Aphorisms by George Santayana

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the always enlightening ursprache blog as well as the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, sends news of a new book on philosopher-aphorist George Santayana: The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy and Character and Opinion in the United States. This article from City Pulse describes the book, a collection of scholarly essays, and includes the Santayana sayings listed below. Santayana (pp. 346–347 in Geary’s Guide) led a life completely dedicated to literature, thanks in part to a hefty inheritance from his mother. He studied and taught at Harvard, where William James was a fellow student and T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens were his pupils. An atheist, he spent the last decade of his life in a convent in Rome, cared for by the nuns. I recently came across Atoms of Thought, an aphoristic compilation of excerpts from Santayana’s books, published in 1950. It’s a kind of anthology, with the excerpts arranged under key categories and themes. Santayana is distinctive for having coined several phrases that have become proverbial, like

Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

But my favorite Santayana-ism is:

The God to whom depth in philosophy brings back men’s minds is far from being the same from whom a little philosophy estranges them.

Here are the aphorisms quoted in the City Pulse piece:

A child educated only at school is an uneducated child.

America is a young country with an old mentality.

Fun is a good thing but only when it spoils nothing better.

History is a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.

The Bible is a wonderful source of wisdom for those who don’t understand it.

Aphorisms by Franz Kafka

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog, read The Zürau Aphorisms of Franz Kafka (Schocken Books, 2006), translated by Michael Hofmann, on a plane recently and sent these thoughts: “The original aphorisms, though known of and posthumously published but only partly, were discovered in a folder in an archive in the new Bodleian Library at Oxford University. It was evident from the care in which they were composed (carefully hand written, numerated and ordered on thin strips of paper) that they were meant to be read as a whole series. In the introduction and the concluding essay to the volume, the Kafka scholar Roberto Calasso gives context to these aphorisms and the period of their undertaking. They were composed by Kafka in 1917-18 during a convalescence and a time of relative ease (except for the torment of household mice), while he was living with his sister in the town Zürau.  As the introduction states, the aphorisms, though few in number (just over a hundred), are a varied lot. Some are short and pithy, as we expect of the aphorism. But quite few run to paragraph length. And some, but not the best of them, delve into theological issues based on Biblical themes. Others are sophisticated philosophical musings. A few are lovely collapsed parables, like this one:

The dogs are still playing in the yard, but the quarry will not escape them, never mind how fast it is running through the forest already.

Strangely, almost none of these aphorisms speak directly about fiction, literature or the practice of writing. This one comes closest:

‘And then he went back to his job, as though nothing had happened.’ A sentence that strikes one as familiar from any number of stories—though it might not have appeared in any of them.

And since that one comes very close to the end of the collection, it might serve as an apt summation for these fleeting illuminations written while Kafka himself was relieved for a time from the obligations and stresses of work; and fitting, too, because the aphorism, as genre, was a type of literary work he never returned to.”

Kafka is featured on pp. 372–374 of Geary’s Guide, but here are some Zürau aphorisms not in my book:

You can withdraw from the sufferings of the world—that possibility is open to you and accords with your nature—but perhaps that withdrawal is the only suffering you might be able to avoid.

Theoretically, there is one consummate possibility of felicity: to believe in the indestructible in oneself, and then not to go looking for it.

He runs after the facts like someone learning to skate, who furthermore practices where it is dangerous and has been forbidden.

In the struggle between yourself and the world, hold the world’s coat.

Leopards break into the temple and drink all the sacrificial vessels dry; it keeps happening; in the end, it can be calculated in advance and is incorporated into the ritual.

There is a destination but no way there; what we refer to as way is hesitation.

Aphorisms by Thomas Fitzgerald

Thomas Fitzgerald has cooked up an original mix of aphorisms (what he calls “the stuff of life”) and bread recipes (what has long been known as the staff of life). Daily Bread consists of 705 original aphorisms and a clutch of recipes from some of America’s foremost bread makers. “We might look upon aphorisms and epigrams … much as we look upon bread,” Fitzgerald writes, “as an essential substance that nourishes us on a most fundamental level, while leaving us with a warm and enduring sense of satisfaction. Indeed, what aphorism or epigram is not a sort of manna wrought from the grist of life itself, smeared over with a most-pleasing confection?” Which only serves to prove what I’ve always argued: Aphorisms are all you really knead.

Every liar must possess in memory what he lacks in conscience.

Anger acknowledged is information; anger acted upon, error.

Humility is the last lesson learned, the first forgot.

A single rose is an expression of love; a dozen, an admission of guilt.

Maturity is wasted on the mature.

He who laughs last laughs alone.

More Aphorisms by Eric Nelson

Eric Nelson, whom you may recall from this 2009 post, is back with some more of his haiku-like aphorisms. Some of these sayings have unmistakeable Zen overtones, such as the aphorism below about the green mountain. Yet others, like the one about chickens and hawks, are much more in the proverbial tradition. An interesting combination, since Zen-like aphorisms tend towards the paradoxical while proverbs are much more matter-of-fact, a mix that gives these poems/haikus/koans/aphorisms a tinge of Eastern mysticism along with a dollop of Mid-Western (or maybe Southern?) plainspeaking.

In the gray brain nothing
Is black or white.

The dead know nothing,
The only thing
You can’t imagine.

A thousand shades of green
Make the mountain
A singular green.

Whether you see them or not
Stars are always there,
Always falling.

If you’ll have chickens
Expect hawks.