I love aphorisms and epigrams, perhaps because I have no gift for coining them. The brilliantly precise concision that allows writers like La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, and Karl Kraus to say big things on the smallest possible scale, and the discipline of mind that enables it, simply don’t come naturally to me.
For this reason, it’s always a joy for me to encounter a previously unknown aphorist (to me, anyway). George Weigel wrote a piece last week in which he had occasion to quote George Savile, the First Marquess of Halifax, a seventeenth-century British statesman of whose long career I knew nothing. In addition to being a politician of note, Savile was also a writer with a knack for terseness. Weigel points out that he “ranks second only to the immortal Dr. Johnson in the number of entries in The Viking Book of Aphorisms.” I own that book and consult it often, but for some reason Savile’s name had escaped my notice.
I did a bit of nosing around the web and found that Savile’s aphorisms were collected in 1750 in a volume called Political, Moral and Miscellaneous Thoughts and Reflections. I promptly sifted through it and culled the following observations, which I hope you’ll find as striking as I did:
• “Our vices and virtues couple with one another, and get children that resemble both their parents.”
• “Anger is never without an argument, but seldom with a good one.”
• “One should no more laugh at a contemptible fool than at a dead fly.”
• “The memory of an enemy admitteth no decay but age.”
• “Weak men are apt to be cruel, because they stick at nothing that may repair the ill-effect of their mistakes.”
• “Mistaken kindness is little less dangerous than premeditated malice.”
• “Explaining is generally half-confessing.”
• “A long vindication is seldom a skilful one.”
• “The world is nothing but vanity cut out into several shapes.”
• “Were it not for bunglers in the manner of doing it, hardly any man would ever find out he was laughed at.”
• “The reading of most men is like a wardrobe of old clothes that are seldom used.”
• “It is some kind of scandal not to bear with the faults of an honest man.”
• “All are apt to shrink from those that lean upon them.”