Northrop Frye and Michael Dolzani
Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
TEACHERS GUIDE: Lecture 17
WISDOM: THE PROVERB
The root of wisdom is the individualizing of the law. It begins in the practical sense that preserves one's balance from day to day, of which the literary expression is the proverb. There are two kinds of proverbs, depending on social context: the popular proverb that is a counsel of prudence, and the series of maxims imparted by a king or gentleman to his son. Both are dominated by a conservative sense of custom and tradition and by a sense of the importance of the continuity of institutions, as in the Assyrian story of Ahikar.
Program Lecture Outline: Key Facts
- Wisdom begins in interpreting and commenting on the law, applying its generalities to specific situations and thereby allowing the law to permeate and be absorbed by the individual life, transferring from the community to the individual the law's sense of logical consistency and adherence to principles.
- The primitive conception of wisdom is that of the practical sense that preserves one's balance from day to day. As in the Classical example of Odysseus, we can see that lying behind this conception is the even more primitive notion of the trickster figure.
- Wisdom as practical sense is embodied in the proverb. There are two kinds of proverbs, a popular proverb that is the counsel of prudence of common people, and the maxims of instruction given by a king or a lord to his son.
- Wisdom is conservative, and upholds custom and tradition as embodied in the institutions of society and the authority of elders. Behind this is the feeling that the continuity of the institution represents something superior to the individual.
- The Assyrian story of Ahikar, who revenges himself for the treachery of his nephew by a merciless infliction of proverbs, embodied the popular conception of wisdom so well that Ahikar found his way into the Apocryphal Book of Tobit, into the Classical tradition under the name of Aesop, and even into the Koran.
Biblical Passages Cited
Proverbs 19:18.—'Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying'.
Tobit 1:21.—Ahikar (AV, Achiacharus) as Tobit's uncle.
The Teacher's Perspective
The fascination of the wisdom writings is that they do not at first seem to fit into the Bible at all. They are driven like a wedge between the two traditional bodies of Old Testament Scripture, the law—including the historical writings—and the prophets; and to many people, their physical location symbolizes the intrusiveness of their content. The law and the prophets may often have been completely at odds with each other; but at least they embodied conflicting attitudes toward a single thing: namely, the religion of the Old Testament, whose two essential aspects were Yahweh and his covenant with his people. In the wisdom writings, these two aspects are likely as not to be ignored, denied or openly defied.
There are two possible ways of viewing the existence of the wisdom books in the Bible. One is to deny the unity of the canon, reverting to the view that the Bible is after all a rather confused collection of books bound together according to the more or less contradictory motivations of its various editors. The other is to affirm what we have seen in previous programs, that it is the Bible's ability to incorporate such radically differing materials without ironing out editorially all of the resulting paradoxes and seeming contradictions into uniformity that gives it a unity which has passed beyond the seamlessly perfected into the continuously recreative. The phase of wisdom adds to the Bible's revelation a dimension it would not have had otherwise, and one which has had an influence somewhat analogous to that of the Classical tradition in western culture in helping to correct some of the periodic hysterical excesses of revolutionary monotheism.
Wisdom is such a metamorphic concept that it is particularly hard to get a grip on it. For convenience, we may say that the primitive and popular wisdom dealt with in this program and embodied for the most part in proverbs, fables, and popular tales expands into two higher levels of wisdom, which we might call the cosmological and the existential. In the next program, we will see how the idea of wisdom becomes identified cosmologically as an essential part of the creative act in the Biblical myth of creation, sometimes imaged as a female figure who is an emanation of God himself. In examining the Book of Ecclesiastes in program 22, we will approach the center of the Bible's vision of wisdom: and at the center lies an attitude that may be called existential, yet without bogging down in the 'three A's' of anxiety, alienation and absurdity, and without denying a sense of the spiritual that nevertheless has nothing to do with comfortable illusions, including those illusions of a projected supernatural embodied in popular religion.
