Poor Goethe gets made into lovely-sounding memes that people treat as Gospel, so I’m going to pick on him.
“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”
I find the sentiment absolutely beautiful, but it makes me think that Goethe must have never shared a house with an addict, worked for a socialised psychopath, or had a pedophile in their social circle.
There are certain people with whom we can only have stable and/or safe relationships if we take into account that they operate in manners very different from ours, with different priorities, attitudes, and behaviours. Discounting that is like feeding ourselves into a meat grinder.
Addicts cannot be relied upon to respect your property (or even your person) when they are desperate for the next fix. Under those circumstances, the addiction takes over. Treating them as if that was not an issue won’t help either of you.
Socialised psychopaths will make your life hell if you give them power over you. You can have very stable and rewarding “relationships” with them, provided that you ensure that they need you more than you need them. You have to remember that, regardless of their behaviour towards you, they don’t and won’t ever care about you as a person. You’ll never be anything to them more than a tool that performs a function. To allow them power over you is to allow them to drop all pretenses of caring. The results can be deeply unpleasant.
Pedophiles… Do I really need to spell it out? Allowing known pedophiles unsupervised access to children “to help them become what they’re capable of being” is like throwing deer into lions’ enclosures to help them become vegetarians.
I know these situations are extreme, but they do come up. I’ve picked them partly because they’re relevant to my past experiences, and partly because they are good example of why this attitude can backfire unless a host of other circumstances are in place.
The quote presupposes not only that people want to change for the better, but also that their version of “better” aligns with ours. It discounts the fact that different people have different ethics, morals, wishes, aspirations, etc. Some people may, to our eyes, be not as they “ought” to be, yet be perfectly happy with themselves.
It also presupposes that change is just a matter of having the opportunity. While an opportunity is indeed required, it often takes a combination of sticks and carrots to encourage people to give up damaging behaviours and attitudes. If those behaviours and attitudes are a manifestation of a personality disorder, the best we can expect is to contain them, not to eradicate them.
Ultimately, the quote presupposes that each of us knows what people “ought to be” and have the right to expect people to conform to that; I don’t know about you, but I am pretty damn sure that I don’t.