My friend Beston Jack Abrams refers to himself as the “ancient aphorist,” because he turned 90 last month and is still reading, writing and thinking about aphorisms. He recently published Volumes I–IX of his collected works, Abramisms: Lines of The Ancient Aphorist. But Jack’s nickname is even more appropriate for another reason. He is an accomplished practitioner of the oldest form of aphorism in existence—the moral saying.
The very earliest aphorisms ever recorded, in Egypt and China more than 5,000 years ago, are concise life lessons passed on from parent to child. Many of the greatest moral aphorists were also preachers, writers and speakers able to compress a profound sermon into a simple sentence. So I was not surprised to read in the afterword to Jack’s most recent book that early in his schooling, an aptitude test (allegedly, Jack says) discovered he had the mental profile frequently found in clergymen. Jack may think he missed his true calling to spread the Word, instead pursuing a successful career in the pharmaceutical industry, but I think he just found an unexpected pulpit—the aphorism.
Jack, like all the best moralists, doesn’t moralize. And he’s never preachy. In his writing, he seeks to follow the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olum, which he describes as “a concept that each of us is obliged to contribute to alleviating as best we can the difficulties of our world.” Jack’s contributions are incisive, insightful analyses of human nature, unfailingly delivered with deep empathy and mischievous humor …
Happiness thrives on a diet of reduced expectations.
Maturity arrives when we do not feel diminished by what we do not know.
Among my investments listening is the least costly and the most profitable.
Defeat is not permanent unless we refuse to accept it.
Unintended consequences are inevitable.
Science gives us facts; fiction gives us truths.
Unless you can sometimes laugh at yourself, I cannot take you seriously.
Humility is merited more often than it is demonstrated.
In his nine decades on the planet, Jack has lived a lot of history. His more politically-inclined aphorisms are wise and timely reminders that the same perils repeatedly present themselves—and to avoid repeating the same mistakes, we need to return to the same solutions …
A peaceful life requires a tolerance for contradictions and foreigners.
Complete arrogance is the result of incomplete data.
There is no alchemy that changes opinions into facts; the search continues for an alchemy that allows facts to alter opinions.
In comparing the corrupt with the incompetent, choose the former; at least they know what they’re doing.
Fortresses are still fashionable: every day we build them around our prejudices.
Nothing causes greater adherence to an opinion than opposition to it.
If we don’t accept reality today, it will not disappear but will return tomorrow as myth and legend.
The past should be valued as a source of light rather than a place of residence.
I had the pleasure and honor of meeting Jack only once in person, in 2007 at a talk I gave in Philadelphia. But since that time, I’ve been privileged to consider myself Jack’s correspondent, aphoristic confidante and friend. However ‘ancient’ an aphorist he may be, Jack is living proof of the enduring vitality of the form—and the lasting vivacity and value of his own aphorisms.
It only remains for me to give Jack the last word:
“With words we pursue and sometimes capture reality. On with the chase.”
Mardy Grothe describes Metaphors Be with You, his new book, as “a museum of quotations” but, thanks to his innovative use of QR codes linked to an online database, the book is a living, breathing museum of metaphorical masterpieces all language lovers will want to explore. In the book, Mardy selected “The Ten Best Things Ever Said” on 250 topics. He then used the QR Codes to link each of the 250 topics to its corresponding section in Dr. Mardy’s Dictionary of Metaphorical Quotations (DMDMQ), an online database of metaphorical quotations. Scan a QR code with your phone and you’ll find source information, additional quotations, and other resources for the methodically metaphorically minded. Thus, the database can continue to grow and evolve as a complement to and extension of the print book.
