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Epigrams, Aphorisms & Maxims

Epigrams in quotes are authored by the people named alongside.
Epigrams marked “Pop” are modified popular quips or riddles.
The rest are mine, as are all the interpretations and comments.

Many of my favourite aphorisms come from Bertrand Russell, quoted here.



1. "Happiness is the result of outward active engagement with life and the world" (A.C. Grayling discussing Russell's The Conquest of Happiness)

2a. “Wherever you go, go with all your heart” (Confucius)

Travel with an open, knowledge-seeking mind and an empathising,
generous heart.

2b. “Trees have roots, men and women have legs” (George Steiner)

Don’t let your life get bogged down in your cultural roots. Go in search of
better things. (This is probably not the author's intended meaning.)

3. No truth without integrity

Personal integrity is a pre-requisite for recognising objective truths. (Integrity includes
the capacity to think and behave coherently and to live in tune with reality.)

4a. “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are
      the easiest person to fool” (Richard Feynman)

This epitomizes the meaning of personal integrity

4b. "Where questions of religion are concerned, people are guilty of
      every possible sort of dishonesty and intellectual misdemeanor."
       (Sigmund Freud)

Lack of integrity is especially prevalent in religion and theology.

4c. “Nothing is easier than self-deceit. For what each man wishes, that
      he also believes to be true.” (Demosthenes, 384–322 BC)

An early formulation of personal integrity - or lack of it!

5a. Reproduction is the root of all evil.

The population explosion is easily the world's no. 1 problem. People who produce many children are not only ensuring a dismal future for their own offspring, but for everybody else's too.

5b. "The Earth does not belong to man; Man belongs to the Earth."
         (attrib. Chief Seattle, Suquamish tribe)

5c. "If anyone's interested in the alleviation of poverty...the only thing
       we know definitely works is giving women control over their own
       reproduction." (Christopher Hitchens)

6a. An open mind needs a security grill...

Paradoxically, an open mind needs to guard itself well against oppressive

6b. ...and an open society needs a security grill, an alarm system,
     video surveillance, an electric fence and a pack of Rottweilers

An open society needs to defend itself against subversion from every angle
by every possible means.

7a. “One man's constant is another man's variable” (Alan J Perlis)

I think this was meant to apply only to computer science, but how true it is
of life in general! - especially when rephrased: “One man's constant is another
woman's variable” (or vice versa - see aphorism #22).

7b. “It's possible to make up your mind, but impossible to make up
      two minds”

8. History teaches us that no one ever learns the lessons of history

In particular, the leaders of important nations such as the USA and the UK never
seem to learn the simplest and most fundamental lessons of the recent past. This
epigram has appeared in various versions, ever since Hegel's original formulation:
"What experience and history teaches us is that people and governments have never
learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it”.

9a. Religion starts with belief, philosophy with doubt

The hallmark of religion is an unquestioning belief and faith in the incredible,
while that of philosophy is doubt even about what most of us would regard as
certainties. This epigram isn’t literally true: religion invariably starts with
indoctrination. (Also see 55.)

9b. "Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion
      is answers that may never be questioned." (Anon)

9c. Philosophers and religious devotees have only one thing in common -
      they both talk to themselves.

10. Truth before God, God before Scriptures

If there’s a God (whatever that means), he will be revealed by reasoned
consideration of empirical facts, not from the fantasies of ancient scriptures.
(Also see #52)

11. Philosophy is divided by truth, the world by lies

Philosophers are separated primarily by their various concepts of truth.
The masses are separated by the different myths they believe in.

11b. People are divided chiefly by their ignorance and stupidity

12. "All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second,
      it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident."
      (Arthur Schopenhauer)

13. “Morality is truth in full bloom” (Victor Hugo, Les Miserables)

The basis of morality is truth recognition; the flowering of morality is a full life
in harmony with truth.

