The Universe in a Sentence: On Aphorisms

September 18, 2019 | 11 min read

“A fragment ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog.”
Friedrich Schlegel, Athenaeum Fragments (1798)

“I dream of immense cosmologies, sagas, and epics all reduced to the dimensions of an epigram.”
Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988)

coverFrom its first capital letter to the final period, an aphorism is not a string of words but rather a manifesto, a treatise, a monograph, a jeremiad, a sermon, a disputation, a symposium. An aphorism is not a sentence, but rather a microcosm unto itself; an entrance through which a reader may walk into a room the dimensions of which even the author may not know. Our most economic and poetic of prose forms, the aphorism does not feign argumentative completism like the philosophical tome, nor does it compel certainty as does the commandment—the form is cagey, playful, and mysterious. To either find an aphorism in the wild, or to peruse examples in a collection that mounts them like butterflies nimbly held in place with push-pin on Styrofoam, is to have a literary-naturalist’s eye for the remarkable, for the marvelous, for the wondrous. And yet there has been, at least until recently, a strange critical lacuna as concerns aphoristic significance. Scholar Gary Morson writes in The Long and Short of It: From Aphorism to Novel that though they “constitute the shortest [of] literary genres, they rarely attract serious study. Universities give courses on the novel, epic, and lyric…But I know of no course on…proverbs, wise sayings, witticisms and maxims.”

coverAn example of literary malpractice, for to consider an aphorism is to imbibe the purest distillation of a mind contemplating itself. In an aphorism every letter and word counts; every comma and semicolon is an invitation for the reader to discover the sacred contours of her own thought. Perhaps answering Morson’s observation, critic Andrew Hui writes in his new study A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter that the form is “Opposed to the babble of the foolish, the redundancy of bureaucrats, the silence of mystics, in the aphorism nothing is superfluous, every word bear weight.” An aphorism isn’t a sentence—it’s an earthquake captured in a bottle. It isn’t merely a proverb, a quotation, an epigraph, or an epitaph; it’s fire and lightning circumscribed by the rules of syntax and grammar, where rhetoric itself becomes the very stuff of thought. “An aphorism,” Friedrich Nietzsche aphoristically wrote, “is an audacity.”

If brevity and surprising disjunction are the elements of the aphorism, then in some ways we’re living in a veritable renaissance of the form, as all of the detritus of our fragmented digital existence from texting to Twitter compels us toward the ambiguous and laconic (even while obviously much of what’s produced is sheer detritus). Hui notes the strangely under-theorized nature of the aphorism, observing that at a “time when a presidency can be won and social revolutions ignited by 140-character posts…an analysis of the short saying seems to be crucial as ever” (not that we’d put “covfefe” in the same category as Blaise Pascal).

Despite the subtitle to Hui’s book, A Theory of the Aphorism thankfully offers neither plodding history nor compendium of famed maxims. Rather Hui presents a critical schema to understand what exactly the form does, with its author positing that the genre is defined by “a dialectical play between fragments and systems.” Such a perspective on aphorism sees it not as the abandoned step-child of literature, but rather the very thing itself, a discursive and transgressive form of critique that calls into question all received knowledge. Aphorism is thus both the substance of philosophy and the joker that calls the very idea of literature and metaphysics into question.  The adage, the maxim, and the aphorism mock completism. Jesus’s sayings denounce theology; Parmenides and Heraclitus deconstruct philosophy. Aphoristic thought is balm and succor against the rigors of systemization, the tyranny of logic. Hui writes that “aphorisms are before, against, and after philosophy.” Before, against, and after scripture too, I’ll add. And maybe everything else as well. An aphorism may feign certainty, but the very brevity of the form ensures it’s an introduction, even if its rhetoric wears the costume of conclusion.