Predictably, I chose the topic ‘aphorism’ to illustrate Mardy’s method. But metaphoriacs will find much else to celebrate and discover here…
Aphorisms are essentially an aristocratic genre of writing. —W.H. Auden
How many of us have been incited to reason, have learned to think, to draw conclusions, to extract a moral from the follies of life by some dazzling aphorism. —Edward George Bulwer-Lytton
Aphorisms give you more for your time and money than any other literary form. Only the poem comes near to it, but then most good poems either start off from an aphorism or arrive at one. —Louis Dudek
An aphorism is the last link in a long chain of thought. —Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
Aphorisms are literature’s hand luggage. Light and compact, they fit easily into the overhead compartment of your brain —James Geary
The aphorism is a personal observation inflated into a universal truth, a private posing as a general. —Stefan Kanfer
An aphorism can never be the whole truth; it is either a half-truth or a truth-and-a-half. —Karl Kraus
Certain brief sentences are peerless in their ability to give one the feeling that nothing remains to be said. —Jean Rostand
Aphorisms are salted and not sugared almonds at Reason’s feast. —Logan Pearsall-Smith
An aphorism is a one-line novel. —Leonid Sukhorukov
Marquis De Vauvenargues (Luc de Clapiers) (Geary’s Guide, pp. 141-143) was of noble lineage, but born to family with little money. Perhaps then it’s no surprise that his aphorisms combine some of the aristocratic cool we associate with Le Rochefoucauld and some of the social criticism one finds in Chamfort. He served ably in the military as an officer, and his leadership style may have been summed up by this statement: “No one is more liable to make mistakes than he who acts only on reflection.” Unfortunately, some of the campaigns in which he was engaged ended badly for the French side. He also suffered the loss of a younger compatriot with whom he was perhaps smitten, or at least he was obsessed by the young man. Resigning from the military, in ill health, he retired to Paris, and became close with Voltaire, who encouraged the publication of his only volume: Introduction à la connaissance de l’esprit humain. Alas, his lifespan was brief as an aphorism. He died pitiably at the age of 31. He said, “Few maxims are true in every respect.” You decide.
Clearness is the ornament of deep thought.
Obscurity is the kingdom of error.
To praise moderately is always a sign of mediocrity.
Before attacking an abuse we must find out if its foundations can be destroyed.
No one likes to be pitied for his faults.
The man who renders his wealth useful, practices a great and noble economy.
The bad are always greatly surprised to find cleverness in the good.
We find in ourselves what others hide from us; and we recognize in others what we hide from ourselves.
Whoever is more severe than the laws is a tyrant.
More fortunes are made by energy than by prudence.
Dependence is born of society.
It is of no use to possess a lively wit if it is not of right proportion: the perfection of a clock is not to go fast, but to be accurate.
A fool who has a good memory is full of thoughts and facts. But he does not know how to draw conclusions, and everything depends on that.
I do not approve the maxim which desires a man to know a little of everything. Superficial knowledge, knowledge without principles, is almost always useless and sometimes harmful knowledge.
A hero does not seek glory in order to bring hunger and misery in the home of his enemies, but to endure them for his country: he does not desire to cause death but to brave it.
It is not true that equality is a law of nature. Nature has made nothing equal, her sovereign law is subordination and dependence.
Necessity moderates more troubles than reason.
The favorites of fortune and fame topple from their pedestals before our eyes without diverting us from ambition.
Persons of rank do not talk about such trifles as the common people do; but the common people do not busy themselves about such frivolous things as do people of rank.
It is easy to criticize an author; it is difficult to appreciate him.
He who seeks glory by the path of virtue has no idea of asking what is to be his reward.
When we are convinced of some great truths, and feel our convictions keenly, we must not fear to express it, although others have said it before us. Every thought is new when an author expresses it in a manner peculiar to himself.
It is not exactly truth which is most wanting in men’s ideas, but precision and exactitude.
We have not time enough to reflect on all our actions.
He who needs a motive for lying is not born a liar.
Men are so born for dependence that even the laws that govern their weakness do not suffice them: fortune has not given them masters enough, fashion must compensate for this, and rule them even to the cut of their shoes.
Courage is the light of adversity.
From: Marquis De Vauvenargues, Selections from the Characters, Reflexions, and Maxims. Translated by Elizabeth Lee (Archibald Constable & Co., 1903)
Alvin Feinman (1929-2008) was my poetry teacher at Bennington College in the 1980s. He made a huge impression on me as a teacher, with the purity and integrity of his engagement with poetry, and I consider his poems to be among the greatest written by an American in the 20th century, rivaling the work of Hart Crane and Wallace Stevens, with whom his poetry and poetics have so much in common. I collaborated with the late Deborah Dorfman, Alvin’s widow, Harold Bloom, Alvin’s close friend from their grad school days at Yale, and Alvin’s former student and colleague Vivian Heller to bring out Corrupted into Song: The Complete Poems of Alvin Feinman, just published by Princeton University Press. Harold Bloom wrote a preface for the book, and I wrote a biographical/critical introduction.
