figure of speech
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An aphorism (literally "distinction" or "definition", from the Greek: αφορισμός, aphorismós ap-horizein, from "to bound") is a truth, principle, or original concept, spoken or written in a laconic and easily memorable form.

Exclusively of the abstract sciences, the largest and worthiest portion of our knowledge consists of aphorisms: and the greatest and best of men is but an aphorism. ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge
13th century illustration at Hippocrates' Aphorismi.
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listed alphabetically by author
  • Habits count for more than maxims, because habit is a living maxim, becomes flesh and instinct. To reform one's maxims is nothing: it is but to change the title of the book.
  • The purpose of aphorisms is to keep fools who have memorised them from having nothing to say.
    • Isaac Asimov (1920–1992), American writer. In Memory Yet Green (1979), p. 188
  • The aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts; and implicit in his assertion is a conviction that he is wiser and more intelligent than his readers.
    • W. H. Auden (1907–1973), Anglo-American poet. Foreword, The Viking Book of Aphorisms (1962)
  • Aphorisms, except they should be ridiculous, cannot be made but of the pith and heart of sciences; for discourse of illustration is cut off; recitals of examples are cut off; discourse of connection and order is cut off; descriptions of practice are cut off. So there remaineth nothing to fill the aphorisms but some good quantity of observation; and therefore no man can suffice, nor in reason will attempt, to write aphorisms, but he that is sound and grounded.
    • Francis Bacon (1561–1626), English philosopher, statesman and essayist. The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), Second Book, XI–XX p. 5
  • Aphorisms, representing a knowledge broken, do invite men to inquire further; whereas methods, carrying the show of a total, do secure men, as if they were at furthest.
    • Francis Bacon, The Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), Second Book XI–XX, p. 5
  • Aphorizein’, from which we get the word ‘aphorism’, means to retreat to such a distance that a horizon of thought is formed which never again closes on itself.
    • Jean Baudrillard (1929–2007), French philosopher and writer. Cool Memories V (2006)
  • APHORISM, n. Predigested wisdom.

    The flabby wine-skin of his brain
    Yields to some pathologic strain,
    And voids from its unstored abysm
    The driblet of an aphorism.
    "The Mad Philosopher," 1697

    • Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?), American writer. The Devil’s Dictionary (1911)
  • The hunter for aphorisms on human nature has to fish in muddy water, and he is ever condemned to find much of his own mind.
  • It [an epigram] should sound like something that somebody might say, but it should be something that nobody has ever said before.
    • Ashley Brilliant (b. 1933), American cartoonist, epigrammatist, aphorist and publisher. From his interview for the Wall Street Journal, 6th January 1992. (He commentating here on his “Pot-Shots” postcards.)
  • There is something anachronistic about the very idea of aphorisms or maxims. Contemporary culture isn’t stately enough, or stable enough, to support them.
    • Anatole Broyard (1920–1990), American literary critic. ‘Wisdom of Aphorisms’, New York Times, 30th April 1983
  • Aphorisms are bad for novels. They stick in the reader’s teeth.
    • Anatole Broyard. ‘Books of the Times’, New York Times, June 6th 1984
  • The great writers of aphorisms read as if they had all known each other very well.
    • Elias Canetti (1905–1994), Jewish-Bulgarian writer. The Human Province (1942–1972)
  • By himself, man adjusts everything to his own comfort. By himself, he is an irresistible liar. For he never says anything truly unpleasant to himself without instantly counterbalancing it with something flattering. The sentence [aphorism] from the outside has an impact because it comes unexpectedly: one does not have any counterweight ready for it. One helps it with the same strength one would have met it with in other circumstances.
    • Elias Canetti, The Human Province, Seabury Press (1986), tr. 1978, p. 146
  • Exclusively of the abstract sciences, the largest and worthiest portion of our knowledge consists of aphorisms: and the greatest and best of men is but an aphorism.
  • In an aphorism, aptness counts for more than truth.
    • Mason Cooley (1927–2002), American literary academic and aphorist. City Aphorisms, Fourth Selection (1987)
  • Aphorisms are not true or false, but pointed or flat.
    • Mason Cooley. City Aphorisms, Fourth Selection (1987)
  • Aphorisms have never seduced anybody, but they have fooled some into considering themselves worldly-wise.
