Freud recognized that human beings have a sex drive and even a death drive. Is it possible that we also have an aphorism drive?
We do seem attracted to pat answers and pithy summations - especially from our politicians. It isn't enough to be wise or effective; one must be quotable.
In fact, aphorism is the oldest written art form, according to aphorism expert and author James Geary. Les bons mots tend to make us feel better, lending form to our thoughts and order to our emotions. They're especially useful in times of duress. Then again, more often these days, a politician's happy turn of phrase makes me feel worse. I don't know whether to clap my hands or clutch my wallet. Why does the very thing intended to make one feel uplifted and inspired make me feel manipulated and skeptical?
Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert, writing recently in the The New York Times, inadvertently may have offered a clue. He was explaining that people are happiest when they are certain. We don't like not knowing, apparently, even when what we know is awful.
Mr. Gilbert's observations were in the context of our current economic woes. As soon as we know how bad things are (or aren't), he said, we'll adapt and get along just fine.
He may be right as far as it goes, but the same uncertainty that makes human beings unhappy also stimulates the creativity that makes us happy.
Was Leonardo da Vinci happy? Homer? George Washington? Man's drive to create isn't born of contentment, but of anxiety attached to the unconscious agitation that comes from the greatest certainty ever devised: death.
Here is a truism, if not an aphorism. Without death and the certainty of physical finitude, Homo sapiens would never have left the cave. Unhappiness and uncertainty - rather than happiness and certitude - are what get us off our duffs.
So what happens to the creative spirit when government steps in to soothe our anxieties? Without unhappiness, what happens to culture? Without adversity, what happens to motivation? Parents know. Suffice to say, the work ethic is not strong among the coddled.
Most important, with all needs met, what happens to freedom - that human recoil against imposed order?
Certainty may be the promise of government, but uncertainty is the grease of free markets. Uncertainty was also America's midwife. Without a tolerance for uncertainty - and unhappiness - our nation's founders might have remained in their rockers.
Previous generations understood that life is a gamble of uncertain returns. They were sometimes sad because life is sometimes sad. They were good at coping in bad times because downturns were more familiar than upticks.
Today, we apparently trade liberty for certainty and our once-swashbuckling spirit for contentment, preferably in pill form. All we need is a nice aphorism to help the medicine go down. Here's one beloved by conservatives to get things rolling: "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have."
Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears regularly in The Baltimore Sun. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.