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An aphorism (from Greek ἀφορισμός: aphorismos, denoting 'delimitation', 'distinction', and 'definition') is a concise, terse, laconic, or memorable expression of a general truth or principle. They are often handed down by tradition from generation to generation. The concept is generally distinct from those of an adage, brocard, chiasmus, epigram, maxim (legal or philosophical), principle, proverb, and saying; although some of these concepts may be construed as types of aphorism.
The word was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, a long series of propositions concerning the symptoms and diagnosis of disease and the art of healing and medicine. The often cited first sentence of this work is: "Ὁ βίος βραχύς, δὲ τέχνη μακρή" - "life is short, art is long", usually reversed in order (see Ars longa, vita brevis).
This aphorism was later applied or adapted to physical science and then morphed into multifarious aphorisms of philosophy, morality, and literature. Currently an aphorism is generally understood to be a concise and eloquent statement of truth.
Aphorisms are distinct from axioms: aphorisms generally originate from experience and custom, whereas axioms are self-evident truths and therefore require no additional proof. Aphorisms have been especially used in subjects to which no methodical or scientific treatment was originally applied, such as agriculture, medicine, jurisprudence and politics.
A famous example is:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Aphoristic collections, sometimes known as wisdom literature, have a prominent place in the canons of several ancient societies, such as the Sutra literature of India, the Biblical Ecclesiastes, Islamic hadiths, the golden verses of Pythagoras, Hesiod's Works and Days, the Delphic maxims, and Epictetus' Handbook. Aphoristic collections also make up an important part of the work of some modern authors. A 1559 oil–on–oak-panel painting, Netherlandish Proverbs (also called The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, artfully depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish aphorisms (proverbs) of the day.
Two influential collections of aphorisms published in the twentieth century were The Uncombed Thoughts by Stanisław Jerzy Lec (in Polish), and Itch of Wisdom by Mikhail Turovsky (in Russian and English).
Misquoted or misadvised aphorisms are frequently used as a source of humour; for instance, wordplays of aphorisms appear in the works of P. G. Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Aphorisms being misquoted by sports players, coaches, and commentators form the basis of Private Eye's Colemanballs section.
- Theodor W. Adorno: his Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (German: Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben) is a collection of aphorisms and reflections written while in exile in the United States during World War II.
- Georges Bataille
- Jean Baudrillard
- Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Dictionary.
- F. H. Bradley
- Emil Cioran
- Arkady Davidowitz
- Nicolás Gómez Dávila
- Malcolm de Chazal
- Desiderius Erasmus
- Gustave Flaubert: Dictionary of Received Ideas.
- Benjamin Franklin
- Robert A. Heinlein: The Notebooks of Lazarus Long.
- Edmond Jabès
- Joseph Joubert
- Franz Kafka
- Karl Kraus
- François de La Rochefoucauld
- Stanisław Jerzy Lec
- Georg Christoph Lichtenberg
- Andrzej Majewski
- Juan Manuel: Prince of Villena (Spain) and mediaeval author; the second, third and fourth parts of his famous work El Conde Lucanor are collections of aphorisms.
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Oiva Paloheimo
- Dorothy Parker
- Petar II Petrović-Njegoš
- Faina Ranevskaya
- Arthur Schopenhauer
- Seneca the Younger: Roman Stoic philosopher.
- George Bernard Shaw
- Lev Shestov
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb: The Bed of Procrustes
- Mikhail Turovsky
- Lao Tze
- Wasif Ali Wasif: A Pakistani writer, poet and Sufi intellectual, known as master of Aphorism
- Oscar Wilde
- George Santayana
- Alexander Woollcott
- Burchard of Worms: mediaeval Catholic priest and canonist.
- Cheng Yen: Jing Si Aphorism. (Buddhism)
- Adagia by Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus
- French moralists
- Gospel of Thomas
- Legal maxim
- Sacred Scripture:
- The Triads of Ireland, and the Welsh Triads
- Definition of Aphorism from the Online Etymology Dictionary
- public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Aphorism". Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 165. One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the
- Заголовок (2003-06-30). ЗАЛОЖНИК ВЕЧНОСТИ Михаил Туровский/ЗАЛОЖНИК ВЕЧНОСТИ Михаил Туровский (in Russian). Peoples.ru. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- Geary, James (2005). The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism, November 2, 2005. New York: Bloomsbury USA. p. 240. ISBN 9781608197620.
- Gopnik, Adam, "Brevity, Soul, Wit: The art of the aphorism" (includes discussion of Andrew Hui, A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter, Princeton, 2019), The New Yorker, 22 July 2019, pp. 67–69. "The aphorism [...] is [...] always an epitome, and seeks an essence. The ability to elide the extraneous is what makes the aphorism bite, but the possibility of inferring backward to a missing text is what makes the aphorism poetic." (p.69.)
- John Morley, 1st Viscount Morley of Blackburn (1887), Aphorisms: an address delivered before the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, November 11, 1887 (1st ed.), London: Macmillan Publishers, Wikidata Q19045853
- (in English and Arabic) Commentary on Hippocrates' Aphorisms