The Cultural Tutor

Areopagus: The People's Proverbs

Published almost 1 year ago • 11 min read

The Proverbial Areopagus

Welcome one and all to another slightly unorthodox instalment of the Areopagus. Though we often begin with broadly uplifting poetry, these past few days I've had something a little darker on my mind: The Second Coming by W.B. Yeats, written in 1919. Here is its first stanza:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

A famous poem and rightly so. Now, the reason I've been thinking about Yeats' prophetic verse is that his words could have been written at just about any point in human history. Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. People say this of politics in the 21st century, and of society more generally. But Erasmus might have said the same thing in the 1520s, as Europe was riven by the Reformation, or Averroes when he was exiled from Cordoba in 1195, or any Roman who witnessed the civil wars and endless political strife of the 1st century BC, as their Republic collapsed into Empire. The list goes on and on: have we ever been free from this feeling that mere anarchy is loosed upon the world? And yet, this being true, Yeats' blood-curdling words end up being rather reassuring. What frightens us now has frightened us before - and yet we've made it this far.

But we turn to the seven lessons... or not! I had written most of this week's Areopagus when I realised just how voluminous and illuminating were the responses to last week's question:

What is your favourite proverb?

I received a wealth of worldly wisdom, from the Ivory Coast to Argentina to the Book of Proverbs itself. It would have been amiss not to share them with you. So what I have already prepared must be postponed. Forgive my lack of musings thereon, but I wanted the emphasis of this week's volume to be on the wisdom of my Gentle Readers.

The People's Proverbs

Chris S

"Needs must when the devil drives."

I remember my mum telling me this when I was a child. It took many years for me to understand it, about how to act in circumstances beyond your control. In a similar vein it can be paired with: you can dance with the devil, but it will be to his tune.

Carl B

My favorite proverb is from William Blake:

"The Errors of a Wise Man make your Rule
Rather than the Perfections of a Fool"

I write poetry, and often hear writing advice (only sometimes directed at me) that runs contrary to the practice of great writers. For instance, I’ve been told that words that end with “-ing” weaken a line of verse. But is the opening of Nobel laureate Yeats’s “The Second Coming” weak?

“Turning and turning in the widening gyre…”

I wouldn’t go so far as to call those who offer such advice “fools,” but I think they repeat advice they’ve heard or read without subjecting it to scrutiny.

I’ve also read at least one academic poet argue that Edgar Allan Poe was not a great poet, enumerating (correctly , I think) many things Poe did wrong; but he missed the important things Poe did right. That’s what geniuses can teach us: not what mistakes to avoid, but what positive virtues to practice.

My favorite writers all followed their own bent: Emily Dickinson, with her idiosyncratic syntax and punctuation; Herman Melville, whose Moby-Dick has long passages that read like encyclopedia entries on whales and whaling; Gertrude Stein and her complex simplicity; the famously difficult James Joyce; and Blake himself, whose books would never have seen the light of day if he hadn’t self-published.

Incidentally, this proverb pairs well with another Blake quote: “ Improvement makes strait roads, but the crooked roads without Improvement, are roads of Genius.”

David B

"Every cliche is true, as is its opposite."

Perhaps I'm skirting the definition of a proverb as the saying above comes not from the passed-down sayings of a community but from my own experience and thought. Allow me to illustrate those eight words.

We've all heard, "A thing worth doing is worth doing well." What a sensible saying! If we value doing something, let's also value doing it with precision and care. If we're moving into a house, shouldn't it be one that offers shelter, space that serves our way of living and features elements of architectural beauty for us to contemplate? Now that's a well done house!

But what about that first place after living in your parents' home? Or the first house you bought? Or even the place you move to when you need assistance with activities of daily living? Maybe those residences lacked things, proper heating, space to entertain, windows offering pleasant light, or the like. Those places are worth living in for the freedom that having your own shelter offered, for the possibilities they opened up in life, or for the care they offer to a person in need. Those are places worth living in, even if the living can be awkward, or not done well.

Living in those places are worth it for their own sake, regardless of how well done they are. Perhaps one could say, "A thing worth doing is worth doing poorly."

