What is Aphorism?
An aphorism is a short saying that observes a general truth. Aphorisms are often concise and mildly humorous statements that are intended to appeal to the masses as a message of wisdom or understanding, such as “some days you eat the bear; some days the bear eats you.” Many famous aphorisms are quoted frequently, yet they often lose their meaning and impact as they become cliché.
Use of Aphorism in Literature
Aphorism can be used in literature as a proverb, maxim, or adage that is meant to reflect a philosophical or moral “truth.” This literary device can also indicate a writer’s wit and/or sense of irony, as many aphorisms are considered pithy or terse. Aphorisms are usually easily understood and remembered by readers, and they can be impactful when used sparingly.
Common Aphorism Examples
Let us look at some common aphorism examples:
- Youth is a blunder; Manhood a struggle; Old age regret. [Benjamin Disraeli]
- Pride goeth before a fall. [Proverb]
- The man who removes a mountain begins by carrying away small stones. [William Faulkner]
- Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late. [Benjamin Franklin]
- Yesterday is but today’s memory, and tomorrow is today’s dream. [Khalil Gibran]
- The simplest questions are the hardest to answer. [Northrop Frye]
- …even a proverb is no proverb until your life has illustrated it. [John Keats]
- Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind. [Rudyard Kipling]
Examples of Aphorism in Literature
Many pieces of literature are appreciated for the aphorisms they contain, which are often cited by scholars as well as laymen. Below are some examples of aphorisms in literature:
Example #1: Various Works (By Sir Francis Bacon)
Sir Francis Bacon excels in the aphoristic style of writing. Possibly, his sayings are the most quoted of all. Consider the following examples:
- “Studies serve for delight, for ornament and for ability.” (Of Studies)
- “To use too many circumstances, ere one come to the matter, is wearisome, to use none at all, is Blunt.” (Of Discourse)
- “Praise is the reflection of the virtue. But it is the reflection glass or body which giveth the reflection.” (Of Praise)
Example #2: Various Works (By William Shakespeare)
William Shakespeare does not fall behind any writer in the use of aphorisms in his plays. The use of abundant aphorisms testifies to his keen insight and judgment. Below are some examples:
- “Having nothing, nothing can he lose.” (Henry VI)
- “Life is a tale told by an idiot – full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” (Macbeth)
- “Lord, what fools these mortals be!” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Example #3: To Kill a Mocking Bird (By Harper Lee)
An example of aphorism can be seen in To Kill a Mocking Bird, by Harper Lee. Atticus Finch tells his daughter:
“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.”
The above statement holds truth, as we cannot claim to judge a person unless we understand the way he views the world and its affairs.
Example #4: The Writing on My Forehead (By Nafisa Haji)
“If? There is no if. There is only what is. What was? What will be.”
We can perceive the truth in the above statement because it gives a message to always live in the moment. It tells us that it is useless to have regrets about the past, and we should move on with our lives for a better present and future.
Example #5: Various Works (By Alexander Pope)
Alexander Pope was a great aphorist of the 18th century. Following are some memorable quotes from his works:
- “‘Tis education forms the common mind; just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.” (Golden Treasury of the Familiar)
- “To err is human, to forgive divine.” (An Essay on Criticism)
- “What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone.” (Essay on Man and Other Poems)
- “Act well your part; there all the honour lies.” (An Essay on Man)
Function of Aphorism
As already mentioned in the above discussion, making use of aphorisms allows a writer to teach a philosophical or moral truth. The revealed truths prove relevant to human experiences of real life. Therefore, readers relate the piece of literature to real life, and become more fascinated and vigilant in their reading.
Moreover, as truths are universal, revealing general truths in literature adds to their universal commendation. Motivational speeches quote aphorisms from such sources to inspire motivation among individuals.