It is almost impossible to bear the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing somebody’s beard.
- It is almost impossible to bear the torch of truth through a crowd without singeing somebody’s beard.
- As quoted in Lives of the Mind: The Use and Abuse of Intelligence from Hegel to Wodehouse (2002) by by Roger Kimball, p. 329
- Variant translations:
It is almost impossible to carry the torch of wisdom through a crowd without singeing someone's beard.
It is virtually impossible to carry the torch of truth through a crowd, without singeing someone's beard
- This section was begun primarily with translations by R. J. Hollingdale, augmented by other sources, including Selected Writings of Georg C. Lichtenberg (1893) edited by Adolf Wilbrandt.
Notebook A (1765-1770)
- One might call habit a moral friction: something that prevents the mind from gliding over things but connects it with them and makes it hard for it to free itself from them.
- It is hardly to be believed how spiritual reflections when mixed with a little physics can hold people's attention and give them a livelier idea of God than do the often ill-applied examples of his wrath.
- Food probably has a very great influence on the condition of men. Wine exercises a more visible influence, food does it more slowly but perhaps just as surely. Who knows if a well-prepared soup was not responsible for the pneumatic pump or a poor one for a war?
- Prejudices are so to speak the mechanical instincts of men: through their prejudices they do without any effort many things they would find too difficult to think through to the point of resolving to do them.
It is we who are the measure of what is strange and miraculous...
- 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.
- Cautiousness in judgment is nowadays to be recommended to each and every one: if we gained only one incontestable truth every ten years from each of our philosophical writers the harvest we reaped would be sufficient. ... To grow wiser means to learn to know better and better the faults to which this instrument with which we feel and judge can be subject.
Notebook B (1768-1771)
- We can see nothing whatever of the soul unless it is visible in the expression of the countenance; one might call the faces at a large assembly of people a history of the human soul written in a kind of Chinese ideograms.
- Every man has his moral backside which he refrains from showing unless he has to and keeps covered as long as possible with the trousers of decorum.
As the few adepts in such things well know, universal morality is to be found in little everyday penny-events just as much as in great ones.
- There are two ways of extending life: firstly by moving the two points "born" and "died" farther away from one another... The other method is to go more slowly and leave the two points wherever God wills they should be, and this method is for the philosophers.
- He was then in his fifty-fourth year, when even in the case of poets reason and passion begin to discuss a peace treaty and usually conclude it not very long afterwards.
- As the few adepts in such things well know, universal morality is to be found in little everyday penny-events just as much as in great ones. There is so much goodness and ingenuity in a raindrop that an apothecary wouldn't let it go for less than half-a-crown.
- Here take back the stuff that I am, nature, knead it back into the dough of being, make of me a bush, a cloud, whatever you will, even a man, only no longer make me me.
- B 37 "Speech of a suicide composed shortly before the act."
- People often become scholars for the same reason they become soldiers: simply because they are unfit for any other station. Their right hand has to earn them a livelihood; one might say they lie down like bears in winter and seek sustenance from their paws.
If an angel were ever to tell us anything of his philosophy I believe many propositions would sound like 2 times 2 equals 13.
- If an angel were ever to tell us anything of his philosophy I believe many propositions would sound like 2 times 2 equals 13.
- We often have need of a profound philosophy to restore to our feelings their original state of innocence, to find our way out of the rubble of things alien to us, to begin to feel for ourselves and to speak ourselves, and I might almost say to exist ourselves. Even if my philosophy does not extend to discovering anything new, it does nevertheless possess the courage to regard as questionable what has long been thought true.
- What concerns me alone I only think, what concerns my friends I tell them, what can be of interest to only a limited public I write, and what the world ought to know is printed...
Notebook C (1772-1773)
Astronomy is perhaps the science whose discoveries owe least to chance, in which human understanding appears in its whole magnitude, and through which man can best learn how small he is.
- Astronomy is perhaps the science whose discoveries owe least to chance, in which human understanding appears in its whole magnitude, and through which man can best learn how small he is.
