Using the Aphorism to Challenge Liberalism

According to a recent survey, the average college student’s idea of Tyrannosaurus rex is modeled on Barney the purple dinosaur. Accurate portrayals in movies and textbooks make no difference: students continue to believe T. rex stood upright instead of pitched forward like the real thing.

Once people get ideas in their heads it takes very little to keep them there, and the problem applies to Catholicism no less than paleontology. A veteran professor of history at a Catholic university notes that

despite their terror concerning grades in my courses, almost all of my students completely ignore the pro-Catholic, record-straight-setting information I give them, and recite the dominant errors and mantras aimed against the Faith on tests. As far as I can determine, this is in no way due to deeply-rooted conviction on their part. Rather, it merely indicates the power of the propaganda fed them from practically every social channel since early youth. They simply cannot expel the erroneous and hostile words from their heads.

So how do we drive the historical and philosophical equivalent of fluffy purple dinosaurs out of discussions relating to the Faith when information doesn’t penetrate, discussion doesn’t help, pleading doesn’t work, and nothing we say seems to make any difference? What’s needed, it seems, is shock and awe, or at least their closest literary equivalent: paradox, aphorism, and other forms of pointed statement or questioning that disrupt settled expectations and stick in the mind where they can continue to do their work.

Among their other benefits, such verbal devices could provide snappy responses to anti-Catholic talking points. The assumptions of public discussion presume liberal secularism. They are part of a comprehensive outlook on man, society, the world, and reality itself that most people don’t exactly believe but don’t know how to escape. The result is that Catholics get tongue-tied, or give up points they shouldn’t, because they’ve already accepted their opponents’ basic principles and don’t know how to avoid one objectionable consequence after another. We need the verbal equivalent of jiu-jitsu to turn the assumptions and discussion around. Paradox, aphorism, and pointed inquiry seem to fit the bill.

G. K. Chesterton  was a master of the strategy as applied to everyday public discussion, and I think that’s at least half the secret of his popularity. Nicolás Gómez Dávila was another great Catholic aphorist, although one who worked at a less popular level. And at a higher level still, thinkers like Pascal and Simone Weil said things suitable to shock almost anyone out of his torpor.

In an age of memes, tweets, and spin the tradition of aphorisms that transfix and transform seems to have vanished. It’s not at home in a world that rejects boldness and truth in favor of focus groups and what seems likely to sell to this demographic or that. The anonymous English scholar who blogs as Deogolwulf has composed some good aphorisms that debunk the errors of secular progressivism. He doesn’t present himself as Catholic, though, and his recent compositions are all in German, so the rest of us need to step up as well.

A good paradox or aphorism requires imaginative and literary talents, and few of us can match Chesterton in that regard, let alone some of the others I’ve mentioned. Still, as GKC himself said, “if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” So with that in mind, and to do what little I can to help get things started, I’ll list some snappy questions I included in my book The Tyranny of Liberalism, and append some items a friend gleaned here and there on the internet. Others can and should add their own.

Given where they appeared, mine have to do with secular liberalism, the movement that has given us Benedict’s “dictatorship of relativism.” So they don’t cover everything we must deal with, but may nonetheless be useful against a major fortress of anti-Catholicism:

  • If liberalism is tolerant, why all the propaganda and reeducation programs?
  • If it’s based on consent, why the emphasis on judges, experts, bureaucrats, and theorists?
  • If it’s skeptical and empirical, why the demand for radical transformation of all social arrangements everywhere?
  • If liberalism unleashes creativity and emphasizes the individual, why does it make everyone and everything the same?
  • If it lets people choose their values, how can it prescribe their opinions of other people’s values?
  • If choosing my values is good, why does it become bad if I choose cultural cohesion and somewhat traditional sex roles?
  • How can “diversity” (respecting differences) and “inclusiveness” (eliminating the effect of differences) be the same?
  • What can freedom in private life amount to if government insists on the reeducation of children and radical reform of family life?
  • Equal celebration of cultures means that particular cultural standards must be driven out of social life, since otherwise one culture will dominate others. How is that different from the abolition of culture?
  • What’s the difference between saying someone has to treat beliefs about God and morality as equally worthy, and saying he has to treat his own beliefs as personal tastes and thus not beliefs about God and morality at all?

