Roger Scruton on Aphorisms

The omniscient aphoristic archeologist Dave Lull uncovered this article by Roger Scruton in The American Spectator about “false aphorisms.” Scruton delivered a version of this piece at the first (and so far only) meeting of the World Aphorism Organization (WAO, pronounced WOW!) back in 2008. You can see a clip of his talk here and a debate on the aphoristic form among Scruton, John Lloyd and myself here. And lest we become too certain of our own opinions, Scruton quotes Ambrose Bierce’s definition of the brain:

An apparatus with which we think we think.

Aphorisms and Epigraphs

The omnivorous aphoristic hunter-gatherer Dave Lull flags up this piece in the Wall Street Journal by Rosemary Ahern about her book The Art of the Epigraph: How Great Books Begin. “The epigraph may pay tribute to a favorite writer or be the product of a chance encounter with a particularly resonant snippet of poetry or prose,” Ahern writes. “But it’s also an act of literary semaphore: an author signaling his themes and sensibility to readers inclined to respond to both.” Ahern gives three tips for choosing appropriate epigraphs: Be brief, be funny, be wise—not bad advice for composing aphorisms, either. And, of course, there are many aphorisms among the epigraphs she cites in her essay, including:

The secret of being a bore is to say everything. —Voltaire

All seats provide equal viewing of the universe. —Museum Guide, Hayden Planetarium

To be happy you must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruit of your passion and learned your place in the world. —Santayana

Begin, be bold and venture to be wise. —Horace

Wit and Aphorisms

Check out my piece in The Indie on Sunday, The wit of the wise beats any number of sermons

In this age of austerity, where would we be without Robert Frost’s

A bank is a place where they lend you an umbrella in fair weather and ask for it back when it begins to rain

In this post-party conference, pre-US presidential election period of political posturing, where would we be without the Polish dissident Stanislaw Lec’s

Politics: a Trojan Horse race

In this era of Keeping Up with the Kardashians, where would we be without Jean Cocteau’s

Mirrors would do well to reflect a little more before sending back images

And in this steady state of economic uncertainty, where would be we without Winston Churchill’s

When you’re going through hell, keep going.

Aphorisms (on buses) by Barbara Kruger

This article from the Wall Street Journal outlines how the Los Angeles Fund for Public Education and the Los Angeles Unified School District are using the work of Barbara Kruger to address the importance of arts education in Los Angeles public schools. The work of Kruger (Geary’s Guide p. 42 and The World in a Phrase pp. 191–194), including phrases like

Support public art or face catastrophe

Give your brain as much attention as you do your hair and you’ll be a thousand times better off


Belief + Doubt = Sanity

can be seen on 12 public city buses as well as multiple billboards and bus shelters for the next 30 days.

Aphorisms on Pinterest

This article from the New York Times details the fascinating trend of “hyperlinked homily” on Pinterest: “The explosively popular image-sharing site has fallen under the spell of words — that is, quotes from the great minds that offer lessons to live by.” Some sayings selected in the article:

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to no one. —Shakespeare

I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious. —Einstein

Pour yourself a drink, put on some lipstick, and pull yourself together. —Elizabeth Taylor

Don’t hate what you don’t understand. —John Lennon and Yoko Ono

Some people look for a beautiful place, others make a place beautiful. —Hazrat Inayat Khan

Aphorisms and Definitions

Belgian gnomologist Gerd de Ley has published The Ultimate Dictionary of Wit and Wisdom, a comprehensive collection of definitions by a panoply of personalities, including (to start with the As)…

Ambivalence: watching your mother-in-law drive over a cliff in your new Cadillac. —David Mamet

Avant-garde: French for off-Broadway garbage. —Dick Van Dyke

Avoidable: what a bullfighter tries to do. —Norm Gilbert

Gerd invited me to write a brief intro to the volume, which follows in full:


Dictionaries are, by definition, not definitive. We cannot really say with complete precision what something is. Words are too mercurial, and our own perceptions too partial, for that. Insights slip and slide; connotations come and go. We can never dip into the same meaning twice because words, and the thoughts they carry with them, are always flowing on. The ‘last word’ on any subject cannot be spoken because language itself withholds it. The best we can do are approaches, approximations. So, for me, the most accurate definition of ‘definition’ is by English novelist Samuel Butler, who wrote: “A definition is the enclosing of a wilderness of idea within a wall of words.” This definition comes close to definitiveness by recognizing its own inadequacy, by acknowledging that the most fertile ideas inevitably outgrow any attempts to confine them by defining them. To open Gerd de Ley’s monumental, magnificent dictionary is to enter a garden of definitional delights where, within the space of a few imperfect words, we encounter the wildest reaches of the human mind and heart.

