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Georg Christoph Lichtenberg (1742-1799)


German physicits, mathematician, astromoner, and satirical writer, best-known for his aphorisms he collected in his notebooks (waste books). Lichtenberg has been admired by such writers and philosophers as Goethe, Nietzsche, Schopenhaeur, Tolstoy, and Wittgenstein. Goethe once said: "We may use Lichtenberg’s writings as the most wonderful dowsing rod: wherever he makes a joke, there a problem lies hidden." In his notebooks Lichtenberg examined unsystematically a wide variety of subjects, from society and philosophical questions to psychology and art and literature. Throughout his life Lichtenberg suffered from poor health, but he had hypochondriac tendencies, too.

"The greatest things in the world are brought about other things which we count as nothing: little causes we overlook but which at length accumulate." (from The Waste Books, translated by R. J. Hollingdale)

Georg Christoph Lichtenberg was born in Oberramstadt, near Darmstadt. He was the first of seventeen children, most of whom died at an early age. From his childhood Lichtenberg suffered from a malformation of the spine. In spite of becoming a hunchback and the target of crude and offensive remarks, his writing do not show bitter attitude toward life. And as much as his own outlook was observed by other people, he observed their behavior and his own life. His physical handicap Lichtenberg also could deal with humour. "My head," he said, "lies at least a foot closer to my heart than is the case with other men: that is why I am so reasonable."

Lichtenberg's father, Johann Conrad Lichtenberg, was a Lutheran clergyman. He died in 1751 when Lichtenberg was nine. Henrietta Catharina (Eckard) Lichtenberg, his mother, came also from a clerical family; she died in 1764. Later Lichtenberg said, that he had dreams of his mother every night. In 1763 Lichtenberg entered Göttingen University, where he studied mathematics and the natural sciences. His first printed work was 'Von dem Nutzen, den die Mathematik einem Bel Esprit bringen kann' (1766), which was published in Hannoverische Magazin. After graduating, he worked as a tutor for three years. During this period Lichtenberg started to read Kant, but later he was more drawn to Spinoza’s way on thinking.

His first sexual encounter Lichtenberg may have experienced in 1766 with Maria Justine Schulzen, a cleaning woman. In 1777 he met Maria Stechard, a weaver’s daughter, who was then about thirteen years old. She started to visit his house daily as a housekeeper and from 1780 she lived with him permanently. Maria died in 1782. "She reconciled me to the human race," Lichtenberg recalled, but soon he found another love, Margarethe Kellner, and again a much younger woman with a working class background. They lived together from 1786 and were married in 1789. Margarethe gave him six children and outlived him by 49 years.

Lichtenberg left Göttingen only three times. He visited England twice – in 1770 and 1774-1775. These journeys made him an Anglophile; especially he enjoyed the atmosphere of political freedom. According to a story, one morning George III once arrived unannounced on his doorstep, asking in German whether the Herr Professor was at home. A rumor or joke began to circulate that Lichtenberg was George II’s illegitimate son. Lichtenberg's interest in English life and art led him to write a comprehensive study on Hogarth's engravings, Ausfürliche Erklärung der Hogarthischen Kupfertische, 1794-1835. Lichtenberg produced the first five of 14 instalments.

In 1770 Lichtenberg was appointed assistant professor of physics at Göttingen and in 1775 he become Professor Ordinarius. He taught mathematics, physics, astronomy, and a variety of other subjects. As his fame spread, his lectures on physics started to attract students from different parts of Europe. At that time it was very common that physicist were also mathematicians, and passed readily from mechanics to astronomy. Among his students were the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), the geographer, naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), and the romantic poet Novalis (1772-1801). Trying to hide his hump from the curious students, he always came into the lecture room facing his audience.

From 1778 Lichtenberg contributed to the Göttinger Taschenkalender, a publication intended to spread the philosophy of the Enlightenment. With G.A. Forster he edited the Göttingisches Magazin der Literatur und Wissenschaft between 1780 and 1782. In 1793 he was elected a member of the Royal Society.

In 1793 Lichtenberg started an affair with his servant girl, Dolly. Probably he recorded in one of his notebooks (the K book) intimate details of this amorous adventure, but most of the book has been destroyed. During his last years he drank more than before. One of his neighbors have told, that Lichtenberg woke up late, had coffee, bitter, and wine. With lunch he drank wine, and in the afternoon he drank wine and liqueur. And in the evenings he read and wrote. Lichtenberg kept on filling up his notebooks until a few days before his death. He died at fifty-seven, on February 24, 1799. Various monuments have been erected in his honor. The bronze for the sculpture of Lichtenberg, designed by the Albanian artist Fuat Dushku and placed in 1992 at the market place in Göttingen, came from toppled statues of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha.  

