SELECTED SAYINGS OF KENNETH BURKE
Here are some of the many aphorisms — what Burke calls ‘Flowerishes’ — which are scattered throughout his Collected Poems (a volume which unfortunately has been out of print for many years). I have here chosen the ones that I find myself quoting most often. Please note that Burke’s ‘Flowerishes’ are not offered as solemn philosophical statements: rather they show him thinking aloud, trying out ideas, in the spirit of what he calls ‘the comic frame of acceptance’. (For more on this perspective, see longer quotations below.)
Even humility can go to one’s head.
At the very start, one’s terms jump to conclusions.
When he didn’t fight other people, he fought himself — and boy, could he fight dirty!
We always avoid being stupid like other people by being stupid in ways of our own.
Must it always be wishful thinking? Can’t it sometimes be thoughtful wishing?
If you can learn to benefit from adverse criticism, your enemies will work for you without pay.
When people started agreeing with him he lost all his convictions.
This job is so top secret I don’t know what I’m doing.
Though he despised mankind, he dearly loved an audience.
He resolved always to wait two weeks before committing suicide.
He felt it was alright to do like the others, if only he did it with a bad conscience.
To cover their delay they tell you to hurry.
As outmoded as last year’s model of the universe – a dreary old place, full of old newthings.
Poets with little to say learn to write as though guarding a secret.
Afraid of losing his faith in scepticism….
Of all sad words of tongue and pen / The saddest are these: ‘I knew him when…’
The cure for digging in the dirt is an idea; the cure for any idea is more ideas; and the cure for all ideas is digging in the dirt.
The less life, the more biography.
Art turns liabilities to assets, guilt into solace, weakness into strength; it transforms the onus of owing into the honour of ownership.
They canonize their saints and sanctify their cannon.
Rusty with irony…
From Counter-Statement, 1931
1.An art may be of value purely through preventing a society from becoming too assertively, too hopelessly itself.
2. When in Rome, do as the Greeks.
#Longer quotations from the main body of Burke’s work
I have provided a short descriptive heading (in square brackets and in uppercase) for each of these longer quotations.
In his earlier work, Burke used the generic term ‘man’ in place of ‘human being’, as was the standard practice when he was writing. In his later work, he sought to rectify this habit.
Many of these statements are discussed elsewhere on the ‘Kenneth Burke’ page, and in my book Kenneth Burke: From Myth to Ecology, Parlor Press, 2013. See also ‘Green Theory’, on the ‘Green Studies’ page, for a particular focus on Burke’s ‘Definition of Man’, included below.
From Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose, 1935
1. [ON A SYMBOLIC APPROACH TO HUMAN FULFILMENT]
Might the great plethora of symbolizations lead, through the science of symbolism itself, back to a concern with ‘the Way’, the conviction that there is one fundamental source of human satisfaction, forever being glimpsed and lost again, and forever being restated in the changing terms of reference that correspond with the changes of historic texture? All that earlier thinkers said of the universe might at least be taken as applying to the nature of man. One may doubt that such places as heaven, hell, and purgatory await us after death – but one may well suspect that the psychological patterns which they symbolize lie at the roots of our conduct here and now.
2.[IN DEFENCE OF A PHILOSOPHY OF BEING, AS OPPOSED TO A PHILOSOPHY OF BECOMING… ]
In subscribing to a philosophy of being, as here conceived, one may hold that certain historically conditioned institutions interfere with the establishment of decent social or communicative relationships, and thereby affront the permanent biologic [sic] norms.
3. [ON THE FRAGILITY OF HUMAN CULTURE]
We in cities rightly grow shrewd at appraising man-made institutions – but beyond these tiny concentration points of rhetoric and traffic, there lies the eternally unresolvable Enigma, the preposterous fact that both existence and nothingness are quite unthinkable. Our speculations may run the whole qualitative gamut, from play, through reverence, even to an occasional shiver of cold metaphysical dread – for always the Eternal Enigma is there, right on the edge of our metropolitan bickerings, stretching outward to interstellar infinity and inward to the depth of the mind. And in this staggering disproportion between man and no-man, there is no place for purely human boasts of grandeur, or for forgetting that men build their cultures by huddling together, nervously loquacious, at the edge of an abyss.
From Attitudes Towards History, 1937
1. [BURKE’S FIRST USE OF THE TERM ‘ECOLOGY’]
Among the sciences, there is one little fellow named ‘Ecology’, and in time we shall pay him more attention. He teaches us that the total economy of the planet cannot be guided by an efficient rationale of exploitation alone, but that the exploiting part must eventually suffer if it too greatly disturbs the balance of the whole… So far, the laws of ecology have begun avenging themselves against restricted human concepts of profit by countering deforestation and deep plowing with floods, droughts, dust storms, and aggravated soil erosion. And in a capitalist economy, these trends will be arrested only insofar as collectivist ingredients of control are introduced.
2.[AMBIVALENCE TOWARDS MARXISM]
The Marxian perspective presents a point of view outside the accepted circle of contingencies. Or, more accurately stated: the Marxian perspective is partially outside this circle. It is outside as regards the basic tenets of capitalistic enterprise. It is inside as regards the belief in the ultimate values of industrialism.
