I think in aphorisms, therefore I am Irish
Irish and philosophy are two words that don’t normally go together – except in the context of touristy T-shirt slogans, or twee “seanfhocail” once parodied by Flann O’Brien.
Ireland has a reputation for anti-intellectualism. Even The Irish Times has (until now) failed to report the existence of World Philosophy Day, which is being celebrated internationally for the 10th time today. “You can’t plough a field by turning it over in your mind,” runs an old Irish proverb, and for many this sums up the value of philosophy: as it can’t be obviously monetised, it must be worthless.
“In France, people know their Marx, Freud and Camus; people will engage intelligently with each other,” says Paul O’Grady of TCD’s philosophy department.
“In a way, we have gone from a premodern to a postmodern society without a long period of modernity. We’ve gone from John Charles McQuaid to Father Ted without anything in between.”
That’s not to say deep thinking is extinct in Ireland, however. As illustrated by the proverb above, one of many collected by psychologist Aidan Moran, there is a rich tradition of using maxims or aphorisms in public discourse. While Prof Moran admits he can’t think of too many that “celebrate the power and beauty of thinking”, Irish proverbs can contain “deeply ingrained psychological wisdom”.
Aphorisms – original thoughts expressed in memorable form – are a good place to start in evaluating Ireland’s intellectual health. Phrases from “live for today” to “let he who is without sin . . .” surround us in advertisements, greeting cards, fridge magnets and even tattoos.
This continues a tradition from ancient Greece of not just documenting maxims but plastering them on everything from paintings to pottery. Informing the practice was the idea that people could strengthen their character if, as Plutarch put it, they “meditate on coping remedies before trouble comes, so that they are more powerful from practice”.
Prof Moran agrees that aphorisms can influence behaviour – for good or bad. He notes that there are many Irish proverbs relating to the power of nature. “Oddly enough, that seems to have had an effect in seafaring. A lot of fishermen never learned to swim and may have taken that fatalistic view of life which can be found in a lot of the sayings – along the lines of ‘the sea must have her own’.”
Similarly, some aphorisms can contribute to what psychologists call “learned helplessness” whereby people see no connection between actions and rewards. “For instance, someone who is rejected for a job interview might say ‘it’s not what you know, it’s who you know’, and that could be quite corrosive, a pithy phrase being used [to justify] not doing anything.”
On the other hand, “a good aphorism could well be seen as a good starting point or end point in a therapeutic session”. This highlights the paradoxical nature of such sayings. Not only can they contradict each other – eg “out of sight, out of mind” vs “absence makes the heart grow fonder” – but each one is usually open to a variety of interpretations. Thus “circumstances always have to be taken into consideration when applying them”, says Prof Moran, who co-authored a book on the subject: Timeless Wisdom: What Irish Proverbs Tell Us About Ourselves.