Such is why the genre is so associated with gnomic philosophy, for any accounting of aphoristic origins must waylay itself in both the fragments of the pre-Socratic metaphysicians, the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East, and the Confucian and Taoist scholars of China. All of this disparate phenomenon can loosely be placed during what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers called the “Axial Age,” a half-millennium before the Common Era when human thought began to move towards the universal and abstract. From that era (as very broadly constituted) we have Heraclitus’s “Nature loves to hide,” Lao-Tzu’s “The spoken Tao is not the real Tao,” and Jesus Christ’s “The kingdom of God is within you.” Perhaps the aphorism was an engine for that intellectual transformation, the sublimities of paradox breaking women and men out of the parochialism that marked earlier ages. Regardless of why the aphorism’s birth coincides with that pivotal moment in history, that era was the incubator for some of our earliest (and greatest) examples.

From the Greek philosophers who pre-date Socrates, and more importantly his systematic advocate Plato, metaphysics was best done in the form of cryptic utterance. It shouldn’t be discounted that the gnomic quality of thinkers like Parmenides, Heraclitus, Democritus, and Zeno might be due to the disappearance of their full corpus over the past 2,500 years. Perhaps erosion of stone and fraying of papyrus has generated such aphorisms. Entropy is, after all, our final and most important teacher. Nevertheless, aphorism is rife in the pre-Socratic philosophy that remains, from Heraclitus’s celebrated observation that “You can’t step into the same river twice” to Parmenides’s exactly opposite contention that “It is indifferent to me where I am to begin, for there shall I return again.” Thus is identified one of the most difficult qualities of the form—that it’s possible to say conflicting things and that by virtue of how you say them you’ll still sound wise. A dangerous form, the aphorism, for it can confuse rhetoric for knowledge. Yet perhaps that’s too limiting a perspective, and maybe its better to think of the chain of aphorisms as a great and confusing conversation; a game in which both truth and its opposite can still be true.

A similar phenomenon is found in wisdom literature, a mainstay of Jewish and Christian writing from the turn of the Common Era, as embodied in both canonical scripture such as Job, Ecclesiastes, Proverbs, and Song of Songs, as well as in more exotic apocryphal books known for their sayings like The Gospel of Thomas. Wisdom literature was often manifested in the form of a listing of sayings or maxims, and since the 19th century, biblical scholars who advocated the so-called “two-source hypothesis,” have argued that the earliest form of the synoptic New Testament gospels was a (as yet undiscovered) document known simply as “Q,” which consisted of nothing but aphorisms spoken by Christ. This conjectured collection of aphorisms theoretically became the basis for Matthew and Luke whom (borrowing from Mark) constructed a narrative around the bare-bones sentences. Similarly, the eccentric, hermetic, and surreal Gospel of Thomas, which the book of John was possibly written in repost towards, is an example of wisdom literature at its purest, an assemblage of aphorisms somehow both opaque and enlightening. “Split a piece of wood; I am there,” cryptically says Christ in the hidden gospel only rediscovered at Nag Hamadi, Egypt, in 1945, “Lift up the stone, and you will find me there.”

covercoverFrom its Axial-Age origins, the aphorism has a venerable history. Examples were transcribed in the self-compiled Commonplace Books of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, in which students were encouraged to record their favorite fortifying maxims for later consultation. The logic behind such exercises was, as anthologizer John Gross writes in The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, that the form does “tease and prod the lazy assumptions lodged in the reader’s mind; they wars us how insidiously our vices can pass themselves off as virtues; they harp shamelessly on the imperfections and contradictions which we would rather ignore.” Though past generations were instructed on proverbs and maxims, today “Aphorisms are often derided as trivial,” as Aaron Haspel writes in the introduction to Everything: A Book of Aphorisms, despite the fact that “most people rule their lives with four or five of them.”


