Friday, October 11, 2019


Andrew Hui, A Theory of the Aphorism: From Confucius to Twitter. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019. Pp. 272. ISBN 9780691188959. $29.95.

Reviewed by Stephen Kidd, Brown University (

Version at BMCR home site


This ambitious book explores some 2500 years of literature in under 250 pages to establish a theory of the aphorism. From Confucius to Heraclitus, to the Gospel of Thomas to Erasmus, Bacon, Pascal, Nietzsche, and, in the epilogue, Twitter, zengo, and sutras, Andrew Hui explains that he is not writing a history of the aphorism—this would be "long and tedious" (21)—but offering, instead, "a theory". What is the theory? "[A]phorisms are before, against, and after philosophy" (2). By this he means that sometimes aphorisms are chronologically prior to more systematic philosophy; sometimes they are chronologically subsequent to more systematic philosophy; but wherever they are positioned chronologically, they always stand in some relationship to more systematic philosophy: "[M]y theory reveals that the aphorism is at times an ancestor, at times an ally, and at times an antagonist to systematic philosophy" (4). Languages cited in the original include Chinese, Greek, Latin, French, German, Coptic, Japanese, Sanskrit, and Pali—not always correctly (see, e.g., 85, 79, 62, 50), but nevertheless with impressive ambition. At the end there is a brief bibliographic essay.

What is an "aphorism"? Hui defines it as "a short saying that requires interpretation" (5, his italics), and he distinguishes it from related genres like proverbs, platitudes, maxims, and epigrams. While proverbs and platitudes are "close to the banal extreme" and "easy to understand" (e.g., "Absence makes the heart grow fonder"), maxims and epigrams are "somewhere in the middle" containing "a sharp aperçu" (e.g., "An almost universal fault of lovers is failing to realize when they are no longer loved"). Aphorisms, by contrast, are "close to the philosophical or theological end" and "more recondite" (5): "The best aphorisms admit an infinitude of interpretation, a hermeneutic inexhaustibility" (3). So, the "requires interpretation" part of Hui's definition must be understood along the lines of this envisioned spectrum: the aphorism offers ultimate condensation that promises an infinity of meaning ("infinite" is a favorite word of this book): "the aphorism—the shortest of forms to read—actually takes the longest time to understand" (6).

Chapter 1 "Confucius: The Master Wishes to Be Silent" examines the Analects—anecdotes and conversations between master and student dating from the 5th century BCE to the 1st century CE. The collection, interpretation, and commentary tradition that grows around these fragments is discussed, as well as the collection's gradual evolution into a state-sponsored "ideological whole" (30). How should such fragments of conversations be read? Zhu Xi (1130-1200) offers advice: "read and reread" (35) and "steep yourself in the words" (38).

In Chapter 2 "Heraclitus: What is Hidden", Hui argues that Heraclitus' "laconic language is drawn from the obscurities of the oracles", yet these sayings are philosophical because "they believe in truth derived from the human intellect rather than divine revelation" (46). They are thus "after and against" Homer and Hesiod, but "before and against" the "systems of Plato and Aristotle" (46). After discussing ancient divination, Apollo, oracles, and Delphi, he defends Heraclitus' obscure aphorisms against the more systematic argumentation of Platonic philosophy: once you start interpreting obscure fragments, "you're already on your way to wisdom" (52).

Chapter 3 "The Gospel of Thomas: What is Revealed" follows the hermeneutic pattern of the previous chapter: while for "Heraclitus, truth is found within logos", for "the Gospel of Thomas, truth is found in oneself, for Jesus dwells within." (82). Hui discusses the Nag Hammadi discovery (63), the text's relationship to the traditional four gospels (65), and Thomas' message, which is one of "radical independence" (63): "readers must decipher for themselves the text's meaning rather than rely on any sectarian doctrine…", and this explains why Thomas never became part of the orthodox canon (63).

