No Comment, Quotation — January 23, 2012, 10:41 am

Lessing: In Praise of Laziness

Faulheit, jetzo will ich dir
Auch ein kleines Loblied bringen.—
O—wie—sau—er—wird es mir,—
Dich—nach Würden—zu besingen!
Doch, ich will mein Bestes tun,
Nach der Arbeit ist gut ruhn.
Höchstes Gut! wer dich nur hat,
Dessen ungestörtes Leben—
Ach!—ich—gähn’—ich—werde matt—
Nun—so—magst du—mir’s vergeben,
Daß ich dich nicht singen kann;
Du verhinderst mich ja dran.
Laziness, now I’ll sing you
A little song of praise,
Oh what a challenge it will be
To craft a song worthy of you
But I’ll do my best
For after work comes the soundest rest.
The highest good! He who possesses you
Will lead a life without annoyance
But I—yawn—I—tire—
So please forgive the fact that
I can’t sing your praise;
You, after all, hinder me in the process.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Lob der Faulheit (1747), reproduced in Werke, vol. 1, p. 77-78 (G. Göpfert ed. 1970)(S.H. transl.)

One of the key aspects of Lessing’s voluminous writings on literature and literary esthetics is the relationship between Witz, Humor and Genie—three concepts that can be rendered by their English cognates, wit, humor, and genius (though only in the second case is the English word really coterminous with the German). In general, Lessing valued the English tradition for its development of a kind of humor distinct from the then-prevailing French tradition of ridicule. The English approach reflected a genuinely humanist tradition with foundations in antiquity; in this context, Lessing repeatedly cited a passage from Pindar: “????? ? ????? ????? ???: ???????? ?? ?????? ??????????, ??????? ??” (“Wise is he who knows things through himself”).Olympian Ode 2.86 Humor is fundamentally valid when it helps us appreciate the human condition by laughing at ourselves, or at a foible or shortcoming common to us as human beings. Humor that stings like a wasp, denigrating or humiliating another, is often false and likely to lead one morally astray.

This innocent, simple poem is a solid, lighthearted demonstration of Lessing’s principle, and a reminder, much like the works of Mozart, that the lighthearted, self-deprecating aside that aims for a simple chuckle may well be linked to serious genius, whereas a mocking, venomous, ill-spirited attack rarely is.

Remembering Gotthold Ephraim Lessing on his 283rd birthday.

Listen to a setting of the poem by Franz Joseph Haydn (Hoboken XXVIa) (1781), performed by Rüdiger Buell, with Ulrike Zeitler on the piano:

Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada



October 2015

Lives by Omission

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Lifting as We Climb

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Cattle Calls

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Getting Jobbed

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content


Means of Dissent·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“One of the peculiar things about economic inequality is that the people who are most articulate about it are not poor, while the poor themselves have said little, at least in print, about their situation.”
Photograph © Reuters/Brendan McDermid
Residence on Earth·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It would be nice to get through this review without recourse to the term ‘writer’s writer.’ The thing is, in the case of Joy Williams, I have seen the cliché made flesh.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Pakistan in Miniatures·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Miniatures originated in Persia and were brought to the Indian subcontinent when the Mughals conquered it in the sixteenth century. They could take on almost any subject: landscapes or portraits; stories of love, war, or play.”
Painting by by Imran Qureshi.
Cattle Calls·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“The business of being a country veterinarian is increasingly precarious. The heartland has been emptying of large-animal vets for at least two decades, as agribusiness changed the employment picture and people left the region.”
Photograph by Lance Rosenfield
Getting Jobbed·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Rosie and her husband had burned through their small savings in the first few months after she lost her job. Now their family of five relied on his minimum-wage paychecks, plus Rosie’s unemployment and food stamps, which, combined, brought them to around $2,000 per month, just above the poverty line.”
Illustrations by Taylor Callery

Factor by which male life-scientists are more likely to patent their findings than are their female counterparts:


Scientists in Singapore developed a urine-powered paper battery the size of a credit card.

A gas-like smell that prompted authorities to evacuate a train in France was discovered to originate from fermented meat in a passenger’s bag.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!


Subways Are for Sleeping


“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today