“Lieber Hammer als Amboss” is German for “Better hammer than anvil”. It’s a common proverb in many countries that acts as a metaphor for one’s life. It means someone is more effective in taking action than being acted upon.
It originates from blacksmithing, where a hammer is used to shape metal by striking it, while an anvil is used as a solid surface to support the metal being shaped. The hammer typically represents being proactive and decisive versus the anvil representing passivity and reactivity.
Goethe famously wrote about this predicament in his greatest work “Faust” where the character Faust must make a choice between a life of inaction and despair, or a life of action and fulfillment. Goethe encourages readers to be proactive and take action in their own lives, rather than simply allowing events to unfold around them.
Emily Dickinson famously mentioned this metaphor of being the hammer over the anvil throughout her works, especially in “Dare you see a Soul at the White Heat”.
The forge and its anvil represent the severe difficulties we deal with in life and a soul that is being constantly battered by God. Do you dare to be brave enough to be called to a white-hot soul and shape your life through strikes of a hammer when there’s designated light?
She wanted her metaphor to be clearly understood. That there’s an agent of change represented as the blacksmith in our lives. They select the material, apply the right heat(designated light), and then shape it with hammer strikes on the anvil.
If the blacksmith were a force such as God or the Logos and the material is our white-hot soul, then we are left two possibilities that the self can be. In this case, Dickinson chooses the hammer. As it is perceived to be the only way to shape the soul through action given the soul isn’t meant to be white-hot forever. In other words, she is saying that one must strike while the iron is hot.
While this is one major interpretation from Dickinson, there’s another from the language perspective. George Orwell would often question the meaning of this dying metaphor. He believed that it is commonly misunderstood that the anvil gets the worst of it. Instead, in real life it is always the anvil that breaks the hammer, never the other way around.
For Orwell, he isn’t considering the anvil as passivity or inaction. Rather he is seeing the anvil from the perspective of an immovable object. That the hammer is not an unstoppable force. That instead, there is a Yin-Yang clash where two forces exist in the same universe but one is overpowering of the other.
In language terms, many would identify this as a contradiction. That life is one big contradiction. The lesson we should learn from all these bright and brilliant writers is that life requires balance. That there’s a time to be a hammer striking at the white-hot soul just so much as there is a time to be the immovable object able to break major forces coming our way.