Seductive, elegant, practical, impactful… our daily life is teeming with short formulas of wisdom picked up in tradition, borrowed from a thinker or passed down through the family. But aren’t these precepts too beautiful to apply? Or do they have a role to play? Philosophers and psychologists are considering the question.
Alexandre L’Archevêque, psychologist and professor at the University of Quebec in Montreal (UQAM), notes that many patients regularly resort to such maxims, repeated faithfully or altered. The Voltairean quote “Time softens everything” and its derivatives would be particularly common. The university distinguishes several roles.
“It’s not necessarily conscious, but it will serve to keep what’s disturbing at bay, a kind of defense to escape from certain difficulties, like the door of a closet that we close,” says Mr. The Archbishop.
Another potential of aphorisms: nurture rationalization, “immediate justification for what one is experiencing to help oneself tolerate it”. For the psychologist, this process can be useful, although insufficient. He holds up the example “What does not kill me makes me stronger” (Nietzsche), useful for facing adversity and perhaps even profiting from it. “Rationalization is in itself soothing,” says L’Archevêque, also evoking the potential for meaning that they can instill in our experience, our actions or our identity.
“It can be used to organize our experience, which can help with existential positioning, situating oneself as a subject in the world, clarifying or constructing aspects of identity, giving orientation to motivation” , lists one who is fond of the ancient phrase Memento mori (“remember that you are going to die”).
Beyond their strengths, these thoughts are not magical. The psychologist encourages us to see them as an invitation to reflection. And it is not Vincent Philippe Guillin, director of the philosophy department at UQAM, who will contradict him.
Whether the aphorisms are descriptive (“You never bathe in the same river twice”) or in the form of injunction (the famous Socratic “Know thyself”), using them requires caution.
“It’s an old way of thinking, but it hides a number of truths,” continues the philosophy professor. Behind the appearance of transparency and evidence, there is a work of reflection to be done. »
To illustrate this, let us unearth Nietzsche, fond of aphorisms, while maintaining a critical stance towards them; he maintains in particular that the blind application of these principles, devoid of decipherment, would be aberrant. “For him, great minds are those able to dissect these sometimes impenetrable words, taking their incompleteness or their obscurity with the will to dig into them. If you receive it passively, like a ready-made recipe for your life, you hardly understand anything about it, ”explains Mr. Guillin, stressing that the German thinker considered the cow to be the most representative animal of philosophy. . For what ? Because she ruminates, as we should knead our thoughts.
As an example, the professor invokes the very popular Carpe diem, taken from the Odes of Horace, usually associated with a culture of immediate unbridled pleasure, without worrying about tomorrow. However, a more detailed examination of the history of this maxim shows that, if it is indeed a question of hedonism, this Epicurean version does not invite to an enjoyment without limits, but rather not to fear death and to “gather the day” – its literal meaning. “If you think about it, a successful life might be one in which you are able to enjoy the best in a day…or in a life. To seize the day is to seize what is in our power, which will satisfy us as lastingly as possible, which will allow us to elevate ourselves,” explains Mr. Guillin.
The English philosopher John Stuart Mill is another figure who invites us to take sayings with a grain of salt. Those resulting from custom, despite their beneficial potential for our life choices, cannot be applied universally, because of the many differences between beings. At the same time, he warns against quotes taken from the great figures of history: “Often it is the synthesis of their personal experience, but we are not Napoleon or Marie Curie. What may be true for them may not be true for us,” Guillin sums up.
Finally, let us note the Norwegian thinker Jon Elster who, in his works (Proverbs, maxims, emotions, Alchemies of the Mind), questions the contrary nature of certain proverbs and sayings, such as “Out of sight, out of mind” opposing “Absence makes people dearer”. “For Elster, sayings highlight causal patterns, which are generalities, but to have informative value, one must know under what circumstances or conditions they operate,” emphasizes Vincent Philippe Guillin.
A philosophy teacher at the University of Montreal, Christine Tapolet also refers to Elster. Does she herself find that maxims and sayings can be helpful? ” Absolutely. But they can also be harmful if we cling to them against all common sense, when we would have good reason to question them, “she nuances, underlining their conciseness and their simplicity facilitating their implementation, as well as the close connection with the identity of the one who adopted a particular mantra. “It can express certain values of an individual and therefore is strongly linked to their emotional reactions,” says Ms. Tappolet.