What is the purpose of Benjamin Franklin's aphorisms? What were they for?

1 Answer

To get his points across both for living a better life and as advice in politics.


An aphorism is an observation about a particular something that holds a more general truth. For instance,

"If it isn't broken, don't fix it." means - don't mess with things that are working fine (I once heard a version of this at an engineering event - "Better is the enemy of good", which referred to the fact that students would take a working design and try to make it better but would in fact end up with a mess.

Aphorisms are a clever way to get people to pay attention to a point you are trying to make. I knew someone who would make up his own as conversation closers or as a way to get his point across. One of the ones I'll never forget was:

You can't stomp a snake with both feet in a bucket. I mean... how can you argue with that?!?!?!

Benjamin Franklin used aphorisms to get his points across - whether it was in the pursuit of better relations with neighbours:

Write injuries in the dust, benefits in marble (you know you are going to have disagreements with neighbours from time to time, so let the disagreements slide but remember the good forever)

personal health:

Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise

work ethic:

No gains without pains

and other such - perhaps we could call these "personal advice". He had another target with his aphorisms - politics:

If we don't all hang together, we'll all hang separately - this referred to the Founding Fathers of what became the USA - in the lead up to the Revolutionary War with England, not all of the Founding Fathers were onboard with declaring independence and fighting for it. The debate, as might be imagined, was fierce. Franklin, with this aphorism, simply states that If we don't all hang together - that is, form a united front, then we'll all hang separately - that is, they will all be hung for treason and each person will get their own rope.