Aphorisms by Samuel Butler

Samuel Butler (Geary’s Guide pp. 21-24) is the author of one of my all-time favorite aphorisms, an aphorism I first encountered as a teenager when I happened to be learning the very instrument referred to in the saying:

Life is like playing a violin solo in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.

This aphorism has been a fixture of my thinking ever since. I’ve not come across a more apt metaphor for life. I never knew the original source of the aphorism, however, until I recently read a selection of Butler’s essays. It comes from the essay ‘How To Make the Best of Life’, a typically apposite and delightful piece in which Butler argues that we make the most of life only after we’re dead—through the effect of our example and influence on those still living or, if we’re creative, through our art:

He or she who has made the best of the life after death has made the best of the life before it.

Butler is such a perceptive, funny writer that it’s a shame he is not more widely read, especially his Note-Books and essays, in which some of his best aphoristic thinking can be found…

We can see nothing face to face; our utmost seeing is but a fumbling of blind finger-ends in an overcrowded pocket.

When a thing is old, broken, and useless we throw it on the dust-heap, but when it is sufficiently old, sufficiently broken, and sufficiently useless we give money for it, put it into a museum, and read papers over it which people come long distances to hear.

We care most about what concerns us either very closely, or so little that practically we have nothing whatever to do with it.

Scratch the simplest expressions, and you will find the metaphor.

Truth is like a photographic sensitized plate, which is equally ruined by over and by under exposure, and the just exposure for which can never be absolutely determined.