“A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucious to Twitter” (Andrew Hui)

A short history of the short saying

Aphorisms are transhistorical and transcultural, a resistant strain of thinking that has evolved and adapted to its environment for millennia. Across deep time, they are vessels that travel everywhere, laden with freight yet buoyant. Terse sayings form a rich constellation in the Sanskrit, already found in the Rig-veda and the Brāhmaṇas. Didactic wisdom literature in Egypt extends from the Old Kingdom to the Ptolemaic period. The fragments or the entirety of some seventeen anthologies survive. It is well attested that the Hebrew Book of Proverbs derives in form and content from the New Kingdom Instruction of Amenemope (ca. 1000 bce).4 We are told that Solomon “spoke three thousand proverbs” (1 Kings 4:32).

How and why did the aphorism develop and mutate under certain cultural conditions? How did it acquire such longevity? Spherical and solitary, the hedgehog is believed to have been around for fifteen million years, making it one of the oldest mammals on earth. Friendlier and smaller than the porcupine, rather than shooting quills when threatened, this teacup-sized creature rolls up into a ball. The tiny aphorism is also one of the oldest and smallest literary genres on earth. What “affordance,” to employ a term from design theory that Caroline Levine has recently used to rethink literary forms, does the aphorism offer? For Levine, affordance is “used to describe the potential uses or actions latent in materials and designs . . . allow[ing] us to grasp both the specificity and the generality of forms—both the particular constraints and possibilities that different forms afford, and the fact that those patterns and arrangements carry their affordances with them as they move across time and space” (Forms, 6). My theory is that at least in Chinese and European cultures, the aphorism’s affordance developed alongside philosophy, either in anticipation of it, in antagonism with it, or in its aftermath. As such, it oscillates between the fragment and the system.

In early China, the teachings of charismatic “masters” (zi, 子) circulated in oral traditions long before their establishment as eponymous texts. Though Confucius, Laozi, and Zhuangzi are considered the ancestors of Chinese philosophy, their received doctrines seem to resemble gnomic wisdom and parables more than well-developed doctrines. The Analects, for instance, is an assemblage of textual units gathered from a variety of sayings and anecdotes that range from the fifth century bce to possibly even as late as the first century ce. In the Warring States and Qin periods, the compilation of fragmentary texts began as opposition to the state. By the Han period, however, the systematization of the Confucian canon served as the foundation of imperial authority. Hence the individual “masters” became collective “schools” that required voluminous commentary (chapter 1).

Before the birth of Western philosophy proper, there was the aphorism (chapter 2). In ancient Greece, the short sayings of the Presocratics, known as gnōmai, constitute the first efforts at philosophizing and speculative thinking, but they are also something to which Plato and Aristotle are hostile because of their deeply enigmatic nature. (Gnōmē, cognate with gnosis, “knowledge,” ironically became gnomic in English—obscure, impenetrable, difficult, with even the connotation of unknowable—by way of Anglo-Saxon riddles and kennings.) The dicta of Anaximander, Xenophanes, Parmenides, or Heraclitus often elude discursive analysis by their refusal to be corralled into systematic order. No one would deny that their pithy statements are philosophical; but Plato and Aristotle were ambivalent about them, for they contain no sustained ratiocination, just scattered utterances of supposedly wise men.

One account of the history of ancient philosophy might divide it into three ages: first, a brilliant, motley group of speculative thinkers around 585 to about 400 bce inquired into the origins and nature of things. Then came the grand schools of Plato and Aristotle as well as the Epicureans, Stoics, and Skeptics, in which architectonic arguments arose. The last period, after 100 bce, might be characterized as a derivative, epigonic era: anthologies, handbooks, and exegeses summarized and elucidated the achievements of the past. One of our largest sources of the Presocratic writings, for instance, survives in the assiduous commentaries of Simplicius, a sixth-century ce late Platonist. In other words, the first age creates aphorisms; the second age argues with and against them; the third age preserves them.

Though the sayings of Jesus are best known from his New Testament sermons and parables, in the early years of the Common Era there existed a genre of logoi sophon, “sayings of the sages,” that circulated from Jewish wisdom literature to the Nag Hammadi writings (chapter 3). Biblical scholars posit that one collection of Jesus’ sayings—dubbed Q—were the basic, oral units of tradition that served as the source text for Matthew and Luke. Eventually Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John were sanctioned as the orthodox Gospels by the early church fathers, but beneath their continuous narratives there still remain the vestiges of Jesus’ primitive aphorisms.

