Aphorisms

Kovuuri G. Reddy
5 min readAug 31, 2020

How is aphorism different from adage, epigram, maxim, motto, parable, proverb, and saying?

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How is aphorism different from adage, epigram, maxim, motto, parable, proverb, and saying?

Aphorism is a short pithy statement. It is a concise statement of a principle; a short pointed sentence expressing a truth, precept; a terse saying embodying a general truth or principle.

Leo Tolstoy observed: “Aphorisms are perhaps the best form for the presentation of philosophical propositions.”

Maxim Gorky noted: “I really learned a lot on proverbs, in other words — I think with aphorisms.”

Examples of aphorism: Ὲ is a fool who cannot conceal his wisdom.

A barking dog never bites (most of the dogs among human habitations do not bite — the element of truth or precept in aphorisms is also subjective, and the time tests its validity).

Absence makes the heart grow fonder (proverb, too).

East or west, home is best.

How is an aphorism different from an adage, epigram, maxim, motto, parable, proverb, and saying? Some of them are used interchangeably but each one has a distinct meaning. Aphorism is a form of a maxim, an adage; aphorisms and maxims are used interchangeably.

ADAGE:

An adage is a form of saying that has been popularly accepted over a long period of time. For example: Where there is smoke, there is fire.

EPIGRAM:

An epigram is a terse, witty, pointed statement that gains its effect by ingenious antithesis. For example: The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

Aaron Haspel, the author of EVERYTHING: A Book of Aphorisms, notes: “To make an epigram, invert a cliché.”

MAXIM:

A maxim is a general principle drawn from practical experience and serving as a rule of conduct. For example: Keep thy shop and thy shop will keep thee

MOTTO:

A motto is a maxim accepted as a guiding principle or as an ideal of behaviour. For example: Honesty is the best policy.

PARABLE:

Parable is a short simple story from which a moral lesson may be drawn, usually an allegory. Parable is an obscure enigmatic saying.

Jesus’s parables are popular for their simplicity and imagery yet memorable and with message: The Parable of the Leaven (the Yeast) and the Parable of the Mustard Seed, the Parable of the Good Samaritan.

Aaron Haspel, the author of EVERYTHING: A Book of Aphorisms, points to a parable aphoristically: “The parable of the drunk looking for his keys under the street lamp, where the light is better, explains vast swaths of intellectual history.”

PROVERB:

A proverb is a piece of practical wisdom expressed in a homely, concrete terms. For example: A penny saved is a penny earned.

SAYING:

Saying is a simple, direct term for any pithy expression of wisdom or truth. Adages, proverbs, maxims are all a form of sayings. Every culture has its sayings.

APHORISMS:

Adam Gopnik mentions in The New Yorker on aphorisms titled ‘The Art of Aphorism’ and describes them as ‘fragments of wisdom (empirical or mystical, funny or profound), philosophies distilled into few words, moral injunctions summarised in few words, unpalatable truth condensed in a statement and wisdom encompassed in a line. He writes,Aphorisms come at us in so many forms and from so many periods that one might think an academic study of aphorisms would aim to give them a family tree — tracing the emergence of the humanistic aphorism from its solemn white-bearded grandfather, the proverb; the descent of the clever, provocative epigram from its sly guerrilla progenitor, the parable (the form that allowed Jesus to spread subversion while seeming merely obscurely elegant).”

EVERYTHING: A Book of Aphorisms by Aaron Haspel

The composer of an aphorism has to distil a complex thought into few words such as the one-liner and the meme.

In this age of maximisation of miniature topics, it is not surprising to find a book on aphorisms. EVERYTHING: A Book of Aphorisms is a collection of aphorisms by Aron Haspel. Possibly, he would surpass La Rochedoucaud, the greatest aphorists who had published about 600 aphorisms. The author writes in the introduction to the book: “Aphorisms are often derided as trivial, yet most people rule their lives with four or five of them.” In the book, the aphorisms are categorised under topics such as schooling, reading, writing, thinking, erring, computing, lying, mating, working, getting, ruing, self-loving, being, seeming, remembering, and nothing.

What is interesting about the aphorisms of Aaron Hospel is the contemporariness in his aphorisms. The following are Aaron’s aphorisms:

Americans take no interest in education but are obsessed with schooling.

We all know intimately many more fictional characters than real ones. (With social-distancing due to Covid-19, plausibly one would know more and more fictional characters and would engage more and more virtually.)

Cows chew cud, people read newspapers. (The age of newspapers is dead. The online avatars of newspapers is not the same as their printed versions.)

We weep and blush for fictional characters, never with them. (Envisioning the reality of interacting with the unreality yet overpowered with an emotion: weeping, blushing, and such.)

Reading, unless it’s for writing, is high-class idling. (Subjective: At any given time, there are more readers than writers: all readers are not writers but all writers are readers unless the writer reckons gifted and genius.)

Every age has its debilitating prejudice; open-mindedness is ours.

Our collective delusion that we can fix most problems is another problem we can’t fix.

No-brainer, n. An idea that is extremely persuasive as long as you don’t think about it.

How to solve problems: 1. Ask if the problem exists 2. Ask if it is not trivial 3. Ask if you can do anything about it. 4. Ignore it.

We invent metrics partly to dignify arguments, but mostly to disguise them.

The truth is rarely dignified.

Hate speech, n. Speech you hate.

More people fear the past than the future.

On design, the author’s aphorism is: Design is the residue of luck. The aphorisms in the pages of the book are separated with space that is almost as big as Siberia (for notes to the reader); this makes the reading an un-reading experience ostensibly to give the aphorisms a complete package. However, the author notes in the introduction: “No book has ever been too short, and this one is no exception. La Rochefoucauld, the greatest of all aphorists, published about six hundred, mostly forgettable. From this collection I would have liked remove the worst ten, if I could determine which they were. Then I could have removed the next worst ten, and the next, until I had, instead of a book that is too long, no book at all. Among the dross some readers may find a few bits of gold, perhaps for each not the same few bits.” Indeed, there are some good ones; few reflect zeitgeist: ‘Less garbage was written when it had to be written by hand.’

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Kovuuri G. Reddy

Independent journalist; short, short story writer; living in Sweden. Worked as a broadcast journalist and teaching journalsim and media in England and India.