aphorisms, proverbs, maxims, and the purpose of this blog

If you search the Internet for “aphorisms,” you’ll find a mix of authors, from Lao Tze to Jean Baudrillard.

Some are literary figures who are eminently quotable–good at writing short, memorable passages that stand on their own even if they were originally composed for longer poems or continuous narratives. Oscar Wilde, Dorthy Parker, and Emerson are just a few examples of people called “aphorists” because they are pithy and witty.

Other books of aphorisms are lists of sentences or very short passages that are intended to be serious and wise. The biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, the Greek collections of accumulated sayings attributed to Pythagoras and the Delphic Oracle, and the sutras of the Hindu tradition are examples. When these statements take the form of imperative sentences (“Enter not into the path of the wicked, and go not in the way of evil men”), they can be called maxims. When they sound more like generalizations about the world (“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”), they are better named proverbs.

A philosophy professor friend of mine once disclosed his profession to the person sitting next to him on an airplane. “Oh, you are a philosopher,” the neighbor said. “What are your sayings?” He was thinking of traditions in which philosophy means explicit wisdom, and wisdom is succinct and quotable. Needless to say, that is not what professional philosophy is today.

Once collections of short, pithy sayings are treasured as wisdom (a thesaurus means a “treasury”), it becomes possible to write collections that look like proverbs but are more idiosyncratic, personal, and perhaps ironic or subversive. La Rochefoucauld exploits the subversive potential of the genre when he writes in the format of the biblical Book of Proverbs but gives advice like, “If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.”  Erasmus collects real wisdom in some of his books (Adagia, Apophthegmata), but he puts strings of quotable falsehoods in the mouth of the Fool in the Praise of Folly. It is never clear where the author stands. James Geary collects current examples of aphoristic writers in this tradition.

By the way, the root of “aphorism” is the Greek verb for dividing, defining, or setting limits (ultimately from horos, boundary). In the New Testament, the verb aphorizo is used for dividing the damned from the saved and for excommunicating sinners. I think “aphorism” means division because each one is disconnected from the next (not because their content is necessarily about distinctions). In contrast, the Sanskrit word sutra means “string” or “thread.” Both traditions refer to distinct fragments of text that are loosely strung together without explicit transitions. The Greek word emphasizes the distinction among these items; the Sanskrit stresses their connectedness.

Francis Bacon and Friedrich Nietzsche epitomize a different tradition. They are highly critical empiricists who use the aphoristic form to shake their readers’ assumptions and demand their readers’ creative attention.

Bacon begins his book Novum Organum (“or, true suggestions for the interpretation of nature”) by decrying two categories of thinkers. On one hand, some have “presumed to dogmatize on Nature,” inventing or borrowing a theory, trying to explain everything in terms of that theory, and “bringing others to their [preconceived] opinion.” On the other hand, some have succumbed to the “despair of skepticism” and are known only for their “complaints and indignation at the difficulty of inquiry.” The third course is to observe and experiment with nature, one piece at a time, striving always to challenge our prior assumptions. Having proposed that course, Bacon then offers a series of numbered “Aphorisms on the Interpretation of Nature and the Empire of Man.”

Why aphorisms? Arguably, because Bacon is highly suspicious of grand theories that organize everything neatly and prevent us from noticing what is actually happening. So he is suspicious of the logical connective tissue that would turn individual propositions into larger arguments. He prefers to list specific propositions and encourage the reader to consider each one on its merits and to put them together only tentatively. We must stop to think about the logical relationship, if any, among Bacon’s thoughts. The form thus befits its substance.

Nietzsche’s earliest works are essays distinguished by their highly quotable passages yet also connected into rhetorically powerful wholes, with beginnings, transitions, and conclusions. With Human All Too Human (1878) Nietzsche shifts to a new genre that then occupies almost all of his energy for the rest of his life: collections of aphorisms. Like all his later books except ZarathustraHuman All Too Human is a set of numbered passages that range from a single sentence to a few pages in length.

