Wednesday 12 October 2016

Great Aphorisms Sprout in the Dark (2016)

From The Philosopher, Volume CIV, Autumn 2016


By Martin Cohen

Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth. - Marcus Aurelius

Aphorisms have been done a great disservice by being printed on postcards and posters alongside images of flowers and sunsets. Here, aphorisms become heart-warming 'words of wisdom' like:
'We do not remember days, we remember moments' (set with a nice seaside image), or 'Never miss an opportunity to see something beautiful'. 
 (That one is displayed with a sunset as the background, of course.)

Rather, the aphorism is a special kind of phrase. The root of the word itself is about distinctions and definitions and the first known use of the term is attributed to Hippocrates, the Ancient Greek physician the name for a long series of propositions concerning the symptoms and diagnosis of disease. The opening sentence of the Aphorisms of Hippocrates is:
'Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgment difficult.'
This piece of epic negativity has set the tone for aphorisms ever since. In fact, most of what followed, which is depressing stuff about diseases and symptoms, would not even count as aphorisms today. But the fact that the art of aphorisms was born with a treatise on sickness and death is by no means without significance.

Don't imagine the diagnosis is accompanied by a more positive messages about possible cures either, rather it is more like this:
'Persons who have had frequent and severe attacks of swooning, without any manifest cause, die suddenly.'
'Those who are very fat by nature are more exposed to die suddenly than those who are thin.'
Hippocrates' list of interconnected statements was scientific in outlook, and the first aphorists were also focused on setting out very clearly the facts of the matter, whatever area it might be. Over time indeed aphorists moved away from the maxims of physical science towards fluffier moral and philosophical and literary truths. In the process, they began to look less and less compelling and factual and more and more subjective instead. Today, in the modern usage, an aphorism is often reduced to being merely a shrewd or witty observation, pithily written.

The Greeks had two words for what they saw as two kinds of wisdom: one for the wise who scaled the heights of thought and knowledge; another for those who, without logical method or technical jargon held up a mirror to human nature. It is really in this second kind of wisdom that the power of the aphorism lies.

The rather misnamed Golden verses of Pythagoras, although unremittingly depressing, inspired many later philosophers to try their hand. These three consecutive ones (Verses 56, 57 and 58) build to a nice finale.
'Few know how to deliver themselves out of their misfortunes
'Such is the fate that blinds humankind, and takes away his senses.'
'Like huge cylinders they roll back and forth, and always oppressed with innumerable ills.'
One of the key works of the Bible, Ecclesiastes, also attempts to be a mirror for humanity. Rarely have so many quotable aphorisms appeared in one short work - and the tone is unrelentingly depressing. Here are a few of my personal favorites.
'Moreover, no one knows when their hour will come: As fish are caught in a cruel net, or birds are taken in a snare, so people are trapped by evil times that fall unexpectedly upon them.'  
'For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten.'

''Meaningless! Meaningless!' says the Teacher. 'Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.''
 I can't help but smile when I read these. However some are a bit TOO gloomy...
'It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, for death is the destiny of everyone; the living should take this to heart.'
... and clumsy in expression too.
'Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless.'
There's a bit of repetition there, but repetition is one the tools of the aphorists' art. Hippies everywhere will remember these verses, if more likely from the Pete Seeger song (or maybe the Byrds' cover version), repetitively entitled Turn! Turn! Turn! than from Bible class that 'There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens'. Indeed, the shadow of death looms large in Biblical aphorisms writing, that it even makes it rather contradictory. Although one warning runs:
'Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom.'
... another offers the countervailing reflection:
'What does anyone gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun?'
In a lecture to The Edinburgh Philosophical Institution on November 11, 1887, John Morley, a politician and newspaper editor (of all things), recalls Cicero's description of such sayings as saltpits, explaining 'that you may extract salt out of them,' and sprinkle it where you will. For him, sayings like these are illustrative: 'He who has less than he desires, should know that he has more than he deserves,' and one of my own favorites which is: 'People who never have any time are the people who do least.' John Morley has in fact a very nice aphoristic style of his own, clearly aided by his study of the topic, even if he complains that:
'Truth that has been picked up from books only sticks to us like an artificial limb, or a false tooth, or a rhinoplastic nose'. 
And it is surely as one that has tried that he usefully warns: 'If any of you should be bitten with an unhappy passion for the composition of aphorisms, let me warn such a one that the power of observing life is rare, the power of drawing new lessons from it is rarer still, and the power of condensing the lesson in a pointed sentence is rarest of all.

