Commentary on the Delphic Maxims


1 Introduction

The so-called Delphic Maxims (properly, the Injunctions of the Seven Sages as collected by one Sosiades, which are only one example of an entire genre of Delphic Maxims) have become a central moral text for many contemporary polytheists. However, because of their extreme brevity, which renders them difficult to capture in translation, modern reflections upon them are often unmoored from an understanding of their basic meaning. It is this which I intend to supply here, not as a conversation-stopper but as a stepping stone.

Further, I want to give some social context. As the traditional title indicates, these maxims were devised by human sages, not the god Apollon (although he is credited with some of these sayings elsewhere). Even in the corpus of Greek moral writing, they are not typical, but starkly conservative, along the lines of Hesiod’s Works and Days. They are also not necessarily moral. It is a sober understanding of this that enables us to reject or repurpose some of the more odious sayings, such as the command to “control your wife” (no. 95), which is contradicted by many philosophers, and is frankly unworthy of standing alongside “do what is just” (no. 27).

For each maxim, I give the Greek text, a transliteration (where ∅ represents a null ending), a gloss, a translation, and commentary. The gloss indicates whether a verb is in an imperative (IMP), indicative (IND), participle (PART) or infinitive (INF) form; whether a noun is singular (SG) or plural (PL) in number, and in the nominative (NOM), genitive (GEN), dative (DAT) or accusative (ACC) case; and whether a word is an adverb (ADV). To get a more detailed grammatical analysis of a given word, enter the Greek into the Greek Word Study Tool at Perseus (off-site link).

2 Commentary

<principal maxims>

(1) Ἕπου θεῷ
ép-ou the-ôᵢ
follow-IMP god-SG.DAT
“Follow the god”, i.e., “the gods!”

This refers both to simple obedience towards the gods (i.e., morality), but also the goal of approaching them thereby (and by other means). Gregory, Proverbs 2.80: “The proverb ‘obey your intellect (nôᵢ peíthou)’ is similar to ‘follow the god’.”

(2) Νόμῳ πείθου
nóm-ôᵢ peíth-ou
law-SG.DAT obey-IMP
“Obey the law”, or rather “comply with custom!”

Nómos (‘law, order’) is of several kinds. For instance, it may mean “forms of government, habits, allotments and institutions […]; for some laws are natural, others are of the gods, others of humans” (Scholia on the Theogony 66). In other words, it is a very partial understanding to take this in the sense of ‘law and order’. As Hesiod’s Works and Days indicate, those who decide the law can be (and often are) corrupt.

(3) Θεοὺς σέβου
the-oùs séb-ou
god-PL.ACC revere-IMP
“Revere the gods!”

This refers both to worship and moral regard; hence, ‘reverence’ (or ‘honor’) is also said to be due to one’s parents in other maxim collections.

(4) Γονεῖς αἰδοῦ
gon-eîs aid-oû
parent-PL.ACC respect-IMP
“Respect your parents!”

More literally, “have a sense of shame before your parents!” This means not to abuse one’s parents, of course, and to benefit them. But to obey your parents in everything, even injustice, means to place them above divine law (i.e., justice), as Hierocles writes (On the Golden Verses 4).

