Delphic maxims

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The Delphic maxims are a set of maxims inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Originally, they were said to have been given by the Greek god Apollo's Oracle at Delphi, Pythia, and therefore were attributed to Apollo.[1] Plato attributed them to the Seven Sages of Greece,[2] as did the 3rd-century doxographer Diogenes Laertius[3] and the 5th-century scholar Stobaeus.[4] 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".[5] Roman educator Quintilian argued that students should copy these aphorisms often to improve their moral core.[6] Perhaps the most famous of these maxims is "know thyself", which was the first of three maxims carved above the entrance to the Temple of Apollo at Delphi.

The specific order and wording of each maxim varies among different versions (and translations) of the text. Not all maxims appear in all versions.

Entrance maxims[edit]

Temple of Apollo at Delphi, by Albert Tournaire

Three maxims are known to have been inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi at least as early as the 5th century BC, and possibly earlier.[7] These inscriptions are routinely referenced and discussed by ancient authors; Plato, for example, mentions them in six of his dialogues.[a] Their exact location is uncertain; they are variously stated to have been on the wall of the pronaos (forecourt), on a column, on a doorpost, on the temple front, or on the propylaea (gateway).[9]

Although the temple was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the years, the maxims appear to have persisted into the Roman era (1st century AD), at which time, according to Pliny the Elder, they were written in letters of gold.[7][10]

The maxims are as follows:

No. Greek English[7]
001 Γνῶθι σεαυτόν Know thyself
002 Μηδὲν ἄγαν Nothing too much
003 Ἐγγύα πάρα δ' Ἄτα Give a pledge and trouble is at hand

First maxim[edit]

The first maxim, "Know thyself", is alluded to many times in ancient literature, and has been called "by far the most significant of the three maxims, both in ancient and modern times".[11]

In Plato's Charmides, Critias argues that self-knowledge is the same as temperance, and that the Delphic inscription, "Know thyself!", is Apollo's admonition to those entering the sacred temple: "Be temperate!". He suggests that the sages who added the other two maxims misunderstood the purpose of the inscription, and "supposed that 'Know thyself!' was a piece of advice, and not the god's salutation to those who were entering; and so, in order that their dedications too might equally give pieces of useful advice, they wrote these words and dedicated them."[12]

Xenophon, in his Memorabilia, uses the maxim "Know thyself" as an organizing theme for his dialogue, in which Socrates explains that knowing oneself is the starting point for all good things, and failure to know oneself is the starting point of delusion, yet even from this starting point one cannot be sure one knows what is good and what is bad.[13]

Third maxim[edit]

The third maxim, "Give a pledge and trouble is at hand", has been variously interpreted. The Greek word έγγύα, here translated "pledge", can mean either (a) surety given for a loan; (b) a binding oath given during a marriage ceremony; or (c) a strong affirmation of any kind.[14] Accordingly, the maxim may be warning against any one of these things.

The correct interpretation of the maxim was being debated as early as the 1st century BC, when Diodorus Siculus discussed the question in his Bibliotheca historica.[15] In Plutarch's Septem sapientium convivium, the ambiguity of the phrase is said to have "kept many from marrying, and many from trusting, and some even from speaking".[16] Diogenes Laërtius (3rd-century AD) also makes reference to the maxim in his account of the life of Pyrrho, the founder of Pyrrhonism.[17] Exploring the origins of the Pyrrhonean doctrine of philosophical skepticism, Diogenes claims that the Delphic maxims are skeptical in nature, and interprets the third maxim to mean: "Trouble attends him who affirms anything in strong terms and confidently".[18]

Analysing the various appearances of the maxim in Greek literature, Eliza Wilkins finds the opinion of the ancient authors on the meaning of έγγύα split between the two rival interpretations of "commit yourself emphatically" and "become surety". Among Latin authors, however, the maxim is universally interpreted in the latter sense, as advice against giving surety.[19]

147 maxims of Stobaeus[edit]

In the 5th-century anthology of Stobaeus, there is a list of 147 maxims attributed to the Seven Sages of Greece.[20] Stobaeus cites a certain Sosiades as his source, but the identity of Sosiades is unknown, and it was once thought that this collection of maxims was of no great antiquity. However, parallel sayings have since been found in several ancient inscriptions, some dating to around 300 BC. These inscriptions also inform us that the original maxims were "carved on the stele at Delphi".[21][22]

The maxims given by Stobaeus are as follows:

