What Is a Maxim?

Learn About Maxims With Some Entertaining Examples

"Too many cooks spoil the broth" is a maxim.
"Too many cooks spoil the broth" is a maxim. Fox Photos/Getty Images

Before even knowing what a maxim is, there’s a good chance you’re a collector of them without realizing it, and you’re probably using them more than you know. They're often the words of wisdom on refrigerator magnets, coffee mugs, T-shirts, and greeting cards. Sometimes you’ll find them displayed in a subway station, at a gym, or in a hospital waiting room. If you’re listening to a motivational speaker, you’ll most likely catch a few in his or her speech. And you can have fun trying to find them in literature, movies, and television shows too. When you’re writing or speaking, maxims are an easy way for adding spice and color to what you have to say. 

Definition

A maxim (MAKS-im) is a compact expression of a general truth or rule of conduct. Also known as a proverb, saying, adage, sententia, and precept.

In classical rhetoric, maxims were regarded as formulaic ways of conveying the common wisdom of the people. Aristotle observed that a maxim may serve as the premise or conclusion of an enthymeme.

Etymology

The word maxim comes from the Latin word meaning “greatest.”

Examples and Observations

  • Never trust a man who says, “Trust me.”
  • You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem.
  • “Nothing ever goes away.”
    (Barry Commoner, American ecologist)
  • Sherlock Holmes: Would you stand up?
    Dr. John Watson: Whatever for?
    Sherlock Holmes: It is an old maxim of mine that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Therefore, you are sitting on my pipe.
    (John Neville and Donald Houston in “A Study in Terror,” 1965)
  • “Think sideways!”
    (Edward De Bono, “The Use of Lateral Thinking,” 1967)
  • “Start with a phenomenon that nearly everyone both accepts and considers well understood—‘hot hands’ in basketball. Now and then, someone just gets hot, and can’t be stopped. Basket after basket falls in—or out as with ‘cold hands,’ when a man can’t buy a bucket for love or money (choose your cliché). The reason for this phenomenon is clear enough; it lies embodied in the maxim: ‘When you're hot, you’re hot; and when you're not, you're not.’”
    ​(Stephen Jay Gould, “The Streak of Streaks,” 1988)
  • “Everybody knows about hot hands. The only problem is that no such phenomenon exists.”
    (Stephen Jay Gould, “The Streak of Streaks,” 1988)
  • “Almost every wise saying has an opposite one, no less wise, to balance it.”
    (George Santayana)

Maxims as Tools of Argument in Classical Rhetoric

  • In the "Rhetoric," Book II, Chapter 21, Aristotle treated maxims as a prelude to his discussion of the enthymeme, because, as he observed, maxims often constitute one of the premises of a syllogistic argument. For instance, in an argument about financial matters, one can imagine a disputant saying, "A fool and his money are soon parted." The full argument suggested by this proverb would run something like this:
A fool and his money are soon parted.
John Smith is undeniably a fool when it comes to money matters.
John Smith is sure to lose out on his investment.
  • "The value of maxims, according to Aristotle, is that they invest a discourse with ‘moral character,’ with that ethical appeal so important in persuading others. Because maxims touch upon universal truths about life, they win ready assent from the audience.”
    (Edward P.J. Corbett and Robert J. Connors, “​Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student.” Oxford University Press, 1999)
  • “The orator, says [Giambattista] Vico, ‘speaks in maxims.’ But he must produce these maxims offhandedly; as practical matters always require immediate solutions, he does not have the time of the dialectician. He must be able to quickly think in enthymemic terms.”
    ​(Catalina Gonzalez, “Vico’s Institutiones Oratoriae.”  “Rhetorical Agendas,” ed. by  Patricia Bizzell. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2006) 

Too many cooks spoil the broth

  • “‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’—so goes a proverb that is as familiar to most Americans as its meaning. The Iranians expressed the same thought with different words: ‘Two midwives will deliver a baby with a crooked head.’ So do the Italians: ‘With so many roosters crowing, the sun never comes up.’ The Russians: ‘With seven nurses, the child goes blind.’ And the Japanese: ‘Too many boatmen run the boat up to the top of the mountain.’”
    (“Language: The Wild Flower of Thought.” Time, March 14, 1969)
  • “Having passed through several different studios over its 15-year development, sci-fi comedy ‘Duke Nukem Forever’ sets a new precedent for how too many cooks really can get busy with the spoilage.”
    (Stuart Richardson, “Duke Nukem Forever‚Review.” The Guardian, June 17, 2011)
  • “Does the adage too many cooks spoil the broth apply to fiction? Readers of the novel ‘No Rest For The Dead’ will soon find out. The 26 authors invited to take part in the series have combined sales of tens of millions of books.”
    ​(“No Rest For The Dead: New Crime Thriller Co-Written by 26 Authors.” The Telegraph, July 5, 2011)

The Lighter Side of Maxims

  • Dr. Frasier Crane: "There’s an old real estate maxim that says the three most important things when looking for a property are location, location, location."
  • Woody Boyd: "That’s just one thing."
  • Dr. Frasier Crane: "That’s the point, Woody."
  • Woody Boyd: "What, that real estate people are stupid?"
  • Dr. Frasier Crane: "No, that location is the one most important thing in real estate."
  • Woody Boyd: "Then why do they say that it’s three things?"
  • Dr. Frasier Crane: "Because real estate people are stupid."
    (Kelsey Grammer and Woody Harrelson in “A Bar Is Born.” “Cheers,” 1989)