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

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Ugh. Why mountains?

Some Useful Principles On Science and Fear

Some of Epicurus’ Maxims (taken from Diogenes Laertius‘ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers)

  1. “If fear of the skies or about death had never afflicted us—along with the ignoring of the limits of pain and desires—we never would have needed natural science”

Εἰ μηθὲν ἡμᾶς αἱ τῶν μετεώρων ὑποψίαι ἠνώχλουν καὶ αἱ περὶ θανάτου, μή ποτε πρὸς ἡμᾶς ᾖ τι, ἔτι τε τὸ μὴ κατανοεῖν τοὺς ὅρους τῶν ἀλγηδόνων καὶ τῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν, οὐκ ἂν προσεδεόμεθα φυσιολογίας.

  1. “It is not possible to eliminate fear about the most important things unless one understands the nature of everything—otherwise, we live fearing things we heard from myths. Therefore, it is not possible to enjoy unmixed pleasures without natural science.”

XII. Οὐκ ἦν τὸ φοβούμενον λύειν ὑπὲρ τῶν κυριωτάτων μὴ κατειδότα τίς ἡ τοῦ σύμπαντος φύσις, ἀλλ’ ὑποπτευόμενόν τι τῶν κατὰ τοὺς μύθους· ὥστε οὐκ ἦν ἄνευ φυσιολογίας ἀκεραίους τὰς ἡδονὰς ἀπολαμβάνειν.

  1. “There is no profit in making yourself secure against other people as long as you fear what happens above and below the earth or elsewhere in the endless universe.”

XIII. Οὐθὲν ὄφελος ἦν τὴν κατ’ ἀνθρώπους ἀσφάλειαν κατασκευάζεσθαι τῶν ἄνωθεν ὑπόπτων καθεστώτων καὶ τῶν ὑπὸ γῆς καὶ ἁπλῶς τῶν ἐν τῷ ἀπείρῳ.

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Governments, Fame and More Maxims from Epicurus

from Diogenes Laertius

 

6. “Whatever one can have once prepared for the sake of protecting against other men—governments or kingdoms—was good by nature”

VI. ῞Ενεκα τοῦ θαρρεῖν ἐξ ἀνθρώπων, ἦν κατὰ φύσιν [ἀρχῆς καὶ βασιλείας] ἀγαθόν, ἐξ ὧν ἄν ποτε τοῦτο οἷός τ’ ᾖ παρασκευάζεσθαι.

 

7. “Some men have wished to become famous and widely known, believing that this will make them strong against [danger from] other people. If the life of these kinds of people is really safe, then they have obtained a natural good. If it is not safe, they have not not accomplished what nature urged from the beginning.”

VII. ῎Ενδοξοι καὶ περίβλεπτοί τινες ἐβουλήθησαν γενέσθαι, τὴν ἐξ ἀνθρώπων ἀσφάλειαν οὕτω νομίζοντες περιποιήσεσθαι. ὥστ’ εἰ μὲν ἀσφαλὴς ὁ τῶν τοιούτων βίος, ἀπέλαβον τὸ τῆς φύσεως ἀγαθόν· εἰ δὲ μὴ ἀσφαλής, οὐκ ἔχουσιν οὗ ἕνεκα ἐξ
ἀρχῆς κατὰ τὸ τῆς φύσεως οἰκεῖον ὠρέχθησαν.

 

8. “No pleasure is evil on its own, but the things that produce some pleasures introduce problems far greater than the pleasures”

VIII. Οὐδεμία ἡδονὴ καθ’ ἑαυτὸ κακόν· ἀλλὰ τὰ τινῶν ἡδονῶν ποιητικὰ πολλαπλασίους ἐπιφέρει τὰς ὀχλήσεις τῶν ἡδονῶν.

 

9. “If all pleasure could be heaped up together, if it were possible for this to occur in time, through all of experience, and the most powerful parts of nature, there never would have been differences in the pleasures”

IX. Εἰ κατεπυκνοῦτο πᾶσα ἡδονή, καὶ χρόνῳ καὶ περὶ ὅλον τὸ ἄθροισμα ὑπῆρχεν ἢ τὰ κυριώτατα μέρη τῆς φύσεως, οὐκ ἄν ποτε διέφερον ἀλλήλων αἱ ἡδοναί.

