12-4 literature

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

12.4 (Fall 2012)


literary analysis


courtesy of artrenewal.org


 Proverbs in Greco-Roman Antiquity: One Key to Unlocking Cultural Evolution

 John R. Harris

I.  Introduction: Criteria for Distinguishing an Ancient Proverb

The student of ancient literature or of primeval traditions cannot remind himself too often of this essential paradox: we possess not a single example of a directly transmitted “oral text”, and we never will unless the tradition in question happens to have overlapped the arrival of electronic technology.  Parry and Lord could analyze recordings of Slavic bards made well over half a century ago.1  A very short space beyond that horizon… and we enter the dubious realm of memorized texts either recited for a scribe or recorded by a bard who had himself somehow acquired literacy.  Both of these situations are treacherous; for a scribe’s labors require that the narrator slow down in his telling—which simple change of pace may radically alter a tale’s contents (as very likely happened with the Homeric epics); while a bard become a writer in later life can no longer be said to conceive his or her matter in a purely oral fashion.  We really don’t know what sorts of change this speaking-scribbling hybrid might introduce into the tradition.2  Beyond a certain level, we probably cannot know: the changes probably depend much on individual genius.

At first flush, proverbs might seem to be excused from these difficulties.  Not only are they short, by definition; they also have catchy phrasing or lively imagery (also by definition, or nearly so) which would render them very hard to misremember.  In contemporary American society, most people who have not been abandoned utterly upon that cultural wasteland, the Internet, since early childhood have heard the old saw, “A stitch in time saves nine.”  Though few of us do any stitching nowadays, the tidy little rhyme remains almost impossible to maul.  Its verbal form has survived the demise of the practice to which its image refers.

The rules of the game become much more complex, however, when we turn our attention to traditions that died out hundreds or thousands of years ago.  We indeed find a few curious antiquarians in the Greek world who decided to dedicate a little treatise to paroimiai.  Leutsch and Schneidewin gathered together most of these works more than a century and a half ago.3  Yet the paroimia turns out not to be synonymous with a quaint old saying in these texts.  The longest of the inventories, the Epitome of Xenobius, quickly reveals the problem.  Here we find an alphabetical treasury of phrases like “the eyes of Atreus” and “another Herakles, this one”—but very seldom a complete clause that projects a coherent value judgment.4  Though the word paroimia is accepted as translating our “proverb”, it was commonly extended to apply to allegories like the parables of the Gospels—and also commonly constricted, as here, to refer to odd phrases grown out of popular culture.  Our English word, for that matter, partakes of this lubricity.  “Sticky wicket” could be styled a proverb since it harkens to the British game of cricket; “toe the line” has achieved such obscurity that most of us imagine a barge being pulled from shore (supposing the proper spelling to be “tow”) rather than ordinary seamen queued up for inspection along a seam in the deck.

As interesting as all of this can be, it does not advance our grasp of pre-literate antiquity.  In fact, the earliest author cited in Leutsch and Schneidewin is Plutarch.  All post-date the birth of Christ: most did their scribbling more than a millennium after the Homeric texts were first recorded.  The proverb therefore remains elusive if we look for direct references to it in classical texts—or if our definition of it is such as would accommodate this passage from Walter Ong’s pioneering commentary on the oral mind:

The law itself in oral cultures is enshrined in formulaic sayings, proverbs, which are not mere jurisprudential decorations, but themselves constitute the law.  A judge in an oral culture is often called on to articulate sets of relevant proverbs out of which he can produce equitable decisions in the cases under formal litigation before him.5

Colorful language is not primarily at issue here: profound ideas (expressed colorfully, to be sure) that capture a culture’s vital spark are the rare plant we seek.  What did ancient Greeks and Romans prize most highly before they learned how to write?  Tales of Herakles and the other heroes, yes… but not because they created a stock of lively referents.  We are probing for the heart and soul of a culture that actually believed in such myths, rigidly and devoutly.  Ruth Finnegan writes that tribes in West Africa were accustomed even to communicate proverbs through drum language: clever turns of phrase were very likelynot the content here!6  In the oral-traditional universe, the wisdom of the past anchors reality, and repeating this wisdom makes daily experience vibrate with truth.

Naturally, such sayings as we seek float to the surface occasionally in later written texts, and sometimes the ancient commentator will oblige us by announcing before he displays one, “As the old proverb says…”.  We may recover a few gems from Plato, Cicero, and other essayists in precisely this manner.  Yet the pickings are otherwise incidental and seldom easily identified.  One complicating factor is simply that proverbial expressions tend to leach into ancient prose and poetry (but especially prose: Greco-Roman poetry’s rigid metrical requirements impede the artistic re-packaging of commonplace utterances) without being tagged as proverbial.  After all, they’re ancestral wisdom.  They belong to everybody, and everyone has heard them before.  A given author may merely hint at them and be confident that his audience will instantly recall the whole insight or sentiment.  This is especially so before the day of such highly literate commentators as Cicero, whose distance from the “wisdom tradition” has turned the timeless aphorism into an historical artifact.  Only those so culturally advanced as to be no longer using arrows would pick up a hard, prickly object and cry, “Look—an arrowhead!”

Coupled to this interpretive difficulty is a unique obstacle in the ancient Greek world: the universal veneration of epic verse, with very particular emphasis upon Homer.  In a way, the whole of the Iliad and the Odyssey is something like one great mass of proverbs.  If a self-contained, independently evolved proverb could not readily have been set to a hexameter, as was affirmed just above, then all that was hexametric, on the other hand, would have acquired a reverend aura fully fit for the proverbial as long as one verse succinctly accommodated the whole idea.  Plato begins his Protagoras (309a) by having Socrates inquire of his companion, “Are you not of Homer’s opinion, who says, ‘Youth’s most graceful season is when the chin’s down first blooms’?”  This slight misquoting of Iliad 24.348 has nothing especially insightful or morally deep about it, yet Socrates could be confident that his listeners would concede the poet’s high authority, and indeed that most would have the actual passage by memory.  Similarly, Socrates illustrates to Lysis in another dialogue the assertion that like-minded people make the bitterest enemies by citing (and again, slightly misquoting) a couple of Hesiod’s lines from Works and Days (25-26): “The potter hates the potter, bard hates bard, and beggar hates beggar” (Lysis 215c).  Though Hesiod’s words are pulled out of context to build Socrates’ case, the rough handling only underscores their elevation to something resembling the proverbial; for proverbs may be invoked in just this free-and-easy fashion, their application stretching to every walk of life, their context being whatever the speaker wishes it to be.

With such a vast stock of material available not only to ballast moral arguments, but even to flesh out whimsical descriptions, the ancient Greeks probably had less need of golden wisdom in discrete nuggets than most other traditional cultures.  One of the best places to find those bright, self-contained gems would surely have been the sayings ascribed to pre-Socratic sages, whose brilliance was more a matter of legend than of text.  Although it appears that many such figures were not only literate but left behind them several compositions, almost all of their texts have long perished.  (A few fragments of Solon remain.)  These “treatises” were actually composed (insofar as we know anything about them at all) in hexametric verse, just as the Homeric epics: an important clue that, though recorded, they were intended for memorization.  This in turn suggests that they were more a natural outgrowth of oral tradition than the spearhead of a literate attack against tribal conventions; and if that is so, then we would expect their content, as well, to extol the tribal virtues of Homer’s world more than the mysteriously inward and self-sufficient virtue of a Socrates. 

Sure enough, the wise sayings that much later authors like Diogenes Laertius ascribe to the ancient sages sound very traditional in their moral assumptions.  One is justified in wondering how many of these sages ever existed within the parameters Diogenes gives them, and how many (in contrast) crystallized from legend to provide an origin for popularly generated aphorisms.  Worth recalling in this context are the Han Shan poems attributed to a Chinese monk of the same name—a name which means “Cold Mountain” and which probably developed directly from these hundreds of very generic works about ascending the severe slope of asceticism.  How much of Solon’s life (he whose name is so suggestive of the supreme Hebrew wise man, Solomon) was “for real”?  Did he truly author the Twelve Tables of Athens?  Did he then go on a long visit to the fabulously wealthy Lydian king Croesus?  Did Thales really take a hard tumble while contemplating the stars?  Such details seem a little too good, from a narrative point of view, to be true.

At any rate, I find that the sayings artlessly attributed by Diogenes to these early sages (he will often introduce them with a blunt, “These were some of his sayings”), offer some important clues about how to identify a proverb.  With his often problematic example before us, I propose the following list of criteria for determining a true proverb:

1)       The utterance must be short.  Not only does brevity make the proverb easier to remember (and no proverb is any good if it challenges memory); it also confers upon the insight or judgment a “nail in the coffin” kind of precision and authority—for wisdom directly descended from Olympus must not mince words or quibble over fine distinctions.  Like the sunrise and the seasons, it simply is.  Of course, brevity also offers an opportunity for the sort of irony attributed by the Greeks to the Spartans in the word “laconic”.  Eternal truth may quite likely bump against the hubristic assumptions of mortals: it may impart a bit of a shock and leave one scratching one’s head.

2)       The utterance must not employ rare or strained imagery—any turn of phrase must look rather homespun.  Again, there are both practical and moral reasons for this stricture.  A tortured metaphor (called catachresis by ancient rhetoricians) might prove difficult to remember, and it would also run the risk of seeming too alienated from the life-world of the ordinary person to encapsulate a universal truth.  We say, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” not, “The glacier cuts a valley before the valley becomes a canyon.”  A touch of specialized knowledge (in this example, about geographical evolution) or of rare creativity is all it takes to kill a proverb in its tracks.

3)       Proverbs that root in a truly, fully traditional and tribal setting uphold certain moral principles appropriate to that setting.  They recommend communal solidarity over individuality.  They view with extreme suspicion any disrespect for or tampering with the past.  They project a grandly cyclical vision of existence, and warn with certainty that those who seek to resist natural order or destiny (if this mentality sees any difference between the two) will come to a tragic end.  A proverb of ancient provenance would never assert, “He who wears no shoes but his father’s will eventually suffer from cramped feet.”  Though this observation (of my own concoction) satisfies the first two criteria above, its implicit confidence in progress isn’t remotely close to the psychology of oral culture.  We shall see later, however, that proverbs can evolve into a rather different ethos once the clannish tribal world begins to fragment into competing social classes.

4)       Finally, we may say at this point that proverbs are often connected to folktales.  For example, one of the utterances which I shall shortly propose as a proverb is attributed by Diogenes Laertius to the enigmatic Scythian Anacharsis.  The form of this proverb might well have been as short as two words: tettares daktuloi—“four fingers”.  The story goes that Anacharsis was conversing with someone about the fragility of life for those who take to the sea.  Four fingers, says this philosopher—that is, the thickness of a typical hull—are all that separates the crew from death.  Where the tale was current, a Greek mother could no doubt simply have murmured in warning, “Four fingers,” as her son departed upon some enterprise—not necessarily maritime in nature—that she regarded as foolhardy.  A Greek stonecutter might silently have held up four fingers to a comrade before they were ordered to heave a large chunk of marble upon a rope that appeared too thin.  In the same way, we might rebuke a child’s prank by saying, “Don’t cry wolf,” secure in our certainty that the youngster would have heard all about The Boy Who Cried Wolf.  Proverbs may grow directly out of such tales, or a tale may evolve retrospectively around a proverb in order to clarify it, humorize it, or otherwise enrich it. 

