21

2 Answers 2


Good question what Goethe means by "an der Nase herumziehen"! I think there are two possible interpretations:

  1. It is certainly a synonym for "an der Nase herumführen". In contemporary German this means to intentionally fool (or deceive) somebody else in order to gain an advantage for oneself.
    I am not convinced that Goethe wanted to express that, I share your interpretation: Faust did not want to fool his students, but after ten years he got aware that all of his efforts to acquire real knowledge have been in vain.

  2. The origin of the expression is that in previous times animals (for example draught animals like oxes, or bears in circus acts) were dragged with a nose ring. This is an extremely painful procedure and forces the animals to move into the desired direction. Moreover, pulling the nose ring (or the nose itself) may also be a sort of punishment, not to say a method of torture.
    Isn't that a metaphorical description of rigorous education, as it was quite normal in previous times?

I tend to the second interpretion: Faust was a strict teacher who forced his students to move intellectually into a certain direction. But of course this is somewhat speculative.

  • 1
    So an der Nase herumziehen is virtually identical to the English idiom to lead by the nose. I don't think the expression implies deceit explicitly, but instead that the person being lead is doing so blindly and unquestioningly, from which deceit is practically inevitable.
    – RDBury
    Apr 16, 2021 at 2:49
  • 1
    @RDBury Of course it may also include deceit to some extent, but imo it primarily refers to the relentless action of "an der Nase herumziehen" which completely ignores all individual needs of the affected persons.
    – Paul Frost
    Apr 16, 2021 at 8:52
  • 1
    @PaulFrost, good to know I'm not alone :) Although the deceit explanation makes some sense, it feels weird to hear "I've fooled my students for ten years und sehe, daß wir nichts wissen können!". It feels redundant, like "I've known all along that we cannot know anything, and then I see we cannot know anything".
    – rmdmc89
    Apr 16, 2021 at 20:19
  • 1
    @PaulFrost, besides, if he didn't fool his students and was just frustrated with the pursuit of knowledge, this would explain his interest in magic mentioned right after. It makes his inner conflict more plausible
    – rmdmc89
    Apr 16, 2021 at 20:27

After all the years of studying he sums up:

Da steh' ich nun, ich armer Tor, Und bin so klug als wie zuvor!

So he realizes that he doesn't know anything that he could teach someone.

And in the next lines:

Dass ich nicht mehr mit sauerm Schweiß
Zu sagen brauche, was ich nicht weiß;
Dass ich erkenne, was die Welt
Im Innersten zusammenhält

So yes, he is kind of deceiving his students by pretending to teach valuable stuff even though he knows that all their efforts won't make them understand, what holds the world together at its core.

Like Socrates says:

I know that I know nothing.

  • Thanks for spotting out the "wie", by the way
    – rmdmc89
    Apr 14, 2021 at 16:58
  • 1
    you're welcome ;)
    – Olafant
    Apr 14, 2021 at 17:01

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