The Characteristics Of Proverbs - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Characteristics Of Proverbs - Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs

The Characteristics Of Proverbs

Most writers on proverbs have thought it necessary to attempt a definition of their subject, but the task is difficult, and the phrase that will silence criticism has yet to be produced. Lord Russell’s epigram describing a proverb as “The wisdom of many and the wit of one” is as good as any, but it leaves so much unsaid that as a definition it is certainly inadequate. On the other hand, it is a true remark, and the facts it emphasises may conveniently be taken as the point from which to begin this study.

No saying is a proverb until it has commended itself to a number of men; the wisdom of one is not a proverb, but the wisdom of many. Countless fine expressions well suited to become proverbial have perished in the speaking, or lie forgotten in our books. To win wide acceptance and then to keep pace with the jealous years and remain a living word on the lips of the people is an achievement few human thoughts have compassed; for thousands that pass unheeded only one here or there, helped by some happy quality, or perhaps some freak of fortune, is caught from mouth to mouth, approved, repeated and transmitted. Every accepted proverb has therefore survived a searching test, all the more severe because judgment is not always passed upon the merits of the case. Popular favour is at the best capricious, and often an admirable saying has died out of use and a worse become famous. But of one thing we can be certain: general recognition is never won except by that which expresses the beliefs, or appeals to the conscience, or touches the affections of average men. However many the defects of any given proverb may happen to be, it is sure to possess some quality of human interest.

In the second place, it is generally true that, although proverbs have a sovereign right to utter commonplace, there is no such thing as a dull proverb. No matter how pedestrian may be its doctrine, somewhere in its expression will be manifest the “wit of one”—a flash of insight or imagination, a note of pathos or power. Of course, many sayings through age and the changes of fashion have lost their savour for us, but—the point is important—even these are not inevitably dull. All were once piquant. If we could but recapture the attitude of the men who made the phrase proverbial, its interest would be felt again. But although it thus appears that proverbs are essentially human and generally witty, the study of them is attended by certain difficulties. It is wise, therefore, to acknowledge at the outset the obstacles that will beset our path; to be forewarned is to be forearmed.

Many proverbs have achieved popularity, not on account of what they say, but of the way they say it; the secret of their success has been some spice of originality or of humour in their composition. Originality, however, is a tender plant, and nothing fades more quickly than humour. A graphic or unexpected metaphor will delight the imagination for a little while, but how swiftly and inexorably “familiarity breeds contempt”; a phrase which is itself a case in point. Whenever therefore, in studying the Jewish proverbs, we come upon famous and familiar words, we must endeavour to let the saying for a moment renew its youth, by deliberately quickening our sympathy and attention, by counting it certain that words which have not failed through so many centuries to touch the hearts and minds of men deserve from us more than a passing glance of recognition.

Many proverbs speak truth, but a true word can be spoken too often. Every preacher in Christendom knows how little, through much iteration, the words “Hope” and “Love” may convey to his hearers, although most men are conscious that of the realities of Hope and Love they cannot possess too much. So also with the truths expressed in proverbs. For example, many excellent men have lacked only promptitude to win success, and we have need to be warned thereby; but when the fact is put before us in the words “Procrastination is the thief of time,” what copybook boredom rises in our indignant soul!

We will not learn the lesson from so stale a teacher. Every effort to indicate the genius of proverbs is attended by this disadvantage of verbal familiarity; and, of course, it is the finest sayings that suffer most. But just here the tragedy of the great European War lends unwelcome aid. The intensity of human experience has been raised to a degree not known for centuries; and, as a recent writer in the Spectator admirably puts it, “In all times of distress dead truisms come to life. They confront the mind at every turn. We are amazed at the vividness of our thoughts, and confounded at the banality of their expression. We imagined that only fools helped themselves out with the musty wisdom of copybooks, but now it seems that even a fool may speak to the purpose. There is nothing so new as trouble, nothing so threadbare as its expression. ‘All is fair in love and war’.... How vividly that falsehood has been impressed upon us by our enemies. Yet how dull and indisputable it seemed such a little while ago. Even those of us who have least personal stake in the war grow terribly impatient at its slow movement. Almost every man who buys an afternoon paper thinks of the ‘watched pot.

