A Theory of the Aphorism (book) – review

As Andrew Hui remarks in the introduction to A Theory of the Aphorism, the aphorism is a literary and philosophical format that has remained “curiously understudied” (1). There exist plenty of studies on the historico-methodological characteristics of, for example, the dialogue, the treatise and the novel, but the aphorism, despite its persistent ubiquity throughout the world and the ages, has not yet been subjected to such analyses. Hui, a scholar who specializes in the reception of antiquity in the Renaissance but is interested more generally in the transmission and reception of ideas, takes it upon himself to provide an account of the nature of the aphorism. His aim is not to provide a comprehensive historical overview, but rather to examine various characteristics of the format through a close-reading of a handful of aphoristic writers.

In order to motivate his selection of sources, Hui has to provide a preliminary definition of the aphorism. Having to demarcate it from other short sayings like proverbs, epigrams and platitudes, Hui defines the aphorism as “a short saying that requires interpretation” (5). As such, all aphorisms have a philosophical nature, though their relationship to systematized philosophy is often subversive. The first angle from which Hui wants to look at the aphorism is through its relationship to philosophical systems. His second angle is philological and focuses on the material aspects of production, transmission and reception, which loom larger in the case of the aphorism than in that of most other literary forms. Hui’s third and final angle is hermeneutical: aphorisms are “compact yet explosive” (1), which means that while being minimal in structure, they require maximal interpretative engagement from the reader. In each of the six chapters that make up the core of his book, Hui analyses an aphoristic writer by looking at them from one or more of these angles.

The first chapter discusses the Analects, a collection of sayings attributed to Confucius. As Confucius did not write down these sayings himself, questions of transmission and production are especially relevant here. The extensive commentarial tradition to the Analects cannot but influence the way in which we read them, even though the sayings themselves often call upon the addressee to think for themselves and reject dogmatic thinking. In Hui’s characterization, Confucius emerges as a Socratic figure of sorts: a sage with an aversion to writing and definitive answers, whose pupils tried to preserve his wisdom for prosperity.

The second chapter deals with Heraclitus, and through him with the question of the relationship between the system, the fragment and the aphorism. Already in antiquity, Heraclitus was known as “the obscure one” (ὁ σκοτεινός), and it is not hard to see why: the few writings of his that have been handed down to us bear a strong resemblance to oracular sayings. The interesting thing about the Heraclitan corpus is that we do not know whether we are dealing with the fragments of what was once a systematic book, or with a collection of statements that were deliberately crafted to be short, spicy and multi-interpretable. We do not know whether the “oracular,” non-systematic character that we associate with the pre-Socratic thinkers should be perceived as an integral part of what constituted philosophy back in the day, or whether these thinkers did in fact produce argumentative systems, the coherence of which has been lost to us through fragmentation.

The subject of the third chapter is the Gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical collection of sayings attributed to Jesus of Nazareth which was found in Egypt in 1945. Like those of Socrates and Confucius, Jesus’s sayings were not written down by himself but later recorded by his pupils. Hui compares the text of the Gospel of Thomas to the accounts that are included in the New Testament and suggests the reason why these sayings have not made it into the canon might be that they allow for too much “hermeneutic freedom” (66). The sayings present themselves as containing hidden meanings that are there for the reader to discover personally: they ask the reader to think independently in a way which might not have fitted well with the institutionalization of the Christian church.

In the fourth chapter, we leave antiquity behind and turn to the Renaissance, during which, according to Hui, aphorisms “constituted the very synapses of the humanist mind” (9). Hui first discusses the Adages, a sprawling anthology of short sayings from antiquity compiled by Erasmus over the space of more than thirty years. Erasmus’s look to the past is then contrasted with that of another Renaissance thinker, Francis Bacon, who was actively opposed to the humanist antiquarian spirit. However, Bacon’s Novum Organum was also written in an aphoristic style, turning the format into an instrument for the natural sciences.

The fifth chapter is devoted to Blaise Pascal, whose Pensées are again of philological interest. The publication of this collection of aphorisms was an editorial mess, as the set of papers that Pascal left behind at his death was completely unorganized. However, Hui argues that this lack of organization should be seen as a feature rather than a bug of Pascal’s thinking. Through writing chaotically and aphoristically, Pascal opposes the Cartesian idea that the world can be grasped and systematized. Lingering at some length on the famous line “the eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me,” Hui argues that Pascal’s aphoristic, broken and unsystematic style should be read as “an acknowledgment of the failure of the human intellect to understand infinity” (130) and “an expression of the impossibility of wholeness in the human condition” (142).

The sixth and last chapter deals with Friedrich Nietzsche, who explicitly wrote about the virtues of the aphorism as a philosophical format, calling them the “forms of eternity” (Twilight of the Idols, “Expeditions of the Untimely Man” §51). Nietzsche was not a fan of big books, advocating living over reading: “What good is a book that does not even carry us beyond all books?” (Gay Science §248). The form of the aphorism ultimately serves the writer, who can jot them down while taking majestic walks in nature, as well as the reader, for whom the incompleteness of the aphorism is meant to serve as a starting point for free and original thinking. Nietzsche, like Pascal, mistrusted the systematization that was characteristic of much contemporary philosophy.

“The biggest virtue of Hui’s book is the range and diversity of his examples.”

The biggest virtue of Hui’s book is the range and diversity of his examples. Whereas many other scholars might feel more comfortable staying within certain chronological or geographical confines, Hui makes a point of incorporating aphorisms from widely differing contexts. He brings considerable expertise to the table regarding each of his subjects, and the juxtaposition of the different thinkers is often thought-provoking.
However, it seems that Hui is counting too much on the juxtaposition alone to do the work. Hui does not systematically tie the arguments made in each chapter together, so that the work at times reads like a collection of vaguely interrelated essays rather than a monograph. This is symptomatic of a more fundamental problem with this book: though its title is A Theory of the Aphorism, no such theory is ever really offered. The numerous interesting reflections on this wide selection of aphorisms are engaging, but in the end, they do not add up to anything that could be called a theory of the form. Because of this, Hui’s selection of authors gets an arbitrary character: his choices would be warranted if they served as case studies to illustrate particular characteristics of the aphorism, but as Hui does not make any attempt at such generalization, his corpus seems random and unmotivated. This is added to by the fact that large parts of each of the chapters are devoted to detailed discussions about the interpretation of this or that particular short saying. These discussions are irrelevant to a theory of the aphorism as a literary or philosophical format.

In short, one might conclude that the main problem with Hui’s otherwise interesting book is its misleading title. The choice of subtitle is arguably even more unfortunate. Apparently aiming at something like societal relevance, it reads “From Confucius to Twitter.” Hui’s analysis of the relationship between aphorisms and Twitter is confined to this following single sentence: “In our short-attention-span age of tweets, memes, and GIFs, the aphorism is the most enduring microform of all” (21). It would be interesting to read a methodological analysis of the way in which digital short forms are related to questions of authority, fragmentation, condensation, transmission and interpretative affordance, but unfortunately, this book does not contain it.
Hui’s book could be described as sharing an important characteristic with its subject matter: like an aphorism, this work points to interesting and thought-provoking issues, but does not develop them in detail. Offering neither a historical overview nor a methodological analysis of the aphorism as a philosophical and literary form, this book emerges as an engaging reflection on a broad and somewhat haphazard selection of short sayings.