A Quotable, Pithy Guide to Aphorists James Geary has gathered examples of what he calls the oldest and shortest literary art form on the planet — the aphorism — into a compendium, Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists. He shares the rules he uses to identify an aphorism.
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A Quotable, Pithy Guide to Aphorists

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A Quotable, Pithy Guide to Aphorists

A Quotable, Pithy Guide to Aphorists

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm, according to Ralph Waldo Emerson. But intense feeling, as Harry Truman said, too often obscures the truth.

Proof right there that there are aphorisms not merely for all occasions, but for diverse appraisals of all occasions. Somewhere, sometime, somebody said something so pithy making every conceivable point that it has rung through ever since.

Well, James Geary has edited a compendium of "Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists." And he joins us from London. Welcome to the program, Jim.

Mr. JAMES GEARY (Author, "Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists"): Thank you.

SIEGEL: First of all, what qualifies as an aphorism, or for that matter, an aphorist?

Mr. GEARY: Well, the definition of an aphorism is a tough one because the aphorism is the oldest and the shortest literary art form on the planet. But there is no very short definition of what aphorism is. But I have come up with five laws that a saying must obey to be an aphorism.

And the first one is it must be brief. It must be definitive. It must be personal - that's the difference between an aphorism and a proverb. It must be philosophical - that's the difference between an aphorism and a platitude, which is not philosophical. And the fifth law is it must have a twist. And that can be either linguistic twist or a psychological twist, or even a twist in logic that somehow flips the reader into a totally unexpected place.

SIEGEL: And someone who demonstrated the ability to produce a few of these would qualify as an aphorist.

Mr. GEARY: Absolutely. And you have to demonstrate that ability on a consistent basis. So someone, you know, a politician who comes up with a very pithy and apt sound bite wouldn't necessarily qualify as an aphorist if that was the only thing he or she came up with.

SIEGEL: Now, you explain that there's one structure of an aphorism, one of several, which is called chiasmus. It's a rhetorical term, I guess. What is a chiasmus?

Mr. GEARY: A chiasmus is a sort of reversal - a reversal of the terms of a statement. And I think one of the best examples of a chiasmus is from Mae West whom a lot of people might not consider an aphorist, but she was a very, very clever aphorist who wrote most of her own material. And she said, it's not the men in your life that matters, it's the life in your men. And the reversal of those terms - and actually the reversal of the whole meaning of the phrase - is what makes it a chiasmus. And that's one of the eight different types of aphorism that exists.

SIEGEL: JFK's famous statement, ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. That also would be a chiasmus.

Mr. GEARY: Exactly.

SIEGEL: And some other examples of chiasmus?

Mr. GEARY: This is by a French aphorist named Chateaubriand. And he said, an original writer is not one who imitates nobody, but one whom nobody can imitate.

SIEGEL: There you go. And I guess we all now can imagine this formulation that we've heard or read of a thousand times. There's another kind of aphorism. I think of the Steven Wright line about what is it, when you see all the - when all…

Mr. GEARY: When everything is coming your way, you're in the wrong lane.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: What kind of an aphorism is that?

Mr. GEARY: That is essentially a joke. And it's funny because aphorisms share many of the same characteristics of jokes. There are aphorisms - in fact, you could consider aphorisms jokes, but they're jokes shorn(ph) of everything except the punch line. And just as with a joke, there's a moment when you actually get an aphorism. The delivery is also crucial. But there comes that moment when you think, oh, oh, yeah. Now I get it. And it's a moment of surprise and delight. And I think, you know, someone like Steven Wright is a good example of how jokes can be very, very funny.

SIEGEL: There are some people whom we would expect you to be searching for aphorisms, whether it's Mark Twain or Lincoln, for that matter. But I'm just wondering if there are some people that proved to you to be very surprising sources of the great many interesting aphorisms that you might share with us.

Mr. GEARY: Yes, there are. And they occur everywhere. And I think it's something - aphorisms are things that everybody encounters in their daily life. For example, I was on a train and young teenager came walking down the corridor of the train. And on his T-shirt he said, a wasted weekend is not a weekend wasted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: I'd say this is a…

Mr. GEARY: So aphorisms are things that, you know, everybody encounters in their life. And everybody has a store of aphorisms that they really carry around in their head all the time.

SIEGEL: You have created a book here for which aspiring writers, or for that matter, speechwriters could simply - well, they could find a saying to being every chapter of every book imaginable - if they want the use of your compendium.

Mr. GEARY: And in fact, the subject of literature is often the subject of really great aphorisms. And I think that's why so many writers take sayings as their sort of mottos. And you mentioned Ralph Waldo Emerson in your introduction. And one of his sayings is one that has stuck with me for at least 40 years now. And it has everything to do with aphorisms. It's: Life consists of what a man is thinking of all day.

And for writers, in particular, their writing consists of what they're thinking of all day. And I think one of the most inspirational aphorists for writers is in fact Ezra Pound and his wonderful aphorism: Literature is news that stays news.

SIEGEL: Mm-hmm. There is an aphorism you include that's from Gandhi, which I must say, I have assumed of - for all the time that I've heard it, I've assumed it's some kind of biblical or some New Testament citation. But it isn't.

Mr. GEARY: It sounds very much like something that Jesus would have said. And these are the kind of things that surprise me as well in doing the research. I would come across a phrase that I was sure was a quote from someone else. But it turns out to be someone that I'd never heard of, or someone who I didn't expect it to be. And in the case of Gandhi, that aphorism is: Hate the sin and love the sinner.

SIEGEL: From Gandhi.

Mr. GEARY: Indeed.

SIEGEL: Now, there are - I did find a couple of problem aphorisms here. One of them you include Lincoln saying, famously: A house divided against itself cannot stand. But while Lincoln said that, he's actually quoting the Bible. He's quoting the - there's a quote from Matthew that every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation, and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand. An illustration, perhaps, that there is nothing new under the sun.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GEARY: Which is a quote also from the Bible, Ecclesiastes. You're absolutely right. Lincoln was alluding to the New Testament when he coined that phrase. But if I may quote another aphorism: Originality consists in hiding your sources.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GEARY: And in the book I have sections scattered throughout the book that are called parallel lines. And they're a series of aphorisms for six or eight where various writers have been, you know, deliberately or unconsciously plagiarizing each other or refuting each other by saying the same thing or saying the opposite thing in slightly different ways.

SIEGEL: And can you think of an aphorism that would be fitting to conclude, say the - an hour or half-hour of the news program with?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GEARY: When one hears news, one must always wait for the sacrament of confirmation.

SIEGEL: Well, let everyone chew on that one for a moment. James Geary, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. GEARY: Thank you.

SIEGEL: James Geary is the author of "Geary's Guide to the World's Great Aphorists." You can read aphorisms like, nobody ever forgets where he buried the hatchet, and biographies of the people who came with them at npr.org, where you'll find excerpts from Geary's book.

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