’ How many people have lately known the heart-sickness of ‘hope deferred’? ‘Dying is as natural as living’: that is a dull enough expression of fact, when death is far off: but, when it is near, it cuts like a two-edged sword.” Life for the present generation has verily been transformed; it is both more terrible and more inspiring, more poignant in its sorrows, more thrilling in its achievements and its joys: all things are become new. Once we could say glibly, “The heart knoweth its own bitterness,” using the phrase to point a trivial trouble, but not now; and perhaps never again in our life-time. Thank God, it is not only the sorrowful sayings which rise in our heart with new meaning, but also those which speak of courage and strength, of loyalty and faith.

There is a third danger against which we require to be on guard. Proverbs cannot be absorbed in quantity. Like pictures in a gallery, they stand on their rights, each demanding a measure of individual attention and a due period for reflection. Many chapters in the Book of Proverbs are unpalatable reading, not because they are prosy, but because they are composed of independent maxims connected by no link of logical sequence or even of kindred meaning. To read consecutively through a series of these self-contained units is to impose an intolerable strain on the mind. The imagination becomes jaded, the memory dazed by the march of too swiftly changing images. The disconnected thoughts efface one another, leaving behind them only a blurred confusion. This will appear the more inevitable the more clearly we realise what a proverb is.

For consider: not one nor two but countless observations of men and things have gone to the making of a single proverb; it is the conclusion to which a thousand premisses pointed the way; it is compressed experience. And further, a proverb usually gives not just the bare inference from experience, but the inference made memorable by some touch of fancy in the phrasing. Hence the meaning of a proverb is not always obvious, that it may seem the sharper when perceived. Some curious comparison, some pleasing illustration, is put forward to catch and hold attention until, from the train of thought thus raised, a truth leaps out upon us or a fact of life confronts us, familiar perhaps but now invested with fresh dignity. A proverb is not, as it were, a single sentence out of the book of human life, but is rather the epitome of a page or chapter; or, if you please, call it a summary, now of some drama of life, now of an epic or lyric poem, now again of a moral treatise. From a literary point of view proverbs are rich, over-rich feeding. They cloy. There is in the Book of Proverbs a remark that adroitly puts the point:

Hast thou found honey?

Eat so much as is convenient for thee

It follows that frequent quotation of proverbs will be apt to fatigue the reader, yet the danger is one which cannot wholly be avoided in this volume. Something, however, can be done by setting limitations on the scope of our subject, and in the following pages no attempt will be made to present any systematic survey of the whole immense field of Jewish proverbs, ancient, mediæval, and modern. Attention will be given chiefly to two pre-Christian collections—the Book of Proverbs and Ecclesiasticus—and, even so, many good sayings in those books will be left unnoticed. Moreover, proverbs are not quite chaotic, for all their natural independence. They are like a forest through which many paths conduct; by following now one, now another topic it is possible to penetrate in various directions, as inclination prompts. But, even so, the peril of wearying the reader by over-many proverbs will only be lessened not removed; wherefore again—’tis a word of high wisdom—Hast thou found honey? Eat so much as is convenient for thee.

Enough of difficulties and dangers! Woe to him who goes “supping sorrows with a long spoon”! A happier task, however, does remain, before we set sail upon our quest: we have still to count our blessings. What are the virtues of proverbs? What the interests we may hope to find in our subject?

The proverb does for human life something that science does for the world of Nature: it rouses the unseeing eye and the unheeding ear to the marvel of what seems ordinary. As for Nature, most of us who are not scientists are still deplorably blind to her perfections, but popular text-books have so far succeeded that we confess our ignorance with shame, and some are even penitent enough to desire that they might grow wiser. We are at least aware that there is nothing in the world not wonderful.

We used to pass the spider’s web in our gardens with never a thought, but now—is not Le Fabre whispering to us of “rays equidistant and forming a beautifully regular orb,” of “polygonal lines drawn in a curve as geometry understands it.” “Which of us,” says he, pricking our human vanity, “would undertake, off-hand, without much preliminary experiment and without measuring instruments to divide a circle into a given quantity of sectors of equal width. The spider, though weighted with a wallet and tottering on threads shaken by the wind, effects the delicate division without stopping to think.” The astronomer does not guard his secrets like the jealous astrologer of old; so that now-a-days many a man who possesses neither the higher mathematics nor a telescope knows more than his eyes can show him of the marvels of the stars and the mystery of space. Professor J. A. Thompson writes of The Wonder of Life, and behold!

