On another blog of mine I had been posting a series of short pieces of simple wisdom. That blog began as “Evenings in Paradelle” and I intended it to be shorter weekday posts while this blog are the longer Weekends in Paradelle posts. That blog became One Page Schoolhouse and has occasional posts that I hope inform readers.
An aphorism (literally “distinction” or “definition”, from the Greek) is an original thought, spoken or written in a “laconic” and memorable form.
The Aphorisms of Hippocrates is one of the earliest collections which includes aphorisms like this one:
“Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting,
experience misleading, judgment difficult.”
There are aphoristic collections (AKA wisdom literature) such as the Sutra literature of India, the Biblical Ecclesiastes, and in the work of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Robert A. Heinlein, Blaise Pascal, and Oscar Wilde. There are anthologies like the Oxford Book of Aphorisms.
There is even an anthology of Ifferisms – aphorisms that begin with the word “If.” Some samples:
“If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.”
– The Bible (Matthew 15:14)
“If we have not peace within ourselves, it is vain to seek it from outward sources.”
– François de la Rochefoucauld
“If we have our own why of life, we shall get along with almost any how.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
“If wishes were horses, beggars would ride.”
– Scottish Proverb
“If you want to lift yourself up, lift up someone else.”
– Booker T. Washington
Some examples, like those below gleaned from a Wikipedia entry, do seem indistinguishable from the kinds of quotes you find in quote books and on posters and bookmarks.
Good art seems ancient to its contemporaries, and modern to their descendants.
Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
That which does not destroy us makes us stronger.
— Friedrich Nietzsche
It is not uncommon to commiserate with a stranger’s misfortune, but it takes a really fine nature to appreciate a friend’s success.
— Oscar Wilde
No good deed goes unpunished.
— It said Clare Boothe Luce but I’m pretty sure it was Tacitus
It is better to be hated for what one is, than loved for what one is not.
— André Gide
I’m going to add my own spin on the definition of aphorism. When you pull a clever line out of essay, poem, novel or other work, that’s a quotation. When someone sits down and writes an original short, memorable line that makes sense when you read it but it makes even more sense when you read it again and think about it, that is an aphorism.
I am going to nominate here some aphorisms written by James Richardson. He is an acquaintance. (A quaint phrase for someone who you can’t call a friend because you don’t know them that well, but have met and know better than many of your Facebook and Twitter “friends.”)
I could add a list of them here, but they are not best consumed in handfuls. To me, the best of them are like Western koans.
If you view a kōan as an “unanswerable” question, then you may not even want to seek an answer – but people DO answer koans. Rather than see them as unanswerable or even meaningless, look for an answer. Don’t get hung up on the “correct” answer because that is a dead-end. Koans do have some traditional recorded answers” (kenjō), but don’t be fooled into believing that they are anything more than additional questions.
Richardson’s aphorisms are not usually questions, so they don’t have answers. They are quotable. They require additional thought and explication.
Here are four of Jim’s aphorisms. Consume slowly.
The road reaches every place, the shortcut only one.
Shadows are harshest when there is only one lamp.
Each lock makes two prisons.
All stones are broken stones.
You can find more of James Richardson’s aphorisms in:
Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms
Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays
Life as Viewed in a Mirror: a Bok of Poems and Aphorisms
Also worth a read is Jim’s By the Numbers which was a National Book Award Finalist.