Among many pieces of wisdom associated with photography this maxim is one of the oldest and most loved. It had been cited numerous times in many books and articles. I always wanted to know the origin of it, but never been able to get past the few clues available in the open sources: it is anonymous, it is translation from Latin and it is from the old coin of one of the medieval German states (Brunswick). The coin (thaler) presumably dated 1589. Here is the example of such a source:
It had had been taken from the book "A Concise History of Photography" by Helmut Gernsheim (1986). Recently I polished my google-fu and went to the keyboard to solve the riddle. It was easy to find the image of the coin:
But the text was not there; not in Latin, not in any other language. The image is interesting though: man holding torch in one hand and scull on top of an hour-glass with reading glasses attached in another...it is matching the profile of the maxim!
I continued my digging and finally found the explanation in the old book on the history of glasses: "Die Brille Und Ihre Geschichte" By Dr. Von Emil Bock, published in 1903 in Vienna. Here is the page #51 of the book:
For those who do not know German, it says that the coin has abbreviated phrase going around the picture of the man: W.H.D.A.L.V.B.,D.S.S.N.H.V.K.W.; which comprises the old Bavarian rhyme
"Was Hilft Dem Alten Licht Vnd Brill, Der Sich Selbst Nicht Hilft Vnd Kennen Will"
Now this is not Latin but rather old German and it means "Torch and glasses will not help the old man who will not help and know himself".
So this is the quote. Both 1589 and 1588 coins have it. Its predates Photography by many years but had been used many times and became part of the medium. Finally, here is my translation into Russian:
"Зачем и линза им, и свет Коль ни ума, ни зренья нет?".