Tuesday, October 6, 2009

That sounds about right. Part 1

If and apple a day keeps the doctor away, certainly a quote a day is as salutary for the mind. I’ve been thinking about memory and learning and what we think of as knowledge. What I’ve come up with is that we have these little pieces of what we’re pretty sure we know… somewhere in our minds. We use our direct memories to substantiate them whenever possible. But, we’ve got too much “processed” information in our heads to rely on our own experiences only (and we’d be cutting ourselves short of a huge resource if we tried). So we’ve “distilled” large volumes of stuff into fairly neat little packages; adages that are Internal Truisms. And this has all been done before by others, and they’ve done it better than we can, so we quote their truisms (even when they happen to be false). Or, we come across the quote that makes us see something that we haven’t thought about before. We may have thought all around it, or even been puzzled by it, then a quote explains it all in a flash. I wish I’d said that! The trick of making it into this document is to have said it the first time.

Right timing is in all things the most important factor.
Hesiod 700 BC


That’s well said, but Solon, who follows not only said:

I grow old ever learning many things.
Solon 638 - 559 BC


He also said:

Hesiod might as well have kept his breath to cool his pottage.
I don’t think that he was responding to that particular adage. You don’t have to agree with everything a guy says. Solon was among the “Seven Sages” to whom all adages were attributed back in the old days (pre 500 BC). So there’s some envy and competition among the sages, what’s new? These wise guys are all still human, and to err is human (I wish I’d said that). And later we’ll see what Jonathan Swift has to say about competing poets (wordsmiths). So you learn something new everyday. Writing this up has led me step by step through some wonderful moebius spirals back to the beginning. While focusing on these truisms, I keep finding myself back at where I started.

We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
T. S. Eliot 1888 – 1965 AD,

Back to the really old stuff:
It takes a wise man to recognize a wise man.
Xenophanes 570 - 475 BC

There’s something else about Internal Truisms. Many, like the one above not only have been internalized, but they also contain an internal truth; they not only define themselves, they illustrate themselves as well. It’s a “good tautology”, like mental onomonopea. It takes a wise man to recognize a wise man and a wise man to write the adage that may be wasted on a man who isn’t wise. If you haven’t thought about Xenophanes’ adage before, doing so now helps you to be wise. And this gets back to the way our minds work. We feel we understand best when we hear something we already believe to be true, it is positive feedback. So these deeply planted truisms reinforce themselves every time we hear them. There needs to be a word for “good tautology”: “the internal truth that defines and illustrates itself”, that works on more than one level at a time. How about “eudox”, or “unparadox”, or “antiparadox”? I like the sound of the adjectival forms: eudoxal and eudoxic.

When I read Bartlett’s, I learned something about Diogenes Laertius. A lot of quotes appear with the footnote “from Diogenes Laertius, ca. 200 AD” (not to be confused with Diogenes the Cynic, ca. 375 BC). I’ve discovered that he did what I’m doing here (and Bartlett did it after him). He compiled his favorite quotes. So here I am distilling the distillate of the distilled, like nested Russian dolls.

What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.
Confucius 551 - 479 BC


How many versions of the Golden Rule are there? Which one was first and why can’t we actually adhere to it? I seem to recall finding about a dozen variations of it (Matthew, Aristotle, and many others ).

I am sure the grapes were sour.
Aesop 550 BC


Oh boy! There is a wealth of human nature to be mined here, all from Aesop:

Don’t count your chickens...
Slow and steady...
Familiarity Breeds...
Cry Wolf...
God helps those who...
Who shall bell the cat...
Blow hot and cold...
Kill the goose that laid...

All so well known that you don’t have to finish the phrase, everybody has heard them. They’re in the special class of quotes that we can remember. So good they’re not quotes but part of the collective wisdom we take for granted. This will happen again. When an adage distills a Truth so evident to all, it gets a special place in the culture. Then, we’re surprised when someone can ignore it. It creates that sentiment; “what were you thinking?” Well, that will happen over and over again too.

It is not possible to step twice into the same river.
Heraclitus 540 - 480 BC


Nothing endures but change.

But how do we reconcile this with the following?

There is no new thing under the sun.
Ecclesiastes (ca. 950 BC? This is the time of Solomon, reported to be the author of 3,000 proverbs and a thousand songs. There were likely a few things worth quoting in there somewhere.)

Talk sense to a fool and he calls you foolish.
Euripides 485 - 406 BC
(Remember the wise man?)

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