The art of the aphorism

When are the empty words of political spin profound?

The soundbite is routinely derided today. "He was the future once!" "A sub-prime deal from a sub-prime minister." "All slogans, no substance." The quip is thought more or less amusing and more or less meaningless. Hence Tony Benn's complaint that a soundbite "is all that an interviewer allows you to say". And when Tony Blair said, "This is not a time for soundbites," people groaned: the shamelessness of the addict! Spin had become a way of life, even when the hand of history was upon his shoulder.

But does it need to be that way? Could they not be launch pads for thought? After all, some of the greatest philosophers wrote in paragraphs and one-liners when they could. Wittgenstein mused, "Whereof one cannot speak thereof one must be silent" - ensuring the future employment of hundreds of academics and thousands of mystics in nine short words. Friedrich Nietzsche's comments about the death of God still echo powerfully a century on. "We have killed him - you and I," his madman announced, as the modern world became lost in empty space.

We ennoble such phrases and call them aphorisms. That tells us something about the difference between the empty saying and the profound maxim. The word aphorism comes from the Greek ap-horeizen - to set a boundary or define a horizon. A good aphorism, then, is one that casts life in a different frame, changes our perspective, gets us to reconsider what we took to be true. Pithiness has a purpose: to force us to stop, to look, to think.

Link to humour and the effect can be doubled. Consider the answer to the meaning of life given by the Deep Thought supercomputer in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: 42. It is a joke, but not a sad joke, implying there is no meaning. Rather, it is a piece of witty wisdom, showing that meaning is found not in abstract answers, but in thoughts that speak to life.

It is because of their power to change a life that sayings appealed to ancient philosophers. Transformation, not just understanding, was the goal of their intellectual exertions. A wise thought was like a rudder: it oriented the bow so that the sails of life could fill. "The unexamined life is not worth living." "Know thyself!" Socrates struggled with these maxims throughout his life, and western philosophy was launched as a result. However, when Montaigne, sometimes called the French Socrates, had many of his favourite aphorisms written on the beams of his tower, they became a warning: their succinctness was a judgement on the baggy bragging of most writers and thinkers.

This explains why writing a good aphorism, like constructing a good soundbite, is an art. The best are simple and the opposite of simplistic. In an age when the average attention span is apparently decreasing, the sagacious soundbite could yet become the solution to - rather than a symptom of - the tendency to dumb down.

This article first appeared in the 17 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: the war that changed us