A Brief History Of The Aphorism

“Hell is other people.”
-Jean-Paul Sartre
“If one is willing to give up essential liberties for a little temporary safety, one deserves neither liberty nor safety.”
-Benjamin Franklin
“If you want a large Pepsi, ask your foe for a super size combo.”
-Sun Tzu

Even if you don’t realize it, you’ve probably come across an aphorism in your day to day life. An aphorism is a short statement, usually about life or wisdom or what to do when your friends turn out to be fake and love drama, and it has been part of the wide wide world of the written word for decades, if not centuries. In this short introduction, you’ll learn what an aphorism is, who the masters of the form are, and why this matters to you, the busy netizen on their way through to r/justbyzantineempirethings or steamboatwilliehorton dot tumblr dot com.

What is an aphorism?

Scholars disagree on when the aphorism was invented, but most agree it was invented in Ancient Greece. The name itself comes from the Latin “a-”, meaning “warm or spicy, having an unpleasant taste”, and “-phor-” meaning “opinion”. What “-ism” means and how it relates to the meaning of the term is still under debate. The first recorded aphorism comes from the Greek city of Pompeii, where, amongst the ruins preserved in lava, archaeologists were miraculously able to find an unharmed aphorism, kept as if in amber across the decades, just as legible as the day it was written by some wandering Pompeiian. The phrase read, translated to modern English, “When you fall your lowest, that is where you may find your highest friends.” A crude example, to be sure, but this discovery shows that while the form has developed over the years, the crucial element of passive aggression has been maintained, making a point about a specific event, likely in this case an acrimonious split with a former compatriot that occurred when the author was suffering from a trauma or hardship, while refusing to acknowledge the inspiration of the author’s complaint.

In ancient Greece, the art of the aphorism was practiced widely as a form of street art.

Who are the masters of the form?

Before Frenchmen invented books in the 1950s to avoid speaking with tourists on public transport, the thinkers of the Enlightenment shared their ideas through the powerful medium of the aphorism. Voltaire himself was jailed for a particularly barbed aphorism that scandalized the nobility, the clergy, and a significant portion of the working population: “In this moment, I am euphoric. Not because of any phony god’s blessing. But because, I am enlightened by my intelligence.” This searing indictment of the values of French society would find Voltaire executed, but shortly after his death, indeed in a matter of minutes, the French Revolution would create a new society built on his grave and buttressed by his fiercely stated values of atheism, free speech, and the free sale of Japanese Hentai.

Voltaire’s headstone, installed by the leader of the Jacobins, Conneur Kilpatrique

While our modern aphorism may be more complex than these historical aphorisms, it still owes a great debt to the masters who laid the foundation. Slavoj Zizek, master of the modern aphorism, drew from the bluntness of the Classical aphorism and the sardonic flourish of the Enlightenment aphorism to create a style of aphorism, the Modern, that translates the content of the past into the more workaday milieu of the present. One of his more controversial works is shown below. When he presented this work at the L’Ecole Normale Superieure in 1962, he was picketed, pelted with gravel, and even formally censured by the Pope, but in the modern day, we realize his genius.

The addition of image returns a streetwise impudence to the once stodgy and academic form of the aphorism.

Why does this matter to me, a busy netizen on my way through to r/justbyzantineempirethings or steamboatwilliehorton dot tumblr dot com?

I’m glad you asked. The old masters may seem like gods or geniuses, but here’s something that may surprise you: they were just like you once, and one day, god willing, you will be just as dead as they are. They felt the same doubt you do when you read these aphorisms and think, “My goodness, if these masters of the form spent years refining their thought into the wrought steel of the aphorism, what hope do I have, given that I can barely keep up a workout routine for the course of a month and haven’t called my mother in weeks?” Well, take it from me. I’m no god. I’m certainly no genius. I myself have neglected to call my parents for longer than I’d care to admit. Despite all that, I have managed to achieve great things in the artform of aphorism. Scroll back up the page.

Take a look at those aphorisms just before the introduction.

I wrote one of them myself. Can you tell which?


See? Even I can do it on the level of the greats, and so can you. So get out there, youngster, and give your gift to the world!

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