Even he that hath no skill in biology may learn that the barren seashore is a teeming world, more strange than fairyland. Science does not make Nature marvelous; she lifts the veil of ignorance from our mind. Proverbs perform the same service for the life of man. Taking the common incidents of experience, they point out their meaning. Perceiving the principles in the recurrent facts of life, they discover and declare that the commonplace is more than merely common. That is a task greater and more difficult than at first sight may appear: as has been well said, “There is no literary function higher than that of giving point to what is ordinary and rescuing a truth from the obscurity of obviousness.”

Most men are slow, desperately slow, to perceive the significance of the experiences they encounter daily; yet from the iron discipline of these things none of us can escape. They are our life-long schoolmaster, and woe betide the man who from that stern teacher learns nothing or learns amiss. Nor is it sufficient that the facts should be brought before us. As a rule, the truth requires to be pushed home. Ask us not to observe that the reasoning faculties of the human being are seriously and sometimes disastrously perturbed by the impulses of affection; but tell us “Love is blind,” and—perhaps—we shall not forget.

Proverbs are superlatively human. Suffer the point to have a curious introduction. In certain ancient colleges it is the custom on one Sunday in each year to hold in the chapel a service of Commemoration, when the names of all those who were benefactors of the college are read aloud. Few ceremonies can convey more impressively the continuity of the generations, the actual unity between the shadowy past and the vivid present which seems to us the only real world. The roll may begin far back in the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries, commencing with the names of the Founder and a few mediæval Benefactors (some of them famous men), but steadily and swiftly the years move onwards as the roll is read, until, listening, we realise that in another moment what is called the past will merge into the present. Somehow the magical change takes place; the past is finished, and the record is telling now “the things whereof we too were part,” ending perhaps with the name of one whom we called “friend,” who sat beside us in the chapel—was it only a year ago to-day?

On these occasions the lesson is usually taken from a chapter in Ecclesiasticus known as The Praise of Famous Men:—Let us now praise famous men and our fathers that begat us. The Lord manifested in them great glory, even his mighty power from the beginning. Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms and were men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding; such as have brought tidings in prophecies; leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their understanding men of learning for the people—wise were their words in their instruction; such as sought out musical tunes, and set forth verses in writing; rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations: all these were honoured in their generations, and were a glory in their days. There be of them that have left a name behind them, to declare their praises. And some there be which have no memorial; who are perished as though they had not been and are become as though they had not been born. What! even of those who were famous men?... perished as though they had not been and become as though they had not been born.

The verdict is too hard. Granting that they missed genius, did they not live nobly, speak wisely, make many beautiful things, do generous deeds, giving of themselves the best they had to give? But ... as though they had not been. Surely they merited some kinder fate than that? And what of the multitudes of the unrenowned? If the famous are nothing, then the rest of men are less than nothing and vanity, and, dying, they certainly can leave no trace behind them, no word to carry the tale of how once they laboured, loved, hoped, endured. All their exquisite human longings, all their pleasant thinking, must be for ever lost? No! for proverbs are the memorial of ordinary men; their very accents; record of their intimate thoughts and judgments, their jests and sorrowings, their aspirations, their philosophy. And this even from distant ages! There are proverbs old as the Iliad. Men of genius have not a monopoly of immortal words.

Perhaps at the start one man of keen wit was needed to invent the happy phrase or the smart saying, but before it became a proverb countless ordinary folk had to give it their approval. We know that every popular proverb has seemed good to a multitude of men. Essentially therefore it has become their utterance, and is filled with their personality. And, of course, proverbs are not only a memorial of the unknown dead; they are equally a language of the unknown and unlearned living. The humblest of men experience deep emotions which, however, they cannot articulate for themselves. Proverbs, we repeat, come to the rescue of the unlettered, supplying words to fit their thoughts, unstopping the tongue of the dumb. Just what effects this simple treasury of speech has had in history who can calculate, but that it has not been slight is dexterously suggested by these words of anger and chagrin which Shakespeare makes Coriolanus speak:

“Hang ’em,

They said they were an hungry, sighed forth proverbs;

That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat,

That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not

Corn for the rich men only; with these shreds

They vented their complainings.”

