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The Utility and the Futility of Aphorisms - The Atlantic

The best aphorisms are pointed expressions of the results of observation, experience, and reflection. They are portable wisdom, the quintessential extracts of thought and feeling. They furnish the largest amount of intellectual stimulus and nutriment in the smallest compass. About every weak point in human nature, or vicious spot in human life, there is deposited a crystallization of warning and protective proverbs. For instance, with what relishing force such sayings as the following touch the evil resident in indolence and delay!—"An unemployed mind is the Devil's workshop"; "The industrious tortoise wins the race from the lagging eagle"; "When God says, To-day, the Devil says, To-morrow." In like manner, another cluster of adages depict the certainty of the detection and punishment of crime:—"Murder will out"; "Justice has feet of wool, but hands of iron"; "God's mills grind slow, but they grind sure." So in relation to every marked exposure of our life, there will be found in the records of the common thought of mankind a set of deprecating aphorisms.

The laconic compactness of these utterances, their constant applicability, the pungent patness with which they hit some fact of experience, principle of human nature, or phenomenon of life, the ease with which their racy sense may be apprehended and remembered, give them a powerful charm for the popular fancy. Accordingly, a multitude of proverbs are afloat in the writings and in the mouths of every civilized people. Groups of national proverbs exist in most of the languages of the world, each family of apothegms revealing the chief traits of the people who gave them birth. In these collective expressions of national mind, we can recognize—if so incomplete a characterization may be ventured—the indrawn meditativeness of the Hindu, the fiery imagination of the Arab, the devout and prudential understanding of the Hebrew, the æsthetic subtilty of the Greek, the legal breadth and sensual recklessness of the Roman, the martial frenzy of the Goth, the chivalric and dark pride of the Spaniard, the treacherous blood of the Italian, the mercurial vanity of the Frenchman, the blunt realism of the Englishman.

It is obvious enough that the masses of moral statements or standing exhortations composing the aphorisms of a language cannot mix in the daily minds of men without deep cause and effect. It will be worth our while to inquire into the bearings of this matter; for, though many a gatherer has carried his basket through these diamond districts of the mind, we do not remember that any one has sharply examined the value of the treasures so often displayed, set forth the methods of their influence and its qualifications, and determined the respective limits of their use and their worthlessness. Undertaking this task, we must, in the outset, divide aphorisms into the two classes of proverbs and maxims, plebeian perceptions and aristocratic conclusions, moral axioms and philosophic rules. This distinction may easily be made clear, and will prove useful.

Popular proverbs are national, or cosmopolitan, and they are anonymous,—rising from among the multitude, and floating on their breath. They are generalizations of the average observation of a people. Undoubtedly, as a general thing, each one was first struck out by some superior mind. But usually this happened so early that the name of the author is lost. Proverbs—as the etymology hints—are words held before the common mind, words in front of the public. Wise maxims, on the contrary, are individual, may more commonly be traced to their origin in the writings of some renowned author, and are more limited in their audience. They are the results of comprehensive insight, the ripened products of searching meditation, the weighty utterances of weighty minds. The proverb, "A burnt child dreads the fire," flies over all climes and alights on every tongue. The maxim, "All true life begins with renunciation," appeals to comparatively few, and tarries only in prepared and thoughtful minds. Proverbs are often mere statements of facts, barren truisms, too obvious to instruct our thought, affect our feeling, or in any way change our conduct, though the accuracy with which the arrow is shot fixes our attention. Notice a few examples of this sort:—"A friend in need is a friend indeed"; "Many a little makes a mickle"; "Anger is a brief madness"; "It is an ill wind that blows nobody any good." Such affirmations are too general and obvious to be provocative awakeners of original reflection, sentiment, or will. Maxims, on the other hand, instead of being general descriptions or condensed common-places, are usually definite directions, discriminative exhortations. Notice such specimens as these:—"Take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves"; "When angry, count ten before you speak"; "Do the duty nearest your hand, and the next will already have grown clearer"; "Remember that a thing begun is half done." Proverbs, then, are results of observation, often affirmations of quite evident facts, as, "Necessity is the mother of invention," or, "Who follows the river will arrive at the sea." Maxims, in distinction, are results of reflection. They are experience generalized into rules for the guidance of action, as, "Think twice before you speak once," or, "Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it." Proverbs are statical; maxims are dynamic. Those are wisdom embalmed; these wisdom vitalized. The former are literary fodder; the latter are literary pemmican.

