Origin of proverbs and great texts of wisdom literature through history, a short article by Carl William Brown, an aphorist, essayist and chief editor of English-culture.com; aforismicelebri.com; and daimon.org.
Proverbs can express both the wisdom and the stupidity of the different cultures and peoples that characterize our small earthly and spiritual planet.
Carl William Brown
For proverbs are the pith, the proprieties, the proofs, the purities, the elegancies, as the commonest so the commendablest phrases of a language. To use them is a grace, to understand them a good.
A proverb (the word means a comparison or likeness, from Latin, a set of words put forth) is a crisply stated principle of living.
Proverbs are the lamp of speech.
Proverbs are words that are skillfully crafted to stick in our minds and to engage us in thought.
Carl William Brown
The study of proverbs may be more instructive and comprehensive than the most elaborate scheme of philosophy.
No man is a good physician who has never been sick.
Proverbs are words of wisdom, and they were first heard of in Egypt soon after 3000 B.C. About 600 years later a vizier by the name of Ptah-hotep attained high repute for his wisdom. His precepts, in the form of a collection of proverbial sayings, were preserved and are claimed to be the oldest book in the world. They comprise a sort of ethical treatise that assumes the nature of the good life and undertakes to tell how this can be realized by the special group for whom it was written. Wisdom speculation arose also in Babylonia, where other writers composed bodies of proverbs or pessimistic writings that denied any value in life.
This intellectual activity could not have been confined to a few favoured lands. Even uncivilized peoples ask and unsewer questions about the nature of the world and the meaning of human life, and such speculation is universal among more advanced cultures. And so wisdom was pervasive through the ancient east. The little land of Edom was famous for its wise men, and apparently there was a wisdom movement among the Canaanites before the Hebrews entered Palestine.
It is no accident that the Greek word “philosophy” means “love of wisdome”, that is of “knowledge”. The full measure of Greece’s debt to the orient has never been determined, but in any case Greek philosophy was heir to and in some measure disciple of the age-old speculation of the east. Yet wisdom was both more and less than philosophy. Much that is now included under the term had not then risen above the intellectual horizon, but also much that then was wisdom later attained an independent position.
Proverbs are probably the oldest extant documents of the Hebrew wisdom movement, of which King Solomon was the founder and patron. Wisdom literature flourished throughout the ancient Near East, with Egyptian examples dating back to before the middle of the 3rd millennium B.C. It revolved around the professional sages, or wise men, and scribes in the service of the court, and consisted primarily in maxims about the practical, intelligent way to conduct one’s life and in speculations about the very worth and meaning of human life.
The most common form of these wise sayings, which were intended for oral instruction especially in the schools run by the sages for the young men at the court, was the mashal (Hebrew: “comparison” or “parable,” although frequently translated “proverb”). Typically a pithy, easily memorized aphoristic saying based on experience and universal in application, the mashal in its simplest and oldest form was a couplet in which a definition was given in two parallel lines related to each other either antithetically or synthetically.
The practical shrewdness of the businessman and administrator, incipient science, general knowledge, reflection upon known facts and much else of the sort, as well as more strictly philosophic speculation, went into the total of wisdom. The educated men, particularly if he gave thought to human conduct and its ends, was the wise man. Wisdom was the total of the intellectual culture of the age. And to end a very serious thinking, I would say that wisdom is strictly connected with culture, that is the pragmatic knowledge to solve real problems of life and explain or suppose new theories for our poor existence.
Literary and culturally speaking, proverbs are also very near to parable that can make difficult concepts easier to understand, since they are exemplified stories as we can read in the moral and spiritual tales of Buddha, Jesus and many others. Proverbs were often appended to Aesop’s fables as a way to sum up and re-enforce the meaning of the story. As a matter of fact, if parables are methapors in story form, then proverbs are parables in miniature. Like parables proverbs contain great metaphors that can teach us good moral lessons, they usually express the wit of one for the wisdom of many.
Proverbs, again like parables, are found in every country and culture, and they are very close to aphorisms, as the world oldest written art form. In ancient Sumer, where writing itself was invented around 3500 B.C., proverbs were used as textbooks for moral instruction and many of them anticipates contemporary sayings, such as this one: “Wealth is hard to come by, but poverty is always at hand”, that later becomes: “The poor are always with us.” Obviously even though proverbs are universal, the metaphorical images through which they tell their stories vary, providing this way visualized cultural nuances for the different readers.
