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Providence was kind to Georg Christoph Lichtenberg from early on. His pastor father tried to make ends meet to support a large family, concerned about his youngest child whom an accident left with a permanent deformity of the spine. Yet Georg bore his hunch with wit and stoicism. “Unlike other people, my head lies at least one foot closer to my heart, which makes me fair-minded. Decisions are endorsed while they are still warm” he was to write many years later.
Too poor to attend school he received home tuition from his father who had a flair for mixing science with religion. But when Johann Lichtenberg died suddenly, the eight-year-old felt lost. Fortunately for Georg, an uncle offered to pay his school fees and the boy attended the Gymnasium of Darmstadt where his intellect shone at once. Shortness of funds would postpone university indefinitely had not his mother taken it upon herself to see the Elector of Hesse-Darmstadt and ask for a stipend for her son. Georg enrolled in the newly founded, forward-looking university of Göttingen, in the faculty of Natural Sciences. He took a special interest in physics, astronomy, and mathematics, and seven years later became a lecturer at twenty-eight. He was the first professor to occupy the chair of Experimental Physics at Göttingen where he lectured to audience-packed lecture halls. “The prince of mathematics” Karl Friedrich Gauss sat in on his lectures.
Lichtenberg the scientist had a distinguished career. He associated with the leading lights of his day, such as Alessandro Volta with whom he carried out experiments in electricity, his field of expertise. He corresponded with Goethe on the latter’s theory of colours, associated with chemists and geologists on his trips to England ―which transformed him into an ardent Anglophile― and wrote on a variety of topics, from lightning conductors to Willian Hogarth’s engravings and David Garrick’s performance in Drury Lane. He was the first to install a lightning conductor on his house in Göttingen. His own contributions to physics are the tree-like electric discharge patterns that bear his name ― the Lichtenberg figures. He led an active social life, married twice, as his first wife died young, and raised three sons and three daughters, before his ailing health forced him to resign from Göttingen, and spend the last ten years of his life bedridden. Among the corpus he left behind it is his notebooks, the “waste-books” as he liked to call them, which single him out as the foremost wit of the German Enlightenment.
What intrigues me in Lichtenberg, whom Kierkegaard extols in his journals, is his religious intuition. Being a scientist, he relied on careful observation and deduction, but on the issue of faith this is what he writes: “Faith in one God is an instinct, as natural as walking on two legs. In some men it exists in a modified form, in others it is quite restrained, but where it is normal, it is indispensable to our inner balance and wellbeing”.
God for Lichtenberg is not a vengeful taskmaster who punishes those who disobey Him. “The correct worship of God entails to do our duty and to act on our reason. For me, the fact that God exists means that with all my freedom of will, I must do what is right. A God who intervenes objectively when I commit a sin, does not exist. Intervention is the duty of the judge who handles the law.” And when it comes to his lifelong occupation, which is writing, he notes “What holds for gardening also holds for writing: no matter how much you care and water your plant, only God can make it grow. Let me explain myself. Many of the things we think that we consciously do, are not in fact our own doing. Mental effort is like sunshine and weather, it does not depend on ourselves. When I write, I cannot specify where does my best thought come from.” Words that bring to mind a beautiful passage from James, which Kierkegaard singles out as his favourite: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows”.
In matters metaphysical, Lichtenberg the physicist exhibits unusual empathy. In the Psalms, which he always read with pleasure, he identifies with king David because “such a great man goes through what I go through, and despite his harsh trials praises the Lord for his salvation, just as I praise Him for mine. It soothes me to know that the fate of a man much superior to myself is not unlike mine, and that after thousands of years people seek solace in his words.” And referring to his favourite psalm, he writes: “Certain lines, like those of the Fourth Psalm are not recited as often as they ought to be. What an infinity of meaning hides in these words: Stand in awe and sin not; commute with your own heart upon your bed and be still. Offer the sacrifices of righteousness and put your trust in the Lord. An entire religion!”
In an age such as the Enlightenment, where reason held full sway over religion, Lichtenberg the thinker writes: “I profoundly believe, having long reflected on the matter, that the original teaching of Christ, adapted for our age, is the ideal system to attain peace and happiness in the fastest, surest and most ecumenical way. I also believe in another system that stems from pure reason and leads to the same result, but it is addressed to accomplished thinkers and not to the common man, and even if it did meet with wide approval, the teaching of Christ would be preferable on practical terms. People are guided by what is true and widely understandable, even if it is presented in images that are interpreted differently on the way to knowledge”.
Let us all be guided by the Light of Peace and Happiness, into the path of reason.
by Costas Nisiotis
Athens, Greece - firstname.lastname@example.org
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