The aphorism is ideally suited to our age but strangely neglectedby Simon May / November 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Nothing typifies our age more than the sound-bite: the one-liner which describes, prescribes, questions, quotes, announces, points or mocks. Like the “sight-bite,” the arresting image which conjures up worlds without actually depicting them, it is found in politics, advertising, art, the media, and generally in the contemporary penchant for the eclectic, the fleeting, the gestural.
Our love affair with the fragmentary, has, we suppose, uniquely modern reasons: the need to cope with and be noticed, amid ever-shorter attention spans and ever-proliferating voices, choices and data. Also, our epoch has repudiated anything, outside natural science, that aims to be systematic, total, ultimate; its taste is for the partial and the open-ended.
But the sound-bite, along with much that is good and bad about modernity, existed in ancient Greece. There, in the form of the aphorism-quite simply, a highly condensed thought-it found the two principal uses to which it has been put ever since: first, to formulate and disseminate established wisdom; second, and much more interestingly, to explore great philosophical or scientific ideas about the fundamental nature of life, love, nature, gods, and the like. One might call the first use “pedagogical,” aimed at instruction, and the second “experimental,” aimed at probing the boundaries of knowledge. Although these two uses are in a sense contradictory-the first defines what is widely accepted and the second goes beyond it-they are both directed, typically for the Greeks, at one larger question: how to live a flourishing life in harmony with the laws of nature. In early Greek thought, around the 5th century BC, the pedagogical use is best exemplified by Hippocrates, and the experimental use by Heraclitus.
Hippocrates, the “father of medicine,” was concerned to encode and transmit a core of theoretical and practical rules for medicine. He did not trust every medic to master the complexities of diagnosis and prescription, and so he reduced them to simple formulae such as: when blood collects at the breasts of a woman, it indicates madness; those with an impediment in their speech are very likely to be stricken by protracted diarrhoea; eunuchs neither get gout nor grow bald.
Heraclitus, by contrast, bequeathed us aphorisms which are brooding, opaque, and vast in their scope. Where Hippocrates’s style is clear and practical, Heraclitus’s is riddling and exploratory. Where Hippocrates focuses on medicine, Heraclitus ranges over cosmology, theology and ethics. Where Hippocrates’s prescriptions are specific, Heraclitus’s allude enigmatically to…