Morely also notes the particular quality of the written word that means: 'Reading is thinking with a strange head instead of one's own.' Curiously, James Geary, a contemporary aphorist, picked out this last saying for a mention on his internet blog, adding 'I didn't make a note of the author...' Evidently the thought fitted so well within his own thoughts that he didn't feel the need to.

James Geary addresses the issue of the darker side of aphorisms by saying that aphorists 'typically don't need much convincing to look on the bright side, but the writer who sheds darkness on things does us a great service'. Why? Geary sees negativity acting as a kind of inoculation, boosting our 'existential immune system'.

In similar spirit, Geary writes in his book called The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism, that:
'They definitely do not cheer you up. Instead, aphorisms fulfill a much more difficult and important task: They make you question everything you think and do. Aphorisms deliver the short sharp shock of an old forgotten truth. They keep your mind in shape by making you wonder every morning whether you're simply walking to work or digging your own grave.'
James Lough also explores the 'dark side' of aphorisms in the recent book, Short Flights 1, talking about 'aphorisms of insight' that strip away conventional wisdom, peeling the shiny surfaces to get at ugly truths beneath. He says that the aphorism of insight is 'not a champion of tradition -it's an outlaw'. Or perhaps one might say, a scofflaw, as the tone is often mocking and sardonic. Whatever the approach, Lough thinks that the power of such aphorisms is that they tell us:

' things are, tells us what's what, at a deeper level than common sense.'

And Short Flights closes with an essay by Sara Levine in which she too talks about 'bad-ass' aphorists who begin to make you think that aphorisms are all about 'the villainy of mankind, the treachery of friends, the foolishness of lovers'. For Levine, the saving grace of such a gloomy approach and the virtue of aphorisms, is that they are so 'patently provisional, unfinished and partisan'. Here we have a possible insight into the aphorists' particular taste for gloom - the pill is taken in such small dosages that it does no harm.

Certainly the Moral Reflections of François de la Rochefoucauld (1665), one of the most founding books of aphorism, modeled on the Proverbs of Solomon, is full of little poison pills. One such is the saying:
'In the adversity of our best friends we often find something that is not exactly displeasing.'
A concerned critic wrote: 'I count Rochefoucauld's Maxims a bad book. As I am reading it, I feel discomfort; I have a sense of suffering which I cannot define. Such thoughts tarnish the brightness of the soul; they degrade the heart.' That's the power of aphorism!

Blaise Pascal, La Rochefoucauld's fellow countryman and contemporary, attempted to put things right. The Thoughts of Pascal concern the deeper things of speculative philosophy and religion, rather than the wisdom of daily life, and, besides, though aphoristic in form, they are in substance systematic.

In an essay for 'The Book of Life' website, part of his own philosophical organization 'The School of Life', Alain de Botton describes Pascal as both one of the most pessimistic figures in Western thought and simultaneously one of the most cheering, adding that 'The combination seems typical: the darkest thinkers are, paradoxically, almost always the ones who can lift our mood.' De Botton calls Pascal's Pensées ('thoughts') a 'brilliant, intensely pessimistic series of aphorisms' and he sees the gloom factor as integral to a pedagogic (teaching) purpose: to convert readers to God through evoking everything that was terrible about life. De Botton's second observation is telling too:

'Unfortunately for Pascal, very few modern readers now follow the Pensées like this. The first part of the book, listing what is wrong with life, has always proved far more popular than the second, which suggests what is right with God.' Aphorisms like: 'All of man's unhappiness comes from his inability to stay peacefully alone in his room' and 'We struggle against obstacles, but once they are overcome, rest proves intolerable because of the boredom it produces' appeal to our inner darkness, as does: 'We are so presumptuous that we want to be known all over the world, even by people who will only come after we have gone.'

Nonetheless, like Geary, de Botton sees the gloom as extremely therapeutic, even suggesting that:
'...the work is consoling, heartwarming and even, at times, hilarious. For those teetering on the verge of despair, there can paradoxically be no finer book to turn to than one which seeks to grind man's every last hope into the dust. The Pensées, far more than any saccharine volume touting inner beauty, positive thinking or the realization of hidden potential, has the power to coax the suicidal off the ledge of a high parapet.'
The idea is that it is a relief, to read philosophy that confirms our very worst fears, that sheds light into the inner darkness, however nasty may be what is revealed. However, the Pensées, it should be repeated, are not a series of aphorisms, in the modern sense of separate nuggets of wisdom. They are rather an interlinked series of claims offered in a the manner of a geometrical proof. The bulk of the book consists of uplifting, religiously-inspired thoughts like:
'Happiness is neither without us nor within us; it is in God, both without us and within us.'
The point is, the aphorisms we value are often not merely 'hacked from the rock-face' but pillaged like trophies from larger works of spiritual or other significance that we neither understand nor are very much interested in.

