A good epigram can change your life. When Nassim Taleb says “If you see fraud and do not say fraud, you are a fraud,” it stays with you. It guides your decisions. It admonishes you to be better. When François de La Rochefoucauld says that “we hardly find any persons of good sense save those who agree with us,” it provides the same service—it gives you a nice laugh too.
Over the course of the centuries, wise people have been producing these thoughts. Little reminders about how to live, how to think, how to be. Sometimes they were collected in books, sometimes there were just said at a party and became famous (many of Winston Churchill’s famous sayings were produced this way.) There are even epigrams about epigrams. As Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote:
What is an Epigram? a dwarfish whole,
Its body brevity, and wit its soul.
The journey to wisdom is incomplete without drawing on these wonderful insights. Personally, I flip through my various books of epigrams on a regular basis, knowing that good stuff will jump out at me. I also keep my own collection of epigrams in my commonplace book, organized by section. If I am looking for a good thought about relationships or money or fear, I know just which notecards to pull out.
Below are some essential collections that I think belong in every library or on every nightstand, along with some of my favorite lines from each.
Some Fruits Of Solitude: Wise Sayings on the Conduct of Life by William Penn
This is a good little book of aphorisms and sayings from the 17th century by the founder of Pennsylvania, the Quaker William Penn. I actually liked the short bio of Penn more than the aphorisms themselves, but there are definitely some gems in here. Personally, I’m not on board with the more religious elements of the book, but his wisdom is undeniable. I actually ended up using one of his sayings—“Buildings that lie so exposed to the weather need a good foundation”— in my new book. Some good ones: “Be not fond therefore of praise, but seek virtue that leads to it.” “Time is what we want most, but what we use worst.” “In all debates, let truth be thy aim, not victory, or an unjust interest.”
The Moral Sayings of Publius Syrus: A Roman Slave by Publius Syrus
Publius Syrus was a Syrian slave in first century BC who earned his freedom and education by impressing his master with sharp wit and intelligence. These qualities are evident in his moral maxims which I consider far better than perhaps the most famous book in this category, those of François de la Rochefoucauld. Some favorites: “The mightiest rivers are easy to cross at their source.” “Avarice is the source of its owns sorrows.” And of course, extra-applicable to this list, “Many receive advice, few profit by it.”
Fragments by Heraclitus
“Applicants for wisdom,” Heraclitus writes, “apply within.” These brilliant fragments are poetic, insightful and funny. Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, was quoted extensively by Marcus Aurelius and Plato, but most of his work is lost. This book, which we are lucky to have, contains all the surviving fragments from his writings. It is about a hundred pages and I probably marked 70 of them. One of my favorite lines, and I try to think of it often, is “Character is fate.”
The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms by Nassim Taleb
Philosopher and former trader Nassim Taleb is best known for his books The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness, but his collection of aphorisms is also fantastic. Just like Nassim’s other books, it deals with decision making, uncertainty, luck, modernity and how to live in a world we don’t understand. The book’s title comes from the myth of Procrustes—an ancient figure who would stretch or maim overnight guests so they could fit into his bed (instead of, you know, fitting the bed to them). My favorite aphorism is probably this one: “Preoccupation with efficacy is the main obstacle to a poetic, elegant, robust and heroic life.” Some other good ones: “You are rich if and only if money you refuse tastes better than money you accept.” “Greatness starts with the replacement of hatred with polite disdain.” “Modernity: we created youth without heroism, age without wisdom, and life without grandeur.”
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
To me, Meditations is not only one of greatest books ever written but perhaps the only book of its kind. Just imagine: the private thoughts of the emperor of the Roman Empire, which were never meant to be published. In fact, the original manuscript’s title, Ta eis heauton, translates as To himself. And what we find is the most powerful man in the world admonishing himself on how to be better, more just, more immune to temptation, wiser. It is the definitive text on self-discipline, personal ethics, humility, self-actualization and strength. One of my personal favorites is “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” These two are also superb: “The best revenge is not to be like that.” “To accept it without arrogance and to let it go with indifference.”