Ironically, while Roman literature is altogether less abundant in sayings than its Greek models, it tends to produce clearer examples of proverbs.  I have already explained why: Roman literacy was more self-conscious, and hence Roman authors were more apt to identify overtly any wisdom imported from the oral tradition.  Greek literacy was a slow-growing plant that fulfilled each stage of its development without pressure: the old was integrated into the new more or less seamlessly.  (Walter Ong referred to this smoothing over as “homeostasis” in the context of strictly oral tales: e.g., a new military technology—a chariot or a catapult, perhaps—merges without apparent disturbance into the world of spears and shields.)7 The Romans could be said to have evolved literarily beyond the Greeks in very few respects; yet even in their crudest compositions, they were usually aware that the Greeks had preceded them and that writing words down was therefore an artifice—something not entirely natural.  The playwright Terence indeed spends most of his prologue to The Eunuch defending himself against the charge that he has simply set into Latin a work by Menander.  Even the earliest Roman author whom we know by name—Livius Andronicus—chose to translate Homer’s Odyssey in his grand attempt to create a Latin epic with a native Italian verse form.

The speaking/writing interface was more perceptible in Rome: authors were more aware of crossing it.  A few, as well, were genuinely more imbued with a literate sense of “interiority”, abstraction, and universality in ethical matters and of objectivity in science and history than their Greek counterparts.  Cicero’s philosophical tracts are more profound than Plato’s, Livy is at least no less impartial than Thucidydes, and Pliny the Elder often finds Aristotle too credulous on the subject of natural history (and sometimes proves him to be so).  Furthermore, Roman literacy of the late Republic was more concentrated and less widespread than Fourth Century Greek literacy.  In comparing these two Golden Ages, we see that fewer Romans could read and write at a meaningful level—but that those who could do so were very well educated and confronted rather little dialectical confusion in their language’s great works.  Cicero and Vergil were more aware of themselves as literati than were Demosthenes and Sophocles.

All of this is simply to say that when a proverb does intrude into a Roman text, it is more likely to be labeled a proverb.  Composing Romans were more alert to doing something distinctly different from the story-telling of their esteemed rustic brethren, who still repeated quaint old mumbo-jumbo when planting crops or preparing for a trip.  Though one is often left to guess that certain utterances in the “street Latin” of Plautus and Terence are proverbial, proverbs are likely to be explicitly identified in later, more sophisticated settings.

In concluding this introduction, allow me to stress my awareness that an element of subjectivity has nevertheless entered into my creating the list below.  The third criterion above is especially argumentative: for how can one claim to demonstrate that proverbs uphold an oral-traditional outlook upon the world when one automatically disqualifies any expression not upholding this outlook from being a proverb?  I am not really trying to demonstrate the connection, however: I am assuming it—and I believe the assumption to be based in common sense.  Proverbs are not exactly the same thing as maxims.  In eighteenth-century Europe, highly literate savants were fond of composing the latter (and perhaps in America, too—though Benjamin Franklin seems to have drawn the delightful sayings in Poor Richard’s Almanack mostly from genuine proverbs).  La Rochefoucauld’s acidly misanthropic witticisms would never fall from the mouth of a farmer or cobbler; and Vauvenargues, as much as he detested the cynicism of Maximes, had the greatest difficulty in trying to rival that little book’s success, since he could scarcely confine his own jewels to less than a paragraph!

Let me be so eighteenth-century, then, as to suggest that common sense (“the best-distributed thing in the world,” Descartes assures us) can indeed arbitrate these matters.  Let us consider a few examples from Plutarch by way of illustration, who relates in About the Education of Children 5f a quasi-historical anecdote about the city Megara’s capture by Demetrius.  The successful invader arrogantly asks of the resident philosopher Stilbo (no doubt smirking with every word) if he has lost anything of value during these events—to which Stilbo nobly replies, “No, for war cannot destroy virtue.”  Here again we seem to have the necessary elements of a proverb: connection to a legendary event, an implied warning against hubris, and a short nugget of wisdom readily strained from the little tale (i.e., “War cannot destroy virtue”).  The call is a close one; but in the final analysis, we run into a conceptual snag.  Plutarch’s aretê is not only not any such traditional virtue as bravery in combat or resignation to destiny: it is the self-contained concentration upon individual will power quite distinctive to the Stoics and to other post-Socratic thinkers.  Our traditional herdsman or stonemason would never have dismissed the effects of war so casually.  Rather, he would probably have trotted out some such proverb as, “War makes a man,” or, “War reduces men to dust” (both Homeric notions, though contradictory).

Again, when Plutarch writes later in Education, “For the spirit’s debilities and sufferings, philosophy is the only medicine” (7d), he produces a reflection that might almost be proverbial.  Its guiding image is striking yet simple, the utterance is brief, and the insight appears to revere the wisdom of the past.  Yet common sense, aided by close analysis, advises caution.  What does Plutarch mean by “philosophia”?  Should we equate this word with “wisdom”, as in the “wise sayings” of revered ancestors?  The word is in fact only about as old as Socrates; and Socrates, in recompense for scrutinizing past habits and assumptions, was executed.  A line such as this one, therefore, must ultimately fail the test.

Another near miss is Plutarch’s version of, “Silence is golden.”  In Education 10e, he observes, “For well-timed silence is a wise thing and better than any speech” (sophon gar eukairos sigê kai pantos logou kreitton).8  The problem here is simply the construction.  Plutarch’s maxim not only has no vivifying image: it repeats its point in the copious fashion typical of a rhetorical flourish.  To be sure, oral delivery is no stranger to redundancy.  Yet despite the Irish Tá é go maith is nil é go h-olc—“It’s good and it isn’t bad”—ubiquitous in that glorious island’s oral culture, proverbs are usually not the place where such reiteration is on display.  They draw much of their special power precisely from their Pythian succinctness.  If Plutarch had proposed an ancient version of the traditional Sicilian admonition, Chi non parla non erra—“He who doesn’t speak doesn’t err”—he would have been in business, as the saying goes. 

As Plutarch nears the end of this essay, however, he volunteers a sentiment that gives every appearance of being a straightforward proverb: literally, “Drive the one that belongs to you” (tên kata sauton ela, Education 13f).  The feminine gender of the Greek pronoun for “one” calls for a story, and Diogenes Laertius provides it in his comments about the wise tyrant Pittacus.  The feminine referent is a child’s top (bombika): sixteen verses in elegiac couplets ascribed to Pittacus himself relate the tale of several boys at play who impart the very good advice, “play with your own toy” (i.e., “mind your own business”: Diogenes Laertius I.80).  The saying may or may not have originated in an ordinary street scene, and the legendary Pittacus may or may not have been the author of the lines that offer its pedigree.  Clearly the tale’s charming elucidation was not needed in Plutarch’s time, however—a good two centuries before Diogenes’ published embellishment—for he simply writes the four words at the story’s crux and moves on.  They had become common coinage in his culture.  Their image was sharp yet commonplace, it was universally recognized to root in a reverend past, and its notion of not getting above oneself fully accords with traditional morality. If this isn’t a proverb, then no such thing exists.

I can say no more about my common-sense methods of triage: the reader must accept or reject them on the basis of whatever additional standards he or she wishes to import.  Here, then, is a tentative set of proverbs from ancient Greece and Rome.

II.  The Proverbs (Organized by Theme)

a)       resignation to destiny/cycle

No virtue is more important in a fully tribal setting than resignation.  Traditional societies in their early phases clearly have little scientific understanding or technical ability.  Their members are therefore very exposed to sudden and incomprehensible miseries: illness, flood, drought, predator attacks, disappearance of food staples, etc.  Whining and wailing does no good in such circumstances: indeed, it may harm by sapping psychic reservoirs of vital resolve.  Resignation to the inscrutable is hence held in very high regard.  For good measure, one is well advised to expect the worst so as to avoid unpleasant shock.  The old saying, “Much faster comes what you don’t want than what you eagerly seek,” survives into the moderately late antiquity of Plautus’s comedies (nimio celerius/veniet quod noles quam illud quod cupide petas, Mostellaria I.i.72-73).  The same play, just a few lines later, expresses the same sentiment in what Loeb translator Paul Nixon renders as a proverb: “The unhoped-for happens more often than the hoped-for” (insperata accidunt magis saepe quam quae speres, I.iii.40).  Bidding for even greater pessimism, Plutarch claims that a very ancient proverb affirms “never to have been born the best thing of all, and to die is better than to live” (mê genesthai men ariston pantôn, to de tethnanai tou zên esti kreitton, A Letter to Apollonius 115c).  He cites a lost essay of Aristotle’s as his source, and even appends a myth about Midas’s capture of Silenus to account for the saying’s origin.

This bleak proposition is intended, apparently, to detach men from life’s vicissitudes.  The three verses concluding Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos (1528-1530) not only express the same sublime surrender perfectly: they, too, are quite possibly proverbial, or at least contain a proverb:

ste thnêton ont’ ekeinên tên teleutaian idein

hêmeran episkopounta mêden’ olbizein, prin an

terma tou biou perasei mêden algeinon pathôn.


… So that, mere mortal only, nowise ought one to rejoice until

The end of life he reacheth without anguish, if he study well

The lesson that the final hours of this king so grimly tell.

The story of Solon’s refusing to deem King Croesus happy because his life was not yet lived out—and the eventual vindication of the sage’s hesitancy as Croesus is led to his death by invading Persians—was already legendary among the Greeks.  Of course, the tale had been recounted lengthily by Herodotus (Histories 86).  Indeed, so commonplace was the sentiment of these final lines within Sophocles’ world that most scholars bracket the entire passage, considering it an obvious intrusion of popular wisdom into the playwright’s original words.  The proverb itself, distilled to its elementary form, might have run something like a Gaelic saying well known in the Scots Highlands: Feidh ri a dheireadh—“Wait for its end.”9

Yet bracketing lines in Greek choruses as inauthentic because they sound too proverbial is a dubious business.  The choruses and “wise elder” characters of the three great Attic tragedians almost always represent traditional sentiment.  Euripides has a reverend Old Man (Presbutês) remind Agamemnon of his abject vulnerability to fate in Iphigeneia at Aulis.  “For mortal you were born,” the elder admonishes.  “And even though you wish it otherwise, what the gods have decreed thus must be” (thnêtos gar ephus; k’an mê su thelêis, / ta theiôn houtô boulomen’ estai, 32-33).  If these lines do not themselves contain a proverb, their worldview is so traditional that subsequent authors would dangle them as timeless wisdom.  (Plutarch, for instance, so cites them in A Letter to Apollonius, 103c.)  Of the counsel offered by Sophocles’ Teiresias—or, indeed, by almost any chorus in Greek drama—the same might be written.  The hero strains at cosmic limits, and the community or the village elders trail after him shaking their heads and warning of a fall.  Man as we find him most of the time, indeed, is no hero at all, but—in Pindar’s succinct and unforgettable phrase—“the dream of a shadow” (skias onap / anthrôpos, Pythian Odes VIII, 137-138).