If de Botton and others are quick to recommend the Pensées, as a whole, as a timeless and powerful work - for me, it is tedious and outdated, its conclusions neglected for its tangential asides. Yet if Pascal's conscious aim is thwarted, thoughts he may barely have considered significant - the darker ones that sprang from this collective consciousness perhaps? - do continue to speak across the centuries.

And then there's Nietzsche. If many of the gloomy aphorists intended to have an optimistic message, Nietzsche is an aphorist who offered fine thoughts with the intention of belittling and mocking human optimism.
'There is always some madness in love. But there is always some reason in madness'.
The phrase has been immortalized in innumerable books and internet blogs, where, as ever, it has been given a rose-tinted makeover. Poor old Nietzsche! His intention was rather the opposite. I think most of us would take this as saying something like, yes, to feel love for another may be illogical, but there are other, higher, kinds of logic that make such feelings wise. We would not think that of it as an endorsement of the kind of violent madness that characterizes the slaughter of innocents during war, for example. But that is nearer the mark.

So pity Nietzsche! His sardonic ironies and contemptuous harrumphs target just about everyone and everything, he's ended up representing instead, the common man against the elite. If it's odd to find the doom laden verses of Ecclesiastes turn up as sixties pop songs, it's only to be expected that out of all the movies other people tell you about, or indeed all the movies made, Nietzsche appears more often than any other philosopher. This is because he is both very quotable and very much misrepresented. You can't have one without the other, I guess. Anyway, at least according to my Google-based research methods, out of all the philosophers, he is the philosopher-du-jour of the movie industry.

There was even a movie made in his honor in 2003 called simply 'Nietzsche' which has as the opening line: 'God is dead'. This Nietzscheism is so famous that its even got its own 2000-odd word Wikipedia entry, for God's sake! Or should I say, for evil's sake... You have to admire the brevity in that saying. A whole lot of ideas encapsulated in one bitter pill.

Here are a few more catchy Nietzscheisms, judged by that dubious yardstick that that they appear in popular movies:

In Enter the Matrix (2003), the character Ghost recalls Nietzsche's advice that:
'One must want nothing to be different-not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not only bear what is necessary, but to love it.'
In The Doors (1991) as part of a discussion of Jim Morrison's film class project, the soon-to-be-pop-star Morrison reports Nietzsche's words that '
'All great things must first wear terrifying and monstrous masks in order to inscribe themselves on the hearts of humanity.'
And in Smallville (2001), Lana says: 'Nietzsche? I didn't know you have a dark side, Clark.' to which Clark (aka Superman) says 'Doesn't everyone?' Lana then asks: 'So what are you: Man or Superman?' The punch line is Clark's droller than droll (or is it 'duller than dull'?) reply: 'I haven't figured it out yet.'

Of course, this exchange has nothing to do with Nietzsche's philosophy. But the connection pleases the film maker and the audience alike. Because, to movie director, philosophy professors and aphorists alike, Nietzsche is a hero. All cherish the way that he wrote wildly opinionated texts on religion, morality, contemporary culture, philosophy, and science, without doing anything dull like thinking about the practical, social consequences, all the while defying conventional ethics and dazzling with savage wit, metaphor, irony, and aphorism.

Philosophy has long offered big ideas, world-shaking ideas, in small formats

What strikes me about these mass-market Nietzschean aphorisms is that they all feed off a very dark and sinister aspect of philosophy. Nietzsche was not writing in the bien-pensant school associated (probably wrongly) with the cuddly Ancient Greeks, like Plato and Socrates, whose own dictums revolving around 'seeking the good' so pleased the Christian Church looking for more uplifting thoughts than those in the Old Testament. Philosophy has long offered big ideas, world-shaking ideas, in small formats, the classic text being Descartes'': 'I think therefore I am. But Plato is pretty quotable too. Thoughts like these could go on motivational posters... though they'd never sell.:
 'There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help, and what they cannot. '

 'Love' is the name for our pursuit of wholeness, for our desire to be complete. '

 'No one, purposely or knowingly, chooses what is wrong. '
 Actually, talking about philosophers being misquoted and misappropriated, didn't Plato really say:
'No one, purposely or knowingly, chooses what is bad for themselves '.
It's not quite the same thing, and indeed the distinction is all.

