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

About Robert M Ellis

Robert M Ellis is the founder and chair of the Middle Way Society, and author of a number of books on Middle Way Philosophy, including the introductory 'Migglism' and the more in-depth 'Middle Way Philosophy' series. He has a Christian background, and about 20 years' past experience of practising Buddhism, but it was his Ph.D. studies in Philosophy that set him on the track of developing a systematic account of the Middle Way beyond any specific tradition. He has earned his living mainly by teaching, and more recently by online tutoring.

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