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Where Have All the Great Aphorists Gone?

The great aristocratic artists of the perfect phrase have largely faded away. We could do with their return.

François de la Rochefoucauld, master of the aphorism

Have we any aphorists today? I confess I do not know. One might suspect that Twitter, with its strict character limits (I mean that in at least two ways), would be an ideal platform for such a genre of writing, though the attempts, one finds, just don’t come off. They are either too earnest or not clever enough; or they are both.

But I do love aphorisms. (The word comes from a Greek noun that refers to a “delimitation” or definition, and thus by extension means a “pithy sentence.”) Almost nothing else of which I am aware has the same power to provoke thought and stimulate reflection. Thus they are an ideal type of philosophizing.

No, that’s not quite right. For aphorisms don’t make arguments. They make observations, it is true; they make assertions; but they do not make arguments, and therefore they are not philosophy. Perhaps one could better say that they are ideal material for philosophizing, then. Or perhaps they are the result of it, like the sudden flash of intellection that comes as a result of, but is different from and superior to, discursive reasoning.

Indeed, the two cases are analogous, for the best aphorists give one the immediate impression that an important truth about human nature and the human condition has been authoritatively enunciated. “I never would have thought to put it that way, but now that you say so, yes, that’s it exactly.” That sort of thing. 

The aphorist is a sage, a shaman, but usually one with a wry smile and a good sense of humor. Both come from a healthy estimate of man’s foolishness and finitude. Humility is its corollary. 

A couple of my favorite collections are the Maximes of François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld (“We often act treacherously more from weakness than from a fixed motive.” “There are wicked people who would be much less dangerous if they were wholly without goodness”) and the Sudelbücher (“Waste Books”) of Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. The latter I have just pulled off of the shelf. I opened to a page at random and found the following remarks:

There are people of an innocuous disposition who are at the same time vain, who speak constantly of their honesty and pursue it almost like a profession, and who know how to whine about their merits with such boastful modesty one loses all patience with these perpetually inordinate creditors.

There are fanatics without ability, and then they are really dangerous people.

“What a pity it isn’t a sin to drink water,” cried an Italian, “how good it would taste.”

The writings of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, too, positively sparkle with the epigrammatic and the aphoristic. (Both admired Lichtenberg.) And, of course, Pascal’s Pensées. 

But such tastes are inevitably personal, and everyone must find his own guides. W.H. Auden, a great lover of aphorisms, knew this, and states it explicitly in the foreword to his The Viking Book of Aphorisms: A Personal Selection (note the subtitle), published in the United Kingdom as The Faber Book of Aphorisms, which he co-edited in 1962 with Louis Kronenberger. Though their remarks are (like the aphorism itself) brief, they are (again like the aphorism) illuminating.

The first thing they do is to distinguish two of the terms I just used—the “epigrammatic” and the “aphoristic”—as two quite different things. Auden and Kronenberger point out that epigrams need not be universal. Not so with an aphorism, which “must convince every reader that it is either universally true or true of every member of the class to which it refers, irrespective of the reader’s convictions.” For that reason, it cannot be in the end polemical in meaning, even if it is in form. Here is the example they give, with their explanation:

Do not do unto others as you would they should do unto you–their tastes may not be the same–is not a denial of the Gospel injunction but an explanation of what it really means.

Auden and Kronenberger connect aphoristic writing with aristocratic writing. Why? Because it possesses a sort of calm confidence that need not account for itself. In other words, “[t]he aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts.” To adopt a popular style in the aphorism, then, is to play it false. It is a counterfeit humility, unlike the true kind that a good aphorism can inspire. As they put it, “[T]he aphorist who adopts a folksy style with ‘democratic’ diction and grammar is a cowardly and insufferable hypocrite.”

The one who collects others’ aphorisms for publication, however, cannot be guided—as the reader can—merely by taste. In the view of Auden and Kronenberger, the anthologist has a public—one might even say a political—office. An aphorism should be used as a vehicle for truth, but for the anthologist, what he picks should be a vehicle not only for truth simpliciter, but rather for the truths his contemporaries would most like to ignore:

Two statements may be equally true, but, in any society at any given point in history, one of them is probably more important than the other; and, human nature being what it is, the most important truths are likely to be those which that society at that time least wants to hear. In making his selection, it is up to the anthologist to guess what bubbles, intellectual, moral, and political, are at the moment most in need of pricking.

The aphorist may be a calm observer of human foibles, but his anthologist is a gadfly.

Auden and Kronenberger close their foreword by noting that their field of selection was restricted to “writers belonging to what, for lack of a better term, is called Western civilization.” Doubtless today some half-educated scold would wag a condescending finger at Auden for that last phrase, “Western civilization,” albeit with little sense of what it means. The concept, and even the words, are quickly coming under the ban.

But Auden, who knew more and understood better than our contemporary doyens of labored and puerile outrage, has, along with his co-author, a word in season on this topic, too. We might note the qualification already given: “for lack of a better term.” Yes, the term is imprecise. Yes, it is open to misunderstanding. No, we do not have a better one.

But their following qualifications are even more significant. They restrict themselves to “the West” for two reasons, neither of which is “because we consider that civilization superior to any other.” One is that they do not feel themselves competent to give an adequate picture of the aphorisms of, say, China or India. 

The other is to demonstrate that, in the midst of the many bad things that can undoubtedly be associated with “the West,” those do not tell the whole story. “Western civilization” has more to offer than fast food, fake news, and the F-word:

At a time…when it seems as if it were precisely the worst aspects of our technological culture–our noise, our vulgarity, our insane waste of natural resources (European intellectuals who imagine these vices to be of American origin are willfully deceiving themselves), we are bold to think of this volume as evidence that there are others–such as humor and a capacity for self-criticism–which, though less intrusive than jukeboxes and bombs, are neither negligible nor unworthy of respect.  

So again: have we any aphorists today? We could use some. I would even settle for a good anthologist.

E.J. Hutchinson is associate professor of Classics and director of the Collegiate Scholars Program at Hillsdale College. His research focuses on the reception of classical literature in late antiquity and early modernity.

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