Chapter 4 "Erasmus and Bacon: Antiquity and the New Science" retells some of the intellectual revolutions of the 16-17th centuries as deployments of, and reactions to, the aphorism. Topics include the ever-expanding editions of Erasmus' Adages (84), Erasmus' imagery of gems, mustard seeds, and Silenus boxes for these adages (90-100), and an example: "to look into a dog's anus" (98). The fatigue of collecting and "too much to know" (102-3) creates the crisis that Bacon will cut through with his own aphorisms: these provide "an open horizon of investigations rather than a closed system of accumulated knowledge" (108).

Chapter 5 "Pascal: The Fragments of Infinity" argues that "Pascal's Pensées is a repudiation of Cartesian philosophy" (126). Since Pascal's writings were found in disorganized bundles when he died, the question became (and continues to be) how to organize these "hopelessly disordered and enigmatic fragments" (123). While different editions have attempted to bring order to disorder, order was never intended. Rather, the "enigmatic instability of the text generates… productive multiplicity" (135). Reminiscent of the Thomas chapter, "Pascal's poetics of the aphorism" consists in the "painstaking decipherment of God's signs" (149).

Chapter 6 "Nietzsche: The Fragments of the Unfinished" considers Nietzsche's remarkable turn to writing aphorisms—starting with the 638 aphorisms of Human, All Too Human (1878), which "marked a break with his early philological studies" (153). Hui explores different reasons for this aphoristic turn, from debilitating health, to a peripatetic lifestyle, to Nietzsche's typewriter (156-7), but later suggests that the "value of aphorisms for Nietzsche" is that "they are quick to read" (174). Rather than debilitating his readers' "capacity for original thinking" by too much reading, Nietzsche wants a form of interpretation that is "internal, silent, and lived" (174-5).

In the "Epilogue: A Circle", Hui turns briefly to Twitter ("In terms of my theory of the aphorism, tweets come before, after, and against long-form publications", 178), but then, in a surprising twist, illuminates the book with autobiographical insight. In a section entitled "Exhaustion", Hui discusses the two aphorisms that he kept returning to in writing the book—the first is from Nietzsche: "What good is a book that does not even carry us beyond all books?" (180; cf. 36, 176). There are too many books, far more than we could ever read, and this creates "frustration" and "despair" regarding "all the oceans of texts and mountains of books that I'll never have time to read" (181). What is the answer? He offers Zen meditation as a "contrast to the myriad discursive interpretations that we have encountered in the previous pages." Such practice is "ultimately nonhermeneutic, a practice of emptying the mind" (185). It is as if, for Hui, the appeal of the aphorism is this possibility of getting "beyond all books", as if one could discover truth, and then discontinue the bookish search: "once the river has been crossed, the proverbial raft—assembled from the rickety timber of aphorisms—is no longer necessary. Silence pervades" (187).

This earnest and animated end to the book—as well as the final chapter on Nietzsche—reveals Hui's preoccupations and motives for writing about aphorisms, and so, one might wish he had begun, rather than ended, the book with these questions. This is for two reasons. The first is admittedly subjective: questions like "how can an aphorism end all reading?" or "how can an aphorism resolve the too-much-to-read problem?" feel incisive and dynamic. By contrast, Hui's chosen over-arching "theory"—that aphorism comes "before" and "after" and "against" philosophy, both "ally" and "antagonist" to it—is comparatively diffuse. It feels as if Hui, in covering so many bases, has forgotten to swing the bat.

The second reason is more objective: as a chronological progression, the book often has trouble making sense. Hui's genre of "aphorism" is indebted to Nietzsche and the Romantics before him (cf. 11-16, 164-6), and so we are essentially reading back those two centuries of "aphorism"—the meaning of the word, its concerns, its network of associations, especially with ancient fragments—onto the previous two millennia. There's nothing wrong with such an approach per se—sometimes such reverse histories can reveal new insights. But when such a method produces false problems rather than stimulating questions, a return to first-things-first might be in order.

