Aphorisms by George S. Clason

The tradition of penning personal finance books is very old. It started, like so many things in America, with Benjamin Franklin. In 1758, he published The Way to Wealth, a compilation of some of the money-related aphorisms contained inPoor Richard’s Almanac over the previous 25 years. The Way to Wealth is the source of many sayings that are still current today, including

Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.


Keep the shop, and thy shop will keep thee.

Franklin’s financial advice is unusual, though, because he hardly ever refers to money. Instead, he talks about hard work, diligence, and frugality. With these qualities, he counsels, wealth is assured. “So what signifies wishing and hoping for better times,” Franklin writes. “We may make these times better if we bestir ourselves. Industry need not wish and he that lives upon hope will die fasting.”

Since Franklin’s day, financial self-help books have become a bit like diet books: They are in fashion for a season or two, then swiftly disappear into the discount bins. One book that has withstood the test of time, though, is George S. Clason’sThe Richest Man in Babylon. Clason was born in Louisiana, Missouri in 1874. He founded the Clason Map Company of Denver, CO, and hit it big with the first road atlases of the United States and Canada. In the 1920s, he began writing a series of pamphlets about personal finance, which took the form of parables set in ancient Babylon, the place where money may have been invented. Banks, insurance companies and other financial institutions started distributing Clason’s fables, and in 1926 he collected them into The Richest Man in Babylon. He died in 1957.

Clason is a worthy successor to Franklin. His stories are funny, familiar and studded with little aphoristic insights that make their lessons easy to remember. And like Franklin, he doesn’t talk as much about making money as about managing it.

Our acts can be no wiser than our thoughts.

Wealth that comes quickly goeth the same way.

Better a little caution than a great regret.

Where the determination is, the way can be found.

On ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’

In 1965, Robert K. Merton published On the Shoulders of Giants, a profound, provocative peregrination along the trail of the aphorism

If I have seen farther it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Merton demonstrates — through a series of astonishingly erudite, scholarly and witty digressions — that this saying, commonly attributed to Isaac Newton, was actually first coined by Bernard of Chartres, in the 12th century. OTSOG, as the book was dubbed by Merton, is one of the few texts in which the words “gnomology” and “gnomologist” both appear. The book is brilliant and, in the beginning at least, infuriating, written in the grand digressive and transgressive tradition of Tristram Shandy. Every page is littered with footnotes, some of them stretching across several pages, but the book is consistently amusing, too, mostly thanks to the fact that Merton never takes his incredible erudition—or the conventions of conventional scholarship—too seriously. His passion for this single aphorism—pursued across centuries, cultures, disciplines, languages—is amazing. The book is also replete with fascinating nuggets. We learn, for example, that it was the 17th century English divine John Glanvill who first coined the phrase “climate of opinion.” I learned what the word “stercoraceous” means: “of, containing, like, or having the nature of feces, or dung.” A pasquinade is “a satire or sarcastic squib posted in a public place.” Merton even finds literal depictions of great historical figures seated or standing (there are several hilarious considerations of just how one mounts the shoulder of a giant and whether one sits or stands when one achieves that great height) on the shoulders of even greater historical figures, such as the authors of the four gospels perched on the shoulders of four Old Testament prophets as depicted in the stained glass windows of Chartres. Merton even comes up with a great aphorism, though since he based the saying on a Shandean axiom we must conclude that he himself could only have plucked it from on high because he had a boost from Lawrence Sterne:

I regard an original error as better than a borrowed truth.

Aphorisms by Lieh Tzu

Together with the books of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, the book of Lieh Tzu makes up the trinity of Taoist classics.Lieh Tzu is the name of an ancient sage mentioned by Chuang Tzu but, like most Taoist texts, the book of that name was probably not written by the man to whom it is attributed. Lieh Tzu is supposed to have lived during the 3rd century BCE and was supposed to have traveled by riding the wind. The book that bears his name is a collection of stories, essays, tall tales and—in typical Taoist fashion—zany aphorisms.

