What is an aphorism? Perhaps a witty statement. Something pithy, something universal. Supposedly carries a lot of weight, speaks of a general truth. But how does it differ from “maxims” or “proverbs” or “adages”? In The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, prominent British critic John Gross (1935-2011) – who had worked for the Sunday Telegraph, the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Times – provided a set of characteristics that might help us spot one. “The earliest aphorisms—the first to go by that name, at least—,” began he, “were a collection of brief medical teachings and sayings by Hippocrates (460 BC-370 BC), and when the term was revived in the Renaissance it initially looked back to its scientific origins. Soon, however, it came to denote the formulation of a moral or philosophical principle as well, and gradually this took over as its accepted everyday meaning.”

The Oxford Book of Aphorisms edited by John Gross (1980s/2003, Oxford University Press)

In addition to “brevity” and “wide applicability”, Gross outlined features of “form” and “purpose” when defining the aphorism. Although it was universal in message, the aphorism reflected the mind of the aphorist in its style and structure. There was a deeply personal side to it. Gross’s words:

…it [aphorism] is a form of literature, and often a highly idiosyncratic or self-conscious form at that. It bears the stamp and style of the mind which created it; its message is universal, but scarcely impersonal; it may embody a twist of thought strong enough to retain its force in translation, but it also depends for its full effect on verbal artistry, on a subtle or concentrated perfection of phrasing which can sometimes approach poetry in its intensity.

Also, the aphorism was an independent statement, it wasn’t part of a larger and immediate dialogue. But, yes, it could have been formulated as a response to somebody’s opinions. Gross explained:

An aphorism…has to be able to stand by itself;…it is an ‘unconnected’ proposition. Yet in practice many aphorisms are also retorts and ripostes, shafts aimed at the champions of an established viewpoint or a shallower morality. They tease and prod the lazy assumptions lodged in the reader’s mind; they warn us how insidiously our vices can pass themselves off as virtues; they harp shamelessly on the imperfections and contradictions which we would rather ignore. There are times when the very form of the aphorism seems to lend itself to a disenchanted view of human nature.


“Life is short, and Art long; the crisis fleeting; experience perilous, and decision difficult. The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate.” ~ Hippocrates’ first aphorism. In this picture, he stands lecturing his students, Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0, Wikimedia Commons


As they renovated old truths and refined rough estimates, continued Gross, aphorisms – even (and especially) the greatest of them – often tended to be inwardly divided. They were haunted by irreconcilable conclusions and torn between rival impulses. They were of different types – aphorisms which cut and aphorisms which glow, classic aphorisms and romantic aphorisms, aphorisms which deflate and aphorisms (rather fewer) which console.


Aphorisms (1917-1920) by Franz Kafka translated by Willa and Edwin Muir and Michael Hofmann (2015, Schocken)

Franz Kafka (1883-1924), one of the twentieth century’s most important writers, composed two sets of aphorisms. The first effort of 1917-18 produced a series of 109, known as the “Zürau Aphorisms”, for they were written in the village of Zürau in West Bohemia. This lot, which primarily reflects on metaphysical and theological topics, were published by Kafka’s friend Max Brod in 1931. The second set, of 41, appeared in the writer’s diary in 1920. The subject, here, is “He” – somewhat like him but not exactly the historical Kafka. These aphorisms explore themes of opportunity and constraint, the possibility of progress and the inevitability of imprisonment

Both sets of aphorisms were published last year by Schocken Books. The publisher comments, “The aphorism eludes definition: it can appear to be a random jotting or a more polished observation. Whether arbitrary fragment or crystalline shard, an aphorism captures the inception of a thought…Kafka’s aphorisms are fascinating glimpses into the lure and the enigma of the form itself.”


Franz Kafka, Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]


The true path is along a rope, not a rope suspended way up in the air, but rather only just over the ground. It seems more tripwire than a tightrope.



All human errors stem from impatience, a premature breaking off of a methodical approach, an ostensible pinning down of an ostensible object.



Some deny the existence of misery by pointing to the sun; he denies the existence of the sun by pointing to misery.



He is neither bold nor rash. But neither is he fearful. A free life would not alarm him. Now he has never been granted such a life, but that too causes him no anxiety, for he has no anxiety of any kind about himself. There exists, however, a Someone completely unknown to him, who has a great and continuous anxiety for him – for him alone. This anxiety of this Someone concerning him, and in particular the continuousness of this anxiety, sometimes causes him torturing headaches in his quieter hours.




Image Credits:

Featured: Schocken Books

Others: Pixabay



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