cherished old form of literature, the art of formulting
maxims or epigrams seems to have fallen out of favour with XXth
and XXIth century authors. From the Chinese to King Solomon's
Proverbs (nihil novi sub sole est), to the Greeks and
the Romans, to the mediaeval scholastic writers, to the Renaissance,
to Montaigne, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Luther, Voltaire, Goethe,
Nietzsche, and Oscar Wilde, a wealth of aphorisms has come down
to us: ethical, unethical, humorous, enlightening, excruciatingly
cruel, and frequently worth more reflection than many books.
Below we reproduce all 123 "impromptus" I wrote for Ex
Tempore XIII (2002). Before that, I had published about
800, and since then I have written at least 600 more. One of
these days I intend to compile "One thousand and one aphorisms"
and organize them by subject matter: human frailties, love, the
workplace, nature, the animal world, war and peace, etc..
But I'm not there yet.
War is not a given in life, but rather a crime
willed by megalomaniacs, organized by bureaucrats, sold by media
propaganda and suffered by soldiers and civilians alike. There
are no "good wars", for all are bloody, dehumanizing,
nasty, unjust and eminently avoidable.
The rule of law is more than a platitude, and much more than mere
positivism. It entails predictability, uniformity of application,
absence of arbitrariness. Most importantly the rule of law
must be the rule of justice. Laws that perpetuate privilege
and injustice must be abrogated and replaced by laws that advance
human well-being and human dignity. Some countries pay lip
service to the rule of law while practicing the antediluvian might
is right paradigm.
Democracy is not an end in itself, but a means to achieve the
sacred promises of human dignity, justice and peace. Democracy
is not just the ballot box, nor is it mere majority rule. It is
a form of government based on respect and solidarity with other
members of society. It is a Covenant to listen to all members of
Civilization is the long journey from predator behavior to interdependence,
rule of law and caritas.
Neither can we ski like the pros, nor can we sing like Met soloists,
but we can sense the divine in their prowess and vicariously partake
in that transcendental humanness. They too, Olympic
champions and opera singers, are members of our species, have two
eyes, two ears, one mouth -- and though their achievements will
also pass, we prolong them by internalizing them.
Fantasies are invigorating for the spirit, but their magic escapes
if we try to concretize them. Living out our fantasies hic
et nunc is dangerous business.
Poetry resides in us all, but only the passionate few can reveal
Civilization is the gradual transformation of the
human predator into a social being endowed with a moral conscience
and an awareness of both rights and duties. Alas, there are still
too many antediluvian predators roaming Planet Earth. How can we
teach ethics, peace and solidarity to these slow learners? That's
a worthy challenge for 2013!
Human dignity has nothing to do with “justiciability” and
less with positivism. Dignity derives from the essence of
the human person, and justice reflects equilibrium and harmony
as an expression of the intrinsic nature of things. The Universal
Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 certainly did not invent the
rights there proclaimed, nor for that matter la Déclaration
des droits de l'homme et du citoyen of 1789. These are
but incomplete compilations of some human entitlements, for surely
the rights predated their codification. It is a poor excuse
to say that a right does not exist (e.g. the right to the homeland,
the right to peace, the right to a sustainable environment) or
that it is not “justiciable”, just because it has not
been specifically codified. Lawyers have a responsibility to complete
the task of codification and politicians must establish enforcement
mechanisms that ensure real remedies.
Art evokes a transcendental meaning, transmits a vital spark. It
is not chaos, it is not n’importe quoi. So-called modern
opera productions delight in reversing aesthetic values and reject
-- quite deliberately -- the hitherto attainable synthesis of art
forms (music, libretto, singing, acting, staging, costumes), a
concept that Wagner termed Gesamtkunstwerk or total work of art.
The current fashion of so-called “director’s theater” (Regietheater)
is to allow opera directors to supplant the composer and librettist
and experiment with a kind of surrealistic parallelism – on
the one side an unchanged musical score and libretto, on the other
a different plot, a dream, a time-machine transposition. Instead
of coordinating the staging to the music and libretto, a “spectacle” is
played-out, admittedly with some tenuous links to the original
message of the opera. The problem is that the effect is short-lived,
only to become artificial, forced, boring, even ludicrous. Thus,
for instance, the new, thoroughly unconvincing production of Lohengrin
at La Scala fails miserably, notwithstanding the superlative voices.
