Insomnia | Essays

The Waste Books

By Georg Christoph Lichtenberg / Translated by R. J. Hollingdale


Notebook K, aphorism 27

The sure conviction that we could if we wanted to is the reason so many good minds are idle.


Notebook K, aphorism 51

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.

Notebook K, aphorism 37

It is almost everywhere the case that soon after it is begotten the greater part of human wisdom is laid to rest in repositories.


Notebook D, aphorism 20

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.


Notebook K, aphorism 13

Nothing makes one old so quickly as the ever-present thought that one is growing older.


Notebook J, aphorism 249

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 J, aphorism 65

We cannot remember too often that when we observe nature, and especially the ordering of nature, it is always ourselves alone we are observing.


Notebook J, aphorism 146

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.


Notebook J, aphorism 70

The fly that does not want to be swatted is safest if it sits on the fly-swat.


Notebook J, aphorism 77

Delight at having understood a very abstract and obscure system leads most people to believe in the truth of what it demonstrates.


Notebook G, aphorism 29

There are very many people who read simply to prevent themselves from thinking.


Notebook D, aphorism 96

To do the opposite of something is also a form of imitation, namely an imitation of its opposite.


Notebook D, aphorism 25

Nowadays three witty turns of phrase and a lie make a writer.


Notebook E, aphorism 92

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 E, aphorism 76

With a pen in my hand I have successfully stormed bulwarks from which others armed with sword and excommunication have been repulsed.


Notebook C, aphorism 26

Erudition can produce foliage without bearing fruit.


Notebook E, aphorism 65

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.


Notebook E, aphorism 55

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.


Notebook E, aphorism 19

A handful of soldiers is always better than a mouthful of arguments.


Notebook E, aphorism 69

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.


Notebook E, aphorism 49

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.


Notebook E, aphorism 59

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.


Notebook F, aphorism 144

Much reading has brought upon us a learned barbarism.


Notebook F, aphorism 84

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.


Notebook F, aphorism 82

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.


Notebook F, aphorism 44

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.


Notebook F, aphorism 123

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?


Notebook F, aphorism 69

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.


Notebook E, aphorism 11

Nothing can contribute more to peace of soul than the lack of any opinion whatever.


Notebook F, aphorism 78

Man is always partial and is quite right to be. Even impartiality is partial.


Notebook F, aphorism 47

We say that someone occupies an official position, whereas it is the official position that occupies him.


Notebook E, aphorism 52

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.


Notebook F, aphorism 39

If you are going to build something in the air it is always better to build castles than houses of cards.


Notebook C, aphorism 38

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.


Notebook L, aphorism 44

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.


Notebook F, aphorism 87

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.


Notebook J, aphorism 85

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.


Notebook K, aphorism 48

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.


Notebook K, aphorism 68

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.


Notebook L, aphorism 16

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.


Notebook B, aphorism 44

If an angel were ever to tell us anything of his philosophy I believe many propositions would sound like 2 times 2 equals 13.


Notebook L, aphorism 81

With most people disbelief in a thing is founded on a blind belief in some other thing.


Notebook C, aphorism 33

Even truth needs to be clad in new garments if it is to appeal to a new age.


Notebook C, aphorism 36

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.


Notebook D, aphorism 97

We are obliged to regard many of our original minds as crazy at least until we have become as clever as they are.


Notebook E, aphorism 36

Be wary of passing the judgment: obscure. To find something obscure poses no difficulty: elephants and poodles find many things obscure.


Notebook F, aphorism 53

Doubt must be no more than vigilance, otherwise it can become dangerous.


Notebook F, aphorism 81

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.


Notebook F, aphorism 73

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.


Notebook F, aphorism 100

Sickness is mankind's greatest defect.


Notebook F, aphorism 8

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.


Notebook F, aphorism 49

Man can acquire accomplishments or he can become an animal, whichever he wants. God makes the animals, man makes himself.


Notebook H, aphorism 4

We accumulate our opinions at an age when our understanding is at its weakest.


Notebook H, aphorism 23

With prophecies the commentator is often a more important man than the prophet.


Notebook G, aphorism 42

The American who first discovered Columbus made a bad discovery.


Notebook H, aphorism 7

The most dangerous untruths are truths slightly distorted.


Notebook J, aphorism 10

A schoolteacher or professor cannot educate individuals, he educates only species.


Notebook A, aphorism 38

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 A, aphorism 17

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.


Notebook L, aphorism 50

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.


Notebook L, aphorism 34

Of all the inventions of man I doubt whether any was more easily accomplished than that of a Heaven.


Notebook B, aphorism 49

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.


Notebook L, aphorism 49

What most clearly characterizes true freedom and its true employment is its misemployment.


Notebook B, aphorism 41

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.


Notebook L, aphorism 26

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.


Notebook E, aphorism 91

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...


Notebook D, aphorism 58

That man is the noblest creature may also be inferred from the fact that no other creature has yet contested this claim.


Notebook K, aphorism 55

First we have to believe, and then we believe.


Notebook K, aphorism 52

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.


Notebook H, aphorism 1

The noble simplicity in the works of nature only too often originates in the noble shortsightedness of him who observes it.


Notebook H, aphorism 26

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.--


Notebook H, aphorism 65

It is almost impossible to carry the torch of wisdom through a crowd without singeing someone's beard.


Notebook H, aphorism 83

Soothsayers make a better living than truthsayers.


Notebook K, aphorism 99

The often unreflected respect for old laws, old customs and old religion we have to thank for all mischief in the world.


Notebook A, aphorism 64

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.


Notebook B, aphorism 37

Let him who has two pairs of trousers turn one of them into cash and purchase this book.


Notebook A, aphorism 43

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.


Notebook D, aphorism 5

It is a bad thing that truth has nowadays to have its cause pleaded by fiction, novels and fables.


Notebook D, aphorism 12

The course of the seasons is a clock in which a cuckoo goes "cuckoo" when spring arrives.


Notebook D, aphorism 30

Just as there are polysyllabic words that say very little, so there are also monosyllabic words of infinite meaning.


Notebook J, aphorism 10

What a pity it isn't a sin to drink water, cried an Italian, how good it would taste.


Notebook J, aphorism 35

When a book and a head collide and a hollow sound is heard, must it always have come from the book?


Notebook K, aphorism 19

We ought really to call "a book" only that which contains something new: the rest are only a means of learning quickly what has already been done in this or that field. To discover new countries and to fournish accurate charts of what you have discovered: that is the difference. What has not yet been said on this matter?


Notebook K, aphorism 20

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...



[Excerpt from Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, The Waste Books, written 1765-1799, translated by R.J. Hollingdale (2000).]