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by Lionel E. Deimel

A recent NPR story focused on a new book about aphorisms, The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism, by Time editor James Geary. Perhaps because I appreciate elegance of expression, I was charmed by Geary’s examples of his favorite aphorisms, even if I remained unconvinced that his “laws” about the construction of aphorisms would allow me reliably to distinguish an aphorism from, say, an epigram. Certainly, the former is a brief, elegant expression of some truth or opinion that, as Geary suggests, must be philosophical and challenging. Geary says that an aphorism must also be personal, which I assume is to distinguish it from the conventional wisdom of a proverb. He failed to persuade me, however, that Dorothy Parker’s “Men seldom make passes/At girls who wear glasses” is aphoristic, rather than epigrammatic. (Besides, can a poem be an epigram? Geary was silent on the matter, but he appears to think so.)

The interview soon had me composing aphorisms in my head. After all, how difficult could such composition be? Aphorisms are a bit like haiku, requiring some real work, but not a sustained effort. In fact, I devised about half a dozen aphorisms (candidate aphorisms, anyway) while showering, shaving, and dressing after listening to the Morning Edition interview. I have continued to refine and add to the original list, though my productivity has diminished considerably. This is harder than it looks!

I offer my oeuvre in this genre below. The list seems to reflect my work and interests. Many instances touch on matters of quality and design. Others are the outgrowth of my experience as a writer or as a church activist.

The general meaning of most of these aphorisms should be clear, though some are challenging. I would be hard-pressed to explicate a couple of them.

Anyway, see what you make of my collection. These aphorisms are presented in no particular order. You may find some redundancy here, but I would argue that each aphorism asserts something distinct.

  The prospect of change ignites more passion than that of staying the course.
Fearing the stranger comes from our genes; welcoming the stranger must come from our hearts.  
  Do not celebrate excellence in the service of evil. No awards
Right hand A promise not to change is a promise not to grow.  
  Only the lead locomotive pulls the whole train.


Tomatoes Tomato slices fit best on hamburger buns.  


The road to hell is paved with defective concrete. Cement mixer

Chain with weak link

The chain-maker does not need to send to know which link failed.  
  Growing apart is better than not growing at all. Road signs
Justice statue The law prevails not because so many people support it, but because so few oppose it.  
  Half the world could be improved by aspiring to mediocrity. Normal curve
Boxes on conveyer belt A bad product is not enhanced by having been produced by a good process.  
  Only time can make a writer his own editor. Computer

Cell phone

You cannot smell the roses while talking on your cell phone.  
  Elections are won or lost by the people who choose not to vote. Ballot box

Nazi flag

No analogy involving Hitler or the Nazi Party, however apt, is likely to advance one’s cause.  
  The newspaper story on the event you know about is never as accurate as the story on the event you don’t. Newspaper and cup of coffee
Praying hands Faith is the enemy of inquiry.  
  We learn to walk before learning to run, but we don’t learn to balance on a bicycle before learning to ride. Bicycle
Infinity symbol There is no eternal expression of an eternal truth.  
  Trust in God, but keep your day job. Executive jumping a gap
Question mark Questions are good; answers are dangerous.  
  If God had wanted to give us clear instructions for living, he wouldn’t have given us the Bible. Holy Bible
God If you were God, you would be home by now.  
  The fastest way to gain the coöperation of your colleagues is to do all the work yourself. Coöperating workers
Bad man with happy mask Beware of trying to do good things with bad people.  
  Do not encourage masochists to apply the Golden Rule. Gold bars
Crazy person Negotiating with crazy people leads to crazy agreements.  
  The tolerant cannot afford to tolerate the intolerant. Man getting the boot
History book In the absence of actual history, people just make stuff up.  
  Will is not a substitute for time. Hourglass
Drowning man A rising tide drowns all swimmers.  
  The time to learn how to use a tool is before you need it. Computer and software
It is easier to arouse passion for changing the status quo than for maintaining it.  
  Crazy people can’t be convinced they’re crazy.
Nuclear weapons are useful only until they’re used.  
  The success of capitalism is dependent on failure.
Sincerity is overrated. Hitler was sincere.  
  When your religion causes you to deny the rights of others, it’s time to get a new religion.
Football is like recess; baseball is like life.  
  No one ever saves a life but only extends one.

— LED, 11/9/2005, last revised 8/14/2017


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