This production reminds me of what the Germans call a Schnappsidee – i.e.
a wet idea that may seem intelligible under the influence of alcohol
(Schnapps), but distinctly less so if you are in full use of your
mental faculties. The asymmetries of Regietheater thus condemn
it to be a temporary fad, a parody of culture, not a long-term
dismantlement of art. And yet, the fad is not without consequences.
Perhaps the greatest harm perpetrated by these art polluters (who
evidently enjoy spraying graffiti on genius (Elisabeth Schwartzkopf))
is endured by the young. My generation was privileged to experience
inspiring opera productions conducted by Karl Bohm, Herbert von
Karajan etc. with intelligent staging by Schneider-Siemssen and
others. Our younger generation of melomanes is being deprived of
the opportunity of being seduced by a true Eva in Meistersinger
or Marie-Thérèse in Rosenkavalier. What a shame,
since modern technology and light effects would render the staging
of opera much easier than in the past. "Modernity" does
not have to mean parody -- or demolition. Art is the perfection
of music, staging and dance -- for instance the 2007 Mariinsky
Ballet production of Swan Lake in St. Petersburg, with Uliana Lopatkina
(Odile) and Danila Korsuntsev (Prince Siegfried), conducted by
Valery Gergiev, in the Ross MacGibbon production.
Humour delights in paradox, irony, unexpected turns,
serendipity ... It entails that felicitous faculty of seeing a
funny side in all human endeavour, recognizing ourselves in other
peoples' foibles, sensing the ephemeral in vanity, jealousy, pettiness,
taking distance, putting things in perspective --always with a
sense for proportion-- laughing at awkward situations, including
laughing at our own idiosyncrasies. Humour is an attitude quite
unlike cynicism or hubris. It manifests an optimistic mindset,
an exultation of spirit, an affirmation of joie de vivre.
When contemplating history, it is best to put aside
labels, ideologies and nationalities, because they invariably cloud
our vision, and what we think are short-cuts frequently turn out
to be obstacles. What really matters is the personal integrity
and courage, the nobility and heroism of individuals. Generalizations
about peoples or even civilizations are artificial and all too
often dehumanizing. Surely there were good Neanderthals and good
Cro Magnons, good Israelis and Philistines, good Greeks and Persians,
good Athenians and Spartans, good Romans and Carthaginians, good
Crusaders and Fatimids, good Protestants and Papists, good French
revolutionaries and royalists, good Unionists and Confederates,
good Marxists and capitalists. There are heroes and scoundrels
in every human conflict, for reality is never black and white,
as in the good there is always an admixture of bad, and even in
the bad some good. We should therefore celebrate the human being
in all his complexity and contradictions, we shoud honour his good
deeds -- not the Zeitgeist-caricature of humanity, nor
the ideological "flavour of the month".
Belief is identity and raison d'être, as human
nature requires an emotional map, reference points, defined goals
-- no vacuum, no black hole ... For our own well-being we need
to believe in something –the actual belief being somewhat
less important. Crucial is the readiness to have faith
in ourselves and in humanity, in our culture, in human dignity,
in the values of our nation -- not chauvinistically, not blindly "my
country right or wrong", but consciously for the good of
our community -- to believe in a cause bigger than ourselves,
to serve a higher goal, even if we cannot reach it. And when
we die, we can say, we have believed, and our yearning and striving
has given meaning to our lives. Wer immer strebend sich bemüht,
den können wir erlösen (Goethe, Faust II,
11936–11937). The temerity to believe in nothing may
be a modern pseudo-philosophy, but it is neither heroic nor healthy,
not even funny, but instead a manifestation of misanthropy, an
insipid form of nihilism, a petulant mood devoid of fire, devoid
of cheer. Thus, let us celebrate the rite of spring and the music
of flowers -- and people -- around us. Fe y adelante!
