When we read aphorisms, we are looking for the kind of certitude that a definition is supposed to contain (the word is derived in part from the Greek “aphorismos,” which means “definition”). When we consult a dictionary, we are looking, in a sense, for a last word, and that, too, is the kind of authority we are looking for when we read aphorisms.
In American culture, we tend to associate aphorisms more with kitsch than with literature. We find aphorisms on bumper stickers (see David Shields’ “Life Story,” an essay composed of the sayings on these stickers), embroidered pillows, coffee mugs, and calendars. And yet in spite of their easily mockable commercial applications, aphorisms persist for the uncomplicated fact that they teach us something, and the pithiness of aphorisms is essential to both their interest and their effectiveness. An author’s use of just a few words to say something major lends them an authority perhaps only shared by authors who make use of thousands of pages to do the same (Lev Tolstoy, Marcel Proust, David Foster Wallace).
My introduction to Heraclitus and Diogenes was in the form of aphorism. Diogenes’ tend toward the sharply witty (“In the rich man’s house there is no place to spit but in his face”), particularly his jabs at Plato (“Share a dish of dried figs with Plato and he will take them all”), while Heraclitus’ are philosophical in a way that’s broadly recognizable to the modern reader (“The same road goes both up and down”).
Contrast Diogenes’ more concrete aphorisms:
The darkest place in the tavern is the most conspicuous.
The art of being a slave is to rule one’s master.
To live is not itself an evil, as has been claimed, but to lead a worthless life is.
with Heraclitus’, which dispense with metaphor entirely:
Change alone unchanges.
Knowledge is not intelligence.
Those who wish to know about the world must learn about it in details.
I can be hesitant to seek out context for literature—I am divided, perpetually, as to whether historical background and particularly authorial intent should be relevant to my reading at all; as a writer, I very much want to it to be, but as a reader not so much. Because of this, for years, these were the terms by which I read Diogenes and Heraclitus and other authors of wisdom literature: as practitioners of the pithy, as wordsmiths so wise they required just a sentence to say what many of us endeavor to say in many pages.
It wasn’t until my fourth or fifth reading of their texts that I learned that I was not reading Heraclitus and Diogenes in the form in which they intended. In fact, the lines I read as aphorisms were just fragments of their work that had survived through quotations in others writers’ books, rather than complete excerpts from their own. Not only are we not reading these authors in the form they were intended, we may not even know the form in which they were intended to be read. As Guy Davenport, translator of both authors writes, “All of Diogenes’ writings are lost […] What remains are his comments passed down through folklore to be recorded by various writers. These obviously have been distorted, misascribed, and reworked.”
Despite or maybe because of my indecision about the importance of context, I was surprised by how unsettled I felt by this revelation—why did I feel unsettled, and did that discomfort stem from my role as a reader, or as a writer? As a reader, I was immediately curious about the original context of the lines I’d read so many times, and also wondered if knowledge of it might make me less invested in this work—the conciseness of an aphorism is most of what gives it power, and without that, would these sentences be so moving? I tried to imagine what kind of “cushioning” the aphoristic lines might have been accompanied by: was Diogenes’ “They laugh at me, but I’m not laughed at” not in fact a generalized lesson but instead the concluding line to a very concrete personal anecdote? What if Heraclitus’ “Lightning is the lord of everything” was not a striking commentary on the universe but instead just a melodramatic description of the weather? That my mind immediately went to these hyperbolic examples demonstrates, if in an extreme way, both how much context affects our readings, and also the precise nature of my reaction: what I felt, as a reader robbed of context, was deceived.
And as a writer? Is there a greater fear than your work being “distorted, misascribed, and reworked”? To subject my writing to just that treatment, and to give an essay of mine an aphoristic-like rendering, I went through a few paragraphs of my own and removed all concrete descriptions, details, and actions, leaving behind only the single-sentence summaries I imagined (preposterously) might be the ones to hang on through history. What remained were the bare essentials, the succinctness of which lent a conviction to my observations that my usual, adjective-laden narrative voice undermines. And yet the result made my writing nearly unrecognizable, even to me.
It is impossible to write and not be aware of the fact that as a writers we cannot control how we are read—in workshop and in unexpected responses from other readers in the world beyond—but it is rare, I think, to discuss the ways in which we can’t even control the form our work will take after we are gone. Methods for archiving are better than they were between 300 and 500 BC, during the time of Heraclitus and Diogenes—but the truth is that we don’t yet know what our technological means will end up preserving and how (certainly, the context-optional nature of the internet lends itself to archiving that may "distort"). Perhaps those of us who both seek and fear context can take some comfort in a line of contemporary aphorist E.M. Cioran: “No one approaches the condition of a sage if he has not had the good luck to be forgotten in his lifetime.”
Translations of Diogenes and Heraclitus by Guy Davenport.
Lucy Morris is a student in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program and previously worked as a translator.