{} Aphorisms

The arts
Life and death 
Happiness and suffering
Nature and the universe
Religion, ideology and honesty
Power and justice

Miscellaneous topics

A short introduction to the aphorism form

Discussion of the aphorism form

Aphorisms: the arts

There isn't much difference between the most austere music and the most sensuous poetry.

As well as explaining reality and reflecting reality, art extends it, so that reality becomes more mysterious and problematic than ever.

Writers are often very strong but with not much incentive to be strong - they can make so much of their weakness.

Poeticules use a rule.
Poets use a graticule.

To a lyric poet:
Useless - less - unless distress
drives or drove your work.

Milly Stanfield on practising the cello: 'Progress yesterday is not progress today.' Artistic success in the first line of a poem isn't success in the second. Success in the first half of a line isn't success in the second half.

Poetry as a metrical art: poets should have an intense concern for syllables as well as words.

Anything 'as good as' what has come before and very similar to it is worse.

An unfailingly kind and generous critic is a bad critic.

To the writer, the blank sheet of paper is as inviting as Walt Whitman's open road. But often, the road turns out to be blocked.

A writer must be far more patient than a gardener.

The main activities of a writer should include reading, writing and reflecting.

Many books come complete with their own antidote, many are innocuous, some are addictive, a few are fatal.

Pain, waste, the humdrum, ignorance, violence and chance - the world throws up all sorts of objections to shallow and inadequate thought and art.

The world is so constructed as to discredit superficial thought and art.

In the criticism of trashy material, a critic can be guided by the principles of punishment: deterrence, retribution, reformation.

If you're tired of very great writing, read some very bad writing. If you're tired of very great music, listen to some very bad music.

Art demands a willingness to avoid short cuts and to acquire insights at ruinous cost.

The sailing ship is becalmed, the poet is bemused.

Aphorisms: life and death

Simple curiosity has probably never been the motive for a suicide.

Summer summarizes only a limited life.

Dying must be terrible - like becoming blind, deaf, dumb and completely paralyzed, and losing your mind, all at once.

The richness of a life rich in disappointments.

Dying is more than mathematical subtraction. Being born is more than mathematical addition.

The central facts of life are revealed by experiences which are marginal and of rare intensity.

The years accumulate, and are compressed.

As well as the obvious limits at its beginning and end, each life has limits at the sides.

The desperate people who feel that whilst there's death, there's hope.

Beware of things that emerge gradually as well as things that strike suddenly.

Not yet near.
Nothing to fear.

Those times when everywhere we look we find.

Return tickets are usually unobtainable.

Hope is sometimes a form of greed.

To try
to triumph.

They are engraved on the mind, the dead.

The sword - the point of no return.

Aphorisms: happiness and suffering

Pain in the body is often a sign that there's something wrong with the body. Pain in the mind is often a sign that there's something right with the mind.

Conventional, and courageous, people like others to suffer sensibly and not to give way to despair or rage - in other words, not to suffer as intensely as they might, or perhaps to extract as much benefit from the experience as they might. A kind of courage is needed for self-pity.

The body knows the difference between happiness and unhappiness but not the difference between spirituality and deadness.

Suffering should produce suspicion in the sufferer.

We're often told that we can't find happiness by trying to find it but we're often given advice as to how to dispel unhappiness.

Did you become an optimist (or a pessimist) by looking into yourself or at the world?

Often, when we cry out we are inaudible to everyone but ourselves.

It's not at all unreasonable to feel sorry for someone who is happier than you are.

Many people will put up with any amount of suffering, their own and other people's.

Since the blind exist, the main point of life can't consist in what is seen, since the deaf exist the main point of life can't consist in what is heard ... fulfilment must be open to all.

The sufferings of the world are too terrible for our imaginations to encompass, so we naturally concentrate our attention on something more manageable, our own sufferings.

Compassion sometimes goes with the illusion that we're exempt from suffering something similar, or worse.

I was so happy, because I was no longer unhappy.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, 'Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus,' Proposition 6.43: 'Die Welt des Glücklichen ist eine andere als die des Unglücklichen.' And the world of the happy woman is different from the world of the unhappy woman. The world of the unhappy woman is similar to the world of the unhappy man.

Aphorisms: nature and the universe

Never play music loud in the countryside, even if the music is intensely beautiful and the countryside very dull.

A pool need not remind us of the sea.

Technology is now almost as indifferent, ambiguous and wasteful as nature.

