An Aphorism Definition for Those Seeking Profound Truths
As an undergraduate, I once mangled somebody’s mantra in a memorable way by saying, “Inhale love, exhale hostility.” My friends apparently thought it was clever, and soon people throughout the fine arts department were saying it, including at least one professor. I was absurdly proud of myself and expressed it by repeating a quote from one of my favorite MST3K episodes, “Hey, I invented an aphorism!” despite having only the vaguest notion of the aphorism definition.
So, how do we define aphorism, and does my little college quip qualify as one? An aphorism has to have the following characteristics:
- Brevity: It has to be short.
- Insightful: It has to express some sort of general truth.
- Pithiness: It has to make its point in a way that is clever and pointed.
When applying these criteria to define aphorism to my maxim from college, I find that it is short, and it was regarded as clever and to the point at the time that I said it. It seems that aphorisms are generally more observational than they are imperative, as my saying is. Nevertheless, Alexander Pope was an 18th century English writer renowned for his aphorisms. One of his most frequently cited examples is, “Act well your part; there all the honour lies,” which is also more of advice on living life than an observation about it. So maybe the silly little saying that I came up with in college fits the aphorism definition after all. However, it may not have been a very effective aphorism since I never hear people saying it anymore.
Aphorism Meaning in Discourse
Knowing the aphorism definition is one thing, but how do aphorisms work, and what purpose do they serve in writing? An aphorism allows you to teach a complex moral lesson or make a philosophical point without having to craft an entire argument. For this reason, they can be a powerful rhetorical tool that should be used carefully since it can be irresponsible to make bold assertions without backing them up with evidence or elaborating on them further.
Aphorisms often use a striking image, metaphor, or another figure of speech. This, along with their brevity, makes them more memorable for audiences. You could speak abstractly to your audience about the limits of one’s power to provoke or influence the actions of others, but saying, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” illustrates your point in a way that is both memorable and relatable. Even if your audience doesn’t have firsthand experience trying to make a reluctant horse drink water, it is easy to imagine what that might look like.
Aphorisms often contain an element of humor. This makes them more memorable and may also make them a little bit easier to swallow for people who do not agree with the point you are trying to make. Perhaps no literary figure was more prolific at writing humorous aphorisms than 19th-century playwright Oscar Wilde, one of my favorite authors. An online curated collection of Wilde’s miscellaneous aphorisms spans a whopping 31 pages.
However, not all aphorisms are humorous. Some are quite serious and thoughtful, making a somber point about the human condition. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used a number of aphorisms to help the ruling hegemony try to understand the importance of civil rights, as well as to explain his commitment to working for equality through peaceful means. One of the most famous of his aphorisms is, “The old law of ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everyone blind.”
Aphorisms can also be used ironically. In literature, this can serve one of two different purposes. It can be used to call into question something that everyone believes to be a universal truth, as Jane Austen does in the famous first line of “Pride and Prejudice.” It can also show that a character is unreliable. For example, the protagonist of “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes speaks in aphorisms that he doesn’t seem to entirely understand.
Some aphorisms only apply in specific contexts. For example, ancient Greek physician Hippocrates wrote a collection of aphorisms that have little application outside the medical profession. However, aphorisms with broad general applications tend to have the greatest staying power. Some have become such a part of our daily speech that we no longer know where they came from:
- All is fair in love and war
- Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t
- Actions speak louder than words
- Forgive and forget
- All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy
While aphorisms can be useful to your writing to make a point effectively, there are also potential pitfalls to using them. If you try to come up with your own aphorisms, be very careful that they don’t turn into truisms instead. Like an aphorism, a truism is a statement of truth. However, a truism is so general that it lacks any real significance.
You may think that you are safer relying on well-known, time-honored aphorisms, but the danger here is that you may choose one that has become cliché. In other words, it has been used so often that it no longer means anything. Not everyone may agree on which aphorisms have become cliché and which are still relevant, but here are some that, in my opinion, have lost their meaning through overuse:
- The early bird gets the worm
- Easy come, easy go
- An apple a day keeps the doctor away
- Better safe than sorry
- If the shoe fits, wear it
It may be possible to breathe new life into a cliché aphorism by putting an unexpected spin on it. For example, “time heals all wounds” is a cliché expressing the idea that bad things eventually get better. Turn it into “time wounds all heels,” with “heel” being a slang term for an untrustworthy and disreputable person, and it becomes an entirely new aphorism about the inevitability of karmic retribution.
Put the Aphorism Definition to Good Use
Now that you know the aphorism definition, as well as its potential perils, you can put it to good use in your writing. Do you have a favorite aphorism? Have you ever invented a clever saying? Tell us about it in the comments.