The last five centuries have seen no shortage of aphorists who are the originators of those four or five sayings that you might live your life by, gnomic authors who speak in the prophetic utterance of the form like Desiderius Erasmus, François de La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire, William Blake, Nietzsche, Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Kafka, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Dorothy Parker, Theodor Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. Hui explains that “Aphorisms are transhistorical and transcultural, a resistant strain of thinking that has evolved and adapted to its environment for millennia. Across deep time, they are vessels that travel everywhere, laden with fraught yet buoyant.” In many ways, modernity has proven an even more prodigious environment for the digressive and incomplete form, standing both in opposition to the systemization of knowledge that has defined the last half-millennia, while also embodying the aesthetic of fragmented bricolage that sometimes seems as if it was our birthright. Contemporary master of the form Yahia Lababidi writes in Where Epics Fail: Meditations to Live By that “An aphorist is not one who writes in aphorisms but one who thinks in aphorisms.” In our fractured, fragmented, disjointed time, where we take wisdom where we find it, we’re perhaps all aphorists, because we can’t think in any other way.

coverAnthologizer James Lough writes in his introduction to Short Flights: Thirty-Two Modern Writers Share Aphorisms of Insight, Inspiration, and Wit that “Our time is imperiled by tidal waves of trivia, hectored by a hundred emails a day, colored by this ad slogan or that list of things to do, each one sidetracking our steady, focused awareness.” What might seem to be one of the most worrying detriments of living in post-modernity—our digitally slackening attention spans and inattention to detail—is the exact same quality that allows contemporary aphorists the opportunity to dispense arguments, insight, enlightenment, and wisdom in a succinct package, what Lough describes as a “quickly-digested little word morsel, delightful and instructive, that condenses thought, insight, and wordplay.”

covercoverOur century has produced brilliant aphorists who have updated the form while making use of its enduring and universal quality of brevity, metaphor, arresting detail, and the mystery that can be implied by a few short words that seem to gesture towards something slightly beyond our field of sight, and who embody Gross’s description of the genre as one which exemplifies a “concentrated perfection of phrasing which can sometimes approach poetry in its intensity.” Authors like Haspel, Lababidi, Don Paterson in The Fall at Home: New and Selected Aphorisms, and Sarah Manguso in 300 Arguments may take as their subject matter issues of current concern, from the Internet to climate change, but they do it in a form that wouldn’t seem out of place on a bit of frayed pre-Socratic papyrus.

Consider the power and poignancy of Manguso’s maxim “Inner beauty can fade, too.” In only five words, and one strategically placed comma that sounds almost like a reserved sigh, Manguso demonstrates one of the uncanniest powers of the form. That it can remind you of something that you’re already innately aware of, something that relies on the nature of the aphorism to illuminate that which we’d rather obscure. Reading 300 Arguments is like this. Manguso bottles epiphany, the strange acknowledgment of encountering that which you always knew but could never quite put into words yourself, like discovering that the gods share your face. Lababidi does something similar in Where Epics Fail, giving succinct voice to the genre’s self-definition, writing that “Aphorisms respect the wisdom of silence by disturbing it, but briefly.” Indeed, self-referentiality is partially at the core of modern aphorisms; many of Paterson’s attempts are of maxims considering themselves like an ouroboros biting its tail. In the poet’s not unfair estimation, an aphorism is “Hindsight with murderous purpose.”


Lest I be accused of uncomplicated enthusiasms in offering an encomium for the aphorism, let it be said that the form can be dangerous, that it can confuse brevity and wit with wisdom and knowledge, that rhetoric (as has been its nature for millennia) can pantomime understanding as much as express it. Philosopher Julian Baggini makes the point in Should You Judge This Book by Its Cover: 100 Takes on Familiar Sayings and Quotations, writing that aphorisms “can be too beguiling. They trick us into thinking we’ve grasped a deep thought by their wit and brevity. Poke them, however, and you find they ride roughshod over all sorts of complexities and subtleties.” The only literary form where rhetoric and content are as fully unified as the aphorism is arguably poetry proper, but ever fighting Plato’s battle against the versifiers, Baggini is correct that there’s no reason why an expression in anaphora or chiasmus is more correct simply because the prosody of its rhetoric pleases our ears.


