What Is an Aphorism?
A compass that points toward a universal truth
Aphoristic writing is an art of compression; the goal is to distill an idea to as few words as possible without compromising its essence, and without giving the whole thing away.
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.1
The aphorism is a member of an extended family of pithy statements, and it closely resembles its cousins: the adage, proverb, maxim, and epigram. It's easy to mistake these categories, but aphorisms have their own distinct character.
Take the differences between an aphorism and a maxim — my two favorite breeds of pithy statements. Side by side, they might look like siblings, but these two are removed enough to be legally married. The give-away is in how they dress and how they sound. A maxim is an imperative statement that serves as heuristic for good conduct. An aphorism is a declarative statement of a general truth. See? They're at least second-cousins.
To tune your ear, here's an aphorism and a maxim — both from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Self-Reliance."
It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great man is he who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.
Speak your latent conviction… Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced to take with shame your opinion from another.
The aphorism is declarative, the maxim imperative. Aphorisms help you discover what is true; maxims help you decide what to do.2 Now that you have a sense of the aphorism's character, let's discuss its virtues.
From East to West, ancient to contemporary, great thinkers use aphorisms to summarize and communicate their best ideas. In the same way a novelist compresses their lessons into characters, non-fiction writers compress their ideas into aphorisms, like a naturalist painter communicating the majesty of Yosemite through a four-foot by three-foot frame. The painting won't take you there, but it dares you to go.
An aphorism is one of the greatest gifts a writer can give a reader. It means doing the work of compressing a grand idea, so that it's small enough for a cavalryman to carry in his saddlebag. Aphorisms benefit their author too, for an aphorism is the best way for an idea to have the most impact.
Nietzsche used aphorisms to change the course of Western thought:
And those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who couldn't hear the music.
Kant used aphorisms to summarize his philosophical arguments:
Enlightenment is a man's release from self-incurred tutelage.
Lao Tzu used aphorisms to indicate how to live the Tao:
The Sage has self-knowledge without self-display,
Self-love without personal pride
While each of these excerpts are short, pithy, and well-crafted, they raise more questions than answers, as aphorisms uniquely do:
For what is "the music" a metaphor? Am I one of the dancers, or am I among those who are missing the music of life?
Which of my shortcomings are self-incurred? How can I release myself from the hold of my own immaturity and step toward enlightenment?
I wouldn't say I display myself, but maybe I don't know myself well enough to say. Maybe I am vain and approval-seeking by some unconscious impulse. Maybe I'm lacking of self-love.
This is the character of an aphorism: more questions than answers, a compressed statement of a grand idea, inspiring like a work of art. The best way to think of an aphorism is as a tool for deep thought. It's a non-trivial and non-obvious statement that requires skill to use. Wielding an aphorism in search of undiscovered truths is like splitting wood with an ax rather than with a chainsaw. The ax won't do the work for you, and there will always be more work you can do with it.
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. (Philosophy Now)
An aphorism is a tool for deep thinking. It's a compass that points you toward a universal truth, and it dares you to venture there.
Is there a short statement that you turn to for comfort or direction — maybe a mantra, affirmation, prayer, or an aphorism? Why do those words feel so powerful to you? What truths do they dare you to discover?
I value aphoristic writing as a craft, and it's something I want to master. So, I've launched a live library of my own aphorisms, which emerge from my note-taking and essay-writing. This first edition features aphorisms from the past six years of my thinking. It's about five hundred words, pulled from a few hundred thousand that I've written. My goal with this library is to express as many truths in as few words as possible (and it doubles as a crude map of my personal philosophy, aided by a few maxims that are mixed in).
If you're interested, check out my library of aphorisms. And feel free to reach out, via the comments section or in an email, if there's one that resonates with you — or if there's one you disagree with.
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And folks, that right there is an epigram — a witty statement too straightforward to be an aphorism and not wise or enduring enough to be an adage or a proverb.