Social mobility is preceded by literal mobility: people who can walk or ride from one place to another. Economic and technological changes (starting with the building of roads) enabled that movement, then accelerated in order to accommodate it; this in turn has made further such movement more attractive, more inevitable. Supplemental technologies of writing, record-keeping, and administrative organization (including regular naming practices and travel documentation) have also arisen in order to keep track of all the movement and to prevent descent into social chaos. The result is the world we live in, a world in which we all must ask — in a tone and for a purpose quite alien to those of the person who coined this phrase — “Who is my neighbor?”
The other day I saw my father, who is ninety-two years old, and in very poor health. Physically, he’s a wreck, and mentally he’s not much better. At his peak, he was a capable and intelligent man, by nature rational to the point of coldness. But the other day he was full of childlike fear of the darkness that lay ahead. He’s religious, in an austere way. So I knew what he meant. “Don’t be afraid,” I said. “You’re a good man, and you lived a good life.” In fact, neither thing was true. But what else could I say? I’m sure he said the same to his own father, for the same reasons, and with the same reservations. Don’t we all?
For a word that literally means definition, the aphorism is a rather indefinite genre. It bears a family resemblance to the fragment, the proverb, the maxim, the hypomnema, the epigram, the mantra, the parable, and the prose poem. Coined sometime between the fifth and third centuries BC as the title for one of the books of the Corpus Hippocraticum, the Aphorismi were originally a compendium of the latest medical knowledge. The penultimate aphorism, “In chronic disease an excessive flux from the bowels is bad,” is more representative of the collection’s contents than the first—“Life is short, art is long”—for which it is best known.
But in those six words lies a clue to the particular space aphorisms were supposed to define. Thanks to a semantic slippage between the Greek word techne and its English translation (via the Latin ars), the saying is often taken to mean that the works of human beings outlast their days. But in its original context, Hippocrates or his editors probably intended something more pragmatic: the craft of medicine takes a long time to learn, and physicians have a short time in which to learn it. Although what aphorisms have in common with the forms listed above is their brevity, what is delimited by the aphorism is not the number of words in which ideas are expressed but the scope of their inquiry. Unlike Hebrew proverbs, in which the beginning of wisdom is the fear of God, the classical aphorism is a secular genre concerned with the short span of time we are allotted on earth. Books of aphorisms are also therapeutic in nature, collections of practical wisdom through which we can rid ourselves of unnecessary suffering and achieve what Hippocrates’ contemporary Socrates called eudaimonia, the good life.
“Just talk to any Chinese who lived through that time,” a middle-aged man whose father spent nearly 20 years in a labor camp for “practicing capitalism” tells the radio reporter Rob Schmitz, in “Street of Eternal Happiness,” his new book about some of the ordinary people he encounters in his Shanghai neighborhood. “We all have the same stories.”
For not only does the restaurant review address taste, as in how does it taste, but it addresses and influences trends in taste, and fashion in food. This puts undeniable agency in the hands of the critic, the reviewer and with agency comes responsibility.