Poor wretches! with their “meat was made for mouths.” Doubtless they should have prepared for the most noble Coriolanus a treatise setting forth their preposterous economics, and humbly praying that in due course their petition might be brought before the Senate. But—“dogs must eat.” Faugh! “No gentleman,” said Lord Chesterfield, “ever uses a proverb.” Perhaps not, in an age of false gentility. But men of genius in many a century have taken note of their rich humanism and their value as a real, though undeveloped, science of life. Aristotle, Bacon, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Cervantes, Hazlitt, Goethe, thought fit to use them. Despite my Lord Chesterfield, let us continue the subject.

In the third place, proverbs are like a mirror in which the facts and ideals of society may be discerned. This is so obvious a truth that its importance may be under-estimated until it is realised how clear and detailed the reflection is. Proverbs prefer the concrete to the abstract. They contain many allusions that are like windows opening on to the land of their birth and offering glimpses of its life and scenery—the rain and the sunshine ripening its fields and vineyards; the valleys and mountains, the open country, the villages, and towns. The activities and interests of the inhabitants are still more clearly disclosed. Manners and morals are laid bare, all the more faithfully because the witness is often unintentional. “Proverbs,” said Bacon, “reveal the genius, wit, and character of a nation.”

In them Humanity, all reticence forgotten, seems to have cried its thoughts from the housetops and proclaimed its hidden motives in the market-place. Suppose that almost all other evidence for the history of Italy or Spain were blotted out but the national sayings were left us, there would still be rich material for reconstructing an outline of the characteristics and not a little of the fortunes of those peoples. In respect of national disposition how terribly would the lust for vengeance appear as the besetting sin of Italy: Revenge is a morsel fit for GodRevenge being an hundred years old has still its sucking teeth. From the copious store of Spanish proverbs could be substantiated such facts as the Moorish occupation of Spain, the power and pride of her mediæval chivalry, and the immense influence for good and evil which the Church of Rome has wielded in the length and breadth of the country.

Archbishop Trench lays stress upon this quality of proverbs. Speaking of Burchardt’s Arabic Proverbs of the Modern Egyptians, he remarks, “In other books others describe the modern Egyptians, but here they unconsciously describe themselves. The selfishness, the utter extinction of all public spirit, the servility, which no longer as with an inward shame creeps into men’s lives but utters itself as the avowed law of their lives, the sense of the oppression of the strong, of the insecurity of the weak, and generally the whole character of life, alike outward and inward, as poor, mean, sordid, and ignoble ... all this, as we study these documents, rises up before us in truest, though in painfullest, outline. Thus, only in a land where rulers, being evil themselves, feel all goodness to be their instinctive foe, where they punish but never reward, could a proverb like the following, Do no good and thou shalt find no evil, ever have come to the birth”: altogether a black picture of Mohammedan society. It is a healthier, happier scene that the Jewish proverbs will unfold to us.


The last general characteristic of proverbs, to which we need pay attention, is their inexhaustible variety. The world is their province. Religion and ethics, politics, commerce, agriculture, handicrafts, riches and poverty, diligence and idleness, hope and contentment, unrest and despair, laughter and tears, pride and humility, love and hatred: what is there you can name that we cannot set you a proverb to match it? Proverbs enter the palace unsummoned, take stock of his Majesty, and then inform the world what they think of his doings.

They sit with my Lord Justice on the bench, and he shall hear further of the matter if he judge with respect of persons. But lo and behold! they also keep company with highwaymen and thieves, and the tricks of most trades are to them no secret. Proverbs are at home with men of every degree: they dine at the rich man’s table, they beg with Lazarus by the gate; and shrewdly do they analyse the world from both points of view. Chiefly, however, they have dwelt in a myriad normal homes, where neither riches nor poverty is given, but where a hard day’s work, a sufficient meal, and a warm fire in the evening have loosened tongues and opened hearts.

