APHORISM, “short sentences drawn from long experience” to Cervantes, “the wisdom of many, the wit of one” to Lord Russell, the terms proverb, aphorism, maxim have evaded strict definition and demarcation one from another. Aphorism in its literal sense, as a “sententious statement of the principles of physical science” ultimately derives from Hippocrates’ medical Aphorisms. In this sense, a very early specimen of Persian poetry, part of the Dāneš-nāma attributed to the poet Maysarī (Lazard, Premiers poètes II, pp. 186-88), is composed of aphorisms. However for the purposes of this article, which concerns the use of aphorisms in Persian folklore and literature, the prescriptive definition offered by John Gross has been adopted. Gross follows a path through “a wilderness of definitions” (The Oxford Book of Aphorisms, Oxford, 1983, pp. vii-viii), and arrives at a set of definitive characteristics based on his own experience and on general consensus. To Gross, aphorisms are statements about life that are “permanently and universally applicable;” they are “unlike proverbs” in that they have authors; and they are bits “of literature . . . that bear the stamp and style of the mind which created [them].” Finally, notes Gross, the aphorism “has to stand by itself,” in order to remain in the popular consciousness or to be anthologized, aphorisms have to be terse and witty, avoiding the trite and commonplace and occasionally becoming the vehicles of “a disenchanted view of human nature.” This notion of aphorism corresponds to Amīr-qolī Amīnī’s definition of the term maṯal (plural amṯāl) in the introduction to his dictionary of colloquial Persian expressions Farhang-e ʿaw(w)ām (Isfahan, 1339 Š./1960, p. 1). Amīnī speaks of aphoristic “wit” (baḏla-gūʾī); “aphorisms are composed of pithy expressions and pregnant allusions while at the same time are imbued with wit and humor.” Moḥammad-Taqī Moqtaderī concurs in this definition when he uses the term matalak (jibe) to characterize some of the proverbial expressions found in Afghan Persian (FIZ 7/1, 1338 Š./1959, p. 5). Terms traditionally used to mean “advice” (pand/naṣīḥat) and “wisdom” (ḥekmat) can be distinguished formally from maṯal. The difference between the terms naṣīḥat/pand and maṯal is implicit in Saʿdī’s fifth essay “Dar naṣīḥat al-molūk” (Advice for kings): “Never feel safe from anyone who lives in fear of you, . . . ; and proverbs tell us (dar maṯal ast): " To undermine the base of a wall and to remain stationary’ and " to kill a snake’s young and sit carefree’ are against the counsel of wisemen” (Kollīyāt-e Saʿdī, ed. M. ʿA. Forūḡī, p. 82 no. 83). While naṣīḥat is straightforward and, at times, prolix leaving nothing to allusion, maṯal wisdom is implicit, depending on the efficiency of the mot juste and on the stimulus of contradiction for its pleasure and its sting.

In many cases the maṯal is a highly compressed form of anecdote; it is the visible edge of a folkloric narrative once current, but long forgotten. Aware of the representational nature of the maṯal, modern anthologists of Persian aphorisms, such as Amīr-qolī Amīnī (Dāstānhā-ye amṯāl, Isfahan, 1324 Š./1945), Abu’l-Qāsem Enǰavī Šīrāzī (Tamṯīl wa maṯal, Tehran, 1352 Š./1973), and Aḥmad Šāmlū (Ketāb-e Kuča, Tehran, l357- Š./1978-) have supplied the anecdotes that support and explain the wisdom they have collected. The fact that the Persian maṯal implicates so much local legend and lore has caused researchers to postulate a direct correspondence between proverbial wisdom literature and national character (e.g., see Aḥmad Bahmanyār, “Maṯal,” Yaḡma 1/10, 1327 Š./1948, pp. 433-37). Expansion and explication of the laconic reference in Persian literature, however, predates the systematic work of modern scholars. The Mirror for Princes Qābūs-nāma (ed. G-Ḥ. Yūsofī, Tehran, 1346 Š./1967, pp. 208-09) reports that when the Ghaznavid Sultan Maḥmūd threatened to unleash his elephant battalions on Baghdad, the Caliph al-Qāder replied with three Arabic letters: ʾa , lām, mīm. With all of Maḥmūd’s advisers stumped by the riddle of the three letters, a young man who had not even reached the age of courtierhood realized that they were the first three letters of Koran 105:1: “Hast thou not seen how thy Lord dealt with the owners of the Elephant?” This concise counter stopped Maḥmūd from attacking and earned its exegete a robe of honor.