    • Mason Cooley. City Aphorisms, Twelfth Selection (1993)
  • An aphorism that does not score is just one more sentence.
    • Mason Cooley. City Aphorisms, Thirteenth Selection (1994)
  • An aphorism is a truth set apart for its pointedness and excellence.
    • George Crabb, English Synonymes Explained, in Alphabetical Order, ((1846 revised edition) p. 114
  • An aphorism is a speculative principle either in science or morals, which is presented in a few words to the understanding; it is the substance of a doctrine, and many aphorisms may contain the abstract of a science.
    • George Crabb, English Synonymes Explained, in Alphabetical Order, (1846) p. 114
  • An aphorism is a name but every name can take on the figure of aphorism.
    • Jacques Derrida in: Jacques Derrida, ‎Derek Attridge (1992), Acts of Literature, p. 416
  • I’ve always felt aphorisms as reminders, gongs–in–words.
    • Olivia Dresher (b.1945), American literary editor, publisher and poet. 'Aphorisms by Olivia Dresher', from, All Aphorisms, All the Time, a blog on James Geary's website, 24th February 2009
  • Windbags can be right. Aphorists can be wrong. It is a tough world.
    • James Fenton (b. 1949), English poet, journalist and literary critic. From his column in The Times (UK) newspaper, 21st February 1985
  • There is a difference between being witty – quick with the repartee and the insight – and having an aptitude for aphorism.
    • James Fenton. The Guardian (UK) newspaper, 17th February 2007
  • To have the last word, to be beyond contradiction, to inhabit a world of assertion and paradox – it may not be every aphorist’s ambition, but it seems to come with the turf.
    • James Fenton. The Guardian, 17th February 2007
  • An aphorism is a generalization, therefore not modern.
    • John Fowles (Feb. 29, 1960), in: John Fowles, The Journals, Vol. 1, p. 433 (2010)
  • A true aphorism legitimates itself; whoever feels the need to legitimate an aphorism, admits that it is illegal. The surface of an aphorism should conceal profound truth. The claim that everybody can learn everything is superficial, but is as wrong as it can be. As a matter of fact, it is no aphorism but an advertising slogan, and the excuse that it is an aphorism, is a mere wink: in advertising you cannot do without exaggerating. But even as a wink it does not become more true.
    • Hans Freudenthal (1977), Weeding and Sowing: Preface to a Science of Mathematical Education, p. 56
  • Aphorisms are literature’s hand luggage. Light and compact they fit easily into the overhead compartment of your brain and contain everything you need to get through a rough day at the office or a dark night of the soul.
    • James Geary (b. 1962), American journalist, author and aphorist. The World in a Phrase (2005), Ch. 1
  • For the aphorist, I think, seeing something and saying something are the same thing.
    • James Geary, ‘Anatomy of an Aphorism’, from, All Aphorisms, All The Time, a blog on James Geary’s website, 16th October 2008
  • Aphorisms are short, pithy sayings; they are individual passages that can be recited and remain intelligible out of context; they can stand on their own without further support.
    • Dr. Louis Groarke, Canadian philosopher. Philosophy as Inspiration: Blaise Pascal and the Epistemology of Aphorisms. Essay in, Poetics Today, Fall 2007
  • Without losing ourselves in a wilderness of definitions, we can all agree that the most obvious characteristic of an aphorism, apart from its brevity, is that it is a generalization. It offers a comment on some recurrent aspect of life, couched in terms which are meant to be permanently and universally applicable.
    • John Gross, English journalist, writer and literary critic. ‘Introduction’, The Oxford Book of Aphorisms (1983)
  • But, perhaps, the excellence of aphorisms consists not so much in the expression of some rare or abstruse sentiment, as in the comprehension of some obvious and useful truth in a few words.
    • Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), English poet and lexicographer. The Rambler, No. 175, 19th November 1751
  • Pointed axioms and acute replies fly loose about the world, and are assigned successively to those whom it may be the fashion to celebrate.
    • Samuel Johnson. ‘Waller’, Lives of the Poets (1779-81)
  • I fancy mankind may come, in time, to write all aphoristically, except in narrative; grow weary of preparation, and connection, and illustration, and all those arts by which a big book is made.
