Aphorisms by Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach

Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and genius loci of Tramp Freighter, on one of the all-time great aphorists, Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach …

It may be that everyone already knows how good the aphorisms of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916) are. But I just got acquainted with her work through the book Aphorisms (Ariadne Press, 1994), translated by David Scrase and Wolfgang Mieder. Ebner-Eschenbach’s aphorisms (Geary’s Guide, pp. 116-118) are terse and tart, but not acerbic. She touches on numerous themes, many dealing with human psychology and relationships, many related to men versus women. By the standards of her times, she could certainly be classed a feminist: “When a woman says ‘each’ she means each person. When a man says ‘each’ he means each man.”

Many of the great themes are tackled in her aphorisms, truth, beauty, love, religion, morals, class, society, governance, duty, etc. Because she was also a writer of poems, plays and fiction, many of aphorisms are related to the arts or being an artist: “As an artist, you should not wish to create what you don’t feel you have to create.” And she has some aphorisms that relate to our current election season: “In order to fill a public office brilliantly one needs a certain number of good qualities, but bad ones too.”

I have a method for keeping track of important passages in the books I’m reading. I put a little tick mark in the margin near the passage, then I record the page number on an index card (which doubles as my bookmark). As long as the index card stays in the book, I can go back and revisit key passages. Turns out that when reading this book I had put tick marks on practically every page, often marking several aphorisms per page that I wanted to note and revisit at some point. Here’s a sampling from her 582 aphorisms:

We generally learn how to wait when there is nothing more to wait for.

Beware of those virtues which people praise in themselves.

There are more truths in a good book than the author even intended.

Fools usually know best what the wise doubt they can ever learn.

People for whom we are a source of strength give us our support in life.

The believer who has never doubted will hardly convert the skeptic.

You can sink so fast that you think you’re flying.

It is a characteristic of the great that they demand far less of other people than of themselves.

The old saw “It’s always hard to begin” only applies to skills. In art nothing is harder than to end, which means at the same time to perfect.

You’d like to know what your acquaintances say about you? Listen to what they say about people more worthy than you.

Fighting for something is better than begging for it.

A gradual retreat is often worse than a sudden fall.

The scale we measure things by is the measure of our own mind.

Think about what has to be accomplished; forget what you have already accomplished.

I regret nothing, says arrogance; I will regret nothing, says inexperience.

We always have to keep learning, at the very end we even have to learn to die.