The aphoristic style of writing – which involves terse observations, opinions, and statements of wisdom – has existed for millennia. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates coined the term in his aptly named work Aphorisms; the word is derived from ancient Greek and denotes ‘delimitation’, ‘definition’, and ‘distinction’. An aphorism refers to any pithy statement that expresses a general truth. These sorts of statements are punchy, philosophical, and memorable.
Epigrams are likewise laconic phrases but they do not necessarily aim to convey some truth (although sometimes they can serve that purpose). An epigram is a literary device, a short statement that uses wit, satire, irony, and sarcasm in order to express an idea in a clever or funny way. Aphorisms also differ from axioms, in that the former are based on experience (as wisdom is), whereas the latter are self-evident truths (e.g. a + b = b + a). Proverbs differ from aphorisms in that they more often use metaphor and traditional poetic devices (e.g. rhyme, alliteration, and repetition) to get across a basic truth or practical precept. Furthermore, unlike aphorisms, proverbs tend to have unknown authors, they are usually very well-known, and they are often derived from folklore. In spite of such distinctions, the Italian writer and philosopher Umberto Eco stated: “There is nothing more difficult to define than an aphorism.”
The aphorism is unique in its ability to capture the essence of truthful thoughts, as well as the distinct and singular nature of such thoughts. Aphorisms make impressions on us in a way starkly different from articles, essays, and books, owing to their succinctness and the attention paid to writing them. We can separate aphorisms from each other (unlike paragraphs in a longer text) and because of their attempt to capture truth with brevity, they are meant to be read slowly, matching the carefulness (or intended carefulness) in which they were written. You need to take your time in digesting them. If you read a collection of aphorisms like paragraphs in a book, you will end up missing out on the depth of their meaning. Aphoristic statements should have a nutritious quality to them, which contrasts to the empty calories provided by truisms, clichés, and platitudes. I like to view aphorisms as thoughtful thoughts that generate more thoughtfulness.
As well as having a tendency to express discrete thoughts (based on the aphorism’s singular and separable nature), aphorisms can also act as a simplification of thought. But they can be simple without being simple-minded. If the writing were simple-minded, as in lacking insight, then it would no longer count as aphoristic. Aphorisms contrast with articles, essays, and books, which aim to be lengthier explications, defences, or criticisms of a given idea.
Some of the most influential texts are aphoristic in character, such as the Tao Te Ching, the foundational text of Taoism, made up of brief, philosophical statements from the author Lao Tzu. The sayings of the Chinese philosopher Confucius, compiled in The Analects, are aphoristic as well. Other notable aphorists include the philosophers Seneca, Voltaire, Arthur Schopenhauer, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Emil Cioran, as well as writers such as Benjamin Franklin, Ambrose Bierce, Oscar Wilde, and Wasif Ali Wasif (who has been described as a master of aphorism). However, despite its long presence in literary and philosophical writings, the aphorism seemed to fall out of favour in the late 20th century (Cioran was perhaps the last, most well-known writer to employ this style of writing so profusely). To lose the aphorism is to lose a special mode of expression. Aphorisms give life to our most precious thoughts. Yet not everyone thinks so highly of them. As the poet W.H. Auden remarked:
Aphorisms are essentially an aristocratic genre of writing. The aphorist does not argue or explain, he asserts; and implicit in his assertion is a conviction that he is wiser and more intelligent than his readers.
Is there perhaps some irony in this statement, though, if we are to consider it itself an aphorism? In any case, Auden made this statement at the end of his career, which he spent being a compulsive aphorist; so clearly his perspective on the aphorism shifted. Susan Sontag similarly opined in her diaries:
Aphorisms are rogue ideas.
Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that.
To write aphorisms is to assume a mask — a mask of scorn, of superiority.
Auden and Sontag’s points are pertinent: if the aphorism is, indeed, aristocratic and assertive in nature, perhaps both writers and readers became disillusioned with this style of expression. To qualify as an aphorism, a statement should be concise, sagacious, and communicate an idea in an original, thought-provoking way, which often depends on the skilful use of metaphor. Writing aphorisms is therefore challenging. It is easy to write an aphorism poorly. When this happens, the aphorism can fall prey to Auden’s criticisms; it can come across as a mere opinion masquerading as wisdom, as an inflated ego pretending to be enlightened.