    • Samuel Johnson. Journal entry for 16th August 1773 in, The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson LL.D., by James Boswell (1785)
  • Genuine bon mots surprise those from whose lips they fall, no less than they do those who listen to them.
    • Joseph Joubert (1754–1824), French moralist and essayist. Pensées (1842)
  • You don't go to the ass; you go to the head.
    • Caller John on The Paul Vandenburg Show, WGDJ AM-1300, 3. June 2020, 9:28AM. Cited as a very old saying; however Paul replied "You know how old that is? I've never heard it." John may be the author.
  • An aphorism never coincides with the truth: it is either a half-truth or one-and-a-half truths.
    • Karl Kraus (1874–1936), Austrian writer. Half–Truths and One–and–a–Half Truths, Translated by Harry Zohn (1990)
  • Someone who can write aphorisms should not fritter away his time writing essays.
    • Karl Kraus. Half–Truths and One–and–a–Half Truths, translated by Harry Zohn (1990)
  • One cannot dictate an aphorism to a typist. It would take too long.
    • Karl Kraus. Half–truths and One–and–a–Half Truths, translated by Harry Zohn (1990)
  • Aphorism: what is worth quoting from the soul’s dialogue with itself.
    • Yahia Lababidi (b. 1973), Egyptian-Lebanise essayist and poet. Signposts to Elswhere (2008)
  • There is always something positive about the wisdom in aphorisms; jokes are not always that optimistic.
    • John Lloyd (b. 1951), British television comedy writer and producer. 'On the First Ever International Aphorism Symposium', from, All Aphorisms, All the Time, a blog on James Geary website, 11th March 2008
  • The fragment, like a fraction, reminds us of its foundation in totality.
    • Françoise Meltzer, “What is Wrong with National Literature Departments?” European Review, vol. 17, no. 1 (2009), p. 163
  • An aphorism is a many-faceted observation: speculative and not necessarily witty.
    • David Mikics (2008), A New Handbook of Literary Terms, p. 21
  • Aphorism or maxim, let us remember that this wisdom of life is the true salt of literature; that those books, at least in prose, are most nourishing which are most richly stored with it; and that is one of the great objects, apart from the mere acquisition of knowledge, which men ought to seek in the reading of books.
    • John Morley (1838-1923), 1st Viscount Morley of Blackburn, British statesman and writer. Aphorisms (1887) p. 11
  • Beware of cultivating this delicate art.
    • John Morley (1838–1923), British statesman and writer. Aphorisms (1887) p. 39
  • There are aphorisms that, like airplanes, stay up only while they are in motion.
    • Vladimir Nabokov (1899–1977), Russian-American novelist and poet. The Gift (1937), Ch. 1, from the English edition, published by G. P. Putnam’s Son (1963)
  • A good aphorism is too hard for the teeth of time and is not eaten up by all the centuries, even though it serves as food for every age: hence it is the greatest paradox in literature, the imperishable in the midst of change, the nourishment which—like salt—is always prized, but which never loses its savor as salt does.
    • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), German philosopher. Mixed Opinions and Maxims, aphorism 168, 'In Praise of Aphorisms' (1879)
  • An aphorism is a link in a chain of thoughts. It demands that the reader reconstitute this chain with his own means. An aphorism is a presumption. — Or it is a precaution, as Heraclitus knew. An aphorism must, if it is to be enjoyed, be put into contact and tempered with other material (examples, explanations, stories). Most do not understand this and for this reason one may express what is risky without risk
    • Friedrich Nietzsche, "Bedenkliches unbedenklich," in Aphorisms, 2, 20(3] (Winter 1876-77). Cited in: Richard Velkley (2007) Freedom and the Human Person, p. 229
  • An aphorism is an audacity.
    • Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in: Alfred Nordmann (2005), Wittgenstein's Tractatus: An Introduction, p. 116
  • An aphorism, honestly stamped and molded, has not yet been “deciphered” once we have read it over; rather, its exegesis—for which an art of exegesis is needed—has only just begun.
    • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), German philosopher. On the Genealogy of Morals, 'Preface', Section 8 (1887)
  • Whoever writes in blood and aphorisms wants not to be learned but to be learned by heart.
    • Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900), German philosopher. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, First Part, 'On Reading and Writing' (1883)
  • Behind every aphoristic assertion there should be the watermark of a question.
