Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Devoted readers of this page already know that in hot weather I have energy only for aphorisms , not novels or larger works. Admittedly, when the weather cooled off, I managed to dip into a few weightier tomes¯novels, biographies and the like . But now, a mere week before school starts, the weather (at least in the Chicago area) is starting to heat up again, so I find myself tempted to return to my wonted lucubrations on those lazy August aphorisms that are my solace for tired eyes.

Except that one reader of this site reminded me after my first posting how exhausting an illuminating aphorism can be: When done rightly, one-line nuggets leave you thinking about them for the rest of the day (or beyond).

I am not referring here to those aphorisms that have become chiseled with time, like François de la Rochefoucauld’s famous remark that "hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue," which perhaps is the most perfect aphorism ever coined: It both encapsulates a universally recognized insight but also implies that this insight would have gone unrecognized but for the aphorism.

Nor am I speaking, at least here, of those aphorisms that G.K. Chesterton used to such effect, wild paradoxes to bring his readers up short, such as his telling line in Orthodoxy that the sicker a society becomes, the more it will obsess over health foods and diets. Malcolm Muggeridge also used this technique to great effect when he said, in what is perhaps my personal all-time favorite aphorism, that "sex is the mysticism of the materialist."

I am not trying to offer here a full taxonomy (God knows) of aphorisms. But I am trying to get at that rare category of pithy line that can get you thinking in ways you never suspected: You read the thing, set it down to resume more "important" duties, and before you know it, you have become a convert to a whole new way of looking at the world.

After writing my blog post on aphorisms in early August, that same reader pointed out to me that I missed one of the greatest aphorists of all¯St. Thomas Aquinas! Nonplussed, I rejoined that a medieval scribe who became the most famous practitioner of that notoriously hairsplitting method called Scholasticism¯and who produced something like eight million words, in the pre-Gutenberg era to boot¯could hardly be called an aphorist. But this faithful correspondent then pointed me to Josef Pieper’s marvelous collection of Thomistic one-liners called The Human Wisdom of St. Thomas: A Breviary of Philosophy , which taught me otherwise. Until I had read this powerful (but also exhausting!) book, I had not realized how concise, pithy, indeed almost aphoristic, the medievals were forced to be.

Remarkably, Pieper resolutely refused to provide so much as a single line of commentary in his "breviary." All he furnished, arranged in vague topical categories, were the one-line conclusions to Thomas’ positions, not the arguments for them. But even standing alone, they have a way of, well, standing on their own. I’ll cite a few just to give you an idea:

• Everything eternal is necessary. • Every creature participates in goodness in the same degree as it participates in being. • In the universe, only the intellectual nature is sought on its own account, all others on account of it. • Desire of the knowledge of truth is peculiar to human nature. • Evil is not caused except by good. • Everything evil is rooted in some good, and everything false in some truth. • Evil produces no effect except in virtue of some good. • However much evil is multiplied, it is never able completely to swallow good. • Stronger than the evil in wickedness is the good in goodness. • Good can be realized in purer form than evil. For there is some good in which no evil is mixed, but there is nothing so very evil that no good is mixed in it.

Pieper’s collection deals only, as the title says, with Thomas’ "human" wisdom, meaning his purely philosophical aphorisms, although it would be hard to think of such allegedly pure "philosophical" clarity coming to Thomas except in the light of his faith. Still, one will not find Thomas’ more strictly theological aphorisms in this collection. Perhaps another Thomist could publish a similar collection of Thomas’ pithier theological apophthegms, but I wonder. For that kind of specifically Christian conciseness, I always turn to the poets, such as Christopher Smart (1722-1771), whose poem "The Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ" would be hard to top in the Aphoristic Sweepstakes:

God all-bounteous, all-creative, Whom no ills from good dissuade, Is incarnate, and a native Of the very world he made.

But why stop there with the poets? What about Jesus the aphorist? I once recall reading, during a year of my Jesuit training in Germany, a German book called Der listige Jesus . The title means, roughly, "the clever Jesus." But listig means something more than mere cleverness at repartee, that superficial skill at coming back with "snappy answers to stupid questions" that Mad magazine used to feature in my youth. Listig can also mean "cunning," as in the cunning of a Zen master who knows how to parry obtuse questions into a moment that begins the novice’s journey to wisdom.

For example, an interlocutor comes up to Jesus and begins his butter-up sycophancy right away: "Good master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" to which Jesus, before answering the question, first replies: "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone" (Mark 10:17-18).

This is not the place to sort through all the apophthegms and one-liners of Jesus (after all, the school year has not yet begun here at the seminary where I teach!). But when one reads through Pieper’s collection of Thomas’ chiseled bits of one-sentence wisdom, one sees the benefit to one’s writing and preaching style that is gained by a life of unremitting honesty: even single lines can change a life.

Jesus of course did not leave behind (thank God) eight million words, for the very good reason that he did not come to give the world a new philosophy, only Wisdom itself. But that means that, even more than Thomas Aquinas, or Chesterton, or Pascal, or any of the other great pithy formulators of Christian wisdom, Jesus really had no other medium except brevity of statement.

As a master of such brevity, Jesus no doubt had his predecessors and successors. No surprise there, since the effectiveness of his teaching has to come from an even more pellucid kind of honesty than theirs¯but one that, like theirs, knows how to revolutionize the world through sharp, one-line confrontations, spoken one sentence at a time. Is that not, in one sense, the very essence of the Gospel? For as Jesus Himself put it in perhaps the pithiest of all his parables: "The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls. Coming upon a pearl of great price, he went and sold all that he had. And then he bought it" (Matthew 13:45).

(Access contributors’ biographies by clicking here .)

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles