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What Is a Maxim?

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Question: What Is a Maxim?
Answer:

Maxim, proverb, gnome, aphorism, apothegm, sententia--all mean essentially the same thing: a short, easily remembered expression of a basic principle, general truth, or rule of conduct. Think of a maxim as a nugget of wisdom--or at least of apparent wisdom.

It is often difficult to tell whether a maxim means something, or something means maxim.
(Robert Benchley, "Maxims from the Chinese")
Maxims, you see, are tricky devices. As Benchley suggests in his comic chiasmus, they generally sound pretty convincing--at least until a contrary maxim comes along. "Look before you leap," we say with conviction, until remembering that "He who hesitates is lost."

English is full of such contrary proverbs--or, as we prefer to call them, dueling maxims:

  • "The bigger the better"
    "Good things come in small packages."


  • "What's good for the goose is good for the gander."
    "One man's meat is another man's poison."


  • "Birds of a feather flock together."
    "Opposites attract."


  • "Actions speak louder than words."
    "The pen is mightier than the sword."


  • "You're never too old to learn."
    "You can't teach an old dog new tricks."


  • "All good things come to those who wait."
    "Time and tide wait for no man."


  • "Many hands make light work."
    "Too many cooks spoil the broth."


  • "Absence makes the heart grow fonder."
    "Out of sight, out of mind."


  • "It's better to be safe than sorry."
    "Nothing ventured, nothing gained."

As William Mathews said, "All maxims have their antagonist maxims; proverbs should be sold in pairs, a single one being but a half truth."

But then, we might ask, what is the nature of proverbial truth? In his essay "Literature as Equipment for Living," rhetorician Kenneth Burke argued that proverbs are "strategies" designed for "dealing with situations"--for "consolation or vengeance, for admonition or exhortation, for foretelling." And different situations call for different proverbs:

The apparent contradictions depend upon differences in attitude, involving a correspondingly different choice of strategy. Consider, for instance, the apparently opposite pair: "Repentance comes too late" and "Never too late to mend." The first is admonitory. It says in effect: "You'd better look out, or you'll get yourself too far into this business." The second is consolatory, saying in effect: "Buck up, old man, you can still pull out of this."
(The Philosophy of Literary Form, 3rd edition, Louisiana State University Press, 1967)

In any event, the maxim is a handy device, especially for people in predominately oral cultures--those that rely on speech rather than writing to pass along knowledge. Some of the common stylistic features of maxims (features that help us remember them) include parallelism, antithesis, chiasmus, alliteration, paradox, hyperbole, and ellipsis.

According to Aristotle in his Rhetoric, the maxim is also a persuasive device, convincing listeners by conveying an impression of wisdom and experience. Because maxims are so common, he says, "They seem true, as if everyone agreed."

But that doesn't mean that all of us have earned the right to use maxims. There's a minimum age requirement, Aristotle tells us:

Speaking in maxims is appropriate to those older in years and on subjects of which one is experienced, since to speak maxims is unseemly for one too young, as is storytelling; and on matters in which one is inexperienced it is silly and shows lack of education. There is an adequate sign of this: country folks are most inclined to strike maxims and readily show themselves off.
(Aristotle On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civic Discourse, translated by George A. Kennedy, Oxford University Press, 1991)
Finally, we might keep in mind this bit of proverbial wisdom from Mark Twain: "It is more trouble to make a maxim than it is to do right."

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