Learning how to love ourselves, how to forgive ourselves is undoubtedly
an important lesson for a good and healthy life. While evil and
guilt do exist, they can and must be marshalled. A guilt fixation
or obsession is in itself a fault, a sin. Guilt must be tempered
by mercy and by a sense for proportion. How else can we love others,
if we do not respect oneselves first. It should be obvious to everyone
that if we are to love others as we love ourselves (golden rule),
we must also know and accept our own wrinkles, sins and imperfections.
Admittedly, we neither love nor condone sin, but we must exercise
the faculty to rise above sin and to continue testing our conduct
against universal ethical principles day by day. Only thus can
we develop a life strategy how to deal with the reality of evil,
evil which predated our birth, evil and injustice which existed
even before Adam and Eve. We must reject the paradigm of original
sin and embrace instead the paradigm of grace and forgiveness through
the Cross and Resurrection. Sursum corda!
Every one knows the Latin maxim:
si vis pacem, para bellum -- if you want peace, prepare
war (Livius VI, 18,7; Vegetius, 'Epitome rei militaris'
3, prologue)). Surely it would be better to propose: si
vis pacem, cole justitiam. If you want peace, cultivate
justice ! This enlightened maxim greets you at the Peace Palace
in The Hague and at the ILO headquarters in Geneva (ILO was awarded
the Nobel peace price 1969). Policy-makers and civil society take
Although, in principle, history-writing should observe the five
C's of chronology, context, causality, consequences and comparison,
many contemporary historians seem to delight in anachronisms,
ignoring the context and root causes of events, indulging in post
hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies and teleological conclusions,
making truly ludicrous comparisons -- frequently to satisfy
the capricious Zeitgeist.
Retirement is too big a word; what we
basically want is withdrawal from bureaucracy, so that
we are free to do what we feel is really important. Better
old outside and young inside, than young outside and hopelessly
Law is a tool to bring order into chaos. As such,
it is a means, not an end. As a normative manifestation of power,
law expresses the will, the priorites and sometimes the values
of the sovereign. Law is not coterminous with justice; in fact,
it may and is frequently used to maintain and legitimize an unjust
social order, a system of exploitation, an uequal distribution
of resources. The maxim "might is right" reflects the power equation,
not any moral or categorical imperative (Kant) dictated by reason
or deontology. It is for the philosophers -- and poets -- to
infuse ethics into power ! It is for civil society to demand
A shockingly new idea, a controversial new prespective, an uncomfortable
new paradigm first meets with fierce opposition, then with marginalization
and silence, finally it is accepted as self-evident.
The two-party system is, alas, only twice as
democratic as the one-party system.
The war on terror is a rhetorical war just like
the war on poverty, and, alas, poverty won.
Education entails the faculty to think independently, apply criteria
and arrive at individual judgment, even when different from consensus.
It should awaken curiosity, discard taboos, formulate new questions,
seek different perspectives, engage logic and coherence, strengthen
ethics and intellectual honesty vis á vis others - and
ourselves. This faculty of independent thinking, which is the
very core of education, remains true even when we forget factual
knowledge. Indoctrination, which thrives on uncritical repetition,
deference to authority and peer pressure, has nothing to do with
Our goal can be somewhat less than trying to
change the world. Helping a couple of people is fine too.
The legitimacy and credibility of law rests on its uniform application.
Thus, there must not be any favouritism, because in law "one
size fits all". The rule of law means the rule of non-arbitrariness,
which knows no service à la carte. More fundamentally,
although justice is not identical with law, justice requires that
law be consistent with ethical values. Law should not follow politics,
but it is politics that must follow law.
Societies can be animistic, pantheistic, atheistic, polytheistic,
monotheistic -- or, like ours -- moneytheistic.
Civilization, as we know it, developed when nomads settled down,
domesticated animals, invented the plow, grew wheat and vine,
started baking bread and fermentig grape juice into wine ... O
fortunatos nimium, sua si bona norint, Agricolas! Quibus ipsa
procul discordibus armis fundit humo facilem victum iustissima
tellus.(Vergilius, Georgics, ii, 458).