Lichtenberg has been credited with introducing the aphorism into German literature. However, his notebooks in which he wrote his aphorism for his own amusement, were published posthumously. The names of the volumes followed the alphabets from A to L, which has several pages missing. Notebooks G and H have disappeared.

It is possible that Lichtenberg began keeping his notebooks, or Südelbücher ("waste books") as he called them, while still in school, but his earliest surviving notes are from the mid-1760s. He also kept a diary. Lichtenberg's aphorism were first collected in the posthumpus edition Vermischte Schriften (1800-05). It consisted of nine volumes. Lichtenberg's style is intimate and direct. Human nature and its foibles provided much material for his observations. "Soothsayers make a better living in the world than truthsayers," he once said. Lichtenberg ironized the Sturm und Drang school of writers and admired such English writers as Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding. Michel de Montaigne was the only French writer, whom he read with a pencil in his hand. At that time writers seldom recorded their dreams, but Lichtenberg showed genuine interest in them. "I know from endeniable experience that dreams lead to self-knowledge," he wrote. "Aus den Träumen der Menschen, wenn sie dieselben gnau anzeigten, ließe sich vielleicht vieles auf ihren Charakter schließen. Es gehörte aber dazu nicht etwa einer sondern eine ziemliche Menge." (from Sudelbuch A) Later Freud referred to him several times.

In the spirit of Enlightenment Lichtenberg was an empiricist, who opposed dogmatism and wanted to substitute knowledge for fancy. "Superstition," he explained, "originates among ordinary people in the early and all too zealous instruction they receive in religion: they hear of mysteries, miracles, deeds of the Devil, and consider it very probable that things of this sort could occur in everything anywhere." Lichtenberg questioned accepted truths, but his ironic rationalism was balanced and cultivated. Goethe’s theory of color he dismissed. In geometry he come to the conclusion that Euclid's axioms based on common sense might not be the only right ones. At the age of sixteen Lichtenberg lost his Christian faith. In the light of his notebook it seems that he was not an unshakable atheist. Once he noted: "Never undertake anything for which you wouldn't have the courage to ask the blessing of heaven."

Lichtenberg's first important work was Über Physiognomik, wider die Physiognomen (1778), a satire on Johann Caspar Lavater's Physiognomische Fragmente. Lavater's theory, that people's characters can be read from their portrait silhouettes, prompted also 'Fragment von Schwänzen', published in Baldingers Neues Magazin für Aerzte in 1783. Imitating Lavater's pretentious language, Lichtenberg examined the "expressive" qualities of tails, tails of dogs and pigs, and "pigtails" of men, all presented as silhouettes. "What kindliness in the silky tender slope," he wrote of an pigtail, "effective without any masking hemp-hiding ribbon, and yet smiling bliss like plaited sunbeams. Soaring as far above even crowned heads as saint's halo over a nightcap..." Also the early satire, Von Konrad Photorin (1773), was directed against Lavater.

For further reading: Schrieben: Literarische und wissenschaftliche Innovation bei Lichtenberg, Jean Paul, Goethe by Jens Loescher (2014); Nach London!: der Modernisierungsprozess Englands in der literarischen Inszenierung von Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Heinrich Heine und Theodor Fontane by Robert Radu (2010); Travel and the German Enlightenment: Captain Cook, Georg Forster, and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg by Buechler, R. W.; Wright, W.; Kaplan, S. (2005);Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: vom Eros des Denkens by Wolfram Mauser (2000); Georg Christoph Lichtenbergs Konzept aufgeklärter Kultur by Volker Schümmer (2000); Körper und Seele bei Georg Christoph Lichtenberg by Friederike Kleisner (1998); "Unsere ganze Philosophie ist Berichtigung des Sprachgebrauchs": Friedrich Nietzsches Lichtenberg-Rezeption im Spannungsfeld zwischen Sprachkritik (Rhetorik) und historischer Kritik (Genealogie) by Martin Stingelin (1996); Im Dialog mit Georg Christoph Lichtenberg by Friedhelm Zubke (1993); Georg Christoph Lichtenberg by Rainer Baasner (1992); Lichtenbergs literarisches Nachleben: eine Rezeptions-Geschichte by Dieter Lamping (1992); Lichtenberg, das grosse Ganze: ein Essay by Rainer Baasner (1992); Lichtenbergs Funkenflug der Vernunft, ed. by Jörg-Dieter Kogel, Wolfram Schütte und Harro Zimmermann (1992); Dieses ephemerische Werckchen: Georg Christoph Lichtenberg und der Göttinger Taschen Calender by Günter Peperkorn (1992); Science, Satire, and Wit: the Essays of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg by Ralph W. Buechler (1990); Ein Abend-Essen zu Fuss: Notizen zu Lichtenberg by Kurt Bracharz (1987); Georg Christoph Lichtenberg by Dorothea Goetz (1980); Georg Christoph Lichtenberg by H.E. Köhle (1973); Thoughts Concerning Education in the Works of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg by Svein Øksenholt 1925-(1963); A Reasonable Rebel, Georg Christoph Lichtenberg by Carl Brinitzer (1960); Forster und Lichtenberg; ein Beitrag zum Problem deutsche Intelligenz und Französische Revolution by Wolfgang Rödel (1960); Lichtenberg; zum Problem der deutschen Aphoristik by Paul Requadt (1948): Versuch über die Bemerkungen Lichtenbergs by Georg Seidler (1937)

