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In Praise of Aphorisms

Grahame Lockey writes pithy observations to make you think about pithy observations to make you think.

I once sat down to write a poem. Four words into it, I realised it was complete. It didn’t want a title, it wanted to be left alone:

Absence begins at home.

I didn’t know what it was that I had written, but it wasn’t a poem. If I had thought it through to a poem, it would have unwritten itself in the reader’s mind, leaving nothing. I now think it was probably an aphorism.

Ask the difference between an adage, a proverb, a maxim, an epigram, and an aphorism, and even a veteran English teacher might scratch their head and furrow their brow. It’s easier to think of what they have in common. The internet is just as confused, giving off the impression that they’re fancy words for quotably quotie things that people make memes with. Well, they do all belong to the extended family of pithy statements, which also include axioms, dicta, mottoes, pensées, precepts, quips and the like. But in order to single out the aphorism, we need to usefully tell it apart from its siblings.


Picture five children in a photograph. All short. All stylish. All memorable. Epigram is fair of face, but with a twinkle in its eye. You see that at once. The qualities distinguishing the others are not so readily apparent. Adage and Proverb are twins – that much is clear. Easy to mix them up. Adage is the sensible child; Proverb the practical one. Maxim likes having rules to follow. The fifth child, blurred with movement, is up to its hips in a bag of sorts, as if about to spring out of the picture into a sack race. This is Aphorism, the thinker of the family.

As they’re all brother or sister to each other, there is a natural family resemblance. If we turn the children into five Olympic rings, we have a good starting point for tracing areas of overlap.

The adage and the proverb share the feature of having stood the test of time. An adage is a generally accepted statement, a capsule of common sense, for example, “Better late than never”. A proverb is the concentrated wisdom of bygone people whispering advice over waves of vanished generations: “A stitch in time”, they say, “saves nine”. They say a lot, the ghosts of all who have lived; and if we listen to them, our lives go better.

That it is intended with a practical application in mind is what a proverb has in common with a maxim. A maxim is a rule to live by. The Golden Rule, “Do unto others what you what have them do unto you”, is a little chunk of conscience that if repeated keeps you acting to principle. Meanwhile, ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained’ is a maxim to spur those who pride adventure over consistency.

That maxims are memorable is where they overlap with epigrams – witty original remarks that makes us want to remember them. Oscar Wilde, a master of epigrams, could “resist everything”, we recall, “except temptation.”

It is the stylishness of the epigram that marks its border with the aphorism. I called Epigram ‘fair of face’, and so it is. It’s so dazzlingly good-looking that our response to a choice epigram is to marvel at the brilliance of its composition even more than the wisdom of its words. Henry Ford, for example, came up with this beauty:

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

Epigram can have a wicked sense of humour too:

“My stomach is flat. The L there is silent.”

Epigrams like these are perhaps better termed ‘laughorisms’, as Ambrose Bierce called the diabolical definitions in his Devil’s Dictionary (1911). But whether clever or funny, we understand an epigram quickly: we do not need to puzzle it out. That’s half its appeal. When it clicks, we admire it for its ingenuity, and may commit it to memory so we can offer it to others like a canapé.

The aphorism is not quite as popular at parties. Aphorism is the quiet one in the corner. If it speaks, it’s with its mouth full.

The Aphorism Comes Into Its Own

La Rochefoucauld
La Rochefoucauld getting ready to strike

La Rochefoucauld, maestro of the seventeenth-century Parisian salon, could with a perfected bon mot and a shake of his over-embroidered sleeve make ladies titter behind their fans and men involuntarily sting their own thighs with a pantomime slap. Just the sight of him with something to say must have brought a giggle up the throat, although with a hand over the heart in case he said something that tarred them with the same brush they liked him tarring others with. Like this:

As it is the mark of great minds to say many things in a few words, so it is that of little minds to use many words to say nothing.

But in among the fun he has pulling verbal jewellery from the human condition, are aphorisms that may have been greeted with a furrowed brow or a stroked chin. Take this:

“Ideas often flash across our mind more complete than we could make them after much labour.”

This is no idle off-the-laced-cuff observation. It’s like a lego brick that wants to play – a thought that wants you to think with it. That is what makes it an aphorism.

Here’s another from La Rochefoucauld, which I’ve tweaked a little because he would have chewed the lace off his collar at the literal English translation:

“Philosophy triumphs easily over past and future evils; but present evils defeat it.”

It’s a salon silencer. Fans go ungiggled behind, thighs unslapped; just grave frowns all round, pondering what that idea says about us, and whether it’s a presentiment of doom.

The aphorist Joseph Joubert describes (in a pithy statement, naturally) his obsession with “reducing a book to a page, and that page to a sentence.” This provides a nice way of seeing an aphorism: as the opening, or closing, line of a book that the author has kept blank for us, inviting us to finish it ourselves.

Its concentration makes the aphorism a taut springboard to original thinking. It’s not the painstaking research endeavour that would constitute extended scholarly communion with Kant or Hegel, but freestyle scuba-thinking. We think more with less, and with a short aphorism to spring off, we have an empty pool of ideas to dive into. We can swim to whatever depth, and when we surface, it’s in a place we have arrived at by ourselves.


Aphorism Amongst The Sentences

Relatively few thinkers write aphoristically, but aphorisms can glow and throb within dense seams of unlikely text, and can be chipped out of any context. I’ve just plucked a random book off my shelf, and while flicking through it, I glimpsed this singing bowl of a sentence: “Supreme simplicity is untranslatable.” The paragraph it introduces falls away. Set alone, this is as bottomless as a koan. And sometimes you can’t help brushing off a few unnecessary words. “Philosophy begins in wonder” didn’t stand alone in Plato’s dialogue Theaetetus, but it deserved to: it needs space before it, space after it, and a starry sky above it. Anything more distracts and detracts from it like a piece of fluff on a face. Elaboration is the death of the aphorism, as elaboration seeks to do our thinking for us.

