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Some Thoughts About Andrew Hui's Theory of the Aphorism (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) January 24, 2020: Andrew Hui (born in 1980) of the Yale-National-University-of-Singapore College (known as Yale-NUS College, for short) displays his brilliant scholarly erudition in his 2019 book A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter (Princeton University Press). In Hui's "Introduction" (pages 1-22), he says, "My interest in aphorisms grew from my first book, The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature [Fordham University Press, 2016]" (page 18).

Hui is a specialist in early modern and global Renaissance studies. Renaissance humanists venerated the ancient languages of Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, although they usually did not study Hebrew as extensively as they studied Greek and Latin but the English Renaissance poet John Milton (1608-1674) was fluent in all three ancient languages. In any event, Renaissance specialists such as Hui are expected to study not only Renaissance culture but also classical culture and the three classical languages.

Hui has added ancient Chinese culture and language to his scholarly credentials. In his informative "Bibliographic Essay" (pages 213-221), Hui says, "I first encountered them [Chinese proverbs known as chengyu] when I was growing up in Hong Kong in the 1980s" (page 221). However, later, "As a graduate student at Princeton learning classical Chinese, I read them in their locus classicus in the historiographies of Sima Qian and Ban Gu" (page 221).

For the record, here are the titles of Hui's six chapters:

(1) Confucius: The master wishes to be silent (pages 23-42);

(2) Heraclitus: What is hidden (pages 43-61);

(3) The Gospel of Thomas: What is revealed (pages 62-83);

(4) Erasmus and Bacon: Antiquity and the new science (pages 84-120);

(5) Pascal: The fragments of infinity (pages 121-150);

(6) Nietzsche: The fragments of the unfinished (pages 151-176).

Hui's 2019 book also includes an "Introduction" (pages 1-22), an "Epilogue" (pages 177-188), "Acknowledgments" (pages 189-191), "Notes" (pages 193-212), an informative "Bibliographic Essay" (pages 213-221), a "Bibliography" (pages 223-248), and an "Index" (pages 249-261).

Incidentally, while Renaissance humanists such as Erasmus (1466-1536) and Bacon (1561-1626) studied classical texts, Nietzsche (1844-1900) was professionally trained as a classicist as a philologist. However, in the book Nietzsche Humanist (Marquette University Press, 1998), the American Jesuit classicist Claude Nicholas Pavur (born in 1952) suggests that Nietzsche is best understood as a Renaissance humanist and philologist and, like Bacon, an aphorist, which is why Hui is interested in Nietzsche. In Hui's "Bibliography," he lists 14 separate entries devoted to Nietzsche (pages 240-241) slightly more than the 12 entries devoted to Pascal (1623-1662; pages 241-242).

In connection with Pavur's suggestion that Nietzsche is best understood as a Renaissance humanist, I should also mention here Stephen Greenblatt's 1980 book Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare, 2nd ed. with a new "Preface" (University of Chicago Press, 2005). The Renaissance spirit of self-fashioning undoubtedly also characterizes Nietzsche's life and thought (up to his final mental breakdown).

By way of digression here, I should point out that Greenblatt's terminology about Renaissance self-fashioning can be extended to include the self-fashioning of orthodox Jesuits such as Pavur himself and the Spanish Jesuit moralist Baltasar Gracian (1601-1658), the author of The Pocket Oracle and the Art of Prudence, translated with an Introduction and Notes by Jeremy Robbins (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2011; orig. Spanish ed., 1647). Hui alludes to Gracian in passing (page 10). In the same paragraph, Hui also discusses the famous and learned Italian Jesuit missionary to China, Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), who wrote the treatise in Chinese that has been translated recently as On Friendship: One Hundred Maxims for a Chinese Prince, translated by Timothy Billings (Columbia University Press, 2009), as Hui notes (pages 10; 194, note 11; and 243). The Jesuit order was founded by the Spanish (Basque) mystic and spiritual director St. Ignatius Loyola (1451-1556). Ignatian spirituality emphasizes discernment of spirits in decision making, which is why it can be described with Greenblatt's terminology about self-fashioning (within the context of orthodox Roman Catholicism).

In Hui's discussion of Francis Bacon, Hui refers in passing to the American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and cultural historian Walter J. Ong's massively researched 1958 book about Ramus and Ramism (page 204, note 38). What Hui says in his text (page 109), while understandably brief, is not entirely unfair to Ong's account of Ramus' visualist innovation of dichotomies of philosophical contraries arrayed on a printed page. But Hui does not happen to advert explicitly to Ong's interpretive framework about the visualist appeal of the Ramist arrays of dichotomies in printed books Ong's aural-visual interpretive framework apparently does not interest Hui.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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