The ambiguity of a rope, which can save life and end it.

A mountain that forces us to look down rather than up.

I emerge from a winter without much snow as unrefreshed as from a night without much sleep.

One of the signs of the triumph over nature: there are so many facetious people.

It's impossible to swim in water in which it's impossible to drown.

It's not so much that nature is so cruel as that part of nature is so sensitive.

Nature is an assemblage of dissimilar components, which sometimes cohere beautifully.

The relationship between the mind and the universe is far from an infinitesimal against the infinite.

Let's not meet indifference with indifference, above all in the case of nature.

Contrasts so extreme it takes a universe to contain them.

Aphorisms: religion, ideology and honesty

See also my page The Church of England and other Churches: religion, remembrance, redemption

This world is inexhaustible and unfathomable. We need speculate about no other.

Mystics who are 'deep' are out of their depth.

Humanity can be explained only partly in natural terms but not at all in supernatural terms.

The horrific imperfections of the world foster courage and ingenuity. Why not skepticism?

The understandable fear of becoming lost, of leaving behind roads and paths, helps to explain the refusal to follow an argument wherever it leads, the reassurance of religions and ideologies.

The Christian revelation has taken away from life the mystery which for non-Christians remains. For skeptics more than for Christians, this is a mysterious and magical world.

The Christian God has become softer and gentler, a God who's 'only human,' although no more so than the old vengeful God.

My atheism is far from being the most important thing about me, otherwise there would be a strong linkage between me and the atheist Stalin.

To know that someone is a Christian or an atheist tells me almost nothing about the person.

Self-evident untruths and half-truths will always be popular.

Honest people may well reinterpret their lives at intervals as drastically as totalitarian regimes reinterpret their own history

I detest your ideology and the ideologies you detest.

Oppose mindless tolerance as well as mindless intolerance. Oppose secular tyrannies as well as religious tyrannies.

'The later can be better than the earlier.' There's more consolation in this than in all the religions of the world. It may even console us for the existence of those religions.

If the world were imperfect in the way that Christians or communists suppose, Christianity or communism might be true, but it's imperfect in a way that refutes them. And so for other theisms and ideologies.

The great achievements of religious architecture, painting, sculpture and literature are no evidence for religion but evidence that people with artistic gifts may not have the same talent for critical thinking.

The world can look better seen in a distorting mirror.

Aphorisms: courage

People are often cowardly where little courage is needed and heroic when the highest courage is called for.

A very ordinary, unpretentious, unspectacular, person with grotesque omissions, deep ignorance, monstrous self-deception, overwhelming kindliness and superhuman courage.

Aphorisms: power and justice

Try to see that justice is done even when no law has been broken.

Even the most benevolent power for good ought not to be unchecked by other powers.

Aphorisms: ethics

See also my page Ethics: theory and practice

At the furthest reaches of morality: the Nazis who shot babies, gassed babies or set fire to buildings in which babies were burned alive, who would have felt revulsion if they had been ordered to boil babies alive. Probably, a few of them would have refused to obey.

The evil of aggressive, militaristic states has been overcome often by aggressive military action. When by pacifism?

A good cause may have to triumph over the methods used to promote it and the arguments used in its defence.

'You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, but if you ever lacerate my back, I'll lacerate yours.' (Usually only the first part is given.)

Ethical purity - as unlikely and as ineffectual as political purity.

'You just can't do that!' is easier to implement than 'You just can't be that!'

What we enjoy the most, what we are best at doing, what we are expected to do and what we ought to do may be very different matters.

The person who doesn't neglect any duties and obligations is as constrained as an invalid.

The dog lovers who destroy the unwanted dogs they're unable to rehome are to be admired, not the dog lovers who give their dogs expensive hair-trims and shampoos, the best of everything.

Aphorisms: miscellaneous topics

'The best thing to eat with chicken is an egg,' and similar misconceptions.

'We've had a love-hate relationship. You've hated me and I've loved you.'

Love-hate relationships: in that order or reverse order.

There are no longer any serpents or tempests,
no longer a jest, blackguard or ne'er-do-well,
no rosy-fingered dawn.

Every question is an order: answer!

A synthesis is much, much rarer than a thesis opposed by an antithesis.

The things that unite us as humans are not much different from the things that unite us as living creatures.

If you judge only by the most superficial appearances, so many people have depth.

Adequate criticism of an aphorism needs a more extended form than another aphorism.

The relationship to the few and simple elements of someone's existence may be one of gluttony.

