Aphorisms by Warren Buffett

The other day I found a signed copy of Thoughts of Chairman Buffett by Warren Buffett at one of the used bookstalls underneath Waterloo Bridge in London. In the introduction, I learned that if I had invested $10,000 with Mr. Buffett in 1956 my money would have grown to $80,000,000 today. That would be just about enough, I think.

Buffett got an early start in business. As a teenager, he wrote a horse racing tip sheet, and by the time he left high school, in 1947, he had saved $5,000. His mentor in investing was Benjamin Graham, author of the classic The Intelligent Investor. Buffett built his investment business on the principles of that book, the basics of which are: invest only in companies you understand, and invest for the long term. He once averred that the stock market did not exist; “It is there only as a reference to see if anybody is offering to do anything foolish.” When asked once when he planned to retire, he replied: “About five to ten years after I die.” Some of the thoughts of the inestimable chairman:

Wall Street is the only place that people ride to in a Rolls-Royce to get advice from those who take the subway.

We’ve done better by avoiding dragons rather than by slaying them.

A great investment opportunity occurs when a marvelous business encounters a onetime huge but solvable problem.

The fact that people will be full of greed, fear, or folly is predictable. The sequence is not predictable.

It’s only when the tide goes out that you learn who’s been swimming naked.

Aphorisms via Mark Vernon

Mark Vernon’s book, 42: Deep Thought on Life, the Universe, and Everything, is a collection of essayistic riffs spinning off from 42 different aphorisms. The book’s title is inspired, of course, by the supercomputer Deep Thought in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which comes up with the reply “42? as the answer to, well, everything. Vernon, a writer, broadcaster and journalist, draws his aphorisms from an eclectic range of reading:

The optimist proclaims that we live in the best of all possible worlds; and the pessimist fears this is true. —James Branch Cabell

They say travel broadens the mind; but you must have the mind. —G.K. Chesterton

Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so. —J.S. Mill

Vernon takes these words of wisdom and, through his essays, applies them to contemporary life, addressing issues like morality, politics and the environment. The result is a welcome combination of old and new. “The ancients loved aphorisms,” Vernon writes in the introduction. “They believed that although your real aim should be to fill your sails, reason, like a rudder, can steer you in the right direction. Socrates said that wisdom is not like water that can be poured from a jug into a basin. Life’s wisdom is manifest in habits and choices, passions and reflection.”

More Aphorisms by Joseph F. Conte

I first blogged about Joseph F. Conte’s aphorisms back in November of 2007. His most recent collection is Maxims for the Millennium, and in it he continues his aphoristic explorations, mostly in the manner of the great French moralists but with a dash of Karl Kraus-like sardonic humor thrown in. Speaking of Kraus, Conte quotes him to good effect in the introduction: “Someone who can write aphorisms should not fritter away his time writing essays.” Enough said. Here are some Maxims for the Millennium:

Everyone can teach something about anything to someone.

Learning never increases for those who do all the talking.

You can kill earnestness with jesting—but not jesting with earnestness.

It is difficult to insult people who do not have self-respect.

On Ears

The inner ear is a flowerbed inside a blacksmith’s shop. Down below the auditory canal—past the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup—sprout the hair cells of the cochlea, planted in tidy rows along the basilar membrane like geraniums in a window box. As the hammer and anvil pound sound waves into shape, the stirrup taps out the beat on the basilar membrane, which sets the hairs cells swaying like a summer breeze through a cornfield. Each of the hair cells’ undulations fires electrical signals to the brain, where we discern the cause of the commotion—a cymbal crash, for instance, or the soft exhalations of a child breathing. Other senses may rest, but the ear never sleeps. It is insomniac, always alert to the slightest pulses, awake to the faintest tremors. If, as English novelist George Meredith wrote, “Speech is the small change of silence,” then let’s hear it for the ear! A moment of silence, please, followed by three resoundingly soundless cheers.

A version of this abbreviated essay appeared in the July-August issue of Ode , on newsstands now.

Aphorisms by Les Coleman

Les Coleman (page 28 in Geary’s Guide) has a new book of aphorisms and drawings, Thunks, published by Red Fox Press. As is his wont, Coleman mixes sayings and sketches in the book and, in some respects, his drawings are as aphoristic as his sayings. The cover, for example, bears the image of a barren tree, the trunk of which gradually transforms into a pitchfork, the prongs of which are embedded in the ground. Inside is the drawing of a light bulb that has a crescent moon and stars shining inside it. Coleman’s aphorisms are as paradoxical and dada-istic as ever:

Improvisation: the use of a human skull as a doorstop.

Freedom can land us in jail.

String: a kite’s umbilical cord.

You can be sure that if it is in small print it should be in large print.

Rope: rungless ladder.

Aphorisms on Childhood

In 1991, Irving Weiss and his wife Anne published Reflections on Childhood: A Quotations Dictionary. The book is “a historical collection of observations, opinions, and reminiscences about childhood and children,” the authors write in the preface. It is also a rich, wide-ranging compendium that spotlights the many pleasures and pains of being a child and a parent:

Credulity is the man’s weakness, but the child’s strength. — Charles Lamb

Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of their parents. —Carl Jung

Reflections on Childhood is an enlightening and entertaining collection. Aphorism aficionados are also indebted to Irving Weiss Malcolm de Chazal into English. In 1972, Weiss published Plastic Sense (Sens-Plastique), a translation of a work first published in France in 1948, and which included a preface by W. H. Auden. The book was re-issued with some revisions in 1979. I came across the revised edition in a used bookstore in San Francisco in the mid-1980s and immediately had my socks knocked off by Weiss’s deft translations of De Chazal’s beautiful, beguiling and often downright bizarre aphorisms. I had never heard of De Chazal at the time, and haven’t heard of him since, expect in Auden’s own aphorism anthology, The Faber Book of Aphorisms, where De Chazal is well represented. But that chance encounter with De Chazal in a used bookstore forever altered my thinking about what aphorisms are—and could be. Weiss has recently published a complete edition of De Chazal’s Sens-Plastique, from Green Integer Press.

Now, to regress back to childhood, here are some more poignant pointers fromReflections:

Alas! it is not the child but the boy that generally survives in the man. —Sir Arthur Helps

Children find everything in nothing; men find nothing in everything. —Leopardi

Children always want to look behind mirrors. —Joseph Joubert

A child remains a child until there is another child. — Estonian proverb

The precursor of the mirror is the mother’s face. —D.W. Winnicott

If you want to see what children can do, you must stop giving them things. —Norman Douglas

If there is anything that we wish to change in our children we should first examine it and see whether it is not something that could better be changed in ourselves. —Carl Jung

Make Your Own God’s Aphorisms!

witty church sign
Well, who woulda thunk it? It is now possible — nay, obligatory — to have your own personal aphorism plastered on a church billboard. Just go to the amazing Church Sign Generator.com, choose from the wide selection of attractive church billboard designs, and type in your sacred or profane aphorism.

You can even have your words of wisdom printed onto key chains, fridge magnets and baseball caps.

I chose as my little sermon a saying from Polish aphorist Wieslaw Brudzinski. Good clean fun for the whole family! Drive on by and be delighted…

My thanks to Max Brockbank of sceneonthe.net for opening my eyes to this site.