Definition of Aphorism

An aphorism is a short saying that expresses a truth in a memorable way. Aphorisms can sometimes be humorous, but are not necessarily so. They often have some parallelism or juxtaposition to make the point, such as in the example of Lord Acton’s famous quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Hippocrates, the ancient Greek physician, coined the term aphorism. He wrote a book called Aphorisms, which was full of short statements expressing medical truths. The definition of aphorism expanded to include truths about other sciences, and then to every type of philosophical principle.

Common Examples of Aphorism

Many popular quotes that get passed around are examples of aphorisms. Some of them are attributable to famous people, while others are anonymous and have become cliches or proverbs. Here are some aphorism examples:

  • Those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.—Bernard Baruch (frequently misattributed to Dr. Seuss)
  • I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees.—Emiliano Zapata (in Spanish: Prefiero morir de pie que vivir de rodillas.)
  • I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.—Evelyn Beatrice Hall (frequently misattributed to Voltaire)
  • The old law of ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everyone blind. –Martin Luther King Jr.
  • A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. –Lao Tzu
  • A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.
  • A rolling stone gathers no moss.
  • Better safe than sorry.
  • Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
  • Every cloud has a silver lining.

Significance of Aphorism in Literature

Aphorisms have been found in the literature of many different cultures around the world. In ancient times many of these aphorisms were in religious literature, such as Ecclesiastes in the Bible, the Sutras of India, and the Golden Verses of Pythagoras. Many modern philosophers have incorporated aphorisms into their works, such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Friedrich Nietzsche. Literary writers such as Franz Kafka and Oscar Wilde are also noted for their frequent usage of aphorisms. These authors all use aphorisms to write about universal truths.

Examples of Aphorism in Literature

Example #1

JULIET: ’Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself though, not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O! be some other name:
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name;
And for that name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

In this famous speech from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet considers the nature of her family’s contention with that of Romeo’s. She wonders about the meaning of names, and particularly why Romeo must carry the moniker of Montague. If he were any other person their love would not be forbidden. Juliet utters the aphorism “That which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet.” In this aphorism example, Juliet speaks the truth of names not defining the thing they label. A rose does not become sweet due to its name. Unfortunately, in the case of the Montagues and Capulets, their names do indeed define and separate them.

Example #2

JACK: That, my dear Algy, is the whole truth pure and simple.
ALGERNON: The truth is rarely pure and never simple. Modern life would be very tedious if it were either, and modern literature a complete impossibility!

(The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde)

Oscar Wilde was noted for his usage of aphorisms, especially humorous ones. However, all of his aphorisms carry important truths. In this example, the character Jack says, “That is the whole truth, pure and simple.” The character of Algernon turns this around, noting that the adjectives of “pure” and “simple” cannot often be applied to truth. He is saying that situations in reality are always complicated.

Example #3

MANDEN: A thousand words can’t
make the mark a single deed will leave.

(Brand by Henrik Ibsen)

In Henrik Ibsen’s play Brand, the character of Manden utters this aphorism. This aphorism is similar to the cliché “actions speak louder than words.” It is a universal truth that words can be deployed ad infinitum, but deeds can have far greater consequences.

Example #4

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

(To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)

The character of Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird is a very wise man, and imparts much of this wisdom to his children. In this excerpt from the novel, Atticus is explaining the concept of empathy to his children in relation to the man that he is defending in court. Atticus explains the importance of understanding things through others’ points of view before jumping to any conclusions.

Example #5

Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

(1984 by George Orwell)

This aphorism from George Orwell’s novel 1984 is a motto of the ruling government party. Though it can be regarded as a universal truth, it has quite an insidious effect in the novel. It is understood that history is written by the victors—those who lose battles don’t have the power to influence what is said about them. Therefore, much of what we learn of history is the story of the conquerors and not the conquered. In 1984, however, Orwell takes this concept even further. His main character, Winston, works in the ironically named “Ministry of Truth.” Winston’s job is to continually “update” past news items so that they reflect whatever story the Party is now telling. He erases the reality of whatever happened in the past so that no ones sees any incongruities between what the Party is doing now and what they said in the past. In this way, the Party—the group that controls the present—literally controls the past. Though Orwell used this idea as an extreme example of party control, he got the idea from his own experience with propaganda during the Spanish Civil War and how it did not reflect reality whatsoever.

Example #6

Havermeyer was a lead bombardier who never missed. Yossarian was a lead bombardier who had been demoted because he no longer gave a damn whether he missed or not. He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt, and his only mission each time he went up was to come down alive.

(Catch-22 by Joseph Heller)

In Joseph Heller’s novel Catch-22, there are many humorous statements that, upon closer inspection, hint at truths. The most famous line from this excerpt is “He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.” This quote sometimes gets changed to variants such as “I’m going to live forever or die trying.” Of course this is a humorous observation, as no one lives forever and everyone must die at some point. Yet the character Yossarian takes this understanding of his own life quite seriously.

Test Your Knowledge of Aphorism

1. Which of the following statements is the best aphorism definition?
A. A funny saying.
B. A pithy statement expressing a truth.
C. A statement with parallel structure.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following quotes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is an aphorism example?
A. Brevity is the soul of wit.
B. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
C. Get thee to a nunnery.

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. Which of the following quotes from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest is an example of aphorism?


ALGERNON: Well, I can’t eat muffins in an agitated manner. The butter would probably get on my cuffs. One must eat muffins quite calmly, it is the only way to eat them.


LADY BRACKNELL: Thirty-five is a very attractive age. London society is full of women of the very highest birth who have, of their own free choice, remained thirty-five for years.


ALGERNON: All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That’s his.

Answer to Question #1 Show

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