Definition of Maxim

A literary device, maxim is a simple and memorable line, quote or rule for taking action and leading a good life. Simply put, it is a thought with moralistic values that intends to motivate individuals. Maxim is, in fact, a type of saying, or a brief statement of a great thought about life, especially a sententious or aphoristic one such as, “He who hesitates is lost.” It helps characterizing characters.

Everyday Examples of Maxim

  • It’s better to be safe than sorry.
  • You’re never too old to learn.
  • Opposites attract.
  • You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.
  • Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
  • One man’s meat is another man’s poison.
  • We promise according to our hopes and perform according to our fears.
  • It is easier to be wise for others than for ourselves.

Examples of Maxim from Literature

Example 1

“A mixture of lie doth ever add pleasure.”

(Of Truth)

“He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune … Unmarried men are best friends, best masters, best servants but not always best subjects.”

(Of Marriage and Single Life)

“For a crowd is not company and faces are but a gallery of pictures.”

(Of Friendship)

Francis Bacon has been very famous for compact, aphoristic and concise sayings as given above. All these sayings have deep thought and ideas.

Example 2

A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now One in Verse makes many more in Prose
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring.

(From Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope)

These heroic couplets are rich with words of wisdom. Pope delineates very common faults of poets and suggests that despite harmful effects of negative criticism, literature needs it.

Example 3

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

(From Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy)

These are the opening lines of this novel, the idea behind this maxim is that families fail in many ways; however, they can happy by avoiding negative possibilities and it’s their choice to do this.

Example 4

“Four legs good, two legs bad” and “All Animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”

(From Animal Farm by George Orwell)

These two phrases present a tool for propagating ideology in the novel how elite class uses language against lowers classes. It also connotes totalitarian mindset and points towards the corruption on Animal Farm, because pigs see themselves as privileged under their totalitarian command and working animals only exist to serve their leadership.

Example 5

“Above all: to thine own self me true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.”

(From Hamlet by William Shakespeare)

Polonius gives a life lesson to Laertes by using maxim. He teaches how to be true to himself and to others and purpose of making this statement is for his own benefit in order to show himself sounds intelligent to his son.

“Wisely and slow. They stumble that run fast…”

(From Romeo & Juliet by William Shakespeare)

The speaker suggests that do not be in hurry, rather you should look where you are going otherwise you might fall flat badly.

Example 6

“He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well…
Good fences make good neighbors.”

(From Mending Wall by Robert Frost)

This statement carries a moral code that serves to characterize a relationship history of two neighbors or two men, which also brings both together every spring by re-building the wall.

Example 7

“The world more often rewards the appearance of merit than merit itself.”
“It is a great ability to be able to conceal one’s ability.”
“We like to judge others, but we do not like to be judged ourselves.”

(From Maxims by La Rochefoucauld)

La Rochefoucauld has written many books on maxims and proverbs. Following are some of the popular maxims from his book.

Function of Maxim

To qualify as a maxim, a statement must contain truth to reveal in a terse way. Writers, politicians, philosophers, artists, sportsmen and individuals use such sentences in their respective fields that they become maxims. These maxims bring a pinch of wit, making statements more appealing to the audience. It is also that these adages, proverbs, clichés and maxims are different types of aphoristic sayings that become relevant and turn into everyday sayings with the passage of time.

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