The Aphorisms of Johann Kaspar Lavater

Johann Kaspar Lavater is best known (insofar as anyone can be well known as a physiognomist) as a physiognomist but back in his day—the late eighteenth century—he was up to all sorts of tricks, including a 1787 book of aphorisms, Aphorisms on Man. His friend, the painter Henry Fuseli, translated the book into English in 1790, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in aphorisms or the philosophical thought of an age when serious grown-ups would write at length about “friendship.” Assuming that many people will not want to slog through the whole book, or puzzle out where the Fs and where the Ss go in words like stedfast [sic], I present below (in partial compliance with aphorism 632) my favorites.

Aphorism 454 is directly aimed at me; 116 at the internet at large; 213 at all of us.

The complete text is available here.


34. Who (the exhilarating mirth of humor excepted) gives uneasiness in order to enjoy it, is malicious; but there is both dignity and delicacy in giving uneasiness to confer greater delights than could have been obtained without it.

102. He who can despise nothing can value nothing with propriety; and who can value nothing has no right to despise any thing.

116. Who cuts is easily wounded. The readier you are to offend the sooner you are offended.

jkl

“An illegible hand.”

119. As you treat your body, so your house, your domestics, your enemies, your friends. Dress is a table of your contents.

126. Who seldom speaks, and with one calm well-timed word can strike dumb the loquacious, is a genius or a hero.

157. Say not you know another entirely until you have divided an inheritance with him.

165. Examine carefully whether a man is fonder of exceptions than of rules; as he makes use of exceptions her is sagacious; as he applies them against the rule he is wrong-headed. I heard in one day a man who thought himself wise produce thrice, as rules, the strangest half-proved exceptions against millions of demonstrated contrary examples, and thus obtained the most intuitive idea of the sophist’s character…

213. Kiss the hand of him who can renounce what he has publickly taught when convicted of his error, and who, with heartfelt joy, embraces truth, though with the sacrifice of favourite opinions.

251. Ask not only, am I hated? but, by whom?—am I loved? but why? As the good love thee, the bad will hate thee.

lavater

J.K.L.

260. Have you ever seen a pedant with a warm heart?

271. He who is good before invisible witnesses, is eminently so before the visible.

279. Between the best and the worst,  there are, you say, innumerable degrees—and you are right; but admit that I am right too, in saying that the best and the worst differ only in one thing—the object of their love.

280. What is it you love in him you love? what is it you hate in him you hate? Answer this closely to yourself, pronounce it loudly, and you will know yourself and him.

295. Be not the fourth friend of him who had three before and lost them.

311. Trust him little who, without proofs, trusts you with every thing; or, when he has proved you, with nothing.

329. Who comes from the kitchen smells of smoke; who adheres to a sect has something of its cant: the college-air pursues the student, and dry inhumanity him who herds with literary pedants.

443. He, who rather discovers the great in the little, than the little in the great, is not far distant from greatness.

447. Who asks two questions at once will easily give one answer for another; frequently commit gross blunders; and seldom adhere to truth when he relates.

454. He is both outrageously vain and malicious who ascribes the best actions of the good to vanity alone.

465. If you mean to escape your creditor or enemy, avoid him not.

468. Nature bids thee not to love deformity; be content to discover and do justice to its better part.

469. The rapid, who can bear the slow with patience, can bear all injuries.

henry-fuseli-the-nightmare-1781-copy.jpg

One of the translator’s more famous works.

477. If you ask me which is the real hereditary sin of human nature; do you imagine I shall answer pride, or luxury, or ambition, or egotism? No; I shall say indolence; who conquers indolence will conquer all the rest.

481. Trust him little who praises all, him less who censures all, and him least who is indifferent about all.

483. Whom every book delights which he reads, none has instructed which he has read.

486. Sense seeks and finds the though; thought seeks and finds genius.

498. The greater that which you can hide, the greater yourself.

508. You may have hot enemies without having a warm friend; but not a fervid friend without a bitter enemy. The qualities of your friends will be those of your enemies: cod friends, cold enemies; half friends, half enemies; fervid enemies, warm friends.

521. The hottest water extinguishes fire…

525. Pretend not to self knowledge if you find nothing worse within yourself than what enmity of calumny dares loudly to lay to your charge.

526. You are not very good if you are not better than your best friends imagine you to be.

555. Neither patience nor inspiration can give wings to a snail…

556. To enjoy blunders may proceed from a comic turn; but to enjoy blunders because they make the blunderer contemptible, is a step towards the fiend-like joy that fosters crimes as causes of or perdition to others and of emolument to you.

588. As you name ten different things, so you name ten thousand; as you tell ten different stories, so you tell ten thousand.

jkl617. There is no middle path for him who has once been caught in an infamous action: he will either be a villain or a saint

618. He is a poor local creature who judges of men and things merely from the prejudices of his nation and time: but he is a knave, who, in possession of general principles, deals wanton condemnation on the same narrow scale.

632. If you mean to know yourself, interline such of these aphorisms as affected you agreeably in reading, and set a mark to such as left a sense of uneasiness with you; and then shew your copy to whom you please.

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3 comments

  1. Notington Tinfoilhatter · · Reply

    Thanks — these are great. I’m about due for another aphorisms book anyhow.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Speaking of stuff you might like to read, check out Harry “Ruthless Rhymes” Graham’s humorous poem about Diogenes.

      Like

  2. Notington Tinfoilhatter · · Reply

    Good ole’ Sunny Jim!

    Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

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