The demolition of Ahikar's nephew demonstrates the chief characteristic of the wise man on the common and popular level: he is likely to be a most lethal bore. On this level, there is a thin line between genuine folk wisdom and senile platitudes; and some of the latter, with their smug self-satisfaction and their pervasive sexism, have managed to creep into the Biblical Book of Proverbs. The interminable distrust of women in such literature comes from the same conservative admiration for 'law and order' that recommends the beating of children and servants. The shrewd country sage is, however, a remarkably enduring type, from Ben Franklin's Poor Richard and the Canadian Haliburton's Sam Slick down to the persona sometimes assumed by Robert Frost. Because it is traditionally close to the down-to-earth experience of country folk, it is often mingled with the natural wisdom of times for planting and plowing and the like, as in the case of Franklin's almanac. A Classical analogue is Hesiod's Work and Days, which has left its mark on Pound's Cantos: the section 'Begin thy plowing' in Canto XLVII is a translation from Hesiod. (The class may also note the description in this Canto of the gardens of Adonis). The students may discuss the many affinities of the Cantos with wisdom literature, despite its author's own occasionally remarkable lack of wisdom. Another Classical analogue is Theognis, who is said by some scholars to resemble Ecclesiastes, and who happens conveniently to be bound together with Hesiod in a Penguin edition.
The teacher may want to examine with the class the organization of the Book of Proverbs, as well as pointing out some of the famous proverbs as given in the Supplementary Reading. The book is really a compilation of several collections, as is suggested by the titles that appear at their beginnings, as in 10:1, 'The proverbs of Solomon', 25:1, 30:1 and 31:1. Note that the last two are foreign collections that have been appended to the Solomon tradition; and 31:10-31 is an alphabetic poem on the good housewife. Ecclesiastes also contains a number of proverbs—again, see the Supplementary Reading—as does the Book of Tobit, a short and delightful example of the closely related genre of the popular tale that the class may very much enjoy reading, as well as looking at the illustrations done from it by Rembrandt. The story of Ahikar is available in J.B. Pritchards' Ancient Near Eastern Texts (Usually abbreviated ANET), one of the standard source works of Biblical studies, as well as in R.H. Charles' edition of the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.
The Hebrew word of wisdom, hokmah, originally meant something like 'skill', as in metalworking or some intricate craft; and in the ancient world, the skill at making something complex and highly wrought often had associations with magic. This in its turn was often connected with its verbal equivalent, the making of riddles and charms: see Prof. Frye's essay on these in his book Spiritus Mundi. The class may look at Samson's riddles in Judges 14:14, and Jotham's riddling fable in Judges 9:7ff. as examples of primitive literary forms closely related to wisdom.
Wisdom has also expanded into the Book of Psalms, where its function of absorbing the law into the individual life becomes more clear: the proverb that has been significantly placed at the head of the Book of Proverbs, 'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom' (1:7), also occurs in Psalm 111:10. There is in fact a group of psalms sometimes called 'wisdom Psalms' that includes Psalms 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112 and 128. This may seem a very different type of wisdom from 'the words of the wise, and their dark sayings' (1:6); but wisdom seems to have been a very flexible concept in Old Testament times.
The other type of proverb, imparted by a king or a lord to his son, carries the concept of wisdom into the area of leadership and politics. Here, the role of wise man becomes that of the counselor. He may be the ruler himself, as with Solomon, or he may be an advisor to authority: this tradition produced the Classical and Renaissance genre of works concerned with the education of prince, courtier or king, as in Machiavelli's The Prince, Castiglione's The Courtier and Xenophon's Cyropedia respectively. These are not proverbial, but they are highly concerned with the wisdom of prudence. Students may look at the wisdom attributes of Solomon himself, including his famous dream and the story of his judgment of the two women's dispute over the same baby, both in I Kings 3; his exaltation over the wise men of the east in I Kings 4:29-34; and the visit of the Queen of Sheba, who 'came to prove him with hard questions' in I Kings 10. Such references as that in Jeremiah 18:18 to priest, wise man and prophet suggest that the sage at times actually became a particular office in later Israelite society. The office of the sage was filled in Renaissance society by the humanist, the reviver and conserver of the wisdom of the ancients, that is, of the Classical world; and it is interesting to observe the proverbial impulse again arising in the very widespread habit of pillaging Classical literature for sententious utterances. The predilection for turning a story into an occasion for wise saws is hilariously parodied in Ingmar Bergman's film of Mozart's The Magic Flute by the didactic sayings held up on cards at intervals by the actors.