More Aphorisms by Jay Friedenberg

I first blogged about Jay Friedenberg earlier this year and am doing so again because he’s just released Aphorisms From A to Z: A User’s Guide to Life, a collection of original aphorisms plus ruminations on the form and Q&As with some leading practitioners and connoisseurs.

There is an enlightening Q&A with Pulitzer Prize-winner Michael Dirda of The Washington Post, author of the memoir An Open Book (2004) and of four collections of essays, including Readings (2000)  and Classics for Pleasure (2007). Here is a particularly nice exchange:

JF: Have aphorisms influenced the way you interpret or write literature? Brevity is stressed in journalistic writing, so it seems natural that you might appreciate short form literature. Do you see other connections between aphorisms and journalism?
MD: Journalism requires writers to cut away the fat, and go directly for the facts.  (Hey, that’s almost an aphorism.)  At the same, reporters are always trying to get a bit of zing into their prose. I remember  my former colleague Curt Suplee describing novelist John Irving, who was then very much into wrestling, as having “ a hard gym-like frame.”  The description works on its own, but when you know Pater’s “hard gem-like flame,” it becomes brilliant.

JF: History is full of writers who became avid aphorists. What is it that separates these writers from the rest? Is there a particular type of personality that gravitates toward them?
MD: I suppose that an aphorist is a failed poet with the temperament of worldly philosopher. Beyond that, one must hate fuzziness in writing and aspire to clarity, conciseness and beauty.

Sara Levine, chair of the Writing Program at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and charter member of the WAO, makes a characteristically witty appearance:

JF: You teach a course on aphorisms at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. What is the content of this course? How do you teach it? How do the students react?
SL: I teach the aphorism as part of a graduate course called Short Prose Forms. I ask each student to write an aphorism on an index card and pass the index card to the person on his left; we tweak, we tinker, we try to improve. A skeptical student objects: Can one write an aphorism by committee? “You inhabit another character’s imagination when you write a novel,” I answer. “So write an aphorism for a character who isn’t you.” But it always proves harder than it sounds. When the work is done, we spread the index cards out on a table and discover they resemble, not a page from Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, but a row of hospital beds. Sentence after ailing sentence: punctured paradoxes, sprained metaphors, hobbled clauses, a ward of amputees! Luckily, I love failure as much as I love the aphorism. Each time your aphorism lands with a thud, you come closer to understanding the form. The feelings of inferiority or humility that come along with the experience of writing a truly lousy aphorism are nothing—well, not nothing, but fiddlesticks—compared to a sharper understanding of how Dorothy Parker packs a big idea into a carry-on bag. The aphorism is, in essence, a crash course in
prose style.

JF: What are your aphorisms like?
SL: Solitary, poor, nasty, funny, and short.

And then there are, of course, Jay Friedenberg’s own aphorisms, over 2,500 different ones on more than 600 topics, precisely observed sayings that manage to be both clinical and sympathetic. A small sampling…

Common sense is knowing how to act effectively in a situation for which you have not already prepared.

If you can’t live up to your expectations, lower them.

Grandchildren are a parent’s best revenge.

Deal with the biggest threats first.

There are many kinds of strength, some disguise themselves as weakness.

Aphorisms by Peter Schmidt

Thanks to Jim Finnegan, proprietor of the ursprache blog and author of the aphoristically amazing Tramp Freighter, I read Peter Schmidt’s The Thoughts Behind the Thoughts, just published by Mindmade Books. The German-English artist Schmidt co-authored the enigmatic aphorisms of Oblique Strategies (Geary’s Guide, p. 233) with Brian Eno. According to Mindmade’s Guy Bennett, “In 1970 Peter Schmidt created this mixed-media work by combining extant prints from his studio and aphoristic writings mined from his journals. Sets of 55 ‘thoughts’ were assembled onto thick card stock, boxed, and given away to friends, family, and colleagues, such as Jasia Reichardt, Robert Wyatt, and Brian Eno. In exploring the pathways leading to the creative process, they constitute a sort of ante-ars poetica, and in so doing strongly prefigure the Oblique Strategies, which Schmidt later created in collaboration with Brian Eno.” Schmidt’s Thoughts are a bit more ethereal than Oblique Strategies but have the same kind of surreal practicality, as applicable to daily life as to artistic dilemmas. A sampling is below. Order the chapbook here.


You don’t save time
by going faster

Depression is a form
of cowardice

The scales are good
if you know how they err

Avoid misplaced hungers

You cant keep stopping
all the time just to be

More Aphorisms by Irena Karafilly

I blogged about Canadian author and journalist Irena Karafilly back in 2007. Karafilly has a novel, The Captive Sun, coming out and a new website, which includes a page with some of her aphorisms. Here’s a sample to get you started:

The only power you have over people is the ability to do without them.

The really amazing thing about history is not that it so often repeats itself, but that it fails to bore us.