I am a foe of misquotation, misattribution, the retailing of unsourced quotations, the passing off of unchecked second-hand quotations, and sense-altering context suppression. Have I ever done any of these things? Probably. 'Suffering' as I do from cacoethes scribendi, it is a good bet that I have committed one or more of the above. But I try to avoid these 'sins.'
This morning I was reading from Karl Menninger, M.D., Whatever Became of Sin? (Hawthorn Books, 1973). On p. 156, I found this quotation:
Our youth today love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, disrespect for older people. Children nowadays are tyrants. They contradict their parents, gobble their food, and tyrannize their teachers.
At the bottom of the page there is a footnote that reads: "Socrates, circa 425 B. C. Quoted in Joel Fort, The Pleasure Seekers (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1969)."
I was immediately skeptical of this 'quotation.' In part because I had never encountered the passage in the Platonic dialogues I have read, but also because the quotation is second-hand. So I took to the 'Net and found what appears to be a reputable site, Quote Investigator.
. . . was crafted by a student, Kenneth John Freeman, for his Cambridge dissertation published in 1907. Freeman did not claim that the passage under analysis was a direct quotation of anyone; instead, he was presenting his own summary of the complaints directed against young people in ancient times.
FALSE APHORISMS are not as rare as one might think. More significant than Wilde's, on account of its influence, is Marx's dismissal of religion as "the opium of the people." For this implies that religion is adopted purely for its ability to soothe the wounds of society, and that there is some other condition to which humanity might advance in which religion would no longer be needed. Both those implications are false, but they are boiled into a stock cube as tasty as any that has been seen on the intellectual menu. How many would-be intellectuals have dissolved this cube into their prose and given their thought, in the manner of Christopher Hitchens, a specious air of wisdom?
Permit me a quibble. Should we call a striking formulation lifted from a wider context an aphorism? I don't think so. An aphorism by my lights is a pithy observation intended by its author to stand alone. Accordingly, Marx's famous remark is not an aphorism. The wider context is provided here.
Henry Thoreau was once asked whether he had read a newspaper account of a local suicide. He replied that he didn't need to; he understood the principle. This anecdote comports comfortably with an observation Henry David makes somewhere in his journal:
I have discovered the aphorisms of Stanislaw Jerzy Lec via a reference in a book by Josef Pieper. Here are a few that impressed me from More Unkempt Thoughts (Curtis Publishing, 1968, tr. Jacek Galazka), the only book of Lec's I could easily lay hands on.
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible. (9)
Why can't you believe in paradise on earth when you know there is hell on earth? (10)
When they blow the horn of plenty this loud, it must be empty. (15)
In him there is a void filled to the brim with erudition. (18)
Do not greet people with open arms. Why make yourself easier to crucify? (19)
Take good care of yourself: Property of the State. (22)
Cannibals prefer men who have no spines. (28)
To keep fit fame needs the massage of applause. (31)
Ladies, do not complain about men: their aims are as transparent as your clothes. (36)
The strongest brakes fail on the path of least resistance. (37)
Percussion wins every discussion. (38)
You cannot rely on people to remember, or, alas, to forget. (42).
In some countries life is so open you can spot the Secret Police everywhere. (42)
Not every shi- can age gracefully and become valuable guano. (48)
When men a dangerous disease did 'scape Of old they gave a cock to Aesculape Let me give two, that doubly am got free From my disease's danger, and from thee.
Ben Jonson (1753?-1637) from Epigrams and Epitaphs (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 27.
At the very end of the Phaedo, having drunk the hemlock, Socrates is reported by Plato as saying to Crito, "I owe a cock to Asclepius; do not forget to pay it." (tr. F. J. Church) Asclepius is the Greek god of healing. Presumably, Socrates wanted to thank the god for his recovery from the sickness of life itself.