1. Biblical Passages
a. Proverbs from the Book of Proverbs
6:6.—'Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise'.
11:22.—'As a jewel of gold in a swine's snout, so is a fair woman which is without discretion'.
11:29.—'He that troubleth his own house shall inherit the wind'.
13:24.—'He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes'.
14:13.—'Even in laughter the heart is sorrowful; and the end of that mirth is in heaviness'.
15:1.—'A soft answer turneth away wrath'.
16:18.—'Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall'.
17:28.—'Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise'.
20:1.—'Wine is a mocker, strong drink is raging'.
20:5.—'Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit'.
26:11.—'As a dog returneth to his vomit, so a fool returneth to his folly'.
29:18.—'Where there is no vision, the people perish'.
30:19.—'The way of an eagle in the air; the way of a serpent upon a rock; the way of a ship in the midst of the sea; and the way of a man with a maid'.
b. Proverbs from the Book of Ecclesiastes
7:6.—'For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool'.
8:15.—'a man hath no better thing under the sun, than to eat, and to drink, and to be merry'.
9:4.—'a living dog is better than a dead lion'.
11:1.—'Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days'.
Psalm 111:10.—'The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom'.
Judges 14:14.—Samson's riddles.
Judges 9:77 ff.—Jotham's fable.
I Kings 3, I Kings 4:29-34, I Kings 10.—Solomon as wise man.
Jeremiah 18:18.—Priest, wise man and prophet.
Psalms 1, 32, 34, 37, 49, 112, 128.—Wisdom psalms.
2. Corresponding Passages in The Great Code.
Chapter Five. Typology II.
pp. 121-25. Wisdom.
3. Other 'Charms and Riddles', Northrop Frye, in Spiritus Mundi, Indiana University Press, 1976.
Suggested Essay or Discussion Questions
- Read Blake's 'Proverbs of Hell' in his The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. How do these compare to the wisdom of the popular proverb as we have discussed it in this program?
- Popular wisdom praises tradition and continuity; yet proverbs themselves are a discrete and discontinuous form of literature. How can these two things be reconciled?
- The opposite to the wise man in the Book of Proverbs is the fool. How is this figure different from such a figure as the Fool in King Lear, a type that often is a repository of an oracular kind of wisdom?
- Read 'The Notebooks of Lazarus Long' in Robert Heinlein's science fiction novel Time Enough for Love. How is the tradition of the wise man carried on by the character of Lazarus Long?
Copyright © 1982, 2013, Victoria University
LECTURE TRANSCRIPT: Lecture 17
WISDOM: THE PROVERB
I was speaking of the stage of law, and of a peculiar inheritance which that has bequeathed to western civilization, by which we have assumed that the observed operations of nature and the obligations incurred in human society are both forms of law, although they actually represent totally different things. In nearly all societies, the laws are accompanied by myths explaining that they are of divine origin. In the enuma elish epic for example, the story is that of the creation of the world. After Marduk has killed the dragon of chaos and formed heaven and earth from her body, the poem goes on to deal with the founding of Babylon and with the establishing of the laws there. It goes directly from the creation myth to the myth of the origin of law because law is naturally conservative, and a myth about its origin would naturally be concerned with the establishing of order out of an original chaos. In the Oresteia, which I mentioned last day, the origin of the law court of Athens, the Areopagus, is connected with resolving the feud in the house of Atreus, which had climaxed with Orestes' murder of his mother in revenge for his mother's murder of his father.