What begetting begets dies, but the Begetter of the begotten never ends. What shaping shapes is real, but the Shaper of shapes has never existed. What sounding sounds is heard, but the Sounder of sounds has never issued forth. What coloring colors is visible, but the Colorer of colors never appears. What flavoring flavors is tasted, but the Flavorer of flavours is never disclosed.

Coming, we do not know those who went before; going, we shall not know those who come after.

A man to whom you need to speak only once is easily awakened.

All that is so without us knowing why is destiny.

Error is born from seeming.

The sage knows what will go in by seeing what came out, knows what is coming by observing what has passed.

The difficulty in ruling a state lies in recognizing cleverness, not in being clever oneself.

Pick the right time and flourish; miss the right time and perish.

Nowhere is there principle which is right in all circumstances, or an action that is wrong in all circumstances.

Worrying leads to glory; contentment leads to ruin.

Aphorisms by Daniel J. Cauchie

Daniel J.Cauchie is a Belgian poet who, as he describes it himself, “got lost for 40 years in the world of international business and intrigues.” He’s now found his way back to poetry and philosophy, and writes aphorisms from his philosophical redoubt in the Swiss mountains. During World War II, he miraculously escaped from the Gestapo and took refuge in the Ardennes, where he hooked up with the American army and exchanged his knowledge of the local terrain for instruction in the latest American swear words. Some of Mr. Cauchie’s aphorisms:

A secret is something that one tells to one person at a time.

Truth is so often ugly that one should not tell it at all times and in all circumstances.

Generally, when people become heroes or criminals, they do so involuntarily or unconsciously.

Ferocity is dormant in every heart.

Aphorims by Neil McLachlan

Neil McLachlan has presented television programs, worked as a theater usher, done a bit of stand-up comedy, and went slightly mad in a telesales job. He suffers from insomnia and says of his aphorisms: “a good deal of them (too many for comfort) [are] concerned with despair and disillusionment in one way or another.” Which puts me in mind of E.M. Cioran, another aphorist who suffered from insomnia, loved to hang out in cemeteries, and had a rather bleak take on life, the universe, and everything. Still, McLachlan is a lot more upbeat than Cioran, even if you have to dig a little bit to find the faint glimmers of light.

False hope is still a form of hope and will therefore always be preferable to true despair.

Seems profoundly unfair to insist on faith when faith is precisely what those most in need of salvation find impossible.

Youth is a promise betrayed by age.

A definition of work: doing something that doesn’t interest you in the company of people you don’t care for at the behest of someone you neither like nor respect.

Nowhere quite so calming as a cemetery, that lovely memorial to the pointless vulgarity of human life and the cosmic anomaly that is consciousness.

Nothing of value is achieved by an exertion of the will.

Aphorisms by Tim Daly

Tim Daly has been a performance poet and pop lyricist—working with musicians like Pink Floyd, Dave Stewart, Hugh Masekela, and Henry Mancini—and is now chairman of the West Cork Writer’s Group in Ireland. In the 1980s and 1990s, he produced a couple of albums for local Irish bands, wrote the theme song for a Roger Corman vampire flick called Dance of the Damned as well as other songs, but was determined, he says, “not to become one of those sad musos who dine out on past glories—choosing instead to become what I called ‘a well-adjusted has-been’”—which consisted of, among other things, running the Irish Arts & Crafts shop in Kinsale, training as a welder, and qualifying as a tour bus driver. And, of course, writing aphorisms, which, like the lyrics to a good pop song, tend to stick in your mind long after the melody has faded away …

To most of us the “Future” is full of wonder and promise, a vast sweeping sea of endless possibility, whilst to others it is more like snow they haven’t pissed on yet.

What is the difference between a story and a lie? The story adds something to your life whilst the lie takes something away.

Build all the good landmarks high.

The best way to regard your limitations is through a rear-view mirror.

Each arrow upon landing turns into another bow.

Habit is a very weak glue.

The Danger is that we spend the first half of our lives trying to live and then waste the second half trying not to die.

It is the cruelest irony that so many are imprisoned behind unlocked doors.