Nietzsche comments at the the beginning of "The Problem of Socrates" in The Twilight of the Idols:
Concerning life, the wisest men of all ages have judged alike: it is no good. Always and everywhere one has heard the same sound from their mouths -- a sound full of doubt, full of melancholy, full of weariness of life, full of resistance to life. Even Socrates said, as he died: "To live -- that means to be sick a long time: I owe Asclepius the Savior a rooster." (tr. W. Kaufmann)
At any given time I am reading twenty or so books. One of them at the moment is Susan Sontag, As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks 1964-1980, Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2012. In the midst of a lot of stuff, there are some gems. Here is one:
Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that. (512)
The last line is the best. There is something plebeian about argument. The thought is pure Nietzsche. See "The Problem of Socrates" in Twilight of the Idols (tr. Kaufmann):
Section 4: Socrates' decadence is suggested not only by the admitted wantonness and anarchy of his instincts, but also by the hypertrophy of the logical faculty . . . .
Section 5: With Socrates, Greek taste changes in favor of dalectics. [. . .] What must first be proved is worth little. Wherever authority still forms part of good bearing, where one does not give reasons but commands, the dialectician is a kind of buffoon . . . . Socrates was the buffoon who got himself taken seriously . . . .
Whether or not argument is plebeian, it has no place in an aphorism. As I put it:
An aphorism that states its reasons is no aphorism at all. But the reasons are there, though submerged, like the iceberg whose tip alone is visible. An aphorism, then, is the tip of an iceberg of thought.
Aphorisms and poems have this in common: neither can justify what they say while remaining what they are.
The Sontag-Nietzsche view seems to be that one needn't have reasons for what one aphoristically asserts; mine is that one should have them but not state them, leastways, not in the aphorisms themselves.
Addendum, 4:30 PM: That indefatigable argonaut of cyberspace, the ever-helpful Dave Lull, librarian non pareil, friend of bloggers and the just recipient of their heart-felt encomia, sent me a link to a post by James Geary entitled Susan Sontag on Aphorisms.
Geary rightly demolishes the silly conceit of another blogger who, commenting on Sontag, characterizes aphorisms as "the ultimate soundbitification of thinking." That is truly awful and deserves to be buried in the deepest and most mephitic nether regions of the blogosphere.
But Geary says something that contradicts my claim above that argument has no place in an aphorism:
And aphorisms are arguments. That’s why they are so often written in declarative or imperative form. An aphorism is only one side of the argument, though.
It appears that Geary is confusing a statement with an argument. Consider Nietzsche's "Some men are born posthumously." This is a declarative sentence but certainly no argument. An argument requires at least one premise and a conclusion. To argue is to support a claim with reasons. Nothing like this is going on in the one-sentence aphorism just quoted.
Theodor Haecker, Journal in the Night, tr. A. Dru, Pantheon, 1950, p. 172, entry #579 of 10 September 1941:
A year ago today the official propagandist, Fritsche, talking on the wireless, said of the bombing of London: 'Once upon a time fire rained down upon Sodom and Gomorrha, and there only remained seventy-seven just men; it is very doubtful whether there are seventy-seven just people in London today.' I already know many reasons why Germany will not win the war. Fritsche's speech is one.
Concluding punctilious postscript: I added a hyperlink to (Dru's translation of) Haecker's text. That bit of contextualization enriches and thus modifies the sense of his text. Worth noting if not worth worrying about.
Paul Brunton, Notebooks, vol. 9, Human Experience, p. 126, #520, emphasis added:
Politicians -- more interested in their own careers than in sincere public service, ambitious to gain their personal ends, unwilling to rebuke foolish voters with harsh truth until it is too late to save them, forced to lead double lives of misleading public statements and contradictory knowledge of the facts, yielding, for the sake of popularity, to the selfish emotions, passions, and greeds of sectional groups -- contribute much to mankind's history but little to mankind's welfare.
Dead on in substance, but also stylistically instructive. A good example of how to write a long sentence. Interesting because most of the content is sandwiched between the dashes. The thesis flanks the dashes with the supporting considerations between them.
Few read Brunton. But I read everything, ergo, etc.
How to disentangle profundity from puffery in any obscure formulation? Clear thought stops short, a victim of its own probity; the other kind, vague and indecisive, extends into the distance and escapes by its suspect but unassailable mystery.
