Best Of The Web
““Almost all books of aphorisms, which have ever acquired a reputation, have retained it,” John Stuart Mill wrote in 1837, aphoristically—that is to say, with a neat if slightly dubious finality. (“How wofully the reverse is the case with systems of philosophy,” he added.) We prefer collections of aphorisms over big books of philosophy, Mill thought, not just because the contents are always short and usually funny but because the aphorism is, in its algebraic abbreviation, a micro-model of empirical inquiry. Mill noted that “to be unsystematic is of the essence of all truths which rest on specific experiment,” and that there is, in a good aphorism, “generally truth, or a bold approach to some truth.” So when La Rochefoucauld writes, “In the misfortune of even our best friends, there is something that does not displease us,” he is offering not a moral injunction saying “Take pleasure in the misfortune of your best friends” but a testable observation about what Mill termed “the workings of habitual selfishness in the human breast.” The aphorism means: We do take pleasure—not in every case, perhaps, but more often than we might admit—in the misfortune of our best friends.
We don’t absorb aphorisms as esoteric wisdom; we test them against our own experience. The empirical test of the aphorism takes the form first of laughter and then of longevity, and its confidential tone makes it candid, not cynical. Aphorisms live because they contain human truth, as Mill saw, and reach across barriers of class and era. “Old men delight in giving good advice as a consolation for the fact that they can no longer set bad examples,” another La Rochefoucauld classic, is not only humorous in its tidy reversal; it is also still rather persuasive, as we watch the drift from rebelliousness to reaction in every generation.
Aphorisms come at us in so many forms and from so many periods that one might think an academic study of aphorisms would aim to give them a family tree—tracing the emergence of the humanistic aphorism from its solemn white-bearded grandfather, the proverb; the descent of the clever, provocative epigram from its sly guerrilla progenitor, the parable (the form that allowed Jesus to spread subversion while seeming merely obscurely elegant). And then we might learn how those later forms have spawned such contemporary commercial descendants as the one-liner and the meme.”
JJ Editor's Picks
"On Christmas Eve of 1966, Paddy Roy Bates, a retired British army major, drove a small boat with an outboard motor seven miles off the coast of England into the North Sea. He had sneaked out of his house in the middle of the night, inspired..."
"The book that changed lecturer, activist, and current presidential candidate Marianne Williamson’s life, A Course in Miracles, is not available for free online, but its workbook is. You can find it on the website for the Foundation for..."
"Here are two sets of statements from far-distant opposites in the climate change debate. The first is from Naomi Klein, who in her book This Changes Everything paints a bleak picture of a global socioeconomic system gone wrong: “There is a..."
"Voters who trust their government — and each other — are more supportive of ambitious welfare states than those who do not. Across nations, high levels of social trust correlate with high levels of social spending. The relationship between these..."
"With the presidential campaign under way, expect to hear a lot more about a shiny new toy of progressive economic thinking, “modern monetary theory.” It seems to be the only intellectual contortion that might allow candidates to promise..."
"“We don’t want to fight y’all. We’re not trying to go to jail.” That’s what A$AP Rocky, the 30-year-old New York City rapper, can be heard saying in a video of an encounter with strangers in Sweden that has ballooned into an international crisis."
"Israel’s top officials are considering denying Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib entry to their country due to their outspoken, controversial criticism of Israel’s policy toward Palestinians, not to mention their slurs against American Jews as..."
"For most of our lives, we have been conditioned to share a piece of personal information without a moment’s hesitation: our phone number. We punch in our digits at the grocery store to get a member discount or at the pharmacy to pick up..."