<body of maxims>

(5) Ἡττῶ ὑπὸ δικαίου
hētt-ô hypò dikaí-ou

(6) Γνῶθι μαθών
gnô-thi math-ṓn

(7) Ἀκούσας νόει
akoús-as nó-ei

(8) Σαυτὸν ἴσθι
saut-òn ís-thi

(9) Γαμεῖν μέλλε
gam-eîn méll-e

(10) Καιρὸν γνῶθι
kair-òn gnô-thi

(11) Φρόνει θνητά
phrón-ei thnēt-á

(12) Ξένος ὢν ἴσθι
xén-os ṑn ís-thi
stranger-SG.NOM be.PART be-IMP

(13) Ἑστίαν τίμα
hestí-an tíma-∅

(14) Ἄρχε σεαυτοῦ
árkh-e seaut-oû
rule-IMP yourself-SG.GEN

(15) Φίλοις βοήθει
phíl-ois boḗth-ei

(16) Θυμοῦ κράτει
thym-oû krát-ei

(17) Φρόνησιν ἄσκει
phrónēs-in ásk-ei

(18) Πρόνοιαν τίμα
prónoi-an tíma-∅

(19) Ὅρκῳ μὴ χρῶ
hork-ōᵢ mḕ khr-ô

(20) Φιλίαν ἀγάπα
philí-an agápa-∅

(21) Παιδείας ἀντέχου
paideí-as antékh-ou

(22) Δόξαν δίωκε
dóx-an díōk-e

(23) Σοφίαν ζήλου
sophí-an zḗl-ou

(24) Καλὸν εὖ λέγε
kal-òn eû lég-e

(25) Ψέγε μηδένα
pség-e mēdén-a

(26) Ἐπαίνει ἀρετήν
epaín-ei aret-ḗn

(27) Πρᾶττε δίκαια
prâtt-e díkai-a
do-IMP just-PL.ACC

(28) Φίλοις εὐνόει
phíl-ois eunó-ei

(29) Ἐχθροὺς ἀμύνου
ekhthr-oùs amýn-ou

(30) Εὐγένειαν ἄσκει
eugénei-an ásk-ei

(31) Κακίας ἀπέχου
kakí-as apékh-ou

(32) Κοινὸς γίνου
koin-ós gín-ou

(33) Ἴδια φύλαττε
ídi-a phýlatt-e

(34) Ἀλλοτρίων ἀπέχου
allotrí-ōn apékh-ou

(35) Ἄκουε πάντα
ákou-e pánt-a

(36) Εὔφημος ἴσθι
eúphēm-os ís-thi

(37) Φίλῳ χαρίζου
phíl-ōᵢ kharíz-ou

(38) Μηδὲν ἄγαν
mēdén-∅ ágan

(39) Χρόνου φείδου
khrón-ou pheíd-ou

(40) Ὅρα τὸ μέλλον
hóra-∅ tò méll-on

(41) Ὕβριν μίσει
hýbr-in mís-ei

(42) Ἱκέτας αἰδοῦ
hikét-as aid-oû

(43) Πᾶσιν ἁρμόζου
pâ-sin harmóz-ou

(44) Υἱοὺς παίδευε
hyi-oùs paídeu-e

(45) Ἔχων χαρίζου
ékh-ōn kharíz-ou

(46) Δόλον φοβοῦ
dól-on phob-oû

(47) Εὐλόγει πάντας
eulóg-ei pánt-as

(48) Φιλόσοφος γίνου
philósoph-os gín-ou

(49) Ὅσια κρῖνε
hósi-a krîn-e

(50) Γνοὺς πρᾶττε
gn-oùs prâtt-e

(51) Φόνου ἀπέχου
phón-ou apékh-ou

(52) Εὔχου δυνατά
eúkh-ou dynat-á

(53) Σοφοῖς χρῶ
soph-oîs khr-ô

(54) Ἦθος δοκίμαζε
êth-os dokímaz-e

(55) Λαβὼν ἀπόδος
lab-ṑn apód-os

(56) Ὑφορῶ μηδένα
hyphor-ô mēdén-a

(57) Τέχνῃ χρῶ
tékhn-ēᵢ khr-ô

(58) Ὃ μέλλεις, δός
hò méll-eis dó-s
what(SG.ACC) will-IND give-IMP
“Give what you are going to”, i.e., “what you intend(ed to give)!”

This advises either reliability (‘give what you agreed to’) or self-consistency (‘give what you resolved to’) in transactions with others.

(59) Εὐεργεσίας τίμα
euergesí-as tíma-∅
benefit-SG.GEN honor-IMP
“Honor good deeds!”

Kindness should be appreciated and (if possible) repaid.

(60) Φθόνει μηδενί
phthón-ei mēden-í
envy-IMP nobody-SG.DAT
“Bear no one ill will!”

Phthónos is envy or resentment, even malice. This might be regarded as the negative counterpart of no. 59: cultivate appreciation, but not resentment.

(61) Φυλακῇ πρόσεχε
phylak-êᵢ prósekh-e
protection-SG.DAT attend-IMP
“Keep up your guard!”

