Noel Wien Library’s under consideration for remodeling to become more tech and people friendly. That brings to mind the adage “a stitch in time saves nine,” for some heroic tailoring (aka “planning”) was needed when the library was renovated in the late 1990s. To replace the carpet, everything had to be moved; a local elementary teacher’s class deduced that the library’s 350,000 books and other materials weighed as much as 26 African elephants. Moving that tonnage as few times as necessary, while keeping open for business, were imperatives, and ultimately everything was shifted at least six times.
Books are dusty creatures, so portable vacuums were needed to clean them as they were relocated. Moreover, the carpet installation plan required placing the books in their new locations starting at both ends of the building simultaneously and working towards the middle. Our stellar library staff did it without a misstep, without moving 26 elephants yet again.
The “stitch in time” adage caused me to wonder about the distinction between adages, axioms, mottoes, sayings, idioms and proverbs. Macmillan Dictionary says an adage is “a well-known phrase that says something about life and the human experience” (e.g. “a penny saved is a penny earned”); a proverb is “a short, well-known statement giving practical advice” (e.g. “dog is man’s best friend”); an axiom is “a statement generally believed to be true” (e.g. “readers are more successful in life”); and an epigram is “a short poem or sentence that expresses something such as a feeling or idea in a short and clever or funny way” (e.g. “If we don’t end war, war will end us”). All seem quite similar.
Shakespeare said “Brevity is the soul of wit,” and his near contemporary, the French writer Francois La Rochefoucauld, achieved literary immortality by specializing in the maxim “a succinct formulation of a fundamental principle, general truth, or rule of conduct.” Maxims are like aphorisms (a synonym for proverbs that are short and impart important moral lessons). La Rochefoucauld did more than compose maxims; he was a veteran soldier, known for his bravery, who sustained severe wounds during the Fronde of 1648-53, a series of civil wars in France over the king’s efforts to minimize the power of the nobles. “Fronde” is French for “sling,” deriving from the Parisian mobs who used slings to smash the rulers’ expensive windows.
“La Rochefoucauld was more vulnerable than most of his contemporaries,” according the Encyclopedia Britannica, “because throughout his life he seems to have been susceptible to feminine charm. In 1635 the Duchess de Chevreuse had lured him into intrigues against Cardinal Richelieu” leading to “a humiliating interview with Richelieu, eight days of imprisonment in the Bastille, and two years of exile.” Then there was Anne de Bourbon, Duchess de Longueville, who roped him into active fighting against the crown. “The injuries to his face and throat were such that he retired from the struggle, his health ruined and his peace of mind lost.”
In 1655, La Rochefoucauld fell under the spell of a less malignant lady, Madeleine de Souvre, the Marquise de Sable, who hosted a famous literary salon popular among the French elite. They listened to and debated the meanings of classics and poetry and enjoyed a game of writing and discussing epigrams — poems or sayings expressing feelings or ideas “in the briefest, most pungent manner possible” (aka “maxims”). Here La Rochefoucauld excelled and, in 1665, published a collection titled “Maximes.” Many remain politically and socially relevant, including “Hypocrisy is a tribute that vice pays to virtue”; “No man is clever enough to know all the evil he does”; “Flattery is base coin to which only our vanity gives currency”; and “Men would not live long in society were they not the dupes of each other.”
His maxims certainly sound like they came from someone who’d seen a lot of life and lost a few battles along the way. As does this passage from his essay “Moral Reflections”: “Self-Love is the Love of a man’s own Self, and of everything else, for his own Sake. It makes People Idolaters to themselves, and Tyrants to all the World besides,” “Old age is a tyrant who forbids, under pain of death, the pleasures of youth.”
But I reckon it’s like La Rochefoucauld said, “If we had no faults, we would not take so much pleasure in noticing those of others.”
Greg Hill is the former director of Fairbanks North Star Borough libraries. Contact him at 479-4344.