Thursday, August 11, 2011

The World in a Phrase

This isn’t my title (though I wish it was).  It’s the title of a delightful book by James Geary subtitled A Brief History of the Aphorism.  Aphorisms are quite hard to define.  It’s a bit like good art: hard to define, but you know one if you see one.

Geary states the five laws of the aphorism.  Like most such laws, they allow you to say conclusively when something is not an aphorism, but many things might fit them that we wouldn’t recognize as aphorisms at all.  Anyway, here they are:

1.       It must be brief
2.       It must be definitive
3.       It must be personal
4.       It must have a twist
5.       It must be philosophical.

Ambrose Bierce
Right. Of course he gives a few wonderful examples to illustrate the laws. My favorite is the one he uses for 'definitive': Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel. This, of course, was Samuel Johnson developing his dictionary. On the whole he seems to have been a rather rude and rough character who – as another quote has it – had the good fortune to have a genius for a biographer. The 'personal' aspect might be illustrated by Ambrose Bierce (who also wrote a dictionary – the wicked Devil’s one) who disagreed with Johnson. Patriotism, he declared, is the first refuge of the scoundrel. I can’t resist adding another of Bierce’s definitions here: Misfortune, n. The kind of fortune that never misses.
This is another example that seems to me to fit the laws pretty well: The difference between a rut and a grave is the depth. You need to think about that one, but not for too long…

The book actually is a history. Aphorisms have been popular for a long time and the sayings of Confucius, Buddha, Muhammed, Jesus all include them. They go back to classical times and up to the present day. Geary takes us through the centuries, and it's fun to follow the development. Perhaps the more recent ones are the most amusing, but that may be because we attach excessive reverence to the ancient ones. Often the humor is there. Example: Trust in God, but tie up your camel.

Oscar Wilde
It’s fascinating to see how certain themes make their way through the ages. For example, La Rochefoucauld said in the seventeenth century: In the adversity of even our best friends we always find something not wholly displeasing.  Oscar Wilde took up the idea two hundred years later and quipped: Philosophy teaches us to bear with equanimity the misfortunes of others. Bierce is more bitter: Back n. That part of your friend which it is your privilege to contemplate in your adversity.

There are plenty for authors and readers too. Groucho Marx always had a different take on things: Outside of a dog, a book is a man's best friend and inside of a dog it's too dark to read. Or Harold Macmillan (best read aloud): I like to take a Trollope to bed, but if one is not available I'll settle for a Wodehouse.

The World in a Phrase finishes with the modern aphorism.  We’ve had plenty of witty minds in our own times.  I’ll finish with a few of my favorites:

I don't know who I am. Anonymous.

Be like a postage stamp. Stick to one thing until you get there. Josh Billings.

Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing has happened. Winston Churchill.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Bob Dylan.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world. Mahatma Ghandi.

Men don’t protect you anymore. Jenny Holzer (on condom wrappers).

No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. Stanislaw Lec.

War does not determine who is right – only who is left. Bertrand Russell.

Mae West
It’s not the men in your life that matters, it’s the life in your men. Mae West. 

I hope you’ll add a comment with a few favorites of your own!  The one posted in the next week that our independent judge likes the best will earn an advance reader copy of our new novel – Death of the Mantis – due out next month. The judge will stay anonymous.  The said judge pointed out Louis XIV's comment on raising people to the nobility. Every time he did it, he said he “created one ingrate and a thousand enemies."

Oh, and the camel?  That was the Prophet Muhammed.

Michael - Thursday


  1. Sounds like a great book.

    Here's a few of mine.

    Never kick a man when he's down. He might get up.

    Football is a game between two sides that lasts ninety minutes and at the end Germans win.

    And finally, Buddha - Do nothing. Time is too precious to waste.

  2. No child ever completely repays a parent, which is a good thing for parents.

    That's the only thing I can thing up right now.

  3. In keeping with the current state of the US economy ...



  4. Thank you James Geary. Your book sounds like fun.

    Aphorism Submit:

    "Happiness is no holes in your pant's pockets."

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