Alvin only published twice: his debut, Preambles, in 1964, and a reissue of that book, Poems, which contained a handful of additional poems, in 1990. When Alvin died in 2008, he left behind a small cache of documents, about 200 manuscript pages. Deborah had been transcribing and editing this manuscript for several years by the time I contacted her in the summer of 2014. The manuscript contained dozens of poetic fragments and 47 unpublished poems. Deborah and I decided to put together a complete edition of Alvin’s poetry—the text of the 1990 edition of Poems plus 39 of the unpublished poems.
Alvin’s writing demands a thoughtful approach, Elizabeth Lund wrote in her review in The Washington Post, “the speaker doesn’t just describe a moment, he tries to re-create it, as in the lovely poem “Waters,” in which he notices “Sunlight stitching the water —/ an oar silverly lifted./ And blue, and yellow, and red boats drift —/ like pleasures in a mind that needs no center.” These poems do have a strong center, which springs from the speaker’s intelligence, his measured rhythms and use of rhyme, and his sometimes detached outlook as he examines the world around him and always knows that “Something, something, the heart here/Misses.” Light is a recurring theme, and shapes the gorgeous “Stills: From a 30th Summer,” one of many poems that show why Feinman’s work deserves a broader audience.”
Here is a small, lovely poem from the book:
Song of the Dusting Woman in the Library
What is it holds the scholar to his desk
These nameless days, and through the long
Uncounted years? Is it the use of tears
He works to understand? Is it the song
He seeks that has not yet been sung?
And will he sing then when the tome
Is shut, the last word’s echo in his brain?
And will he weep then when the last
Idea is hung, when he has wrung
The name, the origin, the issue of each pain?
According to Bloom, “The best of Alvin Feinman’s poetry is as good as anything by a twentieth-century American. His work achieves the greatness of the American sublime.” Yet, in part because he published so sparsely, Alvin remained little-read and largely unknown when he died.
In researching my introduction, I found a sheet of paper with a quote from Geoffrey Moore scribbled on it in one of Alvin’s copies of Preambles. Alvin wrote “of W.S.” (perhaps William Shakespeare) at the top of the quote, which reads: “One has a sense while reading him that creation is proceeding before one’s eyes. The whole is a continuous process, not a ‘talking about’ … so that, one receives through the aesthetic sense an impression of pure potency.”
Alvin’s poems convey the same sense Moore describes of creation taking place before one’s very ears and eyes. His poems recount intense emotional, intellectual, even spiritual experiences that catalyze similar experiences in the reader. “For a poet, it is never a matter of saying it is raining,” Paul Valéry wrote. “It’s a matter of . . . making rain.” The process is the poem, and vice versa. The great challenge and reward of Alvin’s poems is that in reading them one participates in their making.
Listen to Harold Bloom read “November Sunday Morning” and “Relic”, two of Alvin’s greatest poems.
It may be that everyone already knows how good the aphorisms of Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach (1830-1916) are. But I just got acquainted with her work through the book Aphorisms (Ariadne Press, 1994), translated by David Scrase and Wolfgang Mieder. Ebner-Eschenbach’s aphorisms (Geary’s Guide, pp. 116-118) are terse and tart, but not acerbic. She touches on numerous themes, many dealing with human psychology and relationships, many related to men versus women. By the standards of her times, she could certainly be classed a feminist: “When a woman says ‘each’ she means each person. When a man says ‘each’ he means each man.”
Many of the great themes are tackled in her aphorisms, truth, beauty, love, religion, morals, class, society, governance, duty, etc. Because she was also a writer of poems, plays and fiction, many of aphorisms are related to the arts or being an artist: “As an artist, you should not wish to create what you don’t feel you have to create.” And she has some aphorisms that relate to our current election season: “In order to fill a public office brilliantly one needs a certain number of good qualities, but bad ones too.”
I have a method for keeping track of important passages in the books I’m reading. I put a little tick mark in the margin near the passage, then I record the page number on an index card (which doubles as my bookmark). As long as the index card stays in the book, I can go back and revisit key passages. Turns out that when reading this book I had put tick marks on practically every page, often marking several aphorisms per page that I wanted to note and revisit at some point. Here’s a sampling from her 582 aphorisms:
We generally learn how to wait when there is nothing more to wait for.
