Aphorisms are pithy pronouncements that often carry wisdom in a nutshell. I have always loved good ones, those that make me pause, perhaps find humor lurking around the edges of them, and that tease me to consider their implications.
Aphorism is an interesting word with a long and extensive etymology. I recently learned on-line from the Miriam-Webster Dictionary that it was originally used by Hippocrates, a Greek physician in ancient Greece (460-370 BCE). His word was “aphorismos”, an earlier form of our aphorism, meaning a definition or a concise statement. Hippocrates is often referred to as “the father of modern medicine” and many of us know of the “Hippocratic oath” which, pithily stated, insists: “Do no harm.” This aphorism is still a bedrock of modern medicine today. As the term morphed, it was adopted by the physical sciences primarily, but over time it was appropriated more broadly in a variety of fields until today it is a general term to suggest some truth or observation that carries persuasive cargo.
In my current readings on a writing project I am engaged in, I came across David Loy’s fine little book, The World is Made of Stories, which is a treasure trove of aphorisms by writers on a variety of topics. Most of them home in on the nature and complexity of stories themselves from many historical periods and traditions worldwide; but so many additional fields of interest are also included.
I want to share a few of my favorites from this book because one of the features of many aphorisms is their cunning combination of wit with wisdom. But there is no guarantee that all of us will respond in the same way to a particular example. And that is to the good.
- “Our truth consists of illusions that we have forgotten are illusions.” Friedrich Nietzsche.
- “We are between stories.” Thomas Berry.
- “All my stories are true. Some happened and some did not, but they are all true.” Letter to a Buddhist Jew.
- “How do wars start? Politicians lie to journalists, then believe what they read in the newspapers.” Karl Kraus.
- “Why shouldn’t truth be stranger than fiction? Fiction, after all, has to make sense.” Mark Twain.
- “As long as you do not know how to die and come to life again, you are but a poor guest on this dark earth.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
- “You must be emptied of that with which you are full, so you may be filled with that whereof you are empty.” Saint Augustine.
- “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” Simone Weil.
- “Literature is the imaginal in script.” Northrop Frye.
- “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Albert Einstein
- “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory over forgetting.” Milan Kundera.
There are dozens more like these. The ones I chose had a particular kind of arresting force on me as I contemplated them. I do not think that aphorisms are to be accepted or rejected; they go deeper than that. The good ones push me off my comfort chair to consider another point of view. It may be close or far from my own; the farther away they are, the more contemplative in voice I need to consider them. That in itself is a good thing.
Listen to Dennis P. Slattery’s course, Mythic Figures and Personal Resonances, to learn how myths can be inspirational guides that point us to our own psychic life.
Dennis P. Slattery
Dennis Patrick Slattery Ph.D., has been teaching for more than 50 years, the last 26 of which has been in the Mythological Studies Program at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California, where he is currently Emeritus Faculty.More Posts by Dennis P. Slattery