Proverbs and Their Lessons







                 By Richard Chenevix Trench


















                                             London:  G Routledge, 1861



                       THE FIRST EDITION.



THE Lectures here published were never

delivered as a complete course, but only

one here and two there, as little by little the

materials grew under my hands; yet so that

very much the larger part of what is contained

in this volume has been at one time or another

actually delivered. I publish them, because no

one of the works on Proverbs which I know is

exactly that book for all readers which I could

have wished to see. Either they include matter

which cannot be fitly placed before all—or they

address themselves to the scholar alone, or if

not so, are at any rate inaccessible to the mere

English reader—or they contain bare lists of

proverbs, with no endeavour to compare, illus-

trate, and explain them—or if they seek to

vi         Proverbs and their Lessons.


explain, yet they do it without attempting to

sound the depths, or measure the real signifi-

cance, of that they undertake to unfold. From

these or other causes it has come to pass, that

with a multitude of books, many of them admir-

able, on a subject so popular, there is no single

one which is frequent in the hands of men. I

will not deny that, with all the slightness and

shortcomings of my own, I have still hoped to

supply, at least for the present, this deficiency.


            ITCHENSTOKE: December 13, 1857.





                                     LECTURE I.


THE FORM AND DEFINIITION OF A PROVERB                                   1



                                     LECTURE II.

THE GENERATION OF PROVERBS                                                         24



                                     LECTURE III.




                                      LECTURE IV.




                                      LECTURE V.

THE MORALITY OF PROVERBS                                                  99



                                     LECTURE VI.

THE THEOLOGY OF PROVERBS                                                 126





            AGES                                                                                                  153






                                LECTURE I.




IT may very well be that proverbs have never

attracted from us the notice they deserve; and

thus it may easily come to pass that, when invited

to bestow even a brief attention on them, we are in

doubt whether they will repay our pains. We think

of them but as sayings on the lips of the multitude;

not a few of them have been familiar to us as far back

as we can remember; they have been often employed

by ourselves, or in our hearing, on slight and trivial

occasions: and thus, however one or another may

have taken our fancy, we yet have remained blind in

the main to the wit, wisdom, and imagination, of

which they are full ; and very little aware of the

amusement, instruction, insight into matters the most

important, which they are capable of yielding. Unless

too we have devoted a certain attention to the subject,

we shall be utterly unconscious how little those more

familiar ones, which are frequent on the lips of ,men,

2     Form and Definition of a Proverb,  LECT.


exhaust the treasure of our native proverbs; how

many and what excellent ones remain behind, having

now for the most part fallen out of use and of sight;

or what riches in like kind other nations possess, and

are prepared to contribute to the common stock. We

shall not so much as suspect the manifold points of

interest from which our own by themselves, and our

own brought into comparison with those of other

nations, may be regarded.

            And yet there is much to induce us to reconsider

our judgment, should we be, thus tempted to slight

them, and to count them not merely trite, but trivial

and unworthy of a serious regard. The fact that they

please the people, and have pleased them for ages,—

that they possess so vigorous a principle of life, as to

have maintained, many of them, their ground, ever-

new and ever young, through all the centuries of a

nation's existence,—nay, that proverbs not a few have

pleased not one nation only, but many, so that they

have made themselves a home in lands the most

different,—and further, that they have, not a few of

them, come down to us from remotest antiquity;

borne safely upon the waters of that great stream of,

time, which has swallowed so much beneath its waves,

—all this, I think, may well make us pause, should

we be disposed to turn away from them with indif-

ference or disdain.

            And then further, there is this to be considered,

that some of the greatest poets, the profoundest

philosophers, the most learned scholars, the most

genial writers in every kind, have delighted in them,

have made large and frequent use of them, have

bestowed infinite labour on the gathering and eluci-

I.                 Best Writers delight in Proverbs.          3


dating of them. In a fastidious age, indeed, and one

of false refinement, they may go nearly or quite out

of use among the so-called upper classes. 'No

gentleman,' says Lord Chesterfield, or 'no man

of fashion,' as I think is his exact phrase, ‘ever uses

a proverb.’1 And with, how fine a touch of nature

Shakespeare makes Coriolanus, the man who, with all

his greatness, is entirely devoid of all sympathy for

the people, to utter hiss scorn of them in scorn of

their proverbs, and their frequent employment of


                                                'Hang 'em!