3.[ALL ‘ATTITUDES’ IMPLY A MEDITATIVE STANCE BEYOND THE HISTORIC CONDITIONS, EVEN IF THEY DON’T ATTAIN THEM…]
… And saturating the lot is the attitude of attitudes which we call ‘the comic frame’, the methodic view of human antics as a comedy, albeit as a comedy ever on the verge of the most disastrous tragedy.
If ‘comedy’ is our attitude of attitudes, then the process of processes which this comedy meditates upon is the ‘bureaucratization of the imaginative’. This formula is designed to name the vexing things that happen when men try to translate some pure aim or vision into terms of its corresponding material embodiment, thus necessarily involving elements alien to the original , ‘spiritual’ (‘imaginative’) motive.
4.[ON THE ‘COMIC FRAME OF ACCEPTANCE’]
The comic frame .. does not waste the world’s rich store of error, as those parochial-minded persons waste it who dismiss all thought before a certain date as ‘ignorance’ and ‘superstition’. Instead, it cherishes the lore of so-called ‘error’ as a genuine aspect of the truth, with emphases valuable for the correcting of present emphases. …
5.[ON WHY WE USE COMEDY AS OUR MODEL…]
Like tragedy, comedy warns against the dangers of pride, but its emphasis shifts from crime to stupidity. … The progress of humane enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious but as mistaken. When you add that people are necessarily mistaken, that all people are exposed to situations in which they must act as fools, that every insight contains its own special kind of blindness, you complete the comic circle, returning again to the lesson of humility that underlies great tragedy.
6. [FURTHER THOUGHTS ON THE ‘COMIC FRAME’]
In sum, the comic frame should enable people to be observers of themselves, while acting. Its ultimate would not be passiveness, but maximum consciousness. One would ‘transcend’ himself by noting his own foibles. …
The comic frame of acceptance but carries to completion the translative act. It considers human life as a project in ‘composition’, where the poet works with the materials of social relationships. Composition, translation, also ‘revision’, hence offering maximum opportunity for the resources of criticism.
From ‘Definition of Man’, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method, 1966
1. [THE DEFINITION ITSELF]
the symbol-using (symbol-making, symbol-misusing) animal
inventor of the negative (or moralized by the negative)
separated from his natural condition by instruments of his own making
goaded by the spirit of hierarchy (or moved by the sense of order)
and rotten with perfection.
2. [FOOTNOTE ON THE NEED FOR A ‘CULT OF COMEDY’]
… Aristotle mentions the definition of man as the ‘laughing animal’, but he does not consider it adequate. Though I would hasten to agree, I obviously have a big investment in it, owing to my conviction that mankind’s only hope is a cult of comedy. The cult of tragedy is too eager to help out with the holocaust. And in the last analysis, it is too pretentious to allow for the proper recognition of our animality.
From ‘Poetics and Communication’ (essay published in 1970)
[REFLECTING ON ECOLOGY, BURKE EXPANDS ON HIS METHOD OF INTERPRETATION, ‘DRAMATISM’, WHICH SEES LANGUAGE AS A FORM OF SYMBOLIC ACTION (AS ABOVE). HE ALSO ALLUDES TO HIS OWN NOTION OF RHETORIC AS A MEANS OF ENSURING ‘IDENTIFICATION’.]
Dramatistic admonitions suggest: It would be much better for us, in the long run, if we ‘identified ourselves’ rather with the natural things that we are progressively destroying – our trees, our rivers, our land, even our air, all of which we are a lowly ecological part of. For here, in the long run, a pious ‘loyalty to the sources of our being’ (Santayana) would pay off best, even in the grossly materialistic sense. For it would better help preserve the kinds of natural balance on which, in the last analysis, mankind’s prosperity, and even our mere existence, depend. But too often, in such matters, our attitudes are wholly segregational, as we rip up things that we are not – and thus can congratulate ourselves upon having evolved a way of life able to exhaust in decades a treasure of natural wealth that had been here for thousands of years.
From Dramatism and Development, 1972
[BURKE DRAWS ON ARISTOTLE’S PRINCIPLE OF ‘ENTELECHY’, IE, THE IMPULSE OF ALL MATERIAL PHENOMENA TO REALISE THEIR FULL POTENTIAL AND ATTAIN THEIR FULL FORM. BURKE SEES HUMAN ‘ENTELECHY’ AS HAVING NOW BECOME IDENTIFIED WITH ‘TECHNOLOGY’. IN THE LIGHT OF THIS, HE EXPRESSES THE NEED FOR A NEW KIND OF ‘HUMANISM’…]
Humanism, as so conceived, would look especially askance at the typical promoter’s ideal of a constant rapid increase in the consumption of ‘energy’(though perhaps it is a trend that the whole ‘logic’ of investment comes close to making imperative). And an anti-Technological Humanism would be ‘animalistic’ in the sense that, far from boasting of some privileged human status, it would never disregard our humble, and maybe even humiliating, place in the totality of the natural order.