Maxims and Reflections by Goethe
I’d never read any Goethe before this book but found these maxims to be spectacular. The topics range from natural science, art, ethics, literature to observations on chance encounters he’d have. Goethe himself was prolific, writing poetry, dramas, scientific treatises, novels and in the last decades of his life he would begin publishing these short reflections. Some favorite ones from the book: “Behavior is a mirror in which everyone shows his image.” “Absolute activity, of whatever kind, ultimately leads to bankruptcy.” “Tell me whom you consort with and I will tell you who you are.” The last one inspired one of my more popular articles for this site a little over a year ago.
On Sparta by Plutarch
Sparta’s unique culture of courage, discipline, resilience and frugality, has fascinated people for millennia. And we are lucky to have Plutarch, one of antiquity’s best biographers, to offer us real understanding and insight into it. This book starts with profiles of some of the greatest Spartans and then the second half is a collection of quotes or anecdotes broken down by who they are attributed to. Spartan sayings are something that has been a part of Western culture since its inception. Most of them are short, direct and to the point. Two good ones: “Being asked how one could be a free man all his life, [Agis] said, ‘By feeling contempt for death.’” “I want to be a pupil of those whose son I should like to be as well.”
The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs by Mr. Charles Clay Doyle
/ The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes by Clifton Fadiman
Both of these are good reference books to have, especially if you are a writer, speaker or leader of some kind. (Bestselling author Robert Greene used the Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes pretty heavily for some of his marginalia in The 48 Laws of Power.) I came across the The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs while researching The Obstacle Is the Way and seriously found five or six examples I ended up using. One went literally to the core of my concept: “The Obstacle Becomes the Way” is a Roman expression and it turns out—filed nicely under the theme “Obstacles” in Doyle’s book—there is almost an identical eastern proverb: “The Obstacle is the Path.” What’s great about the book is that it also provides the original source along with the context and history behind each proverb. And The Little, Brown Book of Anecdotes contains over 4,000 short anecdotes with great takeaway lines. I liked the one about Benjamin Disraeli who would offer the exact same blunt reply to anyone who would send him an unsolicited manuscript: “Thank you for the manuscript. I shall lose no time in reading it.”
Collected Maxims and Other Reflections by François de La Rochefoucauld
This is of course one of the most well known books in the genre. François de La Rochefoucauld was a 17th century French essayist and his maxims and reflections give unflinching descriptions of human nature: “Usually we only praise heartily those who admire us.” “The head is ever the dupe of the heart.” “We all have strength enough to endure the misfortunes of others.”
Strenuous Epigrams by Theodore Roosevelt
Teddy Roosevelt’s Strenuous Epigrams offer gritty maxims extolling the virtues of duty, perseverance and hard work. This is exactly what we’d expect from a man who was a soldier, statesman, adventurer, naturalist, a prolific writer and a ranchman. As H.G. Wells wrote in an essay, TR was “a very symbol of the creative will in man.” Some great examples from the book: “We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out.” “Envy is merely the meanest form of admiration, and a man who envies another admits thereby his own inferiority.” “We must insist upon courage and resolution, upon hardihood, tenacity and fertility in resource; we must insist upon the strong virile virtues, and we must insist no less upon the virtues of self-restraint, self-mastery, regard for the rights of others; we must show our abhorrence of cruelty, brutality, and corruption, in public and in private life alike.”
For the last several decades, investment writer Mark Skousen has collected hundreds of anecdotes, adages, maxims and aphorisms from the world of Wall Street. But if the theme is uniquely centered around Wall Street and investing, many of these are easily applicable across different disciplines and fields. Three favorites: “Investment success accrues not so much to the brilliant as to the disciplined.” “Never confuse genius with a bull market.” “If past history was all there was to the investment game, the richest people would be librarians.” And apparently, Warren Buffet loved this “great little book” and would “shamelessly steal some of the lines.” We might do so as well.
There are plenty more books of epigrams out there—and thousands more epigrams that stand alone instead of in collections. Seek them out and live by them (and post some of your favorites below if you’d like to share)!