            They said they were an hungry, sighed forth proverbs;—

            That, hunger broke stone walls: that, dogs must eat;

            That, meat was made for mouths; that, the gods sent not

            Corn for the rich men only;--with these shreds

            They vented their complainings.' 2


            But that they have been always dear to the true

intellectual aristocracy of a nation, there is abundant

evidence to prove. Take but these three lames in

evidence, which though few, are in themselves a host.

Aristotle made a collection of proverbs; nor did he

count that he was herein doing aught unworthy of

his high reputation, hovcsever some of his adversaries

may afterwards have made of this fact an imputa-

tion against him. He is said to have been the first

collector of them, though many afterwards followed

in the same path.3 Shakespeare loves them so well,


                1 A similar contempt of them speaks out in the antithesis

of the French Jesuit, Bouhours: Les proverbes sont les sentences

du peuple, et les sentences sont les proverbes des honnetes gens.

                2 Coriolanus, Act I. Sc. I.

            3 Nopitsch, in his Literature of Proverbs, Nuremberg, 1833,

4       Form and Definition of a Proverb.             LECT.


that besides often citing them, and scattering in-

numerable covert allusions, rapid side glances at them,

which we are in much danger of missing unless at

home in the proverbs of England, several of his plays,

as Measure for Measure, All's well that ends well,

have popular proverbs for their titles. And Cervantes,

a name only inferior to Shakespeare, has made very

plain the affection with which he regarded them.

Every reader of Don Quixote will remember his

squire, who can hardly open his mouth but there

drop from it almost as many proverbs as phrases. I

might name others who have held the proverb in

honour—men who though they may not attain to

these first three, are yet deservedly accounted great;

as Plautus, the most genial of Latin poets, Rabelais

and Montaigne, the two most original of French

authors while Chaucer literally swarms with allusions,

nearer or more remote, to the proverbs current in his

day. How often too Fuller, whom Coleridge has

styled the wittiest of writers, justifies this praise in his

witty employment of some old proverb: and no reader

can thoroughly understand and enjoy Hudibras, none

but will miss a multitude of its keenest allusions, who

is not thoroughly familiar with the proverbial literature

of England.

            Nor is this all; we may with reverence adduce

quite another name than any of these, the Lord Him-

self, as condescending to employ such proverbs as

He found current among his people. Thus, on the

occasion of his first open appearance in the syna-


enumerates nearly two thousand collections, small and great, of

these, which have been published.

I.                       Proverbs in Scripture                     5


gogue of Nazareth, He refers to the proverb, Physician,

heal thyself (Luke iv. 23), as one which his hearers

will perhaps bring forward against Himself; and

again presently to another, A prophet is not without

honour but in his own country, as attested in his own

history; and at the well of Sychar He declares,

‘Herein is that saying,’ or that proverb, ‘true, One

soweth and another reapeth’ (John iv. 37). But he is

much more than an employer of other men's proverbs;

He is a maker of his own. As all forms of human

composition find their archetypes and their highest

realization in Scripture, as there is no tragedy like

Job, no pastoral like Ruth, no lyric melodies like the

Psalms, so we should affirm no proverbs like those of

Solomon, were it not that ‘a greater than Solomon’

has drawn out of the rich treasure-house of the

Eternal Wisdom a series of proverbs more costly still.

