The essence of aphorisms

The essence of aphorisms

The essence of aphorisms
The essence of aphorisms

The essence of aphorisms, an article that explains the laws of aphorism by James Geary with an introduction of Carl William Brown on this kind of literary and philosophical original genre.

The things that will destroy us are: politics without principle; pleasure without conscience; wealth without work; knowledge without character; business without morality; science without humanity; and worship without sacrifice.
Mahatma Gandhi

Sometimes a few lines are worthier than a whole library.

An aphorism is a phrase, a maxim, a proposition, a quote that expresses with concise, philosophic, humorous or poetic accuracy, the result of a long experience of life, of observations, analysis, suffering, great endurance, tolerance and even annoyance (in order not to use any vulgar terms).
Carl William Brown

The brevity of life, so often lamented, might perhaps be the best thing about life.
Arthur Schopenhauer

Aphorists are far from harmless. They are troublemakers and iconoclasts, dogmatists whose majestic authority commands consent. They are, by definition, revolutionaries who hold their truths to be self-evident.
James Geary

We fight against three giants, my dear Sancho: “injustice, fear, and ignorance.”
Miguel de Cervantes

The aphorism in which I am the first master among Germans, are the forms of ‘eternity’; my ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book – what everyone else does not say in a book.
Friedrich Nietzsche

Aphorisms are intimate encounters between two minds. If they don’t give you a little shock, something isn’t right.
James Geary

Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to enquire farther.
Francis Bacon

One can only become a philosopher, not be one. As soon as one thinks one is a philosopher, one stops becoming one.
Friedrich von Schlegel

Aphorismus est sermo brevis, integrum sensum propositae rei scribens. That is – An aphorism is a brief utterance, which writes the complete meaning of the matter – this is the exact definition proposed by Isidore de Séville. As a matter of fact an aphorism is usually a saying expressing a belief, an idea, a thought, a saying, a piece of literature and so on. Synonyms for aphorisms could be: adage, apothegm, axiom, dictum, maxim, moral, precept, proverb, rule, saw, saying, truism, axiom, device, dictum, fundamental, law, maxim, moral, postulate, precept, proposition, proverb, saying, theorem, truism, truth, byword, catchphrase, catchword, dictum, epithet, gnome, gnomic saying, handle, maxim, motto, nickname, precept, proverb, quotation, quote, saw, shibboleth, slogan, standing joke. An aphorism can express also absurdity, ambiguity, foolishness, nonsense, amusement and paradox, because it is the king of the metaphorical language.

The law of aphorisms
The law of aphorisms

Evidently we could read various essays, articles and even books on aphoristic writing, or on short literature, which certainly has many relationships with poetry, the symbolic or metaphorical expression of it, and with the multiple definitions of the various sciences, but what I would like to point out in this introduction to the following article is a reflection by the great critic, poet and essayist T.S. Eliot, who argued with great conviction that to be truly great poets it is not enough to have language and vision; it is also necessary to possess a great philosophical and/or theological system, “which Shakespeare lacked and Dante did not”, and for this reason, again according to the great author, Dante was a greater poet than Shakespeare.

However, without making a comparison of value between the great literary giants of all time, I would just like to emphasize the aspect of possessing or not a great philosophical or theological system. Well, as far as the aphorism and the various intellectual speculations on the most disparate questions are concerned, we can already immediately highlight that characteristic which also for the author of the following text must be present in order to characterize the aphorism as such and to give it precisely its deepest essence, that is, it must be brief, personal and philosophical, on what then pertains to the aspects of being definitive or having a surprise effect, it could be discussed further.

Furthermore we can say that aphorisms can be extrapolated from more extensive literary works, or be creations in their own sense, but to truly be such and make worth of their essence, they must express in one way or another the poetic and philosophical vision of the author, or better yet they must have an objective, an end, and a value above all of a philosophical nature, which must express the artistic intent of the writer himself. This intent can be aimed at expressing a scientific definition, or at conveying a social, economic, literary or philosophical criticism, or even at suggesting various useful behaviors for achieving a certain goal, or face a certain situation, which is why in general aphorisms often have a lot to do with dealing with ethics, logic, satire, irony, humour, politics, economics, science or education, basically all subjects that have always been involved with language and philosophy.

Following my experience as a writer of aphorisms, I can say that I have always dealt with various disciplines and have carried out multiple activities, the first of which concerns the world of education and training, I have always had then a very critical, polemical and often satirical or at least humorous attitude towards human stupidity and its most illustrious leaders and followers, and therefore I have always observed, mocked and attacked it with my aphorisms.

