May 16, 2009

Epigram — Aphorism

Definition of epigram:

An epigram is a succinct statement of great wit. It is not a definition, because it is not didactic. It is prose, not poetry, in the sense that the idea (encapsulated in the statement) is not presented as a lyrical speculation but as a direct and living expression of its own meaning. It is monadic, being a complete idea, that conveys its meaning in the very structure of how it is expressed.

For example, Kierkegaard, a master of the epigram, often referred to his own life as an epigram on his contemporaries. This indicates the nature of the epigram, that its meaning points to the truth of things, but in a deeply personal way. In the following paragraph, the last sentence is a double epigram.

'I could be tempted to say that I have taken one examination more than most people, although it is true enough that this examination is of such a nature that one or another has submitted to it who otherwise is not an examinee — I allowed the ardor of my feelings to be examined by a woman. Whatever I have suffered because I staked everything on that desire and once again staked everything on it since she asked for it, and yet once again staked everything on it, I who must bear the responsibility and be the agent — I still had strength enough, in order to mitigate the affair for her, to give the impression that I was a villain, a deceiver. Thus a murder was placed upon my conscience; it was said and repeated as solemnly as possible, that this would be her death. Therefore this girl was the examiner. One and a half years later she was engaged again — since that time I have scarcely spoken to a young girl, and no thought has been more alien to my soul than to want to fall in love again or even to think about it.

If at times it has satisfied my anger to be like an epigram over my contemporaries, here I have learned how woeful it is to be an epigram in that way.'

Definition of aphorism:

An aphorism is a succinct statement, that presents a principle, or the essence or genius of an idea, and is more didactic in nature than the epigram. However, the vital key to presenting the principle is the same reflective dialectic as found in the epigram. That is, the meaning of an aphorism is also expressed in the actual mechanics of its structure and wording, perhaps more than in the actual words chosen. The aphorism puts Truth before the man and the man expresses Truth, whereas the epigram uses man to see Truth which explains its more lyrical nature.

Kevin Solway is a master of aphoristic writing, having drawn out the nuggets of truth from many scriptures. His "Poison for the Heart" is full of aphorisms.

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