Category Archives: Proverbs

Proverbs 4: Better to light a candle than to curse the darkness

This is one of the few proverbs that I have few, if any, reservations about, because it seems to apply to pretty much all conditions. There’s lots of darkness about  – ignorance, dogmatism, hatred, prejudice – and it’s very tempting to merely curse it. If, like me, you’re of a critical disposition and can easily see problems and false assumptions in almost any position, it’s especially easy just to sit there in the dark criticising on all sides and working up anger and hatred in the process. Yet lighting a candle takes a moment of awareness and creativity. It demands that we consider the sphere in which we can act rather than remaining fixated only on the wider sphere of concern. If we have criticisms, it requires that we also think about the positive alternatives we have to offer.Candle_in_the_dark

Starting the Middle Way Society (which has been going since 2013) is one attempt to light a candle. Before that, I was developing Middle Way Philosophy, seeing problems in one absolute position and then another on all sides, convinced that the Middle Way was the best practical option, but unable to offer much as an alternative to the positions I criticised. Being able to offer something positive, in which philosophy is clearly and inextricably linked to practice and supported by a developing community, feels more and more valuable. Even if it turns out that the candle is blown out by a gale, I’ll be glad that I lit it.

The current political situation might also provide a important application of this proverb. Personally, I have found the election of Donald Trump in the US and the Brexit vote in the UK (and now the calling of an opportunistic election in the UK) a time of considerable political darkness. Nor am I sure, at present, of any realistic political action I can take that will make any difference. The best way I can light a candle, it seems, is to carry on doing what I’m doing, developing and offering the Middle Way, in the hope that this will have a small but positive effect on political life.

Are there any occasions when it is better to curse the darkness instead? One might imagine circumstances where lighting any kind of candle was impossible, because of living in a highly repressive society for example. I can understand people being afraid to light candles in places like North Korea or Saudi Arabia. Even in a politically more open country, you might feel yourself to be trapped in circumstances that snuff out all candles – in a highly frustrating and exploitative job for example. But even in these kinds of circumstances, merely cursing achieves nothing except creating conflict. However much you may hate your rulers and however dark it may be, it seems better to sit with awareness in the darkness and to think about creative ways forward, than it is to merely curse.

Link to index of other posts in the ‘proverbs’ series

Photo by Paolo Costa Baldi, GFDL/CCBYSA 3.0

Proverbs 3: Many a mickle makes a muckle

There are a number of proverbs like this that reflect the common human experience of incrementality – i.e. of the importance of understanding the world in gradualistic terms.Cat__counting__money This particular one uses the Norse-derived dialect terms mickle (little) and muckle (great), and reflects the difficulties of saving. But here are some more examples that make the same point:

Little strokes fell great oaks.

The man who moves a mountain begins by carrying away small stones.

Great oaks from little acorns grow.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Change is gradual, they’re all saying, and the big things we identify with can all be analysed into smaller components. There’s no point in getting hung up on those big things and assuming they’re impossible just because they’re gradual.

Incrementality is an important principle in Middle Way Philosophy: see this video for more details. It wouldn’t need to be if it was always obvious in practice and we always remembered to think incrementally, but as the existence of all these proverbs suggests, we tend to have difficulty with this. The prevalence of teachings with strong elements of incrementality in other places, too, suggests this difficulty. In Buddhist teaching, the principles of anatta (non-substantiality) and anicca (impermanence) remind us to see the identities of people and things and their change over time incrementally, rather than as absolutes with clear boundaries. Many traditions extol the virtue of patience, and many spiritual practices (such as the mindfulness of breathing meditation) focus on incrementally changing experience rather than definite things that dramatically start and stop. Science, too, might be a route into appreciation of gradual change, particularly if you consider geological change or the evolution of organisms.

However, as with many wise recognitions found in proverbs, you can also find other proverbs apparently saying the opposite:

A miss is as good as a mile.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

You may as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb.

All of these proverbs focus instead on definite practical differences. Narrowly missing something (say, a target, or a train) has the same practical implications as missing it by a mile. If you’re practically committed to buying something, there may well be a case for paying as much as it’s worth, that may mean a pound rather than just a penny. The last of these three refers to the historical practice of hanging those convicted of sheep-stealing: but since the penalty for stealing a lamb was as great as that of a sheep, it would make no practical difference if you confined yourself to stealing a lamb. You may as well provide a full meal for your whole family before you swing from the scaffold.

How do we reconcile the anti-incremental proverbs with the incremental ones? Obviously the anti-incremental ones only apply in certain practical circumstances where we have a certain goal in mind (hitting the target, buying the goods, avoiding hanging). In terms of reaching that goal, it’s clear that sometimes incremental differences are irrelevant. However, if your goals are more open or might change, then increments might suddenly become relevant again. You might find that there are, after all, some lesser rewards for only just missing the target, or that the judge is actually less likely to convict you for stealing a lamb than a sheep. Even in a goal-driven, practical world, it might actually be better to hedge your bets and start thinking about increments.

The more open or ambitious our goals become, the more we are likely to have to come to terms with incrementality. You won’t be able to grow oaks, complete long journeys, write books, complete big engineering projects, or save the world from climate change, unless you can engage with the process rather than just jumping impatiently to concern with the outcome.

