Susan Sontag on Aphorisms

The ever aphoristically alert Dave Lull directs me to a recent post on Maria Popova’s excellent Brain Pickings site with extracts from Susan Sontag’s newly released volume of diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980. Popova highlights an entry dated April 26, 1980, in which Sontag, Popova writes, “offers a short but brilliant meditation on aphorisms — the ultimate soundbitification of thinking.” I reproduce the extract below and explain why Sontag’s—and Popova’s—understanding of aphorisms is wrong.

“Aphorisms are rogue ideas. Aphorism is aristocratic thinking: this is all the aristocrat is willing to tell you; he thinks you should get it fast, without spelling out all the details. Aphoristic thinking constructs thinking as an obstacle race: the reader is expected to get it fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument; it is too well-bred for that. To write aphorisms is to assume a mask — a mask of scorn, of superiority. Which, in one great tradition, conceals (shapes) the aphorist’s secret pursuit of spiritual salvation. The paradoxes of salvation. We know at the end, when the aphorist’s amoral, light point-of-view self-destructs.”

First, aphorisms are not “the ultimate soundbitification of thinking.” Soundbites are, in fact, not aphorisms at all; they are wispy slogans, empty sententious suits, Kraft’s Velveeta to the real cheese of aphorisms. A soundbite is just something somebody said. Aphorisms have a verbal facility and philosophical depth soundbites seek to avoid, because soundbites are designed to evade critical thinking while aphorisms are designed to elicit it. The soundbite misses the all-important Fourth Law of the Aphorism: It must be philosophical. For more thoughts on the difference between aphorisms and other forms of short sayings, see the Frequently Unasked Questions (FUQs) page on my website.


Aphorisms are indeed “rogue ideas” but they are not “aristocratic thinking.” Aphorisms are, in fact, the oldest and most democratic form of written literature on the planet and the only form of oral literature still practiced in every country and every culture around the world. Proverbs are distinguished from aphorisms only by the fact that aphorisms still have identifiable authors, while the identities of proverbial authors have been worn away by centuries of use. Everybody still uses proverbs all the time; just pay close attention to ordinary conversation, whether oral or written, and you’ll find proverbs embedded everywhere. The ‘aristocratic’ stigma adhered to aphorisms in the 17th and 18th centuries, when actual aristocrats like La Rochefoucauld started using the form. But these sophisticated thinkers were building on a tradition of aphoristic thinking and writing that predated them by millennia, a form of thinking and writing deeply rooted in quotidian, collective wisdom. The American aphoristic tradition, in particular, is a gleefully anti-aristocratic one; just read Twain, Bierce, Franklin, Billings, Parker, or Mae West.

Sontag writes “the reader is expected to get [an aphorism] fast, and move on. An aphorism is not an argument.” While aphorisms do revel in brevity, aphorisms are not drive-thru windows of the soul. An aphorism is the first link in a long chain of thought, a chain of thought that can stretch across a lifetime. The best aphorisms are, in fact, the shortest ones that make you think the longest. Precisely because aphorisms are philosophical and resist the comfy cliches of soundbites, they continue to provoke long after they have first been read. A really good aphorism becomes a fixture of thinking, one that can alter your outlook as it enhances introspection.

And aphorisms are arguments. That’s why they are so often written in declarative or imperative form. An aphorism is only one side of the argument, though. It’s up to you, the reader, to supply the other side—which is why aphorisms are a ‘lean forward’ reading experience and soundbites are a ‘lean back’ reading experience.

Popova also quotes an entry from May 6, only part of which I reproduce below:

“… Can it be that the literature of aphorisms teaches us the sameness of wisdom (as anthropology teaches us the diversity of culture)? The wisdom of pessimism. Or should we rather conclude that the form of the aphorism, of abbreviated or condensed or rogue thought, is a historically-colored voice which, when adopted, inevitably suggests certain attitudes; is the vehicle of a common thematics? … Aphoristic thinking is impatient thinking: by its very brevity or concentratedness, it presupposes a superior standard.”

Sontag correctly notes that aphorisms tend toward pessimism, but I would argue that aphoristic pessimism is a kind of inverted optimism. Aphorists do tend to see the dark side of things, but they see it and say it with a humor, insight and ebullience that is inspirational. In this respect, aphorisms are like vaccinations: They introduce a bit of the disease into your system so that you are better able to resist it when you encounter it full force later. Aphorists are realists, another characteristic that distinguishes them from purveyors of nostrums, platitudes and soundbites.

Finally, aphoristic thinking is not “impatient thinking.” I’m still thinking about the very first aphorism I ever read, in a copy of Reader’s Digest when I was eight year old:

The difference between a rut and a grave is the depth.

And as far as composition is concerned, what Yeats writes of composing poems applies to aphorisms, too:

Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought, / Our stitching and unstitching has been for nought

If you don’t believe me, try writing an aphorism. You will learn—very quickly—just how patient you must be.