Whereupon these unconscionable guests proceed to criticise the family. They interfere between husband and wife, parents and children, and teach all of them manners with an unsparing frankness. They play with the children, counsel their parents, and dream dreams with the old. Again, proverbs are both country-dwellers and town-dwellers. Have they not observed the ways of wind and water, sunshine and silvery starlight, seen the trees grow green and the seeds spring into life, the flowers bloom and the harvest ingathered? Yet also they have spent the whole year in the city, walking its streets early and late, strolling through the markets and bargaining in the shops. Ubiquitous proverbs! There is nothing beyond their reach, nothing hid from their eyes.

The advantages of this abundant variety are clear. Almost any topic of human interest will find sufficient illustration in proverbs. Frequently a saying will be found useful from more than one standpoint: vary the topic and the same material may appear in new and unexpected guise. On the other hand, whatever subject be chosen, a serious difficulty will be encountered. As soon as the proverbs bearing upon it have been gathered together, an extreme confusion of opinion will be apparent.

The trumpet gives a most uncertain sound! Thus, let ethics be our starting-point. Many, no doubt, will be the maxims that breathe an easy, practical morality, and these, being careful not to be righteous overmuch, may seem tolerably compatible one with another; but then in violent contrast will be some that soar to the very heavens, and some also that surely emanate from hell. These will suffice from the devil’s forge: Dead men tell no talesEvery man has his price—or this Italian proverb, Wait time and place for thy revenge, for swift revenge is poor revenge.

For the heavenly, here are two from ancient Greece, The best is always arduousFriends have their all in common; or this tender English one, The way to heaven is by Weeping-Cross, or this strong Scottish phrase, The grace of God is gear enough. Verily, proverbs do battle one against another. Trench quotes the following: The noblest vengeance is to forgive compared with the infamous He who cannot avenge himself is weak, he who will not is vile. Penny wise pound foolish is cried in our one ear; Take care of the pence, and the pounds will take care of themselves in the other. Could anything be more disconcerting to our hope of investigating the ethical system of proverbs? But in like manner their social teaching at first sight seems a wilderness of contradiction, their theology a babel of conflicting tongues.

The natural perplexity thus occasioned can, however, be resolved very simply. Two points must be kept in mind. First, that when with rough and ready justice men are classified as pious or wicked, clever or stupid, generous or miserly, hopeful or despondent, rich or poor, young or old, wise or ignorant, and so forth, these terms do represent real distinctions between persons, although perhaps no one category suffices fully to describe any given individual; and second, that a proverb necessarily expresses a sentiment shared by a number of people. It follows that what we ought to seek in proverbs is not one point of view but many.

We shall find the attitude of various classes and types of men. We shall see life as it appears now in the eyes of the just and the merciful, now of the evil and the cunning. Here in one group of sayings will be the way the world looks to a lazy man, here again are the convictions of the unscrupulously shrewd. Here is some complacent merchant’s view of social questions, here the exhortations of an idealistic soul. When once this fact about proverbs is recognised, the difficulty of their contradictoriness instantly is removed. Instead of feeling that they speak in hesitating accents, we discover that they are answering our questions, not with one, but with many voices, far from uncertain in their tone. The confusion vanishes. We find ourselves listening to the speech of men who, differing sometimes profoundly one from another, have sharply defined ideas, and can utter their thoughts with brevity, force, and wit.

It will be seen that our object is wide and deep, and that there are many avenues of approach to it. One road, however, would seem to be impossible—proverbs as literature. That an occasional popular saying would have some touch of literary value, is, of course, to be expected. But a winged word now and then, a lovely image flitting once in a while across the plains, will not justify the topic, “Proverbs as literature.” The individual proverb failing, what hope is there that a collection of them will come nearer the mark? Suppose the very best of our English proverbs were gathered together, there might be much to interest, amuse, or edify our minds, but literature such an assemblage would assuredly not be. The vital element of unity would be lacking. As well string the interjections and conjunctions of our language into verse, and call the result a poem! And yet the incredible has happened. Once a collection of proverbs was so made as to be literature—but where and when must be left for the next chapter to relate.

Excerpt From Studies In Life From Jewish Proverbs By W. A. L. (William Alexander Leslie) Elmslie