Did Hesiod compose line 42 of Works and Days from scratch?  Unlike the Sophoclean formulation above, the idea here carries no irony but asserts with straightforward simplicity that we can’t predict the gods’ will: “For the gods hold life hidden away from men” (krupsantes gar echousi theoi bion anthrôpoisi).  The belief itself is the stuff of many proverbs.  That it fits into a hexameter as Hesiod has stated it may have excused the bareness of its imagery and won it a kind of immortality that such verses often confer upon their contents in the Greek tradition.  (Works and Days 483-484 reiterate the point—i.e., that the mind of Zeus is unknowable to men—at somewhat greater length; and 679 applies it specifically to the unpredictability of weather and the sea.)  The same observations might be made of Iliad 20.242: “Zeus makes valor both to wax and wane in men” (Zeus d’aretên andressin ophellei te minuthei te).  The only surprise here is that we generally translate aretê as “virtue”—and we do not think of virtue in a coming-and-going vein, as if it were accidental or inscrutable.  Like the Latin virtus, however, this word originally meant “manliness” (as in “bravery on the battlefield”), and hence signifies to Homer a kind of martial ecstasy beyond the control of the will.10  In the fashion of Agamemon’s atê, this passion comes we know not whence.  The very surges of emotion in our breast belong to the whimsy of the gods.  Old Nestor makes precisely the same observation about glory (kudos) in Iliad 8.141-143.

Diogenes Laertius attributes to several early sages a somewhat more elegant endorsement of maintaining aloofness from fortune’s slings and arrows.  Bias supposedly remarked, “He is unfortunate who does not withstand misfortune” (atuchês estin ho atuchian mê pherôn, Lives of the Philosophers I.86).  Periander delivered himself of precisely the same sentiment in different terms: “Be moderate in good fortune, philosophical in bad” (eutuchôn men metrios isthi, dustuchôn de phronimos, Lives I.97).  Was either of these utterances a genuine proverb?  Both certainly could have been.  Their wisdom expresses the traditional resignation embodied by the Sophoclean verses above, they are concise, and their terms pose a contrast which has faint irony in Bias’s case and trenchant clarity in Periander’s.

Our friend Pittacus, the philosopher-tyrant, goes so far as to rate destiny’s inscrutable power above that of the Olympian gods themselves: “Even the gods do not war against necessity” (anagkai d’oude theoi machontai, Lives I.77).  In this the sage merely follows—and perhaps alludes to—Homeric narrative, which has Zeus famously weighing the competitor-fates of Hector and Achilles in his divine balance (Iliad 22.208-213).  The notion that destiny reigns supreme, then, thorny as it may seem to us, had long been a mainstay of traditional Greek thinking.  The utterance ascribed to Pittacus states this cultural platitude with the direct simplicity of a proverb.

Yet such resignation to higher authority should not be viewed as always blunt and blind: traditional cultures also have a finely developed sense of cycle.  While their sages do not grasp scientifically why the seasons change and the herds migrate, they are infinitely more sensitive to daily, monthly, and yearly changes than is homo technicus in his urban jungle.  Part of their acceptance of the unforeseen, as a result—probably a very large part—is rooted in an experience-based mysticism holding that the world’s apparent chaos ultimately belongs to a grand cosmic orchestration.  Homeric verse often compares the generations of men to leaves that bud, grow green and full, and then wither and fall (e.g., Iliad 6.146-149 and 21.463-466).  Humans cannot see all the wheels that turn.  They see enough smaller wheels every day, nevertheless, to take on faith the purposiveness of inconceivably vast motions.  We may cite Hesiod’s Works and Days again in this vein: “to everything [choose] the best moment” (kairos d’ epi pasin aristos, 694).  Better yet, an unknown poet’s oft-cited verse (and what more is a proverb, really?) runs, “As the wheel turns about, now one side of the rim rises, now another” (trochou peristeichontos, alloth’ hêtera hapsis huperthe gignet’ alloth’ hêtera).11  Is destiny uncontrollable in this view?  Yes, most definitely.  Unpredictable?  Not to the wise, who perceive a sublime balance in the making.

Hence we have yet more of Diogenes’ sages alerting us to a kind of circularity at work in events beyond our understanding.  Anaxagoras for instance, was once asked if the hills at Lampsacus would ever be immersed in the sea: he answered, “If time doesn’t stop” (ean ge ho chronos mê epilipêi, Lives II.11).  One can imagine this succinctly phrased condition, with or without its attendant vignette, being proverbially tossed at any number of slowly evolving situations: “will we ever have a new ruler?”… “will it ever rain again?”… and so forth.  Cosmic loops sooner or later close themselves.  Also attributed to Anaxagoras is an expression of the same sentiment indexed specifically to human life: “The descent into Hell is the same from every point” (pantachothen homoia estin hê eis haidou katabasis, Lives II.12).  The central idea, of course, is that death finds us all: the cycle of human life is and must be closed by a return of individual lives to the earth’s humble dust.

Descending further into the affairs of men, the sages tell us, for instance, that “Zeus is tearing down haughty projects and lifting up lowly ones” (ho Zeus ta men hupsêla tapeinôn, ta de tapeina hupsôn esti, Lives I.69)—a quasi-biblical pronouncement placed by Diogenes in his section on Chilon, but there said to fall from Aesop’s lips as the philosopher questions him.  This “last shall be the first” inversion of mortal expectations is indeed very typical of the traditional outlook.   

A little less apocalyptic is the category of assertion that like goes to like, eventually and inevitably: our “birds of a feather flock together” rhyme.  Plato’s Socrates cites (although in a playful irony characteristic of his dealings with tradition) an old paroimia, “To the feasts of good men go good men unbidden” (Agathôn epi daitas iasin automatoi agathoi, Symposium 173d: see n. 14).  This apparently means, as I say, that good people seek out and at last find good people.  The Roman littérateur Seneca states the same insight from the opposing direction: “Should you then marvel that ‘apples don’t grow on bramble bushes’?  What’s to wonder over that thorn bushes and briars are not filled with fruit?”  (Quin enim, si mirari velis ‘non in silvestribus dumis poma pendere’?  Quid, si miretur spineta sentesque non utili aliqua fruge compleri? De Ira II.10.6).  Seneca’s following the succinct quoted statement (the ancients themselves didn’t use quotation marks, but modern editors universally recognize an external allusion) with a more florid one by way of elaboration strongly implies that the former is a proverb.  It would remain so in Italy for a millennium: cf. Dante’s Tra li lazzi sorbi / Si disconvien fruttar lo dolce fico” (Inferno XV.65-66.)

Then we have, courtesy of the Roman playwright Terence, a series of rather short, bland proverbs suggesting that invisible forces settle scores with immoral people and their practices.  We read that “one woe [grows] out of another” (aliud ex alio malum, Eunuchus V.iv.17), that “an evil mind [means] an evil spirit” (mala mens, malus animus, Andria I.i.137), and that “one lie begets another” (fallacia alia aliam trudit, Andria IV.iv.39-40).  The wheels that turn man’s moral universe are thus quite comprehensible compared to those that drive the physical cosmos.  They turn.  You reap what you have sown: good at last to good, bad inexorably to bad.

The final word on the subject of cycle should go to Terence’s saying about sayings: “Nothing is ever said just now which hasn’t been said before” (nullumst iam dictum quod non dictum sit prius, Eunuchus [Prologue] 41).  Was this delightful verse already a proverb as Terence wrote it?  Perhaps not in its precise form—but the sentiment most certainly animates traditional culture.  “What has been is what will be,” opines Ecclesiastes: “there is nothing new under the sun.”  This applies as much to words of wisdom as to anything else—probably more than to anything else; for our ancestors were closer to the gods, we are more degenerate, and our reflections upon the nature of reality can therefore grow only duller and fewer.  The very concept of the proverb in the traditional world is that of an uttered truth which has always already been uttered (pace Derrida—whose deconstructionist tactics actually work quite well within tribal systems).  In the beginning was the word… and all subsequent history has been mere repetition.

b)       praise of “staying low” and “keeping to the middle”

The preceding section’s aphorisms teach the traditional notion that reality moves in unalterable cycles—some visible to our mortal eye, many not—and that we had therefore better resign ourselves to the turning of fate’s great wheel.  Implied in this attitude is a sense that any kind of aberration from the norm is doomed to be cut down, as a tree that stands taller than any other in a forest is hardest hit by strong winds and hail.  Best to keep one’s head down and blend: do not excel in any way—be neither very good nor very bad (cf. Ecclesiastes 7.16-17).  The bravest warrior is the target of the most barbs in a battle, and the hardest worker who acquires the most wealth soonest tempts the leveling vengeance of the gods (a tribal view of the Job story which the recorded version has apparently transformed from a cautionary tale to a praise of enduring faith).

This mindset is rather repugnant to our literate conception of moral duty.  We feel that the highest degree of goodness must always be striven after, and that any persecution drawn by virtue’s successes is to be accounted a blessing (as in the final Beatitude).  An environment that so celebrates the triumphs of the individual will is not one that treasures timeless sayings passed along through the changeless cycles of generations.  Hence we receive with some aversion the proverbial lesson emphasizing a “be ready for anything, expect nothing” mentality.  The witty warning ascribed to Anacharsis about the risks of sea travel—already mentioned—is a good example: “Four fingers: thus much holds those who sail from death” (tettares daktuloi: tosouton tou thanatou tous pleontas apechein, Diogenes Laertius I.103).  As for a ship’s hull, so for hope generally: its fabric is fragile, and one had better know how to swim.  “Hope is not a good diet for the needy man,” warns Hesiod in Works and Days (elpis d’ ouk agathê kechrêmenon andra komizei, 500).

Many proverbs and legends, thankfully, are not quite so bleak about the prospects for diligent striving, or merely enduring.  The Roman playwright Terence is fairly typical of literate authors who cite proverbs: he no longer accepts them at face value.  The eponymous sufferer in his Heauton Timorumenos laments, ”What I hear the common people say is false: ‘A new day cures an illness’” (illud falsumst quod volgo audio / dici, ‘diem adimere aegritudinem hominibus’, III.i.12-13).   The “common people”, though, are our focal point; and the impugned proverb reflects their faith in the value of simply “hanging on”.  In southern Ireland, Gaelic-speaking farmers once used to recommend waiting for the next dawn in about the same terms: Nuair a thiocfaidh lá, tiocfaidh comhairle—“When day comes, ideas will come, too.”12

Cicero cites two examples that represent the humble life as a moral victory achieved through patient discipline rather than as a sluggardly surrender.  In Tusculan Disputations 4. 16. 36, he tells us that the following phrase has actually passed into proverb (ut iam proverbii locum optineret): “When a man is frugal, he does all things righteously” (hominem frugi omnia recte facere).  Though the pre-literate tribesman would surely have taken a different “wide-angle” view of this saying, Cicero merely means to stress that measuring out one’s consumption of resources requires intelligence and self-control—both essential to the good life.  He is making the same point when, in The Ends of Right and Wrong, he evokes the old saw commonly attributed to Socrates in the ancient world: “Hunger is the spice of food, thirst of drink” (cibi condimentum esse famem, potionis sitim, De Finibus 2. 28. 6-7).  So widespread is this proverb that we can scarcely doubt its having preceded Socrates to root, instead, very deeply in oral tradition.  MacAlpine’s mid-nineteenth-century Gaelic dictionary gives the Highland version as, Is math an cocaire an t-acras—“Hunger is a good cook.”13

Closely akin to the notion of frugality is that of what we might call prudent anticipation: i.e., providing for the lean times that must sooner or later come.  No doubt, one must preserve a certain happy-go-lucky attitude in a simple culture so as not to be morally crushed by all the disastrous possibilities of life on the edge; yet even the crudest of farmers can figure out how to recoil a step or two from the brink.  The section of Hesiod’s Works and Days where he instructs Perses in the various arts of farming (383 ff.—roughly halfway through) is predicated upon such sentiments.  At one point, he appears actually to cite a proverb: “Summer lasts not forever: build your barns now” (ouk aiei theros esseitai, poieisthe kalias, 503).  Solmsen goes so far as to quote the verse in the Oxford edition, for it gives every appearance of being “public domain”. 

