Chapter 7: Gains and losses from learning

1776 aged 40

Autobiography 72 "And then...":

"Now I rejoiced in an amazingly childlike manner over the great number of books of which I had never in my life seen so many all at once, and in all of which I now had a share. But against that, I was still blushing at the mere thought of being and being known as a member of a learned Society, and therefore visited it only seldom


and somewhat furtively. But that did not help me; I was like the crow that wanted to fly with the ducks. My neighbours and other old friends and acquaintances, in short those who were my equals, looked askance at me wherever I went. Here I would hear a sneering hiss, there I would see a smile of contempt. For at first our Moral Society in the Tockenburg fared as do all such institutions in as yet uncivilised countries. Its members were called upstarts, bookworms, Jesuits


and the like. You can easily imagine my feelings about this, my son, poor simple wretch that I was. My wife, indeed, poured forth fire and brimstone upon me, and would not be placated for many weeks, she felt nothing but ill-will and disgust towards every book that came from our library. At one time I had suspicions that she had herself at that time hinted to my creditors that they should harass me thoroughly. She denies it to this day, and may God forgive me if I have judged amiss, but at the time I would not have put it past her.

Enough, my persecutors attacked me more fiercely than ever. If you have money to buy yourself into this Society, said they, pay me too. Did I want to borrow, they told me to try my gentlemen colleagues. "O you poor man!" thought I: "what a damned stupid thing you've done, which will put an end to you for good. If only you had been content with your morning and evening prayers, like so many others of your honest countrymen. Now you have lost your old friends - from the new ones you may not ask for a single kreutzer. Your wife scolds you continually. You fool! What use is all your reading and writing now? You will hardly be able to buy yourself and your children out of beggary with it", and so on. So I reproached myself most bitterly, and often struggled near despair. Then of course I tried from time to time to pull excuses out of a different bag: "Ah! Reading only costs me a trifle, and I have saved more than that in clothes and other things. And I have spent on it only my leisure hours, when other men also do not work, mostly during the night. It is true that my thoughts were all too preoccupied at other times with what I have read, and were seldom to be found dwelling on my chief business. But I have not wasted anything, I drank one bottle of wine at the most, to drown my ill humours - I should indeed have left that alone - but what is life without wine, and particularly the sort of life that I am leading?"

Then the accusations would begin again. "But how neglectful and incompetent you were in all your business dealings. With your inappropriate good nature you took everything that was given you - gave every man what he asked of you, without considering that you had only other men's gold in your purse, or that an honest-looking face might deceive you. You entrusted your goods to the first person you found and believed him at his word, when he lied to you that he could, upon his conscience, pay you only so much. O, if only you could start all over again from the beginning! But, vain wish! - well, you will still try everything - will threaten those who owe money to you, just as others are threatening you." So I thought, miserable fool that I was, and I did indeed set a date for two of my debtors, more with the aim of frightening them and others than meaning it in earnest. But they did not take it that way.


This must mean that he visited the library only rarely.


The Jesuits were an international order of Roman Catholic priests, formerly extremely powerful but now in decline.