An aphorism is a short, pithy statement offering instruction, truth, or opinion; like a maxim or an adage.
From the Greek word aphorismos meaning “short, pithy sentence,” aphorism often relies upon imagery and metaphor to relay an important point in a concise statement. As a literary and rhetorical device, it is widely used by writers, philosophers, and politicians to compress larger concepts, universal truths, personal ideas, or questions into a brief, digestible text. For instance, the phrases “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb trees, it will spend its whole life thinking it’s stupid” and “The old law of ‘an eye for an eye’ leaves everyone blind” are two famous examples of aphorism that grapple with complex human subjects.
Other examples that have made their way into the American vernacular include
“Every cloud has a silver lining.”
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.”
“Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”
In her essay, “Making a Space for Aphorism: Exploring the Intersection between Aphorism and Poetry,” Sharon Dolin writes, thinking of aphorism’s ability to “delimit” or “define” certain things, that “[a]n aphorism draws a ring around—and then occupies—a very small territorial space.” As such, some song lyrics or lines of poetry have been considered aphorisms, even if they weren’t necessarily intended to be aphoristic. An example of this would be the final stanza in Elaine Equi’s “Ghosts and Fashion”:
or if they were loved ones,
it is we who clothe them
like dolls from memory.
Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness,
And knows that yesterday is but today’s memory and tomorrow is today’s dream.
Know, then, thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.
Other examples include “Words” by Jane Hirshfield and “Tender Buttons [Nothing Elegant]” by Gertrude Stein, which assumes the form and tone of aphorism while playfully questioning its real capacity for insight.