A friend has gathered other aphorisms and pointed comments from the web. Again, they’re mostly political, but that can be hard to avoid at a time when secularism makes all things political:

  • What gives us freedom of spirit without self-control is disastrous. (Goethe)
  • Liberalism bases human dignity not on having a human essence, but on having an active will.
  • When liberty is worshipped as an end in itself, it results in the vulgarizing inclination merely to do what one likes.
  • The leftist is fashion-sensitive precisely because fashion provides the stimulating novelty that alone dulls the pain and boredom of life in a Godless, meaningless universe.
  • In the absence of virtue the soul gorges on imitations of virtue such as liberalism.
  • Liberal society—forever trying to turn anomalies into the norm.
  • License is no friend to the poor.
  • The real dichotomy is not between democracy and other types of government, but between an authority based on the will, and an authority based on something transcending the will.
  • The Great Lie is none other than the promise made by the serpent in Genesis 3:22—the promise that by joining the cosmic revolution against God and His order man could become a god unto himself, defining reality itself by will alone.
  • As a lie accrues power, it seeks to obliterate any vestige of the truth that could expose it.
  • It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. (Upton Sinclair)
  • Modern Man is ashamed of innocence and prides himself on understanding evil, while the Christian is ashamed of his knowledge of evil and seeks understanding of Good.
  • The faithful believer experiences a deep and abiding inner assurance that cannot be transferred to another person and is thus quite baffling to those without it.
  • A coincidence is an event in which God chooses to remain anonymous.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).

  • This is probably good advice but, personally, I am wary of constantly using aphorisms as arguments – they are often more flashy than profound. For the same reason I can’t read too big doses of Chesterton, his unceasing fireworks tire me. And they are not always true as the example quoted above shows. Is it really reasonable to do anything badly? That’s a perfect excuse for, say, clown Masses…

    • I agree that one-liners eventually become tiresome. They have their uses though, like puncturing balloons, and I think that’s important in an age of spin and propaganda. “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” (Kafka)

      Of course they’re not always true. If someone makes a pointed statement you have to understand the point. So the point of the example is that if something’s important to do you should go ahead and do it even if you don’t do it perfectly.

      • well, yes.

        I think it is effective to make over their one-liners, e.g.

        It takes a village… to keep a man faithful to the woman he had sex with, to raise the child she gave birth to.

        The greatest anti-poverty program ever devised… was to have one man marry one woman to raise one child.

        Why do you hate science? It’s biology… heterosexual sex makes babies, homosexual sex does not.

        This is not about “who you love”… it’s about “who is going to take care of the babies?”

      • Bono95

        Yeah, Dale Ahlquist said that the “worth doing badly” quote is often misinterpreted. Chesterton was referring to honest amateurs, not sloppy workers.

    • tom

      Social liberalism just makes everyone…except our “ruling elites”….weaker. I do agree with you about clowns. Everyone knew it was nuts at the time…mostly child molesters.

  • tom

    Kalb’s great. Well done. The ‘battlefield” seems to be mostly with women, adults and girls. Like a “Catholic” Pelosi or Sebelius, they are our social liberals, social libertines, if you will. They WANT and DEMAND a strong central government and weak individuals…after all, they LIKE being weak if it gives them $$$ from others, advancement beyond their abilities…by quota, preferably…. and the assurance that the so-called social safety net will catch them every time. They’re also oblivious to complaints about abortion because that’s just another “right” they own. Obligations? “Ask that SOB over there; he’s two weeks behind on child support.”

    • Micha_Elyi

      “…a ‘Catholic’ Pelosi or Sebelius… WANT and DEMAND a strong central government…”

      Unless it’s a strong central diocesan government ruled by a faithful bishop.

      Archbishop Cordileone, where are you?

  • MarkRutledge

    Alas, this is what our society has become. I have an affinity for old newspapers, and one of the sections I seek is Letters to the Editor. A generation ago, published letters consisted of several paragraphs of a well thought-out argument. Even if the conclusion was disagreeable,at least the rules of informal logic and rhetoric were largely followed. We now live in a world driving towards what can be expressed in 140 characters or less. The aphorism, or more often the “snark,” has come to dominate all forms of public discourse, especially in forums such as what I use here. This struck home yesterday as I read a letter to the editor in the WSJ written by a professor at Princeton, which consisted of little more than sarcastic statements and personal insults towards an editorial writer from an earlier edition. This is the playing field, folks. This is where the game is to be won or lost, like it or not.

    • Theorist

      A few words can be convincing and can deliver right-of-center messages. After all it was the Spartans who were masters of “laconic ” speaking.

