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