Aphorisms by and via Bertie Charles Forbes

Bertie Charles Forbes, the man who founded the magazine that bears his name, was also a life-long collector of aphorisms. He gave “Thoughts on the Business of Life”—a smattering of thoughtful quotations—a full page in every issue of the magazine, he said, “to inspire a philosophic mode of life, broad sympathies, charity towards all.” In the introduction to Thoughts on the Business of Life, which now totals some 10,000 sayings, Forbes wrote that he wanted to “have done something towards bequeathing a better world for my four sons and an increasing number of grandchildren.” That motivation puts him in a long line of moralist-aphorists that started with the local Egyptian potentate Ptah-Hotep back in the third millennium BCE…

Forbes.com has just put Thoughts on the Business of Life online, accompanied by a clutch of essays on Aphorisms, Proverbs, Thoughts and Sayings. This special report includes reflections by Karl Shmavonian, the editor of Forbes‘ quotes page; a piece on how sayings evolve by Brian Burrell; a friendly warning to misquoters from Nigel Rees; an anatomy of proverbs by Wolfgang Mieder; a primer on online quotation sleuthing by Fred R. Shapiro; a piece on literary tattoos by Mark Lewis; and a consideration of aphorisms and the Forbes family by me.

Bertie Charles and Malcolm Forbes are part of a small group of aphorists for whom a talent for the form has run in the family. There are only a few other examples of aphoristic family trees. “Fireside Poet” Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. passed on some aphoristic genes to his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was a U.S. Supreme Court justice. And, of course, the Roosevelts—President Theodore, First Lady Eleanor (Theodore’s niece) and U.S. President Franklin Delano (Eleanor’s distant cousin and husband)—were consistently aphoristic. The aphorisms of Bertie Charles Forbes tend to be moralistic and civic-minded:

Better to be occasionally cheated than perpetually suspicious.

Those of his son, Malcolm, are more philosophical, even Zen-like:

When you catch what you’re after, it’s gone.

The aphorisms of both men, though, remind us why this intimate, idiosyncratic form is so special. If you’re in search of more reminders, check out Thoughts on the Business of Life.