In the Bible, however, law follows immediately upon a revolutionary phase. The Israelites rebel against Egyptian authority. They eventually escape from Egypt and become a separate nation in the desert, and it is in the desert that they receive the law. The fact that in the Biblical myth the stage of law follows the stage of revolution has a significance that we have to look at.
A nation which has gone through the experience of a revolution is often one in which the sense of participation on the part of the people is very strong. And so, there is a curious ambiguity in what happens. If you take for example the American Revolution, when De Tocqueville came to America in the nineteenth century and looked at it, one of the things that struck him most forcibly was the sense of popular participation and involvement with the social order, and with what has since been called 'the American way of life'. That does not mean of course that there is a close connection between the revolutionary experience and the reign of law as such, because the moral of a successful revolution is: 'violence pays'. Hence, a great deal of law breaking and violence might be a quite normal outgrowth of the revolutionary experience.
What De Tocqueville felt, however, was that this sense of participation and involvement with the American national experiment might eventually produce another kind of tyranny, a kind of tyranny that would not be imposed from above, but would extend within. It would be of a kind which, with the hindsight of another century, we would call totalitarian.
Now, whether that is true or not, you can see, I think, if you follow the narrative of the story of the Exodus, that the progression from the revolution against Egypt, the Exodus, to the imposing of the law, is accompanied by a strong sense of this total participation and involvement in the new national experiment with the new community of Israel.
Now, in the first place, a successful revolution, once it establishes its authority, frequently becomes very strongly repressive about any further revolutions. The thirteen colonies revolted in the eighteenth century, but they fought a Civil War a century later over the issue of whether there should be any further revolutions or separations. In the story of the Exodus, we are told that there were many rebellions within the Israelite community in the desert. They were tired of living in the desert; they were tired of this inane pastry that God kept raining down from heaven to feed them; and many of them wanted simply to go back to Egypt. The community of Israel in the desert is presented as a theocratic dictatorship under the direct eye of God. God of course is the perfect counter-revolutionary because he always knows when there's a conspiracy against him. And so we read in the Book of Numbers about the rebellion of Korah and his fellow conspirators, Dathan and Abiram, who were swallowed up by the earth. We read of murmurings among the children of Israel, and of God's sending fiery serpents among them to bite everybody who complained.
Moses in this situation has the role of a field commander who is on the inside track to the supreme command headquarters: he goes and reports to his superior officer and issues communiques about his people's morale, and at times will take responsibility for what Israel does wrong. I have a friend who came back from the Italian campaign in the Second World War saying that the most perfect description of that kind of campaign that had ever been recorded was the story of Moses in the desert. Very concerned about his people's morale, in constant touch with his supreme commander, issuing orders about the next move and the next encampment, and all the time he hasn't the faintest notion where the hell he is or how he got there or where he's going, or why he's there in the first place. That sense of a total organization, along with the kind of confusion that only a military atmosphere can induce, is something that runs all through the early books of the Bible.
When we reach the Book of Joshua, we find another modulation of the same kind of thing. If you look at the seventh chapter of Joshua, here we are told that the Israelites take a Canaanite stronghold known as Ai; and God's rule is that everything that they take from a plundered and sacked city shall be devoted to him as a sacrifice. But there is one person among the Israelites who decides to keep something back for himself: his name is Achan. The result is that the next time the Israelites attack a Canaanite stronghold they get taken to the cleaners. Joshua says to God, 'Now what's this? After all, we're supposed to win this war'. And God says, 'Yes, I know, but you stole something from me at Ai, and you've got to look after that before anything else can be done'. So they draw lots, and the lot falls on Achan. In verse 24, 'And Joshua, and all Israel with him, took Achan, the son of Zerah, and the silver, and the garment, and the wedge of gold, and his sons, and his daughters, and his oxen, and his asses, and his sheep, and his tent, and all that he had: And they brought them unto the valley of Achor. And Joshua said, Why has thou troubled us? The Lord shall trouble thee this day. And all Israel stoned him with stones, and burned them with fire after they had stoned them with stones'. In other words, Achan's whole family was wiped out with him. The line of thinking is that such a person as Achan represents a cancer in the community, and the cancer has to be cut out.
