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Maxims to live by?
I was inspired to begin a discussion of maxims after I looked through the course catalog this upcoming semester for my former school. There is a class called Writing the Fragment and it is exactly what it sounds like: a writing class where any given piece is not to exceed a paragraph. It sounds laughable as class, and though I doubt if I had the opportunity I would pounce on it, I thought it is an interesting medium or subset of writing. I thought perhaps we could begin a discussion (much like Arthur's Watchmen) where we delved into both the art of Maxims or fragmentary bits as well as specific ones taken from Maxims of Duc De La Rochefoucauld.

To start let's look at our terms. Well, term. A maxim is a reductionist statement. They reduce themes that some writers expound upon in entire volumes to the confines of a few lines. Maxims must be simple because they are words of wisdom, words to live by. And yet they are not simple. Inside the confines of those few lines there should be enough meaning to cause a small explosion in the reader. They must evolve out of learned experiences and approach universal truth. The best ones are the ones that pass through generations and mean the same thing to people separated by centuries.

But are maxims ever really universal? Is it more about picking and choosing the ones best suited for the reader? For example:
Actions speak louder than words
The pen is mightier than the sword.

How can both of those qualify as maxims if they are not universal? And here we encounter a dilemma. How can we ultimately take someone else's word as truth? To quote another old proverb: Take it with a grain of salt. So how should we read maxims and what should we take from them?

In the 17th Century French Nobleman/writer Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld compiled his list of roughly 700 maxims to live by. And why should we trust these? Does Duc De La Rochefoucauld somehow have greater insight into the nature of the individual than say my mother, or Oprah? Maybe not, but when someone constructs a list of 700 strategies to live life by, there might be something to it. And back to that class Writing the Fragment, might we not read some of his maxims for their artistic merit? That he sought to reduce so much into so little space and still retain clarity is a feat that any writer knows is no easy matter. How many of us have spent hours trying to reduce all the excess from a page of our writing only to find the net result not very much thinner? And here this man has gone even further. He has rid himself of fables and stories and characters and gotten at only truth, truth to live by.

Duc De La Rochefoucauld is the reductionist of reductionists. And might we not owe him the credit to expound upon his Maxims?

To kick things off: virtue
Books Discussed
La Rochefoucauld Maxims (Dover Books on Literature & Drama)
by La Rochefoucauld

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Latest Post: August 7, 2009 at 8:25 PM
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