Aphorisms seem meant to prepare us. But what are we being prepared for, if not the past (which the present may resemble if the aphorist is wise, or his admirers believe well enough)?
Aphorisms are thus secret farces of influence—for how can anything prepare us for the future we cannot know (unless we insist on resemblances and mistake them for knowing)?
The older the aphorism—and the more handled (the more revered)—the more pedagogical it becomes, and the more its rueful, unspoken warning becomes We fail so much alike.
We adore them most when they instruct us on shortcomings to which we have not yet been introduced. We are invited to witness how eloquence might console a grave error.
But, alas, aphorisms have almost no poetry to protect them—which is the greater part of their bravado. When we no longer feel the aphorism can make us into its callow charge, it is murdered by its own humiliated cunning. At the very least (which is to say, most often) the puissant aphorism will tuck in the shirt-tail of one’s style—only to show that neither tailoring nor nakedness makes the person.
Though quotable, an aphorism is better whispered to oneself—and even more effective when it becomes merely a tone that unsettles one’s incitement. (The second instance is probably a cumulative effect—hammer blows on a lock that secures, perhaps, nothing.)
The great aphorisms are absorbed finally—and made companionable—on the tenth encounter. Prior to that, we merely nod yes. Perhaps aphorisms engage experience we can only recognize by repetition. Their subject might then be what we forget because it is most crucial.
One tries until one is tried and has no defense: We are gathered by our truths, which convene, at last, to smite us.
Published online at Superstition Review