A Quotable, Pithy Guide to Aphorists

Most people recognize aphorisms like "Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm," from Ralph Waldo Emerson, and its seeming opposite, "Intense feeling too often obscures the truth," from Harry Truman.

James Geary, the editor of the compendium Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists, says the aphorism is the oldest and the shortest literary art form on the planet. But what qualifies as an aphorism?

Geary tells Robert Siegel that he has five laws: "It must be brief. It must be definitive. It must be personal — that's the difference between an aphorism and a proverb. It must be philosophical — that's the difference between an aphorism and a platitude, which is not philosophical," he says. "And the fifth law is it must have a twist. And that can be either a linguistic twist or a psychological twist or even a twist in logic that somehow flips the reader into a totally unexpected place."

Excerpt: 'Guide to the World's Great Aphorists'

'Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists' Cover

The following excerpts from aphorists' biographies and examples of their sayings are pulled from throughout Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists.

COMICS, CRITICS, AND SATIRISTS

Brudzinski, Wieslaw (Poland, 1920- ) Brudzinski's first satirical broadsides appeared in 1936, in the Polish weekly Kultura. Since then, he has continued to publish his jocular jabs at politics, society, and human nature in the satirical magazine Szpilki ("Needles"), where he is also an editor.

The lesser evil usually lasts longer.

In life one has to go to the funerals of the people we like and the birthdays of those we don't.

Under certain circumstances a wanted poster is a letter of recommendation

Hubbard, Frank McKinney (United States, 1868-1930) Every day for more than a quarter of a century, Hubbard ... filled a regular slot on the back page of the Indianapolis News with the musings of Abe Martin and friends, residents of Brown County, Indiana. Hubbard's column — a humorous cartoon plus some witty wisecracks from the denizens of Brown County, a wide and remote area of Indiana — was syndicated in some 200 newspapers across the country. Abe Martin was a folksy philosopher, whose observations of his fellow men were wry and gently satirical. In a note on Hubbard published in the New York Times the day after the cartoonist's death, Will Rogers wrote: "Just think — only two lines a day, yet he expressed more original philosophy in 'em than all the rest of the paper combined. What a kick Twain and all that gang will get out of Kin." In 1932, the state of Indiana created a real monument to Hubbard's fictional characters: a state park was created in Brown County, with Abe Martin's Lodge situated in the middle of it. ...

A good listener is usually thinking about something else.

It ain't a bad plan to keep still occasionally even when you know what you're talking about.

Nobody ever forgets where he buried the hatchet.


ICONS AND ICONOCLASTS

Roosevelt, Eleanor (United States, 1884-1962)...Eleanor was the niece of President Theodore Roosevelt. After Eleanor's parents died, President Roosevelt became something of a surrogate father to her, giving her away when she married her distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in 1905. Starting in 1935, Roosevelt wrote a daily newspaper column, "My Day," in which she took up various liberal causes — among them, civil rights, human rights, and women's rights — that made her one of the most outspoken and influential first ladies in American history.

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.

One should always sleep in all of one's guest beds, to make sure that they are comfortable.

A woman is like a teabag — only in hot water do you realize how strong she is.

Tutu, Desmond (South Africa, 1931- ) Tutu, the Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, was one of South Africa's most prominent opponents of apartheid. ... Tutu is also credited with coining the phrase "rainbow nation" to describe South Africa's ethnic and racial mix.

To be impartial is to have taken sides already with the status quo.

History, like beauty, depends largely on the beholder.

When the missionaries came to Africa they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, "Let us pray." We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land.


MORALISTS, MAJOR AND MINOR

Bunsch, Karol (Poland, 1898-1987) Bunsch is one of Poland's greatest aphorists. Outside of his own country, he is primarily known as the author of a series of historical novels about the Piast dynasty, the first kings of Poland. Piast, the legendary founder of the Polish state, was said to have lived in the ninth century. The rule of the last Piast monarch came to an end in 1370.

Honest conceit is better than false modesty.

The root of materialism is poverty; the well-fed remain idealists.

Borders are established so there is something to fight about.

Morandotti, Alessandro (Italy, 1909-1979) Morandotti was an art collector and dealer, managing the firm Antiquaria in Rome for many years. During World War II, some suspected him of selling paintings to the Nazis. Morandotti is also said to have hidden Jews in his gallery in Rome, which was across the street from Gestapo headquarters.

The kiss is an ingenious invention that prevents lovers from uttering too many inanities.

You recognize a true friend by how he lies to you.

Only those who aren't hungry are able to judge the quality of a meal.


NOVELISTS AND PLAYWRIGHTS

Chekhov, Anton (Russia, 1860-1904) Chekhov studied medicine at the University of Moscow. After obtaining his degree in 1884, he began working as a freelance journalist, specializing in short comic sketches. The plays for which Chekhov is famous — The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, The Three Sisters, and The Cherry Orchard — were all written or revised during the last few years of his life, when he was dying from tuberculosis.

Love, friendship and respect do not unite people as much as a common hatred for something.

Any idiot can face a crisis. It is this day-to-day living that wears you out.

They say that in the end truth will triumph, but it's a lie.