In conclusion I have clearly developed my philosophical and in some sense also theological vision by elaborating the synthetic principles of Daimonology, which in addition to re-evaluating the original meaning of the Greek Daimon, or the Latin genius, have as their philosophical basis the ethics of knowledge, and the practice of a lifelong, widespread, and shared education without any barrier of social caste or economic class. With these intentions my aphorisms were written, which convey my ideas, and in most cases have all the characteristics indicated in the following article, that I certainly consider as one of the best on this subject.

James Geary on aphorisms
James Geary on aphorisms

The Five Laws of Aphorisms by James Geary based on his book We are what we think.

The philosopher J. S. Mill once observed that there are two kinds of wisdom in the world: “In the one, every age in which science flourishes surpasses, or ought to surpass, its predecessors; of the other, there is nearly an equal amount in all ages.” The first kind of wisdom is scientific. It consists in what we know about the world and how it works, and how we put that knowledge to use through technology. Since the Industrial Revolution at least, each age has surpassed the scientific achievements of its predecessors with astonishing speed.

Mills calls the second type “the wisdom of ages,” a somewhat exalted term for what we’ve collectively learned about human nature through the experience of individuals across thousands of years of history. This kind of knowledge is unsystematic, consists in psychological rather than empirical facts, and is present in more or less equal amounts in every historical period. So Dr. Phil McGraw potentially has just about as much – or as little – of this kind of wisdom at his disposal as the Taoist sage Lao-tzu, who lived in China about six hundred years before Christ. “The form in which this kind of wisdom most naturally embodies itself,” Mill concludes, “is that of aphorisms.”

Why aphorisms? Because they’re just the right size to hold the swift insights and fresh observations that are the raw data of the wisdom of the ages. Aphorisms are literature’s hand luggage. Light and compact, they fit easily into the overhead compartment of your brain and contain everything you need to get through a rough day at the office or a dark night of the soul. They are, as the nineteenthcentury author John Morley observed, “the guiding oracles which man has found out for himself in that great business of ours, of learning how to be, to do, to do without, and to depart.”

Here, then, are the five laws by which an aphorism performs its oracular work.

1. It Must Be Brief

If brevity is the soul of wit, as Shakespeare observed in one of his many aphoristic insights, then concision is the aphorism’s heart. Aphorisms must work quickly because they are meant for use in emergencies. We’re most in need of aphorisms at times of distress or joy, ecstasy or anguish. And in cases of spiritual or emotional urgency, brevity is the best policy.

The author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a spiritual instruction manual written by an anonymous English monk in the latter half of the fourteenth century, knew this when he advised his students: “Short prayer penetrates heaven”.

The Cloud of Unknowing was composed as an aid to contemplation, and it’s packed with sound spiritual guidance and sweet admonitions for young men just entering the monastic life. The book is made up of seventy-five very short chapters, with amusing and sometimes impenetrable titles like “The Three Things the Contemplative Beginner Must Practice: Reading, Thinking, and Praying” and “A Man’s Outlook Is Wonderfully Altered through the Spiritual Experience of This Nothing in Its Nowhere.” Each chapter is written in very simple, direct prose, in an avuncular tone that highlights the author’s wisdom, equanimity, and good humor.

The book’s title refers to our imperfect knowledge of God, but the author urges his readers to “hammer away at this high cloud of unknowing” through meditation and prayer. The Cloud’s language mostly clings very close to the ground, however, and the book is replete with down-to-earth tips on how monks should pray silently to themselves throughout the day and how they can find the sacred in the most mundane daily chores.

Chapter 37 explains by means of a surprisingly commonplace metaphor why pithiness is next to godliness: A man or a woman, suddenly frightened by fire, or death, or what you will, is suddenly in his extremity of spirit driven hastily and by necessity to cry or pray for help. And how does he do it? Not, surely, with a spate of words; not even in a single word of two syllables! Why? He thinks it wastes too much time to declare his urgent need and his agitation. So he bursts out in his terror with one little word, and that of a single syllable: “Fire!” it may be, or “Help!” Just as this little word stirs and pierces the ears of the hearers more quickly, so too does a little word of one syllable, when it is not merely spoken or thought, but expresses also the intention in the depth of our spirit.

