Admirers of the form known as the aphorism have always been few and aphorists of the first class, naturally enough, many fewer. The aphorism is an acquired taste; it provides something substantial, tangy, yet more than a touch sour, rather like the best Greek olives. Aphorisms are generalizations of universal, or nearly universal, significance, written out of one’s experience, or more likely disenchantment with one’s experience. If proverbs tend to tell us that we shouldn’t expect people to be better than they are, aphorisms are more likely to tell us just how bad they can be. “We all have strength enough,” writes La Rochefoucauld, nicely striking the characteristic note of the aphorist, “to endure the troubles of others.”

Those among us who take pleasure in aphorisms do not, then, come to them for cheering up. They can of course be...


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