Tuesday, May 27, 2014


The Art of the Aphorist

Logan Pearsall Smith (1865-1946), "English Aphorists," Reperusals and Re-Collections (London: Constable & Company Ltd., 1936), pp. 98-178 (at 109-110):
To polish commonplaces and give them a new lustre: to express in a few words the obvious principles of conduct, and to give to clear thoughts an even clearer expression: to illuminate dimmer impressions and bring their faint rays to a focus: to delve beneath the surface of consciousness to new veins of precious ore, to name and discover and bring to light latent and unnamed experience; and finally to embody the central truths of life in the breadth and terseness of memorable phrases—all these are the opportunities of the aphorist; and to take advantage of these opportunities, he must be a thinker, an accurate observer, a profound moralist, a psychologist, and an artist as well. Above all an artist! So great are the difficulties of his task, so numerous are the pitfalls which beset him, so repellent the pompous attitude which his tedious, stilted and oracular mode of expression forces upon him, that it is only by the greatest care that he can escape these perils; and Lord Morley's admonition to the would-be aphorist—'beware of cultivating this delicate art'—is no doubt a sound one. For the aphorist's pills, if we are to swallow them, must be gilded pills; his coins, if they are to be added to the currency of thought, must be minted of precious metal; many grains must be sifted from the sands of life to compose them, many thoughts and observations melted and fused together to give them weight. Each aphorism should contain, as Hazlitt said, the essence or groundwork of a separate essay; it should be the concentration or residuum of much meditation, and it must glitter with the finest sheen; for 'weight,' as one of our masters of this art has expressed it—'weight without lustre is lead.'
Id., pp. 113-114:
I do not know whether I can infect any reader with my taste (which I am proud to share with Coleridge) for these coins of aphoristic thought—these penny and often golden pieces, stamped as they are with the image of the Master of Thought from whose mint they issue. The search for them through old books, old letters, old volumes of Table-Talk, I find a fascinating one; I enjoy it as the archaeologist delights, as he digs in the soil of ancient cities, to discover coins engraved with the busts of the princes of antiquity, each with his own expression—the strength and energy of Alexander the Great, the ferocity of Mithridates, the assured power of Augustus, the philosophic calm of Antoninus, or the truculence of Nero.

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