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October 3rd, 2020
The word platitude comes from the French meaning flat. Platitudes are generally perceived as stale truths - they fall flat. They’re a bit like boring common sense that seems to deserve more of an eye roll than any serious consideration because, the sentiment has already been taken into consideration on account of the fact that it’s grown stale from overuse.
But are platitudes good for us? And why do they grow stale?
Even more importantly, if a platitude communicates something sensible that would be beneficial if turned into a behaviour, but currently isn’t something that our actions reflect, then would repeated exposure be good, despite our eye rolling?
Perhaps platitudes are a bit like eating vegetables. Despite it being good, most of the time it just feels like a chore: 1 part healthy, 2 parts annoying.
The analogy can be developed a bit further: that new posh restaurant opens. The chef is amazing, and the top recommendation is the brussel sprouts. Wait. The brussel sprouts? This happens so often in the world of cooking. The food we eat hasn’t really changed much if we ignore the speciation that’s occurred with the onset of the chemical industry half a century ago. Aside from that experiment which is probably best typified by the birth of Twinkies and Cheez Whiz, most innovation in food - that is tasty food - is a continual reimagining of how time-tested staples can be remixed.
Sometimes the cover song turns out to be better than the original. But is it a different song? And are those brussel sprouts any less good for you if they’ve been artfully reimagined with a new set of ingredients to frame their flavor?
Those aphorisms that might be regarded as platitudes are often the mental version of the vegetables that we can grow so bored of - if not spiced up in a modern context. This happens all the time with classics translated from other languages. The times change, the culture changes, and even so does the language, and with those changes, an old translation grows stuffy and less accessible. Classic texts from different languages benefit from new translations so that the original can properly fit within modern parlance. This is exactly why it can take a few scenes of Shakespeare before the language clicks. We are so far removed from Elizabethan English as it was spoken and written in Shakespeare’s time, that it’s akin to a dialect that takes a bit of effortful listening to get the hang of. And naturally, it would be a gross poetic sin to try and ‘translate’ Shakespeare into modern parlance. When this is done, the point of the play is quite lost, because Shakespeare didn’t really write original stories - they were all themselves adaptations of previous stories that he updated into a modern parlance with such poetic skill that it must be considered within it’s native context. Otherwise the result is a Heath Ledger movie that has little if anything to do with Shakespeare.
General Insight, in a modern context is most often and most likely going to be an updated platitude that is worded and remixed in such a way that it resonates really well with the current shape of language and culture.
Peddling platitudes can easily devolve into just that. It is, first and foremost an exercise in language. The idealistic aim is to understand old principles deeply but within the flavor of a modern context so that when reworded, they sparkle like something new.