Very general advice. From the context of the other maxims, the concern is probably largely with property and personal safety.

(62) Ἐλπίδα αἴνει
elpíd-a aín-ei
hope-SG.ACC praise-IMP
“Advise” or “praise” or “approve of hope!”

Hope (elpís) has an ambiguous reputation in ancient Greek thought. This positive valuation is not a given.

(63) Διαβολὴν μίσει
diabol-ḕn mís-ei
accusation-SG.ACC hate-IMP
“Scorn slander” or “quarreling!”

One should not only avoid arguments, but cultivate an aversion to fighting.

(64) Δικαίως κτῶ
dikaí-ōs kt-ô
just-ADV acquire-IMP
“Acquire” or “make acquisitions justly!”

A clear commandment to honor justice over gain.

(65) Ἀγαθοὺς τίμα
agath-oùs tíma-∅
good-PL.ACC honor-IMP
“Honor the good”, i.e., “hold good people in high esteem” or “treat them with respect!”

Probably in the dual sense that one should cultivate regard for the morally good and so imitate them, and that one should favor them socially. But note that there may be an unfortunate class connotation as well: ‘honor your betters’, ‘honor the nobility’.

(66) Κριτὴν γνῶθι
krit-ḕn gnô-thi
judge-SG.ACC know-IMP
“Know the judge!”

The idea seems to be not to enter into an arbitration without knowing whether the person judging will be inclined against you.

(67) Γάμους κράτει
gám-ous krát-ei
wedding-PL.ACC control-IMP
“Constrain your sexuality!”

Gámos most strictly means ‘wedding’, but the plural here must mean ‘sexual encounters’, especially between a man and a woman. Whether for the sake of pragmatic self-sufficiency (as in Hesiod) or moral purity (as in many philosophers), the maxim advises self-control, if not quite asceticism, in (hetero)sexual matters. As the wording itself indicates, this injunction reflects the values of a society in which monogamous marriage was the normative mode of (hetero)sexual intercourse.

(68) Τύχην νόμιζε
týkh-ēn nómiz-e
fortune-SG.ACC believe-IMP
“Trust” or “believe in fortune!”

Probably in the sense that one should believe, and act on, good luck. Compare Heliodorus, Aethopica 7.17.3: “Simply believe your (good) fortune and be grateful to Arsaces!”

(69) Ἐγγύην φεῦγε
eŋgý-ēn pheûg-e
pledge-SG.ACC flee-IMP
“Avoid”, i.e., “do not make a pledge!”

Another maxim advocating self-sufficiency and, not to put too fine a point on it, self-interest. One should not give security for another, specifically at court (see Plato, Laws 871e–872b). Compare Gregory, Proverbs 2.18: “‘A pledge, and next ruin’: applied to those who freely make pledges and have a hard time freeing themselves of them. They say that this (maxim) was inscribed at Delphi; but others have said that it is not so, but only ‘a pledge (is) ruin’. And as witness of this they adduce Cratinus the Younger, who says: ‘I gave three pledges, and they were taken away. Such were the engravings at Delphi, that a pledge is ruin. But my habit used to be camaraderie.’”

(70) Ἁπλῶς διαλέγου
hapl-ôs dialég-ou
simple-ADV converse-IMP
“Speek straightforwardly!”


(71) Ὁμοίοις χρῶ
homoí-ois khr-ô
similar-PL.DAT consult-IMP
“Consult with those who are like you”, or “your peers!”


(72) Δαπανῶν ἄρχου
dapan-ôn árkh-ou
extravagance-PL.GEN rule-IMP
“Control your spending!”


