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An aphorism (from Greek ἀφορισμός: aphorismos, denoting "delimitation", "distinction", and "definition") is a concise, terse, laconic, and/or memorable expression of a general truth or principle. They are often handed down by tradition from generation to generation. The concept is distinct from those of an adage, brocard, chiasmus, epigram, maxim (legal or philosophical), principle, proverb, and saying; some of these concepts are species of aphorism.
The word was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, a long series of propositions concerning the symptoms and diagnosis of disease and the art of healing and medicine. The often cited first sentence of this work (see Ars longa, vita brevis) is:
Life is short, art long, opportunity fleeting, experience deceptive, judgment difficult.
This aphorism was later applied or adapted to physical science and then morphed into multifarious aphorisms of philosophy, morality, and literature. Presently an aphorism is generally understood to be a concise and eloquent statement of truth.
Aphorisms are distinct from axioms. Aphorisms generally originate from experience and custom, whereas axioms are self-evident truths and therefore require no additional proof. Aphorisms have been especially used in subjects to which no methodical or scientific treatment was originally applied, such as agriculture, medicine, jurisprudence and politics.
A famous example is:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Aphoristic collections, sometimes known as wisdom literature, have a prominent place in the canons of several ancient societies, such as the Sutra literature of India, the Biblical Ecclesiastes, Islamic hadiths, the golden verses of Pythagoras, Hesiod's Works and Days, the Delphic maxims, and Epictetus' Handbook. Aphoristic collections also make up an important part of the work of some modern authors. A 1559 oil–on–oak-panel painting, Netherlandish Proverbs (also called The Blue Cloak or The Topsy Turvy World) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, artfully depicts a land populated with literal renditions of Flemish aphorisms (proverbs) of the day.
The aphoristic genre developed together with, or alongside literacy, and after the invention of printing, aphorisms were collected and published in book form. The first noted published collection of aphorisms is Adagia by Erasmus. Other important early aphorists were Baltasar Gracián, François de La Rochefoucauld and Blaise Pascal.
Two influential collections of aphorisms published in the twentieth century were The Uncombed Thoughts by Stanisław Jerzy Lec (in Polish), and Itch of Wisdom by Mikhail Turovsky (in Russian and English).
Misquoted or misadvised aphorisms are frequently used as a source of humour; for instance, wordplays of aphorisms appear in the works of P. G. Wodehouse, Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams. Aphorisms being misquoted by sports players, coaches, and commentators form the basis of Private Eye's Colemanballs section.
- Seneca the Younger: Roman Stoic philosopher.
- Burchard of Worms: mediaeval Catholic priest and canonist.
- Juan Manuel: Prince of Villena (Spain) and mediaeval author; the second, third and fourth parts of his famous work El Conde Lucanor are collections of aphorisms.
- François de La Rochefoucauld
- Oscar Wilde
- Friedrich Nietzsche
- Arthur Schopenhauer
- George Bernard Shaw
- Nicolás Gómez Dávila
- Dorothy Parker
- Stanisław Jerzy Lec
- Mikhail Turovsky
- Karl Kraus
- Emil Cioran
- Edmond Jabès
- Malcolm de Chazal
- Andrzej Majewski
- Alexander Woollcott
- Faina Ranevskaya
- Lao Tze
- Georges Bataille
- Jean Baudrillard
- Lev Shestov
- Desiderius Erasmus
- Benjamin Franklin
- Theodor W. Adorno: his Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life (German: Minima Moralia: Reflexionen aus dem beschädigten Leben) is a collection of aphorisms and reflections written while in exile in the United States during World War II.
- Gustave Flaubert: Dictionary of Received Ideas.
- Ambrose Bierce: The Devil's Dictionary.
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- Definition of Aphorism from the Online Etymology Dictionary
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Aphorism". Encyclopædia Britannica. 2 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 165.
- Заголовок: (2003-06-30). ЗАЛОЖНИК ВЕЧНОСТИ Михаил Туровский/ЗАЛОЖНИК ВЕЧНОСТИ Михаил Туровский (in Russian). Peoples.ru. Retrieved 2013-10-15.
- Morley, John (1887). Aphorisms — an address delivered before the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, November 11, 1887. London: MacMillan & Co.
- Geary, James (2005). The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism, November 2, 2005. New York: Bloomsbury USA. p. 240. ISBN 9781608197620.