'A rose with a thousand petals' … what makes an aphorism – and is this a golden age?

By Sam Leith

“Be the change you want to see in the world.”
“Raise your words, not your voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder.”
“Winners are not those who never fail, but those who never quit.”

Social media, these days, burgeons with such words of wisdom, floating around on a sea of hashtags, usually misattributed, and frequently accompanied by photos of sunsets over beaches. So are we living in a golden age of aphorisms? They are, after all, well suited to a 280-character limit, and positively beg to be shared.

“You’d think so,” says the poet and aphorist Don Paterson. “But there’s absolutely no evidence of it.” As he sees it, the aphorism is a different thing altogether from what he calls “wisdom literature”. He adds: “Temperamentally, [social media] is unsuited to the inspirational quote.”

Yet aphorisms – even though they haven’t much of a tradition in the anglophone world – are poking green shoots into the likes of Waterstone’s. In recent months, we’ve seen Paterson’s The Fall At Home: New and Collected Aphorisms, Yahia Lababidi’s Where Epics Fail: Meditations to Live By, and Sarah Manguso’s 300 Arguments, described by its publisher as “at first glance a group of unrelated aphorisms, but the pieces reveal themselves as a masterful arrangement that steadily gathers power”.

These titles are pretty different in style. Paterson is frequently scabrous and happy to talk about Netflix and smartphones. Lababidi, though he mentions Facebook, is happier trading in philosophical abstractions (“We do not choose our work, we merely consent to it”; or “Reality is a rose of a thousand petals”, a line he seems to have loosely borrowed from Larkin). Manguso writes unexpected micro-essays and diagnoses her own gift for aphorism thus: “I don’t write long forms because I’m not interested in artificial deceleration. As soon as I see the glimmer of a consequence, I pull the trigger.”

Aphorisms are ‘a brief waste of time’ … poet Don Paterson.
Aphorisms are ‘a brief waste of time’ … poet Don Paterson. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

But what is an aphorism and how does it differ from a haiku, a proverb, an epigram, an obiter dictum, a maxim, an adage, a riddle, an axiom or a brocard? Well, it’s complicated. The aphorism is an excellently fugitive form. WH Auden, introducing his anthology, said: “An aphorism … must convince every reader that it is either universally true or true of every member of the class to which it refers, irrespective of the reader’s convictions.”

The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory has this: “A terse statement of a truth or dogma; a pithy generalisation, which may or may not be witty.” Neither of these quite nails it. As the Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco put it: “There is nothing more difficult to define than an aphorism.”

But what these definitions seem to agree on is that brevity is only part of it. The distinctive formal property of the aphorism – which makes it unlike other literary modes – is the baked-in idea that it is true. And yet, of course, its brevity means that its truth is (indeed, should be) unevidenced: it is an assertion. So it’s arrogant. Susan Sontag has called it a hallmark of “aristocratic thinking”. Paterson says: “The aphorism talks to you as if you were an idiot.”

Aphorists don’t see their readers as equals: they dispense slivers of truth from on high for them to take or leave. This is where the form parts company with the proverb: an aphorism has an author. It must, the critic and anthologist James Geary wrote, “be personal”. You could add that the proverb usually encodes a form of practical wisdom (“a stitch in time saves nine”) where the aphorism stabs at a general truth. Paterson implies a version of this distinction, and winks at the fine uselessness of the aphorism, when he writes: “In this life, the golden rule has been far less use to me than ‘righty tighty, lefty loosy’.” And if you don’t know what that means, pick up a screwdriver.

Gertrude Stein.
‘Communists are people who fancied that they had an unhappy childhood’ … Gertrude Stein. Photograph: Hulton Deutsch/Corbis via Getty Images

To complicate things further, an aphorism should express a truth but not an incontrovertible one. That would be a truism – and the thing about a truism, ho ho, is that it’s true. An aphorism is supposed to provoke thought. It needs to contain a twist, a paradox, an opacity, an element of wit. In other words, the aphorism’s statement of a general truth, made on the authority of its speaker, is usually in some way unexpected, coded, paradoxical or comic. That makes it, in Paterson’s words, “A brief waste of time.”