    • Gregory Norminton, British Novelist and academic. From his Blog, ‘How to be Awake,’ 18th May 2010
  • They’ve [aphorisms] got a real form to them. They’re not very popular or fashionable in Anglophone culture – they are assertions, so they can sound hubristic: you sometimes find yourself thinking, “Who the hell am I to say this?” But then, why not? You expect people to disagree. The point is to stir things up.
    • Don Paterson (b, 1963), Scottish poet and musician. From his interview with Mark Seaton for The Guardian, 21st January 2004
  • The aphorism is only useful in small measured doses—but even then it’s only a kind of intellectual placebo, prompting ideas the reader should have prompted in themselves anyway.
  • Despite our attempts to imbue them with some flavor, any flavor—aphorisms all turn out so...generic; they all sound as if they were delivered by the same disenfranchised, bad-tempered minor deity.
    • Don Paterson, Best Thought, Worst Thought: On Art, Sex, Work, and Death. (2008)
  • This ME
    made whole by
    combining countless fragments
    could not live in any one part
    with complete ease.
  • Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.
    • George Santayana (1863–1952), Spanish-American novelist, essayist and poet. Little Essays, Drawn From the Writings of George Santayana, compiled and edited by Logan Pearsall Smith (1920)
  • An aphorism ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog.
  • Aphorisms are the true form of the universal philosophy.
    • Friedrich von Schlegel (1772–1829), German philosopher. From Aphorism 259, Aphorisms from the Athenaeum (1798)
  • An aphorism has been defined as a proverb coined in a private mint, and the definition is a happy one; for the aphorism, like the proverb, is the result of observation, and however private and superior the mint, the coins it strikes must, to find acceptance, be made of current metal.
    • Logan Pearsall Smith (1865–1946), American born essayist and critic. ‘Introduction’, A Treasury of English Aphorisms (1943), p. 7
  • Experience is always seeking for special literary forms in which its various aspects can find their most adequate expression; and there are many of these aspects which are best rendered in a fragmentary fashion, because they are themselves fragments of experience, gleams and flashes of light, rather than the steady glow of a larger illumination.
  • We frequently fall into error and folly, Dr. Johnson tells us, “not because the true principles of action are not known, but because, for a time, they are not remembered.” To compress, therefore, the great and obvious rules of life into brief sentences which are not easily forgotten is, as he said, to confer a real benefit upon us.
  • It is in the nature of aphoristic thinking to be always in a state of concluding; a bid to have the final word is inherent in all powerful phrase-making.
    • Susan Sontag (1933–2004), American essayist. 'Writing Itself: On Roland Barthes', Introduction, Barthes: Selected Writings (1982)
  • Aphorisms are rogue ideas.
  • An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.
  • Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking
  • Most maxim-mongers have preferred the prettiness to the justness of a thought, and the turn to the truth; but I have refused myself to everything that my own experience did not justify and confirm.
    • Philip Dormer Stanhope, 4th Earl Chesterfield (1694–1773), British statesman, man of letters. Letter to his son, 15th January 1753. The Letters of the Earl of Chesterfield to His Son (1774–5)
  • In an important sense, then, an aphorism is the “pure fool” of discourse, being only simply appearance. Yet the attempt to find it out will stir up the fermentation on which it rests, much in the way that Oedipus brings himself to light. The aphorism presents itself as an answer for which we know not the question.
    • Tracy B. Strong (American political science academic, author), in Friedrich Nietzsche and the Politics of Transfiguration, p. 132, University of Illinois Press (2001)
  • The aphorism is a mode of symbolic representation that belongs to an era dominated by highly individualized and introverted experience, atomistic thought and feelings, an absence of commonly accepted religious beliefs and moral standards and the general disintegration of traditional culture.
    • Dalibor Vesely (2004), Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation, p. 346
  • The difference between an aphorism and a fragment is in their means of articulation. While aphorisms are primarily literary or philosophical, fragments can be pictorial, musical, or architectural as well. But because the highest degree of articulation can be achieved in an aphorism, it remains for all fragments the measure of possible expression and of their latent meaning.
    • Dalibor Vesely(2004), Architecture in the Age of Divided Representation, p. 346
  • Un bon mot ne prouve rien.
    • A witty saying proves nothing.
      • Voltaire, Le dîner du comte de Boulainvilliers (1767): Deuxième Entretien

See also

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