I love aphorisms, proverbs, koans, paradoxes, fables, and teaching stories. Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking and reading about aphorisms.
Now, what exactly is an “aphorism?” As with just about everything, people argue about definitions. Aphorism expert (yes, such an expertise exists) James Geary argues for “FIVE LAWS OF THE APHORISM: It Must Be Brief, It Must Be Personal, It Must Be Definitive, It Must Be Philosophical, and It Must Have a Twist.”
Here’s how I define aphorism: An aphorism is a concise, powerful, general observation attributed to a particular person.
Because they’re sharp and short, they’re grand generalizations, and by saying little, they manage to suggest a lot. I ask myself, “What exactly does the statement mean?” and “Do I agree?” When an idea is expressed in a short, powerful way, it’s more suggestive and has more power in our minds.
Their brevity gives them extra punch.
I’ve collected hundreds of brilliant aphorisms. I don’t necessarily agree or even completely understand all of them, but I find them enormously thought-provoking.
Here are a few of my current favorite aphorisms:
- “Don’t cut what you can untie.” Joubert
- “You can sink so fast that you think you’re flying.” Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach
- “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Archilochus
- “People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply: by the lives they lead.” James Baldwin
- “Pleasure is Nature’s test, her sign of approval.” Oscar Wilde
- “He who can achieve great things is not necessarily capable of small.” Marcel Proust
- “Failure is a good preparation for success, which comes as a pleasant surprise, but success is poor preparation for failure.” Sarah Manguso
- “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” Carl Sagan
I love reading aphorisms, and I love writing them. For many years, without quite realizing it, I’ve been drawn to the elegance of aphorisms.
Here are some aphorisms that I wrote as part of previous books:
- The days are long, but the years are short.
- Outer order contributes to inner calm.
- The opposite of a profound truth is also true.
- A strong voice repels as well as attracts.
- Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life.
- If you hold the line, others will fall into line. (This is from my current Quitting Sugar project.)
- Starting again is often harder than starting.
- Choose the bigger life.
- Giving can be a sign of neediness, and we can be generous by taking.
For me, it’s an exciting intellectual challenge to try to distill a big thought into one sentence. I’m forced to abandon my lawyer’s desire to account for every exception or variation, to explain, or to permit myself to use many words to express an idea.
Here are a few aphorisms that I’ve written recently:
- When people are free to find their own way, some get lost.
- The body can be denied, but it won’t be ignored.
- Categories may lack the accuracy of continua, but they’re simpler to grasp and are therefore more powerful in the mind. (I realized this as I was thinking about my Four Tendencies framework)
- You can’t gorge on perfume.
- Chasing petty happiness pushes greater happiness out of reach.
- No one grows up in the wilderness.
- Everyone agrees that it’s important to think for yourself.
- Everything becomes interesting when it’s put under a glass case.
- Why put a strong lock on a weak door?
- Red is the salt of color.
I use aphorisms as a way to prompt reflection. In the tumult of everyday life, I find it refreshing to quiet my mind, to focus on a large and spacious thought. I turn the aphorism over in my mind, I think of examples, I argue against it, I ponder its relevance.
Meditation has never worked for me; I prefer the contemplation of aphorisms as an exercise.
For instance, one of my favorite aphorisms to invoke is from Boethius: “Contemplate the extent and stability of the heavens, and then at last cease to admire worthless things.”
I also write “Secrets of Adulthood.” These are more straightforward; they’re reminders about the mechanics of the world, not about human nature.
- Soap and water removes most stains.
- Turning a computer off and on often fixes a glitch.
- Over-the-counter medications are very effective.
- Always visit the bathroom before boarding the subway.
I love aphorisms, and I also love proverbs. A proverb is a piece of folk wisdom that’s old and unattributed—such as “A stitch in time saves nine” or “Make haste slowly.” Some of my favorites:
- The stewing is worse than the doing.
- A stumble may prevent a fall.
- Ships fear fire more than water.
- You measure every man’s honesty by your own.
- New dishes beget new appetites.
- No receiver, no thief.
I’m collecting proverbs, and in particular, “proverbs of the professions.” Please send these to me if you know some good examples!
- Gardener: “First year sleep; Second year creep; Third year leap.”
- Hospice worker: “People die how they lived.”
- Lawyer: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, argue.”
- Journalist: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
- Basketball coach: “You can’t teach tall.”
- Therapist: “Under stress, we regress.”
- Cheese and wine specialist: “What grows together, goes together.”
As I said, I’m collecting—aphorisms, proverbs, Secrets of Adulthood. Send me your favorites! I love this short, powerful form.