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Exploring the Humor and Wisdom of Aphorism in Literature

Writers throughout history have made their work remarkable by employing aphorisms. These concise, insightful, and sometimes humorous expressions give your writing depth and universal appeal. In this article, we explore the meaning, lasting effects, and prominent examples of aphorism.

What is Aphorism?

Aphorism is an expression of truth or opinion succinctly stated in a witty manner. These statements feature in prominent spiritual and philosophical writings and can apply as a literary device in fiction writing. The truth they contain often lends them a universal appeal. Remember, "pride goeth before a fall?" That's an aphorism.

The term comes from a Greek word that denotes distinction, delimitation, and definition. The concept is largely different from those of a brocard, principle, adage, chiasmus, epigram, proverb, maxim, and saying. But people often construe some of these concepts as types of aphorism. Adagia by Erasmus is the first mentioned published collection of aphorisms. And other notable early aphorists were François de La Rochefoucauld, Baltasar Gracián, and Blaise Pascal.

Purpose of Aphorism

You can hardly forget a good aphorism. It's so concise and memorable and often uses striking metaphors. You can quote aphorisms in different situations, and they would still apply, even after many years. Nothing portrays a speaker as wise and profound as a good aphorism. It allows writers to evoke a thoughtful character who may possess the archetype of a sage or mentor. And it gives a literary work, fiction, and nonfiction, some staying power, and enduring qualities.

Examples of Aphorism in Fiction

Here are some examples of famous witty and profound aphorisms by characters in notable narrative fiction, and one from historical, spiritual writing:

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960). “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.” Here, Atticus tries to teach empathy to his daughter, Scout. The aphorism expresses the truth that to understand a person, you need to see things from their vantage point and experience things the way they do. 

English Standard Version, Ecclesiastes 3:1 (3rd Century BC). "For everything, there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven..." This is a famous biblical aphorism about the certainty of everything happening at their appointed time. Here, wise King Solomon expands on the truth that both good and bad, happiness and sadness have their own time and season, and none of them is permanent.

Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote (1605). "He who’s down one day can be up the next unless he really wants to stay in bed, that is." Here Miguel de Cervantes mixes aphorism with humor; the main character, Don Quixote, expresses witty and sarcastic comments with aphorisms. This example portrays the truth that a person who fails today can succeed tomorrow.

J. R. R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954)"All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us." Tolkien presents Gandalf as one of the wisest beings on Middle Earth, and readers see his wisdom through his aphorisms. In this famous statement, he admonishes Frodo not to fret about why the quest has fallen on his shoulders but about the choices he needs to make.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Frank Stephen