Maxims and Knowledge

Back in 2013, I blogged a bit about the Delphic Maxims and the ways in which I started thinking about arete and what I needed to be a good devotee.

Proper arete involves a combination of physical, mental, and spiritual exertion to cultivate oneself, thus becoming a more effective individual, community member, and devotee. It also has a close relationship with the maxims and other ethical pushes towards being a self-actualized person, such as gnothi seauton (know thyself) and meden agan (nothing in excess). These are things I said then, and they are still true.

My understanding of ethical frameworks does not lend itself tidily to prose. It comes in fits and starts of poetry and feelings of weight and lightness. (Come to think of it, I think I said that about gods a few blog posts ago, too?) I discovered this over half a decade ago when a few of us got together to study the Maxims in a community that Lesley and Mano (the ones involved in LABRYS) put together. It was an excellent learning experience.

The files have moved around a lot on my computer. I was in graduate school at the time and trying to juggle a lot of things. However, based on the emails I have preserved from that time, here is an example of something I wrote about several maxims:

THE SUPPLIANT

First bend your mind like a bow:
sense the aching, creaking wood,
and yield to the strength of seven
wiser,
older, and
more renowned,
those adventurous truth-hunters.

Settle into that feeling
when you see someone in prayer,
when you hear good words on the street:
ruminate,
meditate, and
consider
the roles you must play.

In years, repetition will make
your reason strong like the Gods.
You will follow them on paths
crooked,
neglected, and
well-worn,
through deserts and rain forests.

They will leave you at the edge,
beyond which no mortal has seen.
A secret: the Gods are there, too,
hidden,
visible, but
waiting,
and the oracle bones are in your hand.

Complexity requires more than simple human speech or writing. One of the reasons I love poetry is that it can circle around meaning and approximate the shape of the thing at the center of the syllables without touching it. Prose requires hitting the target as exactingly as one can. (It’s why, for example, I’m going to do all of the scenes in The Seven Papers that take place in mythological space in epic verse, not in prose.)

In the 2013 post, I also said that I needed to improve my implementation of arete. It’s ironic given that I have spent so much of this post on the Maxims, but the process involved moving (a bit) away from them and towards the Tenets of Solon, which are shorter and simpler.

There are ways in which I could move into better alignment to this day, too, because I am a human being. I have priorities and life goals, and I still allow anger or insecurity to take the reins. Having an ethical framework doesn’t make anxiety go away, either. Being nearly 30 is really hard because I legit have expertise now, as I discovered when writing up my professional accomplishments to date, but not as much longitudinal foresight as someone 20 or 30 years older. I could also lift heavy things and do cardio a bit more often than I do now.

The tenets guided me to quit Facebook and to watch my tongue on all of my other social media, to force myself to submit to the social appropriateness I would have demanded from others in these media. There are times when I have nearly posted on Twitter or Tumblr before reconsidering and talking to a friend or writing it in a handwritten journal instead.

The tenets have the spirit of the Delphic Maxims at their core. They circle around arete without precisely touching it, and they are slippery. The difference is essentially that they are quick to skim through for grounding right when I need straightforward guidance. The Delphic Maxims are like a weekend brunch, layered with complexity like onions, and they are best contemplated, not read quickly.

I can also have a copy of the Tenets of Solon in my work Evernote stickies. 😉

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