- Erudition can produce foliage without bearing fruit.
Even truth needs to be clad in new garments if it is to appeal to a new age.
- Even truth needs to be clad in new garments if it is to appeal to a new age.
- Once the good man was dead, one wore his hat and another his sword as he had worn them, a third had himself barbered as he had, a fourth walked as he did, but the honest man that he was — nobody any longer wanted to be that.
- The pleasures of the imagination are as it were only drawings and models which are played with by poor people who cannot afford the real thing.
- If people should ever start to do only what is necessary millions would die of hunger.
- C 54
- Variant translation: If all mankind were suddenly to practice honesty, many thousands of people would be sure to starve.
Notebook D (1773-1775)
- Once we know our weaknesses they cease to do us any harm.
- Many things about our bodies would not seem to us so filthy and obscene if we did not have the idea of nobility in our heads.
- The journalists have constructed for themselves a little wooden chapel, which they also call the Temple of Fame, in which they put up and take down portraits all day long and make such a hammering you can't hear yourself speak.
- Nowadays three witty turns of phrase and a lie make a writer.
We are obliged to regard many of our original minds as crazy — at least until we have become as clever as they are.
- That man is the noblest creature may also be inferred from the fact that no other creature has yet contested this claim.
- D 58
- The proof that man is the noblest of all creatures is that no other creature has ever denied it.
- What makes our poetry so contemptible nowadays is its paucity of ideas. If you want to be read, invent. Who the Devil wouldn't like to read something new?
- When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book?
- There are people who possess not so much genius as a certain talent for perceiving the desires of the century, or even of the decade, before it has done so itself.
- To do the opposite of something is also a form of imitation, namely an imitation of its opposite.
- D 96
- Variant translation: To do just the opposite is also a form of imitation.
- We are obliged to regard many of our original minds as crazy — at least until we have become as clever as they are.
- Body and soul: a horse harnessed beside an ox.
Notebook E (1775 - 1776)
Nothing can contribute more to peace of soul than the lack of any opinion whatever.
- If it were true what in the end would be gained? Nothing but another truth. Is this such a mighty advantage? We have enough old truths still to digest, and even these we would be quite unable to endure if we did not sometimes flavor them with lies.
- Nothing can contribute more to peace of soul than the lack of any opinion whatever.
- E 11
- Variant translations: Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinion at all.
Nothing is more conducive to peace of mind than not having any opinions at all.
Nothing contributes more to a person's peace of mind than having no opinions at all.
- A handful of soldiers is always better than a mouthful of arguments.
- Courage, garrulousness and the mob are on our side. What more do we want?
A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out.
- Be wary of passing the judgment: obscure. To find something obscure poses no difficulty: elephants and poodles find many things obscure.
- A book is a mirror: if an ape looks into it an apostle is hardly likely to look out. We have no words for speaking of wisdom to the stupid. He who understands the wise is wise already.
- E 49
- Variant translations of first portion: A book is a mirror: If an ape peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out.
- A book is a mirror: If an ass peers into it, you can't expect an apostle to look out. — this has actually been the most commonly cited form, but it is based on either a loose non-literal translation or a mistranslation of the German original: Ein Buch ist Spiegel, aus dem kein Apostel herausgucken kann, wenn ein Affe hineinguckt.
- As I take up my pen I feel myself so full, so equal to my subject, and see my book so clearly before me in embryo, I would almost like to try to say it all in a single word.
- The great rule: If the little bit you have is nothing special in itself, at least find a way of saying it that is a little bit special.
- There are people who believe everything is sane and sensible that is done with a solemn face. ... It is no great art to say something briefly when, like Tacitus, one has something to say; when one has nothing to say, however, and none the less writes a whole book and makes truth ... into a liar — that I call an achievement.
- E 59
- Variant translation: There are people who think that everything one does with a serious face is sensible...
With a pen in my hand I have successfully stormed bulwarks from which others armed with sword and excommunication have been repulsed.