That’s why we can find a lot of lovers of all form of proverbs and parables, and this is also the reason why books like the Bible, the works of Shakespeare, or Aesop’s Fables or Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan are so famous in the English and world literature, and they can teach people of lot, as Abraham Lincoln through his speeches and writing has always demonstrated. Parables and proverbs are the foundations of religious, moral, wisdom and sapiential literature and they are very popular in folk literature as well, also because they convey spiritual truths setting them aside with natural truths.
Proverbs like aphorism are short saying that states sometimes a general truth or more often something else, they use all the different rhetoric figures and can give us a lot of definitions, metaphors, moral teachings, observations, and can help us create and develop more thoughts or pensée. The can act as an inspiration and serve as a practical guide to living a better and more conscious life. Many maxims are anonymous and not a few echo ancient proverbs.
The best known collection of proverbs is The Book of Proverbs which follows The Psalms in the Old Testament. This Bible Book is a collection of ancient wisdom that uses a form of Hebrew poetry unfamiliar to us because it doesn’t rhyme, and it is still recognized today as full of practical advice. Like the wisdom sayings in the Book of Proverbs, all other pieces of this short and extremely condensed literature of varying provenience are composed in poetic form, that is, they are cast in parallelisms, that Herder praised as a form of “thought rhyme” literature.
The Book of Proverbs contains the sayings not only of Solomon, but other sages of ancient Israel as well. The teachings of this book can be applied by everyone from children to young men and women to the leaders of business empires and nations. There are no teachings in it that are peculiar to Israel, but instead, Proverbs contains truths that apply universally to all of human kind. It contains warnings, admonitions, standards of conduct and speech, revelation and promises. Our modern world would profit greatly if more of us would read and apply what Proverbs teaches. Proverbs are highly compressed, carefully chosen words of wisdom and in the Bible, they are found elsewhere than just in the Book of Proverbs.
Proverbs of other culture are always fascinating and sometimes very difficult to understand. They are common to most cultures and ages, because they represent homely wisdom, transmitted orally in the ancient past and through different books in modern times, since they are very similar to aphorisms, apophtegms, and maxims.
Here are some examples: Send a fool to close the shutters and he’ll close them all over the town (Yiddish); You cannot step twice into the same river (Classical Greek); When you want a drink of milk you don’t buy the cow (Cretan); If vinegar is free it is sweeter than honey (Serbian); An uninvited guest is worse than a Tatar (Russian); There is but an hour a day between a good housewife and a bad one (English); It is better to wear out one’s shoes than one’s sheets (Genoese); The wife carries her husband on her face, the husband carries the wife on his linen (Bulgarian); Watch the faces of of those who bow low (Polish); If it is not in the head it is in the feet (Czech); Visits always give pleasure – if not the arrival, the departure (Portuguese); To tell a woman what she may not do is to tell her what she can (Spanish); Every invalid is a physician (Irish). A fine collection of English proverbs is the Oxford Dictionary of English Proverbs.
As we have seen proverbs are widespread through every time literature, the Middle Ages produced the bulk of the didactic production in Europe and most of it was in verse. Proverbs, charms, gnomic verses, guides to the good life, and manuals of holy living were abundant. But also Old English, Irish, Norse and Germanic literature provide many instances. Beowulf, for example, contains a large number of gnomic passages. However, in modern Britain as in other countries of the world proverbs have been turned into a bunch of lamentable clichés, even though in rural societies with a strong sense of regional feeling, proverbial sayings still have vigour and a lot of things to teach us as well.
In any case they still express a lot of what we can call “Wit” from the old English word that means “To know”, originally meaning “Sense”, “Understanding” or “Intelligence”, a kind of literary expression that can convey ingenuity, surprise, methapors and paradoxes, all features well sought after by the so-called Metaphysical poets. So to conclude we can say that a proverb is a great blend of sense, shortness, wit and wisdom. They are the flowers of popular wit and the treasures of popular wisdom. Often short and simple and popularly known and repeated, these nuggets of wisdom express a truth based on the practical experience of humankind, and the idiosyncrasies of a people and their culture through time and history.
Carl William Brown