The Sage of Göttingen

Physicist Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799) is not widely remembered outside Germany — which is a great pity, as his notebooks contain some of history’s most trenchant aphorisms:

  • “If countries were named after the words you first hear when you go there, England would have to be called Damn It.”
  • “What they call ‘heart’ lies much lower than the fourth waistcoat button.”
  • What a pity it isn’t a sin to drink water, cried an Italian, how good it would taste.”
  • “A book is a mirror: If an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.”
  • “The often unreflected respect for old laws, old customs, and old religion we have to thank for all mischief in the world.”
  • “It is we who are the measure of what is strange and miraculous: If we sought a universal measure the strange and miraculous would not occur and all things would be equal.”
  • “Just as there are polysyllabic words that say very little, so there are also monosyllabic words of infinite meaning.”
  • “If walking on two legs is not natural to man it is certainly an invention that does him credit.”
  • “It is almost impossible to carry the torch of wisdom through a crowd without singeing someone’s beard.”
  • “Now that education is so easy, men are drilled for greatness, just as dogs are trained to retrieve. In this way we’ve discovered a new sort of genius, those great at being drilled. These are the people who are mainly spoiling the market.”
  • “Can it be that the evil in the world is in general of more use than the good?”

The “waste books” were admired by Wittgenstein, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Freud, and even Tolstoy wondered “why the Germans of the present day neglect this writer so much.” He never got an answer.