The sententiae (brief moral sayings) of late antiquity and the Middle Ages were the distillations of biblical truths and theological doctrine. The church fathers urged the faithful to ruminate on the verses of scripture like morsels of spiritual food. The ascetic virtues of the Desert Fathers—self-control, devotion, hospitality, obedience, charity—circulated widely in anecdotal sayings (Apophthegmata Patrum). The Eastern Orthodox collection Philokalia contains the “Gnomic Anthology” of Ilias the Presbyter. The Distichs of Cato, a collection of ancient proverbs, were the basis of the Latin schoolboy curriculum. Both Isidore of Seville and Peter of Lombard composed Libri sententiarum, compendia of quotations from scripture and the church fathers. Vincent de Beauvais’ Speculum Maius sought to encapsulate the known world’s knowledge in the form of a mosaic of quotations from Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Arabic in 3,718 chapters. These massive assemblages—the many made one—became the textual pillars that supported the mighty architectonics of the Christian faith.

It is no exaggeration to say that during the Renaissance, commonplaces constitute the very synapses of the humanist mind (chapter 4). In retrieving the fragments of antiquity, the humanists shattered the well-ordered medieval cosmos by their new philological science. In reconstituting the corpus of classical and Christian aphorisms, they forged new epistemological galaxies—the one became the many again. Philologists like Polydore Vergil, Filippo Beroaldo, and Erasmus collected Greek and Latin adages. Guicciardini and Gracián offered their instruction manuals in the form of maxims to help the courtier navigate the vicissitudes of political life. The plays of Shakespeare, Jonson, Calderón, and Ariosto would be unthinkable without sententiae. I call the “Polonius Effect” uttering wise words without knowing what they really mean; I call the “Sancho Panza Effect” uttering wise words at the wrong place and the wrong time. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus in the eponymous play brags to himself: “Is not thy common talk sound aphorisms? / Are not thy bills hung up as monuments?” (1.1.19–20). Matteo Ricci attempted to engage in intercultural East/West dialogue by composing a treatise on friendship (jiaoyou lun, 交友論) in one hundred maxims and also translated the Enchiridion of Epictetus into Chinese. Francis Bacon wrote his Novum organum announcing the birth of a new science in aphorisms.

In seventeenth-century France, the famed moralists’ concision was chiseled on the Cartesian foundations of clarity. La Rochefoucauld, Madame de Sablé, Pascal, La Bruyère, and Dufresny all diagnosed the human condition by means of le bon mot. Alain Badiou observes that La Rochefoucauld had the ability to “fuse the aphorism and to stretch the electric arc of the thought between poles distributed ahead of time by syntactic precision in the recognizable symmetry of French-style gardens” (“French,” 353). Yet Pascal ultimately rejected this classical insistence on order: for the author of the Pensées, it is the halting, broken fragment, not the elegant green enclosures of Versailles, that is the only viable form of expression for a philosophy that grapples so deeply with an absent God (chapter 5). For Pascal, the aphorism is instead the tightrope flung between the “two abysses of the infinite and nothingness” (Sellier §230). The aphorism becomes not so much a distillation of doctrine as an expression of the impossibility of any formal systems.

The dialectic between aphorisms and philosophy reaches its apex in eighteenth-century Germany. As Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy argue in their seminal The Literary Absolute, the production of the self-conscious fragment of the Jena circle is a response to Kant’s relentless system-building (27–58). On one hand, as an Athenaeum Fragment holds, “All individuals are systems at least in embryo and tendency” (§242). On the other, “a dialogue is a chain or garland of fragments” (§77). Hence, “it’s equally fatal for the mind to have a system and to have none. It will simply have to decide to combine the two” (§53).

In the struggles against German idealism, Schlegel, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche all used the microform to grapple with how to do philosophy after Kant. “I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity,” Nietzsche declares (Twilight of the Idols, “Maxims and Arrows” §26). “The aphorism, the apothegm, in which I am the first master among Germans, are the forms of eternity. My ambition is to say in ten sentences what everyone else says in a book—what everyone else does not say in a book” (Twilight of the Idols, “Expeditions of an Untimely Man” §51). His aphorisms, then, from the middle-period Human, All Too Human to the late Ecce Homo, become his way of training readers not to subscribe to a particular Nietzschean program but rather to craft their own philosophy of life (chapter 6).

Indeed, at the end of one account of Western philosophy, it is Wittgenstein’s suspicion of philosophy as dogma that causes him to employ the aphoristic form in both his early and late works. While his early Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus follows the logic of propositions, there are also many moments when his remarks are completely unconnected to their surrounding argument. Its last dictum, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” is oft repeated. In the posthumous Philosophical Investigations, he writes in the preface, “I have written down all these thoughts as remarks, short paragraphs, of which there is sometimes a fairly long chain about the same subject, while I sometimes make a sudden change, jumping from one topic to another” (viii).12 Meanwhile, Simone Weil’s Gravity and Grace, E. M. Cioran’s Syllogismes de l’amertume (punningly translated by Richard Howard as All Gall Is Divided), and Theodor Adorno’s Minima Moralia are attempts to write petite prose during and after Auschwitz.

HUI, Andrew, A theory of the aphorism: from Confucious to Twitter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

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