Apophthegm

The apophthegma is a short, apt statement of meaning. The apophthegma often ends with a pointe and is written in prose. Consequently, aphorisms, sentences, proverbs, and bonmots are always apophthegms, with a similarity to the anecdote or the epigram. In the ancient world extensive collections of such utterances were made by Plutarch, the publisher Manutius and later by Erasmus of Rotterdam.

The term comes from the Greek (αποφθεγμα) and can be translated with utterance, witty word or even apt response. According to this, the translation already refers to what is at stake: an aptly formulated slogan [which is often anecdotally and pointedly]. Let’s look at an example.

The ax in the house saves the carpenter.
The above example stems from the first scene of the third act of William Tell (1804), a drama by Friedrich Schiller. In the first place, the saying states that self-preservation saves the costs for artisans or professionals and is in fact the praise of one’s own independence. So whoever knows how to help himself is not dependent on help. This sentence became a winged word.

Since a little wisdom is packaged in a short space of time, Tell’s statement can be regarded as an apophthegma before he leaves for Altdorf. A synonym can be called the whole but also as a proverb, winged word or sentence. The boundaries are not clear. Let us look at another example.

No pain no gain
The above apophthegma can be regarded as the German-language modification of the Latin Per aspera ad astra (Rough to the Stars), which is probably due to the Roman philosopher Seneca. Here, a sense-phrase is formulated by means of a domestic rhyme, which states that the success is eventually achieved with the necessary effort. A final example:

Gnothi seauton
~ Realize yourself!
This example is a very frequently cited apophthegma. It is an inscription on the Apollo Temple of Delphi, and is attributed to Chilon by Sparta, one of the Seven Sages. It aims to make man aware of his own limitations and served as a warning of self-exaggeration. In this sense we can also read an apophthegma from the Apophthegmata Patrum:

Once upon a time, the fathers of the ancestors came to Antonio’s father, and among them was Joseph, the father of the fathers. Antonios wanted to examine them, presented them with a word of Scripture, and began to ask them, from the younger ones, what the word meant. Everyone gave an answer depending on his ability. The old man said to each of them, “You have not yet found it.” Finally, he said to Joseph, “What do you say this saying means?” His answer was, “I do not know.” Antonio, the father: “Truly, Joseph, the father, found the way, saying, ‘I do not know.'”

Brief overview: Characteristics, meaning and function of the apophthegma
Apophthegms, also apophthegmata, are concise expressions in prose form. They are, therefore, related to all epic small forms of this kind, such as aphorism, sentence, bon mot, anecdote, often appearing pointed.
Very often they come from literary works, whereby expressive sentences or passages are taken out of context and continue in the form of a winged word. However, apophthegms can also be handed down verbally.
Already in antiquity, very large collections of such phrases arose, which were then mostly based on the utterances of Cicero, Socrates, and Alexander. In the following epochs, however, also a series of quotations was collected (cf. Literaturepochen).
Well-known and extensive collections of apophthegms
Apophthegmata Patrum
Collection, which includes sayings and sayings of the supposedly first Christian monks in Egypt. It is probably dated to the 5th century.
Apophthegmata (1533)
Collection of various anecdotes and sayings collected by Erasmus von Rotterdamm, an important Dutch scholar of European humanism.

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