  • cnb

    “A spirit of
    innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper, and confined views.” –
    Edmund Burke

  • hombre111

    “Once people get ideas inside their heads, it is very easy to keep them there.” And very difficult to dislodge them. This is what keeps conservatives going. For instance, the death of twenty children in Sandy Hook did nothing to change the minds of the conservative gun nuts, who still image that a dictatorship is about to take over our country. And why is the argument about Obama’s birth certificate going on and on? Or the belief that austerity is the way to financial recovery even though that idea has been disproved again and again and is now creating a disaster in Britain and Europe?
    My point is, Liberals are not the only one stuck in a mindset. Both liberals and conservatives are trapped by tribe-think.

    • tom

      Glastonburg, Connecticut – Two homosexual men will stand trial on allegations that they raped at least two of their adopted children after they withdrew a plea deal under the direction of their attorneys.

      George Harasz, 49, and Douglas Wirth, 45, were arrested in November 2011 after two of their nine adopted sons, ages 5 and 15, accused the men of repeatedly raping and abusing them.

      Three of their other adoptees have since come forward. So much for “gay” marriage.

      Then, there are guns: Want to have the state control them more closely? Simple, amend the Constitution. Our founding Fathers were pretty bright and fought off weapons confiscation by their rulers to win the American Revolution.

    • cestusdei

      So we just had a bombing in Boston. Shall we outlaw bombs? Oh, they are already outlawed? Gee, that worked eh? The bomb was made from a pressure cooker. Ah, so let’s outlaw pressure cookers and we will have solved the problem.

      I am deep in debt and cannot pay it off. Ah, but the solution is to borrow more money. Problem solved.

      Hombre, you are a perfect example of the articles main point.

  • cestusdei

    I try the Socratic method. I ask students about a TV program that they, and I, have watched. I challenge them to look at the message. For example MTV says to rebel against the corporate system, but is a corporation that uses that message to sell them stuff. I tell them if you want to be radical then be Catholic

    • Billy Bean

      “Stick it to the man.” What corporate shill is responsible for that ubiquitous aphorism?

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  • poetcomic1 .

    I am a traditional Catholic and one of the few modern aphorists in the Bloomsbury Press book “GEARY’S GUIDE TO THE WORLD’S GREAT APHORISTS” . To be a modern aphorist is an absurdly useless skill, I assure you that I’m quite used to the sneer of the lackey’s lackeys (creative writing students who scan slush piles of literary magazines) and mostly write for my own amusement. Just thought, since you are on this (rare) subject that I would share some:

    Shallowness spreads.

    Intelligence includes and excludes; ignorance precludes.

    Those who claw to the top seldom appreciate the view.

    The most powerful emotion – indifference.

    Cynics taste life, spit it out and die of hunger.

    Youth’s unshakable irresolution.

    Each morning, there’s a little more of me and a little less.

    Men may live for pleasure but are ashamed to die for it.

    From high in the cheap seats, all plays are about tiny people.

    Agnosticism: an attempt to drown in fog.

    Nature has laws, but, deo gratias, no lawyers.

    How eagerly one jettisons that ‘last shred of dignity’.

    • Bono95

      Those are some awesome aphorisms, Poetcomic1. Thanks for sharing.

  • Naresh Krishnamoorti

    The greatest aphorist was Nicolas Gomez Davila. The Don Colacho blogspot provided a huge service in translating his aphorisms into English. However, the content in no longer available. This is a huge tragedy.

    • If it was gone it’s back. Follow the link above.

  • Bono95

    “Impartiality is a pompous name for indifference, which is an elegant name for ignorance” G.K. Chesterton

    “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king” Erasmus of Rotterdam

    “Spread the Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words” St. Francis of Assisi

    “If you’re going through hell, keep going” Winston Churchill

    “I verily think that a man buyeth hell here with so much pain that he might have heaven with less than one half” St. Thomas More

    “Not everything that is more difficult is more meritorious” St. Thomas Aquinas

    “It is possible to fail in many ways, while to succeed is only possible in one way” Aristotle

    “Occupy your minds with good thoughts, or the enemy will fill them with bad ones. Unoccupied, they cannot be” St. Thomas More

    “When learned men begin to use their reason, then I generally discover that they haven’t got any” G.K. Chesterton

  • crakpot

    I like article like this that give us some practical thing to do, rather than just exposing another problem. The alternative media has already done a very good job of exposing the problem – we need solutions.

