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The Delphic Maxims: 147 Ancient Rules for a Happy Life

In a previous blog post, I was aghast at an author who sought to:

  • Hold ancient wisdom to the test of modern psychology …

  • Question ancient wisdom in light of what we now know from scientific research, to extract from it the lessons that still apply to our modern lives.

I was flummoxed at the proposition of holding ancient wisdom to the test of modern psychology. Why? It had already stood the test of time, wasn’t that enough? The question of ‘Wasn’t that enough?’ stayed with me. I decided to find out, and turned to the Delphic Maxims.

The Delphic Maxims are a set of 147 axioms that were carved into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi in the sixth century B.C. Originally, they were said to have been given by the Greek God, Apollo's, Oracle at Delphi, Pythia, and therefore were attributed to Apollo. The 3rd century doxographer Diogenes Laertius attributed them to the Seven Sages of Greece, as did the 5th century scholar Stobaeus. Contemporary scholars, however, hold that their original authorship is uncertain, and that “most likely they were popular proverbs, which tended later to be attributed to particular sages.” Nevertheless, they are ancient.

Know yourself, is the most famous of the Delphic Maxims. This precept and others on the list of 147 speak to us with insight about fundamental life experiences, love, friendship, and work. About daily matters such as debt, reward, gossip, and goals. They cut straight to heart of the matter, telling us how to be fulfilled, content, at ease with others and ourselves.

My first reading of the Delphic Maxims was straight through, all 147 in one reading. The Maxims are short and to the point, which makes them easy to read. Reading them in order,

11 Think as mortal

I found myself agreeing in principle, then moving on to the next one in the sequence

12 If you are a stranger act like one

13 Honor the hearth

14 Control yourself

15 Help your friends

It was easy to read each maxim, pause momentarily, see the significance, and move on. The statement was easy to appreciate and could be applied to my modern-day trials and tribulations.

However, in reading the maxims in order, it felt like I was missing something. At face value, they were indeed simple. Yet within their simplicity could I find greater insight—a wisdom leading to a balanced life?

With this in mind, I decided to carry the slender volume with me, and when I had time, randomly open the book to a page and consider just the maxim that presented itself. Reading in this way, the maxims would make themselves known to me. In order, this is what I read:

6 Know what you have learned

30 Exercise nobility of character

35 Listen to everyone

50 Act when you know

58 Do what you mean to do

68 Recognize fortune

92 Finish the race without shrinking back

Taken one at a time, with no other context, it became an opportunity to discover and apply the wisdom that was contained in these simple statements.

For example, Maxim 6 - Know what you have learned. Reading this over and over again led to a host of questions. What does it mean to really know something? How do we create knowledge from something we have learned? Does knowing require something deeper than being able to recall a fact or explanation? Do I need to apply what I learned to really know it? Can knowledge change who I am and how I look at the world? What have I already / really learned in life?

From one statement, a mere five words, came so many questions.

In the end, after thinking through Maxim 6, I came to the personal understanding that to really know something means I have taken the time to think about it, assimilate it, and then put it to use, not in the physical sense, but rather using the knowledge to question and change my understanding of myself, the world, and other related ideas.

The verdict? The Delphic Maxims offer centuries-old wisdom for living our lives. No modern-day psychological overlay or scrutiny needed. They are simply a moral code for the ages. In their simplicity lies the test of time and interpretation.

Now, only 146 more maxims to go…


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