A “failed State” is not just a State with a troubled
economy or with a dysfunctional administration. It is also a State
that cannot live in peace with its neighbours.
If we take more time to enjoy what we do have, we will have that
less time to belly-ache about what we still lack.
Serendipity goes beyond carpe diem, carpe noctem, beyond
grasping at fortuity.. It means winning the game and
holding on, remaining alert to fortune's many moods.
Tomorrow is one day more – and one less.
Good governance is more than mere alliteration -- it entails
applying Logos rather than legalism, practicing proportion
rather than perfection, preferring peace and pluralism over populism,
promoting justice instead of jealousy -- and in budget matters
employing more mathematics and less metaphors.
Politicians and generals go into history books. Musicians go
into the hearts of generations of grateful listeners. Wellington,
Blücher, Grant, Eisenhower, Motgommery, de Gaule, Zhukov
are long dead. Beethoven lives!
Fortunately for mankind, glory is ephemeral and fame fades fast.
Otherwise even more megalomaniacs would enter the fray and plague
the rest of us in the process.
Peace is not just the absence of war. It means abandoning the
aggressive animus and the will to exploit other nations
and peoples. It requires closing down the criminal arms industry
that fuels conflict throughout the world. More than that, peace
implies the presence of something positive -- not just an absence
of evil. It entails the presence of good will, a striving for
harmony, the exercise of solidarity, the quest for justice --
that possible dream we once read about in the Sermon on the Mount.
Good politicians are pessimists in analysis but optimists in action.
Progress depends on tempered enthusiasm rather than on
hot tempers. Met drift kom je nergens, met geestdrift
Collateral benefit is a form of serendipity – the joy of
finding something unexpected when one is busy looking for something
Human dignity transcends quantification and knows no
competition, for respect is due to rich and poor alike. The dignitas
humana has no room for privilege and exploitation; all victims
deserve solidarity, recognition and rehabilitation without discrimination.
Justice is not a beauty contest, but a conscious vindication of
There is no clash of civilizations, but rather the clash of
narrow-minded politicians who pretend that theirs is the only
Hero worship is for adolescents, convenient mythologies for
adults, caricatures for the elites, instrumentalized trivia
for the hoi
polloi -- quite a circus of institutionalized self-deception
for one and all.
The Manichaean world view lacks the poetry of nuances, of the
good within the bad, the bad within the good, the poetry of ambiguity.
Collateral benefit is a form of serendipity – the joy of
finding something unexpected when one was busy looking for something
Objectivity does not exclude poetry.
Creation is divine -- and very much human: from writing a love
poem, to composing a symphony, to inventing a flower arrangement,
to baking a cheese cake, to singing Panis
Truth is in the nuances.
Hero worship is for adolescents, convenient mythology for adults,
caricature for the elites, instrumentalized trivia for the hoi
polloi -- quite a circus of institutionalized self-deception for
one and all.
Doing always the right thing does not automatically yield the
Coping with great misfortune is sometimes easier than accepting
Failure is not per se punishment, nor does it entail guilt. Often
enough it is the guilty who are successful and the innocent who
Integrity entails living in the midst of lies and not falling
for them, facing adversity without losing one’s sense of
Self-respect often requires stoic perseverance -- even when there
are no followers.
Self-preservation takes precedence over revenge.
Some politicians indulge more in science fiction than in government.
A politician should be pessimistic in analysis but optimistic
Cognitive dissonance occurs not only in politics, but also in
human relations. How often does a lover pursue the shadow of his
own infatuation? There are many Don Quijotes still yearning for
their own imaginary Dulcineas.
War is the great destroyer – not only of human beings,
but also of values.
“Clash of civilizations” is an euphemism for the animus
to aggress others.
Human dignity transcends quantification and knows no competition.
Justice is not a beauty contest, but a conscious vindication
of human dignity
There were good guys on all sides of the Peloponnesian war, the
Punic wars, Julius Caesar’s campaigns, the “Reconquista”,
the French revolution, the American Civil War, the Bolshevist
revolution, the Spanish Civil War, at Verdun and at Stalingrad.