The commonest application of proverbs is as mental economics, substitutes for thought. They are constantly employed by the ordinary sort of persons as provisions to avoid spiritual exertion, artifices to dispose of a matter with the smallest amount of intellectual trouble, as when one ends a controversy with the adage, "Least said, soonest mended." The majority of people desire to get along with the least possible expenditure of thinking. To many a hard-headed laborer, five minutes of girded and continuous thinking are more exhaustive than a whole day of muscular toil. No fact is more familiar than that illiterate minds are furnished with an abundance of trite sayings which they readily cite on all occasions. They thus hit, or at least fancy they hit, the principle which applies to the exigency, without the trouble of extemporaneously thinking it out for themselves on the spot. Such saws as, "The pot must not call the kettle black," "One swallow does not make a Spring," "Nought is never in danger," "Out of sight, out of mind," often give employment to an otherwise freightless tongue, and serve as excusing makeshifts for a mind incompetent, from ignorance, indolence, or fatigue, to discharge the duty of furnishing its own thought and expression for the occasion.

Proverbs are more frequently used as explanations than as guides of conduct, as the reason why we have acted in a certain manner than as a reason why we should act so. "Look before you leap," is usually said after we have leaped. When a miserly man refuses to give anything in behalf of some distant object, his refusal is not prompted by the remembrance of the proverb, "Charity begins at home"; but the stingy propensity first stirs in the man and actuates him, and then he expresses his motive, or evades the true issue, by quoting the selfish old saw ever ready at his hand. In such cases the axiom is not the forerunning cause of the action, but its justifying explanation. Sometimes, undeniably, an applicable proverb coming to mind does influence a man and decide his conduct. Coming at the right moment, in the wavering of his will, it suggests the principle which determines him, lends the needful balance of impulse for which he waited. An old proverb, indorsed by the usage of generations, strikes on the ear like a voice falling from the heights of antiquity; it is clothed with a kind of authority. Doubtless many a poor boy has received a sound flogging which he would have escaped, had not his father happened to recall the somewhat cruel and questionable aphorism of Solomon, currently abbreviated into "Spare the rod and spoil the child." When Charles IX. was hesitating as to the enactment of the Saint Bartholomew Massacre, his bigoted mother, infuriated with sectarian hate, whispered in his ear, "Clemency is sometimes cruelty, and cruelty clemency,"—and the fatal decree was sealed. But such instances are exceptional, and partly deceptive, too. Man is usually governed by his own passions, his own circumstances, or his own reason, not by any verbal propositions. And when an apt and timely adage seems to determine him, it is, for the most part, because it acts upon responsive feelings preëxistent in him and already struggling to express themselves. And thus, upon the whole, it is to be concluded that proverbs are the children of Epimetheus, or afterthought, rather than of Prometheus, or forethought. They are rather products than producers,—intellectual forms rather than intellectual forces. The prevalent notion of their influence is a huge and singular error. One of our wisest authors, himself a great aphorist, says,—"Proverbs are the sanctuaries of the intuitions." But the intuitions, for the very reason that they are intuitive, need no advisory guidance, and admit of no verbal help.

