We need good ideas today more than ever, to give us the courage and humour to get through these uncertain times. So today we’ve launched The Daily Aphorism, a new website that distributes a short and pithy piece of wisdom every morning. Sign up now to receive a beautifully typeset aphorism in your inbox every day for a month.
But what exactly is an aphorism? An ‘itch of wisdom’, ’the world in a phrase’, or for the more prosaically minded, ‘an original thought, spoken or written in a laconic and easily memorable form’. Anyone can write one, though it takes some skill to do it well. Famous aphorists have included Blaise Pascal, William Blake, Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Albert Einstein, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Winston Churchill, Jenny Holzer and Woody Allen, many of whom are featured on The Daily Aphorism website.
As part of the campaign, we are also inviting you to compose their own contemporary aphorisms. Here is some advice from aphorism expert James Geary about how to compose a winning entry:
There is good news and bad news. The bad news is: 'How to write an aphorism' is something that can't be taught. The good news is: It is something that can be learned.
There are three basic methods of composition. There is the 'spontaneous combustion' method, in which the aphorism flares out fully formed at unexpected moments, sending the writer scrabbling for napkins, envelopes or any other scrap of paper on which to write it down. Stanislaw Jerzy Lec was a great practitioner of this method: "No snowflake in an avalanche ever feels responsible."
Then there is the 'deliberate composition' method as practiced by the likes of La Rochefoucauld. He would attend a swanky salon, discuss all manner of subjects, such as love and friendship, then retire for hours to his room where he would produce several sheets of prose, all of which he would eventually distill down to one or two sharp, shining sentences: "In the adversity of even our best friends we always find something not wholly displeasing."
And then there are the 'accidental aphorists,' those writers who never intend to compose aphorisms but just can't help themselves—aphorisms occur naturally within longer stretches of text, such as essays, novels, or poems. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a classic accidental aphorist: "What is a weed? A plant whose virtues have yet to be discovered."
So, it's really a matter of finding out which kind of aphorist you are. Then I find it helpful to apply these handy laws—keep it short (after all, only a fool gives a speech in a burning house), definitive (no ifs, ands, or buts), philosophical (it should make you think), and give it a twist. It's also useful to keep in mind what Gabriel Laub said about aphorisms: "Aphorisms are so popular because, among other reasons, they contain half-truths, and that is an unusually high percentage."
Entries should be submitted via The Daily Aphorism website before 31st December. The competition will be judged by James Geary, philosopher Alain de Botton and Director of The School of Life Sophie Howarth. The winning aphorism will be the main feature in The School of Life’s window in the New Year and the winner will also be offered a free place on one of The School of Life’s courses.