Aristotle's Rhetoric
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Book II - Chapter 21

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We now turn to the use of Maxims, in order to see upon what subjects and occasions, and for what kind of speaker, they will appropriately form part of a speech. This will appear most clearly when we have defined a maxim. It is a statement; not a particular fact, such as the character of lphicrates, but of a general kind; nor is it about any and every subject -- e.g. "straight is the contrary of curved" is not a maxim -- but only about questions of practical conduct, courses of conduct to be chosen or avoided. Now an Enthymeme is a syllogism dealing with such practical subjects. It is therefore roughly true that the premisses or conclusions of Enthymemes, considered apart from the rest of the argument, are Maxims: e.g.

Never should any man whose wits are sound
Have his sons taught more wisdom than their fellows.

Here we have a Maxim; add the reason or explanation, and the whole thing is an Enthymeme; thus --

It makes them idle; and therewith they earn
Ill-will and jealousy throughout the city.



There is no man in all things prosperous,


There is no man among us all is free,

are maxims; but the latter, taken with what follows it, is an Enthymeme --

For all are slaves of money or of chance.

From this definition of a maxim it follows that there are four kinds of maxims. In the first Place, the maxim may or may not have a supplement. Proof is needed where the statement is paradoxical or disputable; no supplement is wanted where the statement contains nothing paradoxical, either because the view expressed is already a known truth, e.g.

Chiefest of blessings is health for a man, as it seemeth to me,

this being the general opinion: or because, as soon as the view is stated, it is clear at a glance, e.g.

No love is true save that which loves for ever.

Of the Maxims that do have a supplement attached, some are part of an Enthymeme, e.g.

Never should any man whose wits are sound, &c.

Others have the essential character of Enthymemes, but are not stated as parts of Enthymemes; these latter are reckoned the best; they are those in which the reason for the view expressed is simply implied, e.g.

O mortal man, nurse not immortal wrath.

To say "it is not right to nurse immortal wrath" is a maxim; the added words "mortal man" give the reason. Similarly, with the words

Mortal creatures ought to cherish mortal, not immortal thoughts.

What has been said has shown us how many kinds of Maxims there are, and to what subjects the various kinds are appropriate. They must not be given without supplement if they express disputed or paradoxical views: we must, in that case, either put the supplement first and make a maxim of the conclusion, e.g. you might say, "For my part, since both unpopularity and idleness are undesirable, I hold that it is better not to be educated"; or you may say this first, and then add the previous clause. Where a statement, without being paradoxical, is not obviously true, the reason should be added as concisely as possible. In such cases both laconic and enigmatic sayings are suitable: [1395a] thus one might say what Stesichorus said to the Locrians, "Insolence is better avoided, lest the cicadas chirp on the ground."

The use of Maxims is appropriate only to elderly men, and in handling subjects in which the speaker is experienced. For a young man to use them is -- like telling stories -- unbecoming; to use them in handling things in which one has no experience is silly and ill-bred: a fact sufficiently proved by the special fondness of country fellows for striking out maxims, and their readiness to air them.

To declare a thing to be universally true when it is not is most appropriate when working up feelings of horror and indignation in our hearers; especially by way of preface, or after the facts have been proved. Even hackneyed and commonplace maxims are to be used, if they suit one's purpose: just because they are commonplace, every one seems to agree with them, and therefore they are taken for truth. Thus, any one who is calling on his men to risk an engagement without obtaining favourable omens may quote

One omen of all is hest, that we fight for our fatherland.

Or, if he is calling on them to attack a stronger force-

The War-God showeth no favour.

Or, if he is urging people to destroy the innocent children of their enemies --

Fool, who slayeth the father and leaveth his sons to avenge him.

Some proverbs are also maxims, e.g. the proverb "An Attic neighbour." You are not to avoid uttering maxims that contradict such sayings as have become public property (I mean such sayings as "know thyself" and "nothing in excess") if doing so will raise your hearers' opinion of your character, or convey an effect of strong emotion -- e.g. an angry speaker might well say, "It is not true that we ought to know ourselves: anyhow, if this man had known himself, he would never have thought himself fit for an army command." It will raise people's opinion of our character to say, for instance, "We ought not to follow the saying that bids us treat our friends as future enemies: much better to treat our enemies as future friends." The moral purpose should be implied partly by the very wording of our maxim. Failing this, we should add our reason: e.g. having said "We should treat our friends, not as the saying advises, but as if they were going to be our friends always," we should add "for the other behaviour is that of a traitor": or we might put it, I disapprove of that saying. A true friend will treat his friend as if he were going to be his friend for ever"; and again, "Nor do I approve of the saying "nothing in excess": we are bound to hate bad men excessively."

[1395b] One great advantage of Maxims to a speaker is due to the want of intelligence in his hearers, who love to hear him succeed in expressing as a universal truth the opinions which they hold themselves about particular cases. I will explain what I mean by this, indicating at the same time how we are to hunt down the maxims required. The maxim, as has been already said, a general statement and people love to hear stated in general terms what they already believe in some particular connexion: e.g. if a man happens to have bad neighbours or bad children, he will agree with any one who tells him, "Nothing is more annoying than having neighbours," or, "Nothing is more foolish than to be the parent of children." The orator has therefore to guess the subjects on which his hearers really hold views already, and what those views are, and then must express, as general truths, these same views on these same subjects. This is one advantage of using maxims. There is another which is more important -- it invests a speech with moral character. There is moral character in every speech in which the moral purpose is conspicuous: and maxims always produce this effect, because the utterance of them amounts to a general declaration of moral principles: so that, if the maxims are sound, they display the speaker as a man of sound moral character. So much for the Maxim -- its nature, varieties, proper use, and advantages.

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Lee Honeycutt ( Last modified:3/15/04
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