Brevity may be the soul of wit, but does it teach us anything?

Tim Cornwell reports on a project which is weighing up the value of some pearls of wisdom

‘A PERSON who has an aphorism for everything gives thought to nothing.” This is the wise saying offered by Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine. He wrote it himself.

“Aphorisms are very seductive,” he says, “and the best manage to encapsulate important ideas in few words. But I often think they’re too beguiling. They trick us into thinking we’ve grasped a deep thought by their wit and brevity, but if you poke them, you find they ride roughshod over all sorts of complexities and subtleties.”

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Not discouraged, The School of Life – a new offbeat shop-cum-philosphy school in London, selling books, courses and even meals filled with “intelligent instruction on how to lead a fulfilled life” – has this week launched a website devoted to aphorisms.

Each day for a month, will deliver an aphorism to “discuss, dispute or distribute”. The 30 have been carefully vetted by a panel including Alain de Botton, the thinker and author of books such as Essays in Love. Yesterday’s offering, “Love is a grave mental disease” is attributed to Plato and so is about 2,400 years old.

We all have favourite aphorisms that stay with us, or new ones that resonate with a feeling or situation. “An unexamined life is not worth living,” from Socrates, perhaps, or Albert Camus’s “To know oneself, one should assert oneself”. There’s also homespun wisdom, such as “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen”, attributed to former US president Harry Truman.

“The worst aphorisms are twee and optimistic; the best are quite dark,” says de Botton and he quotes Pascal to illustrate the latter: “All of man’s unhappiness comes from his inability to stay alone in a room.”

Francois La Rochefoucauld, the 17th-century French nobleman, was a great author of memoirs and aphorisms, along with the likes of Winston Churchill. “There are some people who would never have fallen in love if they hadn’t heard there was such a thing,” he wrote.

Says de Botton: “I think this is picking up on the fact that love, far from being totally natural, is an emotion that is cultivated by the society we happen to live in. If the society we live in makes a huge fuss about love, then we are more likely to take that emotion seriously.”

An aphorism is described as “an itch of wisdom”, “the world in a phrase” or, more literally, “an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic and easily memorable form”.

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The School of Life’s director, Sophie Haworth, is a former curator of the Tate Modern. From a small shop in central London, it offers books, courses, psychotherapy and sermons with no dogma or religion attached.

The aphorisms initiative includes a competition for new ones from the public. “They are pithy little bits of philosophy, advice, ways of thinking about the world,” she says. The best are “provocations”, not trite nor clichd, and certainly not the type found on greetings cards.

Oscar Wilde was one great creator of aphorisms such as: “Always forgive your enemies, nothing annoys them so much.”

De Botton cites Nicolas de Chamfort, another Frenchman: “A man must swallow a toad every morning to be sure of not meeting with anything more disgusting in the day ahead.”

“I love the idea of having toad cornflakes to get through the day,” he says.

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