Not to 'Or ... ?'
is often to err.

I'm a vegetarian but I'm far from placing all vegetarians above all meat-eaters, or even above all cannibals.

The ascent's assent.
The descent's dissent.

'I understand! I'm an understudy!'

The lion's share.
The lionness's share.
The cubs' share.

A short introduction to the aphorism form

From the Introduction to 'The Oxford Book of Aphorisms,' edited by John Gross, a superb collection, and a superb Introduction:

'...although the two words ['maxim' and 'aphorism'] certainly overlap, they are far from interchangeable...Aphorisms tend to be distinctly more subversive; indeed, it is often a maxim that they set out to subvert. And they are less cut and dried, more speculative and glancing...[the aphorism] is a form of literature, and often a highly idiosyncratic or self-conscious form at that. It bears the stamp and style of the mind which created it; its message is universal but scarcely impersonal; it may embody a twist of thought strong enough to retain its force in translation, but it also depends for its full effect on verbal artistry, on a subtle or concentrated perfection of phrasing which can sometimes approach poetry in its intensity. (At the same time one should add that compression is not necessarily the supreme stylistic virtue in an aphorism, and that the finest examples are not always the most terse. A good aphorism - and here too it differs from the proverb, which has to slip off the tongue - may well need to expand itself beyond the confines of a single sentence.)

'An aphorism, finally, has to be able to stand by itself; as Johnson said, it is an 'unconnected' proposition. Yet in practice many aphorisms are also retorts and ripostes, shafts aimed at the champions of an established viewpoint or a shallower morality. They tease and prod the lazy assumptions lodged in the reader's mind; they warn us how insidiously our vices can pass themselves off as virtues; they harp shamelessly on the imperfections and contradictions which we would rather ignore. There are times when the very form of the aphorism seems to lend itself to a disenchanted view of human nature. Anxious to distance himself from platitude, the aphorist is drawn towards the unsettling paradox...

' ... there are of course as many different kinds of aphorism as aphorist ... classic aphorisms and romantic aphorisms, aphorisms which deflate and aphorisms (rather fewer) which console.'

Discussion of the aphorism form


Completeness and style
Subject and style


Some of the material here comes from other pages, with links provided to the pages which give the original context.

Nietzsche wrote in 'Twilight of the Idols:

Ich misstraue allen Systematikern und gehe ihnen aus dem Weg. Der Wille zum System ist ein Mangel an Rechtschaffenheit.

'I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of honesty.' (Maxims and Arrows, 26. Translation: my own.) From the Introduction to my page Glossary: poetry, anti-Nietzschean:

My approach is in part systematic and rigorous, but I see no contradiction between system and rigour on the one hand and on the other, passion, compassion, activism, humour, an intense concern for the health of language and the vitality of culture, a whole range of other concerns. A systematic study can reveal gaps, new possibilities very clearly. The meticulous work of cartographers was needed to show explorers what regions were still unexplored, to suggest new areas for risk and adventure.' One or two of the sections below are moderately systematic and rigorous. Appreciation of aphorisms and enjoyment of the enjoyable aphorisms aren't diminished at all by system and rigour.

The stupidities of this age and the often worse stupidities of previous ages can be exposed to healthy criticism by means of the aphorism - although that isn't their only function - and by means of extended writing - but by being systematic as well.

The obsession with what sells well can be countered by means of an aphorism, such 'Best-sellers are not usually the best books' and by simply pointing out that high sales may be (a) thoroughly deserved OR (b) undeserved - a very simple example of the theme {diversification} and the 'diversification operator.' There are many, many cases where the systematic approach leads to useful insights but involves no more elaboration than stating an alternative.

The use of 'curly brackets' in a few places, as in {diversification} and {substitution} is explained in the page Linkage and Theme Theory, which is unavoidably technical in many places. I make use of this theory here, but only lightly. The discussion here can be followed without referring to the page on theory. There's a list of themes on the page Themes and controversies - map, giving access to illustrative examples for the separate themes.


I introduce the terms and ideas I use later in discussing aphorisms by means of illustrations from other areas, including architecture, photography and even bullfighting as an art form. This underlines the fact that the terms and ideas can be applied very widely. A primary aim of mine in this site, 'Linkage and Contrast' is to point out linkages between fields which are apparently very different. What I mean by 'scale' and 'adequacy' can be explained by an unexpected illustration, bullfighting. (But the page on bullfighting makes it clear that my objections to bullfighting - there are many of them - are not based primarily on scale.)

