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“Aphorism” is a general, all-encompassing term for a condensed sentence or statement.
Short and concise, it is a written or spoken expression of an observation, principle, or precept of truth or advice. (The Oxford English Dictionary defines the aphorism as a “short, pithy sentence expressing a truth of general import.”) The etymology of the aphorism is revealing: apo plus horizein denote “away from a marked area or limited boundary.” Thus it proceeds by a dual process, of initial divergence from the terms of a given discourse followed by a return to it, but importing an unusual perspective, a process often characterized by a fusion of logic and imagination, or wit. By the 18th century the
aphorism had developed into an autonomous literary short form. Descending from the terse scientific-medical precepts of Hippocrates, it extended its range to include Francis Bacon’s Novum organum (1620) and the 17th-century philosophical aphorisms of the French moralists such as La Rochefoucauld, La Bruyère, and Chamfort.
The aphorism has included such small forms of brief discourse as the reflection, the apothegm, the axiom, the sentence, the aperçu, the proverb, the adage, the motto, and the maxim. These definitions are determined by a variety of criteria, such as whether the statements are oral or written, authorial or anonymous, practical or theoretical, prosaic or poetic, concrete or metaphorical, descriptive or prescriptive, etc.
The various studies of the aphorism agree in regarding it as a specific mode of inquiry or a particular intellectual response to the relationship between the individual (author, reader) and society. Further, that relationship is articulated through a distinct verbal structure, a literary representation which renders concrete the tension and conflict
between individual observation and abstract reflection. Thus, the aphorism is often said to express the uncertainty of experience or a crisis of consciousness.
For many literary critics and theorists, the aphorism remains the sole form of discourse to refuse integration into any system or dominant order of thought. But in breaking up or subverting the status quo from the perspective of observation and presentation, the aphorism simultaneously implies an Other, a contrary order of the “not yet realized.” The aphorism uses rhetorical verbal structures like antithesis, parallelism, proportion, oxymoron, chiasmus, metaphor, and paradox, in a concise, emphatic manner to address this matrix of oppositions.
Like all literary constructions, the aphorism mediates an insight or perception through language. However, the aphorism is highly conscious of the manner in which this mediation occurs. Indeed, it has often been called the literary form that is most aware of itself. But the resulting relationship between writer and reader is neither direct nor
conversational, thus differing from that created by the essay. The aphorism’s meaning is not immediately obvious; indeed often at first glance it is impenetrable. It typically works dialectically, through paradox, pun, mixed metaphor, or similarly unexpected verbal and
semantic juxtaposition, forcing the reader to rethink, to complete the dialectical process of an active search for an unexpected meaning. Writer and reader require both logic and imagination: first to establish or recognize the digression, the antithesis, the paradox, the hiatus across the linear progression of discourse, and second to make the reconnection.
The essay and the aphorism share many borders, but also demonstrate key contrasts.
Both forms require a high degree of learning and sociocultural sophistication by the writer and the reader; both are anti-systematic in their modes of discourse. But the essay is something much greater than an expansion and extension of an aphorism, and an aphorism is more than merely the nucleus of an essay. Whereas the essay is the discourse of experience and observation by the author, subsequently related to an idea or theme, the aphorism proceeds more independently from individual experience. It begins in media res with the initial idea turned inside out. With its greater self-consciousness of language and
its closed, inverted form—it is read in an instant, but encourages, even requires, multiple rereadings—the aphorism provides insight but does not provide a basis for dialogue or a dialogic stance by the author toward the reader. In contrast, the essay requires a substantial period of time for its reading, and encourages, with its looser, more open
form, a dialogue of thought between author and reader. The aphorism is essentially dictatorial, while the essay is suggestive.
The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, edited by John Gross, Oxford and New York: Oxford
University Press, 1983
The Viking Book of Aphorisms, edited by W.H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger, New York: Viking, and London: Faber, 1962.
Further Reading
Blin, Jean-Pierre, “L’Aphorisme dans les romans,” Revue Littéraire Mensuelle
(November-December 1989):93–103
Cantarruti, Giulia, and Hans Schumacher, editors, Neuere Studien zur Aphoristik und Essayistik, Frankfurt-on-Main: Lang, 1986
Crane, Mary Thomas, Proverbial and Aphoristic Sayings: Sources of Authority in the English Renaissance (dissertation), Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, 1986
Engel, William E., “Aphorism, Anecdote, and Anamnesis in Montaigne and Bacon,” Montaigne Studies 1 (1989):158–76
Faber, Marion, “The Metamorphosis of the French Aphorism: La Rochefoucauld and Nietzsche,” Comparative Literature Studies 23, no. 2 (1986):205–17
Fricke, Harald, Aphorismus, Stuttgart: Metzler, 1984
Grenzmann, Wilhelm, “Aphorismus,” in Reallexikon der deutschen Literaturgeschichte, edited by Klaus Kanzog, Berlin: de Gruyter, 4 vols., 1958–88 (original edition, edited by Paul Merker and Wolfgang Stammler, 1925–31)
Jaouen, Françoise, Discours aphoristique et pensée minimaliste: Le Classicisme en petits morceaux (dissertation), Berkeley: University of California, 1991
Johnston, William M., “The Vienna School of Aphorists 1880–1930: Reflections on a Neglected Genre,” in The Turn of the Century: German Literature and Art 1890–1915, edited by Gerald Chapple and Hans H. Schulte, Bonn: Bouvier, 1981
Kronenberger, Louis, The Last Word: Portraits of Fourteen Master Aphorists, New York: Macmillan, 1972
Lind, L.R., “The Aphorism: Wisdom in a Nutshell,” Classical and Modern Literature 14, no. 4 (Summer 1994):311–22
Morley, John, Aphorisms: An Address Delivered Before the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, November II 1887, London and New York: Macmillan, 1887
Neumann, Gerhard, editor, Aphorismus, Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1976
Snider, Alvin, “Francis Bacon and the Authority of Aphorism,” Prose Studies II, no. 2
Wescott, Roger W., “From Proverb to Aphorism: The Evolution of a Verbal Art Form,” Forum Linguisticum 5, no. 3 (1981): 213–25

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