    The voice of conscience is the only voice that can reach everybody. People hang on to erroneous ideas not just out of habit or laziness – these ideas insulate them from that nagging voice. They are necessarily self-contradictory (truth cannot contradict truth), so paradox and aphorism can open a crack in their insulation.

    The preamble to the Declaration is a statement of conscience about matters political, and the Constitution follows it. The typical defense against these self-evident truths is that the founders were a bunch of white slaveholders. The contradiction in this I like to point out is that these people believe it impossible for the voice of conscience to flow through the pen of a remorseful slaveholder, but believe the truth must infallibly flow through the teleprompter of a forceful defender of partial birth abortion and sodomy, unrepentant about his own “enthusiastic” drug use.

  • Cleanthes

    Well done, Mr. Kalb.

    I was just discussing this point with a colleague. All the arguments in the world will not work until you actually make people uncomfortable, putting them on their heels, as it were. It’s important to make *them* do the intellectual work. In reference to the problems of the family, for instance, I wonder if simply hitting people in the face with connections they wouldn’t normally make might help:

    Feminism: bringing you class division, loneliness, and criminality.

    Yes, it’s a mere slogan, but it has at least the capacity to outrage, and get people running at the mouth in an attempt to justify themselves.

    Conservatives need to remember that things seeming obvious to us are now entirely alien to most western people, and we must act somewhat as saboteurs.

    • tom

      Why not? Nothing wrong with muscular Christianity.

    • Theorist

      There is nothing like a good catastrophe to awaken a people. America has always been free of catastrophes relative to other nations, for it exists as a unified empire separated from the great powers by oceans. Unfortunately real change can only occur once America has tasted a true Catastrophe -then dream-dashing reality will be in charge and not the pathological “ideologies” of today. Sadly, I do not expect the good will escape from the fate of the bad either, as Our Lady has enunciated on several occasions.

      I’m actually a really cheery person in real life.

  • hombre111

    Most of the aphorisms here are an excuse for a lack of thought. Like, When did you stop beating your wife?

    • Micha_Elyi

      You are presuming a fact not in evidence. Or were you projecting?

    • Bono95

      Who’s beating his wife here?

    • cestusdei

      Yeah, Chesterton was pretty dumb eh?

  • The vices that addle the rich devastate the poor. (via Lord Acton)
    There is no such thing in human affairs as freedom without fatherhood.
    All men obey — either the God who sets them free, or the one below who enslaves. There is no third choice.
    Envy, not love, speaks the language of equality. Love speaks the language of gratitude.
    Praise in man is the image and likeness of grace.
    Life without God is like a world without a sky; a prison, with a low ceiling.
    The tolerant man bears with great wrong; the apathetic man ignores the wrong, and hugs himself for it.
    If you seek the beauty of diversity, look to the saints.
    Modern man calls himself broadminded, when he is but inattentive and indifferent.
    Every relativist ceases to be so when he catches his mechanic overcharging him by ten dollars.
    Relativism is nihilism for weaklings.
    One cannot utter the sentence, “I see the dog,” without assuming truths that cannot be discerned by the materialist.
    Every day of the year the secular academy does a hundred times more by way of meanness and the stifling of thought than the Church did to Galileo — and without sentencing its convicts to live in a diplomatic villa in Florence.
    Scratch a leftist academic, find a snob, afraid of both the businessman and the carpenter.
    Feminists hate happily married women even more than they hate happily married men.
    There is no law without a lawgiver.
    The joy of faith can swallow up all the sorrow in life; but no amount of pleasure can brighten a life without God. All it does is lend a sad bittersweet glow; and then comes night.

    • Bono95

      Where’d you get all the aphorisms, Mr. Esolen? They rock! My favorite is the saints illustrating the true beauty of true diversity, but all the otherw are very close runners-up.

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  • Theorist

    The problem with defeating liberalism with aphorisms is that it presumes that liberalism is an idea and not an aesthetic pose or feeling. That is why, over the many years, it has proven impossible to use even the slightest logic to defeat it (for instance, in showing the contradiction between intolerant tolerance or the idea of freedom of choice as a guiding ethic for decision making).

    Granted there are many ways, in the abstract to defeat liberalism as I have defined it however, in the concrete, I don’t see very many ways out of the liberal philosophy. For instance, the Bible is filled with very insightful aphorisms however, it not because they are unreasonable that such aphorisms will not gain currency but rather because these aphorisms point to a new way of life which is institutionally and spiritually alien to the liberal view, as it exists in America at least. In some ways, traditional Catholicism is a repudiation of the whole ethos of “America”.