'There are no great theatrical masterpieces which last only a quarter of an hour. They need longer than that for their unfolding, to have their impact. Aristotle, in the 'Poetics,' wrote that 'Tragedy is an imitation of an action that ...possesses magnitude.' (Section 4.1) The word he uses for 'magnitude' is 'megethos' and it expresses the need that the dramatic action should be imposing and not mean, not limited in extent. Aristotle's view here isn't binding, but it does express an artistic demand which more than the so-called 'unities' has a continuing force. The 15 minutes, approximately, which elapse from the entry of the bull until its death are far too little for the demands of a more ambitious art. The complete bullfighting session is simply made up of these 15 minutes repeated six times, with six victims put to death. This repetition doesn't in the least amount to magnitude, to 'megethos.' The scale of bullfighting doesn't have adequacy. The scale of Greek drama does have adequacy. Shakespearean themes needed a drama with still greater scale for adequacy.

Ruskin has an extended discussion of scale in architecture in Chapter III of 'Seven Lamps of Architecture,' 'The Lamp of Power.' In 'Mornings in Florence,' 'The Fourth Morning,' section 72, he writes 'Mere size has, indeed, under all disadvantage, some definite value...Disappointed as you may be, or at least ought to be, at first, by St Peter's, in the end you will feel its size...the bigness tells at last: and Corinthian pillars whose capitals alone are ten feet high, and their acanthus leaves three feet long, give you a serious conviction of the infallibility of the Pope, and the fallibility of the wretched Corinthians, who invented the style indeed, but built with capitals no bigger than hand-baskets.'

As for the use of architecture to 'prove' a doctrine, an aphorism of mine is relevant: 'The great achievements of religious architecture, painting, sculpture and literature are no evidence for religion but evidence that people with artistic gifts may have far less talent for critical thinking.' There's no linkage between the power of architecture and the validity of religious beliefs: [power of architecture] > < [validity of religious beliefs]. There's a linkage between baroque architecture and the values of the age of absolutism, [baroque architecture] < > [values of the age of absolutism] but the architecture didn't validate them.

Diversification by simple alternative can be applied to Aristotle's claims concerning magnitude and tragedy, which are justified claims, I'm sure, but undiversified. He claims that there are imitations that have insufficient scale (my term) or 'megethos' (Aristotle's term) and so have inadequacy in imitating the action. What Aristotle didn't consider here (although he did consider very thoroughly similar ethical alternatives in the 'Nicomachean Ethics' ) is the diversified OR: imitations that have excessive scale.

There are many dramatic illustrations of this, from screen and television as well as the stage: imitations where the action is ridiculously inflated, grandiose, in general excessive for the small-minded or insignificant theme.

This too is a claim for disproportion of scale, D H Lawrence on Flaubert's Madame Bovary:

'I think the inherent flaw in Madame Bovary is that individuals like Emma and Charles Bovary are too insignificant to carry the full weight of Gustave Flaubert's profound sense of tragedy...Emma and Charles Bovary are two ordinary persons, chosen because they are ordinary. But Flaubert is by no means an ordinary person. Yet he insists on pouring his own deep and bitter tragic consciousness into the little skins of the country doctor and his dissatisfied wife...'

I live in a small terraced house, which suits me but would have insufficient scale for a King or Queen, even the unpretentious royalty of the Netherlands or Denmark. Excessive scale is represented by the inhuman scale of brutalistic architecture for accommodation.

It's necessary to diversify further: excessive scale can be justified OR unjustified. Brutalistic architecture, which has the effect of making people more insignificant, is an example of unjustified excessive scale, I think. There are compensating advantages in some excessive scale. Baroque architecture makes people less significant rather than more significant, but it has a compensating drama, energy, dynamism, excitement. Neo-classic St Petersburg is built on an inhuman scale but the scale enhances human experience. This, and the Baroque excessiveness, has a linkage with the excess (the 'nimiety') of Beethoven in some of his works, such as the repeated figure in the Scherzo of his Quartet Opus 135: an example of artistically justified excess and great scale in a small-scale musical genre.

All of this, of course, is preparation for discussion of the aphorism form.

Aphorisms are astonishing. Successful aphorisms have a very small scale: {restriction} is marked in this literary form. There is little {distance} between upper and lower limits and the upper limit is only a few lines. Marion Faber, who translated (very well) Nietzsche's 'Human, All Too Human' is mistaken when she claims, in her introduction, that 'The 638 aphorisms of Human, All Too Human range from a few words to a few pages, but most are short paragraphs.' Only the shorter sections can qualify as aphorisms at all and of these, only a proportion are aphoristic. No aphorisms are a page long, let alone several pages long.

