Aristotle on Whether Young People Should Use Maxims (An Ironic Quotation)

Many books and websites quote Aristotle as saying “It is unbecoming for a young man to use maxims”. Aristotle kind of says this, but why he says it and what he means by a maxim is not understood clearly from the way this quotation is applied as a meme. This is ironic because the quotation is a maxim but it violates the very reason Aristotle says the young should not use maxims (because they don’t have the experience to know what they’re talking about).

Aristotle, Rhetoric 2.1395a

“Using maxims is appropriate for those who are older in age [when uttered] about things for which they have some experience. Using maxims before one is this age lacks propriety as does story-telling: [to speak] about what one has no experience in is foolish and uneducated. A sufficient sign of this is that bumpkins especially tend to make up maxims and they easily show them off.”

 ἁρμόττει δὲ γνωμολογεῖν ἡλικίᾳ μὲν πρεσβυτέροις, περὶ δὲ τούτων ὧν ἔμπειρός τις ἐστί, ὡς τὸ μὲν μὴ τηλικοῦτον ὄντα γνωμολογεῖν ἀπρεπὲς ὥσπερ καὶ τὸ μυθολογεῖν, περὶ δ᾿ ὧν ἄπειρος, ἠλίθιον καὶ ἀπαίδευτον. σημεῖον δ᾿ ἱκανόν· οἱ γὰρ ἀγροῖκοι μάλιστα γνωμοτύποι εἰσὶ καὶ ῥᾳδίως ἀποφαίνονται.

Something else this usage misses is how Aristotle defines a maxim. Oh, and there is also the fact that this comes from the Rhetoric. Aristotle is not claiming that it is unseemly for the young to use maxims because it is amoral or unethical, but rather that because of their youth and lack of experience they will not be persuasive by doing so.

2.1394a

“A maxim is a statement which does not concern specifics about each thing—as in what kind of a person Iphikrates was—but it is general. Nevertheless, it does not aim at all general things—such as the fact that straight is the opposite of crooked—but about however so many things are the goals of actions and what should be selected or avoided in acting.

And where the enthymeme is pretty much the syllogism for these things, maxims are the outcomes of the enthymeme or the starting principles without the syllogism’s completion. Here’s an example: ‘It isn’t right that any sensible man have his children educated to be excessively wise’ [Eur. Medea 296]. This is a maxim; should the cause and the explanation be added, it would be an enthymeme.”

ἔστι δὲ γνώμη ἀπόφανσις, οὐ μέντοι περὶ τῶν καθ᾿ ἕκαστον, οἷον ποῖός τις Ἰφικράτης, ἀλλὰ καθόλου· καὶ οὐ περὶ πάντων καθόλου, οἷον ὅτι τὸ εὐθὺ τῷ καμπύλῳ ἐναντίον, ἀλλὰ περὶ ὅσων αἱ πράξεις εἰσί, καὶ αἱρετὰ ἢ φευκτά ἐστι πρὸς τὸ πράττειν. ὥστ᾿ ἐπεὶ τὰ ἐνθυμήματα ὁ περὶ τούτων συλλογισμός ἐστι σχεδόν, τά τε συμπεράσματα τῶν ἐνθυμημάτων καὶ αἱ ἀρχαὶ ἀφαιρεθέντος τοῦ συλλογισμοῦ γνῶμαί εἰσι, οἷον

χρὴ δ᾿ οὔ ποθ᾿, ὅς τις ἀρτίφρων πέφυκ᾿ ἀνήρ, / παῖδας περισσῶς ἐκδιδάσκεσθαι σοφούς.

τοῦτο μὲν οὖν γνώμη· προστεθείσης δὲ τῆς αἰτίας καὶ τοῦ διὰ τί, ἐνθύμημά ἐστι τὸ ἅπαν

Image result for It is unbecoming for young men to utter maxims
Ugh. Why mountains?

3 thoughts on “Aristotle on Whether Young People Should Use Maxims (An Ironic Quotation)

  1. For me this is the ground zero of academics not understanding the common people. Aristotle disparages ἀγροῖκοι and their use of maxims. Apparently rustic folks lack the urbanity and training of Aristotle’s people. But these expressions of folksy wisdom are older than rhetoric, and no less valid. Hesiod gave us the first Farmers’ Almanac, full of practical advice for living. Archilochus and Alcaeus continued the tradition of using song/verse to convey personal advice with real meaning. Ben Franklin rejected education, but not wisdom, and he wrote for the ἀγροῖκοι. He knew when he was 10 years old that Aristotle was out of touch.

    1. Very true. Aristotle was a bit of a jerk all around. And it is not only in rhetoric where his principles changed some things for the worse. I don’t think he understood living poetic traditions very well…

Leave a Reply