Aphorisms: Short, Memorable Quotes to Live By

aphorism literary device

What is Aphorism?

An aphorism is a short, pithy statement used to express a general truth about the world. The statement is meant to express a moral or philosophical idea about life. Aphorisms are often confused with proverbs, maxims, and adages. In truth, each is a synonym for the other, so the terms may be used interchangeably. Aphorisms are found across all genres of writing. For example, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” is an example of a modern aphorism.

How to pronounce Aphorism?

Aphorism is pronounced “a-fə-ˌri-zəm ” from the Greek word “aphorismos,” meaning “delimitation,” “distinction,” and “definition.”

Why Do Writers Use Aphorism?

Writers use aphorism to convey a general truth about the world in a concise, witty, and memorable way. Aphorisms are powerful because of the direct, witty approach used to engage the reader. If the quote is memorable, the writer can build a connection with the reader on the basis of shared experience.

Other reasons a writer uses aphorisms include:

  • To summarize a central theme
  • To narrow the focus of the work
  • To build a story around a central message

Most importantly, in order for an aphorism to be effective, a writer must know who their audience is and identify an aphorism that is relevant to that particular audience.

Aphorism in Literature 📚

As with most aspects of life, literature is full of aphorism.  While the list could go on for days, below are a few choice selections.

“All that glitters is not gold” – The Merchant of Venice, William Shakespeare. With this line, Shakespeare wants to convey to the reader and audience that appearances can be deceiving. What something is or how a person appears on the outside is not always a depiction of what is true of the inside.

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” – Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy. With this opening line from one of Tolstoy’s most impactful works, he is trying to convey that while happiness often has the same face, no two persons or family can share the exact same suffering.

While aphorisms typically come across as a wise saying, they can occasionally have the opposite effect. For example, in Miguel Cervantes’ novel Don Quixote, the title character speaks confidently and almost entirely in aphorism.

“He who is down one day can be up the next, unless he really wants to stay in bed.”

And in this charming phrase:

“Hunger is the best sauce in the world.”

Ironically, Don Quixote doesn’t really seem to understand what it is he is saying or how it comes across. In the first statement, he seems to be conveying that you can’t keep a good man down but then seems to imply that all men can be lazy. As for the second line, it seems he is trying to convey that hunger is the best motivator but doesn’t really know how to finish the thought for the most impact.

Popular Aphorisms to Teach Children 🧸

In terms of literary arts, there are few, if any, examples of aphorism for children. However, life has seemingly tailor-made a few that seem uniquely designed to target children.

  • If you snooze, you lose.
  • Children should be seen and not heard.
  • You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
  • People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.
  • Winners never quit, and quitters neve win.

Aphorism in Song 🎧

Surprisingly, there is a near infinite amount of aphorism in song titles and lyrics. Below, we’ve compiled some of the most well-known.

  • Life is a highway,” Tom Cochrane
  • What Doesn’t Kill You (Makes You Stronger),” Kelly Clarkson
  • “Money can’t buy me love” – “Can’t Buy Love,” The Beatles
  • Love is a battlefield,” Pat Benatar
  • You can’t always get what you want,” The Rolling Stones
  • The best things in life are free,” Janet Jackson and Luther Vandross
  • You only live once,” The Strokes

And in Poetry . . . ✍🏽

While present in poetry. Aphorisms seem to be less common. Perhaps, this is because poems are typically shorter works. However, some notable examples include:

“‘Tis better to have loved and lost/ than never to have loved at all.” – Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam

And “Together,” by Rupi Kaur:

“the irony of loneliness

is we all feel it

at the same time”

While the meaning of Tennyson is straightforward, in this poem, Kaur wants to convey that no matter who you are, loneliness feels the same to everyone.

Aphorism in Film and Pop Culture 🎥

Films are notorious in their contributions to pop culture for a variety of reasons. Aphorisms are just one. Despite being depicted on the big screen, the witty, life adages and moral lessons, either originated from historical and philosophical context or as the result of a brilliant idea on behalf of the story writer or screenwriter.

One of the most famous examples of aphorism is depicted in The Godfather when Michael Corleone says:

“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Another notable example is depicted in Star Wars when Yoda advises Luke to do, not try. Take a look:

But perhaps, one of the most famous aphorisms of all and immortalized through comic books and film are the words of Peter Parker’s grandfather in Spiderman when he advises Peter,

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

Common FAQs 👥

What’s the difference between proverbs, adages, and aphorism?

Proverbs and adages are synonyms of aphorism. Like aphorism, proverbs and adages seek to convey a simple moral or philosophical truth about life. As such, the terms are often used interchangeably.

Is maxim the same thing as aphorism?

If you look up the definition of maxim, you will find that it is almost identical to that of aphorism. Like proverbs and adages, maxim is also a synonym of aphorism and is often used interchangeably with the term.


What defines an aphorism in literature?

An aphorism is a concise statement that expresses a general truth, observation, or principle in a witty or poignant manner. It is characterized by its brevity, clarity, and depth of meaning, often encapsulating complex ideas in a few words.

How do aphorisms differ from proverbs and maxims?

Aphorisms, proverbs, and maxims are similar in that they all convey general truths or advice. However, aphorisms are distinguished by their use of wit and brevity to express an original insight or perspective. Proverbs are traditional sayings with practical advice or observations, often rooted in common folk wisdom. Maxims are brief, foundational principles or rules of conduct.

Can aphorisms be found in non-literary contexts?

Yes, aphorisms are not limited to literature; they are prevalent in everyday language, speeches, philosophy, science, and even social media. They are used to convey insights, societal observations, or principles in a memorable and concise way, making them accessible and relatable across various contexts.

What is the purpose of using aphorisms in writing?

In writing, aphorisms are used to convey complex ideas and observations in a succinct and impactful way. They can add depth to the narrative, provoke thought, offer wisdom, and engage the reader through memorable phrases that resonate with universal truths or human experiences.

How can one identify an aphorism in a text?

An aphorism can be identified by its concise and often witty or poignant expression of a general truth or principle. It stands out for its clarity, brevity, and the depth of insight it provides, often encapsulating a complex idea in a few memorable words. Look for statements that serve as a commentary on life, society, or human nature that are self-contained and could easily be quoted or understood outside of their context.