June 2014: A collection of aphorisms from people called William

1Joanna Carr came to the London Mathematical Society to talk to us and spoke inspiringly about the route she took between leaving college and getting into journalism. She sent a lot of letters, spoke to a lot of people, applied for a lot of positions and did some pretty rubbish jobs (including supervising a boating lake in the local park) to earn some money whilst she sought out her dream job. The perseverance paid off and she is now doing something she loves (editor of PM on Radio 4). When we were discussing what she might say before her talk she mentioned a Shakespeare quote that had been an inspiration to her “This above all – to thine own self be true.”

An aphorism is an original idea expressed briefly: a bite-sized chunk of philosophy such as Shakespeare’s admonition above. Their brevity makes them memorable but leaves one looking for more: what was the context? In this case, exactly what did Shakespeare mean? I found the quote in Hamlet (an enormous proportion of well-known Shakespeare quotes can be found in Hamlet) as part of a longer piece of advice from a father (Polonius) to his son (Laertes). The advice comes in the form of a series of maxims such as “give every man thine ear but few thy voice” and “Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried, grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel” (which is similar in meaning to the advice “Understand that friends come and go, but for the precious few you should hold on”, part of another set of maxims delivered at a graduation ceremony and put to music in 1999 by the alarmingly talented Baz Luhrmann). This speech, which starts with an encouragement to Laertes to get a move on so that he doesn’t miss his ship and then continues for another 22 lines, can be seen as wisdom on which to base your life or, alternatively, as a sequence of trite soundbites uttered by a boring windbag. It is possible (and this is my approach) to see it as both: Polonius talks a lot of, to put it mildly, guff, but some of what he says can be interpreted in a way that make sense and is helpful for me. The exhortation to be true to oneself, to avoid pretending to be something that you are not, might be obvious to the point of trite but it’s also easily forgotten as peers pressurise you to conform. I’m not sure I’d place it above all other considerations but it certainly makes the list.

2Polonius, maybe, should have followed the advice of another William, this time of Ockham (or Occam) who is responsible for the aphorism “entia non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitatem” (entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity). Actually this is not a recommendation to terseness (which would have enabled Laertes to make his ship with rather more comfort) but is a principle of logical reasoning: it says that the simplest explanation is probably the right one. This principle is called Occam’s (or Ockham’s) razor despite not being the invention of the aforementioned William. It was in use long before he was born (in 1287) and it doesn’t appear in any of his writings (he does once say “Numquam ponenda est pluralitas sine necessitate” – plurality must never be posited without necessity – but then now so do I). The association between Occam and his razor (called that because it cuts away at unnecessary hypotheses) comes about because it is an approach to reasoning which he frequently used. It should be noted that this is a principle rather than a law (it doesn’t say that the simplest explanation is always correct) and that is has not been proved either logically (by reason) or scientifically (by experiment). In fact, a better interpretation is that the simplest explanation is the right one to use as a working hypothesis (for example, an explanation of the workings of the atom that does not require the existence of a subatomic octopus is more useful than one that does. Wikipedia uses leprechauns as an unnecessary hypothesis but only because the subatomic octopus does not yet have its own Wikipedia page.)

3The virtue of simplicity is commended not just in science but in Art. William Morris – a 19th Century artist and writer – said “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.” This is a beautifully weighted piece of advice that bears a few moments’ reflection. In particular, it is worth noting that there is a much higher threshold to be crossed by things that justify their presence by usefulness than by items of aesthetic value: you must know something to be useful whereas you only have to believe it to be beautiful (and note that this is your judgment – you don’t need to convince anyone else that it is beautiful). I think that this approach applies equally well to how you fill your time: you don’t have to spend your whole life revising for your GCSEs but when you are not then you should at least be doing something fun (rather than squandering the time guiltily watching a third-rate reality TV show or on an Angry Birds level out of which you’ve long failed to get any enjoyment). I confess that despite my admiration for this approach I find it difficult to live up to: I occasionally find myself clicking aimlessly through the internet as distraction activity from the work I’m supposed to be doing. Mind you, I have a large collection of screws of different sizes that “might one day” come in useful. Away with sloth! – I shall rid myself of these distractions.

45Another writer who advised on the correct balance between productive and enjoyable aspects of life was William Randolph Hearst, who said “All work and no play may make Jim a dull boy, but no work and all play makes Jim all kinds of a jackass”. William Randolph Hearst was a newspaper magnate in the USA from the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. His approach to journalism was revolutionary, if questionable (the story that he told a photographer to remain in Cuba despite the lack of conflict, saying "You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war”, is apocryphal but in keeping with his sensationalist approach). In later life he built a castle in California and an inspiration for the film “Citizen Kane”. His advice emphasizes the value of productive work over play but assumes a dichotomy between the two. The imagined Jim has taken William Morris’s advice in that he has ruled out all activities that are neither work nor play (we’re not told what is made of Jim by no work, no play and a lot of pootling about on the internet but presumably it’s something less complimentary than all kinds of a jackass) but he has not realized the possibilities revealed by Joanna Carr: if you are true to yourself and willing to invest in your future then it is possible to combine work and play and get paid to do something you enjoy. I have been unable to find an aphorism that encourages this approach but you could always write your own: quotation may be a serviceable substitute for wit but originality is better.