A Theory of the Aphorism


For a literary form as pervasive as the aphorism, it is a great surprise that it is not as widely studied as it is received – and transmitted. With a history that is far-reaching and multi-cultural, the aphorism stands as testament to a particular way of articulating a variety of ideas and thoughts, from the religious to the ethical, from the political to the philosophical. Aphorisms stand as signposts for specific zeitgeists over the span of human history. It is in the context of the aphorism’s largely unattended quality that Andrew Hui attempts to secure a place for it in the scholarship.

Self-admittedly “a short book on the shortest of genres” A Theory of the Aphorism traces the arc of the development of the aphorism; from Confucius, Heraclitus, and the Gospel of Thomas, to the Renaissance of Erasmus and Francis Bacon, through Pascal and Nietzsche. While these cannot claim to represent all of the aphoristic form, they do represent, for Hui, a very discernible range of writers who can tell the story, while also doing the double duty of validating his theory about the sustained resonance that is derived in the dynamics between the textual fragment and enigmatic lucidity. In doing so, Hui is able to demonstrate what he identifies as a precise system of thought development and the thoughts of development.

The first task is to sieve the aphorism from other, similar, short sayings or wisdoms that express general truths. These, in their own ways, compete for intellectual attention and serve to distract from the more pointed, compressive, condensed – though not necessarily reductive – insights that characterise the aphorism for Hui. The engagement with an aphorism is not merely pedestrian; it makes demands on the reader/student that is simultaneously ethical, meditative and epiphanic: “one must translate the figural, witty, and intuitive into the logical, explicable and demonstrable.” The aphorism, then, is not just this or that other clever witticism but is a fully formed self-contained ecology that demands and challenges analysis.

Throughout A Theory of the Aphorism, Hui returns to essentially the same – yet internally altered – observations about the form. Its achievements and appeal have been so because its discontinuous structure makes for a condition that demands the receiver to compel the connections with the world external to the text and the reading self. The reader identifies with the aphorism because the reader is the one who fills it with her own voice, her own experiential correspondence. The aphorism is re-made in the reader’s own image. And because they are not bound by context, aphorisms are open to endless possibilities.

The most distinctive of the aphorism’s many features is the paradox that, as with above, as a form that is structurally limited, restrictive, its implications, its insinuations are expansive, universal. This disproportion is startling – much like the realisation of the aphoristic intent itself. And in its inference of possibilities, the aphorism is suggestive, suggestible. It awakens the human quest for – not merely wisdom for wisdom’s sake – fulfilment and improvement. There is its ethical quality, but the ethical is the tip of a larger impulse, one that sees in ethical wisdom the promise of divine completion. Here, the aphorism is able to distil the theological abstract into the spiritually comprehensible. In turn, the reader, assured by the ability to apprehend the seemingly impenetrable, returns in a quest for more, thereby ritualising the experience of wisdom.

Like musical “variations on a theme of”, the iterative nature of aphorisms means that they often fall into a practice of dealing with the same ideas or objectives in different ways. These are not exercises in circularity, but are attempts to test and tease out the limits offered by the internal logic of the ideas being expressed. As a consequence, each iteration of an aphorism assumes newer dimensions but also accumulates the peculiarities gleaned from earlier versions. One river, many wisdoms.

With rote exposure comes familiarity, and with familiarity emerges, perhaps, affection and internalisation. So it is with each aphorist. But also between aphorists across spatial and temporal boundaries. Hence Andrew Hui’s ability to draw the connection between the range of his selected aphorists. This also speaks to a convincing substantiation of a body of ideas that have no business being lumped together, given the disparity of their provenance. And yet they echo resoundingly with each other. The consistency of their tone, clarity and precision tempts us with the possibility of a canon of aphorisms that can be the bedrock of this particular field of literary and philological studies, and Andrew Hui’s book has helped us to take those first steps.



Andrew Hui. A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019.

Lim Lee Ching

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