Economic statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb provides ample representative examples in The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms of how a pleasing adage need not be an accurate statement. There’s an aesthetically harmonious tricolon in his contention that the “three most harmful addictions are heroin, carbohydrates, and a monthly salary,” and though of those I’ve only ever been addicted to bread, pizza, and pasta, I’ll say from previous addictions that I could add a few more harmful vices to the list made by Taleb. Or, when he opines that “Writers are remembered for their best work, politicians for their worst mistakes, and businessmen are almost never remembered,” I have to object. I’d counter Taleb’s pithy aphorism by pointing out that both John Updike and Philip Roth are remembered for their most average writing, that an absurd preponderance of things in our country are named for Ronald Reagan whose entire political career was nothing but mistakes, and that contra the claim that businessmen are never remembered, I’ll venture that my entire Pittsburgh upbringing where everything is named after a Carnegie, Frick, Mellon, or Heinz demonstrates otherwise. The Bed of Procrustes is like this, lots of sentences that are as if they came from Delphi, but when you spend a second to contemplate Taleb’s claim that “If you find any reason why you and someone are friends, you are not friends” you’ll come to the conclusion that far from experience-tested wise maxim, it’s simply inaccurate.

coverCritic Susan Sontag made one of the best arguments against aphoristic thinking in her private writings, as published in As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980, claiming that “An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.” She makes an important point—that the declarative confidence of the aphorism can serve to announce any number of inanities and inaccuracies as if they were true by simple fiat. Sontag writes that “Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details.” Providing a crucial counter-position to the uncomplicated celebration of all things aphoristic, Sontag rightly observes that “To write aphorisms is to assume a mask—a mask of scorn, of superiority,” which would certainly seem apropos when encountering the claim that if you can enumerate why you enjoy spending time with a friend they’re not really your friend. “We know at the end,” Sontag writes, that “the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.”

An irony in Sontag’s critique of aphorisms, for embedded within her prose like any number of shining stones found in a muddy creek are sentences that themselves would make great prophetic adages. Aphorisms are like that though; even with Sontag’s and Baggini’s legitimate criticism of the form’s excesses, we can’t help but approach, consider, think, and understand in that genre for which brevity is the essence of contemplation. In a pose of self-castigation, Paterson may have said that the “aphorism is already a shadow of itself,” but I can’t reject that microcosm, that inscribed reality within a few words, that small universe made cunningly. Even with all that I know about the risks of rhetoric, I can not pass sentence on the sentence. Because an aphorism is open-ended, it is disruptive; as such, it doesn’t preclude, but rather opens; the adage both establishes and abolishes its subject, simultaneously. Hui writes that the true subject of the best examples of the form is “The infinite,” for “either the aphorism’s meaning is inexhaustible or its subject of inquiry—be it God or nature of the self—is boundless.”

coverIn The Aphorism and Other Short Forms, author Ben Grant writes that in the genre “our short human life and eternity come together, for the timelessness of the truth which the aphorism encapsulates can only be measured against our own ephemerality, of which the brevity of the aphorism serves as an apt expression.” I agree with Grant’s contention, but I would amend one thing—the word “truth.” Perhaps that’s what’s problematic about Baggini’s and Sontag’s criticism, for we commit a category mistake when we assume that aphorisms exist only to convey some timeless verity. Rather, I wonder if what Hui describes as the “most elemental of literary forms,” those “scattered lines of intuition…[moving by] arrhythmic leaps and bounds” underscored by “an atomic quality—compact yet explosive” aren’t defined by the truth, but rather by play.

Writing and reading aphorisms is the play of contemplation, the joy of improvisation; it’s the very nature of aphorism. We read such sayings not for the finality of truth, but for the possibilities of maybe. For a short investment of time and an economy of words we can explore the potential of ideas that even if inaccurate, would sink far longer and more self-serious works. That is the form’s contribution. An aphorism is all wheat and no chaff, all sweet and no gaffe.

Image credit: Unsplash/Prateek Katyal.

Ed Simon is a staff writer for Lit Hub, the editor of Belt Magazine, and the author of numerous books, including most recently Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost; Elysium: A Visual History of Angelology; and Relic, part of the Object Lessons series. In the summer of 2024 Melville House will release his Devil's Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, the first comprehensive, popular account of that subject.