Excellent except perhaps for ‘victim,’ which betrays Cioran’s mannered negativism. Substitute ‘beneficiary’ and the thought’s expression approaches perfection.
Indolence saves us from prolixity and thereby from the shamelessness inherent in production. (133)
An exaggeration, but something for bloggers to consider.
To be is to be cornered. (93)
Striking, and certainly no worse than W. V. Quine’s “To be is to be the value of a variable.”
Nothing makes us modest, not even the sight of a corpse. (87)
Cioran hits the mark here: the plain truth is set before us without exaggeration in a concise and striking manner.
Conversation is fruitful only between minds given to consolidating their perplexities. (163)
Brilliant. Philosophy, as Plato remarks (Theaetetus St. 155) and Aristotle repeats (Metaphysics 982b10), originates in wonder or perplexity. Fruitful philosophical conversation, rare as it is and must be given the woeful state of humanity, is therefore a consolidation and appreciation of problems and aporiai, much more than an attempt to convince one’s interlocutor of something. Herein lies a key difference between philosophy and ideology. The ideologue has answers, or thinks he has. And so his conversation is either apologetics or polemics, but not dialog. The philosopher has questions and so with him dialog is possible.
Time, accomplice of exterminators, disposes of morality. Who, today, bears a grudge against Nebuchadnezzar? (178)
This is quite bad, and not become of its literary form, but because the thought is false. If enough time passes, people forget about past injustices. True. But how does it follow that morality is abrogated? Cioran is confusing two distinct propositions. One is that the passage of time disposes of moral memories, memories of acts just and unjust. The other is that the passage of time disposes of morality itself, rightness and wrongness themselves, so that unjust acts eventually become neither just not unjust. The fact that Cioran’s aphorism conflates these two propositions is enough to condemn it, quite apart from the fact that the second proposition is arguably false. A good aphorism cannot merely be clever; it must also express an insight. An insight, of course, is an insight only if it is true. Nor is an aphorism good if it merely betrays a mental quirk of its author. For then it would be of merely psychological or biographical interest.
There is no other world. Nor even this one. What, then, is there? The inner smile provoked in us by the patent nonexistence of both. (134)
A statement of Cioran’s nihilism. Unfortunately for him, but fortunately for us, it is self-contradictory. It cannot be true both that nothing exists and that an inner smile, a bemused realization that nothing exists, exists. So what is he trying to tell us? If you say that he is not trying to tell us anything, then what is he doing? If you say that he is merely playing at being clever, then I say to hell with him: he stands condemned by the very probity that he himself invokes in the first aphorism quoted supra.
Everything is nothing, including the consciousness of nothing. (144)
An even more pithy statement of Cioran’s nihilism. But if the consciousness of nothing is nothing, then there is no consciousness of nothing, which implies that the nihilist of Cioran’s type cannot be aware of himself as a nihilist. Thus Cioran’s thought undermines the very possibility of its own expression. That can’t be good.
Will you accuse me of applying logic to Cioran’s aphorism? But what exempts nihilists from logic? Note that his language is not imperative, interrogative, or optative, but declarative. He is purporting to state a fact, in a broad sense of ‘fact.’ He is saying: this is the way it is. But if there is a way things are, then it cannot be true that everything is nothing. The way things are is not nothing.
“It is of no importance to know who I am since some day I shall no longer be” – that is what each of us should answer those who bother about our identity and desire at any price to coop us up in a category or a definition. (144)
This presupposes that only the absolutely permanent is real and important. It is this (Platonic) assumption that drives Cioran’s nihilism: this world is nothing since it fails to satisfy the Platonic criterion of reality and importance. Now if Cioran were consistently sceptical, he would call this criterion into question, and with it, his nihilism. He would learn to embrace the finite as finite and cheerfully abandon his mannered negativism. If, on the other hand, he really believes in the Platonic criterion – as he must if he is to use it to affirm, by contrast, the nullity of the experienced world – then he ought to ask whence derives its validity. This might lead him away from nihilism to an affirmation of the ens realissimum.
