Aphorisms are short, pithy sayings that can be used to communicate a key idea in a short space. They have the big advantage of being easy to engage with and remember, and the big disadvantage of being open to a wide variety of interpretations.

Some thinkers that I have been inspired by to varying degrees, such as Nietzsche, Blake and Sangharakshita, have made interesting uses of aphorisms, and they can be used as the seed of a practice of reflection. The whole point is that they are not fully explained, but one is invited to do the explaining for oneself, by turning it over and seeing how it relates to one’s own experience. Whatever they are, aphorisms are not ‘truths’, and I cringe when people put aphorisms on Facebook and others writeMSW4 ‘so true’ underneath. Rather they are concentrated distillations of generalised experience, which may possibly relate to your own.

So, I thought I would try my hand at some aphorisms about Middle Way Philosophy. I will be interested to know if they are at all useful. Some of them may err on the side of stating the obvious, others by being over-provocative. Perhaps a few will hit the middle!


There is only one Middle Way, but many middle ways.


There is no such thing as extreme scepticism, only selective use of it.


Love the truth, but do not swear by it.


Truth is like a spouse: we need robust commitment without complete possession.


Relativising truth is like chopping up your beloved.


Art is an integration of meaning.


Metaphysics, like an offensive term, should be mentioned but not used.


Your metaphysical beliefs are only one type of tree in your mental forest.


There is no justification without ignorance.


Compassion is not adequate unless it is equally wisdom.


Every utterance is a metaphor.


There are no meaningless symbols.


To be good is to be adequate.


The fulfilment of every ethic requires the Middle Way.


Every fact is also a value, and every value also a fact.


The macrocosm resembles the microcosm in composition, not in substance.


There is only one cognitive bias.


If God was really dead, Nietzsche wouldn’t have needed to tell us about it.


If you can’t incrementalise it, you haven’t understood it.


Aphorisms are lozenges, not truths.

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

6 thoughts on “Aphorisms

  1. Interesting. With ‘There is only one cognitive bias’. Is that ‘jumping to a conclusion’?

    As you say, some of them are quite straightforward, the one’s I found more obscure are:

    Relativising truth is like chopping up your beloved.
    If God was really dead, Nietzsche wouldn’t have needed to tell us about it.

    I’ll need to think about those a bit more.

    Also, ‘To be good is to be adequate’ jars somewhat, maybe because it’s often seen as having a similar meaning to ‘average’.

    1. Hi Barry, I’ve spent about the last six months, and considerable study of psychological literature, reaching that conclusion about cognitive biases, so I don’t think I’ve jumped to anything there. You should be able to read the full evidence shortly.

      The relativising truth one gets its sense from the previous one about truth being like a spouse. With the God one, think about God as archetypal meaning as opposed to as a belief, and the implications of that. ‘Adequacy’ is just a useful word for making the best use of the resources available in the conditions we face: it wasn’t intended to evoke school inspectors (or others for whom ‘satisfactory’=’adequate’=bad because the glass is half empty) – though I take some satisfaction in implicitly challenging that kind of use of ‘adequate’.

      1. Thanks for that. You misunderstood me regarding the first one but on reflection I can see why you did! What I was suggesting is that all cognitive biases are about jumping to conclusions. Is that however just stating the obvious?

      2. Sorry, Barry. Yes, ‘jumping to conclusions’ would be one way of putting it. ‘Absolutising’ would be my way of summarising what all cognitive biases have in common. That doesn’t seem to be very obvious to most people.

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