Monday, 21 January 2013

Proverbial wisdom

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Traditional wisdom is often in the form of proverbs; modern wisdom very seldom so - instead modern wisdom is in the form of abstract principles (such as 'rights'). 

On this basis, we ought to try and be less abstract, more proverbial. 

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But proverbs are not abstractly coherent, the one with the other; and may suggest contradictory forms of advice - therefore proverbs must be embedded in narrative, in order that their specific application can be known.

For example, in trying to understand some difficult matter the proverb 'two heads are better than one' suggests we bring-in other people for advice and assistance; while the proverb 'too many cooks spoil the broth' warns that getting too many people involved in a job can sabotage it. 

Thus proverbs cannot work if they are regarded as detachable abstractions (proverbs are not laws). 

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So, a proverb should refer to a story. 

The first 'two heads' example does not have an attached story, but the 'too many cooks' proverb was indeed linked to a nursery tale about cooks adding salt to soup, each adding the correct amount of salt without realizing that salt had already been added; and the story provides some guidance as to its applicability. 

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For example, consider the proverb: "The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out."

This gets proper applicability from its literary context: 

"I knew that danger lay ahead, of course [said Frodo], but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire. Can't a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?"

"But it is not your own Shire,' said Gildor. 'Others dwelt here before hobbits were, and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more. The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out."

And this, in turn, is embedded in the larger story about the childlike innocence of hobbits being protected by the 'parental' care of the Rangers, which leads back to the historical narrative of  Middle Earth, the fall of Arnor, the fall of Numenor and beyond.

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So what does the proverb mean? "You can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence the world out."

It is not (for example) a denial of the validity of boundaries or fences, or an encouragement for hobbits to spread themselves widely; but a reminder of the big context of history, and the way that fences serve different functions at different times - and also that we may not understand what is going on in relation to fences.

The hobbits had been safe inside their self-imposed fence - until the Rangers departed, when the Shire was invaded by Ruffians.

The fence had value, but it had not been the fence that was protecting them. Yet the hobbits knew nothing of their guardian Rangers.

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To understand a proverb you must know the story in which that proverb is located; you must know that the proverb is an aphorism of the unfolding of narrative history.

5 comments:

  1. So I guess the ideal model here would be Aesop?

    The biblical book of Proverbs, of course, is for the most part just a list of sayings without associated stories.

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  2. "To understand a proverb you must know the story in which that proverb is located; you must know that the proverb is an aphorism of the unfolding of narrative history."

    Perhaps proverbs (or situations reflected in a proverb) properly understood are like mnemonics, which can then call to mind a more complex system of evaluation for a given situation ...? Not only can they condense a story, but they can bring to mind the story, and so allow for a more nuanced application of it to a situation. When someone brings up a proverb to another in a given situation, then, it could be like they are reminding them of a more complex tool for analyzing a situation and taking action.

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  3. @WmJas - I wouldn't call Aesop 'ideal' - since the stories are fictions - but a step in the right direction.

    ajb - "Perhaps proverbs ... properly understood are like mnemonics"

    Yes, good idea. In fact all short but self contained forms of information - lyrics, paradoxes or aphorisms - perhaps function in this way.

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  4. Well, Tolkien's stories are fiction, too.

    There are a few proverbs that are based on historical (or allegedly historical) events, though, such as "Rome wasn't built in a day"; "They laughed at Columbus"; "No cross, no crown." Chinese has a lot of these, usually condensed into the telegraphic form of the four-syllable chengyu, and generally referring to historical or legendary figures such as Mencius and Cao Cao.

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  5. @WmJas - Indeed. But the moral force of a proverb would surely be enhanced if the narrative from which it was derived was regarded as true? We may live by Tolkien's proverbs but only if we believe his work is true albeit non factual. If it were regarded as both true and factually correct (factual in its essence - people do not naturally look for precise atomistic, point by point, factual correctness), its force would be even greater. (Hence scripture is regarded by the devout as both true and factually correct.)

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