Beware of those virtues which people praise in themselves.
There are more truths in a good book than the author even intended.
Fools usually know best what the wise doubt they can ever learn.
People for whom we are a source of strength give us our support in life.
The believer who has never doubted will hardly convert the skeptic.
You can sink so fast that you think you’re flying.
It is a characteristic of the great that they demand far less of other people than of themselves.
The old saw “It’s always hard to begin” only applies to skills. In art nothing is harder than to end, which means at the same time to perfect.
You’d like to know what your acquaintances say about you? Listen to what they say about people more worthy than you.
Fighting for something is better than begging for it.
A gradual retreat is often worse than a sudden fall.
The scale we measure things by is the measure of our own mind.
Think about what has to be accomplished; forget what you have already accomplished.
I regret nothing, says arrogance; I will regret nothing, says inexperience.
We always have to keep learning, at the very end we even have to learn to die.
Ljupka Cvetanova, about whom I blogged back in 2012, sends news of a new book of aphorisms written by 20 female aphorists from the Balkans. Women from every country of the former Yugoslavia are included: Slovenia, Croatia, Republica Srpska, Bosnia and Hercegovina, Serbia, and Macedonia. One of the aphorists, Dragana Pasic, is also a cartoonist, and she drew caricatures of all the authors for the cover.
Aleksandar Cotric (Geary’s Guide, p. 30, as well as here and here), a male aphorist from the Balkans, wrote the blurb on the back of the book. With thanks to Ljupka, here’s an aphorism from each of the 20 contributors, translated into English. With this book, the great aphoristic tradition of the Balkans, with its sharp satire and dark wit, just got a lot greater.
Whenever I swallow my pride, I get a stomachache. —Dragana Pasic (Republica Srpska)
I have to see an optician. I can’t see the bright side of anything. —Lence Stoimenova (Macedonia)
He who works, makes mistakes. My boss is infallible. —Biljana Kitic Cakar (Republica Srpska)
A blink of an eye is what separates you from reality. —Ljupka Cvetanova (Macedonia)
I don’t take my enemies by surprise. I count on them. —Sandra Petkovic (Serbia)
TV series are a serial killer of time. —Marina Raicevic (Serbia)
One becomes human by birth and inhuman by conviction. —Nada Karadic (Serbia)
Silence is gold no one pays for. —Divna Bjelic (Serbia)
You only live once. Life is expensive. —Natasa Curciska (Macedonia)
Beware of false friends and sincere enemies. —Maja David (Slovenia)
Some people eat out of dishes. Others eat out of boredom. —Zora Cabrilo (Bosna and Hercegovina)
The watch is a thief. Whenever I’m not looking, it steals a couple of minutes. —Sladzana Klacar (Bosna and Hercegovina)
An aphorism is hard for a woman. It shortens her tongue. —Jasmina Cekic (Serbia)
A verbal conflict is born out of excess of words and shortage of brains. —Mirjana Dzapo (Bosnia and Hercegovina)
Life used to write novels; now it can hardly tell a joke. —Gordana Vranjanin (Croatia)
Our country (Serbia) can only be moved on slippery ground. —Deana Sailovic (Serbia)
Not all chances are to be taken. Some should be dropped. —Danica Miletic (Austria)
If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes an official political statement. —Jelena Vukelic (Serbia)
I don’t care about other people’s opinions. I can hardly come up with my own. —Sladzana Kosic (Serbia)
Don’t ask how much a life is worth. Death doesn’t take bribes. —Branka Milicevic (Serbia)
A couple weeks ago, browsing in my local library, I picked up a copy of Mark Twain Laughing (University of Tennessee Press, 1985), edited by P.M. Zall. As one would guess by the title, the book quotes many amusing stories, anecdotes, maxims, and jokes from the writings, letters and lectures of the inimitable American wit and raconteur. Last year the University of California Press published the third and final volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain.
Where I live in Hartford, Connecticut, we have the Mark Twain House & Museum, so sometimes I feel overly familiar with ‘Twainiana’. Still, it’s always good to get reacquainted with an author you think you know well. Inevitably there are some surprises. Most of the following aphorisms quoted in the book were selected from earlier titles: Mark Twain’s Notebook (1935), edited by Albert Bigelow Paine; Following the Equator (1897); and Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar for 1894.
