The Forgotten Delphic Maxim

Douglas C. Bates
6 min readMar 24, 2021
Ruins of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (author’s photograph)

One of the most widely known sayings of Socrates is “know thyself.” While this saying drove much of Socrates’ thought, it was not original to him. It was one of the Delphic Maxims — concise bits of ancient Greek ethical teachings that were inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi, home of the Pythian oracle — the oracle that had said that there was no one wiser than Socrates.

The origin of the maxims is typically attributed to the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece. They are some of the oldest recorded ethical teachings in the world. While a total of 147 maxims were reportedly inscribed on the temple, three maxims were considered to be so much more important than all of the others that they were prominently placed in the forecourt of the temple, to be seen by all who approached. These three maxims appear to have been intended to be understood as a set, not only due to their placement, but also because they form a hexameter verse. As such, each maxim informs how the other two maxims should be interpreted.

“Know Thyself,” “Nothing too Much,” and …

“Know thyself” was the first of these three ultra-important maxims in the temple’s forecourt. The second was “nothing too much.” Just as “know thyself” is associated with Socrates and his idea that the unexamined life was not worth living, “nothing too much” is associated with Aristotle and his ethical teachings that virtue is the golden mean between extremes.

Yet, while the first maxim was widely discussed by ancient writers, and we have many discussions of the second maxim, few writers said anything about the third forecourt maxim — the Delphic Maxim that has been nearly forgotten.

ΕΓΓΥΑ, ΠΑΡΑ ΔΑΤΗ

Unlike the other two maxims, translations for this maxim vary widely. Some of the translations used include:

· A pledge is a curse.

· A pledge, and ruin is nigh.

· A pledge, and thereupon perdition.

· Give a pledge and suffer for it.

· Give a pledge, and mischief attends.

· Give a pledge, and evil is nigh at hand.

· Give surety and trouble is at hand.

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Douglas C. Bates

Ancient Greek philosophies of life. http://www.pyrrhonism.org Author of “Pyrrho’s Way: The Ancient Greek Version of Buddhism.”