Concern with process and concern with goals are typically handled by the two different hemispheres of our brains, as Iain McGilchrist explains. It is the left hemisphere that is the impatient and conceptually definite hemisphere because it is goal-driven, whilst the right hemisphere can provide a process-oriented perspective beyond these goals – just as long as we are willing to listen to it rather than being obsessively dominated by goals. The proverbs of incrementality are effectively saying, in the language of the left hemisphere – “Hey, you’ll actually stand more chance of reaching those goals if you’re not too narrowly focused on them.” They’re a cue for a more effective integrated perspective in which the right and left hemispheres work together. Although a miss is as good as a mile from the left hemisphere’s point of view, it’s awareness of the many mickles from the right that make the muckles possible.

Picture: Cat ‘counting’ money, CCSA 4.0  by Continentaleurope (Wikimedia Commons)

Link to index of proverbs blogs

Proverbs 2: A bad workman blames his tools

I’m not the world’s most enthusiastic practitioner of DIY, though once I get going I can enjoy it, even if the results are not always quite what I hoped for. Very often, though, it seems that when I botch a job it’s because I haven’t got quite the right tools to do it with. That’s when this proverb is lying in wait for me: “A bad workman blames his tools”. On the basis of this proverb, it seems that the tools will always be necessarily blameless, and I should always take full responsibility for my own incompetence. plane (tool)

After all, it may be said, I’m in charge of whether I use the tools or not. If the tool I’ve got is the wrong shape or size, worn out, or ineffective, then surely it’s up to me to get hold of the right tool? By extension, the same can be said of the materials I’m using, my own state of mind or body as I work, and even the wider context in which I choose to work. The proverb encapsulates a common experience of a way in which we often avoid responsibility, and guards against a recognised bias – often known as the self-serving bias – in which I’m likely to try to maximise the credit I take for things I did well, but blame my failures on the surrounding conditions.

But the fact that there are also proverbs saying pretty much the opposite should alert us that this is not the whole story. “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear” focuses on materials rather than tools, but makes the reverse point in a similar way. Your materials limit what you can do, just like any other aspect of the conditions you’re working with, whether it’s the tools, the workmates, the environment, or your state of health. You can change all of these things to some extent, but you’ll probably have to put a lot of effort, social capital or cash into changing them, and there are practical limits that can be put on any blame that should be attached to how much you fail to change them. At some point, if the conditions are against you, you have to accept them rather than trying to change them.

So, let’s take a recent real example of slightly botched DIY. I was screwing up a set of coat hooks onto a wall, but I couldn’t get the screws all the way into the wall because the resistance was too great and the heads of the screws insufficiently robust. Both a manual and an automated screwdriver continually slipped round in the screw heads when I tried to get them in further. But I got them in just far enough to conclude that the job was imperfectly done and the hooks would stay up sufficiently well. Should I have invested a great deal more time in getting it right, even going out to buy new screws and new screwdrivers, or even employing a professional to do the job? No, I think the partly botched job was adequate for my purposes.

So the Middle Way sometimes seems to imply facing up to one’s own incompetence, but just as often it means being satisfied with adequacy. A workman who blames his tools isn’t necessarily wrong.

Proverbs 1: A proverb never lies: it’s only its meaning which deceives

Proverbs are a store of folk wisdom built up over centuries. Or are they a repository of ignorance? I’ve been thinking a bit about them recently, and how each one identifies and corrects biases or limitations of view in a specific situation. The problem is only knowing whether you’re in the right situation for the proverb! Take the proverb as an infallible guide to truth, and you’re absolutizing it and most likely applying it inappropriately; but ignore the near-universal experience it records and you’re just as likely to be absolutizing the other way in your dismissal of folk wisdom. So proverbs are a great testing ground for investigating the Middle Way. I thus thought that proverbs would be a great topic for a series of short blogs, each exploring a proverb or perhaps a few linked ones.Detail from the Dutch Proverbs (Bruegel)

I decided to start with a proverb about proverbs. It’s a rather obscure one: “A proverb never lies: it’s only its meaning which deceives.” That’s perhaps a rather paradoxical way of saying that proverbs are always of some value because they record valuable experiences. Some of them are high-minded, others cynical and worldly in tone, but that just means that they record different snatches from the whole range of human experience, from different classes of society or different cultural origins. Take “A fool and his money are soon parted”: that’s a very worldly-wise proverb that seems to be giving support to economic exploitation (or even deceit) by suggesting that the people who are deceived are fools anyway. Contrast that with “Cheats never prosper”, which takes a much more high-minded and moral tone, with an implicit belief in providence, and you see that not everyone takes the same attitude to such deceitful exploitation.

Proverbs contradict each other, but that’s part of what makes them so fascinating and authentic as records of common experience. Here are a some more contradictory examples: “Many hands make light work” v “Too many cooks spoil the broth”; “He who dares wins” v “Discretion is the better part of valour”. It seems quite possible to always find something informative or useful in a proverb, which is presumably the sense in which proverbs never lie. But its meaning may deceive you in the sense that if you take it unreflectingly as a guide for how to behave you will just be putting yourself in the hands of the group: a group with a certain purpose at a certain time. So the contradiction in this proverb about proverbs can also provide a rough pointer to the Middle Way in the interpretation of proverbs. Somewhere between uncritical acceptance and uncritical dismissal we can find a space where they may be relevant for our lives.

Stand by for more proverbs!

Picture: Detail from ‘the Dutch Proverbs’ (Brueghel) – public domain