The writer of carefully hedged aphorisms, qualified to fit every contingency, is no aphorist at all. “Wiser or more intelligent” isn’t quite right. It’s more accurate to say an aphorist weds ruthlessness to cant-free concision, gifts few writers possess in tandem (Swift did, supremely). Aphorisms are as tight and difficult to write as sestinas. They can be cold, merciless and unforgiving, and thus are ideal for delivering carefully aimed jabs of truth and puncturing pretensions. Can one imagine a politically correct aphorism? There’s nothing of self-regarding virtue in the form. An aphorist assumes truth trumps compassion and tact. Elsewhere in his foreword to The Viking Book of Aphorisms (1962), W.H. Auden says an aphorism must “convince every reader that it is either universally true or true of every member of the class to which it refers, irrespective of the reader’s convictions.”
For inclusion in their anthology, Auden and his co-editor, Louis Kronenberger, rely heavily on the long-reliable – La Rochefoucauld, Chamfort, Lichtenberg, Kraus, Pascal, Chesterton, Santayana and, of course, Dr. Johnson. They quote Johnson, via Boswell -- “In lapidary inscriptions a man is not upon oath” -- and in nine words he acknowledges human mendacity even in death, and forgives it.
Aphorisms can show up anywhere. They need not be written and discretely identified as aphorisms, maxims, epigrams, apothegms or aperçus. A reader can happen upon them in poems (as in Pope) and prose (as in Proust), where their serendipitous discovery contributes to the wallop they pack. Some writers are aphoristic with some regularity. It’s a quality, like a sense of humor, I associate with mental health. Take Stevie Smith’s “God and the Devil” from A Good Time Was Had by All (1937):
“God and the Devil
Were talking one day
Ages and ages of years ago.
God said: Suppose
Things were fashioned this way,
Well then, so and so.
The Devil said: No,
Prove it if you can.
So God created Man
And that is how it all began.
It has continued now for many a year
And sometimes it seems more than we can bear.
But why should bowels yearn and cheeks grow pale?
We’re here to point a moral and adorn a tale.”
If the final, aphoristic line sounds familiar, your memory is good. Smith borrows it from Dr. Johnson’s “The Vanity of Human Wishes” and revises it for her own purposes:
“His Fall was destin'd to a barren Strand,
A petty Fortress, and a dubious Hand;
He left the Name, at which the World grew pale,
To point a Moral, or adorn a Tale.”
Smith must have been exceedingly fond of the line. She used it a year earlier in her first novel, Novel on Yellow Paper:
“For this book is the talking voice that runs on, and the thoughts come, the way I said, and the people come too, and come and go, to illustrate the thoughts, to point the moral, to adorn the tale.”