Take, for example, the chapter on Erasmus and Bacon. Bacon, one of the few writers studied in the book who actually refers to his writings as "aphorisms", doesn't quite seem to be writing Hui's "aphorisms" at all: "Yet when we read the aphorisms in the text," Hui writes, "they do not appear to be aphorisms in the conventional sense of scattered statements or unconnected thoughts. They are not 'pithy' either…" (111). What to make of this? Hui speculates: "My sense is that what makes Bacon's writing aphoristic is not so much its formal properties as much as its function to 'invite men to enquire further'" (111). But a quick look at the Oxford English Dictionary or an introductory guide to aphorisms resolves the problem immediately: "when the term ['aphorism'] was revived in the Renaissance it initially looked back to its scientific origins"1—that is, Hippocrates' Aphorisms, the immensely influential work of medical observations and principles that stood at the head of the "aphorism" tradition. Curiously understudied by Hui—less than a page and a half, and not mentioned in the bibliographic essay—Hippocrates' Aphorisms are not 457 "sayings", like those found in Thomas or Confucius (17). They are scientific observations, principles, and recommendations (some of them not pithy at all, but nearly 100 words), and, as such, closely resemble Bacon's own empirical project. So, isn't it a false problem to ask why Bacon's "aphorism" doesn't fit Hui's genre of the "aphorism"? Isn't it simply because Bacon was not writing a 21st-century genre called "aphorism" but that of the 16th century? The OED makes this history clear. Merriam Webster (cited on pg. 16) and Encyclopedia Britannica (cited on pg. 4) do not. Erasmus, meanwhile, does not call his adages "aphorisms", although he regularly calls them proverbs and paroemiae. Instead, he distinguishes "aphorisms" (sententiae) on the very page of translated text that Hui discusses on 89. Erasmus writes: "[I]t not infrequently happens that an aphorism includes a proverb, but a proverb need not automatically become an aphorism…", and he provides "I navigate in harbour" as an example of a proverb that is not an aphorism. Some, like Stobaeus, do collect "aphorisms" (sententiae), but, Erasmus writes: "I would rather praise their work than imitate it".2 Would Erasmus, then, agree with Hui that "to look into a dog's anus" is an "aphorism" (98)? The quibble is not about terminology, but about the nature of Erasmus' project. Although Hui is right to notice that the "deep hermeneutics" he has been describing in regard to gems, mustard seeds, and Silenus boxes don't quite align with the project of the Adages (97), the hermeneutic discussion muddles the nature of these proverbs, which are often little more than ancient turns-of-phrase. Like words in dictionaries, these ancient turns of phrase, obscured through time, need to be explained both to help readers understand ancient texts, and to help writers expand their vocabulary in their classicizing Latin or Greek compositions. It will some day be obscure why the last one who is in should be a rotten egg, but this is not because an "infinitude of possibilities resides within one monad of a paroimia" (90). Meanwhile, Erasmus' eight books of Apophthegmata, which are much closer to Hui's sense of "aphorism" (note the theme of maxims vs. philosophy and action vs. contemplation in Erasmus' preface) are left undiscussed.

Like aphorism itself, Hui's book is not bogged down with systematic argumentation, but rather proceeds in short sections that often end aphoristically ("Finite words; infinite meaning" 39, to give one example). Although I would have preferred more of the systematic-argument approach, Hui's style mirrors the choice explored throughout his book. Just as aphorisms rest on authority, not argument, so too Hui sidelines the systematic in favor of more aphoristic pursuits: to observe, pronounce, and artfully describe.


1.   J. Gross, 1983, The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, Oxford: vii.
2.   M. M. Phillips and R. A. B. Mynors, 1982, Collected Works of Erasmus. Vol. 31. Adages Ii1 to Iv100, Toronto: 7-8.

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