But when we turn from the aphoristic proverbs of the people to the aphoristic maxims of the wise, a deep distinction and contrast confront us. These, so far from being evasions of effort or substitutes for thought, are direct stimulants to thought, provocative summonses to more earnest mental application. Seneca says, "Wouldst thou subject all things to thyself? Subject thyself to reason." A modern writer says, "They are not kings who have thrones, but they who know how to govern." Now any one meeting these maxims, if they have any effect on him, will be set a-thinking to discover the principle contained in them. He will feel that there is a profound significance in them; and his curiosity will be awakened, his intellect fired, to find out the grounds and bearings of the law they denote. In this way the words of the wise are goads to prick and urge the faculties of inferior minds. Pointed expressions of the experience of the sovereign masters of life and the world impel feebler and less agile natures to follow the tracks of light and emulate the choice examples set before them, with swifter movements and with richer results than they could ever have attained, if not thus encouraged. Proverbial axioms flourish copiously in the idiomatic ground and vernacular climate of unlearned, undisciplined, unreflective minds, as thistles on the highway where every ass may gather them. But precious maxims, those "short sentences drawn from a long experience," as Cervantes calls them, are found mostly in the writings of the greatest geniuses, Solomon, Aristotle, Shakspeare, Bacon, Goethe, Richter, Emerson: and they appeal comparatively but to a select class of minds, kindred in some degree to those that originated them.

To appreciate and use correctly a valuable maxim requires a genius, a vital appropriating exercise of mind, closely allied to that which first created it. In order to secure genuine profit here, the disciple must for himself repeat the processes of the teacher, reach the same conclusion, see the same truth. Wisdom cannot be mechanically taken, but must be spiritually assimilated,—cannot be put on as a coat or hat, used as a hammer or a sling, but must be intelligently grasped, digested, and organized into the mental structure and habits. The truth of this is at once so palpable and so important that it has found embodiment in numerous proverbs known to almost every one: "An ounce of mother-wit is worth a pound of school-wit"; "A pennyweight of your own wit is worth a ton of other people's"; "Who cannot work out his salvation by heart will never do it by book."

For the reason just indicated, we think the common estimate of the actual influence of even the costliest preceptive sayings is monstrously exaggerated. That an aphorism should really be of use, it must virtually be reproduced by the faculties of your own soul. But the mental energy and acquirement which thus recreate it in a great degree supersede the necessity of it, render it an expression not of a guidance you need from without, but of an insight and force already working within. Your character determines what maxims you will select or create far more than the maxims you choose or make determine what your character will be. Herbart says, "Characters with ruling plans are energetic; characters with ruling maxims are virtuous." This is true, since a continuous plan subsidizes the forces that would without it run to waste, and a deliberately chosen authority girds and guides the soul from perilous dallying and dissipation. Nevertheless, it is not so much that characters are energetic or virtuous because they have ruling plans or maxims as it is that they have ruling plans or maxims because they are energetic or virtuous. Say to a penurious, hard, grumpy man, "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Will you thus make him liberal, sympathetic, affable? No, his character will neutralize your precept, as vinegar receiving the sunshine into its bosom becomes more sour. Some persons seem to imagine that a wise maxim is a sort of fairy's wand, one touch of which will transform the loaded panniers of a donkey into the fiery wings of a Pegasus. Surely, it is a great error. Trench says, with an amusing naïveté, "There is scarcely a mistake which in the course of our lives we have committed, but some proverb, had we known and attended to its lesson, might have saved us from it." The two comprehensive conditions, "had we known and attended to its lesson," are discharging conductors, that empty the sentence of all proper meaning, and leave only a rank of hollow words behind. He might as well say, "Had we never been tempted, we had never fallen,—had we possessed all wisdom, we had never committed an error," The best maxim that ever was made cannot directly impart or create knowledge or virtue or spiritual force. It can only give a voice to those qualities where they already exist, and so set in motion a strengthening interchange of action and reaction. Though a fool's mouth be stuffed with proverbs, he still remains as much a fool as before. He is past preaching to who does not care to mend. As the brave Schiller affirms, "Heaven and earth fight in vain against a dunce." Eternal contact with nutritious wisdom can teach no lesson, nor profit at all one who has not a coöperative and assimilative mind. The anchor is always in the sea, but it never learns to swim. Philosophic precepts address the reason; but the springs of motive and regeneration are in the sentiments. To attempt the reformation of a bad man by means of fine aphorisms is as hopeless as to bombard a fortress with diamonds, or to strive to exhilarate the brain by pelting the forehead with grapes.