X, who instead of looking at things directly has spent his life juggling with concepts and abusing abstract terms, now that he must envisage his own death, is in desperate straits. Fortunately for him, he flings himself, as is his custom, into abstractions, into commonplaces illustrated by jargon. A glamorous hocus-pocus, such is philosophy. But ultimately, everything is hocus-pocus, except for this very assertion that participates in an order of propositions one dares not question because they emanate from an unverifiable certitude, one somehow anterior to the brain’s career. (153)
A statement of Cioran’s scepticism. But his scepticism is half-hearted since he insulates his central claim from sceptical corrosion. To asseverate that his central claim issues from “an unverifiable certitude” is sheer dogmatism since there is no way that this certitude can become a self-certitude luminous to itself. Compare the Cartesian cogito. In the cogito situation, a self’s indubitability is revealed to itself, and thus grounds itself. But Cioran invokes something anterior to the mind, something which, precisely because of it anteriority, cannot be known by any mind. Why then should we not consider his central claim – according to which everything is a vain and empty posturing – to be itself a vain and empty posturing?
Indeed, is this not the way we must interpret it given Cioran’s two statements of nihilism cited above? If everything is nothing, then surely there cannot be “an unverifiable certitude” anterior to the mind that is impervious to sceptical assault.
Again, one may protest that I am applying logic in that I am comparing different aphorisms with an eye towards evaluating their mutual consistency. It might be suggested that our man is imply not trying to be consistent. But then I say that he is an unserious literary scribbler with no claim on our attention. But the truth of the matter lies a bit deeper: he is trying have it both ways at once. He is trying to say something true but without satisfying the canons satisfaction of which is a necessary (though not sufficient) condition of anything’s being true.
My interim judgement, then, is this. What we have before us is a form of cognitive malfunction brought about by hypertrophy of the sceptical faculty. Doubt is the engine of inquiry. Thus there is a healthy form of scepticism. But Cioran’s extreme scepticism is a disease of cognition rather than a means to it. The writing, though, is brilliant.
The quotations are from E. M. Cioran, Drawn and Quartered (New York: Seaver Books, 1983), translated from the French by Richard Howard.
Is all production vain and shameless? Perhaps not if one keeps one's productions to oneself. But writing books, articles and blog posts is not just production, but publishing, making public. Is publishing mere vanity and self-promotion?
In given cases it can be. And whether one of those cases is my case is not for me to decide. But surely it would be absurd to claim that all publishing by anyone is mere vanity and shameless self-promotion. Take the books of John Searle. He thinks he has solved the mind-body problem. He has done no such thing. Yet his books are enormously rich and stimulating despite some error and confusion. I am glad he has written his many books and made his contribution to our common ongoing philosophical quest. He has given me many hours of pleasure and elevated thought.
All living is self-asserting. But there is self-assertion and there is self-assertion. Personal assertion in the service of the impersonal truth is more than mere personal assertion. Thereby is vanity substantiated and shamelessness redeemed.
The eminent cleric was poking fun at original sin. ‘That sin is your meal ticket. Without it, you’d die of hunger, for your ministry would then no longer have any meaning. If man is not fallen from the very beginning, why did Christ come? to redeem whom and what?’ To my objections, his only response was a condescending smile.
A religion is finished when only its adversaries try to preserve its integrity.
Nessun maggior segno d'essere poco filosofo e poco savio, che volere savia e filosofica tutta la vita.
There's no greater sign of being a poor philosopher and wise man than wanting all of life to be wise and philosophical.
(Giacomo Leopardi, Pensieri, tr. W. S. Di Piero, Baton Rouge: Lousiana State University Press, 1981, p. 69) Do you see how the translation imports an ambiguity that is not present in the Italian original?