- Do we write books so that they shall merely be read? Don't we also write them for employment in the household? For one that is read from start to finish, thousands are leafed through, other thousands lie motionless, others are jammed against mouseholes, thrown at rats, others are stood on, sat on, drummed on, have gingerbread baked on them or are used to light pipes.
- Good taste is either that which agrees with my taste or that which subjects itself to the rule of reason. From this we can see how useful it is to employ reason in seeking out the laws of taste.
- With a pen in my hand I have successfully stormed bulwarks from which others armed with sword and excommunication have been repulsed.
- We do not think good metaphors are anything very important, but I think that a good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on...
- E 91
- Variant translation: A good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on.
- What I do not like about our definitions of genius is that there is in them nothing of the day of judgment, nothing of resounding through eternity and nothing of the footsteps of the Almighty.
Notebook F (1776-1779)
- If it is permissible to write plays that are not intended to be seen, I should like to see who can prevent me from writing a book no one can read.
- The most heated defenders of a science, who cannot endure the slightest sneer at it, are commonly those who have not made very much progress in it and are secretly aware of this defect.
If you are going to build something in the air it is always better to build castles than houses of cards.
- If countries were named after the words you first hear when you go there, England would have to be called Damn It.
- If you are going to build something in the air it is always better to build castles than houses of cards.
- The Greeks possessed a knowledge of human nature we seem hardly able to attain to without passing through the strengthening hibernation of a new barbarism.
- We say that someone occupies an official position, whereas it is the official position that occupies him.
- Man can acquire accomplishments or he can become an animal, whichever he wants. God makes the animals, man makes himself.
- Doubt must be no more than vigilance, otherwise it can become dangerous.
- I am convinced we do not only love ourselves in others but hate ourselves in others too.
- A clever child brought up with a foolish one can itself become foolish. Man is so perfectable and corruptible he can become a fool through good sense.
I have remarked very clearly that I am often of one opinion when I am lying down and of another when I am standing up.
- Ideas too are a life and a world.
Just as we hit water when we dig in the earth, so we discover the incomprehensible sooner or later.
- I have remarked very clearly that I am often of one opinion when I am lying down and of another when I am standing up.
- Man is always partial and is quite right to be. Even impartiality is partial.
- There is no more important rule of conduct in the world than this: attach yourself as much as you can to people who are abler than you and yet not so very different that you cannot understand them.
- If we make a couple of discoveries here and there we need not believe things will go on like this for ever.... Just as we hit water when we dig in the earth, so we discover the incomprehensible sooner or later.
- There exists a species of transcendental ventriloquism by means of which men can be made to believe that something said on earth comes from Heaven.
- Just as the performance of the vilest and most wicked deeds requires spirit and talent, so even the greatest demand a certain insensitivity which under other circumstances we would call stupidity.
- Much can be inferred about a man from his mistress: in her one beholds his weaknesses and his dreams.
- Sickness is mankind's greatest defect.
- The most successful tempters and thus the most dangerous are the deluded deluders.
- What is the good of drawing conclusions from experience? I don't deny we sometimes draw the right conclusions, but don't we just as often draw the wrong ones?
- Much reading has brought upon us a learned barbarism.
- Affectation is a very good word when someone does not wish to confess to what he would none the less like to believe of himself.
- When an acquaintance goes by I often step back from my window, not so much to spare him the effort of acknowledging me as to spare myself the embarrassment of seeing that he has not done so.
Notebook G (1779-1783)
- People nowadays have such high hopes of America and the political conditions obtaining there that one might say the desires, at least the secret desires, of all enlightened Europeans are deflected to the west, like our magnetic needles.
- What is called an acute knowledge of human nature is mostly nothing but the observer's own weaknesses reflected back from others.
The human tendency to regard little things as important has produced very many great things.
- There are very many people who read simply to prevent themselves from thinking.
- To err is human also in so far as animals seldom or never err, or at least only the cleverest of them do so.
- The American who first discovered Columbus made a bad discovery.