Although Nietzsche’s style is influenced by aphoristic authors after Bacon (La Rochefoucauld, whom he cites in aphorism #35; Pascal; Lichtenberg, and others), the opening of Human, All Too Human takes us back to Bacon. Nietzsche, too, wants to shake his readers out of their “habitual opinions and approved customs.” He too is fascinated by people’s cognitive biases and limitations and suspicious of generalizations. In the very first aphorism of his first aphoristic volume, Nietzsche writes: “in fact, I myself do not believe that anybody ever looked into the world with a distrust as deep as mine.” I think he is hinting why his book will not offer a connected argument. A string of distinct ideas avoids the pretentiousness or naïveté implied by a larger whole.

Here Nietzsche almost sounds like one of the skeptics whom Bacon decries for dropping the effort to understand nature because they understand our limits all too well. But they are just complainers. Nietzsche, echoing the distinctions of Novum Organum, insists that he takes “pleasure in externals, superficialities, the near, the accessible, in all things possessed of color, skin and seeming.” That is not the same as Bacon’s path–striving to understand the phenomena–but Nietzsche sees it as the next step. He is moving beyond Baconian empirical science into his own “gay science.” (And in Ecce Homo, Nietzsche insists, “We do not know half enough about Lord Bacon—the first realist in all the highest sense of the word—to know what he did, what he willed and what he experienced in his inmost soul.”)

A final tradition consists of authors who have left collections of numbered and loosely connected passages–string-like sutras–because death or some other contingency prevented them from pulling these fragments into more coherent works. An inspiration for Bacon may have been Hippocrates, the ancient physician who called for close observation. Hippocrates’ writings (other than the Hippocratic Oath) read like aphorisms for a contingent reason: he didn’t write them. They are collections of fragmentary Greek texts about medicine wrongly attributed to him.

I am not sure to what degree Novalis wanted to write connected arguments, but we have his fragmentary notes in the condition that he left them when he died of consumption; both his tragic youthful death and his aphoristic style seem to match the content of his thought. A century later, Kafka also died of TB, leaving 109 aphorisms on philosophical topics.

And then there’s Wittgenstein, all of whose major works consist of short numbered passages without explicit connections. After he died, Elizabeth Anscombe and Georg Henrik von Wright published

a collection of fragments made by Wittgenstein himself and left by him in a box-file. They were for the most part cut from extensive typescripts of his, other copes of which still exist …

Often fragments on the same topic were clipped together; but there were also a large number lying loose in the box. …

We … came to the the conclusion that this box contained remarks which Wittgenstein regarded as particularly useful and intended to weave into finished work if places for them should appear. Now we know that his method of composition was in part to make an arrangement of such short, almost independent pieces as, in the enormous quantity that he wrote, he was fairly satisfied with.

They published this book under the title Zettel, which I think it an unpretentious work for snippet or cutting. But a cutting is also what an aphorism is. A clipped-together packet of snippings from typescript also bears a distant resemblance to a string of beads, a sutra. 

The word “cutting” could also have a more organic sense. In his 1948 poem “Cuttings,” Theodore Roethke evokes their generative potential:

Sticks-in-a-drowse over sugary loam,
Their intricate stem-fur dries;
But still the delicate slips keep coaxing up water;
The small cells bulge;

One nub of growth
Nudges a sand-crumb loose,
Pokes through a musty sheath
Its pale tendrilous horn.

To be sure, Roethke wrote a much darker second poem with the same title, emphasizing the pain of growth and rebirth. April is the cruelest month, and all. But I’d like to stress the latent promise of things that are clipped and piled together in conditions favorable to regeneration. In fact, that hope explains why I have been moved to write 3,123 posts on this blog (which is yet another word to compare with aphorism, sutra, maxim, and the others cited here). If I believe anything, it’s that we are too strongly influenced by grand conceptions that simplify and block our progress, yet we do need ambitious ideas. So let’s let them emerge from close, responsive, joyful engagement with people and their creations, taken one at a time.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • Your blog as a tension between aphorizo and sutra is a powerful (mixed) metaphor.