For indeed how much of our Lord's teaching, especi-

ally as recorded in the three earlier Evangelists, is

thrown into this form; and how many of his words

have in this shape passed over as 'faithful sayings' to

live upon the lips of men; and so doing, have fulfilled

a necessary condition of the proverb, whereof there

will be presently occasion to speak. But I urge this

testimony no further,--a testimony too august to be

lightly used, or employed merely to swell the testi-

monies of men; least of all where they are men of such

‘uncircumcised lips’ as, with all their genius, were

more than one of those just named. Proofs enough

there are everywhere that here is a subject, which

men whose examples should go far, whose judgments

must weigh much with us, have counted worthy of

their most serious attention.           

6       Form and Definition of a Proverb.                 LECT.


            And we too ourselves, as I doubt not, after a little

acquaintance with the literature of proverbs, shall be

ready to set our own seal to the conclusions of wiser

men that have preceded us here. For, indeed, what

a body of popular good sense and good feeling is con-

tained in the better, which is also the more numerous,

class of proverbs. What a sense of natural equity,

what a spirit of kindness breathes out from many of

them; what prudent rules for the management of life,

what shrewd wisdom which though not of this world,

is most truly for it; what frugality, what patience,

what perseverance, what manly independence, are

continually inculcated by them. How fine a know-

ledge of the human heart do many of them display;

what useful, and not always obvious, hints do they

offer on many most important points, as on the choice

of companions, the bringing up of children, the bearing

of prosperity and adversity, the restraint of immoderate

desires. And they take a yet higher range than this;

they have their ethics, their theology; they contem-

plate man in his highest relations of all, as man with

his fellow man, and man with his Maker. Let their

utterances on these points be correct or not, and I am

very far from affirming that they are always correct,

the student of humanity, he who being a man, counts

nothing human to be alien to him, can never, without

wilfully foregoing an important document, and one

which would have helped him often in his studies,

altogether neglect or pass them by.


            But what, it may be asked before we proceed

further, is a proverb? Few things are harder than

a definition. While on the one hand there is gene-

I.                    Constituents of a Proverb.                    7


rally no easier task than to detect a fault or flaw in the

definitions of those who have gone before us, nothing

on the other is more difficult than to propose one of

our own, which shall not also present a vulnerable

side. Some one has said that these three things go

to the constituting of a proverb, shortness, sense, and

salt. In brief pointed utterances like this which I

have just cited, the second of the qualities enume-

rated, namely sense, is sometimes sacrificed to allitera-

tion. I would not affirm that it is so here: for the

words are not ill spoken, though they are very far from

satisfying the rigorous requirements of a definition, as

will be seen when we have considered what the writer

intended by his three esses, which it is not hard to

understand. The proverb, he says, must have short-

ness; it must be succinct, utterable in a breath. It must

have sense, not being, that is, the mere small talk of

conversation, slight and trivial, which deserves to

perish, and which does perish as soon as born, no one

taking the trouble to keep it alive. It must have salt,

that is, besides its good sense, it must have point and

pungency, and, so to say, a barb which shall not suffer

it to drop lightly from the memory.1 Yet, regarded

as a definition, this of the triple s fails; it errs alike

in defect and in excess.


            1 Compare with this Martial's happy epigram upon epigrams,

in which everything runs exactly parallel to that which has been

said above :

            ‘Omne epigramma sit instar apis; sit aculeus illi,

                 Sint sua mella, sit et corporis exigui;'

which may be indifferently rendered thus:

            'Three things must epigrams, like bees, have all—

            Its sting, its honey, and its body small.'

8             Form and Definition of a Proverb.           LECT.


            Thus, in demanding shortness, it errs in excess.

It is indeed quite certain that a good proverb will be

short, as short, that is, as compatible with the full

and forcible conveying of that which it intends.

Brevity, ‘the soul of wit,’ will be eminently the

soul of a proverb's wit; it will contain, according

to Fuller's definition, ‘much matter decocted into

few words.’ Oftentimes it will consist of two, three,

or four, and these sometimes monosyllabic, words.