14. “Man has no nobler function than to defend the truth”
      (Ruth McKenney)

Well, first he has to find out how to recognise the truth, or else he may be defending
lies and nonsense. Half the world's people believe they are defenders of "the truth",
but really they have no concept of truth and defend only what they've been told.

15a. "When a well-packaged web of lies has been sold gradually to the
        masses over generations, the truth will seem utterly preposterous
        and its speaker a raving lunatic." (Dresden James)

15b. "You can't handle the truth!" (A few good men)

This applies to virtually everybody, and the truths which they deny range from the very
general (e.g. that God, equality and natural rights are delusions) to the many specific
issues they face in their marriages and family lives.

15c. "Delusions and myths abound out there because it's legal" (Unknown)

I can't remember the name of this guy who was talking on Australian TV Channel 9 about
coconut oil and those who promote its alleged benefits. False stories about coconut oil could
be legally contested in principle because they depend on evidence. The delusions and myths
of religious propaganda are a different kettle of fish. Generally speaking religious doctrines
cannot provide the kind of evidence that could be used against them in court. Nevertheless
religion is illegal in some countries.

15d. Just because it’s done doesn’t mean it should be done. (Cinderella -
        Walt Disney movie).

16a. The strength of truth is no greater than the strength of a sign, but...

Language is the limiting factor in conveying true information. No truth can be
told without it, every truth consists only in what can be said.

16b. ...“the truth is in here” (Pop)

Even without words, there’s a sense of truth in the way we interact with the world,
the way our non-verbal knowledge corresponds to reality. We learn to recognise
objects, places and other people, and to relate to them appropriately - to eat
certain things and shun others, to drink water and avoid fire etc. It’s primarily
a question of survival. If we’re no good at it, if we’re easily deceived, we’re goners
or no-hopers. If “truth” eludes us, so does life.

17a. No-one is equal to anyone, but...

People are unequal in terms of those qualities and values that contribute to
their humanity.

starving children 17b. ...“some are more equal than others”!
      (George Orwell, Animal Farm)

I've annexed this to draw attention especially to the third
world and the severely disadvantaged (stimulated by a
photograph of starving Ethiopian children, similar to this
one). Their equality lies in their misery (see #40).

18a. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are
        created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with
        certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty
        and the pursuit of Happiness” (from the modified version of
        Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence)

A famous affirmation, by a very fine man, of one of the most entrenched and
outrageous of popular misconceptions. As long as people go on believing it,
there never will be sufficient effort made to understand and transform the
glaring inequalities among human beings, and to advance the levels of
compassion and respect shown toward decent people from every walk of life.

18b. “A right is not something that somebody gives you; it is
        something that nobody can take away" (Eleanor Roosevelt)

Another proposterous affirmation. Isn't it glaringly obvious that exactly
the opposite is true?

19. “Common sense is the collection of prejudices acquired by age
      eighteen” (Einstein)

...or mostly by age eight? Actually, I'm a great believer in common sense - if the alternative
is nonsense. The problem lies in what we teach our children - instead of being spoonfed
with garbage, they should be encouraged to question.  Another quote from Einstein:
"It is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education".

19a. "It is surpising, is it not, how soon in life the die is cast" (Hercule Poirot
         in Five Little Pigs).

20. Definition of a good neighbour: someone who knows how to play
      the bagpipes and doesn't (Pop)

21. Domestic woes: When will they invent -

      A toaster big enough to hold a slice of bread

      A toaster that pops up before the fire brigade arrives

      A cleaning agent that will clean grout and silicone sealer

      A bathroom that’s not held together with grout and silicone sealer

      A toilet that doesn't hit back
here for an amusing question and answer about this)

      A mosquito screen that keeps magpies and pythons out

      A mozzie/maggie/python screen that keeps heavy metal, domestic
      arguments and performances by four-year-old violinists out