 

10. “If the things that produced pleasure for the unhappy could relieve fears of the mind concerning the matters of the universe, death, and coming pain—if they could teach the limit of desires, we would never have to find any fault thing them as they overfilled with pleasures from everywhere since they would have neither physical nor mental pain which is evil.”

X. Εἰ τὰ ποιητικὰ τῶν περὶ τοὺς ἀσώτους ἡδονῶν ἔλυε τοὺς φόβους τῆς διανοίας τούς τε περὶ μετεώρων καὶ θανάτου καὶ ἀλγηδόνων, ἔτι τε τὸ πέρας τῶν ἐπιθυμιῶν ἐδίδασκεν, οὐκ ἄν ποτε εἴχομεν ὅ τι μεμψαίμεθα αὐτοῖς πανταχόθεν ἐκπληρουμένοις τῶν ἡδονῶν καὶ οὐθαμόθεν οὔτε τὸ ἀλγοῦν οὔτε τὸ λυπούμενον ἔχουσιν, ὅπερ ἐστὶ τὸ κακόν.

 

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Epicurus’ First Five Maxims

As printed in Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

1. “The blessed and imperishable neither has troubles or gives them to others, so he is bound by neither anger nor debt—for this sort of thing brings weakness.”

I. Τὸ μακάριον καὶ ἄφθαρτον οὔτε αὐτὸ πράγματα ἔχει οὔτε ἄλλῳ παρέχει, ὥστε οὔτε ὀργαῖς οὔτε χάρισι συνέχεται· ἐν ἀσθενεῖ γὰρ πᾶν τὸ τοιοῦτον. ἐν ἄλλοις (fg. 355 Us.) δέ φησι τοὺς

 

2. “Death is nothing to us. For when [the body] has broken down it perceives nothing. That which is not perceived is nothing to us.”

II. ῾Ο θάνατος οὐδὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς· τὸ γὰρ διαλυθὲν ἀναισθητεῖ· τὸ δ’ ἀναισθητοῦν οὐδὲν πρὸς ἡμᾶς.

 

3. “The limit of pleasure’s greatness is the removal of all pain. When pleasure is here, for that amount of time, there is no physical or mental pain or the two together.”

III. ῞Ορος τοῦ μεγέθους τῶν ἡδονῶν ἡ παντὸς τοῦ ἀλγοῦντος ὑπεξαίρεσις. ὅπου δ’ ἂν τὸ ἡδόμενον ἐνῇ, καθ’ ὃν ἂν χρόνον ᾖ, οὐκ ἔστι τὸ ἀλγοῦν ἢ τὸ λυπούμενον ἢ τὸ συναμφότερον.

 

4. “Constant pain does not persist in the body, but extreme pain, when it does exist, and that which only balances out the body’s pleasure, will not persist for many days. Even long sicknesses allow an excess of bodily pleasure over pain.”

IV. Οὐ χρονίζει τὸ ἀλγοῦν συνεχῶς ἐν τῇ σαρκί, ἀλλὰ τὸ μὲν ἄκρον τὸν ἐλάχιστον χρόνον πάρεστι, τὸ δὲ μόνον ὑπερτεῖνον τὸ ἡδόμενον κατὰ σάρκα οὐ πολλὰς ἡμέρας συμμένει. αἱ δὲ πολυχρόνιοι τῶν ἀρρωστιῶν πλεονάζον ἔχουσι τὸ ἡδόμενον ἐν τῇ σαρκὶ ἤπερ τὸ ἀλγοῦν.

 

5. “It is impossible to live pleasurably without living thoughtfully, nobly and justly; nor is it possible to live thoughtfully, nobly and justly without living pleasurably. Whenever something is missing from life, such as being thoughtful, it is not possible to live pleasurably even if one is still noble and just.”

