II. Of Maxims

Many men have sought to give their views about man and about life in a pithy way; a few have tried to advise men in short sentences what to do in the various emergencies of life. The former have written aphorisms, the latter maxims. Where the aphorism states a fact of human nature, a maxim advises a certain course of action. The aphorism is written in the indicative, the maxim in an imperative mood. 1 "Life is interesting if not happy," is an aphorism, of Professor Seely's, I believe. "Ascend a step to choose a friend, descend a step to choose a wife," is a maxim of Rabbi Meir, one of the Doctors of the Talmud.

Now it is indeed curious how few maxims have ever been written. Wisdom has been extolled on the house-tops, but her practical advice seems to have been kept secret. Taking our own literature, there are extremely few books of practical maxims, and not a single one of any great merit. Sir Walter Raleigh's Cabinet Council, Penn's Maxims, and Chesterfield's Letters almost exhaust the list, and the last generally contains much more than mere maxims. Nor are they scattered with any profusion through books teeming with knowledge of life, the galaxy of English novels. During recent years extracts of their "beauties" have been published in some profusion--Wit and Wisdom of Beaconsfield; Wise, Witty, and Tender Sayings of George Eliot; Extracts from Thackeray, and the rest--but the crop of practical maxims to be found among them is extremely scanty. Aphorisms there are in plenty, especially in George Eliot, but he that is doubtful what course to pursue in any weighty crisis would wofully waste his time if he sought for advice from the novelists.

Nor are the moralists more instructive in this regard. Bacon's Essays leave with one the impression of fulness of practical wisdom. Yet, closely examined, there is very little residue of practical advice left in his pregnant sayings. Even the source of most of this kind of writing, the Biblical book of Proverbs, fails to answer the particular kind of test I am at present applying. However shrewd some of them are, startling us with the consciousness how little human nature has changed, it is knowledge of human nature that they mainly supply. When we ask for instruction how to apply that knowledge we only get variations of the theme "Fear the Lord." Two thousand years of experience have indeed shown that the Fear or Love of the Lord forms a very good foundation for practical wisdom. But it has to be supplemented by some such corollary as "Keep your powder dry" before it becomes of direct service in the conduct of life.

It is indeed because of the unpractical nature of practical maxims that they have been so much neglected. You must act in the concrete, you can only maximise in general terms. Then, again, maxims can only appeal to the mind, to the intellect: the motive force of action is the will, the temperament. As Disraeli put it: "The conduct of men depends on the temperament, not upon a bunch of musty maxims" (Henrietta Temple). It is only very distantly that a maxim can stir the vague desire that spurs an imitative will. True, at times we read of men whose whole life has been coloured by a single saying. But these have generally been more appeals to the imagination, like Newman's "Securus judicat orbis terrarum," or the "Heu! fuge crudeles terras, fuge litus avarum," which had so decisive an effort on Savonarola's life. It is rare indeed that a man's whole life is tinged by a single practical maxim like Sir Daniel Gooch, who was influenced by his father's advice, "Stick to one thing."

Perhaps one of the reasons that have led literary persons to neglect the Maxim as a literary form has been their own ignorance of Action and, still more, their exaggerated notions of its difficulties and complexities. Affairs are not conducted by aphorisms: war is waged by a different kind of Maxims from those we are considering. Yet after all there must be some general principles on which actions should be conducted, and one would think they could be determined. Probably the successful men of action are not sufficiently self-observant to know exactly on what their success depends, and, if they did, they would in most cases try to "keep it in the family," like their wealth or their trade secrets.

And perhaps after all they are right who declare that action has little to do with intellect, and much with character. To say the truth, one is not impressed with the intellectual powers of the millionaires one meets. The shadiest of journalists could often explain their own doings with more point than they. Yet there are surely intellectual qualifications required for affairs: the Suez Canal must have required as great an amount of research, emendation, sense of order, and organisation as, say, the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum. But there is no such punishment for slovenly scholarship in action as there is in letters. The Suez Canal can be dug only once: Lucretius or Latin inscriptions can be edited over and over again. Altogether we need not be surprised if the men of action cannot put the principles of action into pointed sentences or maxims.