They say that love is blind. But if love blinds, is it love? Or is it rather infatuation? "Where there is love, there is sight." I found this fine Latin aphorism in Josef Pieper, Death and Immortality (Herder and Herder, 1969, p. 21). The translation is mine. Pieper credits Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on the Sentences 3 d. 35, I, 21. Pieper adds that "The dictum comes from Richard of St. Victor." (Pieper, p. 133, n. 29.)
Only to the eye of love is the ipseity and haecceity of the beloved revealed, and only the eye of love can descry the true nature and true horror of death. That is my gloss on the aphorism and its context. I should arrange a confrontation between Pieper and Epicurus who Pieper views as a sophist. (p. 29)
Baltasar Gracian (1601-1658), The Art of Worldly Wisdom (Doubleday, 1992, tr. C. Maurer, # 173):
Don't be made of glass in your dealings with others. Even less so in friendship. Some people break very easily revealing how fragile they are. They fill up with resentment and fill others with annoyance. They are more sensitive than the pupils of the eyes, which cannot be touched, either in jest or in earnest. They take offense at motes: beams aren't even necessary. Those who deal with them must use great caution, and never forget their delicacy. The slightest slight annoys them. They are full of themselves, slaves to their own taste (for the sake of which they trample on everything else), and idolaters of their own silly sense of honor.
Ah, the webbiness of the Web! I used an aphorism of Nicolás Gómez Dávila three days ago for purposes of logical analysis and received a comment from one 'Stephen' who is the proprietor of an interesting site devoted to translations of Don Colacho's aphorisms. The blog is appropriately entitled Don Colacho's Aphorisms. Please do check it out if you are a lover of aphorisms. His are even better than mine, if I do say so myself. Here is an example:
“Social” is the adjective that serves as a pretext for all swindles.
Excellent! If I may be permitted to supply an example: social justice.
Another good aphorist is Deogolwulf, proprietor of The Joy of Curmudgeonry. Here is an example of one of his fewtrils: "The common man is never so clever as the politician says and never so stupid as the politician believes."
Conversation is fruitful only between minds given to consolidating their perplexities.
A brilliant aphorism. Philosophy, as Plato remarks (Theaetetus 155) and Aristotle repeats (Metaphysics 982b10), has its origin in wonder or perplexity. Fruitful philosophical conversation, rare as it is and must be given the state of humanity, is therefore a consolidation and appreciation of problems and aporiai, much more than an attempt to convince one's interlocutor of something. Herein lies a key difference between philosophy and ideology.
Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Book One, Section Two (tr. Kaufmann):
. . . to stand in the midst of this rerum concordia discors [discordant concord of things: Horace, Epistles, I.12.19] and of this whole marvelous uncertainty and rich ambiguity of existence without questioning, without trembling with the craving and the rapture of such questioning, without at least hating the person who questions, perhaps even finding him faintly amusing -- this is what I feel to be contemptible . . .
Emile Chartier (1868-1951) was a French professor of philosophy among whose students were Raymond Aron and Simone Weil. Chartier's sunny disposition, however, did not rub off on the brooding Weil. Under the pseudonym 'Alain,' Chartier published thousands of two-page essays in newspapers. What follows is a striking sentence from the essay "Maladies of the Mind" in Alain on Happiness, F. Unger, 1973, p. 25:
An old man is not a young man who suffers from old age; a man who dies is not a living man who enters into death.
Blaise Pascal, Pensées #113 (Krailsheimer tr., p. 59):
It is not in space that I must seek my human dignity, but in the ordering of my thought. It will do me no good to own land. Through space the universe grasps me and swallows me up like a speck; through thought I grasp it.
Pascal is right: what good will owning acres and acres of land do me? In the end a man needs only -- six feet.And before the end I should be seeking truth, not lusting after land. So I remind myself when the urge to buy land grips me.
"The sky is the daily bread of the eyes," wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson magnificently and truly. And this from a man who lived in New England where there is no sky to speak of. What would he have written had he been able to bathe his thoughts in the lambent light of the desert Southwest?
Man is neither angel nor beast; and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the beast.
The first half of the thought is unexceptionable: man is indeed neither angel nor beast, but, amphibious as he is between matter and spirit, a hybrid and a riddle to himself.