Aphorists are people who’ve experienced “extremity of spirit,” and aphorisms are read by people in the same predicament. They are terse and to the point because their message is urgent. There’s no time to waste. An aphorism can be anywhere from a few words to a few sentences long; the French call the former an aperçu, a swift, sweeping insight, and the latter a pensée, a longer, more leisurely train of thought. But only a fool makes a speech in a burning house. That’s why the author of The Cloud of Unknowing hammered his meaning home in such short, vivid phrases. When you find yourself in extremis, aphorisms tell you everything you need to know. The rest is just salad dressing.

Literary essence of aphorisms
Literary essence of aphorisms

2. It Must Be Definitive

In the Life of Samuel Johnson, James Boswell describes the great English lexicographer as “a man of most dreadful appearance … He is very slovenly in his dress and speaks with a most uncouth voice … He has a great humor and is a worthy man. But his dogmatic roughness of manners is disagreeable.” What Boswell fails to mention, however, is that a little dogmatism is no bad thing when you’re compiling a dictionary, as Johnson was from 1746 to 1755.

Johnson was famously convinced of his own opinions, and not shy about declaiming them, essential qualities for both the lexicographer and the aphorist. After all, a definition – like an aphorism – must be, well, definitive. In fact, the term itself is derived from the Greek words apo (from) and horos (boundary or horizon), so an aphorism is something that marks off or sets apart – that is, a definition.

Aphorisms and definitions assert rather than argue, proclaim rather than persuade, state rather than suggest. Johnson’s most famous aphorism – Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.- wouldn’t be nearly as piquant if he had couched it in all kinds of caveats and qualifications.

Of course, aphorisms aren’t necessarily 100 percent true – Ambrose Bierce, Johnson’s twentieth-century counterpart, contends, for example, that patriotism is the scoundrel’s first refuge – yet they demand assent through the declarative style in which they are expressed. The English essayist William Hazlitt put it well when he wrote of aphorisms, “There is a peculiar stimulus … in this mode of writing. A thought must tell at once, or not at all.”

Because aphorisms must tell at once they often take the form of definitions – x is y. There is no deliberation or debate, and no supporting evidence. We must literally take the aphorist at his word. That’s usually easy enough because those words are so lucid that they compel their own conviction. Of no one is this more true than Johnson himself, whose aphorisms could easily have served as entries in his dictionary of the English language. Here are two of his less optimistic pronouncements: “Life is a pill which none of us can bear to swallow without gilding”.

Johnson defined the lexicographer as “a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.” But aphorists are far from harmless. They are troublemakers and iconoclasts, dogmatists whose majestic authority commands consent. They are, by definition, revolutionaries who hold their truths to be self-evident.

3. It Must Be Personal

In 1955, Alfred Kessler, a physician and collector of the works of G.K. Chesterton, was poking around a used bookstore in San Francisco when he came across a copy of Holbrook Jackson’s Platitudes in the Making. Jackson, a literary critic and contemporary of Chesterton, had this little book of maxims privately published in 1911. But as Kessler flipped through the pages of the slim volume he realized that this was no ordinary copy of Platitudes. Scrawled in bright green pencil beneath each of Jackson’s maxims was a handwritten reply: either an endorsement of the idea behind the saying or, more often, an emphatic rejection accompanied by an alternative aphorism. For example, penned underneath Jackson’s “He who reasons is lost” – was the arch retort, “He who never reasons is not worth finding”.

Kessler recognized the handwriting, and turning back to the front of the book was startled to read the following inscription: “To G.K. Chesterton, with esteem from Holbrook Jackson.” Kessler had in his hands Chesterton’s personal copy of Platitudes in the Making, and the impassioned scratchings in green pencil were Chesterton’s ripostes to Jackson’s aphorisms. Kessler had stumbled on the greatest discovery of his collecting career and recovered for Chesterton fans some of the great English author’s most incisive sayings.

Sir Francis Bacon on aphorisms
Sir Francis Bacon on aphorisms

If you had never read a word by either Jackson or Chesterton – the former now largely forgotten and the latter best remembered for his detective series the Father Brown stories – and Platitudes was recited aloud, it would be easy to guess which aphorism was by whom. Jackson fancied himself a modern romantic, an atheist philosopher in the shadow of Nietzsche, so his sayings are filled with disdain for convention and praise for man’s impulsive, irrational nature. Pretty typical of Jackson’s output is: “Don’t think – do”.

Chesterton, on the other hand, was a devout Catholic rationalist, as well as a committed socialist and environmentalist long before the latter was a fashionable occupation. He did believe in God and in man’s triumph over the baser instincts through reason and morality. So his reply is a fairly accurate summary of his philosophy, too: “Do think! Do!”.

