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Aphorisms are short, serious, humorous, and philosophical truths about life.

An aphorism is a brief statement professing the truth. These statements are short and usually witty, making them memorable, easy to repeat, and interesting. Aphorisms can be used in regard to any imaginable topic but are usually used when someone is seeking to comment on topics of a philosophical, moral, or literary nature. The state has truth within it, something that reveals a universal idea or thought, meaning that it is applicable to everyone (or at least that’s what the speaker is implying). 

Aphorism pronunciation: ah-for-ee-sum

Aphorism definition and examples


Definition and Explanation of Aphorism 

Aphorisms are short and terse statements in regard to various parts of life. The best-known and most commonly quoted are those spoken by famous writers, philosophers, and politicians. These statements are usually in regard to morality and/or philosophy, but they can also be focused on other topics. The best aphorisms are witty and contain an element of humor and/or cleverness about them. Some forms of aphoristic statements are proverbs, adages, cliches, and maxims. 


Examples of Aphorisms in Literature 

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee 

Harper Lee’s masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird, has a wonderful example of an anecdote spoken by Atticus Finch. When speaking to his daughter, he says: 

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.

This line is incredibly applicable to the novel as a whole, as well as to the life of anyone who happens upon it. No one can deny that they’d be a better person if they better-understood others’ points of view. 


The Works of Sir Francis Bacon 

In Sir Francis Bacon’s written works, readers can find numerous interesting aphorisms that shed some light on his consideration of life. His sayings are commonly quoted today and include the following examples: 

  • “Praise is the reflection of the virtue. But it is the reflection glass or body which giveth the reflection.”
  • “To use too many circumstances, ere one come to the matter, is wearisome, to use none at all, is Blunt.”

His writing style was especially aphoristic, lending itself to be easily quoted and repeated. 


The Works of William Shakespeare 

Unsurprisingly to lovers of the Bard’s writing, there are many wonderful examples of aphorisms in his plays. His characters often express opinions in this form, alluding to broader themes at work. Some examples include these lines from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Henry VI, respectively. 

  • “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”
  • “Having nothing, nothing can he lose.”

These are far from the only examples. More can be found in Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, and his other tragedies, comedies, and histories. 


Don Quixote by Cervantes

In this novel, readers will immediately note the way that Quixote speaks, often completely in aphorisms. These are not always clearly defined, even to him. Some of humorous while others are more serious but still strange. For example: 

  • “He who’s down one day can be up the next, unless he really wants to stay in bed.”
  • “Take my advice and live for a long, long time. Because the maddest thing a man can do in this life is to let himself die.”
  • “The knight’s sole responsibility is to succour them as people in need, having eyes only for their sufferings, not for their misdeeds.”


Other Examples of Aphorisms

  • Absence makes the heart grow fonder. 
  • Ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it. 
  • Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.
  • The proof of the pudding is in the eating. 
  • Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.
  • You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. 
  • The race isn’t always to the swift, nor the fight to the strong, but that’s the way to bet.
  • He who hesitates is lost. 
  • Genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.
  • Laugh, and the world laughs with you, weep, and you weep alone. 
  • You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.


Why Do Writers Use Aphorisms? 

Writers use aphorisms to teach a lesson, making a comment, or suggest a truth through the form of a short statement. These truths are relevant to everyday experiences in the story, novel, or play, as well as to the lives of those reading them. This is why many aphorisms have lasted for centuries after they were first written. Their “truth” makes them an easy way to express a continued idea of what’s right or wrong. While informative and thought-provoking, aphorisms can also be humorous and inspirational. 


Related Literary Terms 

  • Adage: a short, familiar, and memorable saying that strikes as an irrefutable truth to a wide segment of the population.
  • Dialogue: a literary technique that is concerned with conversations held between two or more characters.
  • Epigraph: a phrase, quote, or any short piece of text that comes before a longer document (a poem, story, book, etc.).
  • Allegory: a narrative found in verse and prose in which a character or event is used to speak about a broader theme.
  • Euphemism: an indirect expression used to replace that something that is deemed inappropriate or crude.
  • Idiom: a short-expression that means something different than its literal translation.


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