      A gadget for sucking up wet hair

      Hairless human beings

22. A woman rules the roost (Pop)

This seems to be common, if not normal, in western society. It means the blokes have to
make unacceptable compromises, because their brains are wired so differently: generally
speaking, their models of reason, honesty, justice, needs, economics, humour etc are
completely at variance with the woman's (NB not necessarily better or worse, just different).
Even in most Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, where the man unquestionably wears
the pants, the woman often takes control of domestic affairs - though usually by
devious means - perhaps justifiably, considering her circumstances (See this very important
document: Women in an Insecure World. If the link doesn’t work in your browser, copy
this url to your address bar:


23. “If the human brain were so simple that we could understand it, we
      would be so simple that we couldn't.” (G.E. Pugh)

24. No perception without conception

The ability to perceive objects depends on an a priori ability to form concepts.

25. No pain without brain

It’s unlikely that a creature without a conceiving brain could be said to feel pain.
(Beware of drawing specific conclusions! While it might seem obvious that human beings
feel pain and bacteria don't, scientific studies increasingly suggest that animals quite
low down the evolutionary scale both feel pain and have some conceptual abilities.)

26a. “If human beings don't keep excercising their lips ... their brains start
      working” (Douglas Adams/"Ford Prefect")

26b. “Speaking without thinking is like shooting without aiming"
       (I was Montgomery's Double)

But how much thinking do you have to do? If you thought long enough you would
never speak.

27. “When one person suffers from a delusion, it is called insanity. When
      many people suffer from a delusion it is called Religion”
      (Robert M. Pirsig)

27b. "That's called a sense of community, Jones - one goes mad they all
        go mad" (Midsomer Murders)

28. “Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration -
     courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth"
     (H L Mencken)

29. Forgive me, God, so I can go and do it again

Religion, in particular the belief in redemption of sins, undermines personal
responsibility and authorises wrongdoing.

30. It’s wrong to eat this, God, so bless it and then it will be all right

This typifies the injustice of religion, the superiority of man’s morality over God’s,
and the utter wretchedness and degeneracy of stooping to the latter.

31. Those who believe in nonsense will rarely be believed

If a person tells you that a load of patent nonsense is actually the absolute truth, why
should you believe anything else he says?

32. Those who follow their deepest beliefs with clowning will always
      be seen as clowns

If a person behaves ridiculously (or even dangerously) in the execution of his
beliefs, why should you trust him to act sensibly at other times?

33. Certainty is the mother of devastation

Those who take their beliefs seriously and unconditionally invite disaster.

34. Prattle means battle

The perpetrators of theological nonsense frequently bring conflict and war.

35. The Olympics are discriminatory because they’re segregated,
      and still would be if they weren’t

There are competitions for men and competitions for women, for the able and for the
disabled, because we recognise the superiority of men and of the able-bodied in sport.
But if we dissolved these classes, we would still be guilty of discrimination on the grounds
of refusing the underprivileged a fair chance. It’s amusing to observe how these values
are reversed in many real-life situations. Facetious (?) questions - Why no Olympics
for the overweight, the short, the elderly, the unfit... or swimmers with feet less than
size 12? Why no Olympics for countries that spend less than $100,000 preparing
each athlete? Why no Olympics for users of performance enhancing drugs? -
considering so many athletes obviously think this is an acceptable practice - and is
it really more hazardous than some of the other techniques they might employ, or
more shameful than some of the other “unfair” advantages they might possess?
What does it matter? The Olympics, especially the Winter ones, have degenerated
into a bag of circus tricks. What's the point of the butterfly or the backstroke if the crawl
is faster? What's the point of walking if running is faster? Where's the value in all this
anyway, and why are these bloated freaks our heroes?
(Of course, the real value of the games is that they transcend most of this stuff,
as well as the animosity between nations. This is especially true of the Paralympics,
where athletes with all manner of disabilities compete. See my abysmal
Olympic song lyrics for a more "Australian" outlook! Also see here for a greatly
expanded version of these remarks.)

36. A multi-racial society? Fine. A multi-cultural society? Impossible

The most basic aspects of culture form the backbone of society, so mixed cultures
cannot peacefully coexist in a single society. One society means one culture
(in the deep sense of “culture”).