No. Greek English[b]
001 Ἕπου θεῷ Follow God
002 Νόμῳ πείθου Obey the law
003 Θεοὺς σέβου Worship the Gods
004 Γονεῖς αἰδοῦ Respect your parents
005 Ἡττῶ ὑπὸ δικαίου Be overcome by justice
006 Γνῶθι μαθών Know what you have learned
007 Ἀκούσας νόει Perceive what you have heard
008 Σαυτὸν ἴσθι Be yourself
009 Γαμεῖν μέλλε Intend to get married
010 Καιρὸν γνῶθι Know your opportunity
011 Φρόνει θνητά Think as a mortal
012 Ξένος ὢν ἴσθι If you are a stranger act like one
013 Ἑστίαν τίμα Honour the hearth (or Hestia)
014 Ἄρχε σεαυτοῦ Control yourself
015 Φίλοις βοήθει Help your friends
016 Θυμοῦ κράτει Control anger
017 Φρόνησιν ἄσκει Exercise prudence
018 Πρόνοιαν τίμα Honour providence
019 Ὅρκῳ μὴ χρῶ Do not use an oath
020 Φιλίαν ἀγάπα Love friendship
021 Παιδείας ἀντέχου Cling to discipline
022 Δόξαν δίωκε Pursue honour
023 Σοφίαν ζήλου Long for wisdom
024 Καλὸν εὖ λέγε Praise the good
025 Ψέγε μηδένα Find fault with no one
026 Ἐπαίνει ἀρετήν Praise virtue
027 Πρᾶττε δίκαια Practice what is just
028 Φίλοις εὐνόει Be kind to your friends
029 Ἐχθροὺς ἀμύνου Watch out for your enemies
030 Εὐγένειαν ἄσκει Exercise nobility of character
031 Κακίας ἀπέχου Shun evil
032 Κοινὸς γίνου Be impartial
033 Ἴδια φύλαττε Guard what is yours
034 Ἀλλοτρίων ἀπέχου Shun what belongs to others
035 Ἄκουε πάντα Listen to everyone
036 Εὔφημος ἴσθι Be (religiously) silent
037 Φίλῳ χαρίζου Do a favour for a friend
038 Μηδὲν ἄγαν Nothing to excess
039 Χρόνου φείδου Use time sparingly
040 Ὅρα τὸ μέλλον Foresee the future
041 Ὕβριν μίσει Despise insolence
042 Ἱκέτας αἰδοῦ Have respect for suppliants
043 Πᾶσιν ἁρμόζου Be accommodated in everything
044 Υἱοὺς παίδευε Educate your sons
045 Ἔχων χαρίζου Give what you have
046 Δόλον φοβοῦ Fear deceit
047 Εὐλόγει πάντας Speak well of everyone
048 Φιλόσοφος γίνου Be a seeker of wisdom
049 Ὅσια κρῖνε Choose what is divine
050 Γνοὺς πρᾶττε Act when you know
051 Φόνου ἀπέχου Shun murder
052 Εὔχου δυνατά Pray for things possible
053 Σοφοῖς χρῶ Consult the wise
054 Ἦθος δοκίμαζε Test the character
055 Λαβὼν ἀπόδος Give back what you have received
056 Ὑφορῶ μηδένα Down-look no one
057 Τέχνῃ χρῶ Use your skill
058 Ὃ μέλλεις, δός Do what you mean to do
059 Εὐεργεσίας τίμα Honour a benefaction
060 Φθόνει μηδενί Be jealous of no one
061 Φυλακῇ πρόσεχε Be on your guard
062 Ἐλπίδα αἴνει Praise hope
063 Διαβολὴν μίσει Despise a slanderer
064 Δικαίως κτῶ Gain possessions justly
065 Ἀγαθοὺς τίμα Honour good men
066 Κριτὴν γνῶθι Know the judge
067 Γάμους κράτει Master wedding-feasts
068 Τύχην νόμιζε Recognize fortune
069 Ἐγγύην φεῦγε Flee a pledge
070 Ἁπλῶς διαλέγου Speak plainly
071 Ὁμοίοις χρῶ Associate with your peers
072 Δαπανῶν ἄρχου Govern your expenses
073 Κτώμενος ἥδου Be happy with what you have
074 Αἰσχύνην σέβου Revere a sense of shame
075 Χάριν ἐκτέλει Fulfill a favour
076 Εὐτυχίαν εὔχου Pray for happiness
077 Τύχην στέργε Be fond of fortune
078 Ἀκούων ὅρα Observe what you have heard