The philosophical aphorisms of Plato quoted so far are in fact just fragments, quotes, understood to be from longer works. However, Plato was following in the footsteps of great aphorists like Pythagoras and Heracleitus - the one the Ancients nicknamed 'the Dark'.There are lots of Pythagorean verses, but precious few words left of Heracleitus - scraps the historians actually call 'fragments'. However, apparently Heracleitus only uttered these kinds of short sayings, like a kind of grumpy grandpa, and was renowned for being thus inscrutable. To today his enigmatic announcements like the one about the river: 'No man ever steps in the same river twice' - are misunderstood. Other sayings are less obscure but equally seem less quotable:

'Much learning does not teach understanding' and 'There is nothing permanent except change'
But neither Plato nor Heracleitus, 'Dark' or not, can ever catch the public eye in quite the same way as Nietzsche. No, if you want to get to Hollywood, better make sure the plot is rather more brutal.

When Nietzsche says 'God is dead' he also adds:
'DEAD ARE ALL THE GODS: NOW DO WE DESIRE THE SUPERMAN TO LIVE.' Let this be our final will at the great moontide! - Thus Spoke Zarathustra
But no one quotes that bit. In passing, I should note that I'm not sure if Nietzsche actually used capital letters - screamers - as it were for this phrase, but he sprinkled his notebooks with such things, and heavy underlining. I venture that a good phrase NEEDS NO EMPHASIS.

The 'Superman' is actually part of Nietzsche rant against women and the 'bungled and the botched' and not at all to do with protecting citizens from creepy and mutated underworld villains. On the contrary, his aim is to belittle the popular and mainstream and to privilege the esoteric and select. Nietzsche's Notebook for Autumn 1887, otherwise preoccupied with lamenting the abolition of slavery and the new propaganda in favor of treating people as 'equal', speaks of his struggle against Rousseau and his notion of natural man as good. Egalitarian notions of natural rights are a philosophy born, Nietzsche declares fiercely, 'out of a hatred of aristocratic culture.'

As writers really ought to accept, context matters, and an aphorism - a glittering shard of thought broken from the wordface, still has a context. It's just that often it's unclear what it is. Nietzsche had no time for the masses even if his imaginary character, Zarathustra, is tempted by pity to help them. His contempt extends not only to those social classes excluded from the privilege of higher education, but also to all people who limit their lives and aspirations to the pursuit of trivia and convenience. For Nietzsche, that includes the majority of artists and writers, of students and professors, of journalists and politicians-the majority, that is, of what is sometimes called the 'cultural elite'. They all fall far short of seriously developing their personal or their human potential. Not for him the appeal of the English, like those of Jeremy Bentham, Englishman and philosophical father of practicality, who thought: "In order to love mankind we must not expect too much from them."

Nietzsche's own life was a tragicomedy. A creative and brilliant mind turned bitter by professional failure and long-running physical illness, he is forever trapped in the contrast, familiar to so many of us, between aspirations and achievements. In his lifetime, that is. For later, Nietzsche's overturning of conventional morality and plan to make 'good' evil, and 'evil', good) did come to some kind of fruition. His dream of an elite of merciless 'Supermen' proud to show no pity for the weak taking joy in Dionysian destruction reappeared in a special edition of his writings that Hitler distributed to his soldiers in World War Two. In short, a rather different 'Niezschean Superman' to that in the movie. Of course, some people say that it was his sister who distorted his views and introduced the nasty bits. But Hitler, who also remarked famously:
'What is important is not what the creator of an idea of genius may mean, but what this idea becomes in the mouth of whoever transmits it.'
- had it basically right, when he recommended little snatches of Nietzsche for the troops. In his Notebook 5, for example, the unedited Nietzsche writes:
'I dream of a collective of men who are absolute, who know no consideration, and
who want to be called 'destroyers'.'
Not that you need to scour through obscure notebooks for nasty bits. So beware the platitudinous tendency in philosophy-of warm words and pious sentiments. The authors applauded for such things likely did not think anything like what they are credited with doing.

Context is all. All of which only goes to show, as Critical Theorist might say, that the 'author' does not have a monopoly over the interpretation of the text. And Nietzsche is a good place to start trying to work out the secrets of the art of aphorism, as he is certainly one of its most famous exponents, yet to make sense of his style - and its power - it helps to recall that he was himself only following in an ancient, if, in his day neglected, philosophical tradition.

Nietzsche admired the pre-Socratic philosophers, who in turn reflected an Eastern tradition of pithy words of wisdom delivered as from on high. Teaching around the same time as Pythagoras (the first century BCE), Confucius had dispensed with long boring recitals to teach instead via short pithy analects. Aphorisms by any other name.

