An aphorism is an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic (concise) and memorable form. Aphorism literally means a "distinction" or "definition". The term was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. The oft-cited first sentence of this work (see Ars longa, vita brevis) is:
Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgment difficult.
The term was later applied to maxims of physical science, then statements of all kinds of philosophical, moral, or literary principles. In modern usage an aphorism is generally understood to be a concise statement containing a subjective truth or observation cleverly and pithily written.
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 Hadith, 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, such as Josemaría Escrivá (compiled from other spiritual authors), Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Franz Kafka, Elias Canetti, Karl Kraus, Montaigne, La Rochefoucauld, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, Andrzej Majewski, Mikhail Turovsky, Antonio Porchia, Celia Green, Robert A. Heinlein, Blaise Pascal, E. M. Cioran, Oscar Wilde and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. A 1559 oil–on–oak-panel painting, Netherlandish Proverbs (also called The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World) by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, artfully depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish aphorisms (proverbs) of the day.
The aphoristic genre developed together with literacy, and after the invention of printing, aphorisms were collected and published in book form. The first noted published collection of aphorisms is Adagia by Erasmus of Rotterdam. Other important early aphorists were Baltasar Gracián, François de La Rochefoucauld and Blaise Pascal.
Two influential collections of aphorisms published in the twentieth century were The Uncombed Thoughts by Stanislaw Jerzy Lec (in Polish), and Itch of Wisdom by Mikhail Turovsky (in Russian and English).
In many cultures, including Samuel Johnson's England, many East and Southeast Asian societies, and throughout the world, the ability to spontaneously produce aphoristic sayings at exactly the right moment is a key determinant of social status. Many societies have traditional sages or culture heroes to whom aphorisms are commonly attributed, such as the Seven Sages of Greece, Confucius or King Solomon.
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.
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- Book of Proverbs
- Wisdom of Sirach
- Gospel of Thomas
- (English) (Arabic) Commentary on Hippocrates' Aphorisms