Tag Archives: aphorisms

Of aphorisms and neat language

Roger Scruton thinks the art of the aphorism in in decline among American English speakers. 

[W]hen they do talk, it is in an outpouring, in the belief that one person's language is as good as any other's. Bon mots, aphorisms, insightful quotations, nuggets of wisdom, or even ordinary apt remarks form only a tiny part of their conversation.

That's too bad, he thinks, because aphorisms are like stock cubes, they "are dry, salty, compact; and they are intended, when dissolved in thought, to be nourishing."  Not having that ability is a deficiency.  So far, this is just a point about rhetoric — we lack a special linguistic skill, apparently.  But, he notes, there are true and false aphorisms.  The true ones are from Henry James, Groucho Marx, and La Rochefoucauld. The false ones are from Marx, Christopher Hitchens, and Oscar Wilde. (Wilde gets lumped with the false aphorizers, because he came down against fox-hunting.) The trouble is that the catchiness of an aphorism is not what determines whether it is a true one or not, regardless of how one comes down on Scruton's division of them here.  The crucial thing is to direct them at truth, right?

How are we to recapture the forgotten ways of wit, and the use of aphorisms in the cause of truth? It seems to me that this is something that we ought to be teaching in our universities. A degree in the humanities should have something of the ancient study of rhetoric. It should be equipping students to persuade, to use language gracefully and succinctly, and to speak and write with style. Persuasion comes not through statistics and theories, but through the artful aphorism that summarizes, in the heart of the listeners, the things that they suspect but don't yet know.

But wait — it's in all those statistics and theories and stuff that the truth or falsity of something is found.  It's in the evidence, the argument.  Aphorisms are good ways to capture that stuff, but without the argument, the aphorism is just garbage.  And Scruton wants more rhetoric, not less?  What's necessary is more logic, more training in statistics, an education in history.  Not more rhetoric.