To many cases, the originality of classical poets and prose stylists can be seen in the way they use traditional wisdom literature to suit their own artistic needs. The Qābūs-nāma anecdote illustrates one way in which Koranic citation, in particular, and Arabic sayings, in general, contribute to the aphoristic style of classical Persian literature. Both Koranic verse and the Hadith, according to Badīʿ-al-zamān Forūzānfar (Aḥādīṯ-e Maṯnawī, Tehran, 1347 Š./1968, pp. v-vi), served as amṯāl to the madrasa-educated audiences of mystical and homiletic Persian poetry. In his discourse on rhetoric, Neẓāmī ʿArūżī Samarqandī (Čahār maqāla, ed. M. Qazvīnī, Leiden, 1910, p. 23) recommends Koranic diction as the ultimate in concise expression and inimitability of sense, the very requirements of a good maṯal. The Koran itself, in fact, defines such a maṯal: “Seest thou not how Allah coineth a similitude (maṯal): A goodly saying, as a goodly tree, its root set firm, its branches reaching into heaven” (14:24). In classical Persian prose and poetic texts, Koranic verse and Hadith are either adopted wholesale to support an ad verecundiam argument, as appeals to indisputable authority, or find their way into Persian through translation. To avoid ambiguity and perhaps to increase the aphoristic density of their works, some writers adopt the tedious practice of yoking the Persian translation of a Koranic verse or a Hadith to its original; e.g. (in this case a Hadith), “The tree of the sword, under whose shade is heaven [Persian], for " Heaven is under the shade of swords’ [Arabic]” (Šehāb-al-dīn Zaydarī Nasavī, Nafṯat al-maṣdūr, pp. 1, 129). Abundant examples of the use of the Koranic maṯal in classical poetry are found in Taḥlīl-e ašʿār-e Nāṣer-e Ḵosrow, by M. Moḥaqqeq (Tehran, 1349 Š./1970, pp. 1-119).

Another rich source of aphoristic inspiration in classical Persian literature was the so-called “Andarz Literature” (q.v.; see The Letter of Tansar, tr. M. Boyce, Rome, 1968, pp. 19-20 and the article by J. P. De Menasce in Camb. Hist. Iran III/2, pp. 1166-95). This body of wisdom literature flourished under the Sasanians, and several andarz-nāmas bearing the names of Sasanian kings and priests have survived. The poet who relied most heavily on this type of literature and was perhaps most responsible for turning the verities of Zoroastrian wisdom into aphoristic poetry was Ferdowsī. The Šāh-nāma mentions the Andarz-nama of Anōšīravān (see Dehḵodā, s.v. andarz-nāma) and serves generous helpings of Bozorgmehr advice to the Sasanian king (Šāh-nāma, ed. Mohl, bk. VI, 1101-1605). According to Dehḵodā’s Amṯāl o ḥekam (Tehran, II, pp. 623-25, III, p. 1338, IV, pp. 2058-59) the Šāh-nāma has contributed more than fifty ways of expressing the notion “life has its ups and downs, so accept both with equanimity” to the corpus of Persian aphoristic literature. Likewise, a traditional adage of andarz literature, the idea that death is inevitable, is expressed in some fifty-three Šāh-nāma aphorisms (Amṯāl o ḥekam I, pp. 150-56). Another notion to which Ferdowsī the aphorist and other classical authors were attracted and that is common to both the Sasanian and Koranic aphoristic traditions, is the misogynist’s view that women are men manqué, flawed ab initio and therefore neither to be trusted nor obeyed; e.g., “Women, their name is deemed to be so low, for never do they food or sleep forgo,” ibid., II, p. 919). On the other hand, a man’s good nature, his only legacy, in the aphorist’s Šāh-nāma rests on his actions, ibid., I, pp. 199-200).

Like Ferdowsī, Saʿdī also made ample use of the simple wisdom of andarz in his contributions to Persian aphorisms. The eighth chapter of the Golestān (Dar ādāb-e ṣoḥbat) is devoted to rhymed prose sayings that reflect on generosity, money, life, death, kingship, asceticism, etc. As Moḥammad-Taqī Bahār suggests (Sabk-šenāsī, Tehran, l349 Š./1970, III, p. 111) because Saʿdī was not a court poet, rather an itinerant sage who depended on conducting learned discussions of religion and morality to earn a living, he habitually resorted to the well-turned aphorism in his didactic writings. “Musk is what our nose tells us not what the perfumer sells us” and “So long as gold will well do the trick, to risk one’s life would not be politic” (Kollīyāt, pp. 280 and 290) are remembered not only because they harbor some universal truth but because they appeal to the ear and acquaint one with Saʿdī’s particular view of life.

As with most proverbial wisdom, Persian aphorisms are not free of ambiguity. Commenting on Western proverbial literature, John Crossan writes: “For every " Two heads are better than one’ there is always another " Too many cooks spoil the broth’” (Raid on the Articulate, New York, 1976, pp. 58-59). The 10th century poet Daqīqī qualified “patience shall have its reward” by adding that one needed two lifetimes to realize the truth of the saying (Lazard, Premiers poètes II, p. 148). The 14th-century Persian satirist ʿObayd Zākānī exploited this intrinsic ambiguity of simple wit and wisdom to produce his collection of antiaphorisms, the Resāla-ye ṣad pand. In effect, Zākānī turned the goodly tree of maṯal upside down so that its roots were in the air and its leaves trailed in the dirt. He turns the commonplace “Honesty is the best policy” into “As long as you can, never tell the truth, so that you do not weigh on people’s heart and so that they will not take offense needlessly” (Kollīyāt, ed. ʿA. Eqbāl, Tehran, 1341 Š./1964, p. 205). Ferdowsī’s saws about the inevitability of death in Zakanian dress become “In any event, avoid death, for death has been considered unseemly” (makrūh, i.e., doctrinally frowned upon) (Kollīyāt, p. 210). With his devil’s dictionary of obscene advice, Zākānī made the process of the aphorization of both andarz and Koranic wisdom come full circle and put subsequent adagists on their guard against platitudes.