Of course, the admonition not to forget tomorrow’s coming rains just because today shows bright and sunny also fits well into Section A’s surrender to natural cycle.  I have located the insight here because its emphasis falls actively on buckling down rather than on surrendering.  In surrender lies a kind of peace: in this suspicion of ease and prosperity crouches a fear of hubris.  “Good things are hard,” observes a proverb cited by Plutarch (kata tên paroimian [“according to the proverb”]… chalepa ta kala, On the Education of Children 6c).

In fact, no real inconsistency exists between accepting the incomprehensible and avoiding calamity that might have been figured out.  Plato’s Socrates at one point exhorts his auditors to think clearly “and not, as the proverb has it, ‘to learn [by] suffering like a fool’” (kai mê kata tên paroimian hôsper nêthion pathonta gnônai’, Symposium 222b).  A traditional society might well intend a maxim on the order of, “A fool learns by suffering,” to chastise excessive quietism.  Knowing how to make shift and how to read nature’s clues is at least as important a part of survival as bearing up under adversity.  If the tribal mind does not pry into areas of taboo, it takes pride in feathering its ecological nest with patient artifice.

Likewise, a saying which Plutarch attributes to the venerable Democritus (but which has all the flair of an old saw) handles cycle as discernible routine dangerous only to the rash ego.  “In the cuttlefish’s head is both good and bad,” runs the saying (poulupodos kephalêi eni men kakon en de kai esthlon, How the Young Ought to Study Poetry, 15b).  The insight here is not that we should be prepared for events to turn inscrutably fair or foul on us like the weather, but that we should learn to distinguish nourishment from poison.  In a broad sense (and proverbs are always intended broadly), we should not charge thoughtlessly into complex situations.  Anacharsis, who never seems to have tired of talking about loose talk, poses a similar dichotomy about the tongue in this riddle: “What is both good and bad in men?  The tongue” (ti estin en anthropois agathon te kai phaulon: glôssa, Diogenes Laertius, Lives I.105: another version of the same saying is attributed by Plutarch to Bias [On Listening 38b]).  The idea here, as with the cuttlefish, is not to abstain utterly from a risky behavior, but to exercise common sense by charting a modest middle course. To this poser might be added the Scythian’s dry admonition, “Govern the tongue, the belly, and the genitals” (glôssês, gastrou, aidoiôn kratein, Lives I.104).  The wisdom of “nothing in excess” (mêden agan) had indeed become so deeply embedded in the pre-literate Greek mentality that the proverb itself was inscribed on Apollo’s temple at Delphi.  “Do not add fire to fire [mê pur epi puri],” warns a very common proverb (cited in Plutarch’s Advice About Health, Plato’s Laws, and elsewhere) in praise of moderation.  The idea was naturally absorbed by Rome’s tribal roots, as well: cf. Terence, Heauton Timorumenos III.i.74: “for all of us are the worse for [indulging in] license” (nam deteriores omnes sumu’ licentia).

Since we have broached the subject of loose talk, it seems to me that the whole wide range of proverbs about the wisdom of keeping quiet also belongs under this rubric.  Every tradition has some version of the “silence is golden” paradigm mentioned in the Introduction.  The sagacious Chilon is rich in this vein:  “Govern your tongue, especially when drink flows,” and, “Let the tongue not outrun the brain”  (glôttês krâtei, kai malista en sumposiôn, and, hê glôttê mê protrechê tou nou, Diogenes Laertius, Lives I.69).  Section D below will emphasize the quality of fair play in many traditional sayings which is reinforced by a very real fear of neighborly payback if one should step out of line.  That value applies here.  Certainly this further meditation of Chilon’s upon unruly speech warns that verbal blows will draw counterblows: “Do not speak ill of your neighbors.  Otherwise, you will hear things that will grieve you” (Mê kakologei tous plêsion.  Ei de mê, akouesai eph’ hois lupêsesai, Diogenes Laertius, Lives I.69; and cf. Hesiod, Works and Days 721 [cited in next section]).  Leutsch and Schneidewin offer precisely the same idea, if in different words, as a proverb: “Having said what you like, listen to what you don’t like” (eipôn ho theleis, antakoue ho mê theleis, p. 401).  Plutarch alludes to this version in How to Profit from One’s Enemies (89b).  Likewise, Plutarch introduces with “they say” a proverbial witticism well known in our time: “Nature has given to everyone two ears and one tongue that he may listen more than talk” (On Listening, 39b). 

All in all, the predominant idea in such apothegms is surely that of not getting above oneself—of keeping the proverbial low profile, of holding to the road’s middle.  None of the utterances just cited places in question the truth or falsity, charity or brutality, of any particular speech’s contents: the moral quality of the words seems irrelevant.  The main point, rather (as it must have been with Anacharsis), is just to stay mum when no words are needed.  Why utter even the most irreproachable truth if not required to speak?  Keep to your place unless and until the balance around you shifts.  For that matter, instability tends to resolve itself without personal intrusions.  Cosmic law has decreed that respite inevitably succeeds turbulence.  A Thessalian was famously asked once upon a time which of his people were most peaceful.  “Those who have just finished a war,” he responded (hoi pauomenoi polemein, cited in Plutarch, On the Education of Children 2f).

Finally, a slightly puzzling reference in Cicero hints that the ancient Italians also recognized the need to stay humble and learn a lesson wherever it might be offered.  Overtly attributing his expression to popular parlance, Cicero writes, “For anyone would be unfit to teach Minerva, though—as they say—not so was the pig” (nam etsi non sus Minervam (ut aiunt) tamen inepte quisquis Minervam docet, Academica 5.18).   Varro ornately retreats to this proverb by way of apologizing to Marcus and Atticus for reviewing Platonic doctrine that they must already know well.   The proverb embedded in this flourish must have inspired only its first few words in Latin (the last few in my translation), and would therefore have resembled the following: “Even Minerva can learn something, and even from a pig.”  Perhaps the allusion is to the Calydonian Boar, whose bristling hide was said to have ended up in one of Athena’s (= Minerva’s) temples.  At any rate, the original saying has been obscured by the playful eloquence of literacy rather like Homer’s verses in the hands of Socrates.14  Cicero’s Varro glances at the proverb only to squint at its advice—which is, precisely, to remain humble before a largely inscrutable cosmos.  Varro himself, an extraordinarily erudite citizen of the literate world, doesn’t seem to be a true believer.

c)        loyalty to the tribe (including rigid adherence to its customs)

Tribal societies view their members as one great extended family.  (The Gaelic word clann, for instance, literally means “children”, and Celtic laws governing property rights and political obligations emanated from that assumption.)  The events chronicled in the Old Testament make it abundantly clear that Hebrew society did not interpret the Mosaic injunction against murder as protecting obnoxious gentiles.  In the traditional universe, then, “humanity” consists of those who speak one’s language, wear one’s paint and feathers, and worship one’s gods… and then one has various “barbarians” to contend with, who may be stratified as more or less undesirable or who may all enjoy the same level of beastliness.  Even Homer’s Greeks are referred to inadequately as Achaians, in deference to the pocket-realm of their commander-in-chief.  The words “Hellas” and “Hellenes” emerge only as a result of the Persian invasion, two and a half centuries later.

Hesiod is always a good first reference in this discussion (perhaps better than Homer, whose genius for intricate tale-telling may indict a higher degree of literate intrusion).  One could scarcely state the value of tribal bonds more bluntly than, “Ask your friend to supper: avoid your enemy” (“ton phileont’ epi daita kalein, ton d’echthron easai, Works and Days 342).  Just as unapologetically ethnocentric is the verse, “Better to be at home—away from home is trouble” (oikoi belteron einai, epei blaberon to thurêphin, 365).  Hesiod will warn his brother Perses against travel by sea later on in his mini-epic (663 ff.).  Like all traditional Greeks (and like the estimable barbarian Anacharsis), he sees no good that can come of leaving one’s native soil to sail after wealth and adventure.

Breaking traditional wisdom into various ethical rubrics is an artificial undertaking that invites frequent overlap.  The subject of neighborly relations—how one should treat other members of the clan, how to identify a member, which members to avoid, etc.—naturally emerges in the next section, which discusses the tribal notion of fairness.  Of the very many sayings about neighbors, then, most might do double duty between these two sections.  We may cite just a little ancestral wisdom here about “neighborliness” to demarcate the parameters.  The playwright Plautus (not only one of our earliest Roman authors, but also the most deeply imbued with the language of the streets), acknowledges citing a proverb when, in Mercator, he writes, “Something bad’s bound to happen when you have a bad neighbor”  (aliquid mali esse propter vicinum malum—a line preceded by, “Now I see that that old saying is true”: Nunc ego verum illud verbum esse experior vetus [IV.iv.69-70]).  Hesiod passed the same judgment in Works and Days 346 (cited in next section): your neighbors immediately and profoundly affect your life.  Both maxims imply that a certain reserve may be salutary—that life in a tribal culture, where families are thrown so very close together, requires discreet buffers (cf. our “good fences make good neighbors”).  Pythagoras must have had some such lesson in mind where Plutarch cites him as warning “by enigma” (ainigmasi): “Do not extend your right hand to everyone” (mê panti emballein dexian, On the Education of Children 12f); and the same author in the same work invokes “those who use the colorful image” (apo tropou legontes) in remarking, “If you live with a lame man, you will learn to limp” (an chôlôi paroikêsêis, hyposkazein mathêsêis, 4a).  Proximity to kinsmen can empower, but also infect.

A great many proverbs and sentiments treated in our time as patriarchal misogyny should properly be understood in the communal context, as well.  When Herodotus recycled a well-worn slur against women in the first book of his Histories—“A woman removes her shame with her clothes” (hama de kithôni ekduomenôi sunekduetai kai tên aidô gunê, 1.8)—he reflected the traditional view that virtue depends upon appearance.  A good wife stays out of sight, aware that a world of which she has little experience holds many snares.  A “dangerous” wife validates the proverb that seems to underlie Palaestrio’s jibe in Plautus’s Miles Gloriosus: “A woman, if she’s naughty, needs no grocer for her tricks: she has her own herbal garden of lewd license at home” (mulier holitori numquam supplicat, si quast mala: / domi habet hortum et condimenta ad omnis mores maleficos, II.ii.40-41).  The same play tells us, “A woman is risky business” (mala mulier merx est, III.iii.21), in a recurrent Plautine phrase that must surely be a proverb;15 and toward the comedy’s end, Plautus adds, “Woman was truly born of [the goddess] Delay herself” (mulier profecto natast ex ipsa Mora, IV.vii.9, with the adverb [profecto] strongly hinting at the utterance’s wide circulation).  

