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The Cape Code Times

The Art of Aphorism

Sean Gonsalves

If it's true that "syllables govern the world," then you gotta give it up for aphorists.

What's an aphorist? Aphorists create aphorisms, of course. Aphorism - you know, a phrase that illuminates the road you're traveling; a proverb; witticism; wise-saying; fortune-cookie message; something Yoda might say.

In our globalized Information Age, where the Rat Race and keepin'-up-with-the-Jones' makes it almost impossible for a harried citizenry to afford to pay attention, the aphorism is an indispensable weapon for intellectual self-defense; "the Swiss army knife of the mind."

At the very least, cultivating the art of the aphorism would make debate in the New Public Common, the blogosphere, a bit more entertaining; as opposed to what it is - an anonymous arena where cyberspace wars are fought over who uses the best news sources in between volleys of who's the more idiotic, fascist, Hitler in sheep's clothing.

So, if you still haven't finished compiling your summer reading list, here's one to add: "Geary's Guide to the World's Greatest Aphorists." (

In his previous book, "The World in a Phrase," which provided a history of the aphoristic form, Geary laid down the Five Laws of The Aphorism: "It Must Be Brief, It Must Be Personal, It Must Be Definitive, It Must Be Philosophical, and It Must Have A Twist." Just what a time-poor society needs - something brief, personal, definitive, and philosophical with a twist, to crowd out all the empty slogans and regurgitated clichés.

If you really want to have fun with Geary's excavated wisdom sayings, read the newspaper with the Guide at your side.


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Take, for example, the news story about the alleged JFK airport terror plot foiled over the weekend. Geary's collection contains a few gems from the ancient Chinese military sage Sun Tzu: "To win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill." All the foiled terror plots we've heard about since this so-called Global War on Terror began have been stopped by good old-fashioned detective work, not by "fighting them over there, so we don't have to fight them over here."

Too bad Geary didn't include the Ambrose Bierce of our time, satirist Chaz Bufe. "Bomb, n. A means of persuasion. When employed by those in power, its use is customarily termed 'in the national interest,' and those who use it are customarily described as 'tough' and 'courageous.' When employed by those out of power, its use is customarily termed 'terrorism,' and those who employ it are customarily described as 'ruthless' and cowardly'."

The story about Dr. Jack Kevorkian being released from prison? Geary's Guide includes the words of singer/songwriter David Byrne of Talking Heads: "The difference between medicine and poison is the dose." What about the Associated Press story about the Pentagon study of U.S. troops in combat in Iraq, in which less than half of the Marines surveyed said they feel they should treat noncombatants with respect? Only about a half said they would report a member of their unit for killing or wounding an innocent civilian.

More than 40 percent support the idea of torture in some cases, and 10 percent reported personally abusing Iraqi civilians, according to the AP's story on recent Pentagon "ethics study of troops at the war front." You can see the dilemma, I trust. The guerrilla insurgency that's brutally taken the lives of nearly 3,500 U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis cannot exist without popular support. Hence, the Iraqi people have become the enemy, bringing our sons and daughters in Iraq face-to-face with an inescapable law of guerrilla warfare, as articulated by War Nerd Gary Brecher - short of genocide, there is no military solution to guerrilla insurgencies.

But even laying aside guerrilla basics, the Guide contains Marcus Auerelius' words: "The noblest kind of retribution is not to become like your enemy."

Of course, Voltaire had a point, as the Guide notes: "a witty saying proves nothing." Aphorisms are no substitute for life experience and serious study, but a well-honed phrase can provide the jolt needed for those sleepwalking through history.

Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff writer and a syndicated columnist. E-mail him at

© 2007 The Cape Cod Times

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