Wisdom in 140 characters: Return of the aphorism?

Wisdom in 140 characters: Return of the aphorism?

“We each have two lives,” a wise person once said, “and the second begins when we realise we have only one.”

I can’t tell you which wise person, sadly; the internet attributes it in roughly equal measure to Confucius and Tom Hiddleston. (It’s not a very Confucian sentiment, so I’m going with Hiddleston.) But it hardly matters. It’s an aphorism, and like all the best ones, it feels as if it always existed, and only needed someone to discover it. Or rediscover it: judging by various new books and essays, this oldest of philosophical forms is making a comeback. Our era of dwindling attention spans and 140-character content-burps is generally held to be one of escalating stupidity. But it’s also ideally suited to aphorisms. So maybe we’ll end up imbibing some wisdom accidentally, too.

There are two species of aphorism, James Lough explains in Short Flights, a recent modern collection. The more irritating is the “instructional” kind: pompous nuggets on how to behave, of the sort dispensed by Benjamin Franklin. (“Early to bed and early to rise.” OK, we get it, Ben. You’re perfect.) Not all instructional aphorisms are terrible: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle” is useful advice. But juicier by far are “aphorisms of insight”, which don’t tell us what to do, but radically shift our view of how things are. As Lough writes: “An insight aphorism is anarchic, a bomb exploding in an empty house, blasting out the windows, blowing the doors off their hinges.”

Of these, my favourites are the ones that land at first like a bucket of cold water, issuing a bleak assessment of life, yet turn out to contain a liberating truth. Take Rilke, translated by the Jungian psychologist James Hollis: “The purpose of life is to be defeated by ever greater things.” The economist Thomas Sowell: “There are no solutions; there are only tradeoffs.” (You’ll never solve all your problems. So which ones are worth putting up with, to solve the others?)

A line attributed to Joseph Campbell: “We must be willing to let go of the life we had planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” Or the therapist Sheldon Kopp: “You are free to do whatever you like. You need only face the consequences.” And, yes, I’m aware these are all by men: aphorisms usually are. (The aphorists in Short Flights are three-quarters male.) I’m stereotyping, but I wonder if that’s partly because women writers are less fond of the glib signoff that silently follows every aphorism: “And that’s all that’s worth saying about that!”

But a good aphorism never really draws a line under things. Instead, it keeps on giving, unfolding further meanings. I’m convinced that Earle Hitchner’s quip – “Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way” – explains more about transatlantic relations than you’d think. And the whole of human happiness may be encapsulated in Carl Rogers’s line: “The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change.” There are whole books – lots of them – that don’t contain nearly that much wisdom.

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