The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism
Bloomsbury, 2006 (2006)
Reviewed by Hilary Williamson
, you ask? James Geary, a self-confessed
, tells us that a compact definition is impossible, but offers
instead for these nuggets of ageless wisdom. An aphorism must be brief, definitive, personal, philosophical, and have a twist (like the best of classic SF). Geary tells us that '
You don't curl up with a good book of aphorisms; they leap off the page and unfurl inside you ... They make you question everything you think and do.
eary groups aphorisms in
The World in a Phrase
Ancient Sages, Preachers, and Prophets
Greek and Roman Stoics
French and Spanish Moralists
Heretics, Dissenters, and Skeptics
The Rise of the American One-Liner
In Praise of Light Verse
The Aphorism Today
. He gives an explanation for each saying. Here are some that leap off the page to me. Buddha said on his deathbed '
Be lamps unto yourselves.
' Muhammad believed that '
The ink of the scholar is more holy than the blood of the martyr.
ietzsche felt that '
One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.
' Twain lived by the aphorism, '
Irreverence is the champion of liberty, and its only sure defense.
' Speaking of irreverence, Ambrose Bierce (author of
The Devil's Dictionary
) is in here. Fitzgerald's version of
The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
is quoted from, as is Dr. Seuss. And we hear from Emily Dickinson - '
Who goes to dine must take his Feast / Or find the Banquet mean - / The Table is not laid without / Till it is laid within.
hough many of these older aphorisms will be familiar to you, Geary's analyses enrich them. And he's picked interesting ones from relatively modern times, like Karl Kraus's '
Art serves to rinse out our eyes
', or Stanislaw Jerzy Lec's '
No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible.
' Geary ends with his own view that '
Aphorisms are the real elixir of life.
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