“Brevity is the soul of wit” is a wonderful aphorism.* In no small part, that is because it encapsulates a lot of what makes aphorisms themselves so delightful. Whether they are called fragments, maxims, epigrams, proverbs, or pensées, aphorisms can be awful lot of fun to read. When done well, they are pithy, profound, and memorable. But for those very reasons, they can be somewhat difficult to approach as serious reading.
One short phrase can provide enough insight to sustain a very deep discussion. And yet, it is often easy to consume multiple aphorisms at a time, like so many kernels of popcorn. This seems particularly true when the author has put his thoughts into a particular order. There is plenty of value in being able to flip open a book of aphorisms and read one at random, but that seems to discount the value of the author/editor’s decisions in arranging them. Consequently, there is a tension between attempting to read aphorisms as stand-alone thoughts or as a composed collection.
For example, in his book of aphorisms, Vectors, James Richardson wonders: “Why shouldn’t you read this the way I wrote it, with days between the lines?” But that thought is number 369 out of 500. So is it really a serious suggestion on how he thinks the book should be read? An invitation to re-read Vectors with a new focus?
It seems unlikely that there is a “wrong way” to approach aphorisms, but it is worth giving some thought to the different ways in which they can be read. It is also probably important to remain aware of context; without context, a good aphorism may be no more than a cliché.
*Now is probably a good time to mention that the line “Brevity is the soul of wit” is spoken by a long-winded character in an extremely lengthy play. This irony is, perhaps, the best thing about it.
Beer of the week: Fat Tire Amber Ale – This is a tasty little ale from New Belgium Brewing Company. It starts with light, flowery hops on the nose, but the taste is a nice balance between the hops and malt. It gets better as it warms slightly in the glass and the bready malt starts to shine through. Pretty darn good.
Reading for the week: Maximes and Moral Reflections by François de La Rochefoucauld – These dozen selected aphorisms seem fairly representative of La Rochefoucauld’s work. And although each could stand on its own, together they exhibit a distinct line of thought. A couple suggestions on how to read La Rochefoucauld: the author himself suggests that “the best approach for the reader to take would be to put in his mind right from the start that none of these maxims apply to himself in particular, and that he is the sole exception, even though they appear to be generalities.” Lord Chesterfield recommends that one should “read in the morning some of La Rochefoucault’s [sic] Maxims; consider them, examine them well, and compare them with the real characters you meet in the evening.”
Question for the week: How do you like to read aphorisms?
In the dialogue Meno, Socrates is asked by the eponymous interlocutor whether virtue can be taught. Socrates, as per usual, plays dumb: “I don’t even know what virtue is; how can I tell you if it can be taught?” Meno then lists the virtues of various classes of people, all of which appear to be a form of practical efficiency. After a substantial digression, Socrates and Meno finally get to the business of addressing whether virtue can be taught by establishing a provisional definition of what virtue is: the wisdom or knowledge required to know how to act in a way that will be profitable. That is, prudence. For example, courage is a virtue. Without prudence, however, courage becomes folly. The same is true of every other individual virtue. Prudence is the overarching principle of all virtues.
Some two-thousand years later, Lord Chesterfield took up this interpretation of virtue. In a letter to his son, he used the word “judgement” in the place of “prudence” but expressed the same idea. Each virtue is only good if exercised with good judgement, otherwise it becomes a parallel vice. “Generosity often runs into profusion, economy into avarice, courage into rashness, caution into timidity, and so on.” Judgement (or prudence? or moderation?) is the heart of virtue, because without it all other virtues are vice. But Chesterfield went on to apply this to a field that might not be considered a virtue in itself: education.
“Great learning,” writes Chesterfield, “if not accompanied with sound judgment, frequently carries us into error, pride, and pedantry.” Those who are highly educated but not prudent do not give their contemporaries enough credit. Instead, they rely on the ancients, even upon ancient mad men. “We are really so prejudiced by our education, that, as the ancients deified their heroes, we deify their madmen; of which, with all due regard for antiquity, I take Leonidas and Curtius to have been two distinguished ones.” The study of the ancients is necessary and proper, but what really matters is what is going on today.
One may argue that since Chesterfield’s time, the pendulum has swung the quite other way. The products of today’s education scoff at the ancients as primitive and look only to modern science. A particular example of this is the modern opinion of faith. Any great thinker of the past who was avowedly religious is automatically discounted in the opinion of the modern pseudo-intellectual. Faith is no longer regarded as a virtue, but it is now held to be archaic and indicative of personal weakness. And as for Chesterfield’s admonition against mentioning that one is reading classics, there is surely little chance of that now. I read somewhere the observation that Americans used to learn Latin and Greek in high school. But now they learn remedial English in college. If not for the recent motion pictures about the Persian invasion of Greece, many college graduates would have no idea who Leonidas was at all.
Still, Chesterfield’s advice is well worth heeding. Especially for this blog. Works of greater or lesser antiquity are an obvious part of this project. Partially because of an ingrained deference for the ancients, partially because the readings reproduced here must be in the public domain. I think that I generally avoid fawning over the ancients unnecessarily and from trotting out my education just to let people know that I have one. After all, I freely admit that I am under-educated. I had to search Wikipedia just to learn who Curtius was.
Beer of the Week: Lord Chesterfield Ale – This beer has a pleasant and refreshing hint of citrus. It is not as flavorful as I would hope, but it really is a bit better than the average mass-produced beer. Especially after drinking half a case. Also, it is named for a noted man of letters, which is an obvious point in its favor.
Reading for the Week: Letter XXX from Lord Chesterfield to his Son – The collected letters of Lord Chesterfield to his son are known as Letters to His Son on the Art of Becoming a Man of the World and a Gentleman, so that’s awesome. The first time I read this letter, it almost felt like a rebuke for creating this blog. And I still haven’t quite shaken that impression.
Question for the Week: A number of Americans have made former presidents the objects of their deification. Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the Roosevelts, and others are practically cult figures in various circles. In what way does this differ from an obsession with the ancients?