Handful of soldiers v. Mouthful of arguments

The quote employed by the Prime Minister today—”A handful of soldiers is better than a mouthful of arguments”—seems to originate from the musings of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, an 18th Century German physicist now known for his “waste books” of aphorisms. Litchenberg’s life story is fairly incredible—German scientist and hunchback befriends British royalty and becomes enduring and influential observer of the human condition—but let’s focus on this particular quote.

For the record, the original musing seems to read that a handful of soldiers is always better than a mouthful of arguments. Whether Mr. Harper believes the former is always better than the latter is likely relevant. Either way, when employed by the leader of a country in 2011, it’s probably fascinating (or at least passably interesting).

Is it cynical? Satirical? Humorous? Wry? Realistic? True?

Here is the quote in the full context of Mr. Harper’s remarks today. I haven’t been able to find any specific considerations of the quote in the context of Litchenberg’s writing, but here are a few reviews of Litchtenberg’s life and work.

Clive James, Slate.

Barred by physical deformity (he was a hunchback) from any easy participation in the passionate emotional life he saw as central to existence, he was nevertheless wonderfully sympathetic to the realities of love and sex: With every excuse to turn away from the real world, he kept its every aspect always in plain sight. Finally, it is his detailed and unflinching awareness that astonishes the reader. Scattered through his scores of “­Waste-Books” and manuscript notebooks, Lichtenberg’s innumerable observations, nutshells each, add up to a single demonstration of his guiding principle: that there is such a thing as “the right distance,” a sense of proportion. He is the thinker against hysteria, the mind whose good-­humored determination to avoid throwing a tantrum provides us with a persuasive argument that the tantrum might be the motive power of political insanity. His clarity and concision set a standard for expository prose, at whatever length, in the whole of his language and, by extension, in all languages.

Roger Kimball, The New Criterion

The cynical nature of many aphorisms is one reason the genre is so popular. Many people, especially many intellectuals—the most ardent customers for the aphorism—pride themselves above all on their disillusionment. They see themselves “seeing through” manners, pretensions, morals, whatever, and what they see is seldom edifying. (As a class, intellectuals are rarely—to use Wordsworth’s phrase—“surprised by joy.”) Aphorists are by profession debunkers. That is a large part of their power. It also points to a limitation. Untempered by elements of affirmation, debunking generates its own species of bunk. Take the aphorism by La Rochefoucauld quoted above. It is one of his most famous, and was well-known already in Lichtenberg’s day. Lichtenberg himself thought well of it, noting that “It sounds peculiar, but he who denies the truth of it either doesn’t understand it or does not know himself.” But mightn’t it also be that it sounds peculiar because it is peculiar, and that the misfortunes of our best friends generally stir pity, empathy, and compassion?

Nicholas Lezard, The Guardian

This is the joy of The Waste Books : not being intended for publication, they are more playful, more private and times more catty than aphorisms produced by a self-consciously important writer. (Whom was Lichtenberg describing when he wrote, “Whenever he composes a critical review, I have been told he gets an enormous erection”? And of whom, you find yourself wondering, could it be true today? Hmm? It’s like eavesdropping on someone’s thoughts. One of the great things about this selection is that Lichtenburg’s sillier aperçus (Wwhen we read odes our nostrils expand and so do our toes”) have been left in. Silliness has always been part of Lichtenberg’s attraction. He’s a decently sceptical gentleman: he doesn’t shake his head over humanity like La Rochefoucauld, or bang on and on about God like Pascal.

RJ Hollingdale’s introduction to the latest collection of Lichtenberg’s waste books is available here.

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