Thus Extremes meet;—Right wrongs no man;—

Wrong never comes right;—Old sins breed new sores;

Forewarned, forearmed;—with a thousand more.1

But still shortness is only a relative term, and it would

be more accurate to say that a proverb must be concise,

cut down, that is, to the fewest possible words; con-

densed, quintessential wisdom.2 But that, if only it

fulfil this condition of being as short as possible, it

need not be absolutely very short, there are sufficient

examples to prove. Thus Freytag has admitted the

following, which indeed hovers on the confines of the

fable, into his great collection of Arabic proverbs:

They said to the camel-bird, [i.e., the ostrich,] ‘Carry;’

it answered, ‘I cannot, for I am a bird.’ They said,


            1 The shortest proverb which I know in the world is this

German: Voll, toll; which sets out very well the connexion

between fulness and folly, pride and abundance of bread. In

that seeking of extreme brevity noted above, they sometimes

become exceedingly elliptical (although this is the case more

with the ancient than with the modern), so much so as to omit

even the vital element of the sentence, the verb. Thus: Xrh<mat ]

a]nh<r;—Sus Minervam;—Fures clamorem;—Meretrix pudicam;

—Amantes amentes.

            2 This is what Aristotle means ascribing suntomi<a—which

in another place he opposes to the o@gkoj le<cewj—to it.

I.               Popularity an essential quality.                  9


'Fly;' it answered, 'I cannot, for I am a camel.'  This

could not be shorter, yet, as compared with the greater

number of proverbs, is not short.1  Even so the sense and

the salt, which are ascribed to the proverb as other

necessary conditions, can hardly be said to be such; see-

ing that flat, saltless proverbs, though comparatively rare,

there certainly are in abundance; while yet, be it re-

membered, we are not considering now what are the or-

naments of a good proverb, but the essential marks of all.

            And then moreover the definition just given errs

in defect; for it has plainly omitted one quality of

the proverb, and that the most essential of all, and

indeed almost the only essential—I mean popu-

larity, acceptance and adoption on the part of the

people. Without this popularity, without these

suffrages and this consent of the many, no saying,

however brief, however wise, however seasoned with

salt, however worthy on all these accounts to have

become a proverb, however fulfilling, all other its con-

ditions, can yet be esteemed as such. This popu-

larity, omitted in that enumeration of the essential

notes of the proverb, is yet the only note whose pre-

sence is absolutely necessary, whose absence is fatal

to the claims of any saying to be regarded as such.

            Those, however, who have occupied themselves


            1 Let serve for further proof this eminently witty old Ger-

man proverb, which, despite its apparent length, has not for-

feited its character as such. I shall prefer to leave it in the

original; Man spricht, an viererlei Leuten ist Mangel auf Erden:

an Pfaffen, sonst durfte einer nit 6 bis 7 Pfruenden; an

Adelichen, sonst wollte nit jeder Bauer ein Junker sein; an

Huren, sonst wurden die Handwerk Eheweiber and Nunnen nit

trieben; an Juden, sonst wurden Christen nit wuchern.

10            Form and Definition of f a Proverb.    LECT.


with the making of collections of proverbs have some-

times failed to realize this to themselves with sufficient

clearness, or at any rate have not kept it always

before them. It has thus come to pass, that many

collections include whatever brief sayings their

gatherers have anywhere met, which to them have

appeared keenly, or wisely, or wittily spoken;1 while

yet a multitude of these have never received their

adoption into the great family of proverbs, or their

rights of citizenship therein: and inasmuch as they

have never passed into general recognition and cur-

rency, have no claim to this title, however just a claim

they may have on other grounds to our admiration

and honour. For instance, this word of Goethe's,

‘A man need not be an architect to live in a house,’

seems to me to have every essential of a proverb,

saving only that it has not passed over upon the lips

of men. It is a saying of manifold application; an

universal law is knit up in a particular example; I

mean that gracious law in the distribution of blessing,

which does not limit our use and enjoyment of things

by our understanding of them, but continually makes


            1 When Erasmus, after discussing and rejecting the defini-

tions of those who had gone before him, himself  defines the

proverb thus, Celebre dictum, scita quapiam novitate insigne, it

appears to me that he has not escaped the fault which he has

blamed in others—that, namely, of confounding the accidental

adjuncts of a good proverb with the necessary conditions of every

proverb. In rigour the whole second clause of the definition

should be dismissed, and Celebre dictum alone remain. Better

Eifelein (Sprichworter des Deutschen Volkes, Friburg, 1840,

p. x): Das Sprichwort ist ein mit offentlichem Geprage ausge-

munzter Saz, der seinen Curs and anerkannten Werth unter dem  

Volke hat.