Women, plainly, are not to be trusted in this view.  They require close guarding lest a naïve indiscretion on their part admit disgrace; but their men are also prisoners of the constant anxiety that their household be perceived as tainted by impropriety.  The unremitting need to stay within strict lines is indeed part of what makes a close reading of neighbors so important: one wicked tongue can spread ruin.  It is a daughter, ironically, who reminds her father (as he devises her sale to a pimp) of family honor in Plautus’s Persian: “Bad repute in people is immortal: it lives even when you believe it has died” (hominum immortals est infamia / etiam tum vivit cum esse credas mortuam, III.i.27-28).  The father, more interested in his belly than in his daughter’s reputation, nevertheless dusts off what appears to be another proverb in his answer: “no maiden or lass can help but go bad who knows more than what pleases her parents” (virgo atque mulier nulla erit quin sit mala / quae praeter sapiet quam placet parentibus, III.i.37-38).  Obviously, the comic playwright is turning traditional wisdom on its ear.  The time-honored thrust of these dicta would have kept a young girl sealed away like a treasure.  Hence arises the strong advisability—according to Hesiod—of selecting a virgin bride (parthenikên de gamein, 698) who is not a plaything to your neighbors (geitosi charmata, 701).  There is no greater blessing than a good wife, nor any greater curse than a bad one (702-703). 

Such advice opens a section which appears to be one of two in Works and Days (see n. 15) composed almost completely of “one-liners”.  The verses are very likely drawn from proverbs, and certainly from proverbial matter.  We hear other counsel of the sort that we have already reviewed: e.g., not to keep bad company or to misbehave in good company (716), and not to speak ill lest it return to us (721).  We are even warned against begetting children after attending a scoundrel’s funeral (735-736) and urinating in springs (736a)!

The role of women in this intricate social mosaic thus occupies but a few of the many gaps where the family’s reputation sits exposed.  That role enjoys no more flexibility than any other.  The protest so often heard in contemporary scholarship, of course, is that traditional female roles were afforded considerably less leeway than others.  The reference points provided for us by proverbs allow us to respond that all members of any tribal culture are hemmed in by inherited expectations.  “The shameful is the shameful,” declares one maxim, evincing no tolerance of deviation whatever, “whether one think it so or not” (aischron to g’ aischron, k’ an dokêi k’ an mê dokêi).  Plutarch actually dredges up this ancient utterance in the process of demonstrating how Antisthenes cleverly recasts it (How the Young Ought to Study Poetry, 33c); we may be sure, however, that its original audience would not have made it the springboard for a witticism.  Glory, in all of its many Homeric forms—timê, kudos, aretê, etc.—most certainly elevates a man’s status above a woman’s, but not as a result of any greater freedom enjoyed.  The behavioral limits imposed by communal thinking are tight across the board, and may well create what a literate individualist would deem a life of misery.  A saying attributed to Periander runs, “Pleasures are transient, but honors are immortal” (hai men hêdonai phthartai, hai de timai athanatoi, Diogenes Laertius, Lives I.97).  This is Achilles in a nutshell: short-lived but never forgotten.  To the extent that a tribesman desired terrestrial happiness, he would avoid such glory like the plague (cf. the previous section on “lying low”).

d)       promotion of brotherhood/fair play

While the previous section addresses the natural insularity of tribal societies, certain practices and proverbs force us to admit that these same societies nourish a paradoxical respect for fair play.  The paradox lies in this: fair play implies that everyone should be respected as a brother, yet tribalism draws its brethren only from those belonging to its narrow ethnic group.  There is no patent contradiction here, of course, inasmuch as men not “of the brotherhood” are viewed as part of the cultural limbo where animals and other sub-humans exist.  Nevertheless, on many occasions we find that traditional societies do indeed extend humanity—sometimes quite assertively—to aliens.  The Odyssey shows us over and over that refusing hospitality to a stranger was taboo in Greek society; Tacitus indicates that the same obligation was, if anything, more elaborate and exacting among the “crude” Germans (Germania 21.2).  We should perhaps conclude that the tribal hostility to outsiders attached mostly to individuals bearing weapons or to groups whose motives might be suspect.  Such suspicion is more self-preservative than inhumane.

In the same vein, several ancient Greek proverbs suggest that the high law of fair play potentially covers all humanity with its aegis.  We can scarcely get much more ancient than Hesiod; and his verses assure us, “Justice prevails over hubris at the race’s finish” (dikê d’huper hubrios ischei / es telos elthousa, Works and Days 217-218).  This is not justice for some, or justice crystallized as a goddess who rewards her cultists: it is the moral abstraction of reaping what you sow, applied categorically.  To be sure, Hesiod does indeed theomorphize justice within a few dozen lines: she becomes “the maiden Dike, born of Zeus” (256).  Yet the gist of this further discussion is merely to emphasize that she is one of three thousand divine spies who circulate among men looking for moral infractions.  A verse concluding the section aims at the same target strictly from Zeus’s perspective: “The eye of Zeus sees all and sees within all” (panta idôn Dios ophthalmos kai panta noêsas, 267).  Perhaps the only real difference between this sentiment and Hamlet’s, “Foul deeds will rise, / Though all the world o’erwhelm them, to men’s eyes,” is that the eye of Zeus seems, if anything, more of an abstraction—more of a transcending moral principle.

At about the same historical moment, Solon was pondering the tortuous issues (in his longest extant fragment of seventy-six lines) surrounding why people do not always appear to get what they deserve in this life.  “The guiltless pay for [wicked] deeds,” he proposes, “—or the children of these, or a later generation” (anaitioi erga tinousin / ê paides toutôn ê genos exopisô, Frag. 1, 31-32).  Solon’s theory of postponed recompense, while unsatisfactory to us, once again resonates with the traditional thinking of the Old Testament (viz., “the sins of the father shall be visited upon the son”).  It is an attempt to defend the moral principle that human affairs reflect divine justice, even if not at a level that human eyes (with apologies to Hamlet) can perceive.

Was either of these hexameter-wielding philosophers creating a proverb at any point?  I hope I have said enough to make the case that all Greek hexameters of ancient provenance could readily be cited with proverbial force.  These few examples might certainly have informed a discussion of justice in succinct fashion.

Yet we must not overstate the tendency of traditional wisdom to universalize just values.  It seems that every two steps forward are succeeded by the proverbial one step back.  The same glorious fragment of Solon’s as was just cited actually begins with the author’s pious wish to prove as much a scourge to his enemies as a boon to his friends.  In this perplexing vein, Diogenes Laertius juxtaposes two famed sayings of Solon that may well have become proverbs: “The best and most just life is not to do what we reproach in others,” and, “The king is he who is most powerful in sheer force” (hê arista kai dikaiotata bia to mê draein ha tois allois epitimômen and basileus ho ischurotatos têi dunamêi, Lives of the Philosophers I.58).  Somehow we must juggle, “Do unto others…” with, “Might makes right”; even so did the fragment feed us, “Crime doesn’t pay,” and, “Never give your enemy a break,” with the same spoon.  We have already conceded that the chafing of such attitudes upon one another does not constitute a flagrant contradiction.  It is something more on the order of a disappointment, from our literate vantage.  We think that we glimpse a higher duty in traditional culture beckoning simple clansmen to forget their selfish interests and follow abstract virtue… and then we see them stop along the way to kick their fallen enemy.  However one prefers to state this paradox, it is an integral part of the tribal mentality.  Give no quarter in a blood feud, but show mercy if doing so makes good “business sense”.  Xenophon, for instance, drawing upon a traditional idea of balance, recommends that one turn enemies into wealth by profiting from them (hoi echthroi… chrêmata eisi tôi dunamenôi… [ap’ hôn]ôpheleisthai, Oeconomicus, 1.15).

                Perhaps what we must understand is that the oral world requires perceptible, palpable consequences to accompany even the highest of motives.  Its worldview is invincibly pragmatic.  Thus when Diogenes records yet another Solonic saying a little later (I.60)—“Hold moral rectitude as more trustworthy than an oath” (kalokagathian horkou pistoteran eche)—he implicitly shows us the legendary wise man offering a practical advantage to punctilious honesty.  Since the honest, by definition, keep their word, one can cut treaties, deals, and bargains with them without fear.  Honesty makes for good business.

Or let us return to Hesiod.  Here are four hexameters in close succession (three of them, in fact, consecutive lines) from the Works and Days, all of which might readily have been cited as proverbial wisdom thanks to their “stand alone” insight:16

A bad neighbor is a pain—as much as a good one is a great advantage.  (“pêma kakos geitôn, hosson t’agathos meg’ oneiap,” 346)

Do not devise wicked deeds, for such designs turn into disastrous folly.  (“mê kaka kerdainein, kaka kerdea is’ atêisi,” 352)

Cherish a friend: go to meet him who comes toward you.  (“ton phileonta philein, kai tôi prosionti proseinai,” 353)

Give to him who gives, and give not to him who gives not.  (“kai domen os ken dôi kai mê domen os ken mê dôi,” 354)

By no means are these crudely self-serving sentiments (we shall come to that variety of “neo-tradition” in the final section).  Being kind to friends and abstaining from wickedness and avarice are, to be sure, moral practices.  Yet the wise poet does not package such behavior as its own end: he either declares or hints in every case that a quid ensues pro quo.  A good neighbor is a great advantage; a friend should be met halfway when he makes the first move; wrongdoing leads to atê, the word used by Homer to describe Agamemnon’s serious miscalculation of Achilles’ wrath; giving is fit and proper when someone has given to you.  Be good… but be smart.  Be good because it is smart.

Such balance of charity and profit must surely underlie the complete equanimity with which the ancients view eye-for-an-eye vengeance.  Take this proverb-like insight which Diogenes lifts from Thales: “Misfortune is easiest to bear if you see your enemies making out even worse”  (atuchia raista pheretai ei tous echthrous cheiron prassontas blepois, Lives I.36).  All wise men, as we know, resign themselves to destiny—yet such wisdom is that much easier to practice if we see Lady Destiny trampling even harder on cheaters and scoundrels (a proper description of our adversaries, naturally: for it goes without saying that we philosophers have dealt squarely with everyone).  The sentiments expressed in the following aphorism of Cleobulus appear more generous, yet they model the same pragmatism, and indeed echo Hesiod’s verses above: “You should do well by your friend that he may be more friendly, and also by your enemy to make him a friend” (ton philon dei euergetein hopôs mallon êi philos, ton de echthron philon poiein, Lives I.91).  Though enemies fare better in this formulation than in most of the pre-Socratic era, the motive is still to advance one’s own interests—by doing right, to be sure; but right is preferable because it advances one’s interests.

It is well to remember in this context that traditional cultures are intensely communal.  The spoken word, their predominant or exclusive means of communication, draws their members together.  Even when by himself, the tribesman imagines in extroverted terms: he pictures himself as observed by his peers.  Two sayings attributed by Diogenes to Chilon illustrate this critical point.  Both are fully “honorable” sentiments, yet are also subtly indexed to the profit accruing to a good reputation.  “Better to take a loss than a shameful gain,” runs one, “for the former causes regret but once, the latter for all time” (mian hairesthai mallon ê kerdos aischron. Hê men gar hapax elupêse, to de dia pantos, Lives I.70).  While a literate thinker might suppose that conscience’s inner voice is the source of the lasting torment, aischron refers unequivocally to mortification before others—not to what we call guilt.  Likewise, this further advice about how to treat friends implies a “pay-off” of good repute: “Appear more promptly during your friends’ ill luck than their good luck” (tachuteron epi tâs atuchiâs tôn philôn ê tâs eutuchiâs poreuesthai, Lives I.70).  Though the legendary Chilon surely seeks to dissuade his listeners from the most obvious and material kind of advantage, their abstinence from mercenary behavior will enhance their credit with their neighbors.

