A Theory of the Aphorism
From Confucius to Twitter
An engaging look at the aphorism, the shortest literary form, across time, languages, and cultures
Aphorisms—or philosophical short sayings—appear everywhere, from Confucius to Twitter, the Buddha to the Bible, Heraclitus to Nietzsche. Yet despite this ubiquity, the aphorism is the least studied literary form. What are its origins? How did it develop? How do religious or philosophical movements arise from the enigmatic sayings of charismatic leaders? And why do some of our most celebrated modern philosophers use aphoristic fragments to convey their deepest ideas? In A Theory of the Aphorism, Andrew Hui crisscrosses histories and cultures to answer these questions and more.
With clarity and precision, Hui demonstrates how aphorisms—ranging from China, Greece, and biblical antiquity to the European Renaissance and nineteenth century—encompass sweeping and urgent programs of thought. Constructed as literary fragments, aphorisms open new lines of inquiry and horizons of interpretation. In this way, aphorisms have functioned as ancestors, allies, or antagonists to grand systems of philosophy.
Encompassing literature, philology, and philosophy, the history of the book and the history of reading, A Theory of the Aphorism invites us to reflect anew on what it means to think deeply about this pithiest of literary forms.
Andrew Hui is associate professor of humanities at Yale-NUS College, Singapore. He is the author of The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature.