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:
- An aphorism can be “true”
- An aphorism can be “false”
- 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.