The second half of Pascal's thought, however, is unfair to the beasts. No beast can act the beast the way a man can. No beast is bestial in the way a man can be bestial. The difference is that while the beast acts according to his nature, man freely degrades himself contrary to his nature. Having done so, he allows his freely indulged passions to suborn his intellect: he constructs elaborate rationalizations of his self-degradation.
It is not our animality that corrupts us but our free misuse of our animality, a misuse that derives from our spirtuality.
Herewith, comments on some aphorisms of Wallace Stevens from Adagia, aphorisms that sum up much of the aesthetic attitude I am concerned to oppose. (To be precise: I am out to oppose it in its imperialistic ambitions; I have nothing against art properly chastened and subordinated to the ultimate dominatrix, Philosophia.) I have bolded Wallace's lines.
Thought is an infection. In the case of certain thoughts, it becomes an epidemic.
If thought is an infection, then poetry is mental meltdown.
After one has abandoned a belief in god, poetry is that essence which takes its place as life's redemption.
What a paltry redemption! It would be better to say that there is no redemption than to say something as silly as this. Learn to live with the death of God, my friend! Don't insert a sorry substitute into the gap. Don't try to make a religion of what is only a dabbling in subjective impressions. Compare John Gardner, "Fiction is the only religion I have . . . ." (On Writers and Writing, p. xii.)
Otto Weininger, Ueber die Letzten Dinge (Wien und Leipzig: Wilhelm Braumueller Verlag, Neunte Auflage, 1930), pp. 65-72. Translations by BV.
Grundzug alles Menschlichen: Suchen nach Realitaet. Wo die Realitaet gesucht and gefunden wird, das begruendet alle Unterschiede zwischen den Menschen.
The quest for reality is a fundamental characteristic of human beings. Where reality is sought and found, however, explains all differences among them.
Der gute Aphoristiker muss hassen koennen.
The good aphorist must be able to hate.
Der Transzendentalismus ist identisch mit dem Gedanken, dass es nur eine Seele gibt, und dass die Individuation Schein ist. Hier widerspricht der Monadologische Charakter der kanstischen Ethik schnurgerade der "Kritik der reinen Vernunft."
Transcendentalism is identical with the thought that there is only one soul, and that a plurality of souls is an illusion. Here the monadological character of Kant's ethics straightaway contradicts the Critique of Pure Reason.
A fruitful thought, though roughly expressed. But what do you want for an aphorism? The idea is that there is a tension between the Critique of Practical Reason, which presupposes the thinkability, if not the knowability, of a plurality of metaphysically (and thus transcendently) real noumenal selves capable of acting freely, and the Critique of Pure Reason in which the subject of experience and phenomenal knowledge is a mere transcendental (not transcendent) subject, a consciousness in general (Bewusstsein ueberhaupt to use a phrase later made famous by neo-Kantians) that is neither mine nor yours but common to us all. It is a crude approximation, however, to refer to this transcendental subject as a soul, as Weininger does. This aphorism would have made a good motto for my doctoral dissertation, which deals with similar problems.
Then consider what Francis Bacon (1561-1626) has to say in his Essays (XI. Of Great Place):
Men in great place are thrice servants -- servants of the sovereign or state, servants of fame, and servants of business; so as they have no freedom, neither in their persons, nor in their actions, nor in their times. It is a strange desire to seek power and to lose liberty; or to seek power over others and to lose power over a man's self. The rising unto place is laborious, and by pains men come to greater pains; and it is sometimes base, and by indignities men come to indignities. The standing is slippery, and the regress is either a downfall, or at least an eclipse, which is a melancholy thing: Cum non sis qui fueris, non esse cur velis vivere. ["Since you are not what you were, there is no reason why you should wish to live."]
Not an original aphorism, but a good one nonetheless: A diplomat is someone who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you look forward to the trip.
This illustrates the principle that in human affairs it is less what one says than how one says it that matters. Perverse as people are, they ignore or downplay what is primary, the message, to fixate on the 'packaging.'