Seduction by Aphorism

Seduction by Aphorism

Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.


Blake’s aphorism, one of the “proverbs of hell,” is seductive. Aphorisms are sexy. That is the cornerstone of their power. Interesting things occur when you apply pressure to these little nuggets. Thinking it over the last few days, I feel there are three possibilities:

  1. An aphorism can be “true”
  2. An aphorism can be “false”
  3. An aphorism may be non sequitur— neither true nor false.

However, an aphorism begs to be penetrated. This aphorism by Blake is in direct conflict with Occam’s Razor— the idea that nature prefers simplicity. Does it work that way? The evolutionary record of organisms moving toward increasing levels of complexity doesn’t support Occam. However, we are inexorably drawn to Occam’s principle—things ought to be simple. Blake’s aphorism is ironic on several levels.

First, there is the form—that of an aphorism. Aphorisms are not crooked, but rather a straight path directly to a thought—an improvement over a dense and complex diatribe. Second, there is the implication that genius is not an improvement —but a complication of what is already present. But what does Blake really mean by genius? His standard usage of “the poetic genius” to describe the presence of god in man points at a nuance of the word genius accessible to nineteenth century readers, but lost to most of us—genius is related to genie, or “spirit” in a metaphysical sense. Therefore, it seems, that what Blake is really getting at is that the road of the spirit, as contrasted with the road of improvement (or reason) is crooked.

Is this true, false, or null (non sequitur)? If true, why would its form so deeply contrast with its content—or, for that matter, why would it be a proverb of hell, sandwiched with other sayings of dubious merit?

I suspect that it is placed as it is to provoke thought. That’s what aphorisms do, they seduce us into thinking about commonplaces in order to evaluate their merit. This is the key. The writer of an aphorism does not confront us with what they think as much as they encourage us to think for ourselves.

Blake dutifully commented in the margins of Lavater’s Aphorisms, commenting “true” or “false” and sometimes offering rebuttals or amplifications. He loved aphorisms. I’m not so sure. I wonder if they make us fall prey to Occam’s Razor—suspecting that they “must be true” by virtue of their simplicity—when nearly all aphorisms ultimately reduce to the null quantity of a non sequitur.

4 thoughts on “Seduction by Aphorism”

  1. Occam’s Razor doesn’t say that “simple is true.” It says that, all other things being equal, one should prefer the simplest explanation that accounts for the facts or phenomena as observed. One should not “multiply entities” unnecessarily.
    Often, as we well know, there is no “simple” explanation. The “simplest” explanation is often quite arcane and/or complicated… but that version is still to be preferred over others that are yet MORE arcane and obscure, or require additional complications.

  2. I didn’t say that either. I said that given the choice of reading a long tome or a short aphorism whe are more likely to prefer the “simple” aphorism as “true.”
    However, my point was that the “simple” aphorism does require far more leaping about than a more plodding explanation. Thus, the truth of an aphorism rests in its complex nature as a machine for thought.
    Hence, there is an essentially ironic contradiction involved— a short “flash of insight” style thought is often more complex than the “complex” (using more entities) explanation.
    Aphorisms are sexy and dangerous. Occam’s razor is essentially a non sequitur, as is Blake’s proverb of hell. Pursued to their logical limits, aphorisms are meaningless.
    **I realize now, hours later, that the cause for the confusion is my abrupt shift from using ought to be true to must be true. I really meant “must” in the sense of our predilections, not in the sense of must always be true.

  3. I agree, I guess, but with the comment that it’s not a bug, it’s a feature: The aphoristic form particularly appeals to those who distrust the hierarchical binary of true-false and the single-dimensional drawings of logical proof. The same author can (and has) crafted two aphorisms which are throughly contradictory and equally true, and mean them both wholeheartedly. This may seem like intolerable nonsense (or worse, hypocrisy) to some, while to the author it seems the only honest expression available. (Vague wave of the hand here toward fictional narrative, lyric personae, etc.)

  4. Following on in agreement with Pascale’s point, in fact Occam’s Razor does not reduce complexity to simple explanations, but it is also very helpful for reminding us that complex situations can arise from simple initial conditions. If, in observing a complex phenomenon, you try to assign it a complex explanation, you will probably find yourself stymied. Simple(r) explanations are at the root of much beauty and strangeness.
    Boids, for instance.

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