An aphorism ought to be entirely isolated from the surrounding world like a little work of art and complete in itself like a hedgehog.Friedrich von Schlegel, German Poet
Aphorisms have the power to immortalise their creator. They are those pointed and pithy observations through which we express a general principle or truth. When used as a coping statement, aphorisms can even be beneficial for your mental health. They can serve as a personal mantra that puts things back in perspective in a time of crisis. Reason enough to equip you with some of the most memorable aphorisms about life. First, we’re going to look into the anatomy of an aphorism — and perhaps I can later encourage you to create your own as a budding aphorist.
The Anatomy of an Aphorism
Aphorisms may seem like any ordinary writing quote or saying. But there’s more to them. There are three characteristics the most memorable ones share:
- Great aphorisms are succinct and to the point, which makes them easy to remember. A need for long-winded explanations would be counterproductive. The aphorism must be able to stand on its own.
- Speaking of explanations. Aphorisms must be definitive and unconditional with no room for argument, justifications or doubt. They say what is, not what might be with refreshing clarity.
- Aphorisms contain wisdom, a general truth or principle. They inspire the reader to rethink or question a truth about life. Aphorisms are thought-provoking, which distinguishes them from clichés.
Consider this example: “One reason why some people can’t sleep at night might be that they worry about something,” is not an aphorism. It’s an abomination deserving only to be submitted to a stating-the-obvious contest. But enough of the theory.
21 Aphorisms About Life
Let’s dive into 21 truly memorable aphorisms about life from some of the best aphorists including Naval Ravikant, Marie Curie and Christopher Hitchens. I’ve added my own interpretation. What do they mean to you?
#1 Wealth & Fame
You want to be rich and anonymous, not poor and famous.Naval Ravikant, Angel Philosopher, The Almanack of Naval Ravikant
True wealth lies in the freedom that comes with money and the serenity that comes with anonymity.
#2 Dealing With Life’s Error Messages
Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes.Oscar Wilde, Irish Poet and Playwright
Making mistakes adds to our experience. Nevertheless, we also use the word ‘experience’ as a euphemism to hide our mistakes.
Procrastination is the soul rebelling against entrapment.Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Bed of Procrustes: Philosophical and Practical Aphorisms
Postponing tasks is your heart telling you that you must change something in your life because you feel stuck.
#4 Knowing When to Quit
He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.Friedrich Nietzsche, German Philosopher
When confronting evil, the chances that you resort to unethical means yourself are quite high.
All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.George Orwell, Animal Farm
Even the most well-intentioned goals can be redefined, relativised and corrupted to suit a narrative.
#6 Fear of the Unknown
Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.Marie Curie, Polish-French Physicist
Curiosity precludes fear.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.Unknown
Beware of the unintended negative consequences of your seemingly virtuous actions.
We live only a few conscious decades, and we fret ourselves enough for several lifetimes.Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir
We spend way too much of our conscious lives being self-conscious.
#9 The Levity of Life
Man suffers only because he takes seriously what the gods made for fun.Alan Watts, British Philosopher
Don’t take life too seriously. Because the gods created your world and they don’t.
There is truth in wine and children.Plato, Greek Philosopher
Alcohol loosens the tongue while children have a loose tongue.
One can live well even in a palace.Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and Stoic, Meditations
The biggest threat to a good life is the temptation to violate your conscience, which is omnipresent when living in abundance.
In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.Martin Luther King, Jr., American Civil Rights Activist
Friends who are nowhere to be seen in times we need them most can hurt us more than our adversaries themselves.
Death is caused by swallowing small amounts of saliva over a long period of time.George Carlin, Legendary American Stand-up Comedian
Sooner or later we all die, which is why even the most trivial bodily function could be seen as the cause.
It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.Mark Twain
Sometimes people just want to believe something. For example that Mark Twain actually said the above. No explanation will convince them otherwise.
Brevity is the soul of wit.William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Making it short and sweet puts the ‘quick’ in ‘quick-wittedness’.
Success is the only unforgivable sin against your neighbour.Faina Ranevskaya, Soviet Actress
Envy is one of the most powerful emotions.
Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.Nelson Mandela, South African Revolutionary & Statesman
Don’t allow yourself to become bitter and resentful.
#18 Human Nature
Grilled sausage in the zoo; that’s what humans are like.Markus Angermeier, German Creative
A joyful yet devastating, naive yet deep realisation about humanity.
#19 The Unknown
One is never afraid of the unknown; one is afraid of the known coming to an end.Jiddu Krishnamurti, Indian Author & Philosopher
We don’t fear our own growth, we fear what will happen when it stops.
#20 True Wisdom
Those who know do not speak. Those who speak do not know.Lao Tsu, Ancient Chinese Philosopher
#21 The Meaning of Life
42Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Our 21st aphorism about life is half of the only answer you ever need.
How to Become an Aphorist
With the above inspiring aphorisms in mind, how can you create your own aphorisms about life; making yourself live forever through your pithy saying? I propose a three-step method:
- Read. Not only aphorisms. But in general. Perhaps a moral story or something on my reading list inspires you. While you peruse the literature, observe and note down lines that inspire you, lines that strike you as well-made aphorisms.
- Re-write your favourite aphorisms about life, replacing one aspect or phrase with a similar one of your choosing. Write, re-write, shave off some syllables here and there and check if your new creation ticks all the boxes of a punchy aphorism.
- Once you’ve sharpened your eyes, ears and mind for the definitive everyday wisdom of aphorisms, walk the earth with an open mind. Pay attention, be patient, carry pen and paper and your first pithy saying will soon come to you.
That’s all there is to it. Enjoy writing your own aphorisms.
Life is a perpetual loss of cabin pressure; always help yourself before helping others.Chris Meyer, themindcollection.com