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Jules Evans on “Maxims”

… they would pop up in our heads when we are in stressful situations. Many of these maxims have come down to us today: “know thyself “; “life is but what you deem it”; “nothing to excess”; “it’s not what happens to you but what you do about it”; “be the captain of your soul”; “no one can harm you without your permission”; “difficulties are what show men’s characters,” and so on. The students wrote these maxims down in their handbook, memorized them, repeated them to themselves, and carried them around — that’s the point of a handbook, so the teachings are procheiron, or “close at hand.” The student reminded themselves of them as often as possible, because “it is not easy [for a man] to come to a judgment,” according to Epictetus, “unless he should state and hear the same principles every day, and at the same time apply them to all his life.” Maxims were like neural shortcuts, like icons on a desktop that instantly connect you to a body of information. They helped turn a conscious philosophical principle into an automatic habit of thinking. The student repeated the maxims until “through daily meditation [they] reach the point where these wholesome maxims occur of their own accord,” as Seneca put it. They assimilated them into their inner dialogue, and made them a “part of oneself.” Plutarch says we should “meditate on coping remedies before trouble comes, so that they are more powerful from practice. For just as savage dogs… are only soothed by a familiar voice, so too it is not easy to quiet the wild passions of the soul, unless familiar and well-known arguments are at hand to check its excitement.” These short principles, maxims, or persuasive arguments could be marshalled in an instant, like the “weapons in an armory,” as the sixteenth-century neo-Stoic Justius Lipsius puts it, or like a first-aid kit kept “handy for emergencies,” in Marcus Aurelius’s phrase. Students of philosophy put maxims on walls, paintings, pendants, pieces of furniture, anywhere where they could remind them of the teachings throughout the day. Some students, today, even get philosophical maxims tattooed onto their body, taking Seneca’s words literally that the teachings should merge with their “tissue and blood,” and become part of their body until the Logos becomes flesh. The point of maxims is that humans are incredibly forgetful animals, therefore, like the amnesiac hero of Memento, we need constant little reminders if we are to steer a rational course through life.

–Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations: Ancient Philosophy for Modern Problems by Jules Evans

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