In Persian literature, then, the successful aphorist would typically convert the raw and plainly-stated wise saying into something both memorable and quotable. Not merely content to sprinkle their works with received bits of advice, the great poets and prose writers were distinguished by their tailoring of traditional wisdom into something original, something that suited their own particular literary needs. This process, known as tamaṯṯol, has preserved many of the most important lessons taught by the culture of Persian speaking and reading peoples. Anthologies capture instances of tamaṯṯol and gather them alphabetically or arrange them under traditional subject headings.

Bibliography: An early example of collected advice in Persian literature, Pand-nāma-ye Mātorīdī, was edited and published by Ī. Afšār in FIZ 9/1-4, 1340 Š./1961, pp. 46-67. For a detailed look at the syllabus of ʿelm al-amṯāl, see Šams-al-dīn Moḥammad Āmolī, Nafāʾes al-fonūn fī ʿarāyes al-ʿoyūn I, Tehran, 1377 Š./1957-58, pp. 182-234. The influence and proliferation of Biblical aphorisms in classical Persian texts is documented in Nafṯat al-maṣdūr by Šehāb-al-dīn Zaydarī Nasavī (ed. Yazdegerdī, Tehran, 1965, pp. 29, 173-75) and in Tārīḵ-e Bayhaqī (2nd ed., p. 448). A classical text that demonstrates a high degree of Persian and Arabic aphoristic density is Abu’l-Maʿālī Naṣrallāh Monšī’s Persian translation of Kalīla wa Demna, (ed. M. Mīnovī, Tehran, 1351 Š./1972, e.g., see p. 17). The movement of Greek maxims into Arabic is studied and amply documented in Greek Wisdom Literature in Arabic Translation by Dimitri Gutas (New Haven, CT, 1975). On Saʿdī’s use of advice literature, see Ḥekmat-e Saʿdī by Kayḵosrow Haḵāmanešī (Tehran, 2535 = 1353 Š./1974, pp. 107-17). A discussion of Sanāʾī’s homiletic poetry is found in Of Piety and Poetry by J. T. P. De Bruijn, (Leiden, 1983, pp. 164-71). More recent anthologies include: Dehḵodā’s Amṯāl o ḥekam (4 vols., Tehran, 1352 Š./1973), a compendium of amṯāl and aphoristic poems generally accompanied by short explanations, ʿAbd-al-Raḥmān Ṭāleb Tabrīzī’s late 19th-century translation of the Counsels of Marcus Aurelius (published by the Dār al-Fonūn), and Reżā Amīr Ḥosaynī’s review and partial translation of The Cynic’s Dictionary of Amoral Advice by Jonathon Green (London, 1984) in Našr-e dāneš 5/2, February-March, 1985, pp. 54-56. The works of M. ʿA. Jamālzāda are also very rich in amṯāl. See also Mošār, Fehrest I, cols. 232-33.

Recently an annotated bibliography of anthologies of Persian aphorisms, “Ketābšenāsī-e dāstānhā wa zabānzadhā-ye Īrānī,” was published in Dāstānhā wa zabānzadhā-ye Lorī by Ḥamīd Īzadpanāh (Tehran, 1362 Š./1983, pp. 145-81). Īzadpanāh’s bibliography which was compiled with the help of, among others, Moḥammad-Taqī Dānešpažūh, Moḥammad-Reżā Šafīʿī Kadkanī, Ṣādeq Kīā, and Fatḥallāh Moǰtabāʾī, describes sixty published and manuscript anthologies of advice literature and works on aphorisms, ranging from traditional compilations like Nawāder al-amṯāl of Moḥammad Tāškandī Naqšbandī (Paris, Bib. Nat. ms. Suppl. Pers. 1547 [Cat. Bib. Nat. IV, pp. 89-90]) to works on folklore such as Farhang-e ʿawām-e Āmol by Mahdī Partovī Āmolī (Tehran, 1358 Š./1979). A recent publication that appeared after Īzadpanāh’s bibliography is Maṯalhā-ye Šūštarī by Jalāl-al-dīn Emām Jomʿa (Tehran, Bonyād-e Nīšābūr, n.d.).

(P. Sprachman)

Originally Published: December 15, 1986

Last Updated: August 5, 2011

This article is available in print.
Vol. II, Fasc. 2, pp. 152-154