Apothegm, Philosophy, Wisdom Lit

Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

Philippians 4:8

Apothegm, adage, aphorism, maxim, proverb, saying—it’s remarkable how many English words exist to convey the idea of a shared shard of wisdom faithfully handed down to succeeding generations. In America, now, such sayings may not be in vogue, in our modern age of enlightenment. By forgetting the past, some might say, we are free to wander into the future untethered. But even the Renaissance and Enlightenment sparked, and then built, from rediscovery of past learning. As Newton said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

A Māori proverb, speaking of the value and guiding nature of the past, says, “I walk backwards into the future with my eyes fixed on my past.” In this understanding, our identities and futures depend on continuity with the past. Destruction of the past can lead to a kind of self-destruction. (Though, at times, it may be appropriate to die to certain aspects of self and received cultural identity, to engage in cultural re-creation, not simply reclamation.) Metaphorically, proverbs can be rudders that guide, a North Star to steer by, a tapestry of memory to bind e pluribus unum (out of many one).

The Master said, ‘Set your heart on the way [dao], base yourself in virtue, rely on humaneness [ren], journey in the arts.'”

Analects 7.6

But more than that, proverbs can be quite entertaining or literary as well, not merely instructive. The game Wise or Otherwise captures a measure of this entertainment value, introducing obscure proverbs from around the world in the process. Players are given the beginning of a proverb, after which each player makes up a unique ending. Everyone then guesses which is the real proverb, with points assigned for guessing correctly, and additional points awarded when your “proverb” is selected. The game highlights some of the cultural, creative aspects of the genre. Proverbs are typically old, but at some point they were new, original, creative, even literary.

Recognizing the potential of this form of literature to both delight and instruct, this journal may occasionally look back to such proverbs from the past for their capacity to (potentially) enlighten the future.

At the same time, a critical approach to the past, and to knowledge/belief in general, may sometimes be warranted and serve as an essential epistemological tool. As the philosopher Karl Popper cautioned in his work Conjectures and Refutations, the requisite truth-honoring path/approach to knowledge or theory (even and especially scientific knowledge) is a critical, rather than dogmatic one. According to Popper, “the dogmatic attitude is clearly related to the tendency to verify our laws and schemata by seeking to apply them and to confirm them, even to the point of neglecting refutations, whereas the critical attitude is one of readiness to change them–to test them; to refute them; to falsify them, if possible.” One can respect, learn, and build from the past while still reaching beyond it, remedying old errors. Even Confucius, contrary to popular belief, reportedly taught (in the Classic of Filial Piety) that there is an ethical duty to critique the path of authority figures when they promulgate manifest injustice.* Passive acceptance may be unethical and contrary to the Way.

In closing, consider one more proverb, a meta saying from the Analects of Confucius related to past and prevenient wisdom:

The gentleman [junzi] stands in awe of three things. He is in awe of Heaven’s mandate, of great men, and of the words of sages. The petty man is unaware of the presence of Heaven’s mandate; he belittles great men; and he regards the words of sages with mockery.”

Analects 16.8


* The relevant section of the Classic of Filial Piety ends with the following conclusion: “Therefore when a case of unrighteous conduct is concerned, a son must by no means keep from remonstrating with his father, nor a minister from remonstrating with his ruler. Hence, since remonstrance is required in the case of unrighteous conduct, how can (simple) obedience to the orders of a father be accounted filial piety.” The quote refers to ministers and sons (or children)–someone positioned in relationship with, and below, the authority figure–as that is how the contextual question is framed, and the work specifically deals with filial piety. That the child should have a responsibility to correct the father is rather remarkable.