Perhaps the decline of the aphorism is due to a collective baulking at its style and implications. If a modern writer were to write in this way, it may be viewed as outdated and pretentious. Some writers have bucked the trend, though. The contemporary philosopher Eugene Thacker has written in an aphoristic way, in his work Cosmic Pessimism (2015), which contains aphoristic statements on pessimism. Cioran has clearly had a major influence on his style of writing. It is up for debate – or based on personal preference – whether Thacker has successfully brought the aphorism back to life, back to the realm of philosophy. (I personally find a lot of the aphorisms thought-provoking, although I can understand why his broody, gloomy, and lyrical way of writing might not appeal to others.)
Many great writers and philosophers could, in fact, be adept aphorists, or have that potential in them, but if the aphorism no longer resonates well with modern readers, this could explain why so few reputable thinkers write in this way. The disappearance of the aphorism would certainly apply to the end of the 20th century, although its use has resurfaced in the 21st century. Thacker is not a lone outlier. The Scottish poet Don Paterson, for example, has published three books consisting solely of aphorisms, and they have been well-received and much-loved by many readers. Paterson’s aphorisms, like those of Thacker, seem to model the style and sombre contemplativeness of Cioran. Paterson is also like Auden: a prolific aphorist who has come to level the same sort of criticism against them. He states: “The aphorism talks to you as if you were an idiot.”
Interestingly, Twitter has also been responsible for the rebirth of the aphorism in contemporary society. In fact, because of Twitter’s popularity, we are seeing a proliferation of aphorisms like never before. And these modern aphorisms are not necessarily inspired by the renowned aphorists of the past, as is the case with Thacker and Paterson. This resurgence of the aphorism, brought on by Twitter, involves many different aspects that are worth exploring.
Twitter’s 280-character limit (originally 140) encourages aphoristic writing. Moreover, the fact that Twitter is available to everyone means that we have experienced the democratisation of the aphorism. It is not just philosophers and writers who have the ability to publish their aphorisms but anyone who is literate and with access to Twitter. This would appear to challenge Auden’s criticism of the aphorism as something aristocratic in character. No longer are the aphorists exclusively the elites and intelligentsia, nor are professional aphorists the most likely to have the farthest reach with their sayings. The abundance of Twitter users (330 million), the potential to gain a substantial following, and the option of hashtags and mentions means that everyday people can disseminate their aphorisms far and wide.
However, Auden’s association of the aphorism with assertiveness, arrogance, and self-importance remains, and we see this form of writing all the time on Twitter, from both the educated (illustrating elitism) and the less educated (which often exemplifies the Dunning-Kruger effect: the tendency to be highly confident about a topic when your wisdom on it is low).
Unquestionably, only a small minority of posts on Twitter could be counted as aphoristic. The platform’s character limit does not automatically make every tweet an aphorism since it is still possible for a single comment to lack conciseness, and most comments are not – nor do they aim to be – wise observations. Nonetheless, due to the sheer volume of Twitter users and tweets, we must surely be living in the most aphoristic time in history.
I would also want to underline the uniqueness of this aphoristic climate. Unlike aphorisms of the past, which were either written in private or published by eminent writers, aphorisms are now subject to real-time engagement. As soon as you post an aphorism, people can approve your comment (through liking or retweeting it), signalling to you and others that at least some people thought what you were saying had value (although the approval may be perfunctory). People can also provide feedback on your aphorism in real-time, agreeing with it, adding a point of view, or providing criticism. Aphorisms have therefore become interactive.
While the democratising quality of social media means aphorisms are now being spread by a more diverse group of people, the social component of Twitter does provide some motivation for quality control. If you want to maintain an image on Twitter as a thoughtful person and don’t want to suffer the embarrassment of a pretentious tweet, then you might be extra attentive to both the topic you comment on and how you comment on it. (Don’t forget that deleted tweets can still appear in search engine results.)
The inclination to chase approval on social media also means that these aphorisms may be more prone to self-absorbed motivations than aphorisms of the past and modern ones published in print. Everyday people might have written aphorisms down in private before Twitter, but with the possibility of gaining likes, retweets, and followers, all of which feels rewarding as a social creature, there is a stronger incentive to try and come up with clever and deep observations. How much of aphoristic writing on Twitter is based on the desire to appear a certain way? How much originates from the genuine wish to share something insightful before it’s lost and forgotten?