It’s this personal quality that gives aphorisms their power to charm and enrage. An aphorism takes you inside the head of the person who wrote it or said it. “The thought… must be stamped with the hallmark of the mind that thinks it,” as critic and aphorism junkie Logan Pearsall Smith wrote in the introduction to his 1947 anthology of English maxims.

Aphorisms are not bland generalizations about life, the universe, and everything but are deeply personal and idiosyncratic statements, as unique to an individual as a strand of his or her DNA. This is what distinguishes the form from proverbs, for instance, which are really wornout aphorisms that have had the identity of the original author rubbed away through repeated use.

The personal touch is important because aphorisms are not bits of uplifting text meant for passive consumption. They are challenging statements that demand a response: either the recognition of a shared insight – what Alexander Pope described as something that “oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed” – or a rejection and retort. As the Jackson-Chesterton exchange shows, aphorisms are intimate encounters between two minds. If they don’t give you a little shock, something isn’t right.

Francis Bacon, the English author, politician, and scientist, loved aphorisms precisely because of this ability to upset preconceptions. He inherited his affection for the form from his father, who had quotations from the classics carved into the columns of the family manor at Gorhambury, near St. Albans just north of London. The younger Bacon recommended the use of aphorisms because they pique curiosity rather than satisfy it, provoke further thought rather than thwart it: “Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to enquire farther.”

Aphorisms are like particle accelerators for the mind. When high energy particles like electrons and positrons collide inside an accelerator, new particles are created as the energy of the crash is converted into matter. The freshly minted matter spins out from the collision at incredibly high velocities and disintegrates again within about one millionth of a billionth of a billionth of a second. Trying to track the particles in this miniature big bang is like blowing up a haystack and trying to spot a needle as the debris flies past. Inside an aphorism, it is minds that collide and the new matter that spins out at the speed of thought is that elusive thing we call wisdom. Keep your eyes peeled or you’ll miss it.

4. It Must Have a Twist

Outside France, François-Auguste-René de Chateaubriand – author, adventurer, lover, statesman – is probably best remembered for the meal that eighteenth-century gourmand Anthelme Brillat-Savarin named after him. Chateaubriand steak, served with mushrooms and béarnaise sauce, is still standard fare in many a Parisian bistro.

But in his own day Chateaubriand was France’s answer to Lord Byron. Like that of his flamboyant British soul mate, Chateaubriand’s life was just as famous as his art. Born in Brittany in 1768, he fled the chaos that followed the Revolution and went to America, where he travelled around the Midwest and went back to nature – eighteenth-century style. Influenced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s ideal of the “noble savage,” Chateaubriand specialized in exotic descriptions of the natural world and fictional encounters with Native Americans. His best-known novels, Atala and René, melancholic tales of tragic love affairs, are credited with introducing Romanticism to France. Chateaubriand had a long governmental career as well, serving variously as secretary to the embassy at Rome, ambassador to London, and eventually minister of foreign affairs.

As an aphorist, Chateaubriand had a wicked way with a turn of phrase. Aphorisms achieve their maximum impact through paradox and sudden reversals of import. Reading a good aphorism is like watching a magic trick: First comes surprise, then comes delight, then you start wondering how the hell the magician did it. Chateaubriand did it through his mastery of the verbal pirouette, as in this remark on what makes an author great: An original writer is not one who imitates nobody, but one whom nobody can imitate.

All of Chateaubriand’s aphorisms have this kind of syllogistic construction. He sets up a seemingly simple equation and once you think you’ve deduced the answer, he slips in exactly the opposite conclusion. Instead of a passionate endorsement of romantic love, we get a cold assessment of our instinct for self-deception: As long as the heart preserves desire, the mind preserves illusion. Sometimes, you’ve got to step lively to keep up with Chateaubriand’s turnings. The following aphorism really annoyed me on first reading, mostly because I initially took it to mean something pretty trivial, such as infatuation fades with familiarity: Love decreases when it ceases to increase.

Why bother writing an aphorism about that, I thought. It’s too obvious. But then I read it again, and again, and eventually I got it. What Chateaubriand is really saying is that if you’re not constantly falling in love with your beloved, then you’re already starting to fall out the other side of love.

Like a good joke, a good aphorism has a punch line, a quick verbal or psychological flip, a sudden sting in the tail that gives you a jolt. Both jokes and aphorisms lift you into a wonderful weightless state – that giddy point just after the joke is finished and just before you get it – then abruptly drop you back down to earth in some completely unexpected place. Aphorisms, like jokes, teach the mind to do the twist.

