The Pithy Aphorisms of George Eliot

“Aphorism” isn’t a term we hear often. More commonly, we are more familiar with its close cousins: adage, maxim, proverb, or more rarely, sententia. But I’d heard the term “aphorism” tossed around during my time in my MFA in creative nonfiction, and have thought a lot about it since, especially after beginning my commonplace book. When collecting quotes, aphorisms are indispensable. And George Eliot’s fiction is full of them.

According to The Penguin English Dictionary, 2nd ed (a tome I usually prefer to the OED for its precise and aesthetic definitions), an aphorism is “a concise pithy phrase expressing a universal truth.” (I wanted to get a good working definition before writing a post about the concept.) But I was a little disappointed that “pithy” was part of its definition, for my understanding of “pithy” was that of being synonymous with “trite,” the opposite sense of what I was going for. Good thing there are dictionaries in which to look these things up and become a little less ignorant. “Pithy,” it turns out, “said of language, a speech, etc,” according to Penguin again means “full of meaning or substance and concisely expressed.”

“The right word is always a power, and communicates its definiteness to our action” (George Eliot).

If I had to describe George Eliot’s fiction, it would be this way: “full of meaning or substance.” Some might argue that it is not “concisely expressed” (the current copy of Middlemarch which I’m reading is 799 pages long, after all). But she is concise with her words, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph. I suppose that’s why I was assigned to read the entirety of Middlemarch in an undergraduate class in “close reading,” to study individual passages with a heightened awareness on a word-by-word analysis level.

It was there, in ENGL 3000 something, that I was first introduced to the wonder of George Eliot’s writing. I’ve long since regarded Middlemarch as one of my favourite books, though this is only my second time reading it through in its entirety, the first being in that class a number of years ago. My perceptions of the individual characters have changed, but my love for the work has not. And I think I’ve found the reason for my having loved it so much then, as I do now: the pithy aphorisms she endows her work with.

“A sense of contributing to form the world’s opinion makes conversation particularly cheerful.”

“Mortals are easily tempted to pinch the life out of their neighbour’s buzzing glory, and think that such killing is no murder.”

“A man may, from various motives, decline to give his company, but perhaps not even a sage would be gratified that nobody missed him.”

“We are all humiliated by the sudden discovery of a fact which had existed very comfortably and perhaps been staring at us in private while we have been making up our world entirely without it.”

“The wit of a family is usually best received among strangers.”

“. . . the majority of us scarcely see more distinctly the faultiness of our own conduct than the faultiness of our own arguments, or the dulness of our own jokes.”

“There are many wonderful mixtures in the world which are all alike called love, and claim the privileges of a sublime rage which is an apology for everything (in literature and the drama).”

“. . . what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.”

Most, if not all, of these statements require a keen insight into human nature, and the ability to fit just the right words together for their desired effect.

These represent only a handful of the dozens of quotes I’ve pulled from Middlemarch and copied into my commonplace book. There are dozens more flagged with sticky notes. And 240 pages left to read.

Perhaps they are even more potent because of how Eliot employs them. Like the Homeric pattern of composing similes, Eliot also tends to use a distinct pattern over and over again in her writing: first, she has her narrator give a synopsis of the character’s perspective (there’s arguably no one single protagonist in Middlemarch, but a variety of characters who Eliot focuses on to flesh out the complexity of their different interior lives). Next, after viewing that character’s interior motivations, assumptions, and point of view, the narrator often adds her own insight, which is followed up with the aphorism which hits the point home, and makes the circumstance not only particular, but universally applicable. These aphorisms are what most of my quotes from Middlemarch consist of.

But when I was going through my commonplace book, I noticed that most of my quotes in general were aphorisms. I suppose this is because aphorisms, by definition, are universal. They can be used without context, in a variety of situations. And because I compile my commonplace book without future context in mind (other than the vague idea that I might write about the topic one day and the quote could come in handy), the quotes I collect are naturally of a general nature, easy to be adapted to another circumstance to demonstrate a universal truth.

Of course, one could simply take the kernel of truth found in the aphorism, and put it into one’s own words, in one’s own way. But why would we do so?

“Do we not shun the street version of a fine melody?” (George Eliot)

Besides, essays (of which I am wont to write) are a kind of writing that invites, if not demands, that the writer reflect on experience, and arrive at understanding that could be universally appreciated. And essays historically were full of quotations.

And so, I continue to read Middlemarch, a treasure trove for personal essayists.

Question: How do you go about collecting quotes for your commonplace book?