Aphorisms to Live By


Holed up in a cabin that looks suspiciously like your house? Ready to “waste” some time wisely? Consider the sanity we call aphorisms, plenty of which can be found in Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s The Waste Books.

The word “waste” comes not from garbage, as you might suspect, but from the business practice of jotting down transactions in real time, only to organize them later in a more formal ledger. Thus, any ideas that came into Lichtenberg’s constantly buzzing head would land in his “waste” book, which is anything but and, in truth, shows some polished, ledger-like thought.

The version I read comes from nyrb’s estimable paperback series (an addiction that could prove costly, so readers beware). Some of my favorite GCL thoughts are as follows:

    • Diogenes, filthily attired, paced across the splendid carpets in Plato’s dwelling. Thus, said he, do I trample on the pride of Plato. Yes, Plato replied, but only with another kind of pride.” This resonates with me because I’ve found that, often in life, playing the role of anti-anything amounts to the same hubris as the opposed sentiment to begin with. For instance, to be overly vocal in your disdain for the wealthy and their laughable pride in materialism is, in itself, a sort of “materialism” — the riches of “anti-materialism,” or the pride in ostentatious poverty, if you will. Look at me, at how I wear my pride in despising the laughable pride of others. As Plato might say, it’s all one, and thus do opposites recognize parts of themselves in each other.
    • Every observer of human nature knows how hard it is to narrate experiences in such a way that no opinion or judgment interferes with the narration.” Is there such a thing as complete objectivity? I think not, and this aphorism speaks to that.
    • A principal rule for writers, and especially those who want to describe their own sensations, is not to believe that their doing so indicates they possess a special disposition of nature in this respect. Others can perhaps do it just as well as you can. Only they do not make a business of it, because it seems to them silly to publicize such things.” Here we have Lichtenberg anticipating blogs (I write, therefore I am somebody). And yet, Lichtenberg is guilty himself — knowingly so and with a wink. As for my blog, if you read it, please assume the winking behind its “specialness.”
    • 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.” Mark Twain often sneered at “the damned human race” and held up animals as the superior breed. Maybe it’s that abject “nobility,” a near neighbor of “pride,” that manifests itself in our ideas about our bodies, our modesty, our high sense of decorum — this despite the fact that our bodies are, in one sense, no different than the bodies of animals (who really don’t obsess about the covering of their mortal coils the way we do). That said, I am most grateful that most people do cover their coils. “Mortality” is the least of these coils’ problems.
    • We are only too inclined to believe that if we possess a little talent work must come easily to us. You must exert yourself, man, if you want to do something great.” We are only too fond of short cuts and of letting ourselves off the hook by way of excuses. One of our favorites: I can’t do that or do that as well because I lack the talent that x has.
    • You can take the first book you lay your hands on and with your eyes closed point to any line and say: A book could be written about this. When you open your eyes, you will seldom find you are deceived.” Who needs prompts? Just take Lichtenberg’s advice. And yet, despite this, there is nothing new under the sun. The wisdom of Lichtenberg meets the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. Amazing.
    • The individual often praises what is bad, but the whole human race praises only the good.” What I most admire about Lichtenberg is his affinity for irony.
    • That man is the noblest creature may also be inferred from the fact that no other creature has yet contested this claim.” See what I mean?
    •  “It requires no especially great talent to write in such a way that another will be very hard put to it to understand what you have written.” This aphorism should be posted above the desk of every poet — and every poetry journal editor.
    • We have the often thoughtless respect accorded ancient laws, ancient usages and ancient religion to thank for all the evil in the world.” One need only read the front section of the newspaper to reveal the wisdom in this thought.
    • It is impossible to have bad taste, but many people have none at all. Most people have no ideas, says Dr. Price, they talk about a thing but they don’t think: this is what I have several times called having an opinion.” And this should be posted above the entrance to the U.S. Capitol — a Congress of no ideas, of talking about things without thinking. Or, simply tune to Fox News, a lair of heated and often dangerous to breathe air.
    • It is very much in the order of nature that toothless animals should have horns: is it any wonder that old men and women should often have them?” File under the category, “Older and bolder.”
    • From love of fatherland they write stuff that gets our dear fatherland laughed at.” Another thought for our posturing, prattling politicians. Or ugly Americans wherever you may find them.
    • “I am convinced we do not only love ourselves in others but hate ourselves in others, too.” Consider him or her you call friend. Reconsider the source of your admiration. Is it a facet of you yourself you’re admiring? And, when your friend disappoints you, is it because you yourself have surfaced in your friend?
    • Wine is accredited only with the misdeeds it induces: what is forgotten is the hundreds of good deeds of which it is also the cause. Wine excites to action: to good actions in the good, to bad in the bad.” Hmn… I wonder if Lichtenberg was an oenophile? And if he considered himself “good”? A toast to correct answers!
    • The human tendency to regard little things as important has produced very many great things.” I am a big (little?) fan of “little things” and believe that they are difference makers in writing, in cooking, in working, in most anything you care to bring up. Together, the little things move valleys.


  • He who is enamored of himself will at least have the advantage of being inconvenienced by few rivals.” Cautionary words not only for keepers of waste books, but writers of blogs! Are we that enamored of our own thoughts and words that we think others visit (much less return) to read them? Stats on WordPress are a quick cure for that delusion (and reaffirmation of Lichtenberg’s words).
  • What am I? What shall I do? What can I believe and hope for? Everything in philosophy can be reduced to this…” It’s hard to get past the first question, much less face dragons #2 and 3! I’m on the stretch drive of life and still haven’t solved for x in the equation x = me.
  • Writing is an excellent means of awakening in every man the system slumbering within him; and everyone who has ever written will have discovered that writing always awakens something which, though it lay within us, we failed clearly to recognize before.” If Lichtenberg’s words can be used to mock blogging, so can they be used to tout it. Behold! I write, therefore I am!
  • The Catholics once burned the Jews and failed to reflect that the mother of God was of that nation, and even now do not reflect that they worship a Jewess.” Lichtenberg was fascinated by matters of religion and counted himself an enlightened doubter. Given his druthers between Catholics and Protestants, however, he does his fellow Germans proud. Luther would applaud.
  • Use, use your powers: what now costs you effort will in the end become mechanical.” If I could teach students of life one aphorism to live by, this would be it. It does get easier! But first, discipline and a work ethic.
  • To me there is no more odious kind of person than those who on every occasion believe they are obliged to be ex officio witty.” Ah, the office wag… the class clown… the drunk wearing the lampshade. God love ’em (because no one else can).
  • You can make a good living from soothsaying but not from truthsaying.” People hear what they want to hear, and they seldom want to hear the truth. Speculation and conspiracy theories, on the other hand? There’s no end to the hunger. See: Fox News and The White House.
  • The sure conviction that we could if we wanted to is the reason so many good minds are idle.” Is this another way of saying “talk is cheap”? Or maybe, “action speaks louder than words”? Thus do cliches become novel aphorisms.
  • “He who says he hates every kind of flattery, and says it in earnest, certainly does not yet know every kind of flattery…” One admirable trait of Lichtenberg is his ability to criticize even himself. Clearly he has proven his own theory: We are all susceptible to some kinds of flattery, try as we might to remain “pure.”
  • “Is it not strange that men are so keen to fight for religion and so unkeen to live according to its precepts?” At times, irony proves its point more readily than speeches and treatises.