Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Philosophical Sentences

One thing I've learned in blogging is that only a few people read the posts you work hard on and many people read your throw-away posts. Another thing I've learned is that an extraordinary number of people around the world, day in and day out, type the phrase "philosophical sentences" into the search engine, because this light little bit consistently gets several hits a day, making it my highest-traffic post in five years of blogging. The post is just a list, in no particular order, of philosophical statements that are widely recognized even by non-philosophers, even if they do not know the source. I came up with thirty that I've found floating around in the culture at large in some form or other:

1. I think therefore I am. (Descartes)
2. Virtue is its own reward. (Cicero)
3. I proclaim that might is right, and justice, the interest of the stronger. (Plato, but not his own view)
4. God is dead. (Nietzsche)
5. The unexamined life is not worth living for man. (Plato)
6. It [the just state] will be possible when, and only when, kings are philosophers and philosophers are kings. (Plato)
7. A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds. (Emerson)
8. Man is by nature a political animal. (Aristotle)
9. To us, probability is the very guide to life. (Butler)
10. All men desire to know. (Aristotle)
11. Philosophy begins in wonder. (Plato)
12. Plato is dear to me, but dearer still is truth. (Aristotle)
13. Reason is, and only ought to be, the slave of the passions. (Hume)
14. Man is born free, and he is everywhere in chains. (Rousseau)
15. What is time, then? If nobody asks me, I know; if I have to explain it to someone who has asked me, I do not know. (Augustine)
16. Give me chastity and continence, but not yet. (Augustine, describing the real meaning of his prayers for chastity after his conversion)
17. Love and do what you will. (Augustine)
18. The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. (Pascal)
19. Why is there something rather than nothing? (Liebniz)
20. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be a Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. (John Stuart Mill)
21. That action is best which procures the greatest happiness for the greatest numbers. (Hutcheson - although it was due to other people that it became popular)
22. Everything is what it is, and not another thing. (Butler)
23. Truth is the cry of all, but the game of few. (Berkeley)
24. To be is to be perceived. (Berkeley, of ideas)
25. God and nature do nothing in vain. (Aristotle)
26. There is nothing so absurd but some philosopher has said it. (Cicero)
27. We go to war in order to live in peace. (Aristotle)
28. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need. (Marx)
29. Religion is the opiate of the people. (Marx)
30. Justice is rendering each person his due. (Plato, quoting Simonides)

Have you come across others? The idea would be statements that people remember either intact or with only a little bit of distortion, as opposed to simple phrases like, say, 'invisible hand'. If you think of any, I'll put them up.

UPDATE: It just occurred to me that there is room for a series of philosophical posts that took each of these sentences and explained what they meant in context, etc. These are little fragments of philosophy that lots of people come across at least here and there in their lives, so why not use them as seed crystals for somewhat deeper philosophical inquiry? It might be worth trying out, at least. Does anyone else think so?

UPDATE II: Some good suggestions:

Whereof we cannot speak, we must pass over in silence. (Wittgenstein)
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (Santayana)
There is nothing outside the text. (Derrida)
Existence precedes essence. (Sartre)
Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature, but he is a thinking reed. (Pascal)
If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him. (Voltaire)
All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds. (Voltaire's Pangloss)
That which does not kill us makes us stronger. (Nietzsche)
He used also to say...that he knew nothing, except the fact of his ignorance. (Socrates, according to Diogenes Laertius)
Everything flows, nothing stays. (Heraclitus, quoted by Plato)

UPDATE III: Welcome Brad DeLong readers! Thanks for the additional suggestions. (I'll put them up as soon as I've had a chance, real life allowing, to verify their original forms.)

For also knowledge itself is power. (Bacon -- I can't believe I hadn't thought of this one before!)
The world is all that is the case. (Wittgenstein)


  1. Anonymous3:29 PM

    "We see all things in God"

  2. branemrys7:19 PM

    I don't know that it's really all that famous, but it certainly does seem to be on a slow upward trend.


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