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Chesterton House

A Center for Christian Studies at Cornell

Wit and Wisdom

Ryan O'Dowd's picture

What are proverbs?  Simply put, they are creative sayings that pass along time-tested advice – “the wisdom of many in the wit of one,” it’s been said. 

The “wisdom” part usually goes without saying, but most of us probably don’t spend much time thinking about the equal significance of the “wit.” Consider that few of us know this saying from Calvin Coolidge’s autobiography: “The only hope of perfecting human relationship is in accordance with the law of service under which men are not so solicitous about what they shall get as they are about what they shall give.”  But we all recognize the same idea in the terse words of John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for your, but what you can do for your country.” (Leaving aside, for the moment, where Kennedy got his poetic inspiration.)

Proverbs, as another scholar has observed, are the “workhorses” of language.  Some have a long history like, “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” “power corrupts,” “and “seeing is believing.” 

But there was a time when “people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones,” wouldn’t have made any sense, because glass houses didn’t exist, and this alerts us to the fact that proverbs emerge every day, often from older sayings.  The British proverb from World War Two, “Keep calm and carry on,” has recently reappeared in everything from “keep calm and eat a cupcake,” to “keep calm and finish your dissertation.”  In recent years one can also “Just do it,” and “Obey your thirst.”  Time will only tell whether “Tweet it” or “Friend me” will work their way into proverbial sayings as well.

Here it’s worth pointing out that proverbs are always reflections of the worldview and values of the culture where they are born.  And for this reason, proverbs aren’t always sources of wisdom!  Consider, for example, what it says about our age that so many proverbs emerge from the capital marketplace, where marketing masters of wit, turn out a steady stream of catchy sayings designed reinforce the beliefs, values, and behaviors that will further their economic interests. 

In the introduction to the biblical book of Proverbs, we read that wisdom is “for understanding proverbs and parables, the sayings and riddles of the wise” (Prov 1:6).  A major part of the wisdom curriculum, in other words, aims to help us be more attentive to the subtle powers of language. Obviously some proverbs can be so simple that they require little analysis, such as “Walk with the wise and become wise.” But others prompt deeper reflection:  “The mouth of an adulterous woman is a deep pit;” “The leech has two daughters, ‘give’ and ‘give.’” 

The worldview embraced by the authors of Proverbs valued this exercise of using language to reflect on the complexities of life in the world. Proverbs chapter 30, for example, calls on readers to ponder several perplexing lists of difficult sayings: “There are three things that are too wonderful for me, four that I do not understand…” and “Under three things the earth trembles, under four it cannot bear up….”  Proverbs 30, much like the sayings in Ecclesiastes, usher readers into the discipline of wise wonder – of knowing our intellectual limits and how to live in light of them.

Of course it is the artfulness of these sayings that makes them so captivating, and this was, no doubt, part of the reason why many ancient cultures considered proverbs learning a right of passage into adulthood.  I remember my son once creating an email signature using a familiar proverb that, clever as it may have been, seemed to celebrate power and violence in an insensitive way.  When I shared my reservations with my son, he quickly changed his signature to “Listen my son to your father’s instruction, do not forsake your mother’s discipline.”  This made me laugh of course: not only did he learn the basic lesson about violence and power, but he also learned the equally important lesson about the power of wit. 

It’s often been said that humans are talking animals.  Indeed God’s gift of language allows us to become philosophers and scientists just as it does historians and poets.  God inspired the poetry in the Bible, C.S. Lewis once wrote, to incarnate a reality that would otherwise have remained hidden.  So as a student of Proverbs learns wisdom, she learns to listen, read, and speak with an appreciation for the power of words given to us by him, who, in the beginning, spoke all things into being.