Friedrich Schlegel on philophers
Friedrich Schlegel on philophers

5. It Must Be Philosophical

Friedrich von Schlegel practiced the spontaneous combustion method of philosophical composition. In contrast to earlier thinkers like Descartes and Spinoza, who devised elaborate and meticulously argued systems, Schlegel liked to publish his thoughts raw, in the form in which they first occurred to him: as aphorisms.

Schlegel jotted down his musings in a notebook and printed them in Athenäum, the literary journal he founded in 1798 with his brother, August Wilhelm. Like Bacon, he believed this kind of fragmented philosophizing more accurately reflected the shifting, scattershot nature of thinking – and the experience of life itself. Aphorisms, he said, are the “true form of the Universal Philosophy” and contained “the greatest quantity of thought in the smallest space.”

Born in Hanover in 1772, Schlegel was an early prophet of the Romantic movement in literature. As a teenager, he was apprenticed to a banker in Leipzig but couldn’t confine his mind to the rigid credit and debit columns of finance. So he took up the study of literature, comparative philology, and Greek antiquity. For him, philosophy consisted of a series of imaginative leaps rather than a sequence of plodding, logical steps; thinking for himself was a continuous pursuit, not an activity that stopped when he arrived at the “truth”: “One can only become a philosopher, not be one. As soon as one thinks one is a philosopher, one stops becoming one”.

Aphorisms are signposts along the route to becoming a philosopher. It’s a journey we all have to make. Some go gladly; some go recklessly; some go on automatic pilot. Nobody gets a map. It’s the oldest trip in the book – from birth to death, from self to world, from known to unknown – but each of us travels it anew, and totally alone. Aphorisms reassure us that someone has been this way before. They entreat us to keep on the path, to avoid the ruts.

Aphorisms are not, however, metaphysical shortcuts. As Schlegel says, it’s the journey that matters; the destination may not even exist. They are not Cliff’s Notes on the drama of human life, either, but pieces of a grand mosaic, fragments of the bigger picture we’re always striving to glimpse. Schlegel described them like this: A fragment, like a miniature work of art, has to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world and be complete in itself like a porcupine.

Aphorisms are literary loners, set apart from the world because they’re worlds unto themselves. They’re like porcupines, bristling with prickly philosophical spines. Rub them the wrong way and you’re in for a surprise.

A perfect example of the five laws of the aphorism at work can be seen in the Old Manse in Concord, Massachusetts. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the Old Manse was home to two of America’s most distinguished writers. Ralph Waldo Emerson owned the house first and composed his influential essay “Nature” in the study upstairs. Then came Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia. Hawthorne wrote some of his short stories up in Emerson’s old study and Sophia, a painter, used to etch little sayings onto the windows of the house with her diamond ring. Two of these inscriptions remain.

In the ground-floor dining room, Sophia noted the fact that her painting Endymion was completed here in January 1844. A year later, just below that inscription, she recorded this intimate moment with her baby daughter: “Una Hawthorne stood on this window sill January 22d 1845 while the trees were all glass chandeliers – a goodly show which she liked much tho’ only ten months old.”

On an upstairs window, in Hawthorne’s study, Sophia wrote this: Man’s accidents are God’s purposes, 1843.

No one knows what prompted Sophia Hawthorne to engrave this phrase on the window. Some scholars suggest it may refer to a miscarriage she had in that year after slipping on a patch of ice. There is a sense of grief and resignation about her words, but also of strength and resolution. No easy answer is asked for or given, just a blunt acceptance of events and a determination to either endure or overcome them.

Our need for words of wisdom like this is ancient, as old as “the wisdom of the ages” itself, which is why the aphorism is the oldest written art form on the planet. The Chinese were at it more than five thousand years ago; the ancient Greek philosophers, Old Testament authors, Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad were all early practitioners, too. This history, told through the lives and aphorisms of some of the form’s greatest practitioners (this is a brief history, though, so many wonderful aphorists have been regrettably excluded), shows that the aphorism is still as sprightly and as apposite as ever. Even in our modern age of drive-thru culture, soporific sound bites, and manufactured sentiment, aphorisms retain their power to instigate and inspire, enlighten and enrage, entertain and edify.

Sophia Hawthorne knew this as she stood at her window, looking out at the trees all sheathed in ice, looking through the thin, pale letters she etched on the glass. Aphorisms are fine, incisive sayings that in dark times and in light help us see the world more smartly.

James Geary  We are what we think 

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