On Twitter, as well as on social media in general, it is hard to know whether one is being authentic or not. And this is an important question when it comes to aphorisms since the whole point of them is to present an authentic thought. They should express something you honestly believe to be true, not something which you are expressing just because it sounds profound, the sort of statement that could impress others. Aphorisms can be lyrical and witty, but they are still meant to be honest and without pretensions. Nonetheless, is the decision to tweet necessarily any more inauthentic than to publish in print? Of course, there is no black-and-white answer to this question, yet, because of the tendency to engage in self-marketing on social media, or the promotion of one’s ego, it can be incredibly difficult to express ourselves authentically.
I would still want to stress that not all aphoristic tweets will be inauthentic. They may simply be posted on Twitter as the preferred medium, or as an additional medium. Aphorisms can make an impact, by introducing a new idea, line of thought, or metaphorical encapsulation of something true. And the impact of the aphorism will be bigger if shared on Twitter. Indeed, many aphorisms go viral, and for good reasons. These aphorisms can gain traction because they can be genuinely witty, amusing, and illuminating; they aren’t widely liked and shared because they are superficially deep. Plus, even if some aphorisms on Twitter have an element of vanity behind them (i.e. desiring approval), this doesn’t make the statements valueless. They could still be insightful.
Aphorisms on Twitter differ from aphorisms in print in other important ways. For example, the inundation of information on Twitter and the way we quickly scroll through the feed means that we probably don’t slowly digest aphorisms we come across, in the way they are meant to be processed. Everything we see on Twitter is competing for our attention, so alongside potentially valuable aphorisms are more captivating and attention-draining posts. Aphorisms are best absorbed when considered in isolation, when the mind is free from other distractions. Looking at an aphorism on a Twitter feed is not like reading one in a printed collection. If a published book of aphorisms looked like a Twitter feed, this would just add extra noise to the reading experience. Moreover, we don’t often read an aphorism on Twitter, then take a moment to let the statement sink in, as we might do when reading an aphorism elsewhere. Instead, it is all too tempting to quickly move on after reading the aphorism to whatever else is grabbing our attention.
Nevertheless, aphoristic tweets have benefits, too. They can be discovered serendipitously. For instance, the hashtag #HarshWritingAdvice was recently trending and from looking at posts including the hashtag I discovered some writing advice that, to me, doubles as an aphorism. A writer named C. Robert Cargill tweeted:
Snark isn’t wit. Cynicism isn’t wisdom. And arrogance will open a lot of doors but get you nowhere in the room with anyone who actually knows what they’re talking about.
There is the issue, though, of stumbling upon a great aphorism on Twitter and losing it in the depths of a user’s timeline (this is why you might want to bookmark them, although this is arguably not as practical as having a book of aphorisms that you can revisit). The fact that aphorisms can come from people we’ve never heard of from all over the world is also uniquely valuable (Cargill was completely unknown to me). These aphorisms can lead to the discovery of interesting, insightful people, including philosophers and writers, or an everyday person with a wise perspective to share. You can curate aphorisms, in the sense of following people who post them and being selective in who you follow.
One further problem with aphorisms on Twitter is that they are restricted by the platform’s character limit. It is helpful that the character limited increased from 140 characters to 280; however, this limit still might have the effect of constraining creativity. The converse of this criticism is that the character limit forces users to be pithy when they might otherwise write out their thoughts in a discursive or lengthy manner.
On a more speculative note, I have wondered whether some of the great aphorists of the past would take to Twitter if they were alive today. Might Lao Tzu see Twitter as the perfect outlet to circulate his mystical aphorisms? Would Cioran be active on the platform? (Part of me doubts whether Cioran would bother with Twitter, considering he was generally averse to accolades and admiration.) If all of the great aphorists posted their observations on Twitter, who would gain the most followers, likes, and retweets? Cioran’s bleak and pessimistic views may not garner widespread popularity (which would be true for Schopenhauer as well). Tweets from someone like Wilde or Franklin would probably be more well-received and shareable.
The return of the aphorism is certainly intriguing. The fact that this style of writing is so prominent on Twitter may cause some to complain that the aphorism has been degraded and that unwise opinions are often mistaken for wise ones. Paterson also doubts that social media has initiated a golden age of aphorisms. Nevertheless, if Twitter encourages more people to write aphoristically, and to think about the value of their comment before posting it publicly, then this should be taken as a plus. Twitter can undoubtedly be toxic and useless at times. But when trawling through tweets, you can always discover some surprising gems of wisdom. Also, by using Twitter mindfully, you can increase your exposure to aphoristic writing, opening you up to many new and interesting ideas.