- The human tendency to regard little things as important has produced very many great things.
- G 46
- Variant translation: The inclination of people to consider small things as important has produced many great things.
Notebook H (1784-1788)
Rational free spirits are the light brigade who go on ahead and reconnoitre the ground which the heavy brigade of the orthodox will eventually occupy.
- The noble simplicity in the works of nature only too often originates in the noble shortsightedness of him who observes it.
- We accumulate our opinions at an age when our understanding is at its weakest.
- The most dangerous untruths are truths moderately distorted.
- H 7
- Variant translation: The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.
- He who is enamored of himself will at least have the advantage of being inconvenienced by few rivals.
- H 10
- Variant translation: He who is in love with himself has at least this advantage — he won't encounter many rivals.
- Virtue by premeditation isn't worth much.
- With prophecies the commentator is often a more important man than the prophet.
- Rational free spirits are the light brigade who go on ahead and reconnoitre the ground which the heavy brigade of the orthodox will eventually occupy.
Notebook J (1789)
- A schoolteacher or professor cannot educate individuals, he educates only species.
- A great speech is easy to learn by heart and a great poem even easier. How hard it would be to memorize as many words linked together senselessly, or a speech in a foreign tongue! Sense and understanding thus come to the aid of memory. Sense is order and order is in the last resort conformity with our nature. When we speak rationally we are only speaking in accordance with the nature of our being. That is why we devise genera and species in the case of plants and animals. The hypotheses we make belong here too: we are obliged to have them because otherwise we would unable to retain things... The question is, however, whether everything is legible to us. Certainly experiment and reflection enable us to introduce a significance into what is not legible, either to us or at all: thus we see faces or landscapes in the sand, though they are certainly not there. The introducion of symmetries belongs here too, silhouettes in inkblots, etc. Likewise the gradation we establish in the order of creatures: all this is not in the things but in us. In general we cannot remember too often that when we observe nature, and especially the ordering of nature, it is always ourselves alone we are observing.
Man is a masterpiece of creation if for no other reason than that, all the weight of evidence for determinism notwithstanding, he believes he has free will.
- The fly that doesn't want to be swatted is most secure when it lights on the fly-swatter.
- J 70
- Variant translation: The fly that does not want to be swatted is safest if it sits on the fly-swat.
- Delight at having understood a very abstract and obscure system leads most people to believe in the truth of what it demonstrates.
- One cannot demand of a scholar that he show himself a scholar everywhere in society, but the whole tenor of his behavior must none the less betray the thinker, he must always be instructive, his way of judging a thing must even in the smallest matters be such that people can see what it will amount to when, quietly and self-collected, he puts this power to scholarly use.
- The most perfect ape cannot draw an ape; only man can do that; but, likewise, only man regards the ability to do this as a sign of superiority.
- It is a question whether, when we break a murderer on the wheel, we do not fall into the error a child makes when it hits the chair it has bumped into.
- It is said that truth comes from the mouths of fools and children: I wish every good mind which feels an inclination for satire would reflect that the finest satirist always has something of both in him.
- Man is a masterpiece of creation if for no other reason than that, all the weight of evidence for determinism notwithstanding, he believes he has free will.
Notebook K (1789-1793)
Man loves company — even if it is only that of a small burning candle.
- Nothing makes one old so quickly as the ever-present thought that one is growing older.
- Man is to be found in reason, God in the passions.
- The sure conviction that we could if we wanted to is the reason so many good minds are idle.
- To be content with life — or to live merrily, rather — all that is required is that we bestow on all things only a fleeting, superficial glance; the more thoughtful we become the more earnest we grow.
- It is almost everywhere the case that soon after it is begotten the greater part of human wisdom is laid to rest in repositories.
- Before one blames, one should always find out whether one cannot excuse. To discover little faults has been always the particularity of such brains that are a little or not at all above the average. The superior ones keep quiet or say something against the whole and the great minds transform without blaming.
- K 39
- Variant translation: Before we blame we should first see whether we cannot excuse.