It is often the case that a man who can’t tell a lie thinks he is the best judge of one. 
These wisdoms are not for the luring of youth toward high moral altitudes. The author did not gather them from practice, but from observations. To be good is noble; but to show others how to be good is nobler and no trouble. 
Truth is the most valuable thing we have. Let us economize it. 
It is easier to stay out than get out. 
There are several good protections against temptation, but the surest is cowardice. 
Prosperity is the best protector of principle. 
Grief can take care of itself; but to get full value of a joy you must have somebody to divide it with. 
There are no people who are quite so vulgar as the over-refined ones. 
Every one is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody. 
The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice. 
The proper office of a friend is to side with you when you are in the wrong. Nearly anybody will side with you when you are in the right. 
Have a place for everything and keep the thing somewhere else. This is not advice, it is merely custom. 
All gods are better than their conduct. 
The human race consists of the dangerously insane and such as are not. 
Man was made at the end of the week’s work, when God was tired. 
Whenever you find that you are on the side of the majority, it is time to reform—(or pause and reflect). 
Let us adopt geological time, then time being money–there will be no more poverty. 
It’s wonderful to stumble upon an unknown aphorist. Doubly good when it turns out to be a woman. Because it seems there are fewer female aphorists. It was by chance I happened upon the writings of Elia Peattie (1862-1935). It happened because I saw a quote I liked by the man of letters Charles Eliot Norton regarding poetry. The quote appeared in the introduction written by Elia Peattie to a poetry anthology she edited called Poems You Ought to Know. This, of course, prompted me to Web-search Peattie’s name. I didn’t expect to find much, but there was an entire website devoted to this journalist, poet, playwright, anthologist, essayist, and author. Her writings are marked by many insightful statements. A large number of her assertions have been collected on the website under the heading “Quotables.” Here are some samples:
There is never any use in trying to conceal the truth. Truth is like water and flows through the tiniest cracks.
Carry no umbrellas. Umbrellas are an illusion and a distinct snare to the traveler. They torment the spirit more than a scolding husband, get lost oftener than a baby, and are always where they should not be and never where they should.
Love is, of course, an illusion—all the really important things are.
Really it is quite a distinction to be in the minority. Because the minority is the advance of progress. It forms the majority in the next generation.
All really interesting occasions of a social nature are more or less associated with good coffee.
The American Aristocracy is, in the very nature of things, ephemeral.
There is a mistake in supposing that women wish to acquire the independence of the other sex. It is merely independence they wish to acquire—and independence is not a matter of sex.
The time of men is not so important as they think it is.
If there is one offense greater than another in literature, it is a book which explains a book.
I wrote about Jim Finnegan’s aphorisms in May of last year, and for many years Jim has been a reliable and perspicacious source of new aphorists for this site. He started his blog, ursprache, 10 years ago on the assumption that, “Maybe if I just write short things related to poetry and art, I can keep up a blog.” Pretty soon Jim started punctuating his own aphoristic ars poetica with quotes he’d collected, so that the blog also became a commonplace book. When Jim is moved to assert something outside of poetics, he posts to Tramp Freighter. Wherever his thinking appears—on ursprache, Tramp Freighter or his own aphorisms—Jim’s thoughts are well worth hearing. Check them out.
Patrick Hunt is a man of many parts: archaeologist, writer, composer, poet, art historian, aphorist; I have even seen him play the recorder with his nostrils. I wrote about his sayings back in 2008, Aphorisms by Patrick Hunt, and then again in 2014, More Aphorisms by Patrick Hunt. His collected poems 2009-2014, Landscapes Antique and Imagined, is published by Corinthian Press. He has a new play coming out, an imagined philosophical dialogue between Pascal and Voltaire at Café Procope in Paris, from which these new aphorisms come…
In order to become fully human we must die.
A butterfly appreciates flight because it began as a caterpillar.
We may see best in light but we hear best in darkness.
To find a happy person look for humility and gratitude.
Rain happens when clouds take off their clothes.
Genius is impossible without unfettered imagination.
In medieval courts, clever jesters fooled everyone into thinking they were crazy when telling terrible truths.
Show me more »