(73) Κτώμενος ἥδου
ktṓ-menos hḗd-ou

(74) Αἰσχύνην σέβου
aiskhýn-ēn séb-ou

(75) Χάριν ἐκτέλει
khár-in ektél-ei

(76) Εὐτυχίαν εὔχου
eutykhí-an eúkh-ou

(77) Τύχην στέργε
týkh-ēn stérg-e

(78) Ἀκούων ὅρα
akoú-ōn hóra-∅

(79) Ἐργάζου κτητά
ergáz-ou ktēt-á

(80) Ἔριν μίσει
ér-in mís-ei
strife-SG.ACC hate-IMP

(81) Ὄνειδος ἔχθαιρε
óneid-os ékhthair-e

(82) Γλῶτταν ἴσχε
glôtt-an ískh-e
tongue-SG.ACC …

(83) Ὕβριν ἀμύνου
hýbr-in amýn-ou

(84) Κρῖνε δίκαια
krîn-e díkai-a
judge-IMP just-PL.ACC

(85) Χρῶ χρήμασιν
khr-ô khrḗma-sin
use-IMP possession-PL.DAT

(86) Ἀδωροδόκητος δίκαζε
adōrodókēt-os díkaz-e

(87) Αἰτιῶ παρόντα
aiti-ô parónt-a
accuse-IMP be.present-ACC

(88) Λέγε εἰδώς
lég-e eid-ṓs
speak-IMP know-PART

(89) Βίας μὴ ἔχου
bí-as mḕ ekh-ou
force-PL.ACC not have-IMP

(90) Ἀλύπως βίου
alýp-ōs bí-ou
…-ADV live-IMP

(91) Ὁμίλει πρᾴως
homil-eî práᵢ-ōs
communicate-IMP gentle-ADV

(92) Πέρας ἐπιτέλει μὴ ἀποδειλιῶν
pér-as epitél-ei mḕ apodeili-ôn

(93) Φιλοφρόνει πᾶσιν
philophrón-ei pâ-sin

(94) Υἱοῖς μὴ καταρῶ
hy-oîs mḕ katar-ô
son-PL.DAT not …

(95) Γυναικὸς ἄρχε
gynaik-òs árkh-e
wife-SG.GEN rule-IMP

(96) Σεαυτὸν εὖ ποίει
seaut-òn eû poí-ei

(97) Εὐπροσήγορος γίνου
euprosḗgor-os gín-ou

(98) Ἀποκρίνου ἐν καιρῷ
apokrín-ou en kair-ôᵢ

(99) Πόνει μετ’ εὐκλείας
pón-ei met’ eukleí-as

(100) Πρᾶττε ἀμετανοήτως
prâtt-e ametanoḗt-ōs
do-IMP unrepentant-ADV

(101) Ἁμαρτάνων μετανόει
hamartán-ōn metanó-ei
transgress-PART repent-IMP

(102) Ὀφθαλμοῦ κράτει
ophthalm-oû krát-ei
eye-SG.GEN rule-IMP

(103) Βουλεύου χρόνῳ
bouleú-ou khrón-ōᵢ

(104) Πρᾶττε συντόμως
prâtt-e syntóm-ōs

(105) Φιλίαν φύλαττε
philí-an phýlatt-e
friendship-SG.ACC protect-IMP

(106) Εὐγνώμων γίνου
eugnṓm-ōn gín-ou

(107) Ὁμόνοιαν δίωκε
homónoi-an díōk-e
concord-SG.ACC pursue-IMP

(108) Ἄῤῥητον κρύπτε
árrhēt-on krýpt-e
unspeakable-SG.ACC hide-IMP

(109) Τὸ κρατοῦν φοβοῦ
tò krat-oûn phob-oû
the.SG.NOM …

(110) Τὸ συμφέρον θηρῶ
tò symphér-on thēr-ô
the.SG.NOM …

(111) Καιρὸν προσδέχου
kair-òn prosdékh-ou

(112) Ἔχθρας διάλυε
ékhthr-as diály-e
enmity-PL.ACC resolve-IMP

(113) Γῆρας προσδέχου
gêr-as prosdékh-ou

(114) Ἐπὶ ῥώμῃ μὴ καυχῶ
epì rhṓm-ēᵢ mḕ kaukh-ô

(115) Εὐφημίαν ἄσκει
euphēmí-an ásk-ei
auspicious-speech-SG.ACC practice-IMP

(116) Ἀπέχθειαν φεῦγε
apékhthei-an pheûg-e

(117) Πλούτει δικαίως
ploút-ei dikaí-ōs
be.wealthy-IMP just-ADV

(118) Δόξαν μὴ λεῖπε
dóx-an mḕ leîp-e

(119) Κακίαν μίσει
kakí-an mís-ei

(120) Κινδύνευε φρονίμως
kindýneu-e phroním-ōs

(121) Μανθάνων μὴ κάμνε
manthán-ōn mḕ kámn-e

(122) Φειδόμενος μὴ λεῖπε
pheidó-menos mḕ leîp-e

