Aphorisms by Ben Franklin

“Ben Franklin Is a Big Fat Idiot” is an entertaining re-appreciation of America’s founding aphorist by Joe Queenan. Queenan rightly points out that Big Fat Ben often purloined his sayings from sages past, and not all of the Great Man’s maxims are equally great. I don’t think this should in any way diminish Franklin’s reputation as one of the aphoristic titans, however. If you read any of the master aphorists, it is always a minority of their sayings that are truly phenomenal. Phenomenal aphorisms are very hard to write, so it shouldn’t surprise us that the truly great sayings are but a subset of the entire aphoristic oeuvre. And in regard to charges of plagiarism, we must remember Anatole’s Axiom, first laid down by French novelist Anatole France:

When a thing has been said, and said well, have no scruple. Take it and copy it.

Franklin did just that, but in copying what had already been said well he added distinctive flourishes and twists that make the recycled sayings truly his own. My favorite Franklinism, and one of my all-time favorite aphorisms, remains:

It is hard for an empty sack to stand upright.