The Allure of the Aphorism

There is something magical about the laconic phrases called aphorisms. As an aphorist myself, I’ve tried to capture the allure of the aphorism with a few aphorisms of my own. Here’s one attempt: “Aphorisms are merely philosophical sound bites.” Here’s another: “Aphorisms are merely conclusions without premises.” Or how about this one? “Aphorisms are philosophy with brevity.” It’s easy to see the appeal, right?

In my opinion, a well-written aphorism captures a fundamental essence of the human experience; sometimes these experiences are blatantly obvious, but are expressed in refreshing language and other times they are dripping with subtlety. On occasion, I stumble across an aphorism that is so powerful that I use it as a personal compass to guide my confused soul. I have a deep-held suspicion that I’m not the only aphorism enthusiast that does this.

Given my love of the aphorism, it should come as no surprise that I found James Geary’s book, Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists, a delightful treat. Mr. Geary, an aphorist and an avid collector of aphorisms, has chronicled the biographical information of the worlds great aphorists, as well as some of their aphorisms, in this wonderful book. Mr. Geary has done a spectacular job categorizing the various types of aphorists out there. There are many unique types of aphorists, from “Comics, Critics, and Satirists” to “Strange Beasts”, and Mr. Geary covers the whole gamut of aphorists in this book. Some of the aphorists included in this book are well-known names and others are incredibly obscure. I’m willing to bet that no one who reads this book will have heard of every name.

How about a small sampling of a few my personal favorites?

  1. “There is no story stupid enough that someone somewhere won’t believe it.” -Aleksander Fredro
  2. “Remember: One lie does not cost you one truth but the truth.” -Christian Friedrich Hebbel
  3. “Philosophy is the medicine of the soul.” -Pythagoras
  4. “The fact that life has no meaning is a reason to live–moreover, the only one.” -E.M. Cioran
  5. “The supreme triumph of reason is to cast doubt upon its own validity.” -Miguel De Unamuno
  6. “The thoughts we choose to act upon define us to others, the ones we do not define us to ourselves.” -Yahia Lababidi
  7. “Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of our language.” Ludwig Wittgenstein
  8. “Everything that cannot be understood does nevertheless not cease to exist.” Blaise Pascal
  9. “Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings” -Diogenes
  10. “It is only when the rich are sick that they fully feel the impotence of wealth.” -Charles Caleb Colton

I’ve read thousands upon thousands of aphorisms and I’ve composed several hundred of my own. My thirst for aphorisms hasn’t diminished in the slightest and I will be referring to Mr. Geary’s book anytime I need an aphoristic cocktail. After reading Mr. Geary’s compendium of aphorisms, I was reminded of one of the first aphorisms I ever penned. “Citing aphorisms rarely signifies intelligence, then again, neither does creating them.”


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