079 Ἐργάζου κτητά Work for what you can own
080 Ἔριν μίσει Despise strife
081 Ὄνειδος ἔχθαιρε Detest disgrace
082 Γλῶτταν ἴσχε Restrain the tongue
083 Ὕβριν ἀμύνου Keep yourself from insolence
084 Κρῖνε δίκαια Make just judgements
085 Χρῶ χρήμασιν Use what you have
086 Ἀδωροδόκητος δίκαζε Judge incorruptibly
087 Αἰτιῶ παρόντα Accuse one who is present
088 Λέγε εἰδώς Tell when you know
089 Βίας μὴ ἔχου Do not depend on strength
090 Ἀλύπως βίου Live without sorrow
091 Ὁμίλει πρᾴως Live together meekly
092 Πέρας ἐπιτέλει μὴ ἀποδειλιῶν Finish the race without shrinking back
093 Φιλοφρόνει πᾶσιν Deal kindly with everyone
094 Υἱοῖς μὴ καταρῶ Do not curse your sons
095 Γυναικὸς ἄρχε Rule your wife
096 Σεαυτὸν εὖ ποίει Benefit yourself
097 Εὐπροσήγορος γίνου Be courteous
098 Ἀποκρίνου ἐν καιρῷ Give a timely response
099 Πόνει μετ’ εὐκλείας Struggle with glory
100 Πρᾶττε ἀμετανοήτως Act without repenting
101 Ἁμαρτάνων μετανόει Repent of sins
102 Ὀφθαλμοῦ κράτει Control the eye
103 Βουλεύου χρόνῳ Give a timely counsel
104 Πρᾶττε συντόμως Act quickly
105 Φιλίαν φύλαττε Guard friendship
106 Εὐγνώμων γίνου Be grateful
107 Ὁμόνοιαν δίωκε Pursue harmony
108 Ἄρρητον κρύπτε Keep deeply the top secret
109 Τὸ κρατοῦν φοβοῦ Fear ruling
110 Τὸ συμφέρον θηρῶ Pursue what is profitable
111 Καιρὸν προσδέχου Accept due measure
112 Ἔχθρας διάλυε Do away with enmities
113 Γῆρας προσδέχου Accept old age
114 Ἐπὶ ῥώμῃ μὴ καυχῶ Do not boast in might
115 Εὐφημίαν ἄσκει Exercise (religious) silence
116 Ἀπέχθειαν φεῦγε Flee enmity
117 Πλούτει δικαίως Acquire wealth justly
118 Δόξαν μὴ λεῖπε Do not abandon honour
119 Κακίαν μίσει Despise evil
120 Κινδύνευε φρονίμως Venture into danger prudently
121 Μανθάνων μὴ κάμνε Do not tire of learning
122 Φειδόμενος μὴ λεῖπε Do not stop to be thrifty
123 Χρησμοὺς θαύμαζε Admire oracles
124 Οὓς τρέφεις, ἀγάπα Love whom you rear
125 Ἀπόντι μὴ μάχου Do not oppose someone absent
126 Πρεσβύτερον αἰδοῦ Respect an elder
127 Νεώτερον δίδασκε Teach a youngster
128 Πλούτῳ ἀπίστει Do not trust wealth
129 Σεαυτὸν αἰδοῦ Respect yourself
130 Μὴ ἄρχε ὑβρίζειν Do not begin to be insolent
131 Προγόνους στεφάνου Crown your ancestors
132 Θνῆσκε ὑπὲρ πατρίδος Die for your country
133 Τῷ βίῳ μὴ ἄχθου Do not be discontented by life
134 Ἐπὶ νεκρῷ μὴ γέλα Do not make fun of the dead
135 Ἀτυχοῦντι συνάχθου Share the load of the unfortunate
136 Χαρίζου ἀβλαβῶς Gratify without harming
137 Μὴ ἐπὶ παντὶ λυποῦ Grieve for no one
138 Ἐξ εὐγενῶν γέννα Beget from noble routes
139 Ἐπαγγέλλου μηδενί Make promises to no one
140 Φθιμένους μὴ ἀδίκει Do not wrong the dead
141 Εὖ πάσχε ὡς θνητός Be well off as a mortal
142 Τύχῃ μὴ πίστευε Do not trust fortune
143 Παῖς ὢν κόσμιος ἴσθι As a child be well-behaved
144 Ἡβῶν ἐγκρατής As a youth — self-disciplined
145 Μέσος δίκαιος As of middle-aged — just
146 Πρεσβύτης εὔλογος As an old man — sensible
147 Τελευτῶν ἄλυπος On reaching the end — without sorrow