And if men of action cannot, it is not surprising that men of letters do not. For they cannot have the interest in action and its rewards which is required for worldly success, or else they would not be able to concentrate their thoughts on things which they consider of higher import. To a man of letters the world is the devil, or ought to he if he is to have the touch of idealism which gives colour and weight to his words. How then is he to devote his attention to worldly wisdom and the maxims that are to teach it? It is characteristic in this connection that the weightiest writer of maxims in our language is Bacon, who attempted to combine a career of affairs and of thought, and spoilt both by so doing.

It is perhaps due to the subtle and all-embracing influence of Christianity on modern civilisation that this divorce between idealism and the world has come about. The strenuous opposition to the world among earnest Christians has led to their practical withdrawal from it. Just as the celibacy of the clergy meant that the next generation was to be deprived of the hereditary influence of some of the purest spirits of the time, so the opposition of Christianity to the world has brought it about that the world has been un-Christian. Only one serious attempt has been made to bridge the chasm. The id�e m�re of Jesuitism was to make the world Christian by Christians becoming worldly. It was doubtless due to the reaction against the over -spiritualisation of Christianity pressed by the Protestant Reformation, but its practical result has been to make the Jesuit a worldly Christian. The control of the higher education of Europe by the Jesuits has tended, on the other hand, to make society more Christian. If then we were to look for an adequate presentation of worldly wisdom touched with sufficient idealism to make it worthy of a man of letters, we should look for it from a Jesuit, or from one trained among the Jesuits.

After all this elaborate explanation why so few maxims have been composed it may seem contradictory to give as a further and final reason because so many exist--under another form. For what are the majority of proverbs but maxims under another name, or rather maxims without the name of their author? We say of proverbs, indeed, that they arise among the people, but it is one definite individual among the people that gives them the piquant form that makes them proverbial. It was, we may be sure, a definite English gaffer who first said, "Penny wise, pound foolish." If we knew his name, we should call it maxim; as his name is unknown it ranks as a proverb. In this connection the Talmudic proverbs and maxims are of great interest. Owing to the worthy Rabbinic principle, "Say a thing in the name of the man who said it," we can in almost all cases trace Talmudic proverbs to their authors; or, in other words, Talmudic proverbs remain maxims. There is only one analogous case in English; a few of Benjamin Franklin's maxims, e.g. "Three removes are as good as a fire," 2 have become proverbs.

The abundance of proverbs is extraordinary. There is a whole bibliography devoted to the literature of proverbs (Duplessis, Bibliographie Par�miologique, Paris, 1847), and this needs nowadays a supplement as large again as the original (partly supplied by the bibliographical Appendix of Haller, Altspanische Sprichw�rter, 1883). Indeed in the multitude of proverbs consists the greatest proof of their uselessness as guides to action, for by this means we get proverbs at cross purposes. Thus take the one I have just referred to, "Penny wise, pound foolish," which has a variant in the proverb, "Do not spoil the ship for a ha�porth of tar." A man who was hesitating as to the amount or expense he would incur in any undertaking would be prompted by these sayings to be lavish. But then how about the proverb, "Take care of the pence and the pounds will take care of themselves"? Between the two proverbs he would come to the ground, and if he has the wisdom to decide between them, he does not need the proverbs at all.

Hence it is perhaps that the nation that is richest in proverbs is the one that has proved itself among European peoples the least wise in action. To the Spaniards has been well applied the witticism about Charles II.: "They never said a foolish thing and never did a wise one." Certainly if proverbs be a proof of wisdom the Spaniards have given proofs in abundance. Don Quixote is full of them and the Spanish collections are extraordinarily rich. Now the nation that can produce good proverbs should be able to produce good maxims; hence we should expect the best book of maxims to emanate from a Spaniard.

One characteristic of both these forms of practical wisdom is their artificiality. One has to think twice before the point of a proverb or a maxim is perfectly clear. "The early bird catches the worm" seems at first sight as meaningless a proposition as "There are milestones on the Dover Road." Hence it is when a literature is passing through its artificial stage that maxims would naturally appear. So that it was clearly preordained that when the book of maxims should appear it would be by a Jesuit, so as to be worldly yet not too worldly; by a Spaniard, so that it should have the proverbial ring; and during the prevalence of cultismo, so that it should have the quaintness to attract attention.


  1. Not to be misleading, I may mention that Gracian's are generally in the infinitive.

  2. Most persons have heard the cynical continuation of a modern: "Three fires are as good as a failure and three failures are as good as a fortune."

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