Selected works:

  • Briefe aus England, 1776-78
  • Über Physiognomik, wider die Physiognomen, 1778
  • Göttingisches magazin der wissenschaften und litteratur, 1780-85 (edited by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg and Georg Forster)
  • Über die Pronunciation der Schöpse des alten Griechenlandes, 1782
  • Ausfürliche Erklärung der Hogarthischen Kupfertische, 1794-1835
  • Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's Vermischte Schriften, 1800-06 (edited by Ludwig Christian Lichtenberg and Friedrich Kries)
  • W. Hogarth's zeichnungen, nach den originalen in stahl gestochen, 1840 (edited by Franz Kottenkamp)
  • Briefe, 1901-04 (edited by A. Leitzmann and K. Schüddenkopf)
  • George Christoph Lichtenbergs Aphorismen, 1902-08
  • Aus G. C. Lichtenbergs Correspondenz, 1905 (edited by Erich Ebstein)
  • Aphorismen, 1913 (edited by Albert Leitzmann
  • Lichtenberg's Visits to England, as Described in His Letters and Diaries, 1938 (translated by Margaret L. Mare and W. H. Quarrell)
  • Tag und Dämmerung; Aphorismen, Schriften, Briefe, Tagebücher, 1941 (edited by Ernst Vincent)
  • Aphorismen, Briefe und Schriften, 1946
  • Werke, 1947 (edited by K.R. Goldschmit-Jentner)
  • Aphorismen, Briefe, Satiren, 1948 (edited by H. Nette)
  • Kritik des Lebens. Eine Auswahl aus den "Bemerkungen", 1948 (edited by Hermann Frasch)
  • Gesammelte Werke, 1949 (2 vols., ed. by W. Grenzmann)
  • The Lichtenberg Reader; Selected Writings, 1959 (translated and edited by Franz H. Mautner and Henry Hatfield)
  • Aphorismen, 1966 (edited by Friedrich Sengle)
  • The World of Hogarth; Lichtenberg's Commentaries on Hogarth's Engravings, 1966 (translated by Innes and Gustav Herdan)
  • Schriften und Briefe, 1968-72 (4 vols., edited by W. Promies)
  • Hogarth on High Life. The Marriage à La Mode Series, from George Christoph Lichtenberg's Commentaries, 1970 (translated and edited by Arthur S. Wensinger with W. B. Coley)
  • Tobias Mayer's Opera inedita: the First Translation of the Lichtenberg Edition of 1775, 1971 (by Eric G. Forbes)
  • Lichtenberg in England, 1977 (edited by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg)
  • London-Tagebuch: September 1774-April 1775, 1979 (edited by Hans Ludwig Gumbert)
  • Schriften und Briefe, 1983 (edited by F.H. Mautner)
  • Lichtenberg: Streifzüge der Phantasie, 1988 (edited by Jörg Zimmermann)
  • Lichtenberg: Essays Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of His Birth, 1992 (edited by Charlotte M. Craig)
  • Observationes: die lateinischen Schriften, 1997 (edited by Dag Nikolaus Hasse)
  • The Waste Books, 2000 (translated by R.J. Hollingdale)
  • Aphorisms, 2002 (translated by R.J. Hollingdale)
  • Georg Christoph Lichtenberg: Philosophical Writings, Selected from the Waste Books, 2012 (translated, edited, and with an introduction by Steven Tester)

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