There is never a monopoly of good or evil in any human conflict.
The essential homo sapiens evolves slowly. I bet that Neanderthal
children threw snowballs at each other with as much gusto as 21st
The habits and expectations of modern man are scarcely conducive
to happiness. Whereas everything good that happens to us is perceived
as natural and we take it for granted, we are surprised and frustrated
over every stone in our path. We would be happier if we would
only learn to count our blessings.
When you take a nation’s past away, you also destroy its
God obviously prefers carnivores to vegetarians, otherwise he
would have given the same attention to Cain’s veggies as
to Abel’s lamb offerings.
Mankind is not peaceful by nature. Violence was with us from
the start – four human beings and already one murder!
God is not an advocate of an eye-for-an eye: Cain was banished,
not killed because of murdering his brother.
It is easier to endure long misfortune than to prolong a state
Good men do not always get what they deserve. Nor do the bad.
Commercial rivalries cause even more wars than religious differences.
Rulers can afford to be generous and enlightened after they have
suppressed or even exterminated the opposition.
Morality lessons are easy to impart after a position of force
has been secured, usually by immoral means.
Academic work is both drudgery and passion.
Not every philosopher has worthy disciples. Socrates lucked out
with Plato, Plato with Aristotle. But Socrates failed to instill
modesty and measure on his pupil Alcibiades, an egomaniac cheat,
who never understood the meaning of moderation (meden agan, metron
ariston), while Aristotle had the disappointment of tutoring Alexander
(for some “the Great”), who started as a megalomaniac
and grew into a genocidal killer – and drunkard.
Man is born into a culture and religion and has a limited number
of roles to play.
While perfectly coherent within a given epistemology, outside
this specific cultural or religions context, man’s actions
may appear illogical or even irrational. Thus, while St. Augustine
and St. Thomas Aquinas were doubtless brilliant thinkers, their
legacy is not accessible outside the Christian faith. For non-believers,
much of Aquinas’ reasoning may appear circular; to a traditional
Christian, Muhammad remains inaccessible.
True scholarship is free of loyalties.
The scholar does not root for a team but remains aloof of the
Insisting on justice often only prolongs the pain. Experience
teaches you to cut your losses and turn the page.
Dogs show immediate enthusiasm for other dogs and socialize with
them readily – size, race or colour notwithstanding. Why
don’t humans get more enthused over other humans ?
Imperialism, whether military or economic, was never benign.
Imperialism -- whether American, British, French, German, Ancient
Greek, Roman or Persian – never endeared the masters to
Realpolitik is more akin to opportunism than to patriotism.
Patriotism means very different things to different people. You
may call it a cocktail of self-deception and bravado, a form of
mental masturbation, rooting for a political party as you root
for a football team, a readiness to rape.
Heroism is a cocktail of brazenness and patriotism. For some,
a manifestation of stubbornness – fighting unto death for
a personal conviction or even for a caprice.
Genuine patriotism entails a striving for political and social
justice. It is not “my country right or wrong”, but
“let’s work to make this country just”.
The cult of heroism is a totalitarian tool.
Every totalitarian regime has its saints.
Christianity has done many bad things such as the Crusades, the
Inquisition, and Pope Alexander VI’s Bull Inter Cetera.
But it has also done glorious things -- immeasurably enriched
us by inventing musical notation (the monk Guido of Arezzo!),
inspired Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, gave outlet to
all forms of artistic expression -- from the poetry of the Gothic
Cathedral to the humanity of Michelangelo’s Pieta. The Beatitudes
will always be an antidote to despair, consolation in mourning,
hope in hope.
Religion is awe of nature plus a moral code.
Religion is more than rituals and sacraments, but belief in cosmic
justice and commitment to truth -- helping other human beings
– or at least not hurting them!
Pseudo-religion is the instrumentalization of fear for purposes
The sun shines on the just and unjust alike. In its light, justice
can be seen by all who have eyes, but some would hide justice
in the shadow of their own agendas.
Competition does not exclude caritas.
Lessons learned are all too quickly unlearned.