There you get a glimpse of the terrorism of an incorruptible society, and the fact that a society set up in such a way is something that humankind can endure for only a very short time. Corruption is an essential aspect to social living, because the people who take advantage of corruption are not invariably the criminals, but also those who find this kind of omniscient purity a trifle exacting to live under. Naturally, you would expect the same kind of thing to recur in the primitive Christian community; and the New Testament counterpart to the story of Achan is in the Book of Acts, the fifth chapter. 'But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles' feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thy heart to lie to the Holy Ghost and to keep back part of the price of the land?' And Ananias and Sapphira are struck dead for their atavistic bourgeois habits, and for running counter to the perfect communism of primitive Christian society.
Well, the stage of law, when it follows a revolution, is often accompanied by purges. The story of Achan is an excellent example of a purge, because the entire family of Achan is wiped out with him. But eventually, God decides that the purge, if it's going to be effective, has to be total. And so, he lays it down that all the old-line revolutionaries, that is, all the people involved in the Exodus from Egypt, would have to die off in the wilderness, and that a new generation would have to grow up before they could enter the Promised Land. That is in the Pentatuch itself, but it's also referred to later in Psalm 95:11. I refer to that because it's quoted in the Epistle to the Hebrews and becomes an important Christian argument as well. 'Unto whom I sware in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest'. The Christians of course elaborated this argument symbolically, and said that the first generation that came out from Egypt, all of which had to die off, represented Judaism, and that the next generation, which was allowed to enter the Promised Land, symbolized Christianity.
After the return from Babylon, the same symbolic theme is repeated by Jeremiah, in Jeremiah 31:31: 'Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake… But this shall be the covenant… After those days, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people'. So that Jeremiah is applying to the return from Babylon, which he's prophesying, the same principle, that the old covenant, or the old testament, is to be done away with, and a new covenant, or a new testament, which will be an inward matter, a spiritual matter rather than a matter of ordinances, will replace it. And Christianity, of course, promptly applied this prophecy to its own teachings, and called its own gospel the New Testament.
The next stage on from law, if you're ready for me to make that transition, is the stage of wisdom. The root of wisdom, as it is presented in the Bible, is the individual absorption of the law, the law as permeating the individual life, and as transferring from the community to the individual the law's sense of the logical consistency, the obedience to certain principles and a continuity in observing them. This appears in some of the Psalms, for example that long one, the 119th, which is so long because it's an acrostic poem with every section of it beginning with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The general theme of that psalm is the individual's confession that he loves the law, and that the law has become a motivating part of his own nature. From there, we develop towards the more primitive conception of wisdom, which is that of practical sense. You can see glimpses of this conception of wisdom as practical sense if you look, for example, at the Odyssey. Ulysses is the crafty man of many devices, and when he comes back to Ithaca, he spends almost an entire book telling a completely fictitious yarn to a very faithful old servant of his, the swineherd, in which he represents himself as a Cretan and tells a story about himself totally at variance with everything else in the Odyssey. There's one place where he's really stuck in a corner, and according to Homer, on this occasion he told the truth, not because he loved the truth—in fact, it hurt him like hell to have to tell the truth—but there was really no help for it. There was nothing else he could do.
