As a literary genre the maxim exists chiefly as an elaboration of the proverb, perhaps with some element of commentary, or as the reduction of the predominantly French genre of “reflection.” The only well-known work in whose title the term “maxim” occurs is La Rochefoucauld’s Réflexions; ou, Sentences et maximes morales (1665). There were other late 17th-century collections of aphorisms known as maximes, most notably those of La Rochefoucauld’s close friend, the hypochondriac and devout Madame de Souvré, Marquise de Sablé, which were published with the pensées of Nicolas d’Ailly, canon of Lisieux, in the Maximes et pensées diverses of 1678.
The origin of the term “maxim” is obscure, but it appears to derive from the technical 15th-century maxima propositio, the major premise of a syllogism in logic, generally stating a universally accepted axiom, such as “all dogs have four legs.” The maxima propositio was followed, in a syllogism, by a minor premise (“this animal is a dog”) and a conclusion (“therefore this animal has four legs”). Thus, the maxim acquired its connotations of meaning any aphoristically stated general truth. Its relation to the essay developed in the 16th century when authors such as Erasmus in his Adagia (1500; Adages), Montaigne in his Essais (1580, 1588), and a host of lesser-known writers in Latin and the major Western European vernaculars cited aphorisms or maxims in order to discuss or illustrate their meanings, applicability, aptness, or usefulness.
Erasmus constantly revised and augmented the Adages after the 1500 edition, which contained 818 proverbs with comments of a few lines on each, until the final total of over 4000 adages. Very often these are in the form of maxims, e.g. “Kings and fools are born, not made,” “For the lazy it’s always holiday,” or “War is sweet to those who do not know it.” In the 1515 edition Erasmus added, after every 500 adages, and under the guise of a commentary on the origin, meaning, and usefulness of some of them, long pieces of social satire, which today we would call essays.
The word “essay” did not, at this stage, denote a literary form, but meant “trial” or “test.” However, several 16th– century authors, including Guillaume Bude and fitienne Dolet, inspired by Erasmus’ success, interpolated sometimes lengthy passages of personal writing into what were ostensibly works of philological commentary. Montaigne’s first two volumes of Essais were often reflections on the truth of aphorisms, or illustrations of their appositeness. The chapters were presented as forms of self-portrait, each supposedly testing the author’s personal reaction to some statement about personal or social affairs, or dealing with some moral aspect of human nature. In fact, these chapters were really attempting something else: they were Montaigne’s share of a peculiarly intimate dialogue with his reader, with falsification of such element of selfportraiture as there was.
Montaigne’s essays, often bearing maxims as titles, cover such subjects as “The same end is reached by different means,” “Our emotions carry us beyond ourselves,” or “That our experience of what things are good and what are harmful depends on our opinion of them.” The first chapter to break out of the bounds of the original form into a more obvious kind of speculation is titled with the Platonist maxim, “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
The development of the relationship between the maxim and the essay continued in the work of Francis Bacon, who borrowed the title of his 1597 Essayes from Montaigne, but whose work was rather a collection of “sentences” or maxims, with the subtitles Religious Meditations and Places of Perswasion and Disswasion. In 1612. Bacon increased the number of sentences from ten to 38, and in the 1625 edition to 58. They were also rewritten at greater length, thereby resembling more closely what we would now call essays.
After Bacon the maxim and the essay increasingly went their separate ways. A linking of the two did appear, however, in France in the work of La Rochefoucauld, the most famous of whose maximes was certainly the essay on amour-propre, first published in the third part of an anonymous Recueil in 1660. His manuscripts and the first edition of Réflexions contain items of much greater length than what we might now regard as appropriate in a maxim, and tend toward the essayistic. The work was first elaborated in the company of Madame de Sablé and her coterie, where the conversation was chiefly of moral matters, but also included health, devotion, and gastronomy. It is generally accepted that the manuscript tradition shows a progression from the maxims as recorded in the Liancourt manuscript, virtually at the moment of their discussion in Madame de Sablé’s circle, through the pirated Dutch edition (1664), to the authentic first edition of 1665. This presumed progression displays a movement of reduction, from extended paragraphs to epigrammatic maxims, thus presenting the maxim as a distillation of essaytype pieces (of a kind similar to La Rochefoucauld’s posthumously published Nouvelles Réflexions of 1693), rather than—as previously—a starting point for reflection.
From the late 17th century onward, the maxim continued its life as epigram or aphorism of moral prescription, leaving the essay to develop its various subforms. The two genres had come together splendidly in Erasmus, corresponded most closely in Montaigne and Bacon, and dissolved their relationship after the successive texts of La Rochefoucauld.
Cavill, Paul, “Notes on Maxims in Old English Narrative,” Notes and Queries 231, no. 2. (1986):145–48
Chorney, Alexander Harry, The English Maxim to 1756 (dissertation), Los Angeles: University of California, 1963
Clements, Pamela Jo, The Prose Maxim in Old English: Aelfric and Wulfstan (dissertation), Urbana: University of Illinois, 1984
Ford, Barbara J., “The Evocative Power of the Maxim: La Rochefoucauld and Proust,” Romance Notes 25, no. 2 (1984): 169–74
Lafond, Jean, “Des Formes breves de la littérature morale aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles,” in his Les Formes brèves de la prose et le discours discontinu, Paris: Vrin, 1984
Lyons, John D., “Maxim and Narration in the Seventeenth Century,” in Proceedings of the Xth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association, edited by James J.Wilhelm and others, New York: Garland, 3 vols., 1985
Nemer, Monique, “Les Intermittences de la vérité: Maxime, sentence ou aphorisme: Notes sur l’évolution d’un genre,” Studi Francesi 26, no. 3 (1982):485–93
Rigolot, François, “Montaigne’s Maxims: From the Discourse of Other to the Expression of Self,” L’Esprit Créateur 22, no. 3 (1982):8–18
Rosso, Corrado, “Maximen und Regeln: Von den Evangelien bis zur Gegenwart
(Methodische Überlegungen),” in Neuere Studien zur Aphoristik und Essayistik, edited by Giulia Cantarutti and Hans Schumacher, Frankfurt-on-Main: Lang, 1986
Spackman, Barbara, “Machiavelli and Maxims,” Yale French Studies 77 (1990):135–55
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