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APHORISM (from the Gr. ἀφορίζειν, to define), literally a distinction or a definition, a term used to describe a principle expressed tersely in a few telling words or any general truth conveyed in a short and pithy sentence, in such a way that when once heard it is unlikely to pass from the memory. The name was first used in the Aphorisms of Hippocrates, a long series of propositions concerning the symptoms and diagnosis of disease and the art of healing and medicine. The term came to be applied later to other sententious statements of physical science, and later still to statements of all kinds of principles. Care must be taken not to confound aphorisms with axioms. Aphorisms came into being as the result of experience, whereas axioms are self-evident truths, requiring no proof, and appertain to pure reason. Aphorisms have been especially used in dealing with subjects to which no methodical or scientific treatment was applied till late, such as art, agriculture, medicine, jurisprudence and politics. The Aphorisms of Hippocrates form far the most celebrated as well as the earliest collection of the kind, and it may be interesting to quote a few examples. “Old men support abstinence well: people of a ripe age less well: young folk badly, and children less well than all the rest, particularly those of them who are very lively.” “Those who are very fat by nature are more exposed to die suddenly than those who are thin.” “Those who eject foaming blood, eject it from the lung.” “When two illnesses arrive at the same time, the stronger silences the weaker.” The first aphorism, perhaps the best known of all, which serves as a kind of introduction to the book, runs as follows:—“Life is short, art is long, opportunity fugitive, experimenting dangerous, reasoning difficult: it is necessary not only to do oneself what is right, but also to be seconded by the patient, by those who attend him, by external circumstances.” Another famous collection of aphorisms is that of the school of Salerno in Latin verse, in which Joannes de Meditano, one of the most celebrated doctors of the school of medicine of Salerno, has summed up the precepts of this school. The book was dedicated to a king of England. It is a disputed point as to which king, some authorities dating the publication as at 1066, others assigning a later date. The dedication gives the following excellent advice:—

“Anglorum regi scribit schola tota Salernae.

Si vis incolumem, si vis te reddere sanum,

Curas tolle graves: irasci crede profanum:

Parce mero: coenato parum; non sit tibi vanum

Surgere post epulas: somnum fuge meridianum:

Ne mictum retine, nec comprime fortiter anum:

Haec bene si serves, tu longo tempore vives.”

Another collection of aphorisms, also medical and also in Latin, is that of the Dutchman Hermann Boerhaave, published at Leiden in the year 1709; it gives a terse summary of the medical knowledge prevailing at the time, and is of great interest to the student of the history of medicine.

Transcriber's note: A few typographical errors have been corrected. They appear in the text like this, and the explanation will appear when the mouse pointer is moved over the marked passage. Sections in Greek will yield a transliteration when the pointer is moved over them, and words using diacritic characters in the Latin Extended Additional block, which may not display in some fonts or browsers, will display an unaccented version.

Links to other EB articles: Links to articles residing in other EB volumes will be made available when the respective volumes are introduced online.
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