In the final analysis, such pride in a clean reputation is surely not contemptible, even to the most Kantian of moralists.  It was Kant, after all—that most analytical of literate philosophers—who wrote that putting a man under oath implied gross insult to his routine honesty.17  The tribal mind, to be sure, sets greater store in what the neighbors actually say—perhaps for the very reason that sayings (such as proverbs) are held to be the ultimate fount of truth.  Hence we find that Democritus, according to Plutarch, places word before deed in the pedigree of moral behavior: “For a deed is a word’s shadow” (logos gar ergou skiê, How the Young Ought to Study Poetry 9f).  Speech first… then act.  Sophocles appears to have reversed these polarities in Fragment 755: “Good words cannot possibly flow from wicked deeds” (ouk est’ ap’ ergôn mê kalôn epê kala).  Perhaps, however, his cryptic formula merely—and proverbially (for proverbs love to be cryptic)—takes a third step: speech, act, and speech again.  The supreme confidence in words remains, in that a bad act sprung from wicked intent (i.e., bad speech) cannot be mended with agile lies. 

Only in the literate “noosphere” (to borrow Ong’s term) do words become flexible and treacherous.  In his rhetorically playful Paradoxa Stoicorum, Cicero unleashes what sounds like a proverb indicting the deceptive properties of words: “Nothing is so incredible that speaking may not make it probable” (Nihil est tam incredibile quod non dicendo fiat probabile, Third Paradox).  This is a maxim for a later age, however.  It might have flowed from the poisoned pen of La Rochefoucauld.  We shall examine this pseudo-tradition of wisdom below in Section F.

For now, in the naïve, often child-like world where all thought is transacted in audible speech, and hence more or less before the community’s collective witness, deplorable motives cannot hide for long.  Hearts are worn on sleeves.  Sooner rather than later, everyone sees you for what you are, because everyone has heard all that you have said.  The tribe, like Father Sun, cannot be hoodwinked.

e)       keen images for common occurrences

Although the largest volume of extant proverbial material—by far—is to be found under this rubric, no fount of proverbs is less helpful to our purposes than the “dead metaphor”.  For we essentially have nothing else before us here than an array of witty or colorful images which, thanks to their color, have become common parlance… whereupon they proceed to fade from overuse.  These are not pithy ethical judgments on fate, neighbors, personal obligations, or the like.  Probably 98% of the matter assembled by Leutsch and Schneidewin fits the present bill if we also admit phrases that were by no means “dead”, but instead somewhat esoteric or “precious” (hence safely removed from routine usage).  Even if we scrutinize brief, moribund tropisms like “fit the bill” and “do the job”, however, and add several more recondite examples like “red ink” and “fire sale”, what do we find as our “bottom line” other than that the culture responsible for such imagery must have an active marketplace? 

Such an insight, while not to be despised, scarcely goes beyond the depth of the obvious.  In the same way, ancient authors offer plenty of examples of figurative journeys communicated through ambulatory and nautical metaphors.  Varro writes, “[Getting past] the door is the longest part of a trip” (porta itineri longissima est, De Agricultura 1.2); and Terence uses, “I’m sailing in the harbor” (ego in portu navigo, Andria III.i.22), in the way that we would say, “I’m on Easy Street.”  The examiner would conclude that the preferred methods of travel in the Greco-Roman world were by foot and—for really long excursions—by ship.  Indeed, proverbs with maritime allusions abound in the street language of Plautus, whose Mostellaria even plays on several such sayings at once (III.ii.48-50).  Yet this is not terribly enlightening.  At most, it tells us that the horse remained largely an agricultural and military technology rather than the routine means of transport that it had become in Asia beyond the Levant.

Still other such phrases tell us nothing much at all.  What window into the soul of the tribal, proverb-making culture opens when we read in Roman comedy, “You’re looking for a knot in a bulrush”?   (See, for instance, Plautus, Menaechmi II.i.22: Quaerunt in scirpo (soliti quod dicere) nodum; and Terence, Andria V.iv.38: nodum in scirpo quaeris.)  This is something like the reverse of carrying coals to Newcastle—closer to seeking a needle in a haystack: it means that one is wasting effort in an undertaking that cannot be accomplished, by definition.  We might argue that it reveals Roman culture of the Republic to have a nearer relationship to nature than ours, since few urban Westerners likely even know what a bulrush is; but then, how many know what Newcastle meant to the coal industry, and how many have ever so much as seen a haystack?

                This brings us to yet another liability in the Leutsch-and-Scheidewin species of proverb as a tool for analyzing culture.  When the saying in question has no moral predicate—when it merely volunteers that X is (rather surprisingly) like Y—then forging any significant connection with the culture’s values is virtually impossible.  Agricultural proverbs, for instance, may linger long after a society has grown predominantly urban.  On the other hand, arcane phrasing with a tendency to strained imagery may become all the rage with the artistic avant-garde.  Certainly some of the ancient compilations reproduced by Leutsch and Schneidewin reflect a rather pedantic interest in such ornate coding, which was as typical of the early First Millennium’s neoteric style as it would be in eighteenth-century Parisian salons.  Tropes of this sort are about as far away from the genuine proverb as we can get.  Not only do they not belong to the tribe: they have been devised specifically to separate their users from the vulgar herd.  Would the class of person who once listened to recitations of Homer and Hesiod have had the remotest notion, more than a thousand years later, of what it meant to “traffic in words like Hermodorus” or to “lift the armpit” (consecutive entries in Xenobius’s complilation)?18  On the contrary, his class now occupied a far periphery of the society whose literate elite turned such phrases.

Somewhere in the middle rest sayings like Terence’s probably proverbial verse, “A man’s face can also commit a crime” (voltu’ quoque hominum / fingit scelus, Heauton Timorumenos V.i.14-15)—meaning that fraud can be practiced by feigning an emotion as well as speaking a lie.  Might we coax some sort inference about the traditional mind’s identity of outward and inward realities from this line?  No doubt, we might; and therein lies a danger; for the evidence is simply too frail to justify such daring steps.

f)        self/other: awakening to personal responsibility

To claim that the orally conditioned tribesman has no sense of self whatever would be facile.  This is not, of course, what Ong intends when he writes, “Sight isolates, sound incorporates,” and proceeds to discuss the poverty of traditional distinctions between one’s inner life and one’s place in the community.19  Fragment 407 of Ennius is a profoundly traditional sentiment, and indeed almost surely a proverbial one: “The beginning of shameful acts is the display of bare bodies among neighbors” (flagiti principium est nudare inter cives corpora; cited in Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations, 4.33.70).  This dictum actually defines the self as a body perceptible to others, however—while insisting that it must not be too perceptible!  If an ill-clothed body stirs unruly impulses in others and threatens the balance imposed by family and marriage bonds, then the offending flesh is indistinguishable from its owner.  You are what others see you to be, and your will is naively interpreted as identical to the external effect your appearance has.

Similarly, the following sentiment in Terence’s Eunuch smacks heavily of the proverbial, and reflects self-awareness fully in terms of outward perception: “It’s unsuitable for a high authority to walk together with his mistress in the street” (haud convenit / una ire cum amica imperatorem in via, III.ii.41-42).  A respectable man has to keep up appearances, in other words.  No hint of reproach for hypocrisy appears to hide within these verses.  Again, you are what you seem.

Yet at some point, we find in ancient sayings about the individual’s relation to his community a poignant awareness of distance—perhaps of insurmountable distance, of unbridgeable schism.  The world within is not, and cannot be, known by the world without.  Diogenes Laertius ascribes to the sage Pittacus this delightfully ironic comment: “If your search after an actively good man becomes too fine, you will find no one” (anthropon spoudaion an lian zêtêis, ouch heurêseis, Lives 1.77).  The implicit suspicion of human motives here not only conjures up that other Diogenes in his legendary search by lamplight for one good man; it anticipates the mad King Lear’s magnificent, “None doth offend, I say!”  These timeless literary moments do not belong to all times: something new under the sun has happened when Heraclitus declares (in an image echoing Pittacus’s) that “you would not find the soul’s limits if you sought them… its ways are an abyss” (psychês peirata iôn ouk an exeuroio… bathun logon echei, Diogenes Laertius, Lives, 9.7).  A kind of tragedy has been born—something like the biblical Fall: the individual has become unknowable in his full extent.

We can discern this even in Ennius sometimes.  The same almost forgotten master whose archaic verse has left us the first traces of Latin hexametric epic also penned the reflection, “Things done well but poorly placed are poorly done” (Benefacta male locata malefacta, Frag. 416 [cited in Cicero, De Officiis 2.18.62]).  This concise and memorable line may or may not have entered popular wisdom in some form (or may have arrived there already when Ennius borrowed it).  In either case, it approaches the edge of the tribal universe, or strays a little beyond it.  For the understanding that act and intent may work against one another violates that naive traditional identity of subject with subject’s outward appearance: it implies that the individual bosom hides secrets capable of radically reshaping the truth.  A sublime maxim attributed to Cleobulus partakes of the same complexity: “Whenever anyone go from his house, let him inquire first what he intends to do; and whenever one return again, let him inquire what he has done” (hotan tis exiêi tês oikias, zêtêitô proteron ti mellei prassein.  Kai hotan tis eiselthêi palin, zêtêitô ti epraxe, Diogenes Laertius, Lives I.92).  The recommended exercise looks startlingly like an examination of individual conscience.  Why would a traditional clansman need to undergo such self-inquiry?  He intends to do what his status in the village and the circumstances of his sortie (a hunt, a raid, a wedding, etc.) demand of him, and he will surely know upon his return if he has behaved decorously without any soul-searching.  Why the complications?

Why, indeed?  Because such aphorisms are springing up in an environment that—through the direct or indirect influence of literacy—has begun to valorize personal responsibility.  Living in accord with custom no longer suffices to satisfy righteousness: the heart must rightly have willed the act which the hand rightly performs.  While a new generation of brilliant sayings, then, addresses this life of the hidden soul, it is a later generation.  It is a constellation of thoughts held together by a different gravity and moving majestically in a different part of the intellectual universe.  Socrates’ much-quoted saying, “The vile live in order to eat and drink, the good eat and drink in order to live” (tous men phaulous zên tou esthiein kai pinein heneka, tous d’ agathous esthiein kai pinein heneka tou zên, cited in Plutarch’s How the Young Ought to Study Poetry [21e] and elsewhere), might have been uttered by many another ancient wit.  It would not have been uttered by Homer or Hesiod, however.  Though Odysseus complains about the exigencies of the belly, he does not do so in a dualistic vein that places an abstract goodness at the far polarity.  Inner and outer, spirit and flesh, are indivisible in the tribal world.

