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…

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.

Dr O’Grady shares this concern about aphorisms being consumed without reflection. He notes a phrase such as “live in the now” could be viewed either as “advocating hedonism” or “from a Zen Buddhist perspective, as saying you should pay really clear attention to what is happening in the present. To me, this points up the importance of the process . . . Philosophy is an activity. So the aphorism is the end point but the working through is where the energy and the pay-off is.”

Surface tension

“Whatever the ideals you have, secular or religious,” says Dr O’Grady, “it’s important that they percolate through your life so it’s not just a surface thing. One of the reasons Catholicism has imploded so dramatically is because it was a surface thing in Ireland; it was more of a cultural connection.”

Theologian Vincent Twomey also has harsh words about the way Catholicism has traditionally been practised, citing a “lack of intellectual ferment” in the Irish church. However, he notes, “aspects of liturgy” filter “quite unconsciously” through daily conversations. People talk about “sins of omission” or “absolution”, and use Christian aphorisms when debating current affairs. “We forget, even in secular Ireland we are steeped in Christian memory.” Look no further than “do on to others as you wish done on to you”, a maxim shared by the world’s major religions (and part of “the primordial conscience”).

“If you think that [credo] through you have the whole moral law,” he says. “It struck me that a lot of the Synoptic Gospels – not John but Matthew, Mark and Luke – are really a collection of maxims from Our Lord.” But, he argues, these values cannot be taken out of context. Christian morality is founded on “love God and love your neighbour as yourself, and if the first is left out the second makes no sense”.

As for Ireland’s philosophical record, Dr Twomey believes “the only serious thinker we had” was John Scottus Eriugena, a ninth-century scholar who featured on the old £5 banknote. Yet he is optimistic, sensing a public appetite for deeper reflection: “I see the present situation in Ireland is preparing the ground for genuine discussion and study.” He is hoping to set up a forum for “Irish people of good will”.

Dr O’Grady also believes there is an untapped intellectualism here, informed partly by the “very strong philosophical undercurrent” in Irish literature. Joyce drew on Aristotle and Aquinas; Beckett on Descartes; and Yeats on the likes of Plato and Berkeley, he points out. “Philosophy is not absent but it has not been taken neat.”

He also notes “points have been rocketing” for philosophy at third level as students see it as a discipline for self-development in an uncertain job market.

Unlike many EU states, however, Ireland does not teach the subject at second level. Prof Moran says this is a serious omission: “If you look at the development of thinking, by the time people come into mid-adolescence they reach a point of being able to think abstractly. Philosophy and psychology are ideal forms of abstract thinking. You could say the same about mathematics but it’s not taught that way.

“So I would ask: where is the subject to allow people use their new-found capacity for abstract thinking in Irish schools? There is definitely a gap.”

What is your favourite philosophical saying?

“He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

– Friedrich Nietzsche

“When I went blind at 22, I read this quote in Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning, and it stayed with me. I broke my back two years ago. Now I am living with paralysis, I continually ask myself “why?”, not “why me?”, but “why am I doing what I’m doing?” And I know why . . . This credo reminds me to look forward and to fill my life with great things.”

Mark Pollock, adventure athlete

“Work of seeing is done. Now begins the work of the heart.”

– Rainer Maria Rilke

“This comes from an unpublished 1914 fragment called Turning . . . and will resonate with anyone who (like Rilke himself) shifted from country to country, city to city, living by the thrill of externality and difference, before returning (as I did myself some years ago) to a first and last world, where eye and will no longer matter, and life is the same every where.”

Prof Harry Clifton, Ireland professor of poetry

“Tóg go bog é agus bogfaidh sé chughat (Take it easy and it will yeild to you).”

“As a young child my father often told me [this]. The essence of my father’s message was that if we say ‘Yes’ to life and not resist or fight it, then life will come freely, gently and fully . . . What happens here, now, is my responsibility. It is not a matter of doing great things: it is a matter of doing or saying small things with responsibility and courage.”

Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, author and member of Sisters of Charity

“The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled.”

– Plutarch

“I feel very lucky to have received a good education and to have developed a love of learning . . .

A good education doesn’t mean remembering the date of the Battle of Waterloo, or being able to recite Shakespeare from memory . . . A good education uses knowledge and data to guide a student towards ideas of their own.”

Dr Aoife McLysaght, TCD Evolution Lab

“Ní huasal ná íseal ach thuas seal agus thíos seal (It is not a matter of being upper or lower class but of being up for a while and then down for a while)”

“It’s a proverb that reminds us that life has its ups and downs, and you shouldn’t get too caught up in things. The sound of it is great, too. I also like, Mura mbeadh agat ach pocán gabhair, bí i lár an aonaigh leis – if you have only a buck goat, be in the middle of the fair with him.”

Prof Aidan Moran, psychologist

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column