On this date in 1932, the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1870-1970) published an essay entitled, “On Proverbs.” For Russell the key characteristic of these proclamations of practical, timeless wisdom is that “they are remarkable for their terseness.” Proverbs are models of economical writing, short, pithy, and usually anonymous. As an example, Russell presents “More haste, less speed,” saying that it “could not possibly be said in fewer words.”
While he is impressed with the terseness of proverbs, Russell sees a problem in using them to support an argument:
The great advantage of a proverb in argument is that it is supposed to be incontrovertible, as embodying the quintessential sagacity of our ancestors. But when once you have realized that proverbs go in pairs which say opposite things you can never again be downed by a proverb; you merely quote the opposite.
So, for example, when one person proclaims “Actions speak louder than words,” the other person can turn to the counter-proverb “The pen is mightier than the sword” (1).
One other notable aspect of proverbs is stated in a definition by philosopher and poet Moses Ebn Ezra: “[Proverbs have] “three characteristics: few words, good sense, and a fine image.” Study the proverbs below, and notice how often they use imagery, usually figurative, to wrap up showing and telling into one tiny, concise package:
The squeaky wheel gets the grease.
No man is an island.
Birds of a feather flock together.
There’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Never look a gift horse in the mouth.
The early bird catches the worm.
A watched pot never boils
Too many cooks spoil the broth.
Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.
A penny saved is a penny earned.
Necessity is the mother of invention.
Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.
A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.
The grass is always greener on the other side of the hill.
Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.
You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.
Today’s Challenge: A Proverbial Autobiographical Anecdote
What proverb comes to your mind when you think of wisdom you have gained based on your life experiences so far? Write an anecdote about an incident from your life that illustrates the truth of a single proverb. Just as Aesop told short fables followed by terse statements of general truths, follow your anecdote with the proverb that the anecdote illustrates. Once you have finished, read your anecdote to a friend to see if he/she can guess the proverb before you reveal it.
Quotation of the Day: Proverbs are short sentences drawn from long experience. -Miguel de Cervantes