And yet, notwithstanding these large limitations and abatements, it is not to be denied that both proverbs and maxims, when habitually recalled, generally have some effect, often are strongly influential, and may, by a faithful observance of the conditions, be made extremely efficacious. What, then, are the conditions of deriving profit from the contemplation of aphorisms? How can we make their futility end, their utility begin? The first, ever indispensable condition is fresh discrimination. There are false, cynical, mean, devilish aphorisms, as well as sound and worthy ones. Each style of character, kind and grade of experience breathes itself out in corresponding expressions. "Self is the man"; "Look out for Number One"; "Devil take the hindmost"; "One for me is as good as two for you"; "Every man has his price"; "Draw the snake from its hole by another man's hand"; "Vengeance is a feast fit for the gods." The fact that such infernal sentiments are proverbs must be no excuse for not trampling them out of sight with disgust and scorn. Discrimination is needed not only to reject bad sayings, but also to correct incomplete or extravagant ones. The maxim, "Never judge by appearances," must be modified, because in reality appearances are all that we have to judge from. Its true rendering is, "Judge cautiously, for appearances are often deceptive." A proverb is almost always partial, presenting one aspect of the matter,—or excessive, making no allowance for exceptions. Here independent insight is requisite, that we may not err. As a general thing, aphorisms are particular truths put into forms of universality, and they must be severely scrutinized, lest a mere characteristic of the individual be mistaken for a normal faculty of the race. For instance, it is said, "A reconciled friend is an enemy in disguise." Not always, by any means; it depends greatly on the character of the man, "Forewarned is forearmed." Generally this is true, but not invariably; as sometimes a man, by being forewarned of danger, is unnerved with terror, and undone. So the two maxims, "Never abandon a certainty for an uncertainty," "Nothing venture, nothing have," destroy each other. Whether you shall give up the one bird in the hand and try for the two in the bush depends on the relative worth of the one and the two, and the probabilities of success in the trial. No abstract maxim can help solve that problem: it requires living intelligence. To follow a foreign rule empirically will often be to fare as the monkey fared, who, undertaking to shave, as he had seen his master do, gashed his face and paws. Fearful incisions of the soul will he get who accepts unqualifyingly the class of impulsive proverbs with their enormously overdrawn inferences: such as that of David, when he said in his haste, "All men are liars"; or that of Moore, when he said in his song, "The world is all a fleeting show, for man's illusion given"; or that maxim of Schopenhauer, so full of deadly misanthropy and melancholy that one would gladly turn his back on a world in which he believed such a rule necessary, "Love no one, hate no one, is the first half of all worldly wisdom; say nothing, believe nothing, is the other half."

The first condition of a profitable use of maxims being a thorough mastery of the rule proposed, with its limits, the next condition is an accurate self-knowledge. Know yourself, your weaknesses, your aptitudes, your exposures, your gifts and strength, in order that you may know what to seek or avoid, what to cherish or spurn, what to spur or curb, what to fortify or assail. For example, if your head is made of butter, it is clear that it will not do for you to be a baker. If you are a coward, you must not volunteer to lead a forlorn hope. The advantage of self-knowledge is that it enables us to prescribe for ourselves the contemplation of such principles and motives as we need. If our thought is narrow and our fancy cold, we should study the maxims that instruct,—as, "Joys are wings, sorrows are spurs." If our heart is faint and our will weak, we should study the maxims that inspire,—as, "The reward of a thing well done is to have done it." The instructive maxim opens a vista of truth to the intellect, as when Goethe said, "A man need not be an architect in order to live in a house." The inspiring maxim strikes a martial chord in the soul, as when Alexander said to his Greeks, shrinking at the sight of the multitudinous host of Persians, "One butcher does not fear many sheep." The evil of self-ignorance is, that it permits men to choose as their favorite and guiding maxims those adages which express and foster their already rampant propensities, leaving their drooping deficiencies to pine and cramp in neglect. The miser pampers his avarice by repeating a hundred times a day, "A penny saved is a penny gained": as if that were the maxim he needed! The spend-thrift comforts and confirms himself in his prodigality by saying, "God loveth a cheerful giver": as if that were not precisely the saying he ought never to recall! Audacity and arrogance constantly say to themselves, "Be bold, be bold, and evermore be bold." Timidity and distrust are ever whispering, "Be not too bold." Thus what would be one man's meat proves another man's poison; whereas, were it rightly distributed, both would be nourished into healthy development. The over-reckless should restrain himself by remembering that "Fools rush in where angels fear to tread." The over-cautious should animate himself with the reflection that "The coward dies a thousand deaths, the brave man only one." A man who, with deep self-knowledge, carefully chooses and perseveringly applies maxims adapted to check his excess and arouse his defect may derive unspeakable profit from them.

