Maxim

Breaking Down the Maxim

Maxim (or gnômê, the 4th exercise in the series of the Progymnasmata exercisesOpens in new window) is a summary statement, in declarative sentences, urging something good or dissuading something evil.

Maxims differ from each other. Some are protreptic, some apotreptic, some declarative, some are simple, some compound, some credible, some true, and some hyperbolic.

    Protreptic, as,
  • “One should be kind to a visiting stranger, but send him on his way when he wants to go”
  • — (Odyssey 15.74)
    Apotreptic, as,
  • “A man who is a counselor should not sleep all the night”
  • — (Iliad 2.24)

    For it is inappropriate for the leader of many to sleep all through the night.
    Declarative, as,
  • “There is need of money, and without it nothing needful can be done”
  • — (Demosthenes 1.20)
    Simple, as,
  • “One omen is best, to fight for one’s country”
  • — (Iliad 12.243)
    Compound, as,
  • “Many rulers are not good; let there be one ruler”
  • — (Iliad 2.204)
  • “You will be taught good things from good men; but if you mingle / With the bad, you will lose the wit you have.”
  • — (Theognis, 35—36)
    Credible, as,
  • “Each man is as those he likes to be with”
  • The following are also credible:
  • “Whatever man enjoys being with the wicked, is himself like them”;
  • “I never asked, since I know that he is such as those with whom he likes to be.”
  • This is credible because it happens that even a good man may be misled by associating with the wicked.
    True, as
  • “It is not possible for anyone to lead a life without suffering”
    Hyperbolic, as,
  • “Earth nourishes nothing feebler than man.”
  • — (Odyssey 18.30)
Template for Composition
    In the maxim exercise students were required to take a declarative statement and amplify a brief account of what has been said. As a precepts for forming a composition of the maxim, some authors prescribed the following template:
  • (Praise) Praising the saying itself;
  • (Peraphrase) Making a paraphrase of the theme
  • (Cause) Giving the reason the statement was made
  • (Comparison) Introduction of a contrast by means of antithesis
  • (Example) Citation of an example of the meaning
  • (Testimony) Supporting the saying with testimony of others
  • (Epilogue) Concluding with a brief epilogue

The following is a brief account of a Protreptic Maxim:

“One Fleeing Poverty, Cyrnus, Must Throw Himself Into The Yawning Sea And Down Steep Crags” (Theognis 175)

(Praise) By fashioning advice (paraenesis) in place of myths, Theognis prevented his poetry from being attacked. Although seeing that (other) poets thought highly of telling myths, he collected inverse recommendations for the right way to live, avoiding myths himself but at the same time preserving the charm of verse while introducing the profit of advice. And one might praise Theognis for many things, but especially for his wise remarks about poverty.

(Peraphrase) And what does he say? Let one living with poverty be content to fall (off a cliff), since it is better to cut life short than to make the sun a witness of shame. This is his wise statement, and it is easy to see how beautifully it is said.

(Cause) For one who lives in poverty, first, when among boys, does not practice virtue, and when coming among adults he will do all the most objectional things: going on an embassy he will betray his country for money in the assembly he will speak for silver, and when called to sit as a juror he will give his votes for a bribe.

(Contrary) Not such are those freed from poverty: when boys, they practice the noblest things, and when coming among adults they do everything splendidly, sponsoring choruses at festivals and paying assessments in war time.

(Comparison) Just as those held by a dreadful bond are hindered by it from acting, in the same way those living in poverty are constrained from freedom of speech.

(Example) Consider Irus, who had been born as one of the Ithacans but did not share the same security with the other citizens; rather, his lack of means was so great that his name was changed by poverty; for having originally been called Arnaius, his name was changed to Iros, deriving his surname from acting as a servant. But what need to mention Irus? When Odysseus, ruler of Ithaca feigned poverty on his return to his own land, he shared the evils of poverty, had things thrown at him in his own house, and was maltreated by the servant girls. Such is poverty, and hard to bear even when it is only apparent.

(Testimony) Therefore, I have to admire Euripides who said that it is a bad thing to be in want, and that it is impossible for nobility to counteract poverty.

(Epilogue) So how is it possible to admire Theognis enough when he said such wise things about poverty?

—An excerpt from: Progymnasmata: Greek Textbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric edited by George Alexander Kennedy

Differentiation from Chreia and Reminiscense

Although Maxim shares the same headings with chreia (as, praise, peraphrase, cause, opposite, comparison, example, testimony of the ancients, short epilogue), it has some obvious differentiation:

MaximChreia
  • A maxim is always a saying
  • A chreia sometimes reports an action
  • Maxim is a general statement, uttered impersonally
  • Chreia always indicate a person (as speaker or doer)

Furthermore, a chreia may include reference to some circumstance, while a maxim consists in a number of words, for while furnishing an enthymematic demonstration of the subject, at the same time it proffers general advice. They also differ, in that a maxim typically teaches either the recommendation of good deeds or condemnation of vices, while a chreia may be cited for the sake of its charm only.

It is important that we observe the striking differences of a reminiscence from chreia and the maxim, since it shares a characteristic of recommendation with both. A reminiscence differs from the maxim in almost all the ways the chreia does; and from the chreia in the length of its statement; for a chreia is expressed in minimal words, while a reminiscence in its expression employs more words. This feature can be observed in Xenophon’s work titled Memorabilia.

Citations:
Nicolaus 185—213; Aphthonius, Progymn. 4 [8,7—10 Rabe].
Further Readings:
Kennedy, George Alexander, Progymnasmata: Greek Texbooks of Prose Composition and Rhetoric. Leiden, The Netherlands: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
Selby, James “The Vertical Integration of Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata”
Selby, James “Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata as a Means to Preparing Innovative Communicators”
Selby, James “The Characterization Stage of Aphthonius’ Progymnasmata in Light of Hermogenes’ On Style: Exploring the Border between Contemporary and Ancient Classrooms”
Silver Rhetoricae: ProgymnasmataOpens in new window