[In his introduction to The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, editor John Gross gives us a beautifully written and very thorough description of the aphorism and all that it entails. Except for the acknowledgments, that piece can be found below. Having read the book many years ago, I can recommend it both for Gross’ selection, and for the way in which the aphorisms are categorized.]
The earliest aphorisms—the first to go by that name, at least—were a collection of brief medical teachings and sayings by Hippocrates, and when the term was revived in the Renaissance it initially looked back to its scientific origins. In the words of the Oxford English Dictionary, it signified ‘a concise statement of a principle in any science.’ Soon, however, it came to denote the formulation of a moral or philosophical principle as well, and gradually this took over as its accepted everyday meaning. By the early eighteenth century the shift was so complete that it was possible for the physician and versifier Sir Richard Blackmore to feel safe in loftily dismissing the Aphorisms of Hippocrates as nothing more than ‘a book of jests,’ of worldly-wise commonplaces—a blunder which enabled Dr. Johnson, in the Lives of the Poets, to make short work of Blackmore’s scholarly pretensions and his ‘supercilious derision of transmitted knowledge.’
Johnson himself defined an aphorism, in what was by then its current sense, as ‘a maxim; a precept contracted in a short sentence; an unconnected position.’ ‘A maxim’ is also one of the definitions in the OED (along with ‘a short pithy statement containing a truth of general import’); and if we go on to recall that the most famous of all collections of aphorisms, La Rochefoucauld’s, is entitled Maximes, we can hardly avoid concluding that ‘maxim’ is as close as we are likely to get to a synonym. Yet although the two words certainly overlap, they are far from interchangeable. An Oxford Book of Maxims would not, I think, sound particularly inviting: all too often a maxim suggests a tag, a stock response, something waiting to be trotted out in the spirit of Polonius. 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. One need only think of the labels under which many of them first saw the light—observations, reflections, pensées, ‘discoveries,’ ‘detached thoughts.’ Still others began life in an even more fragmentary way, as notebook jottings or random flashes of insight.
Without losing ourselves in a wilderness of definitions, we can all agree that the most obvious characteristic of an aphorism, apart from its brevity, is that it is a generalization. It offers a comment on some recurrent aspect of life, couched in terms which are meant to be permanently and universally applicable. But the same could be said of proverbs; and aphorisms, unlike proverbs, have authors. The third distinguishing mark of the aphorism, in fact, is that it 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 a proverb, which has to slip off the tongue—may well need to expand 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 the platitude, the aphorist is drawn towards the unsettling paradox. Compelled to exercise his wit in a narrow compass, he takes pleasure in the cynical thrust, the mauvaise pensée—and naturally we respond. As a notable connoisseur of aphorisms, Logan Pearsall Smith, once wrote, ‘a malicious thought, a cattivo pensiero, as the Italians call it, we are apt to find—such is our fallen nature—more amusing than a charitable one.’ But then we reach a point at which cynicism palls. A reaction sets in: after simple truth has been miscalled simplicity for long enough it begins to look rather more interesting than it did, and for that matter rather less simple. And this too is the aphorist’s province: to renovate old truths, and refine on rough estimates.
Anyone hoping to represent the whole range of aphoristic literature is in fact liable to come up with as many contrasts as parallels, as many discords as variations. The aphorists quarrel among themselves: Blake denounces Bacon for purveying ‘Good Advice for Satan’s Kingdom’ in his essays, Vauvenargues rebukes La Rochefoucauld for libelling our common humanity. The greatest of them tend to be inwardly divided, too, haunted by irreconcilable conclusions and torn between rival impulses. And there are of course as many different kinds of aphorism as aphorist: aphorisms which cut and aphorisms which glow, classic aphorisms and romantic aphorisms, aphorisms which deflate and aphorisms (rather fewer) which console. It is true that most minor practitioners of the art remain of the world, worldly, and that in its decadence the wit of the salon tradition can easily degenerate into the mere wisecrack. But the masters—the secular precursors—are at least as likely to strike an oracular or metaphysical note, to probe into the mysterious depths of experience. And yet they in turn generally have their own fund of worldliness and urbanity.
For all this profusion, an anthologist who adopts too strict a definition of the aphorism runs the risk, as he goes on, of producing a certain deadening effect. When I began making the present selection I considered limiting myself to what might be called the aphorism pure and simple—the brief direct statement, A equals B. But it was soon borne in on me that to read a series of such pronouncements in unbroken succession would be to diminish their value, that one would eventually be left with a rat-tat-tat of ‘one-liners.’ (Wagner said that collections of aphorisms always reminded him of performing fleas—an unfair reaction, needless to say, prompted by hostility to Nietzsche, but one knows what he meant.) And in any case, few aphorists themselves have been willing to submit to such a self-denying ordinance. It seemed to make better sense, on reflection, to interpret the idea of aphoristic writing more loosely, and as a result I have included a fair number of slightly longer passages, some poetry, a few mock-aphorisms, a sprinkling of miscellaneous outbursts and oddities. Once or twice I have also broken the rule which says that aphorisms ought to deal with universals rather than particulars—but only, I hope, when the epigram in question readily lends itself to a more extended application.
Like many anthologists, I owe a considerable debt to previous anthologies . . .