Aphorisms are signposts along the way. Which makes the online publication of Forbes' Thoughts on the business of life part of a very old yet remarkably sprightly tradition. In the introduction to the first volume of Thoughts, Bertie Charles Forbes, the man who started the collection and founded the magazine that bears his name, wrote that he wanted to "have done something towards bequeathing a better world for my four sons and an increasing number of grandchildren." He gave "Thoughts on the Business of Life" a full page in every issue of the magazine, he said, "to inspire a philosophic mode of life, broad sympathies, charity towards all." Ptah-Hotep couldn't have put it better himself.
Aphorisms inspire a philosophic mode of life primarily by not allowing us to feel good about ourselves. While platitudes are placebos for the mind, aphorisms are electric shocks. They shake you up, jolt you out of unquestioned assumptions and comfortable complacencies. Aphorisms constantly warn us that we are most vulnerable when we believe ourselves most secure, as in this saying from the early 20th century Russian actress and aphorist Faina Ranevskaya: "Baldness is the gradual transformation of the head into an ass, first in shape and then in content."
Aphorisms proclaim rather than persuade. They make you think precisely because they present no evidence whatsoever for their claims. The best aphorists provide only one half of the equation. They assert something interesting, something paradoxical, something strange or funny, and then compel us to complete their thought.
When Polish dissident Stanislaw Jerzy Lec wrote, "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible," Lec didn't provide any footnotes to explain what he meant. To figure it out, you have to imagine what it would be like to be a single snowflake in an avalanche. Only then does this devastating critique of group think, whether in government or business, make sense. Aphorisms don't present "the truth" but incite us to discover it for ourselves.
Readers will find lots of incitement in Thoughts on the Business of Life, including from members of the Forbes family itself. Bertie Charles and Malcolm Forbes are part of a small group of aphorists for whom a talent for the form has run in the family.
There are only a few other examples of aphoristic family trees. George Savile, First Marquis of Halifax, wrote the aphoristic Advice to a Daughter for his daughter Elizabeth; Elizabeth's son, Philip Stanhope, Fourth Earl of Chesterfield, followed in his grandfather's footsteps, composing aphorisms in the letters he regularly sent to his son. In the U.S., "Fireside Poet" Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. passed on some aphoristic genes to his son, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who was a U.S. Supreme Court justice. And, of course, the Roosevelts--President Theodore, First Lady Eleanor (Theodore's niece) and U.S. President Franklin Delano (Eleanor's distant cousin and husband)--were consistently aphoristic. The aphorisms of Bertie Charles Forbes tend to be moralistic and civic-minded: "Better to be occasionally cheated than perpetually suspicious." Those of his son, Malcolm, are more philosophical, even Zen-like: "When you catch what you're after, it's gone."
The aphorisms of both men, though, remind us why this intimate, idiosyncratic form is so special. No other kind of writing does so much with so little. Aphorisms are literature's hand luggage, containing just enough essentials to get us through a rough day at work or a dark night of the soul.
This aphorism, variously attributed to everyone from humorist James Thurber to politician Paul Tsongas, has always stuck in my mind: "Nobody on their deathbed ever said, I wish I had spent more time at the office."
Nobody who wants to get ahead in the business of life will regret spending more time with aphorisms.
James Geary (Forbes)
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