Monday, June 7, 2010

Biblical Progymnasmata IV - Maxim

After a bit of a delay, here is the fourth entry of the Biblical Progymnasmata, the Maxim.

Aphthonius tells us of the maxim, "a summary statement, in declarative sentences, urging or dissuading something. Some maxims are protreptic [recommending], some apotreptic [dissuading], some declarative; and some are simple, some compound, some credible, some true, some hyperbolic."

His examples include:

"One should be kind to a visiting stranger, but send him on his way when he wants to go" (protreptic)
"A man who is a counselor should not sleep all the night" (apotreptic)
"There is need of money, and without it nothing needful can be done" (declarative)
"One omen is best, to fight for one's country" (simple)
"Many rulers are not good; let there be one ruler" (compound)
"Each man is as those he likes to be with" (credible)
"It is not possible for anyone to lead a life without suffering" (true)
"Earth nourishes nothing feebler than man" (hyperbolic)

As with the Chreia, the maxim are treated by various topics of invention or amplification, including praise, paraphrase, cause, contrary, comparison, example, testimony, and epilogue. The key difference between a chreia and a maxim, at least for Aphthonius, was that a chreia was attributable to a specific person, in order to be treated with a pointed view toward that person, whereas the maxim was not attributed, and could be treated more generally as a truism.


The book of Proverbs is a compendium of maxims in many ways, and can be mined richly for its contents. But just to prove that we aren't limited to Proverbs, here are some examples from Ecclesiastes:

Eccl. 9:9 - "Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun." (protreptic)

Eccl. 7:9 - "Be not quick in your spirit to become angry, for anger lodges in the bosom of fools." (apotreptic)

Eccl. 7:19 - "Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers who are in a city." (declarative)

Eccl. 12:13 - "Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man." (simple)

Eccl. 8:2-3 - "I say: Keep the king's command, because of God's oath to him. Be not hasty to go from his presence." (compound)

Eccl. 4:9 - "Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil." (credible)

Eccl. 10:10 - "If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength, but wisdom helps one to succeed." (true)

Eccl. 12:12 - "Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh." (hyperbolic)


The explanations for each maxim depend upon the context in which they are given, as well as whatever generalization that context bears. The second example (Eccl. 7:9), to take but one, comes in the context of a comparison between wisdom and folly. Therefore, the verse is recommending a way of wisdom over and against a way of folly. The verse is a truism, which means it has universal application for all individuals, but is not necessarily true in each and every individual circumstance. Maxims provide a storehouse of wisdom, which, when applied correctly, are a precise arrow to hit one's target in speaking or writing about a particular matter. One could imagine, for example, bringing home a very challenging point of admonition to a congregation, and then following it up with the maxim from Eccl. 7:9 to rebuke any spirit of anger that might arise from speaking the admonition. This point of amplification doubles the attack upon foolishness and curbs the attention of the listeners away from their self-justification toward a more humble consideration (that is, supposing it doesn't incur the opposite affect of doubling their anger!).

Summary & Use:

As with the Chreia, we also have the various amplifications of the maxim that we can use to develop its point. Let's use the last example (Eccl. 12:12):

Praise: The Teacher gives us wise instruction to consider the pain of education. While we know that learning is a great benefit, it is true that of the endless books to be read there are but few worthy of our efforts, and those efforts are made strenuous by the fact that it shall never be different.

Paraphrase: For what is it that the Teacher teaches us but that we shall never see the end of human opining, nor yet the immortality of banal writings, so we must suffer our flesh to decay if we are to seek out wisdom by study.

Cause: Consider for yourself: what else could be the reason for endless publication and the consternation that it brings but the folly of men whose mouths gape and whose pens prattle their tireless drivel? There is no respite for the wise, who are but few when set amongst fools.

Contrary: Yet those who find wisdom, find also that the pains of study are never so bitter as the pains of ignorance and folly; for a fool may stumble a thousand times into the same hole, but the wise one, once perceiving a matter, shall never mistake it for masquerading errors.

Comparison: And is our Teacher's word not familiar to what he says elsewhere, "For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow" (Eccl. 1:18)? Indeed, knowledge comes by toil, produces pain, and loses many a fool as a friend who might be of some slight comfort would we abide in ignorance. So it is that the weariness of study is compounded by the afflictions of knowledge, yet still so much less afflicting to the soul than ignorance.

Example: For consider Christ, who though He knew His destiny was to die at the hands of men who did not even understand the grievous nature of their sin, and though He knew that His best would desert Him and deny Him, and though He knew that His would be a life of affliction and a death of immeasurable wrath--yet His wisdom taught Him to consider all these things as joyful because of the end that they would accomplish for Himself and those whom He loves.

Testimony: And this is true and in conformity to what our Teacher instructs, for he finishes his own lesson with its end: "The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil," so that we are assured that whatever pain we have for righteousness' sake is not without its eventual reward.

Epilogue: Therefore let us not speak falsely of the toils of study, nor the weariness it brings, as though knowledge and learning were always pleasant and cheerful; but let us learn from the Teacher for the keenness of his wisdom, and hope to emulate in ourselves something of its likeness.


The maxim is very much like the chreia, although it tends to be separated by its generality of purpose and its lack of attribution. Like the chreia, maxims are useful for amplification, and may be treated in a number of ways to accomplish that end. Also in like fashion to the chreia, we should not shun extra-biblical maxims that are in harmony with its teachings, but make the most of what may be familiar to our audience, while remaining fidelitous to God's commands.

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