The Analects were a series of moral maxims, superficially preoccupied with the question of the proper observation of ancient ritual. But their philosophical and social scope is much broader, and the Analects became the basis of educational theory, political and social science in China. For instance, Confucius says:
'The Superior Man stands in awe of three things...'
Whoa! Stop there. Because aphorisms tend to share certain structural features. The root of the word is in lists of interconnected definitions and on a rhetorical and indeed pedagogical level the 'rule of three' is one key element. Speeches, or mere sayings, carry more weight when they are presented as triples.

Clearly Confucius knew all this. So he says of the Superior Man and his fears.

•    He is in awe of the decree of Heaven.
•    He is in awe of great men.
•    He is in awe of the words of the sages.

The power of the triple, of course, always lies in the closing statement.

Yet , at other times, Confucian wisdom is binary. Take the golden rule, for example. One of the last of the analects recalls that Tzu Kung asked the Master: 'Is there a single concept that we can take as a guide for the actions of our whole life?' To which Confucius responds, 'What about 'fairness '? What you don't like done to yourself, don't do to others.'

Binary language reeks of school, 'do this, don't do that.' Its dogmatism is antithetical to the art of literary aphorism. However, it is binary distinctions that underlie another great, indeed I would say, greater, Eastern text is the Tao Te Ching. The Tao Te Ching is all about binary pairs, about opposites.

Its starting point is that these are the two aspects of everything in reality. Yin, _, the feminine aspect, is dark, soft, and yielding. Yang, _, the masculine aspect, is bright, hard, and inflexible. Everything in the world consists of both elements, and everything is in a state of flux, changing to become more yin or more yang. Human beings are born soft and flexible; yet when they die that are stiff and hard... Plants sprout soft and delicate, yet when they die they are withered and dry...
'Thus the hard and stiff are disciples of death, the soft and flexible are disciples of life.
Thus an inflexible army is not victorious, an unbending tree will break.
The stiff and massive will be lessened, the soft and fluid will increase.'
This is great stuff! But it is not yet the stuff of aphorism. It is yin and yang and not yin, yang and he. Which it could have been, as where there is a harmonious balance between yin and yang, it establishes he (harmony).

The Western tradition grew from Eastern texts like these, with (over time) the binary style winning out over the triadic.

Another perhaps less obvious influence on modern day aphorists is Zeno of Elea, who is always remembered, indeed much loved, for his puzzles and paradoxes. Long before anyone else he examined the mathematical and logical nature of some of our most basic concepts concerning the fundamental nature of space and time. And in his philosophizing, Zeno used a very distinctive kind of argument, one which proceeds by apparently reasonable steps to a completely unreasonable conclusion. Aristotle credited Zeno with being the first philosopher use the 'dialectic', the method of reasoning that later inspired Marx to predict world revolution. Contradiction fuels philosophy and aphoristic language alike.

Take Epicurus's 'Argument from Evil' for example. The entire argument is eight lines long.
'Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God? '
Or recall Socrates famous 'closing speech' in Plato's dialogue The Apology, after drinking a glass of hemlock:
 'To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils. '
With philosophy for so many centuries dedicated to producing contradictions in aphoristic style, and aphorists dedicated to responding in like form, it is a relief to come across Schopenhauer. The iconoclastic German philosopher studied not only the classical Greek tradition but also the Eastern texts. Schopenhauer even called his beloved poodles 'Atma', after the universal soul - all of them sharing one name. He was, in addition, a fine writer with a terse, elegant style. And he offers this explanation for what he calls the 'Emptiness of Existence'.
'That human life must be a kind of mistake is sufficiently clear from the fact that man is a
compound of needs, which are difficult to satisfy; moreover, if they are satisfied, all he is granted is a state of painlessness, in which he can only give himself up to boredom. This is a precise proof that existence in itself has no value.'

- On the Emptiness of Existence
Sigmund Freud would study Schopenhauer's description of the primal 'will to live' and 'sexual impulse' nothing less than avidly, before drawing up his own account of the id or 'life-instinct' and making the libido the central feature in human life. Yet it is not the Austrian psychoanalyst who wrote '...consciousness is the mere surface of our mind, of which, as of the earth, we do not know the inside, but only the crust', but this, still today, relatively obscure, German philosopher.

So perhaps the all-important closing phrase should go to Schopenhauer:
'One should use common words to say uncommon things.'

Martin Cohen is Editor of the Philosopher and author of numerous books on philosophy and social science. His most recent book is Crakcing Philosophy (Cassell 2016)

Address for correspondence: Martin can be contacted via Twitter: @docmartincohen


  1. Thank you , Oliver. We don't get many comments (philosophers are a reclusive bunch except when angry) so the ones we do get are all the more appreciated1

  2. Very much enjoyed this article!


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