One philosopher who liked to think like a farmer – scattering seeds of ideas into the mulch of his readers’ minds – was Friedrich Nietzsche. Like any aphorist, some of his seeds fell onto stony ground, but he also has invigorating moments when the earth opens up to him like a womb, and to my mind some of Nietzsche’s aphorisms deserve to feature among the most fecund. For example:

“When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, king of the philosophical aphorism
Painting © Clinton Inman 2022 Facebook At Clinton.inman

A fine aphorism like this swells itself with the best features of its siblings. Like the epigram it is well-put, though not so beautifully that we mistake the wrapping for the present. The gift here is a piece of advice, which it holds behind its back in a way a proverb wouldn’t; but if we follow this advice, things will go better for us. In fact, whenever we sense indefatigable falsehoods creeping up on us, we can call these thirteen words to mind like a maxim to remind ourselves an early night is probably the best course. A good aphorism is like a pool of still water: when we look into it, we should see ourselves not quite as we are. And for as long as generations continue, it won’t dry up.

But how does it remain an aphorism if it borrows so heavily from its siblings? Because it’s still a thought that wants us to think with it. We hear Nietzsche’s clang from the gong of truth, for example, and then: “What ideas have I defeated, and which ones keep getting up again? Why? Is this telling me something about my intellectual fighting style or the unslayability of everything that pesters me?” Already I’m thinking originally about something that could make a difference to my life.

Bringing It All Back Home

At the mention of me, I must hold up a mirror. It was Humpty Dumpty who said to Alice: “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean.” The aphorisms I attributed to La Rochefoucauld, he called ‘reflections’ and ‘maxims’. What business is it of mine to call them something else? And what if he does mind? What if he’s turning in his grave at the thought of his beloved maxims being sorted into aphorisms and laughorisms, based on unweighable degrees of balance between substance and style?

A Gallic shrug. I did first present Aphorism to you as bagged up – in the sack so that parts of it are hidden, as they should be; with a leap to suggest it might be a concept in motion; and a blur because we might not agree.

At this point, an idea flashes across my mind more complete than I could make it after much labour. In praising an aphorism for being cognitively evocative, am I not making its identity, and its worth, depend uneasily upon its effect? The adage, proverb and maxim do not need to ponder their mortality. The epigram is safe from existential crises (misattribution aside). But if an aphorism is an aphorism by virtue of making us think, what is it when it ceases to do so? Does an aphorism have the fragility of a firefly – a wandering bead of light that captures our attention in the darkness of our minds, then goes out? What if it doesn’t light up for us at all, and we pass over it entirely? Is it still an aphorism?

“Caesar said to an octopus: the world is not your oyster. The octopus said to Caesar: the oyster is not your world.”

What kind of statement is this? It’s not an adage because I made it up. It’s not a proverb because there is no shell of wisdom around a pearl of advice. It’s not a rule to act on, so maxim is out. It lacks the gettable stickiness of an epigram. So, is it an aphorism?

I should like to say no. It provokes only what thought is needed to decide it isn’t worth thinking about. If it were a translation from the Latin of something Caesar said to an octopus, it would have meant little to Caesar and less to an octopus. So let’s just stop there. But if you ask a class of seven-year-olds why Julius Caesar might have said such a thing, and what on earth the octopus might have meant in reply, one bright spark will see in it something about our relationship with nature. Then suddenly we all do, and everyone wants to say something.

It’s not that Caesar and the octopus make us think, nor that they have to. It is that they invite us to. And that invitation remains open like a key in a lock.

Perhaps I have grown tired of La Rochefoucauld’s remark about complete ideas streaking across his mind without any words on – but if someone says it has made them question whether it’s really true that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world” (an aphorism of Wittgenstein’s), then I’ll go back to it, turn the key, and an old door opens onto somewhere new. La Rochefoucauld has been inviting us through that door since 1665. We and our world have changed. It hasn’t. It remains insufficiently itself, hoping that by giving us less we can take more from it, no matter where we are in life or time.

Last Words

I started with five quotably quotie-type things that were hard to tell apart because they were all short, well-put, and memorable. However, each has a personal characteristic that identifies it – not always uniquely, but better than Google. What distinguishes these confusable members of the pithy statement clan is ultimately the manner in which they are useful. The others are designed for easy understanding and remembering, otherwise they would not circulate in the currency of everyday life: adages to endorse common sense; proverbs to dispense advice; maxims to guide action; and epigrams for sharing like bonbons. The aphorism is the odd one out. It’s worth as much as you can make of it. And that could be anything.

I have a personal reason for wanting to praise the aphorism for not doing all its thinking for us. Philosophy has given me the desire to think up good ideas; but the moment I come up with one, I start to question it, pedantically refine how it’s worded, and almost as soon as I’m happy with it, to start to doubt it, to become sceptical of it, to despair of it, and ultimately, to delete it. The sum of my philosophical works is a blinking cursor on a blank screen.

Perhaps, then, this is what first drew me to the aphorism. When an idea flashes across the mind more complete than we could make it, we do not labour, and we should not try to. In the fewest but best possible words, we bring to life the brief racing beauty of the idea and leave it to the reader to thoughtfully complete it in ways that matter to them.

© Grahame Lockey 2022

Grahame Lockey is a freelance educational consultant and writer.

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