James T

There are so many, it’s hard to pick one, but running with Mourinho, here’s another from Iberia: “en la Tierra de los ciegos, el tuerto es Rey”. “In the Land of the blind, the one-eyed man is King”.

Luciano S

In my land of Argentina, there used to be a traditional Catholic festivity, in the honor of Saint Martin. In it, a pig would be sacrificed in his honor. I am not sure how much of that was local paganism versus actual canon. From there, we draw this commonly said (though its origin is mostly forgotten) proverb: "To every pig, St. Martin's day comes."

This is taken as a more informal "memento mori", but is also said when someone does something unfair. Either when eventually justice catches up to them (if that ever happens), or as a small prayer that it will.

Bob W

Your question regarding one's favourite proverb prompts me to send you this gem from my country, Ireland: "Ní uasal ná iseal, ach thuas seal agus thíos seal." Which translates as: it is not high or low, but up a while and down a while; a reminder of the transitory nature of social prestige.

Bettina R

My favorite proverb actually is a quotation from a children's book by Astrid Lindgren, Karlson on the Roof: "That does not bother a great mind."

I hope it conveys the casualness and self irony I very much like in this quotation / phrase / motto.

Luigi M

Here is my proverb, which is about traveling:

"Vajar descanta, ma se te parti mona, te torni mona".

It is in the language of Venice, and it means something like:

"Traveling awaken, but if you leave stupid, you will come back stupid".

N.B.: "Stupid" is only my poor translation of the Venetian "mona", which is a wide term used in the Veneto region of Italy to identify dummies, imbeciles, morons, idiots, fools...

I remember one time the Venetian illustrator, traveler and adventurer Hugo Pratt, the creator of the adventurous sailor and great traveler Corto Maltese, saying it in public, at a conference when questioned about the meaning of traveling.

Rafael WdS

"Praise undeserved, is satire in disguise."
~Alexander Pope

Jane L

Proverbs 3:13

"Blessed are those who find wisdom, those who gain understanding."

The Loreto sisters at my school used to instruct us to inscribe AMDG at the start of every exercise book, but Mother Frances had a better idea and her preferred start was this proverb.

I’m not sure that we ever completely find wisdom but hopefully as we get older it increases. The more we know and understand, the greater the likelihood of finding wisdom.

Tina A

My favourite proverb is, "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

I used it almost daily during practice when the patient in front of me felt overwhelmed by their situation and didn't know how to, or if, they could start any change. It can equally be used as encouragement for someone who has begun a process of change they are uncertain they might accomplish. Indeed, I might even apply it to myself in almost literal sense at the moment, as I begin the slow journey back to fitness after injury.

The Dao de Jing offers many such proverbs and has been a frequent source of encouragement and wisdom since I first read it almost for decades ago. I turn 60 in two weeks and, whilst my journey may be much slower now, it still requires that first step

Deborah G

"The one on the top of the mountain did not fall there."


"When events are confusing and motivations elusive; follow the money."

Mark C

“There’s none so blind as those who cannot see”

…came via the maternal grandma who was always keen we try the phrase “hells bells and cockle shells” rather than utter expletives ; not a complete success but she instilled a vague sense of shame should rustic vocabulary pop out.

Sulaimon O

Perhaps my favorite proverbs are Yoruba proverbs from Nigeria. Maybe because I'm Nigerian.

1) Proverb: Òkú ò mọ iye aa ra agọ̀

Translation: The dead are unaware of the cost of their coffin.

Meaning: This proverb is used to describe someone who wastes wonderful goods because he is not the one who paid for them.

2) Proverb: À ń pe gbẹ́nàgbẹ́nà ẹyẹ àkókó ń yọjú

Translation: A sculptor is summoned, but it is the woodpecker who appears.

Meaning: You should never overestimate yourself or engage in talks to which you are not invited.

3) Proverb: Ọwọ́ ọlọ́wọ́ ò lè yó ẹnu ẹlẹ́nu

Translation: Never expect the hands of someone else to feed you to satisfaction.

Meaning: This Yoruba saying teaches that we should not depend on other people because only you cand do something to your satisfaction.

Sarah P

Favorite proverb, from a childhood friend's father:

"One thing at a time, and that done well,
Is a very good rule, as many will tell.
Moments are useless trifled away,
So work while you work, and play while you play!"

