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What is a Maxim?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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A maxim is a succinct statement of a general truth or rule of behavior. There are several famous sets of maxims from which individual maxims that are well-known and in frequent use are taken.

The Latin maxim may be the starting point of the genre. Many maxims that are widely recognized in English, had the origins in Rome. Here are some samples:

A sound mind in a sound body. (Mens sanain corpore sano. Juvenalis)

Nothing comes from nothing. (De nihilo nihil. Lucretius)

The outcome justifies the deeds. (or The end justifies the means: Exitus acta probat. Ovid)

Where there’s life, there’s hope. (Aegroto, dum anima est, spes esse dicitur. Cicero)

The maxim collection was a particularly popular genre in seventeenth century France, and from this period, we have three very famous works. Blaise Pascal’s Pensees from 1660 is a noted French maxim collection. The advice given in his nineteenth maxim, “The last thing one settles in writing a book is what one should put in first,” will resonate with many students, who have been advised to write the first paragraph of their school essays after the rest is complete.

Reflections; or Sentences and Moral Maxims by François duc de La Rochefoucauld is another such collection, first published in 1692. The epigraph of his collection — “Our virtues are most frequently but vices disguised” — is a maxim that expresses a concept that exists in many different analyses of human behavior over the centuries. Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics, depicted moderation as virtue and excess and deficiency of the same trait as vice In recent times we have the Enneagram, which proposes that various personality types, for example, the Giver, may manifest in unhealthy as well as healthy ways.

Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu included maxims in his work Esprit des Lois, which appears in English as The Spirit of Laws. It is to his maxim of separation of powers that the Founding Fathers refer in The Federalist Paper Number 47, as an important foundation of their own views and instrumental in shaping our government.

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Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By Logicfest — On Jan 25, 2014

What? You mean a maxim isn't just the title of a racy magazine for men?

Seriously, one of the great things about maxims is how they are easily remembered and lend themselves to slogans.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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