The humble proverb is a form of traditional wisdom and practical advice that has been around for centuries. Often described as ‘the wisdom of many’, proverbs are shared solutions to problems that beset most people most of the time which probably explains why cultures thousands of miles and thousands of years apart have developed remarkably similar proverbial wisdom about many of the same matters.
‘The root of all evil’ has not surprisingly, attracted many aphorisms and adages. Many of these counsel caution in financial dealings. The familiar ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’ is complemented by the Italian ‘Better give a penny than lend twenty’. Other money proverbs expound the wisdom that ‘Money is not everything’.
In fact, money is far from everything in many traditional philosophies, including the Persian, where it is said that ‘The larger a man’s roof the more snow it collects’. An old Greek proverb goes ‘A miser is ever in want’. The Japanese have a saying that indicates the virtues of poverty – ‘The poor sleep soundly’.
The need for caution and shrewdness in everyday life is the subject of much proverbial wisdom around the world. ‘Look before you leap’ is a venerable old saying known to many. Yet the same warning is echoed in the Nigerian saying ‘When the mouse laughs at the cat there is a hole nearby’. Many other societies have similar advice. ‘Do not rejoice at one who goes before you see the one who comes’, say the Japanese, while the Russians point out that ‘If you put your nose into the water you will also wet your cheeks’ (Russian).
‘Too many cooks spoil the broth’, goes the well-worn advice of the English proverb. The difficulty of getting agreement with more than one person and the likely consequences of this are also treated in the Turkish proverb ‘Two captains will sink the ship’. In Japan, the saying is even more concise – ‘Ten men, ten minds’.
Perhaps the largest number of international proverbs deal with the universal desire for contentment. The Spanish say ‘If you have a good harvest do not begrudge a few thistles’. The Chinese saying ‘A bird can perch on only one branch, a mouse can drink only its fill from the river’ has equivalents in many languages. In English there is the familiar ‘A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush’ and the lesser-known ‘a feather in the hand is better than a bird in the air’. The Greeks say ‘Nothing will content him who is not content with a little’.
The meaning of these proverbs of contentment is that it is better to have less of something that is certain than to have only the promise of something more. This is a powerful reminder that we should be satisfied with what we have now.
That ‘thief of time’, procrastination, is also a popular subject for proverbial pronouncement in many countries. ‘Don’t put off until tomorrow what you can do today’ is the message of the Yiddish ‘Tomorrow your horse may be lame’, of the Arabic ‘Today it may be fire, tomorrow it may be ashes’ and of the dryly perceptive French saying, ‘Life is made up of tomorrows’.
The ‘better part of valour’, discretion, is not exclusive to English-language proverbs like ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’. Indians say ‘Be first at the feast and last at the fight’ while the Japanese wisely advise us ‘not to rejoice at one who goes before you see the one who comes’. The Greeks have many proverbs on discretion and caution, including ‘Add not fire to fire’ and ‘A word out of season may mar a whole lifetime.’
Most universal and profound of all emotions – and so the source of innumerable problems – is love. ‘Never love with all your heart, it will only end by breaking’ runs one true saying. The course of love never runs smooth in anyone’s language, but there are proverbs in many to ease the pain a little. ‘Try to reason about love and you will lose your reason’, say the French. In Spain ‘love is like war – begin when you like and finish when you can’.
Other cultures have even more down-to-earth advice for the lovelorn. In Sweden they suggest you ‘Choose your bedfellow while it is daylight’ , while ‘Love is sweet but tastes best with bread’, according to the Yiddish proverb. Given their reputation for ‘amour’, we should let the French have the last word on this subject: Love’s pleasure lasts a moment, love’s pain lasts a lifetime.’
There are not too many aspects of human life and frailty that have not been treated in proverbs somewhere, sometime. There is much to be gained from the traditional wisdom of different lands. ‘Anger without power is folly’, say the Germans. ‘Never cut what can be untied’ warn the Portuguese. ‘An indispensable thing never has much value’, according to Russian tradition. ‘Vows made in storms are forgotten in calms’ say the French of good intentions.
Are they simply a form of folk consolation for the inequities of all political and social systems and the impact of bad luck? Probably. But the message of proverbs is an affirming one for those without the power to change things:
· the secrets of a happy life are simple
· keep business and personal affairs in proportion
· be moderate in fulfilling needs and desires
· treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself
· Above all, be content with what you have if that is enough for your essential needs.
As the great American philosopher and purveyor of the proverb, Benjamin Franklin (1706-90), put it: ‘If you desire many things, many things will seem but a few’.