The genius of short form

The modern world is founded on very complex ideas which took centuries to emerge, develop and mature. That these ideas seem so obvious today to the point that their roots are often invisible to the naked eye is due not only to their success, but also to something that has been at work in the West since the ancient period: textual brevity.

Almost all the values and ideas we hold dear developed in a written environment and can be traced to foundational texts. The most cherished humanist and universalist values, political, social and cultural ideas and ideals have their seeds sitting deep within the pages of sacred and secular books of the West stretching from Antiquity to the Enlightenment and beyond.

The ancients were obsessed with brevity. Know thyself. All that is mine I carry with me. I am human and I think nothing human is alien to me. Ancient authors quoted each other’s brevity in their texts. Often, the only source we have of various figures of the ancient world are the quotes others credited them with. Sometimes whole views and systems of thought are based solely on the pithy sayings of ancient figures. The Romans loved a good quote, and their best rhetoricians were the masters of one-liners.

The medieval period didn’t leave brevity behind. One of the most popular types of texts circulating in the Middle Ages were the so-called florilegia or ‘bundles of flowers’, collections of quotes and other short-form texts like proverbs, maxims and aphorisms.

We are like dwarves on the shoulders of giants, famously quipped the 12th-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres.

Or Dante Alighieri, a few generations later: consider your origin: you were not made to live like brutes, but to follow virtue and knowledge.

Few of us really understand, though everyone knows one of 20th century’s most impactful short forms: Einstein’s formula of mass-energy equivalence: E=MC². Printed everywhere, it is as much evidence of the scientific breakthrough of relativity and the cultural shock which followed it, as it is proof of a century-old tradition of European concision and transmission by dictum.

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