Shaw, George Bernard (Ireland, 1856-1950) Shaw started out in fiction, writing five unpublished novels before moving into journalism as a critic, first of music and then of drama for London's Saturday Review. He was active in politics, too. He was a committed pacifist, a socialist (an ardent supporter of Stalin), and a lifelong vegetarian.

Better keep yourself clean and bright: you are the window through which you must see the world.

Youth is wasted on the young.

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.


OLD SOULS AND ORACLES

Al-Deen, Muhammad Shems (Middle East, c. sixteenth century) In 1515, Muhammad Shems al-Deen compiled a collection of Arabic aphorisms, some of which were possibly original to him but most of which were probably drawn from other sources. In an endearing introduction to the volume, al-Deen commends to the reader what he describes as "precious pearls which are falling fast to decay and perishing from age." He added to each aphorism a brief commentary in Persian verse, all of which was deftly translated by a man named Stephen Weston and published in London in 1805.

Do good to the evil doer.

The separation of lovers is the renewing of love.

Solitude is better than a bad companion.

Berra, Yogi (United States, 1925- ) Larry Berra got his nickname, Yogi, from a childhood friend who thought he looked like the Hindu sage in a film about an Indian snake charmer. Berra is as famous for his malapropisms and witticisms as he is for his exploits on the baseball field for the New York Yankees and New York Mets. Once in an Italian restaurant, for example, he was asked if he wanted his pizza cut into four or eight slices, "Four," he said. "I don't think I can eat eight." Berra's baseball career took off after World War II, in which he took part in the Omaha Beach landing during the Allies' D-Day invasion of France. ... His sayings, though they often sound like non sequiturs, contain real wisdom. Yogi's nickname was more apt than his childhood friend ever knew.

Always go to other people's funerals; otherwise they won't go to yours.

Don't always follow the crowd, because nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.

Stay alert — you can observe a lot by watching.


PAINTERS AND POETS

Delacroix, Eugene (France, 1798-1863) Delacroix always had a flair for drama. Born in the Ardeche region of southern France, he achieved early recognition with dramatic paintings of dramatic events, such as the battles of the Greeks in their war of independence against the Turks. He created his most famous work, Liberty Leading the People, in 1830. This painting, which has become synonymous with France, was initially considered by King Louis-Philippe too controversial to display. It was only after the end of Louis-Philippe's reign in 1848 that the painting was shown.

The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves in it nothing.

What moves those of genius, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is still not enough.

To be a poet at twenty is to be twenty; to be a poet at forty is to be a poet.

Cohen, Leonard (Canada, 1934- ) Cohen first won acclaim in his native Canada as a poet. His debut collection, Let Us Compare Mythologies, was published in 1956 while he was still a college student. Cohen's music career took off when he came to the attention of John H. Hammond, the record producer who also discovered Bob Dylan.

It's hard to hold the hand of anyone who is reaching for the sky just to surrender.

It is easy to display a wound, the proud scars of combat. It is hard to show a pimple.

There is a crack in everything. It's how the light gets in.


PHILOSOPHERS AND THEORISTS

Sato, Issai (Japan, 1772-1859) One of Japan's most important nineteenth century Confucian scholars, Issai was born in Tokyo and held a series of distinguished academic posts until his death.

There are always people who make big declarations. These are always people of little consequence.

Historical works all may communicate traces, but they do not communicate truth. One who reads history ought to take these traces and nudge out the truths concealed within.

Treat others like the spring breeze; guard yourself like the autumn frost.

Szasz, Thomas (United States, 1920- ) Szasz is best known for his book The Myth of Mental Illness, in which he argues that psychological disorders such as schizophrenia are not really illnesses at all but labels through which governments and the medical profession try to exercise social control.

Boredom is the feeling that everything is a waste of time; serenity, that nothing is.

When a person can no longer laugh at himself, it is time for others to laugh at him.

Two wrongs don't make a right, but they make a good excuse.


STRANGE BEASTS

Brillat-Savarin, Anthelme (France, 1755-1826) Brillat-Savarin was a man of many talents: author, lawyer, linguist (he spoke about half a dozen languages), politician, and violinist. But his fame rests on his qualities as a gourmand and on his ability to convey his love for the table in brief, aphoristic mediations a la Michel de Montaigne. ... He composed a collection of aphorisms that he intended to serve as the foundation of his philosophy of food.

The fate of nations depends on the way they eat.

The table is the only place where the first hour is never dull.

The discovery of a new dish does more for the happiness of mankind than the discovery of a star.

Diogenes (Greece, 404-c. 323 BCE) Before arriving in Athens, where he eventually took up residence in a tub and lived with a pack of stray dogs, Diogenes was captured at sea and sold into slavery. During the auction at which he was up for sale, he is said to have pointed his future owner out in the crowd and instructed his captors, "Sell me to that man. He needs a master." Diogenes got the buyer he wanted, and he went on to become the bad boy of ancient Greek philosophy. He famously disdained conventional manners, morality, and metaphysics. The only worthwhile philosophy, he believed, was one that helped people live a good life in the here and now. ...

The art of being a slave is to rule one's master.

Go about with your middle finger up and people will say you're daft; go about with your little finger out, and people will cultivate your acquaintance.

Give up philosophy because I'm an old man? It's at the end of a race that you break into a burst of speed.

Excerpted from Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists. Reprinted by permission of Bloomsbury USA. Copyright (c) 2007 by James Geary.

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