Is character destiny, as Heraclitus is supposed to have observed?  If so, then Aristotle’s Poetics and Nicomachean Ethics would proceed to clarify how an inexorable sequence of acts follows from a certain disposition of the will.  We are now well within the province of literate analysis.  We may assume that so rational an approach to facets of life once considered inscrutable would not have made much sense to Homer’s auditors, who fully accepted that entire families could feel the brunt of a curse for generations.  The notion that people fulfill their own fate by choosing freely each step of a disastrous path appeals, rather, to an erudite mind like Cicero’s.  In his elegant, florid style, the great Latinizer of Greek ideas puts this particular insight thus: “To… [free will], indeed, yields Fortune herself—she who is said to have ultimate power—if, as the poet-philosopher [not named] has said, she is shaped for each by his own morals” (… cui quidem etiam quae vim habere maximam dicitur fortuna ipsa cedit si, ut sapiens poeta dixit, suis ea cuique fingitur moribus, Paradoxa Stoicorum V.34).

Again, such observations are both very profound and, in the right hands (perhaps Seneca’s rather than Cicero’s), capable of being packaged into succinct, memorable lines.  They are simply not traditional in a broad cultural sense: not tribal, not at home in the oral noosphere.  In fact, what Cicero refers to as proverbs often belong to his age more than Hesiod’s.  In Academica 3. 19. 12-15, he cryptically mentions “a certain Greek verse commonly cited by the masses”.  He doesn’t give us the text of this verse, but he summarizes it: “that inhuman and despicable saying is attributed to those who claim not to be repelled by the thought of a worldwide conflagration following upon their own death” (… illa vox inhumana et scelerata ducitur eorum qui negant se recusare quo minus ipsis mortuis terrarum omnium deflagratio consequatur (quod vulgari quodam versu Graeco pronuntiari solet).  We know this saying well, by another name: après moi le déluge.  Cicero is quite right to condemn its gross egotism.  The problem, in the context of our emerging profile of traditional culture, is that the tribal mind would never consider such a maxim worthy of preservation—would spew it out, indeed, with something more like horror than indignation.  Traditional societies are invested up to the tops of their grass huts and crude stone citadels in staying alive through their progeny: hence the ghastly aura of tragedies like Niobe’s or Priam’s, where the sufferer lives just long enough to see his or her entire stock of children wiped out.  Louis XV’s quip is not the stuff of Works and Days.

The outer limit of our survey, then, must be placed where “proverbs” like these start to crop up.  Perhaps we should locate just shy of this limit several sayings that indict the spoken word itself.  The remark, “Poets tell many lies” (cited, for instance, as proverb by Plutarch: polla pseudontai aoidoi, How Youth Ought to Study Poetry 16B), may simply show us the tradition taking a good-natured jab at itself.  Tribal cultures also believe in inferring prophetic truth from dreams, yet Penelope tells Odysseus that false dreams issue through the Gate of Ivory.  The clansman may well feel that the poet’s professional vanity must be reined in occasionally; for, as Pindar puts the traditional notion to verse, “Speech lives on more time-enduring than deeds” (rhêma d’ergmatôn chroniôteron bioteuei, Nemean Odes IV.10).  The hero does the heavy lifting, but the frail bard who keeps his heroism in the tribal mind sometimes try to steal most of the credit.

More equivocal is our shrewd analyst Heraclitus when he declares, “A lazy-minded fellow is apt to gape at every word he hears” (blax anthrôpos epi panti logôi philei eptoêsthai; cited by Plutarch in On the Education of Children 28d and also in On Listening 41a).  This kind of talk is getting very close to Epictetus, that supreme individualist who warned his students against following custom and blindly accepting assumptions.  Speech no longer occupies the throne of authority (through its association with ancient wisdom): reason has claimed that crown.

g)       admonition against gullibility/imprudence: cynical caution

As the growth of individual conscience within the literate psyche’s introspective incubator produced the kinds of maxim presented in the previous section, those many whom literacy had wholly passed over did not retain the naïve orality of the primal clan.  During periods of major cultural evolution, to stand still is to fall behind.  Though simple people farmed or herded or fished much as their ancestors had done, these pre-literates abruptly found themselves illiterates, for others of their race and culture had created and scaled a ladder upon whose bottom rung all rustic hold-outs were left deserted.  Currency-based commerce supplanted bartering.  A professional military class replaced the Homeric shepherd who grabbed a spear at the chieftain’s beck.  Wider travel and new means of transit imported new ideas among the upwardly mobile along with new wares, while Hesiod’s self-sufficient husbandman now appeared an impoverished, backward churl.  Towns and even cities emerged, in whose shadow the family farm became tedious, pitiful, and confining.  Social and economic castes that never existed when all were known as the high chief’s “children” grew more finely articulated with every generation.  Proverbs celebrating inherited privilege, like that cited in Plutarch’s overture to On the Education of Children (“A handsome treasure [so to speak] is noble birth”—kalos [oun parrhêsias] thêsauros eugeneia, 1b), are a far cry from Odysseus’ drubbing of Thersites.  The latter involves an eternal species of trouble-maker getting his just come-uppance for showing too little respect to tribal leaders; but Plutarch’s proverb bristles with a new spirit of competition—of “getting ahead”, as if life’s parade had now become a race.  And so it had.

To some extent, the likes of Socrates and Heraclitus were mounting a resistance to bourgeois capitalism with their emphasis upon dominating the appetites and living free of vain, worldly ambitions.  Yet their means to that end was an exploration of the individual soul—and the literate revolution unveiled in one and the same motion an inwardly based personhood and an every-man-for-himself marketplace.  What made each soul a unique abyss also made it a self-sustaining dynamo.  The remnant of oral culture, then, went on the defensive.  City and country, newfangled and traditional, battled one another rather ruthlessly even as post-Socratic philosophers were probing the idea of a transcendent brotherhood of man.  We have seen that the tribesman was always healthily suspicious of unruly neighbors—but this was because he knew that he must live with them, by hook or by crook.  He regarded them as weak members of a strong team rather than as potentially lethal adversaries.  Not on his gloomiest day would he have murmured with full conviction, “Everyone gives empty advice and all [is tailored] to self-interest.”  Yet no less reverend a figure than the ancient Roman Ennius recorded this sentiment (Omnes dant consilium vanum atque ad voluptatem omnia, Frag. 404 [cited in Fronto, Epp. V.1, p. 136 Haines]).20  Could the grandfather of Roman epic, whom we have already seen espousing noble ideas of personal responsibility, have been so cynical at the same time?

The truth is (as I have been trying to explain briefly) that both tangents of cultural evolution—the inward-turning development of conscience and the “tribally decadent” mistrust of everything new or foreign—were concurrent.  A truly, fully oral-traditional culture lacks intellectual room for its members even to imagine that things (eating habits, dress, gods worshipped, etc.) might be other than they are.  Surrounded by the challenge of changing ways, however (and literacy, though a cause of the profoundest changes, is also often just a symptom of broader processes), tribalists lose that sublime confidence that all wheels come full circle.  They see that the unjust (as defined by their tradition) not only prosper rather than suffer, but that their children continue to prosper while the tribe virtually wastes away.  The old rules of fair play must therefore be suspended, at least outside of the immediate village community; for survival demands no less than the sacrifice of ordinary decency if the inherited way of life is not utterly to perish.

Hence the cynicism of Ennius—and of many another.  “Every man looks out for his own affairs,” writes Plautus in Mercator (suam quisque homo rem meminit, V.iv.51).  I cannot aver that this verse is any more proverbial than the Ennian one.  Yet we are well acquainted with such sentiments, after all, in our own popular culture.  Exponentially more Americans can recite, “Never give a sucker an even break,” and, “Nice guys finish last,” than correctly label the origin of these gems (P.T. Barnum and Leo Durocher, respectively).  In Mostellaria III.ii.109-112, Plautus gives us three such proverbs in quick succession; and this time, the clever Tranio obligingly tells us that they are sayings (verba [113]):

“When on the farm, every man reaps for himself” (sibi quisque ruri metit—109)

“Whenever profit’s lying around, one must haul it home” (lucri quidquid est, id domum trahere oportet—111)

“A man needs to restrain himself from turning soft” (misericordia se abstinere hominem oportet—112)21

The sentiment in Plautus’s Persian IV.iii.69-70–“It’s more pleasant to learn from others’ mistakes than for them to learn from yours” (te de aliis quam alios de te suaviust / fieri doctos)–likewise hums with ironic cynicism.   Terence essentially delivers himself of the same insight in Andria: “Everyone would rather have it go better for himself than for another” (omnis sibi malle melius esse quam alteri, II.v.16); and a little earlier in the same play, he writes less caustically but with finer irony, “All of us readily give advice to the ailing when we are well” (facile omnes quom valeamu’ recta consilia aegrotis damus, II.i.9).  We know that the first member of this pair was in fact a proverb, because Terence tells us so in the preceding line (“That saying’s true which is often said by the people…” [verum iliud verbum’st, volgo quod dici solet, 15]).  Whether or not the other citations in this paragraph are verbatim records of ancient proverbs, they are certainly presented as common knowledge—and they are so presented in any society whose blue-collar “ruffians” (like Barnum and Durocher) are having to scramble for a place in a world where villages have given way to vast anthills of individuals.

                Xenophon’s talk about how to profit from one’s enemies perhaps already partakes of this newly mercantile universe, held together by the gravity of personal fortunes rather than by timeless kinship bonds.  Yet vainly would we peer into this student and friend of Socrates for any hint of the dog-eat-dog competitiveness that Terence expresses in Eunuchus III.i.9-10: “He who has salt [wit] often shifts glory produced by another’s great labor to himself with a few words” (labore alieno magno partam gloriam / verbis saepe in se transmovet qui habet salem).  Plautus is less overtly Machiavellian in Miles Gloriosus III.i.5: “A good plan is a bad plan if it plays into an enemy’s hand” (bene consultum inconsultum est, si id inimicis usuist).  Yet his verse subtly sketches a different kind of enemy than the one to whom the reverend Solon, for instance, wishes to be “galling” and “feared” (pikros and deinos in 5-6 of Frag. 1).  A tribal enemy like Solon’s was probably acquired through some loss of face or inherited through a blood feud: say, a controversy over a public honor felt to have been stolen (e.g., Odysseus’s being awarded the arms of Achilles over Ajax).  Here in Plautus, however, we read of plans and schemes.  Enemies are competitors in the race for self-promotion, not public rivals for communal recognition.  The difference, if subtle, is critical.

                Another revealing axis where cultural coordinates have shifted involves attitudes toward women and sex.  I cited Plautus earlier in seeking to establish the traditional view of women; yet the following expressions lifted from Roman comedy (most—if not all—proverbial), again apply different shades to the past’s picture: 

Terence, Eunuchus IV.v.6: “By God, the saying’s bound to be true: ‘Venus grows frigid without Ceres and Liber’ [i.e., bread and wine]” (verbum hercle hoc verum erit: sine Cerere et Libero friget Venus)

Terence, Eunuchus IV.vii.42-43: “I know the mind of women: they’re unwilling when you’re willing, and when you’re unwilling they crave extravagantly” (novi ingenium mulierum: / nolunt ubi velis, ubi nolis cupiunt ultro)

Terence, Andria I.ii.20: “All who love take it hard when told they have to marry” (omnes qui amant graviter sibi dari uxorem ferunt; and the character Davos follows with, “So they say” [ita aiunt, 21])

Plautus should not be denied a seat at this table: his “a woman is tricky business” (mala mulier merx est, Miles Gloriosus III.iii.21) probably fits better here than among the sober pronouncements of Hesiod’s Works and Days (where it appears above).  These utterances are all less “patriarchal” in the literal, condescending but benign sense (“father-ruler”) than what we would expect of oral tradition.  They are playful, competitive, and sometimes lascivious: they are most definitely not the sort of ancestral wisdom that one can imagine flowing from the mouth of Homer’s Nestor.  They transform the woman, in today’s parlance, into an “object”: i.e., she becomes a commodity (merx) for which the man competes—a locus of sexual pleasure without ties extending beyond those thrilling moments.  To the clansman, she was a bloodline, a good reputation, and a bridge to the future through children and bequest.  Now she is a pretty little package of joys and troubles, and her significance ends with the wrapper and the ribbon.