For it was such devices that got him out of tight spots, as when he told the Cyclops Polyphemus, who asked for his name, that his name was 'nobody', Outis. He is guided in all his affairs by the one goddess who is consistently friendly to him, and that is the goddess of wisdom, Athene. Athene on one occasion, appears to Ulysses and says, 'You know, I've got a lot of respect and affection for you: you are so superbly crooked. You're such a wonderful liar. And you're very like me, because among all the gods and goddesses, I hold the preeminence for subtle devices'. And so we see that even the goddess of wisdom goes back to one of the most ancient categories of gods, the trickster god. And it's Athene who gets him back to Ithaca by a series of disguisings and by putting false appearances on him.
Well, that kind of practical sense is really a search for the means which from day to day does preserve your balance and your sanity and your well-being. Closely connected with this is the literary genre of the proverb. The proverb is very ancient, and nearly all the ancient kingdoms of the Near East, Egypt and Sumeria and Babylonia, cultivated the proverb very extensively.
There are two general kinds of proverbs, depending on their social context. There's the proverb addressed to people who do not have great advantages in birth or wealth. These proverbs are counsels of prudence. They tell you how to get along without antagonizing your superiors: you have to be polite to them, you have to study their moods and make sure you operate on them when they're in the right mood. But when it comes to your inferiors, don't be insolent or arrogant to them because you never know, they may become your superiors someday. And that is a form of proverb which has always been popular: it's still going strong in Benjamin Franklin in eighteenth-century America; it's still going strong in Sam Slick in nineteenth-century Nova Scotia. Whenever Haliburton at the end of his sketches writes down a proverb that he thinks is particularly wise and shrewd, he prints it in italics. That is again a sign of popular literature, and the proverb and very closely allied fable are two literary genres that come nearest to being what we might call democratic. The most celebrated collectors of fables, Aesop and Phaedrus, were both slaves.
There is another type of proverb. It is very similar as far as content goes, but is rather a series of maxims handed down by a king to his son to emphasize the continuity of the principles of order in society. This kind is found in ancient Egypt, and some of this ancient Egyptian proverbial material reappears many centuries later in the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament. The context it is placed in is different, but it is recognizably the same set of proverbs. This pattern of the father's handing on the accumulated wisdom of his years to his son is something that goes on all through literature. You'll find it in Hamlet when Laertes is about to leave for Paris, and Polonius reaches into his mental filing cabinet and pulls out the accumulated wise saws which Laertes must remember when he's in Paris.
It was still surviving in the eighteenth century when Lord Chesterfield wrote a series of letters to his son. Lord Chesterfield was a paragon of elegance and politeness and courtesy: his son was a lout. Lord Chesterfield felt that if he wrote enough letters to him he might make something better of him, and as a result we have the letters of Chesterfield to his son, which, according to Samuel Johnson, combined the morals of a whore with the manners of a dancing master. But that's perhaps not too uncommon in that genre.
That leads us to another aspect of wisdom, which is that wisdom traditionally is something that depends on the accumulated experience of a community, and therefore is especially the property of the elders and seniors. Therefore, the virtue of wisdom goes along with the respect for the authority of the elders, and for the transmission of their principles in as unchanged a form as possible.
You notice that in the Book of Proverbs, which was assigned to King Solomon, there's a verse about 'Chastise thy son', which is a verse that has probably been responsible for more physical pain than any other sentence ever written. But it's consistent with this whole conception of wisdom. Wisdom is what the elders know: the young people must be broken in to it. The elders are wiser because they have had more experience in that wisdom of prudence that maintains their stability from one day to the next.
Thus, wisdom is dominated throughout by the anxiety of continuity, the feeling that the same things ought to persist in as unchanged a pattern as possible. It's the kind of thing that makes our continuous institutions, like the law courts and the churches, so sacrosanct: the feeling that the continuity of the institution represents something superior to the individual, who drifts in and drifts out of life. And that is perhaps the normal functioning level of most societies, where the supreme law is the law of tradition and custom, of doing things the way they have been done. In some teachings, like those of Confucius in China, these precepts of wisdom are carried to very great lengths. There's a very popular story in the Near East which is called The Story of Ahikar. The 'h' is some kind of Near Eastern gargle that I don't know anything about. It isn't quite 'Ahikar', but that will do. Ahikar, according to the story, is a counselor of a king of Nineveh in Assyria, and so, naturally, an elderly man. He's a very wise and trusted counselor; but he has no son, so he adopts a nephew. The nephew turns out to be a scoundrel who plots against his father and denounces him to the king of Nineveh as a traitor. The king of Nineveh orders his execution, and Ahikar is taken off by the executioner to be murdered.