V. Οὐκ ἔστιν ἡδέως ζῆν ἄνευ τοῦ φρονίμως καὶ καλῶς καὶ δικαίως, <οὐδὲ φρονίμως καὶ καλῶς καὶ δικαίως> ἄνευ τοῦ ἡδέως. ὅτῳ δὲ τοῦτο μὴ ὑπάρχει ἐξ οὗ ζῆν φρονίμως, καὶ καλῶς καὶ δικαίως ὑπάρχει, οὐκ ἔστι τοῦτον ἡδέως ζῆν.

 

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What the World Needs Now: Two Ears, One Mouth

On using twitter and the internet to trace the history of a cherished proverb; or, on the birth of a t-shirt.

Last fall, I noticed the Paul Holdengraber‘s 7-word autobiography from brainpickings.org.: “Mother always said: Two Ears, One mouth.” The phrase bounced around in my head a bit–it has that aphoristic perfection of brevity and familiarity. So, I reached out to Paul over twitter and told him it sounded like something from a Greek philosopher like Heraclitus.

Proverbs have a special place in language and society cross-culturally–they strike a promise of insight that demands  contemplation or explanation. They also have an air of authority and antiquity, even when they actually possess neither. And, unlike longer, less anonymized forms of language, they are repeated, borrowed, and stolen without end.

My late father was a great aphorist–perhaps missing him is part of why Paul’s tweet stuck with me. Most of my father’s words, however, were far more Archie Bunker than Aristotle. Those I can repeat were likely taken from his own father, a Master Sargent in WW2 who died a decade before I was born. The tendency to inherit and pass down proverbs is something I only really noticed when I had children and found myself ‘quoting’ (or becoming?) my father (“if you take care of your equipment it will take care of you”) or my grandmother (cribbing Oscar Wilde: “Only boring people get bored”).

So, when Paul thought it would be a gas if we actually translated his mother’s words into ancient Greek (and eventually Latin), I was ready. I got help from some great Classicists too. We came up with a few versions.

First, I went with classical rhetoric, a close antithesis: μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα μὲν δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα. But our friend the Fantastic Festus argued that Heraclitus or Hesiod would not use use μὲν and δὲ so, so he suggested losing them for something like this:

μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν στόμα [“mother always used to say two ears, one mouth”]

This gave us Paul’s mother’s advice in seven Greek words and his mother’s advice. But this didn’t get us out of trouble. The critic, author and Classicist Daniel Mendelsohn suggested hexameters and from across the Atlantic the extraordinary Armand D’Angour obliged with a composition of his own:

ῥᾴδιόν ἐστι Λόγον τε νοεῖν ξυνετόν τε ποιῆσαι·
τοῦτο γάρ ἐστι βροτῶν, ἓν στόμα τ᾽, ὦτα δύο.

[Literally, this is “it is easy to know the Logos and make it understood: Mortals have this [character]: one mouth and two ears” Go to the full post for all the compositional glory and an appearance from Salman Rushdie].

At this point, I felt like I had entertained myself on a Saturday morning, involved my internet friends in a silly, though somewhat academic caper, and done a favor for a new friend to please the spirits of parents no longer with us. But the world wide web had a a plot twist I should have thought of.

Ancient Greek and Roman authors and scholars loved proverbs. Writers like Zenobius and Photius made collections and interpretations of them. The Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Suda, uses the word for proverb (in Greek paroimia) over 600 times and presents nearly as many distinct proverbs. (Many of which are wonderful.) And in the modern world, we have an entire academic field dedicated to the study of proverbial sayings: paroemiology. Let me tell you, we could have used en expert last fall.

While we were playing around with translations, one of our ‘players’, the grand Gerrit Kloss, let us know we were, to use a proverbial saying, reinventing the wheel. Zeno, the Cynic philosopher, was credited with this saying over two thousand years ago:

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