The focus of our educational systems on popular culture, political correctness, and the cult of self-esteem has had two consequences for everyday speech. First, young people prefer to remain silent rather than risk an opinion. Secondly, when 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.
American speech, like English speech, used to sparkle. The dialogues invented by Henry James are scintillating, alert to implications, never redundant or blunt. Their stylized air is exaggerated, if at all, only in the cause of art. The dialogues of the old Hollywood movies, like the lyrics of the Broadway musicals, are masterpieces of apt condensation, in which every word and every feeling counts. The aphorisms of Groucho Marx, the repartee of Tony Curtis, the lyrics of Cole Porter and Oscar Hammerstein, have an immediacy that has impressed them on the hearts and minds of educated Americans to this day. A foreigner, coming for the first time to the great American novelists and playwrights, the great Hollywood movies, or the Great American Songbook, would quickly come to believe that American culture is a culture of the aphorism, and that the principal delight of Americans in every walk of life is to condense thought and emotion into a nugget of wisdom or a stinging phrase.
But what exactly is an aphorism, and what distinguishes the good from the bad example? Aphorisms are like stock cubes. They are dry, salty, compact; and they are intended, when dissolved in thought, to be nourishing. But not all aphorisms are of equal value. There are true aphorisms and false ones, witty aphorisms and dull ones. True wit, Pope said, “is Nature to advantage dressed, /What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.” That characterizes one kind of aphorism — the true and commonsensical kind, of which Pope himself was a master, as in “fools rush in, where angels fear to tread.” There are also aphorisms that capture a truth that never was thought until so well expressed. Such is La Rochefoucauld’s maxim that “hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” Is he praising hypocrisy or condemning it? Asking that question reveals the depth and originality of La Rochefoucauld’s insight.
Some of the greatest aphorisms are American — notably those of Ambrose Bierce in The Devil’s Dictionary, to whom we owe a definition of the brain (“an apparatus with which we think we think”) that ought to be inscribed above the entrance to every department of neuroscience. There is no more useful definition of Puritanism than that given by H. L. Mencken: “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, might be happy,” and never has the paradox of social mobility been better captured than by Groucho Marx’s famous aphorism: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member” — surely the equal of La Rochefoucauld’s insight into the real meaning of hypocrisy.
But there are false, unfunny, and eccentric aphorisms too, and they are just as likely to have a far-reaching influence as the true and the witty. Oscar Wilde shaped his many bons mots in ways that sweetened the pill of unwelcome truth: for instance “in matters of the greatest importance it is style and not sincerity that counts,” and “it is only a very shallow person who does not judge by appearances”: aphorisms that have some of the depth and density of La Rochefoucauld’s. But Wilde’s much quoted dismissal of foxhunting, as “the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable,” is an instance of a false aphorism. False at both ends, and monstrously unfunny to those who have knowledge of the matter.
FALSE APHORISMS are not as rare as one might think. More significant than Wilde’s, on account of its influence, is Marx’s dismissal of religion as “the opium of the people.” For this implies that religion is adopted purely for its ability to soothe the wounds of society, and that there is some other condition to which humanity might advance in which religion would no longer be needed. Both those implications are false, but they are boiled into a stock cube as tasty as any that has been seen on the intellectual menu. How many would-be intellectuals have dissolved this cube into their prose and given their thought, in the manner of Christopher Hitchens, a specious air of wisdom?
Marx’s writings contain an elaborate attempt at a system: but the system was refuted and Marx survived. We know Marx instead as the author of famous phrases: alienated labor, surplus value, the fetishism of commodities, wage slavery, the crisis of capitalism, and a thousand more. He told the workers of the world to unite, since they had nothing to lose but their chains — and the chains of aphorisms that subsequently bound them proved to be stronger than any chains of steel. In one of the aphorisms contained in The German Ideology, the workers were promised hunting in the morning, fishing in the afternoon, and literary criticism after dinner — and, apart from the absence of game, fish, and literature, not to speak of dinner, that was what they got.
If you lived through the ’60s, as I did, you would have no doubt, today, of the power of aphorisms. And I blame our educational system for the fact that, in their hunger for witty phrases, and finding nothing of use in the pronouncements of the politicians of the day, the young people of the ’60s took their aphorisms from the store of falsehoods accumulated by the Marxists. Overnight the facetious leftisms rose up and seized control of the intellectual economy. The French situationists made some nice additions — “It is forbidden to forbid,” for example — and a few crept in from the Little Red Book of Chairman Mao, such as “no army can resist an idea whose time has come” (which lacks the wit of Voltaire’s sarcastic aphorism about the big battalions). However, it was the aphorisms of Marx that set the intellectual agenda. “Hitherto philosophers have interpreted the world; but the point is to change it.” “Consciousness does not determine life but life determines consciousness.” “The history of all previously existing societies is the history of class struggles.” And so on.
Take a look at The Communist Manifesto and you will encounter one of the most influential sequences of aphorisms in history. And most of them are false. Why, then, were they so successful? I think the reason is this. It is in the nature of an aphorism to aim at success — to present a complex nugget of intellectual flavor that makes the brain water in the way that the mouth waters when touched by monosodium glutamate. And success comes more easily for the one who promises power than for the one who offers only truth. Wilde’s aphorism about hunting made its mark because it was a weapon in a battle — indeed in one of the few “class struggles” that the English have known in recent times. And the same is true of The Communist Manifesto. People have only a circumscribed interest in truth. But their interest in power is insatiable. Falsehoods that give confidence or amplify power will, in the moment of contest, eclipse those paltry truths that warn us to hold on a moment and be careful. The point was made by another great aphorist among 19th-century philosophers, Nietzsche. And Nietzsche’s popularity today is owing to the same feature that explains Marx’s popularity in the ’60s: the promise of power.
MARX AND NIETZSCHE don’t do much, to my way of thinking, by way of justifying the philosophical aphorism. The element of surprise is achieved too easily, and by recruiting our knee-jerk resentments. There is a refusal to face the difficult questions concerning our relations with others and our knowledge of the world. Their power-directed aphorisms are more like spells than statements. They are designed, as Marx rightly said, not to interpret the world but to change it — and to change it purely by being repeated again and again. Which is, in Marx’s case, exactly what happened. And the world was changed for the worse, as everybody knows who saw those aphorisms used and abused across the Soviet Empire: hitched on the roofs of city buildings, spread in red letters over shop fronts, inscribed on plates of alloy and hung in heavy frames on the walls of lecture halls. Orwell, who saw this with penetrating insight, wrote two great works that are not so much novels as tracts against the aphorism. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” (Animal Farm); “who controls the present controls the past, and who controls the past controls the future” (1984) — aphorisms that go one stage further than the Communist slogans they satirize.
Orwell was documenting the decline of the aphorism, its abuse as an instrument of oppression and an assault on the sovereignty of truth. But the thing that was abused by Marx and the Marxists is also a necessary part of speaking properly and to good effect. 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. The educational challenge then becomes that of teaching students not only to think and speak in witty phrases, but at the same time to be guided by the truth. Can it be done? To that question I answer: we can but try.