The charm of aphorisms grows as we age and come to value wisdom. Like poems, they are concise, precise and best when liberated by strict form. Like star-matter, an aphorism is dense, but with experience not gas. They strike a delicate balance between earnestness and essential truth. Too preachy, and they wilt. Though witty, Oscar Wilde is too pleased with his wit, like a comedian who laughs at his own jokes and spoils the effect for his audience. In the wrong hands, witty degenerates into the merely clever. E.M. Cioran has a similar annoying habit, compounded by a taste for nihilistic provocation. In 1928, Smith published A Treasury of English Aphorisms, and was himself a minor-league aphorist, best known for “People say that life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” It works, but skirts Wildean self-satisfaction. An aphorist is as ruthless with himself as with others, so the first-person singular should probably be avoided. A successful aphorist is at once impersonal and very personal, like surgery.
Smith insists that some experiences are “best rendered in a fragmentary fashion, because they are themselves fragments of experience, gleams and flashes of light, rather than the steady glow of a larger illumination.” He’s mistaken to think of aphorisms as fragments, pieces broken from a larger whole. In fact, no written form is so complete and self-contained as a successful aphorism. Often they are most potent not in isolation, as in La Rochefoucauld’s maxims, pinned like butterflies in a tray, but when left to flit freely in a larger text, as in Alexander Pope’s poems (the heroic couplet seems custom-built for aphoristic usage: “’Tis education forms the common mind, / Just as the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.”).
Smith overrates Blake, who was a crank and probably insane, and underrates Chesterton. At least one aphorist he gets just right: “The collector will, however, probably regard as the choicest drawers in his cabinet the ones which contain the coined wisdom of Dr. Johnson’s deeply observing, deeply feeling nature. There are no aphorisms that bear more clearly the impress of their maker; these massy coins are authentically stamped with his imposing wig and features.” Smith follows this with a page and a half of aphorisms culled from Johnson (“Kindness is in our power, but fondness is not”). Some of Johnson's periodical essays and Rasselas are all aphorism. I dare you to read them without underlining.
Smith singles out for praise Ben Jonson (“Many might go to heaven with half the labour they go to hell.”), Thomas Fuller (“Mock not a cobbler for his black thumbs.”), Sir Thomas Browne (“Tread softly and circumspectly in this funambulatory track and narrow path of goodness.”) and Hazlitt (“Clever men are the tools with which bad men work.”). Smith detects aphoristic tendencies in unlikely places, including George Eliot, Benjamin Disraeli, George Meredith, Samuel Butler and Robert Louis Stevenson. The only Americans he spends much time with are Emerson and Henry James, though I would suggest such unsuspected resources as Thoreau, Dickinson, Melville, Cather, Yvor Winters, J.V. Cunningham and Joseph Epstein.
One of the reasons we read is to know the minds and experiences of others, especially those who came before us. It’s intrinsically human to want to know more about our kind. In “Montaigne,” another essay in Reperusals and Re-collections, Smith writes:
“…the modern reader, who loves among the records of the past to come on any bit of frank self-description, any account that a writer like Horace or Lamb may give of his whims and vagaries, of how life seemed to him in his time, and how the cup of experience tasted. How scanty, after all, are these revelations, how opaque and incredible the Past seems to us, and how unreal and inhuman its upholstered inhabitants! We cannot look into their minds, or if we do, we seem to find nothing there but sawdust. It is certainly curious that among all the millions of books that have been written on every conceivable subject, so few writers have really tried to describe the tissue of their thoughts and the actual taste of consciousness.”
The best aphorisms do just that, illuminating their authors as they illuminate a small corner of the world. Smith writes in All Trivia (1933): “What I like in a good author is not what he says, but what he whispers.”