Steven L

My favorite proverb actually comes from a children's book title by Eleanor Clymer, Take Tarts as Tarts is Passing, that I read many times as a child a long time ago. Don't think of it as another version of the Latin proverb, Carpe Diem, it's more than that, it's seizing an opportunity and seeing we're it takes you. It is advice that I've used many times in my life, and, although it sometimes doesn't work the way I expected (life never does), it has served me well. By the way, it's a fun book to read to your children or grandchildren.

Tobias G

My favorite proverb is "Give a man a fish and you'll feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you'll feed him for a lifetime". I don't know exactly whose proverb it is, but I find it as my way of living my life. I've always thought, since childhood, that it depended upon me how far I can get and my only limitations are my conditionings. I know that sounds cliché, but it's true, at least for my experience. What separates a poor person begging for food and a wealthy person is their limited mindset.

Poverty is a state of mind primarily, it's a sense of helplessness that limits us at any level, at any area. The proverb at first seems to apply to poverty in the material sense, but it might be expanded to almost every area of our lives.

That being said, material wealth is not the ultimate goal in life. This proverb can be interpreted as a way of being "rich" in many areas of our life. But that takes action, responsibility, and willing to get out of the comfort zone.

As a parent, I find myself in this situation everyday. I see my children grow, and I know that it'd be easier (and faster) for me to tie their shoelaces, but if I don't let them learn it, they won't develop the security to learn that, indeed, they are capable of overcoming difficulties on their own.


"Are you so busy fighting you cannot see your own ship has set sail?"

What do you mean that's not a proverb and is actually a quote from Uncle Iroh on Avatar the Last Airbender? Iroh is full of great wisdom but this one has always stood out to me, even if it isn't a proverb. I like the meaning that you can be so caught up in destroying your opponent that you don't see all the opportunities that you are missing to achieve what you truly want.

Or you could go with a different meaning: You're so focused on the past/revenge that your own life is leaving without you. Only you are stuck in the past while everyone else moves on. There's a million ways to interpret it but those are the two I like the most.

Guillermo M

"This too shall pass" as it offers a valuable perspective on life's ups and downs. It reminds us that both joy and hardship are temporary and transient. In times of adversity, it provides hope and encouragement, reminding us that difficult situations will eventually pass. Conversely, during moments of success or happiness, it serves as a reminder to cherish and appreciate those moments because they too will eventually fade. Overall, this proverb encourages resilience, patience, and a balanced outlook on life.

Pat C

My favourite proverb comes from Saudi Arabia and goes as follows:

"When the kings dog dies everybody turns up,
When the king dies nobody turns up"

Linda E

My favourite proverb comes from my American great-grandmother who lived and worked (in mining and horse trading, of all things!) among the indigenous people of the Arizona Territory in the late 19th century. She was convinced:

"You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar" - in other words, a sweetie-pie can be much more convincing than a sour puss. The proverb has seen lots of service in our family…

Stéphane A

I have two in fact that I can't put one above another. I'm from an West African country named Ivory Coast. From what I've read from you, you seem like a football fan so if you know Didier Drogba, I'm his countryman.

So the first one is loosely trnaslated from French: "Even if the rabbit is your enemy, you have to concede that he does have long ears."

The second one is: "If trust was a thing, water wouldn't fry a fish."

Question of the Week

And for this week's question to test your critical thinking:

Is there such a thing as objectively good art?

Email me your answers and I'll share them in next week's newsletter.

And that's all

In absorbing your mighty and collective wisdom (including some proverbs I am sure to use myself in future!) I was somehow drawn to think of Pindar, that great Greek lyric poet of the 6th century BC. His wisdom is not quite proverbial, though it be somewhat mystical. I leave you with his beguiling words:

Single is the race, single
Of men and of gods;
From a single mother we both draw breath.
But a difference of power in everything
Keeps us apart;
For the one is as Nothing, but the brazen sky
Stays a fixed habitation for ever.
Yet we can in greatness of mind
Or of body be like the Immortals,
Tho’ we know not to what goal
By day or in the nights
Fate has written that we shall run.

The Areopagus shall return with its usual seven lessons next Friday. Fare thee well, my Readers Sage and Far. Exeunt...


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