Since the Renaissance, “apothegm” has been virtually synonymous with “aphorism”—a short, pithy statement of a general truth. Earlier, however, an aphorism was a statement of principle or scientific knowledge, while an apothegm was a statement of ethical, moral, or religious advice from a wise person.
The apothegm emerges in the tradition of “wisdom literature” that stretches back to ancient Egypt. As early as 2500 BCE, Egyptian kings and courtiers instructed their sons or protégés by means of short sayings on good and wise conduct. Jews living in Egypt adopted this practice and, after their expulsion, adapted it to augment religious teachings from the Torah and Talmud. Written records of these oral teachings form the earliest body of wisdom literature.
The early Christians inherited both traditions. In the 4th century, the apothegm appeared as a piece of profoundly considered and heartfelt advice from a holy sage to a seeker after God. At this time, in remote areas of Egypt, an ascetic movement arose: Christians, seeking pure knowledge of God, isolated themselves in the deserts, praying, fasting, and enduring lives of extreme privation, believing that discipline of the flesh brought them closer to God. Some of these anchorites gained reputations as holy men, and younger seekers came to them craving “a word,” in the belief that the older men, through their experience, would be able to direct the younger men’s way to God.
Eventually, accounts of the advice thus given were recorded, and came to be known as apophthegmata patrum (sayings of the fathers).
The apothegm as transmitted from the sage to the seeker differs from the bon mot, with which it has more recently been identified. First, the apothegm was delivered to a particular person under particular circumstances: the seeker described his situation and requested guidance; the sage gave advice suited to that unique request. Moreover, the words of advice did not necessarily form the entire message. The face-to-face interaction of seeker and sage—wherein a look or a sign or simply a general sense of the other—was considered a significant element of the transmission of wisdom. Thus the apothegm was not intended to be written down for subsequent generations to apply to their own lives.
Nevertheless, sayings were recorded as a way of preserving at least some part of the desert experience, and were later treated as wise sayings of general application. Second, although many hundreds of apothegms came to be collected, so that a medieval monk might read several a day, there might not have been more than a few such sayings received by any one seeker. One story tells of a man who got a word of advice from a sage, practiced it for 20 years, and then returned for another “word.” A single saying, from one who distrusted words to begin with, was a rare event, worthy of much rumination.
The collections of apophthegmata to some extent preserved the context of the sayings by reporting the circumstances under which advice was sought. Although some apothegms are very short (“Abba Alonios said, ‘If I had not destroyed myself completely, I should not have been able to rebuild and shape myself again’”), some are intricate stories of over 1000 words, reporting the condition of the seeker, his relation to the sage, and the circumstances of the question and reply. Thus a longer apothegm resembles a fable.
These sayings were passed down during the Middle Ages in the eastern part of the Christian world, and also made their way, translated and transcribed, into medieval Europe. It seems likely that the transmission process altered the character of these apothegms over time, retaining emphasis on the kernel of the sage’s advice and neglecting the contextualizing story, until by the late 16th century the apothegm was understood among the literate in England as a well-said truth of any sort.
The apothegm clearly influenced the essays of Francis Bacon, who would have been familiar with sayings from the writings of St. Basil the Great, John Cassian, and others.
Bacon preserved something like the original concept of the apothegm, in that he treated it as a bit of stored wisdom and sometimes included information about context to clarify the meaning of the saying. With Bacon’s emphasis on scientific knowledge, however, the apothegm lost some of its earlier status. In his hands it was no longer the quintessential counsel of an anchorite, but a notable quotation from a famous person. Accordingly, the degree of wisdom that Bacon attributed to the apothegm also diminished. Whereas in ancient times it was the clearest possible statement of transcendent knowledge, with Bacon the apothegm became a rhetorical resource, a means of reinforcing or embellishing an idea already stated. It was the aphorism that was, for Bacon, a vehicle of clear and simple truth; the apothegm was a kind of seasoning or enhancement. Nevertheless Bacon considered this seasoning an important means of making ideas intelligible for a reader, and recommended that apothegms be memorized and used to enliven a text. In Bacon’s essay “Of Revenge” (1625) after declaring, “Revenge is a kinde of Wilde Justice…” he
adds, among other things:
Cosmus Duke of Florence, had a Desperate Saying, against Perfidious or Neglecting Friends, as if those wrongs were unpardonable: You shall reade (saith he) that we are commanded to forgive our Enemies; But you never read, that wee are commanded, to forgive our Friends.
The anthology Apophthegms New and Old (1625), edited by Bacon, contains nearly 300 examples. His essays, like those of later essayists, are sprinkled with quotations. Because the ideas of such quotations were more important to the essayist than the sources from which they came, however, the sources of quotations were often omitted, and the apothegm became simply the pithy statement of truth that we know it as today.
The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection, translated by Sister Benedicta Ward, London: Mowbrays, 1975; revised edition, Kalamazoo, Michigan:
Cistercian Publications, 1984
The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century, translated by Thomas Merton, New York: New Directions, 1960
The Wisdom of the Desert Fathers: The Apophthemagta Patrum (the Anonymous Series), translated by Sister Benedicta Ward, Oxford: S.L.G. Press, 1975
Brown, Peter, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early
Christianity, New York: Columbia University Press, 1988
Murphy, Roland E., “Introduction to Wisdom Literature,” in The Jerome Biblical Commentary, edited by Raymond E.Brown, Joseph A.Fitzmyer, and Murphy, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1986
Stanton, Leonard J., “Zedergol’m’s Life of Elder Leonid of Optima: Apophthegm, Person, and the Chronotope of Encounter,” Religion and Literature (Spring 1990): 19– 38
Stephens, James, Francis Bacon and the Style of Science, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975
Torrance, Thomas F., Space, Time and Incarnation, London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1969
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