- Man loves company — even if it is only that of a small burning candle.
The world's greatest events are not produced, they happen.
- He who says he hates every kind of flattery, and says it in earnest, certainly does not yet know every kind of flattery.
- To receive applause for works which do not demand all our powers hinders our advance towards a perfecting of our spirit. It usually means that thereafter we stand still.
- If all else fails, the character of a man can be recognized by nothing so surely as by a jest which he takes badly.
- K 46
- Variant translation: A person reveals his character by nothing so clearly as the joke he resents.
- It is in the gift for employing all the vicissitudes of life to one's own advantage and to that of one's craft that a large part of genius consists.
- One is rarely an impulsive innovator after the age of sixty, but one can still be a very fine orderly and inventive thinker. One rarely procreates children at that age, but one is all the more skilled at educating those who have already been procreated, and education is procreation of another kind.
There is no greater impediment to progress in the sciences than the desire to see it take place too quickly.
- So-called professional mathematicians have, in their reliance on the relative incapacity of the rest of mankind, acquired for themselves a reputation for profundity very similar to the reputation for sanctity possessed by theologians.
- First we have to believe, and then we believe.
- The greatest events occur without intention playing any part in them; chance makes good mistakes and undoes the most carefully planned undertaking. The world's greatest events are not produced, they happen.
- There is no greater impediment to progress in the sciences than the desire to see it take place too quickly.
There were honest people long before there were Christians and there are, God be praised, still honest people where there are no Christians...
Notebook L (1793-1796)
- There were honest people long before there were Christians and there are, God be praised, still honest people where there are no Christians. It could therefore easily be possible that people are Christians because true Christianity corresponds to what they would have been even if Christianity did not exist.
- If this is philosophy it is at any rate a philosophy that is not in its right mind.
- The "second sight" possessed by the Highlanders in Scotland is actually a foreknowledge of future events. I believe they possess this gift because they don't wear trousers... That is also why in all countries women are more prone to utter prophecies.
- Of all the inventions of man I doubt whether any was more easily accomplished than that of a Heaven.
- Actual aristocracy cannot be abolished by any law: all the law can do is decree how it is to be imparted and who is to acquire it.
With most people disbelief in a thing is founded on a blind belief in some other thing.
- What most clearly characterizes true freedom and its true employment is its misemployment.
- Reason now gazes above the realm of the dark but warm feelings as the Alpine peaks do above the clouds. They behold the sun more clearly and distinctly, but they are cold and unfruitful.
- He was always smoothing and polishing himself, and in the end he became blunt before he was sharp.
- With most men, unbelief in one thing springs from blind belief in another.
- L 81
- Variant translation: With most people disbelief in a thing is founded on a blind belief in some other thing.
- I believe that man is in the last resort so free a being that his right to be what he believes himself to be cannot be contested.
I have scattered seeds of ideas on almost every page which, if they fall on the right soil, may grow into chapters and even whole dissertations.
- As nations improve, so do their gods.
- Concerning the body, there are at least as many, if not more, imaginary sick as really sick people. Concerning the mind, there are as many, if not more, imaginary sane people as really sane ones.
- Do not have too artificial an idea of man but judge him naturally. Don't consider him too good or too bad. It is a golden rule that one should not judge people according to their opinions, but according to what these opinions make of them.
- Variants: It is a golden rule not to judge men by their opinions but rather by what their opinions make of them.
One must judge men not by their opinions, but by what their opinions have made of them.
Don't judge a man by his opinions, but what his opinions have made of him.
- Even the gentlest, most modest and best of girls are always better, gentler and more modest if their mirrors have told them they are looking more beautiful than ever.
- Everyone is a genius at least once a year. The real geniuses simply have their bright ideas closer together.
- First there is a time when we believe everything, then for a little while we believe with discrimination, then we believe nothing whatever, and then we believe everything again — and, moreover, give reasons why we believe.
- God created man in His own image, says the Bible; philosophers reverse the process: they create God in theirs.