(123) Χρησμοὺς θαύμαζε
khrēsm-oùs thaúmaz-e
oracle-PL.ACC marvel-IMP

(124) Οὓς τρέφεις, ἀγάπα
hoùs tréph-eis agápa-∅

(125) Ἀπόντι μὴ μάχου
apónt-i mḕ mákh-ou

(126) Πρεσβύτερον αἰδοῦ
presbýter-on aid-oû

(127) Νεώτερον δίδασκε
neṓter-on dídask-e
younger-SG.ACC teach-IMP

(128) Πλούτῳ ἀπίστει
ploút-ōᵢ apíst-ei
wealth-SG.DAT …

(129) Σεαυτὸν αἰδοῦ
seaut-òn aid-oû

(130) Μὴ ἄρχε ὑβρίζειν
mḕ árkh-e hybríz-ein
not begin-IMP …

(131) Προγόνους στεφάνου
progón-ous stephán-ou

(132) Θνῆσκε ὑπὲρ πατρίδος
thnêsk-e hypèr patríd-os

(133) Τῷ βίῳ μὴ ἄχθου
tôᵢ bí-ōᵢ mḕ ákhth-ou
the.SG.DAT life-SG.DAT not …-IMP

(134) Ἐπὶ νεκρῷ μὴ γέλα
epì nekr-ôᵢ mḕ géla-∅
over dead.person-SG.DAT not laugh-IMP

(135) Ἀτυχοῦντι συνάχθου
atykh-oûnti synákhth-ou

(136) Χαρίζου ἀβλαβῶς
kharíz-ou ablab-ôs

(137) Μὴ ἐπὶ παντὶ λυποῦ
mḕ epì pant-ì lyp-oû

(138) Ἐξ εὐγενῶν γέννα
ex eugen-ôn génna-∅

(139) Ἐπαγγέλλου μηδενί
epaŋgéll-ou mēden-í

(140) Φθιμένους μὴ ἀδίκει
phthi-ménous mḕ adík-ei

(141) Εὖ πάσχε ὡς θνητός
eû páskh-e hōs thnēt-ós

(142) Τύχῃ μὴ πίστευε
týkh-ēᵢ mḕ písteu-e
fortune-SG.DAT not trust-IMP
“Do not have faith in fortune!”

That is to say, do not rely on having good luck in the future. Taken in this way, at least, the maxim does not contradict 68 (“Trust/believe in fortune!”); on the other hand, it is not absurd to find some maxims contradicting each other.

<closing maxims>

(143) Παῖς ὢν κόσμιος ἴσθι
paî-s ṑn kósmi-os ís-thi
child-SG.NOM be.PART orderly-SG.NOM be-IMP
“When you are a child, be well-behaved!”

This begins a distinct group of maxims (or extended single maxim), which divide human life into five stages, each with a central moral concern. Note that these five ages did enjoy cultural currency, but are peculiar to this text. Children are enjoined not to be unruly.

(144) Ἡβῶν ἐγκρατής
Hēb-ôn eŋkrat-ḗs
be.youthful-PART moderate-SG.NOM
“In adolescence, be moderate!”

Young people should not get carried away by their passions.

(145) Μέσος δίκαιος
més-os díkai-os
middle-SG.NOM just-SG.NOM
“In middle age, be just!”

The idea seems to be that middle-aged people no longer struggle with rules and desires to the same extent, but must focus on becoming responsible moral agents in society.

(146) Πρεσβύτης εὔλογος
presbýt-ēs eúlog-os
old-SG.NOM rational-SG.NOM
“When you are old, be reasonable!”


(147) Τελευτῶν ἄλυπος
teleut-ôn ályp-os
die-PART ungrieved-SG.NOM
“When you are dying, do not be vexed!”

This is not so much to persuade anyone that death is neutral or positive, but to demand firmness in its face.

Status: work in progress