37. “There’s a different culture at each of the (TV) networks”
      (Bert Newton)

This is one meaning of “cultural diversity” I think we can all live happily with!

38. What's the difference between the President of the USA and an anchor? -
      You tie a rope to an anchor before you throw it overboard (Pop)

While I fully agree with the sentiment behind this little joke, I can think of several other
presidents who would make better fish food.

39. “God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist”
      (Mahatma Ghandi)

This isn’t consistent with some of Ghandi’s other sayings about god, nor
with most other people’s notions of god, but it’s not a bad epigram. It gets
rid of god, in any of the ordinary senses, and implies that everyone has
their own "god" stuck somewhere in their brain.

40. Their plight, the philosopher’s sorrow

The true philosopher cannot afford to ignore the plight of third-world and displaced people.

41. “Uncle Alf said he was an atheist, but didn’t have a clue what it was
      he was saying he was not” (unknown source)

Exactly! Is this why many people claim only to be agnostic? Not because they don't know
whether there's a god, but because they don't know what it is that they don't know.

42. “Men fear thought as they fear nothing else on earth…”
      (Bertrand Russell)

The meaning here is that people fear the thought of other, thinking people.

43. “Many people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so”
      (Bertrand Russell)

Some things never change! Obviously the meaning here is that people fear to think for

44. Barby - short for barbecue
     Barbecue - short for barbarian queue
     Barbarian queue - short queue of barbarians (Type C - carnivorous
               smokaholics), usually found on Sunday arvos in parks and yards
     Arvo - half an avocado
     Park - somewhere you can never find to put your car
     Yard - “Give them a yard they take a mile, Once a man and twice a child”
                (Bob Marley - Real Situation)

Anyone know who first wrote these lines, which occur in Marley, Beenie Man and possibly other
songs? Are Marley's words actually “Give them yard...”? - maybe, after all, denoting the shared
yard around a group of shacks - an important element in the lives of poorer Kingstonians and
frequently the cause of heated disputes. (For a good answer to the first question, see

45. “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.”
      (Diana, Princess of Wales)

I don't support the current concept of marriage - legally it's too weak, ethically too mixed up.
What would you make of Diana's plight?

46a. Now, the most annoying word in the English language now is “now”

Have you noticed how many TV presenters begin every other sentence with “now”?
The trend began around the turn of the millennium among female presenters, mainly in cooking
and DIY programs on one or two channels, but has since spread to the men, all channels, virtually
all general interest programs (travel, real estate, gardening etc) and all Australian roving
reporters without exception. I find this over-use of the word as irritating as it is pointless.
(Most Australian roving reporters are in fact young women who deliver their mainly trite messages
in an unbroken monotone. 2013/14 - even some front-desk weather forecast readers have caught
the disease.)

46b. “Now”: the only word in the English language that never keeps the
        same meaning

This might not be absolutely true, but it makes a fascinating point about the
meaning of “meaning”. (Of course I'm assuming “now” is used correctly,
not in the manner of TV presenters!)

47. “Ay”: a special word used by Aussie politicians, and a few others
      whose "sentiment of superiority is based upon their fear of inferiority",
      as John Ralston Saul puts it.

In Australia, the only qualification you need to become a politician is to be able
to say "Ay", as in "This is ay catastrophe of significant proportions and will
have ay considerable impact on the economy, tut tut".

48. 60% of Americans are Creationists. Proof enough that at least 60% of
      Americans have evolved from primitive apes.

49. Political correctness - a way of hiding inconvenient truths

What avoiding political correctness does not entail! .....

Dearest Fiona

It was with deep sorrow that we heard of the death of your beloved Aunt Matilda. However, we would respectfully point out that our family cat, Archibald the Great, died on the same day, and in similar circumstances.

Your Aunt’s death came as no great surprise, considering that her quaint
abode at Grubtown Dockside was a target of unremitting foreign invasion.
And her only weapon of defence was a black elastic band with a breaking
strength of approximately one kilogram.

