The Waste Books
This book is a collection of ‘1085 aphorisms and other aphoristically brief writings’, as Hollingdale puts it in his introduction. It’s basically a collection of random observations and remarks made by Lichtenberg over the years. I’d liked some of Lichtenberg’s quotes I’d read in the past, so I figured I’d give the book a try. It was sort of okay, but I actually do not hold this book, or the author, in very high regard; my opinion of the author definitely went down while I was reading this work. I often disagree with Lichtenberg, and from my reading of him I get the sense that I’d have considered him a person who thought much too highly of himself, to the point that he’d simply be the kind of person I’d find completely insufferable – for example there are quite a few quotes in the book about what separates The Genius from Ordinary People, or something along those lines, and one is not for one second in doubt as to which category Lichtenberg considers himself to belong to, despite how trivial and formulaic/simplistic most of these specific quotes/observations are. He has absolutely terrible taste in books: “Most of our writers possess, I do not say insufficient genius, but insufficient sense to write a Robinson Crusoe.” To which I say: ‘Aargh!’ That one is one of the worst books I’ve ever read. What’s even worse in that specific case is of course the fact that he seems to have taken Defoe’s tale to reflect reality – as he puts it in a different quote elsewhere, “Oh if only we could return to the age of the Patriarchs … or go to happy Tahiti, where … there is perfect human equality and you have the right to eat your enemies and to be eaten by them.”
But of course many such objections/problems are arguably just values dissonance-related, and the fact that the author thought it was okay to write some of the things he did the way he did should not make you think he was ‘stupid and wrong’ as much as it should make you think about what such quotes may tell you about the time/setting at which point the quotes were written, if anything. I don’t think I’d like spending time with this guy, to put it mildly, but I never will anyway so that’s hardly relevant. A relatively small number of good quotes keep you reading, but actually I am not sure you need to read the book in order to find most of his ‘quite good’ quotes (some of which I have blogged in the past, in the quotes posts). It should be noted that although some of the various ‘not great’ quotes do add something in that they ‘make you think’ and/or perhaps provide context and increase your understanding of the setting, others really do not add much.
I have added a few quotes from the book below. I have limited my coverage to quotes which I perceive to be of a reasonably high quality and which I have not already blogged – or at least I have tried to avoid repeats. For other Lichtenberg quotes covered here on the blog in the past, follow this link.
“Most propagators of a faith defend their propositions, not because they are convinced of their truth, but because they once asserted that they were true.”
“The greatest things in the world are brought about by other things which we count as nothing: little causes we overlook but which at length accumulate.”
“Reasons are often and for the most part only expositions of pretensions designed to give a coloring of legitimacy and rationality to something we would have done in any case …”
“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.”
“Devised with a maximum of erudition and a minimum of common sense.” (I’m saving that one! Another one along the same lines: “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.”)
“There are people who sometimes boast of how frank and candid they are: they ought to reflect, however, that frankness and candor must proceed from the nature of one’s character, or even those who would otherwise esteem it highly must regard it as a piece of insolence.”
“It makes a great difference by what path we come to a knowledge of certain things. If we begin in our youth with metaphysics and religion we can easily proceed along a series of rational conclusions that will lead us to the immortality of the soul. Not every other path will lead to this, at least not quite so easily.” (‘at least not quite so easily’ was a nice touch – good luck finding a path that’ll lead you there if you think the notion of a ‘soul’ is, well… But the main point stands.)
“I believe […] that most people know men better than they themselves are aware of, and that they make great use of their knowledge in everyday life …” (On a related note, “More often than we think, people notice things we believe we have artfully concealed from them.” See also this.)
“To make clever people believe we are what we are not is in most instances harder than really to become what we want to seem to be.”
“Honest unaffected distrust of human abilities under all circumstances is the surest sign of strength of mind.”
“Sometimes we know a person better than we can say, or at least than we do say.”
“He who is enamoured of himself will at least have the advantage of being inconvenienced by few rivals.” (this one was funny, considering some of the other quotes in this book.)
“For the loss of those we have loved there is no alleviation but time and carefully and rationally chosen diversions such as will not cause our heart to reproach us.”
“Nothing is more inimical to the progress of science than the belief that we know what we do not yet know.” (Compare with quote xiii here – there he thought the greatest impediment to progress in science was ‘the desire to see it take place too quickly’…)
“Nothing makes one old so quickly as the ever-present thought that one is growing older.”
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