- How happy would many people live if they cared about other people's affairs as little as about their own.
My inquiries into physics could perhaps be given the title: legacies
. For people do also bequeath trifles, after all.
- I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.
- I have scattered seeds of ideas on almost every page which, if they fall on the right soil, may grow into chapters and even whole dissertations.
- If another Messiah was born he could hardly do so much good as the printing-press.
- If moderation is a fault, then indifference is a crime.
Perhaps in time the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own.
- Just as we outgrow a pair of trousers, we outgrow acquaintances, libraries, principles, etc., at times before they're worn out and times — and this is the worst of all — before we have new ones.
- Men still have to be governed by deception.
- Most subjects at universities are taught for no other purpose than that they may be retaught when the students become teachers.
- My head lies at least a foot closer to my heart than is the case with other men: that is why I am so reasonable.
- My inquiries into physics could perhaps be given the title: legacies. For people do also bequeath trifles, after all.
- These "trifles" for which he could find no practical use include the principle used in all modern xerographic copiers and printers.
- Never undertake anything for which you wouldn't have the courage to ask the blessing of heaven.
- Not only did he not believe in ghosts, he wasn't even afraid of them.
- One should never trust a person who, while assuring you of something, puts his hands on his heart.
- One of the main conveniences of marriage is that if you can't stand a visitor, you can pass him along to your wife.
- One of the strangest applications of reason is to believe that it is a masterpiece to abstain from using it and thus, born with wings, to cut them off.
- One's first step in wisdom is to question everything — and one's last is to come to terms with everything.
- People don't think so differently about the events of life as they talk about them.
The preaching in the churches does not make the lightning rods on them unnecessary.
- Perhaps in time the so-called Dark Ages will be thought of as including our own.
- Popularizing should always be done in such a manner that one would elevate people by it. If one stoops down, one should always take care of elevating even those people to whom one descends.
- Some people read because they are too lazy to think.
We live in a world in which one fool makes many fools but one wise man only a few wise men.
- Sometimes men come by the name of genius in the same way that certain insects come by the name of centipede — not because they have a hundred feet, but because most people can't count above fourteen.
- The expression divine service should cease to be applied to church attendance and be applied instead to good deeds.
The grave is still the best shelter against the storms of destiny.
- The grave is still the best shelter against the storms of destiny.
- The highest point a poor brain can reach from experience is the ability to find out the weaknesses of superior people.
- The intercourse with reasonable people is advisable to everybody because, in this way, a blockhead can become wise by imitation, for the greatest blockheads can imitate, even apes and elephants can do it.
- The late M. who had a Catholic maid, once told me entirely bona fide: This person is a Catholic, it is true, but she is an honest, good soul. Recently she committed a perjury on my behalf.
- The preaching in the churches does not make the lightning rods on them unnecessary.
- Theologians always try to turn the Bible into a book without common sense.
- There are people that can believe everything they want. These are happy creatures.
- There can hardly be stranger wares in the world than books: printed by people who do not understand them; sold by people who do not understand them; bound, reviewed and read by people who do not understand them; and now even written by people who do not understand them.
- There is a great difference between still believing something and again believing it.
- Those who never have time do least.
- Variant translation: People that never have time do the least of all.
- We live in a world in which one fool makes many fools but one wise man only a few wise men.
- We must not seek to abstract from the busts of the great Greeks and Romans rules for the visible form of genius as long as we cannot contrast them with Greek blockheads.
- What a blessing it would be if we could open and shut our ears as easily as we open and shut our eyes!
- Why are young widows in mourning so beautiful? (Look into it.)
- You must not allow your reading to dominate you but you should dominate your reading.
Quotes about Lichtenberg
- We may use Lichtenberg’s writings as the most wonderful dowsing rod: wherever he makes a joke, there a problem lies hidden.
- He is not a household name. He is something rarer: a name savored by household names.
- Lichtenberg digs deeper than anyone... He speaks from the subterranean depths. Only he who himself digs deep hears him.
Last modified on 4 November 2008, at 21:08