But the executioner, as happens in so many romances, finds he can't go through with it, and lets him go. Ahikar escapes to Egypt and there becomes a trusted advisor of the Pharaoh of Egypt. Meanwhile, the king of Nineveh finds himself getting into difficulties without his counselor and says audibly at a council that he wishes he had his Ahikar back again. At that point, the executioner speaks up and says, 'Well, it just so happens that I did let him go: he is in Egypt and is now a counselor there'. So the king of Nineveh says, 'Offer him anything, but bring him back here'.
So Ahikar comes back to Nineveh and is reinstated. He then proceeds to take the most terrible revenge on his nephew and adopted son. He sits him down and keeps reciting one proverb after another to him, an appreciable number of them naturally concerned with the inadvisability of ingratitude. After several hundred of these proverbs, the nephew says, 'Well, I think I've got the point now: couldn't you let me off the rest of them?' But Ahikar keeps on placidly reciting proverbs, until, so the text demurely informs us, the nephew blows up and bursts.
Well, with a story like that, of course, you can't miss. You have the authority of the elders; you have the dangers of trusting anybody under thirty; you have the hundreds and hundreds of proverbs to improve the mind of the reader who consults the story. And so we're not surprised to find that the story of Ahikar has embedded itself in all the literatures of the Near East. It is quoted in the Old Testament, and the Book of Tobit in the Apocrypha concerns a man who is said to be the nephew of Ahikar, thereby establishing a link with another popular tale. It is said to be echoed in the New Testament, though some scholars disagree with that. Ahikar found his way into Greek literature under the name of Aesop; and there's even a sura in the Koran which bears his name, or at least another version of his name, although the Koran for the most part is even less interested in secular literature than the New Testament, which is saying a good deal.
So there you have, perhaps, the typical social attitude which goes with the more primitive forms of wisdom: the prudent trusting to experience, the taking of short views, of getting around the next corner. Even some of the aphorisms in the Sermon on the Mount seem to spring out of the same cultural root. When Jesus says, 'Take no thought for the morrow', he means a great many other things, but one of the things he means is: take short views, and do the immediate practical thing which you know will keep your balance for the time being.
It's a pragmatic counsel, and later becomes the basis of the more contemplative and disinterested attitude that we think of as typical of the wise man.
The proverbs, you notice, are an extremely popular and widely read form. There seems to be something about the proverb that stirs the collector's instinct; and there are many books, including two or three books of the Bible, which are essentially collections of proverbs. The Book of Ecclesiasticus in the Apocrypha is said to be a collection of proverbs made by the editor's grandfather, which he has inherited and has added to.
This collecting of proverbs also occurs in non-Biblical literature. In the Anatomy of Melancholy, for example, Burton says that among the cures for melancholy, which he is treating as a disease, there are certain consolatory proverbs, or what he calls remedies against discontent. It's true, he says, that nobody was ever helped in the last by any of these proverbs, but nevertheless, I've made my collection, so you're going to get it. And for the next sixty pages we have Burton's remedies against discontent in the form of his collection of proverbs.
The proverb is popular partly because it is believed to be a valid maxim of conduct. At this point you can see the distinction establishing itself between wisdom and knowledge. Knowledge is of the actual: wisdom is rather a sense of the potential, a sense, rather, of the kind of thing that one should know. The wise man is not necessarily the man who knows the answer, but the kind of person who knows potential situations, who knows the way to deal with the kind of thing that may happen.