To do this with full success, however, he must have a discriminating knowledge of the circumstances as well as of the rule, and of himself. "Circumstances alter cases." What applies happily in one exigency may be perfectly absurd or ruinous in a different situation. The mule, loaded with salt, waded through a brook, and, as the salt melted, the burden grew light. The ass, loaded with wool, tried the same experiment; but the wool, saturated with water, was twice as heavy as before. So the Satyr, in Æsop's fable, asked the man coming in from the cold, "Why he blew on his fingers?" and was told, "To warm them." Soon after he asked, "Why he blew in his soup?" and was told, "To cool it." Whereupon he rushed on the man with a club and slew him as a liar. The ramifications of truth in varying emergencies are infinitely subtile and complicated, and often demand the very nicest care in distinguishing. Good advice, when empirically taken and rashly followed, is as an eye in the hand, sure to be put out the first thing on trying to use it. "Advice costs nothing and is good for nothing," it is often said. But that depends on the quality of the advice, on the circumstances, and on what kind of persons impart and receive the counsel. Advice given with earnestness and wisdom, and applied with docility and discrimination, may cost a great deal and be invaluable. Competence and aptness, or folly and heedlessness, make a world of difference. The great difficulty in regard to the fruitfulness of advice is the universal readiness to impart, the usual unwillingness to accept it. We give advice by the bucket, take it by the grain. For these reasons the world is yet surfeited with precept and starving for example: and the applicability is by no means exhausted of the fable of Brabrius, who tells how when an old crab said to her child, "Awkward one, walk not so crookedly!" he replied, "Mother, walk you straight, I will watch and follow." Verbal wisdom would direct us; exemplified wisdom draws us.

The first danger, then, from aphorisms is, that they may enable us to evade, instead of helping us to fulfil, the duty of meeting and solving for ourselves each mental exigency as it arises. In such a case, educative discipline and growth are forfeited. The other danger from them is, that they may be applied mechanically, without a just understanding of them, and thus that grievous mistakes may be made. Their genuine use is to excite our own minds to master the principles which their authors have set forth in them. Fresh honesty of personal thought, aspiration, and patience, is the spiritual talisman wherewith alone we can vivify truisms into truths, and transmute noble maxims into flesh and blood, nay, into immortal mind. The master-thinkers aid us to do this by the quickening power of their suggestions,—the great critic not only giving his readers direction, but also helping them to eyesight.

To traverse the works of some authors is like going through a carefully arranged herbarium, where every specimen is lifeless, shrivelled, dusty, crumbling to the touch. The writings of genuine men of genius are like a conservatory, where every plant of thought and sentiment, whether indigenous or exotic, is alive, full of bloom and fragrance, the sap at work in its veins. Verbal statements which are petrifactions of wisdom can neither stimulate nor nourish; but verbal statements which are vital concentrations of wisdom do both. He has learned one of the most important lessons in human life who understands adequately the difference between formal perception and organic experience, contrasting the futility of detached and deathly proverbs with the utility of nutritious and electrical maxims. A mechanical teacher crowds the ear with mummified precepts and exhortations; an inspired teacher brings surcharged examples and rules into contact with the mind. The distinction is world-wide and inexhaustible.