With our archives now 3,500+ articles deep, weâ€™ve decided to republish a classic piece each Sunday to help our newer readers discover some of the best, evergreen gems from the past. This article was originally published in January 2014.
When I was a young man, I would scoff at well-intentioned adults who would sometimes offer up little aphorisms when I got in trouble or had a problem. Little nuggets like, â€œThis too shall pass,â€ generally went in one ear and out the other. They sounded too simple and too clichÃ© to really mean anything.
But as Iâ€™ve become a grown man, Iâ€™ve had experiences where these little bits of wisdom have come back to me and have revealed their value and deeper truth. Iâ€™ve come to really agree with the poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who argued that “The largest and worthiest portion of our knowledge consists of aphorisms.”
An aphorism is a short, pithy statement that conveys a principle or contains a pearl of wisdom. Part of what makes them so powerful is that they can stand on their own without context; as the philologist Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel put it, â€œAn aphorism ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog.â€
Philosopher Nassim Nicholas Talib argues that an aphorismâ€™s ability â€œto compress powerful ideas in a handful of wordsâ€ shows bravado. This may be why, he notes, â€œthe Arabic word for an improvised one-liner is ‘act of manliness.’â€
These â€œacts of manlinessâ€ communicate timeless truths that have been around for ages. But the fact that aphorisms are so old and common makes them easy to dismiss, the way I did as a young man.
As a culture we want things that seem new, revolutionary, complex, and smart; we want the cool hacks and â€œsecretsâ€ that havenâ€™t been discovered until now. But, as author David Foster Wallace has noted, although these â€œclichÃ©sâ€ may seem â€œlame and unexciting on the surface,â€ they actually express great, incredibly relevant truths; no matter how much society has changed, following classic, simple principles is still the pathway to a good, meaningful life. So we would advise everyone (including ourselves) to heed Wallaceâ€™s additional words while perusing the aphorisms below: â€œBracket for just a few minutes your skepticism about the value of the totally obvious.â€ The more you meditate on these words, the more wisdom theyâ€™ll reveal to you.
Even when something seems obvious, â€œThe whole trick is keeping the truth up front in daily consciousness.â€ So consider making one of these images your laptopâ€™s screensaver or your phoneâ€™s lock screen.