I’ve been reading a lot of Christopher Hitchens lately — and not just in anticipation of his death. As a writer and a public scholar, Hitchens scared me. I tried to imagine what would happen if I had the opportunity to debate him on some issue of politics and language, and I always came out of the exchange battered and bloody. The quickness of his wit, his intellectual range, his livid mean streak — all these I found discouraging, a writer both envious and cowed by the brilliance of another.
Over the last year or so I’ve read three of his books, all of which I recommend: “Why Orwell Matters,” “The Quotable Hitchens,” and the doorstop-worthy collection of his essays “Arguably.” In a foreword to that second book, subtitled “From Alcohol to Zionism,” Martin Amis tries to capture the essence of his friend’s brilliance:
In his speech, it is the terse witticism that we remember; in his prose, what we thrill to is his magisterial expansiveness…The extracts that follow aren’t jokes or jibes. They are more like crystallizations — insights that lead the reader to a recurring questions: If this is so obviously true, and it is, why did we have to wait for Christopher to point it out to us?
But isn’t that the essential nature of wisdom literature, from the biblical Book of Proverbs to collections of Hitchens’ sharpest thoughts? Such as:
- What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.
- A Holocaust denier is a Holocaust affirmer.
- A melancholy lesson of advancing years is the realization that you can’t make old friends.
Great short writing has the ability to make the writer sound like both a wiseguy and a wise guy. The form of expression to turn that trick rests on the distinction between the epigram and the aphorism.
Nothing quite clarifies the mind – with the exception of a gun pointed at one’s head, or a bout with esophageal cancer – more than a good distinction.
Epigrams vs. Aphorisms
In 1962, W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger published an anthology of more than 3,000 wise sayings drawn from the work of more than 400 authors. The title of the anthology is “Aphorisms,” defined by the “American Heritage Dictionary” as “a tersely phrased statement of truth or opinion; an adage.”
But wait – isn’t that also the definition of an epigram? Not quite. The AHD defines the epigram in part as “a concise, clever, often paradoxical statement.” We need examples.
Typical of the always helpful AHD, we are directed to a list of synonyms under the word saying. There I found distinctions drawn and examples given for eight words: saying, maxim, adage, saw, motto, epigram, proverb, and aphorism. Since each of these is a miniature form of wisdom literature, it makes sense to summarize the differences described in the dictionary.
- Saying: an often repeated and familiar expression: “America is a land of opportunity.”
- Maxim: an expression of general truth or rule of conduct: “Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus.”
- Adage: a saying that gains strength from long use: “Good things come in small packages.”
- Saw: a saying that has become trite from overuse: “You can’t take it with you.”
- Motto: a phrase that describes the guiding principles of a person, profession, or institution: “Semper fidelis” (The Marines, “Always Faithful”)
- Epigram: a witty expression, often paradoxical, and brilliantly phrased, as when Samuel Johnson called remarriage “a triumph of hope over experience.”
- Proverb: an old and popular saying that offers practical wisdom or advice: “Slow and steady wins the race.”
- Aphorism: a concise expression of truth, deep in content, and well expressed. “Social media are severely anti-social,” wrote Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
It is obvious that these distinctions are sliced pretty thin, and it would be a matter of debate as to which category deserves a phrase like: “The fleas come with the dog.”
The distinction between epigram and aphorism is important enough that Auden and Kronenberger draw it on the first page of their anthology:
An epigram need only be true of a single case, for example, Coolidge opened his mouth and a moth flew out; or effective only in a particular polemical context, for example, Foxhunting is the pursuit of the uneatable by the unspeakable … An aphorism, on the other hand, must convince every reader that it is either universally true or true of every member of the class to which it refers, irrespective of the reader’s convictions.
It is that second mini-genre, the aphorism, that best describes Hitchens at his best. Here he is on America:
- In America, something deemed unsayable is, sooner or later, bound to be said. And it may be said rather more heatedly as a result of its having been a taboo.
- It’s the only place in history where patriotism can be divorced from its evil twins of chauvinism and xenophobia.
- The United States is simultaneously the most conservative and the most radicalizing force on the planet.
Auden and Kronenberger draw a finer distinction: “An epigram must be amusing and brief, but an aphorism, though it should not be boring and must be succinct in style, need not make the reader laugh and can extend itself to several sentences.”
And then this: “Aphorisms are essentially an aristocratic genre of writing. The aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts; and complicit in his assertion is a conviction that he is wiser or more intelligent than his readers.”
Yet I’ve never thought of Hitchens work as aristocratic, no more than I would think of the work of George Orwell that way. Perhaps “morally and intellectually superior” without the poison of condescension.
Contrast Hitchens, for example, to Nassim Nicholas Taleb, popular author of “The Black Swan” and a book of aphorisms, “The Bed of Procrustes.”
Here are three aphorisms from a chapter on literature:
- No author should be considered as having failed until he starts teaching others about writing.
- You are alive in inverse proportion to the density of clichés in your writing.
- For pleasure read one chapter of Nabokov. For punishment, two.
And one more for good measure: “Literature comes alive with covering up vices, defects, weaknesses, and confusions; it dies with every trace of preaching.”
If I had to create an aphorism in response to these it might read something like: “One whose writing preaches to readers in almost every sentence should not attack preachiness in the writings of others.”
In the last several months, I find myself thinking, speaking, and writing more aphoristically, but I hope not more aristocratically. In one interview, I declared that “Time is the co-author of good judgment,” my explanation for why reporters who are first are not always best.
My answer to almost any question about the economy has been that “all boats sink on a low tide.”
Speeches about writing or language in America often end with, “What good is freedom of expression if we lack the means to express ourselves?”
And at lunch today, before I learned of Hitchens’ death, I thought of the many journalists who have lost their jobs in recent times, and it inspired an inversion of Gene Patterson‘s saying “Don’t just make a living, make a mark.”
My take? “It’s hard to make a mark when you can’t make a living.”
I dedicate this essay to Christopher Hitchens. May he rest in peace in the arms of the angels he didn’t believe in. I think that’s an epigram.