Ai-Khanoum inscription[edit]

Stone block with a portion of the Delphic Maxims. Ai-Khanoum, Afghanistan, 2nd century BCE

In the ruins of the Hellenistic city of Ai-Khanoum (former Greco-Bactrian kingdom, and modern Afghanistan), on a Herõon (funerary monument) identified in Greek as the tomb of Kineas (also described as the oikistes (founder) of the Greek settlement) and dated to 300-250 BCE, an inscription has been found describing part of the Delphic maxims (maxims 143 to 147):[24]

Greek Transliteration English
παῖς ὢν κόσμιος γίνου, Païs ôn kosmios ginou As children, learn good manners
ἡβῶν ἐγκρατής, hèbôn enkratès, as young men, learn to control the passions
μέσος δίκαιος, mesos dikaios in middle age, be just
πρεσβύτης εὔβουλος, presbutès euboulos in old age, give good advice
τελευτῶν ἄλυπος. teleutôn alupos. then die, without regret.

The precepts were placed by a Greek named Clearchos, who may or may not have been Clearchus of Soli the disciple of Aristotle,[25] who, according to the same inscription, had copied them from Delphi:

ἀνδρῶν τοι σοφὰ ταῦτα παλαιοτέρων ἀνάκει[τα]ι
ῥήματα ἀριγνώτων Πυθοὶ ἐν ἠγαθέαι·
ἔνθεν ταῦτ[α] Κλέαρχος ἐπιφραδέως ἀναγράψας
εἵσατο τηλαυγῆ Κινέου ἐν τεμένει.

'These wise commandments of men of old
- Words of well-known thinkers - stand dedicated
In the most holy Pythian shrine
From there Klearchos, having copied them carefully, set them up, shining from afar, in the sanctuary of Kineas'

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Benjamin Jowett's index to his translation of the Dialogues of Plato lists six dialogues which mention the Delphic inscriptions: Charmides (164D), Protagoras (343B), Phaedrus (229E), Philebus (45E, 48C), Laws (II.923A), Alcibiades I (124B, 129A, 132C).[8]
  2. ^ As translated by A. N. Oikonomides, who warns that his translations must be taken as "provisional", since "these thought provoking brief commandments are by no means the type of text that can be assigned easily as having one meaning."[23]


  1. ^ Temenos Theon – The Delphic Maxims
  2. ^ Plato. "Protagoras". 343a–343b – via Perseus Digital Library.
  3. ^ Diogenes Laertius. "Lives of Eminent Philosophers". 9.11.71.
  4. ^ Kurke, Leslie (2010). Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose. Princeton University Press. p. 109.
  5. ^ Parke, H.; Wormell, D. (1956). The Delphic Oracle. Vol. 1. Basil Blackwell. p. 389.
  6. ^ White, Devin L. (2017). Teacher of the Nations: Ancient Educational Traditions and Paul's Argument in 1 Corinthians 1-4. Walter de Gruyter. p. 83. ISBN 978-3-11-053955-4.
  7. ^ a b c Wilkins, Eliza G. (1929). The Delphic Maxims in Literature. University of Chicago Press. p. 1.
  8. ^ Jowett, Benjamin (1892). The Dialogues of Plato. Vol. 5. Macmillan and Co. p. 445.
  9. ^ Wilkins 1929, p. 3
  10. ^ Pliny the Elder. "Natural History". 7.32 – via Perseus Digital Library.
  11. ^ Wilkins 1929, p. 49
  12. ^ Plato. "Charmides". 164d–165a – via Perseus Digital Library.
  13. ^ Xenophon. "Memorabilia". 4.2.24 – via Perseus Digital Library.
  14. ^ Wilkins, Eliza G. (April 1927). "Ἐγγύα πάρα δ' Ἄτα in literature". Classical Philology. 22 (2): 122.
  15. ^ Diodorus Siculus. "Bibliotheca historica". 9.10.4–5 – via Perseus Digital Library.
  16. ^ Plutarch. "Septem sapientium convivium". Section 21 – via Perseus Digital Library.
  17. ^ Diogenes Laërtius. "Lives of the Eminent Philosophers". 9.71 – via Wikisource.
  18. ^ Wilkins 1927, p. 129
  19. ^ Wilkins 1927, p. 130
  20. ^ Wachsmuth, Kurt; Hense, Otto, eds. (1884). Joannis Stobaei Anthologium (in Latin). Vol. 3. Berolini apud Weidmannos. pp. 125–128.
  21. ^ Petzl, Georg (2017). "Philosophical Stones". In Perilli, L.; Taormina, D. P. (eds.). Ancient Philosophy: Textual Paths and Historical Explorations. Routledge. pp. 66–69. ISBN 9781351716031.
  22. ^ Judge, E. A. (1998). "Ancient Beginnings of the Modern World". In Hillard, T. W.; Kearsley, R. A.; Nixon, C. E. V.; Nobbs, A. M. (eds.). Ancient History in a Modern University. Vol. 2. William B. Eerdmans. pp. 473–476. ISBN 0-8028-3841-3.
  23. ^ Oikonomides, A. N. (Summer 1987). "Records of 'The Commandments of the Seven Wise Men' in the 3rd c. B.C.". The Classical Bulletin. 63 (3): 67–76.
  24. ^ a b Wallace, Shane (October 2016). "Greek Culture in Afghanistan and India: Old Evidence and New Discoveries". Greece & Rome. Second Series. 63 (2): 215. doi:10.1017/S0017383516000073. JSTOR 26776786.
  25. ^ Wallace 2016, p. 217

External links[edit]

  • "Delphic Maxims" at Hellenion – alternative English translation of the 147 maxims