    That is one reason why I previously endorsed utilizing libertarianism since it is merely the liberal aesthetic “on steroids” and therefore a far more confusing and intellectually painful movement for liberals; it totally baits them into looking like those fascists they so hate. What liberalism is to us, libertarianism is to liberalism.

    But if there are other ways to solving the problem I’m open for it.

    Ideas are like food for the mind, and this is especially true because
    even the Bible likened Christianity to spiritual milk or meat.
    Liberalism then is junk food because it confuses the body into believing
    that because it is sweet then it is healthy. No matter how unhealthy a
    person becomes in the interim, he still does not know that it is the
    poison, in the guise of pleasure, that is the source of his problems.
    Religious conservatism is like healthy food; it has the disadvantage of
    tasting bad but being good for you. So the question becomes “how does
    one dress up good food”? And that’s where my libertarianism came in.

  • Bono95

    “There are not a hundred people in the world who hate the Catholic Church, but there are thousands who hate what they mistakenly believe the Catholic Church to be” Fulton Sheen

    “Always do sober what you said you would do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut” Ernest Hemingway

    “Sometimes it’s hard to tell the game shows from the televangelists” Sting

    “The family is one of nature’s masterpieces” George Santayanna

    “All men commend patience, though few be willing to practice it” Thomas a Kempis

    “It is no small gain to know your own ignorance” St. Jerome

    “It is terrible to contemplate how few politicians are hanged” G.K. Chesterton

    “By experts in poverty, I do not mean sociologists, I mean poor men” G.K. Chesterton

    “It’s smarter and cheaper to make friends now than it is to defend yourself against enemies later” Bono

    “Charity to the deserving is not charity” G.K. Chesterton

    “Money doesn’t talk, it swears” Bob Dylan

    “Every difficulty slurred over will be a ghost to disturb your repose later on” Fredric Chopin

    “Always tell a king what he OUGHT to do, NEVER what he is ABLE to do” St. Thomas More

    “To be short, as he is a foolish physician that cannot cure his patient’s disease unless he cast him in another sickness, so he that cannot amend the lives of his subjects but by taking from them the wealth and commodity of life, he must needs grant that he knoweth not the feat how to govern men” St. Thomas More

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  • write2think

    Before there can be aphorism there must be vocabulary! Doublespeak and obfuscation have bankrupted the language. It’s impossible to speak of “good” when good means essentially “what I want at the moment.” Students first need to define their terms.

  • Billy Bean

    I have often heard it said (and once believed) that “we’re not out to win arguments; we’re out to win souls.” That seems to be the point behind this piece: Use the opponents’ weapons against them in order to win their souls, even if this means resorting to the same “bumper sticker” mentality by which liberal secularists are brainwashing our children and grandchildren. Sorry, but I can’t buy it. If we can’t win the soul BY MEANS OF winning the argument, then we’re winning the prize dishonestly and converting people to a kind of fraud. We cannot substitute mindless catch-phrases for well-argued propositions, even if our opponents seem to be doing this successfully. On the other hand, several of these “aphorisms” are actually almost self-evident truths which I would employ without compunction, and several are illuminative insights which could (dare we hope for it?) provoke real thought. But spiritual warfare, as a specifically Christian endeavor, must be fought according to the Rules, even if this means putting ourselves at a disadvantage. Consequentialism has no place in Catholic apologetics.

  • Billy Bean

    “Consequentialism has no place in Catholic apologetics.” Pretty good aphorism, eh?

  • montanajack1948

    Re: “despite their terror concerning grades in my courses, almost all of my students completely ignore the pro-Catholic, record-straight-setting information I give them, and recite the dominant errors and mantras aimed against the Faith on tests. As far as I can determine, this is in no way due to deeply-rooted conviction on their part…”

    Perhaps a professor who can’t manage to set his/her students straight and correct their errors, even though those errors are “in no way due to deeply-rooted conviction”, isn’t doing a very good job? Of course, it is hard to overcome a steady diet of “propaganda,” as my early years in Catholic schools proved; but it’s not impossible, as my life since then has demonstrated.

    As for your list of challenging aphorisms, and just to take one at random: “If liberalism unleashes creativity and emphasizes the individual, why does it make everyone and everything the same?” You’ve got me stumped, sir–when did everyone and everything become the same and why is, when I look around, I still see all sorts of differences?

  • Craig Wash

    How about printing some of these gems on t-shirts?