Time Flies When You're Deconstructing Aphorisms

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Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?: 100 Fresh Takes on Familiar Sayings and Quotations
By Julian Baggini
Paperback, 224 pages
Counterpoint
List price: $15.95

Read An Excerpt

Actions may speak louder than words, but words are pretty powerful, especially when used incorrectly. That's the thrust of a new book by Julian Baggini called Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?: 100 Fresh Takes on Familiar Sayings and Quotations.

As his own cover suggests, Baggini's book takes to task 100 well-known aphorisms that are frequently misused. Take this saying written by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche: "What does not kill me, makes me stronger."

"What's been mistaken here is a resolution for a fact. As a simple statement of fact, that is not true," Baggini says. "Unfortunately, a lot of people are made much weaker by their misfortunes. It can crush them. It can destroy you. There is nothing inevitable. But Nietzsche didn't mean it as a universal law of nature. ... In his context, the person saying that is making an affirmation. They are saying, 'I resolve that when misfortune strikes me, I will take that misfortune and try and use it to make me stronger.'"

"The whole point of the book was that, like so many phrases and proverbs, we trot out these things, we say them as though they were just established truths, we all know what they mean and so forth," Baggini says. "But what I wanted to do is to get people to look at them again. Because if you think about these proverbs and sayings, one of the odd things about them is there's a kind of law which is, 'Every proverb has an equal and opposite proverb.'" For example:

Author Julian Baggini i

Julian Baggini is also the author of The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher and The Duck That Won the Lottery: 100 New Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher. Counterpoint Press hide caption

itoggle caption Counterpoint Press
Author Julian Baggini

Julian Baggini is also the author of The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: 100 Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher and The Duck That Won the Lottery: 100 New Experiments for the Armchair Philosopher.

Counterpoint Press

"He who hesitates is lost" vs. "Everything comes to he who waits."

"No pain, no gain" vs. "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen."

"Absence makes the heart grow fonder" vs. "Out of sight, out of mind."

Some aphorisms are simply inaccurate. We may understand the meaning of the phrase "Lightning never strikes the same place twice," but we also know that the literal meaning of the phrase does not hold up to scrutiny.

Baggini points to the disastrous Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico as an event that we shouldn't count on as a one-off. "Unless you sort of learn the mistakes of that, then what will happen is that lightning will probably strike again if not in exactly the same place, in this case, in the same kind of situation," he says.

"We latch onto metaphors and a lot of proverbs and sayings become common usage because there's something compelling about them," Baggini says. "There's something about them which speaks to us. But the same thing which captures our imaginations and makes the phrases memorable can also be a kind of thing that leads us astray if we fail to notice the ways in which it's misleading or not quite accurate."

Excerpt: 'Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?'

Should You Judge This Book By Its Cover?
Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover?: 100 Fresh Takes on Familiar Sayings and Quotations
By Julian Baggini
Paperback, 224 pages
Counterpoint
List price: $15.95

12. That which does not kill me makes me stronger
Freidrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

An advocate of the fledgling practice of philosophical counseling was once asked what advice he would give a parent whose children were refusing to do their bit to keep the home clean and tidy. He suggested that the parent remind the feckless youths of Nietzsche's maxim, 'That which does not kill me makes me stronger.'

One quick-witted and extremely rude reply a kid could give, if proffered this advice, is 'Why don't you just fuck off? After all, it won't kill you, so it will make you stronger.' Although the politeness of the response is questionable, its logic is impeccable.

To think that literally everything that does not kill us makes us stronger is to interpret Nietzsche in an appallingly simple-minded, literal way. As a mere matter of fact, it is plainly false. Misfortune can leave people considerably emaciated, emotionally and physically. If that weren't the case, then by the time we retired we would all be indestructible powerhouses.

Nietzsche's aphorism is not a statement of fact but a resolution: I will try to ensure that every experience I go through, no matter how bad, will be turned to my ultimate advantage. If I make a mistake, I will try to learn from it. If I survive an ordeal, I will use the knowledge that I did pull through to strengthen me in times of future hardship.

That's why it's no use simply quoting Nietzsche to someone having a hard time and expecting it to console them. There is absolutely no inevitability that they will emerge from their ordeal stronger than at the start. It takes willpower, if not a Nietzschean 'will to power,' to turn adversity to advantage. To believe that hard times naturally empower us couldn't get Nietzsche more wrong, since his point is precisely that it is all down to how we deal with difficulty. That which does not kill you may well make you weaker, if you let it.

Compare and contrast

What won't kill you, will feed you. Italian proverb

What does not kill, fattens. Spanish proverb

Our torments also may in length of time / Become our elements. John Milton (1608 - 74)


16. If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen
Major General Harry Vaughan (1888 - 1964)

Trust a man to come up with such a macho, simplistic solution to a problem. Sweat it out or shut up is a stark challenge, but it ignores other more agreeable solutions. Why not install air-conditioning or just open a window? Why tolerate the temperature when it is adjustable?

The metaphor should strike a chord with anyone concerned about women's rights in the workplace. So often, professions have their ways of operating, and newcomers are told what they can do if they don't like them. This conveniently glosses over the fact that things needn't be this way at all, and they are as they are only because the men who have run the show for centuries like them that way. Late-night sittings at the House of Commons, for example, are not a requirement of a democratic legislature, but they do make the atmosphere of parliament more like that of a gentleman's drinking club.

A gentler, but no less stifling, kind of heat is produced by the rituals and traditions of Oxford and Cambridge. To have to wear ridiculous gowns on various stipulated occasions hardly seems to serve the purpose of educating the country's finest minds. Indeed, it looks more like a means of perpetuating idiocy. Nevertheless, this and countless other little points of etiquette together can have the effect of making those with humbler origins feel that this is one kitchen in which they shouldn't be attempting to cook.

The saying is certainly true when applied literally: being a chef is bloody hard work, and if you're at all inclined to laziness, you really are better doing the eating rather than the cooking. And there are many other spheres of life where things are inevitably tough and you just have to accept it or move on. The saying was actually immortalized when someone gave in to its challenge rather than issued it: Harry Truman quoted it in 1952 to explain why he was retiring.

But on countless other occasions the temperature is being kept artificially high, and ventilation, rather than capitulation, is the solution you should demand.

Compare and contrast

You cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs. Mid 19th century

Fleas jump on a sickly dog. Spanish proverb

If you say A, you have to say B as well. German proverb

From Should You Judge This Book By Its Cover? 100 Fresh Takes on Familiar Sayings and Quotations by Julian Baggini. Copyright 2010 by Julian Baggini. Reprinted by arrangement with Counterpoint Press.

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