I. What is an Aphorism?
Aphorism (pronounced AFF-or-ism) is a short statement of a general truth, insight, or good advice. It’s roughly similar to a “saying.” Aphorisms often use metaphors or creative imagery to get their general point across.
If the shoe fits, wear it.
This popular aphorism is applied to all sorts of situations where one is surprised by how well something is working. For example, if you were starting a new job and being placed in roles that you didn’t expect, you might find that the roles actually suit you fairly well; in that case, you should just embrace the job – “If the shoe fits, wear it!.”
II. Examples of Aphorism
Some philosophers, especially in the ancient world, wrote in aphorisms. For example, Confucius’s Analects is a collection of aphorisms that have become extremely popular around the world. One famous example is:
The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.
In other words, even the most difficult tasks can be accomplished by starting small and working diligently.
If you judge a fish by its ability to climb trees, it will spend its whole life thinking it is stupid. (Albert Einstein)
Einstein believed that everyone had their own sort of genius – if not for science and math, then perhaps for art, or construction, or parenting. The point of his aphorism is that we shouldn’t hold up a single standard of success or intelligence, but should instead recognize that there are many different forms of genius, and acknowledge people’s true talents. The image of a fish climbing a tree is so striking and absurd that this aphorism is exceptionally powerful and easy to remember!
III. The Importance of Aphorism
A good aphorism can really stick in the mind. Because they’re so short, aphorisms are easy to remember, and they often employ striking metaphors that give them even more staying power. The best aphorisms are also applicable to all sorts of different situations, which further adds to their memorable quality. So people who write good aphorisms are seen as extremely wise, and their words have the power to inspire us even (in some case) a thousand years after the writer has died.
So what you gain with aphorisms is staying power and general applicability. What you lose sometimes is clarity and specificity. Precisely because they’re so short, aphorisms don’t leave room for supporting arguments or clarification. There’s always the risk that readers will misunderstand what you mean to say. You also leave yourself open to the charge that what you’re writing is not an aphorism but a truism (see §6), which essentially means that the aphorism lacks real meaning or significance.
IV. Examples of Aphorism in Literature
Although a successful aphorism makes a character seem wise and worldly, aphorisms can also be used to the opposite effect – Don Quixote, for example, speaks constantly in aphorisms, but seems not to understand what they mean. Often the aphorisms are silly or humorous (but still interesting enough that they’re probably not truisms). Examples include:
- Hunger is the best sauce.
- He who’s down one day can be up the next, unless he really wants to stay in bed.
All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. (Gandalf, “The Lord of the Rings”)
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, Gandalf is presented as one of the wisest beings in Middle Earth, and it’s largely through his aphorisms that we see his wisdom. In this famous line, he’s telling Frodo that it’s pointless to fret about why the quest has fallen on his shoulders – we only have to worry, Gandalf says, about the choices we make, not the burdens that fall to us.
V. Examples of Aphorism in Pop Culture
Do, or do not; there is no try. (Yoda, “Star Wars”)
Yoda frequently speaks in short, punchy lines that are rich with meaning. This particular quote has become so popular that it appears on countless T-shirts and coffee mugs and is frequently cited even by people who are not Star Wars fans.
You can’t always get what you want, but if you try, sometimes you get what you need. (The Rolling Stones)
This is the chorus to the Rolling Stones’ wildly popular song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. In just a few words, it expresses an opposition to consumerism and challenges listeners to be grateful for what they have. The first part of the chorus (“you can’t always get what you want”) is a proverb, but the chorus as a whole isn’t; the rest of the words are original to the Stones.
Most proverbs are aphorisms, but they don’t originate with a specific author. Whereas aphorisms sometimes have a single author who invented them, proverbs generally don’t – they just emerge from folk wisdom or the general culture. (Scriptures sometimes use the word somewhat differently, for example in “The Proverbs of Solomon,” which may or may not have had a single author.) The words “proverb” and “adage” are synonymous.
A truism is an aphorism that is trite, stale, overly general, or meaningless. It’s an aphorism that is so obviously true that it lacks any significance. People disagree about which aphorisms are truisms, but one common example is “the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Lao Zi). Some people find this aphorism to be profound and inspiring, but others would say that it’s obvious and brings no new information – that it’s a truism.
The primary tool of many aphorisms is metaphor, or having one thing stand in for something else. Take, for example, the aphorism “if the shoe fits, wear it.” In this case, shoe is a metaphor for all sorts of things – jobs, partners, opportunities, or anything else that might “fit” in a general sense. Similarly, take the Einstein quotation from sectopn II. He’s not literally talking about fish, but rather using fish as a metaphor for all people, who have a variety of skills. Of course, there are some aphorisms that are simple statements of truth without any metaphors.
A quote or quotation is any excerpt of another person’s speech or writing. The most popular quotations are generally aphorisms, because they’re short and concise, and therefore easy to remember and share. (Most people use the words “quote” and “quotation” interchangeably, but strict grammarians will insist that “quote” is a verb, while “quotation” is the noun.)