Aphorismus: Questioning the Meaning of Words

Aphorismus is a term borrowed from the Greek language, signifying “marking off,” “banishment,” or “rejection.” It serves as a rhetorical figure of speech aimed at scrutinizing the usage of words, especially when they are employed inappropriately. Frequently, aphorismus takes the form of a rhetorical question, establishing a distinction between the ongoing discourse and the overall concept of the subject matter. Aphorismus can be found in both everyday conversations and the realm of literature.

Aphorismus vs. Aphorism

It is crucial to differentiate between aphorismus and aphorism:

Aphorismus challenges the meaning of words, as exemplified in Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot:

"I am Pozzo!
(Silence.) Pozzo!
(Silence.) Does that name mean nothing to you?
(Silence.) I say does that name mean nothing to you?"

Conversely, an aphorism is a succinct statement conveying personal truth or expressing a fundamental thought, as illustrated by Francis Bacon's "Praise is the reflection of the virtue.
But it is the reflection glass or body which giveth the reflection."

Examples of Aphorismus in Literature

Let's delve into literary examples of aphorismus along with explanations:

Example #1: Broken Love (By William Blake)
"He scents thy footsteps in the snow
Wheresoever thou dost go,
Thro’ the wintry hail and rain.
When wilt thou return again?

Dost thou not in pride and scorn
Fill with tempests all my morn,
And with jealousies and fears
Fill my pleasant nights with tears?

‘O’er my sins thou sit and moan:
Hast thou no sins of thy own?
O’er my sins thou sit and weep,
And lull thy own sins fast asleep." (William Blake)

In this instance, the speaker conveys his emotions to his lover, who has rejected his love. The rhetorical questions raise doubts about the meanings of the ideas or words, emphasizing the emotional turmoil provoked by the lover's actions.

Example #2: A Dream (By Edgar Allan Poe)
"Ah! what is not a dream by day
To him whose eyes are cast
On things around him with a ray
Turned back upon the past?

That holy dream – that holy dream,
While all the world were chiding,
Hath cheered me as a lovely beam
A lonely spirit guiding.

What though that light, thro’ storm and night,
So trembled from afar–
What could there be more purely bright
In Truth’s day-star?" (Edgar Allan Poe)

Poe employs aphorismus in this poem to challenge the meaning of the ideas discussed before these lines. The rhetorical questions invite readers to reconsider the significance of the dream-like experiences described.

Example #3: Paradise Lost (By John Milton)
"If such astonishment as this can seize
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos’n this place
After the toyl of Battel to repose
Your wearied vertue, for the ease you find
To slumber here, as in the Vales of Heav’n?
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
To adore the Conquerour?" (John Milton)

John Milton uses aphorismus to draw a distinction between the current situation and the general idea of heavenly repose. The rhetorical questions challenge the meaning of the actions described, emphasizing the significance of the moment.

Example #4: Richard II (By William Shakespeare)
"For you have but mistook me all this while.
I live with bread like you, feel want,
Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus,
How can you say to me I am a king?" (William Shakespeare)

Shakespeare employs aphorismus to question the meaning of kingship in this passage. The rhetorical question challenges the concept of royalty by highlighting the speaker's shared human experiences.

The Function of Aphorismus

The primary role of aphorismus is to accentuate the meanings of sentences or phrases by challenging them or raising questions. It prompts a reconsideration of the meaning of words and phrases, as words often carry multiple connotations that enrich language. In literary texts, aphorismus is crucial for questioning meanings and forms, making phrases memorable, and evoking emotions through inquiry.

Let's Talk About It

Have you come across any memorable examples of aphorismus in literature or everyday conversation? Share them below and discuss how they impacted your understanding of language and meaning.

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