                Feminists may decide for themselves which of these models is less odious.  Surely they will not conclude, however, that no meaningful distinction exists between the two.

                Of course, what we see here and elsewhere is that the illiterate lower classes yet surviving after the literate revolution’s onset have abandoned many of their tradition’s essential values even as they struggle to resist the “new” ways coming from the “outside”.  Fair play still matters—but only when directed to one’s tightly shrunk, fully trustworthy inner circle (perhaps even smaller than the family circle; for in how many folktales does brother deceive brother?).  Inscrutable spirits still control the grand cycles of the cosmos—but one had better not wait for them to turn the wheels, or one will be fleeced of house and home.  Acceptance of destiny is no doubt still a virtue—but one must first beat a hoard of scoundrels and blackguards at their own game before one can watch one’s winnings wax and wane in the bank.  Though the level of society that produces sayings to deliver such ideas remains oral in practice and (sometimes) broader habit, its mentality can no longer be called traditional.  At some point, a series of adjustments becomes a transformation.

                It is perhaps no accident that Roman authors are prominent in this section.  We know little about ancient Italy’s native traditions: Roman literature was somewhat artificially modeled upon Greek precedent from the earliest days of Latin authorship.  The Romans were already experiencing the cultural complications of accelerating commerce, travel, technology, and social upheaval as they tried to replicate a literary achievement that arose in a more natural and leisurely fashion in the Eastern Mediterranean.  When Plautus and Terence open for us a window upon the Roman street, therefore, we hear the cynical worldliness of a highly competitive underclass, not the serene wisdom of a rustic Evander or the legendary Numa Pompilius.

III.  Conclusion

                Every age has its proverbs.  Even in our high-tech, feverishly changing e-world, images and phrases will mysteriously pass into common parlance and remain stubbornly for a generation or two.  (Consider, for example, the not-quite-proverbial “gearing up” and “going down in flames”, dead metaphors embedded in our mechanistic mentality.)  Even bumper-stickers on automobiles transmit nuggets of “wisdom”.  We cannot therefore claim indiscriminately that the proverb, as a phenomenon, belongs to oral tradition.  What we find, rather, is that the ethical content of proverbs and their general use changes as cultures evolve.  Oral traditions most certainly bestow upon the proverb a unique position of honor.  Its words artfully commemorate essential wisdom for a society that must rely wholly upon memory for the retention of knowledge.  The proverb in such a tribal setting is thus likely to define proper relations between man and his environment, men and women, the clan and outsiders, and so forth.  These are obviously matters of major importance to the community’s smooth functioning, and indeed to its survival.

                What appears inscrutably to have passed unremarked among scholars is the shift in content and purpose observable in proverbs as the tribal setting breaks apart.  Succinct insights ascribed (rightly or fancifully) to legendary sages give way to citations from literary texts, some of which become common coinage among the literate public.  Most contemporary Westerners with any degree of education, for instance, consider the maxim, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” to be proverbial; probably very few who circulate it have even heard of Nietzsche, let alone of Zarathustra.  Such memorable sentiments may continue to be profound: many, indeed, may be more thought-provoking morally than their tribal predecessors.  (“Let him cast the first stone who is without sin,” certainly elicits a higher degree of responsible evaluation than, “Like father, like son.”)  Yet in these more literate circumstances, proverbs are not really needed to carry forward a discussion, since logical coherence on a more abstract level now holds superior persuasive virtue.  Wise sayings have become the garnish rather than the meat.  They may even be tossed about ironically or wittily.  The formidable respect that they (or their earlier paradigms) once enjoyed in tribal conferences has declined almost to a nullity.

                Even less noticed, if possible, by students of the proverb is its fascinating metamorphosis within the beleaguered oral culture—now become a sub-culture—clinging to the underbelly of a more literate society.  Here the proverb’s authority persists; for the unlettered mind, not tutored in reasoning questions out objectively and independently, retreats to what it “knows”—that is, to its upbringing, its collective past—in all settings.  The essential change here, then, comes not in the esteem lavished upon proverbs but rather in their actual content.  Goody and Watt were among the first to remark that oral traditions are homeostatic, adapting any incidental novelty to their ways and lore in seamless fashion so that nothing new ever appears to happen.22  (Firearms in the West African Epic of Sonjara, for example, seem to be as much a cultural fixture as spears.)  We must suppose, therefore, that this lingering substratum of oral culture in a progressive community does not perceive itself as tinkering with the sacred past: that would indeed be pure sacrilege, to the traditional mind.  Nevertheless, a rough edge of competition and mistrust works its way into the “timeless” wisdom.  “As ye sow, so shall ye reap,” is likely to morph into something distinctly more cynical on the order of, “First stay alive, then be sorry.”  Though this new ethos is genuinely oral-traditional, it is not exclusively so: it is the tribe’s response to ever more dynamic surroundings hostile to the tribal mentality.

                Teasing these fine distinctions out of ancient Greek culture is much easier than doing so strictly through the literary artifacts of Roman culture, for the Greek ethnoi developed at their own pace and with little self-consciousness.  At both ends of the Mediterranean, however, we have ample evidence in the record of proverbs to assist us in gauging just how far a given community at a given time had moved away from tribal habits and traditions. 


1  Milman Parry died in 1935, his valuable notes eventually being published by his son Adam as The Making of Homeric Verse (Oxford: Clarendon P, 1971).  In the meantime, Parry’s colleague Albert Lord had profited from their joint research to produce The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard UP, 1960).  The Parry-Lord thesis that “oral texts” have unique qualities would feed into the evolving theories of scholars like Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and John Miles Foley, these latter maintaining that pre-literate practices generate an array of distinct and consequential values and concepts throughout a society 

2  Lord and other scholars of his generation did not initially believe that the oral and literate mentalities could combine with any degree of subtlety.  They saw the cultural struggle as a “winner take all” proposition.  Later scholars have demonstrated that, in fact, a very high degree of subtle interplay is possible—and was even routine in such venues as the European Middle Ages.  See, for instance, Alain Renoir, A Key to Old Poems: The Oral-Formulaic Approach to the Interpretation of West-Germanic Verse (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988), to which a newly converted Lord wrote the introduction.

3  E. L. von Leutsch and F. G. Schneidewin, Corpus Paroemiographorum Graecorum, vol. 1 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge UP, 2010).

4  For these items in Xenobius, see “Ateôs ommata” (II.34, p. 41) and “houtos allos Hêraklês” (V.48, p.140), respectively, in E. L. von Leutsch and F. G. Schneidewin (ibid.).

5  Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Rutledge, 1989), 35.

6  Ruth Finnegan, Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1992), 120.

7  Ong (op. cit.), 46-49.

8  I have decided, not without reluctance, to include original texts parenthetically—and in the case of Greek, to transliterate these.  I apologize to the Hellenist who would rather see the genuine article: the limits of my technology are responsible.  For others who would prefer to see nothing but a translation, I recommend simply skipping the parenthetic matter.  My intent was to allow classicists a chance to see the exact wording and determine for themselves if I had missed any important nuance.

9  This expression is repeated in the Fenian tale that I found in the bilingual pamphlet, Fingal in the House of the Blàr Buidhe, trans. and ed. by James MacLaren (Glasgow: Alexander MacLaren and Sons, reprinted 1949).  The editor claims that a Donald C. MacPherson recorded the tale from his grandmother’s Gaelic dictation, and that the result later appeared in the 1870 edition of Revue Celtica.  In short, the matter has a legitimately ancient pedigree.

10  See Theodor Bergk, Poetae Lyricae Graecae (Leipzig, 1843), v. 3, p. 740.

11  Plutarch, having cited Homer’s line in his essay, How the Young Ought to Study Poetry (24E), follows it with a rambling discussion of aretê which engages precisely this issue.  Unaware that traditional cultures locate virtue more in the external world of deeds than in the internal, subjective world of conscience, the essayist’s conclusion is essentially that poets take a certain license and are not always to be trusted!

12  See #1013 on p. 82 of Pádraig Ua Siochfhrada (“An Seabhac”), Seanfhocail na Mumhan (Baile Átha Cliath [Dublin]: An Gúm, 1984).

13  Gaelic-English and English Gaelic Dictionary, compiled by Neil MacAlpine and John Mackenzie (Glasgow: Gairm, 1975 [reprint]), p. 80 under “cocaire.”

14 Post-Socratic antiquity was keenly aware of the tendency in Socrates himself to handle the reverend past somewhat playfully (an awareness which contributed to his demise, for his contemporaries sometimes perceived his nimble [i.e., literate] interpretation of ancestral beliefs and customs as blasphemous).  Later in Academica, for instance, Varro mentions Socratic irony, which (he claims) often led the master to argue on behalf of the positions he found most vulnerable (in disputatione plus tribuebat iis quos volebat refellere, 5.15).

15  Because mulier and merx are both feminine, by the way, the line might be translated, “A bad woman is a marketable item,” which seems to me to fit the specific context; but translators prefer the other option, no doubt correctly, since mala merx is the phrase at the heart of whatever proverb exists in other contexts.

16  Works and Days 336-382 might almost be a section assembled from existing proverbs cleverly set to hexameters by Hesiod.  Though the lines coherently develop the ideas expressed therein, their wisdom comes in such memorable nuggets that one has the sense of reading a list of “do’s” and “don’t’s”.

17  At the end of Kant’s short essay Concerning a Supposed Right to Tell Compassionate Lies (Über ein vermeintes Reecht aus Menschenliebe zu lügen), the philosopher very reasonably observes that swearing in witnesses implies their inclination to lie if not put under oath—which depreciation of their character, if justified, would further imply the probability of their lying once placed under oath!

18  See Leutsch and Scheidewin, pp. 116-117.

19  See Ong (op. cit.), p. 72 ff.  Ong’s rather complex point in this section seems to be that knowledge imbibed through the ear becomes a personal—and even an intimate—experience.  Yet since the audible broadcast is also communal, the concept of selfhood thus generated has very little individuation from member to member of the group.  The tribesman is therefore not so much refused a chance to develop uniquely as the terms of his development are almost exactly reproduced in those around him.

20  The Haines reference is given along with the verse in E.H. Warmington, Remains of Old Latin, v. 1 (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard UP, 1979), p. 370.  Warmington’s volume is far more accessible.

21  It must be noted that se abstinere is Leo’s emendation of a damaged text, and that Leo and others have conjectured the presence of verba in l. 113.

22  Jack Goody and Ian Watt, Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1968), 31-34.



Dr. John Harris, founder and current president of The Center for Literate Values, is also Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.