Aphorisms are short, but all the same, successful aphorisms have been found to have adequacy for very small themes and the largest, such as the universe and God, if God exists. The scale has adequacy for themes of the most varied extents. In other spheres, such as architecture, scale has to be varied and very often, scale is excessive or insufficient.

For all that, there is {restriction} on the application-spheres of aphorisms. Aphorisms can give powerful insights into things considered as a whole, such as the universe as a whole, or a single aspect of a thing. They have limited adequacy in addressing multiple aspects and details and in making detailed comparisons. They have limited adequacy in addressing extended subjects whose internal organization has also to be considered. For these purposes, powerful and very often wonderful instruments such as scholarship and serious criticism are needed.


In the Politics and Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle used the concept of ('autarkeia' often translated as 'self-sufficiency.') In the Greek manuscripts, both works belong to the corpus dealing with 'practical philosophy.' Like 'megethos,' the concept of autarkeia can be generalized and applied to the aphorisms of Nietzsche and the aphorism form in general. It can be generalized to give an inclusive theory of 'completion and completeness.'

Autarkeia depends upon a further Aristotelian concept, the , 'telos,' often translated as 'end.' Something which is 'complete' has reached its end. In the Nicomachean Ethics, happiness has autarkeia because it lacks nothing and someone is happy who is self-sufficient, happiness depending only on the person, not on external conditions. In the Metaphysics, Aristotle gives the very valuable insight that ('arete,' excellence) is a kind of completion. (Metaphysics, Book Delta, XVI.)

Aphorisms are often held to possess 'self-sufficiency,' to be complete in themselves. This can be interpreted in various ways. An aphorism by Nietzsche can be regarded as self-sufficient and complete if it needs no knowledge of Nietzsche's philosophy for an adequate appreciation, or if it needs no knowledge of Nietzsche's other aphorisms or the aphorisms of other aphorists or the extended work of non-aphorists. An aphorism of Nietzsche, like many of those in collections of aphorisms, can be detached by an editor from a passage of extended prose. The resulting aphorism has to 'stand alone,' and not require knowledge of the context. A high degree of self-sufficiency or complete self-sufficiency does seem to be a requirement for a successful aphorism, even if serious criticism will inevitably explore the context.

Subject and style

The aphorist is at the service of a subject. In the Oxford Book of Aphorisms, the aphorisms are arranged according to subject - 'Design and Chance,' 'The Sense of Identity,' 'Self-Knowledge,' 'Men, Women, Marriage,' 'The Family' and many more. The aphorism is expected to have adequacy in relation to the subject - to express something of importance about the subject, or at least one aspect of the subject - but to have more than adequacy.

The aphorism is expected to have style as well, using 'style' in the sense used in stylistics. Style includes a degree of individuality. (Herbert Read, in 'The Styles of European Art,' points out that 'the derivation of the word from the Latin stilus indicates that originally the connotation was personal: it meant the peculiarities of the marks made by an individual using a stilus or pen.')

There are propositional ways of addressing a subject. The wording of a proposition can be changed in many ways without loss. Works of philosophy and history are propositional in this sense. When works of philosophy or history are written in a style of high literary value, such as the dialogues of Plato, then this is an enhancement, not something necessary to the form. Aphorisms are non-propositional. The style is far more than an enhancement.

Literary forms other than the aphorism such as novels, short stories, poems and drama are often at the service of a subject too, but not to the same extent or in the same way. A collection of novels, short stories, poems and drama can be imagined dealing with the same subjects as the Oxford Book of Aphorisms - necessarily in many volumes. The section 'Men, Women, Marriage' might include D. H. Lawrence's 'Women in Love' and 'Macbeth,' for its probing of the relationship between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. This scheme would break down on account of the greater scale of these works, which allows for such a great variety of levels, alternative themes and sub-themes, and such aspects as characterization. In one respect, the degree of organization, novels and drama have linkages with other extended forms otherwise very different in kind, such as works of scholarship. Relatively unextended forms such as brief lyric poems have a strong linkage with aphorisms.

To summarize, aphorisms have these characteristics:
(1) restricted scale
(2) a high degree of completeness
(3) a high degree of 'subjection to the subject'
(4) style.