Asymmetrical love lasts longer
Freedom of thought means freedom from mental models and the temerity
to think the unthinkable.
Cogito libere, ergo ego sum. (I think independently, therefore
I am myself).
Liber sum, ergo possum cogitare. (I am free, therefore I can think).
Axiom: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored."
-- Aldous Huxley, Proper Studies, 1927
Corollary: “Popular myths are not necessarily facts”
Retributive justice is hardly justice when
it only reflects the top-dog/underdog syndrome. Restorative justice
offers greater credibility and sustainability if it is based on
the recognition of root causes, the mutual acknowledgment of errors,
and is future-oriented, inspired by a genuine reconciliation paradigm.
Even those who have no future do have a human
right to dream.
No one has the “right” to be a billionaire.
Great fortunes are made thanks to the existence of a market –
which is not an individual achievement, but rather the result
of collective action by society at large. Whoever benefits from
the marketplace owes it to the rest of society to share the profit
with the collectivity. This is done by philanthropy -- and progressive
taxation. Wealth is just and respectable as the merited reward
for incentive. Taking a greater share of the pie than one deserves
is but vulgar greed.
Property is a legal fiction to describe certain powers of disposition over material things
Property in rem is subject to taxation; property in personam is chattel slavery. "Ownership" is ephemeral, since we can exchange, dispose of or otherwise lose property, and after death we "can't take it with us!". Even in our lifetime, the idea that a human being “owns” a tree appears rather implausible. One may carve a sweetheart's name on a oak, one may chop down a conifer and make a chair out of it, but one never really owns the tree.
Freedom of expression is meaningful if one has an opinion to express. Opinion is based on factual knowledge and an appreciation of the various points of view. Freedom of expression would have little value if it only meant the right to echo what one receives from the media. More important is the right to think freely and to exchange views so as to develop one’s own conception of things. Thus, the manipulation of information is just as dangerous when it is done by the private sector (CNN, Fox) as when it is imposed by governmental authority. The crucial test is whether the people have the information needed to formulate opinions and take decisions thereon, or whether they are just victims of manipulation.
An art lover who internalizes a painting has more ownership of it than a person who buys it and hangs it in his living room.
Tolerance is good, but frequently patronizing.
Respect entails more: the acceptance of the other's right
to be, even his right to be wrong.
It is relatively easy to find confirmation
for a pet theory or hypothesis. What is crucial is to test
the logic of competing theories and conscientiously look for
Being is immesurably more than doing
Freedom is the choice to swim with or
against the current. Swimming only with the current misses
out on a world of other possibilities. Freedom means adventure,
even at the risk of drowning.
It is more important to deepen than to
lengthen life, more existential to pause than to rush by.
Millennia ago there was neither politics
nor law. Humans were hunters and gatherers and survived
from hand to mouth, from day to day. Primitive politics
manifested itself as brute force, but soon the chiefs themselves
recognized the necessity to legitimize their rule and secure
a degree of social stability by enacting commandments,
laws and ultimately constitutions that conferred primacy
to the ”rule of law” and were administered
by a higher caste of lawyers and judges. Gradually
a more sophisticated system of checks and balances emerged. Today
the clock cannot be turned back and no politician is legibus
solutus or above the law
Theft is not only robbing a bank or burglarizing a jewellery
shop. It is also looting enterprises through abusively
high salaries, unearned bonuses, luxury expense accounts,
overpaid consultancies and golden handshakes, plundering
stock markets through insider trading, playing casino at
commodity markets, pilfering a nation's natural wealth
"privatization", adamantly keeping the booty
of centuries of imperialism, pretending it is tabula
rasa for theft, exploiting the weak through new forms
of economic colonialism, keeping bonuses and tax breaks
given to TNCs as incentives to open businesses and then
relocating elsewhere where labour costs are lower, extorting
interest from poor nations once induced to take unnecessary
loans they could never repay.
In his Sonnets to Orpheus Rilke gave wings to
his feeling that: “Gesang ist Dasein” which
approximately translates as “singing is being”. Maybe
the converse is even truer: Being is serenade, symphony,
opera, rhythm, dance!