Please pass on our condolences to miscellaneous family members,
especially her other husband – can’t remember his name – you know, the sweaty bald-headed guy who lives at Fodder Sludge Farm. Not forgetting
his twelve amazing children too.

We hope you are feeling fresher and thinner after your recent campaign
against smoked pork.

Always thinking of you.
Best wishes
Joan and Harry

PS – should you not wish to keep any of Aunt Matilda’s priceless collection
of boudoir antiques, please let us know and we will gladly relieve you of them.

50. Space has eyes, time only ears

Because of its 3-dimensionality, space carries more information than time.

51. An optimist thinks the glass is half full, a pessimist thinks the glass
is half empty, but most people are apathetists – they see neither glass nor
water and they don’t think at all.

52. Truth before wisdom, wisdom before action

53. "The truth is not overrated." (Big Fat Liar)

54. “Life and wit and inquiry begin just at the point where faith ends.” (Christopher Hitchens)

55. Religion starts with belief, philosophy with doubt, science with
curiosity, ethics with concern

56. The Earth is but a speck among trillions of specks. And man -
a speck upon a speck (The Man Who Haunted Himself)

The opposite view - and perhaps the only other one that currently makes much
sense - is that I own the universe and there are no "real" specks outside
myself.  Neither view is particularly gracious towards other people.

57. “Diplomacy is one of the most regrettable of necessities”

(Because it implies deceit, subterfuge and unhealthy international relations).

58. "There is a higher law affecting our relation to pines as well as to men.
A pine cut down, a dead pine, is no more a pine than a dead human carcass
is a man." (Thoreau)

58b. "I am sure my bones would not rest in an English grave, or my clay
mix with the earth of that country. I believe the thought would drive me
mad on my death-bed could I suppose that any of my friends would be
base enough to convey my carcass back to her soil. I would not even feed
her worms if I could help it." (Byron)

When will people begin to understand that a dead body, or whatever remains of it, is not
a human being? There's absolutely no point in spending time and money retrieving bodies
from overseas, regardless of circumstances, and nothing to recommend the belief that
graves are the right place to be commemorating past lives. People are remembered by their
works, not their ashes.

59. “Cease, cease! This sort-a has no end.” (Fats Waller)

pay on exit sign

Like this list of epigrams, most things in life have no real ending. Apart
from life itself, we draw things arbitrarily to a close. The quote comes
from the end (?) of Fats Waller’s inimitable “Big Chief De Sota” (De Sota
has no end!)
Here are some related epigrams:

“Too many pieces of music finish too long after the end” (Stravinsky)
“This war, like the next war, is a war to end war” (Lloyd George)
“Time is a great teacher, but unfortunately it kills all its pupils” (Berlioz)
“In this world, nothing is certain but death and taxes” (Franklin)                              

                                                                                          ...to be continued

Footnote (item 42).    A very comprehensive answer to the question of the origin of these lines comes from Zendam, a Moderator on the first-rate Quoteland.com website. The gist of this reply is as follows (italicised comments in brackets are mine):

The first line is a variation of the old English proverb "Whan I gaue you an inche, ye took an ell" (John Heywood, Proverbs, pt. ii, ch. 9, dated 1546). [This is actually closer to the preceding line in the Marley song - "Give them an inch they take a yard".]

The second line is close to a phrase from the Hebrew Midrash, Genesis Rabbah, 42, dating from about AD 550: "Once a man, twice a child", but from as long ago as 450 BC we find the lines "An old man is twice a child" from the Fragments of Cratinus. A similar oft-quoted phrase occurs in Shakespeare's Hamlet. [A similar phrase has also been used as the title of a book about the circumstances of John Lennon's death. Like the Beenie Man song, this is post-Marley.]

[Funny how a piece of utterly stupid Aussie trivia can turn into a fascinating time machine. Vive l'Edward de Bono!]