John Golden

The Deep Philosophical Roots of Shallow Everyday Phrases

You’ve seen them everywhere. Fitspo memes, status updates, ironically placed on T-shirts. But where did these everyday phrases spring from? Well …


Unless you’re a university lecturer teaching philosophy, you probably don’t go around quoting observations on life from the great philosophers. Nevertheless, there’s a desire in many of us to at least have some degree of familiarity with the ideas of the acknowledged deep thinkers from history, even if the reason is simply to more fully appreciate life or just to live a better life.

The good news is that we probably already paraphrase or channel the great philosophers, both ancient and not so ancient, in our everyday communication. Bon mots like “hard work never hurt anyone” or “all things in moderation” are examples of thoughts and ideas expressed by philosophers in much more complex and sometimes tortuous language to support their views and beliefs on life.

The general point is that philosophers have captured what they perceived to be the way to live, or not live, and then proceeded to build their theories and philosophies of life on these observations, while the ordinary people, in contrast, have usually preferred their philosophy of life in the form of slogans or catchphrases or easily remembered truisms/aphorisms. Such as YOLO.


“The best things in life are free / a job worth doing is worth doing well”

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle strongly promoted honest work as a critical part of life. Aristotle said that the value of work rests either on the worth of the thing made by the activity or the positive benefit of work for its own sake. Christian thinking latched onto the first part of his statement and pushed the value of work as that which was produced by the activity. The concept was taken up in various ways by key philosophers of the Enlightenment such as Adam Smith, and also found a place in Marxist economic thought in the twentieth century.

So, here’s how the average person might express their form of this Aristotelian philosophy: “a job worth doing is worth doing well” and “opportunity usually comes disguised as hard work.” That seems to sum it up neatly.

By the way, prominent nineteenth-century thinker GK Chesterton (the man who also wrote the Father Brown mysteries) said in a semi-jocular fashion, “a job worth doing is worth doing badly.” There’s a certain element of truth there. He’s saying that if something is worth doing, then it’s worth doing no matter how badly it’s done. An interesting idea.

Another example of Aristotle’s thought was that being a good person is living a good life if and only if that life is devoted to philosophy. He also said that to be a good person you must live a social life among other people. So statements like: “virtue is its own reward,” “man does not live by bread alone,” and “the best things in life are free” are all traceable back to Aristotle.


“A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do / knowledge is power”

Immanuel Kant’s ethics are universal in the sense that Kant’s system of morality is based on reason. Instead of some hypothetical imperative, Kant said that moral choices are governed by a categorical imperative. A categorical imperative is something that a person must do, no matter what. He maintained that it’s critical to an ethical person that their choices are based on categorical imperatives. This means there’s a universal law guiding us.

Kant was actually a big promoter of maxims and realized their importance in guiding human actions. So he’d probably give a thumbs up to statements such as “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do,” “let your conscience be your guide,” “experience is the best teacher,” and “knowledge is power.”


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“Go where the money is / business is business”

One of the prominent Hedonist thinkers – Aristippus – claimed that knowledge was valuable only insofar as it is useful in practical matters. Hedonists also believed we should live for the utmost pleasure since pleasure is the highest good. Aristippus also taught that we should be cheerful. His teachings of a life devoted to bodily pleasure and the unimportance of knowledge were distinctly different from Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. So what we take from him is: “don’t live in a fool’s paradise,” “live for today,” and “go where the money is.” These statements would seem to rate highly with Hedonists. So would “business is business.”


“You only live once / seize the day”

The Existentialist thinkers, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and his friends, emphasized individual existence, freedom, and choice. Humans, they believed, define their own meaning in life, and they try to make rational decisions despite the universe being irrational. A good collection of commonly heard expressions in the existentialist mold include: “question everything,” “seize the day (carpe diem),” “to thine own self be true,” “who dares, wins,” and “you only live once.”

So when you fall back on your favorite phrases, you’re mixing it with the great thinkers. Socrates said that the only good is knowledge and the only evil is ignorance, so live and learn.

That’s a great philosophy to live by.


John Golden

John Golden is a writer specializing in industrial relations and employment law, something he’s done for over 35 years. Now he’s a cynical man of mature years with plenty of axes to grind.

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