aphorism, short, pithy statement of an evident truth concerned with life or nature; distinguished from the axiom because its truth is not capable of scientific demonstration. Hippocrates was the first to use the term for his Aphorisms, briefly stated medical principles. Note his famous opening sentence: "Life is short, art is long, opportunity fleeting, experimenting dangerous, reasoning difficult."
The word aphorism (literally distinction or definition, from αφορισμός) denotes an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic and easily memorable form.

The name was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates. The term came to be applied later to other sententious statements of physical science and later still to statements of all kinds of philosophical, moral or literary principles.

The Aphorisms of Hippocrates were the earliest collection of the kind. They include such notable and often invoked phrases as:"Life is short, [the] art long, opportunity fleeting, experience misleading, judgment difficult. The physician must not only be prepared to do what is right himself, but also to make the patient, the attendants, and externals cooperate."

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 Fran%C3%A7ois de La Rochefoucauld and Blaise Pascal.

Two influential collections of aphorisms published in the 20th century were "The Uncombed Thoughts" by Stanislaw Jerzy Lec (in Polish), and "Itch of Wisdom" by Mikhail Turovsky (in Russian).


Usually an aphorism is a concise statement containing a personal truth or observation cleverly and pithily written. Aphorisms can be both prosaic or poetic, sometimes they have repeated words or phrases, and sometimes they have two parts that are of the same grammatical structure. Some examples include:

  • Good Art seems ancient to its comtemporaries, and modern - to their descendants.Plutarch
  • Lost time is never found again.Benjamin Franklin
  • Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and to God the things that are God's.Jesus Christ, Matt. 22:21 KJV
  • Mediocrity is forgiven more easily than talent.Emil Krotky
  • Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.Ralph Waldo Emerson
  • Death with dignity is better than life with humiliation.Husayn ibn Ali
  • That which does not destroy us makes us stronger.Friedrich Nietzsche
  • If you see the teeth of the lion, do not think that the lion is smiling at you.Al-Mutanabbi
  • When your legs get weaker time starts running faster.Mikhail Turovsky
  • Many of those who tried to enlighten were hanged from the lampposts.Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
  • A mystic hangs a fig leaf on a eunuch.Stanislaw Jerzy Lec
  • The psychology of committees is a special case of the psychology of mobs.Celia Green
  • 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
  • Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue. — Unknown, possibly French proverb, or authored by François de La Rochefoucauld
  • One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic.Joseph Stalin
  • Believe nothing you hear, and only half of what you see.Mark Twain
  • It is better to be hated for what one is, than loved for what one is not.André Gide
  • A lie told often enough becomes the truth.Vladimir Lenin
  • Like a road in Autumn: Hardly is it swept clean before it is covered again with dead leaves.Franz Kafka
  • Love the sinner and hate the sin. (Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum.) — St. Augustine of Hippo
  • Truths are not relative. What are relative are opinions about truth.Nicolás Gómez Dávila

Aphorism and literature

Aphoristic collections, sometimes known as wisdom literature, have a prominent place in the canons of several ancient societies: E.g. the Biblical Book of Proverbs, Islamic Hadith, Hesiod's Works and Days, or Epictetus' Handbook. Aphoristic collections also make up an important part of the work of some modern authors, such as Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, Friedrich Nietzsche, Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus, La Rouchefoucauld, Thomas Szasz, Stanislaw Jerzy Lec, Mikhail Turovsky, Celia Green, Robert A. Heinlein, Blaise Pascal, E. M. Cioran, and Oscar Wilde. 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.

Poetics of the aphorism

The aphorism is considered a compressed poetic genre in itself. Aphorisms typically make extensive use of such devices as alliteration, anaphora and rhyme: "A mystic hangs a fig leaf on a eunuch." (Stanislaw Jerzy Lec)

Aphorism and society

In a number of cultures, such as 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 around aphorisms appear in the works of P. G. Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams (e.g. Zaphod Beeblebrox saying "Right now I need aphorisms like I need holes in my heads"). Aphorisms being misquoted by sports players, coaches and commentators forms the basis of Private Eye's Colemanballs section.


An aphorist is someone who produces or collects aphorisms. Famous aphorists include:

See also


  • The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism by James Geary
  • "Itch of Wisdom" by Mikhail Turovsky, Hemlock Press 1990 (English edition)

External links

Search another word or see aphorismon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015 Dictionary.com, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature