I. What is Maxim?
A maxim is a brief statement that contains a little piece of wisdom or a general rule of behavior. Maxims are sometimes written by a single author, for example in the form of philosophical quotations. When a maxim has no specific author, it becomes a kind of proverb – something that just emerges from the culture and survives because people use it, not because any specific person wrote it in a book.
The defining characteristic of a maxim is that it’s pithy – that is, it packs a lot of meaning into just a few words.
Maxims are very nearly the same as aphorisms. The only difference is that maxims are often more straightforward. Whereas aphorisms tend to use metaphor, maxims may or may not do this.
II. Examples of Maxims
Rome wasn’t built in a day.
This famous saying is a good example of a maxim with a metaphor in it. Rome is a metaphor for whatever you might be working on – a career, a relationship, a long-term project, etc. Whatever it is, the idea of “building Rome” reminds you that these things take time.
If it’s important to you, you’ll find a way. If not, you’ll find an excuse.
People often share “quotations,” either online or in published collections. Typically, these quotes are attributed to individual authors (often inaccurately), but they may also be attributed to “anonymous.” In these cases, the maxims could also be described as proverbs, because they have no known author. Notice that this particular maxim does not employ a metaphor – none of these words stand in for anything other than themselves.
A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
(Antoine de Saint-Exupery)
Another maxim without a metaphor. This one is the essence of pithiness – pithy writing is writing that uses the bare minimum number of words while packing in a lot of wisdom and information, without sacrificing clarity!
III. The Importance of Maxims
Maxims work because they pack a powerful insight into a very short space. This makes them very easy to remember, which in turn makes them more likely to be repeated later on. When people hear a good quotation or aphorism, they will share it with others and often pass it on to their children – they may even go as far as getting it tattooed on their skin!
The downside of a maxim is that you can only say what people already know and believe. Maxims are pithy summations of existing beliefs, but they usually don’t work as persuasive arguments. If someone disagrees with you, a maxim will not give you enough space to make an argument and give evidence; thus, they are very useful expressions for general use, but not very useful for essays.
IV. Examples in Philosophy and Literature
Mature manhood: that means to have rediscovered the seriousness one had as a child at play.
(Friederich Nietzsche, Beyond Good & Evil)
Nietzsche used maxims widely in his writing, because he did not like the structure of an extended philosophical argument. Many of his maxims are difficult to figure out, and this one is no exception – what does Nietzsche mean by the “seriousness” of children’s play? Perhaps he meant that children are absorbed completely when they play, and have no sense of irony or hesitation about what they are doing. Nietzsche may have meant that mature adults should also have this kind of absorption in their work, but no one knows for sure since Nietzsche did not elaborate.
The idea of a maxim played an important part in Kant’s moral philosophy. Kant believed that all actions imply a “maxim of behavior” – i.e. if you steal because you’re greedy, the implied maxim is “it’s OK to steal out of greed.” Even if you don’t actually believe in this principle (or say you don’t), your behavior implies that, deep down, you actually do believe it. On the other hand, if you are behaving morally, then the implied maxims will be things like “help others” and “live modestly.”
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
(Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice)
This is one of the most famous opening lines in all of English literature. Austen succinctly sums up the feeling that many aristocratic families had in her time, namely that they were constantly looking for wealthy single men to marry off their daughters to. Austen spends the rest of the novel poking fun at this maxim and showing all the ways that it can go wrong.
V. Examples in Popular Culture
(The 70 Maxims of Maximally Efficient Mercenaries)
This short maxim comes from the webcomic Schlock Mercenary, which follows the adventures of a group of space mercenary. The maxim is quite useful for someone raiding a village – if you burn it first, then there’s nothing left to steal!
Don’t examine this too closely.
Known as Bellisario’s Maxim, this sentence is often repeated to science-fiction fans who are getting too caught up in scientific explanations for the technology and events in their favorite stories. It comes from Quantum Leap producer Donald Bellisario, who once famously said this during a convention Q&A in response to a fan whose questions were too abstract and technical.
VI. Related Terms (with examples)
An adage is a maxim/aphorism that emerges from the general culture and has no single author. An example might be “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.” No one knows who first said this, but it encapsulates a general piece of wisdom about treating similar cases in similar ways, regardless of superficial differences. If we could trace this saying to a single author, it would be an aphorism rather than an adage.
“Proverb” is another word for “adage.”
When a maxim becomes trite, stale, or clichéd, it’s called a truism. These statements are obvious and uninteresting, and add nothing new to the conversation. In addition, they are often misleading. Of course, these judgements are all subjective, so there’s no easy way to tell the difference between a good maxim and a truism. For example, take “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Is this a truism, a tired cliché that has outworn its usefulness? Or is it actually a valid and interesting maxim? It’s up to you to decide.