So it’s a literary – specifically, a poetic – form, and a philosophical one, and (historically) a theological one, too. Noted aphorists include Hippocrates, Karl Kraus, Schopenhauer, Pascal and Larochefoucauld, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Emil Cioran and Jean Baudrillard (“Americans may have no identity, but they do have wonderful teeth”). The category also includes Buddhist koans, the sayings of Confucius, Rumi’s and other Sufi dicta (“You only truly possess that which you cannot lose in a shipwreck”), the Hadith of Mohammed and any number of biblical sayings. The form skips nimbly between these things. It doesn’t commit. Paterson’s gloss on another celebrated aphorist, Nietzsche – “What does not kill me makes me stronger”; “Some men are born posthumously”is: “All his famous contradictions disappear as soon as you remember to read him as literature, which isn’t obliged to be coherent.”

And that hard-to-pin-down quality of the aphorism as a form is, perhaps, what makes it so appealing. Indeed, most aphorists seem to work with a pretty fuzzy definition. Paterson’s and Manguso’s collections contain what you might think of as classic aphorisms – but also personal gripes, jokes, inversions of accepted wisdom, haiku-like verbless prose poems, definitions (like Ambrose Bierce, whose Devil’s Dictionary could be seen as a collection of aphorisms) and dyspeptic miniature op-ed pieces.

Paterson is forever using his aphorisms to define aphorisms (“Hindsight with murderous purpose”; “A book of aphorisms is a lexicon of disappointments”; “The aphorism is already a shadow of itself”) or to distinguish it from other forms (most so-called English aphorists, Chesterton, Halifax, Hazlitt – “Love may turn to indifference with possession” and Wilde excepted, he disregards as “wits”, and he spends many aphorisms on the difference between an aphorism and a poem: “A poem is a ladder to the sky; an aphorism just a stair to the cellar”). Aphorisms don’t cohere, which is part of the fun. Rather, they record fleeting and sometimes contradictory moments of certainty. The form is, says Paterson, a “hysterical record of a momentary conviction – it’s like ringing a doorbell and running away”. Here we return, perhaps, to his point about Nietzsche.

And Nietzsche’s aphorisms weren’t all aphorisms, either. As the Cambridge philosopher and Nietzsche specialist Michael Tanner (himself the editor of a book of aphorisms) points out, Nietzsche’s books of aphorisms mix two-line zingers (“Anyone who despises himself will still respect himself as a despiser”) with mini-essays that can run to a page and a half. Tanner’s view is that the paradigmatic quality of an aphorism lies in the fact that it’s “the kind of thing that makes you smile wryly – and also feel a shiver. Its subject is human nature, and it peels off a layer of illusion. [Aphorisms] tend not to be nice. They tend to probe.” He mentions Gore Vidal’s “It is not enough to succeed; others must fail” and Larochefoucauld’s “In the misfortunes of our best friends we always find something not altogether displeasing to us.”

Tanner distinguishes between two main types of aphorism – those that “snap and close the subject down” and those that “tend to open you up” to further contemplation. But in either case, he says, “you can’t argue with an aphorism”. There is, as he puts it, “an intimidating quality to them: a sense that you’re not with it, or you’re thick if you don’t agree.”

Perhaps this inbuilt arrogance is one of the reasons that with few exceptions, as Paterson wanly notes, “women have so far found little use for the aphorism”. That’s not strictly true – Dorothy Parker, Gertrude Stein (“Communists are people who fancied that they had an unhappy childhood”) and Mae West have dispensed some zingers. But it gets at something. As Mathew Staunton notes in his introduction to Where Epics Fail, only 5% of the authors quoted in the Viking Book of Aphorisms are women, and James Geary admits to managing only 10% in his The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism.

Perhaps more of them will take the limelight in years to come. For social media may yet prove the aphorism’s ideal home – a corrective to the Paulo Coelho/Kahlil Gibran school of insta-wisdom. And reading a collection of aphorisms from cover to cover can be like watching a highbrow version of a set by quickfire comic Tim Vine: one-liner after one-liner. But as Paterson warns: “Reading a book of aphorisms diligently in the sequence they appear makes about as much sense as eating a large jar of onions diligently in the sequence they appear. No one should try to finish either in one sitting.”