I.                    Aphorisms not Proverbs.                     11


the enjoyment much wider than the knowledge; so

that it is not required that one be a botanist to have

pleasure in a rose, nor a critic to delight in Paradise

Lost, nor a theologian to taste all the blessings of

Christian faith, nor, as Goethe here expresses it, an

architect to live in a house. And here is an inimit-

able saying of Schiller's: ‘Heaven and earth fight in

vain against a dunce;’ yet it is not a proverb, because

his alone; although abundantly worthy to become

such;1 moving as it does in the same line with,  

though far superior to, the Chinese proverb, which

itself also is good: One never so much needs his wit, as

when he argues with a fool.

            Or take another example still more to the point.

James Howell, a prolific English writer of the earlier

half of the seventeenth century, and one who merits

something better than that entire oblivion into which

his writings have fallen, occupied himself much with

proverbs; and besides collecting those of others, he

has himself set down ‘five hundred new sayings, which

in tract of time may serve for proverbs to posterity.’

So he hoped, but, as might be expected, they have

not fulfilled this hope of their author; for it is not

after this artificial method that such are born. And

yet many of these proverbs in expectation are ex-

pressed with sense and felicity; for example:  ‘Pride

is a flower that grows in the devil's garden.’ So too

the selfishness which characterizes too many proverbs

is not ill reproduced in the following: ‘Burn not thy


            1 It suggests, however, the admirable Spanish proverb,

spoken no doubt out of the same conviction: Dios me de con-

tienda con quien me entienda.

12          Form and Definition of a Proverb.   LECT.


fingers to snuff another man's candle;’ and there is

at any rate good theology in the following:  ‘Faith is

a great lady, and good works are her attendants;’

and in this:  ‘The poor are God's receivers, and the

angels are his auditors.’  For all this, it would be in-

accurate to quote these as proverbs (and their author

himself, as we have seen, did not do more than set

them out as proverbs upon trial), inasmuch as they have

remained the private property of him who first devised

them, never having passed into general circulation;

which until men's sayings have done, maxims,

sentences, apophthegms, aphorisms they may be, and

these of excellent temper and proof, but proverbs as

yet they are not.

            It is because of this, the popularity inherent in a

genuine proverb, that from such in a certain sense

there is no appeal. You will not suppose me to in-

tend that there is no appeal from its wisdom, truth, or

justice; from any word of man's there may be such;

but no appeal from it, as most truly representing a

popular conviction. Aristotle, who in his ethical and

political writings often finds very much more than this

in a proverb, always finds this. It may not be, it very

often will not be, an universal conviction which it ex-

presses, but ever one popular and widespread. So far

indeed from an universal, very often over against the

one proverb there will be another, its direct antago-

nist; and the one shall belong to the kingdom of

light, the other to the kingdom of darkness. Common

fame is seldom to blame; here is the baser proverb, for

as many as drink in with greedy ears all reports to the

injury of their neighbours; being determined from

the first that they shall be true. But it is not left

I.                          Not all Proverbs true.                     13


without its compensation:  They say so,’ is half a liar;

here is the better word with which they may arm them-

selves, who count it a primal duty to close their ears

against all such unauthenticated rumours to the dis-

credit of their neighbours. The noblest vengeance is to

forgive; here is the godlike proverb on the manner in

which wrongs should be recompensed: He who cannot

revenge himself is weak, he who will not is vile,1 here

is the devilish. In a sonnet which Howell has pre-

fixed to his collection of proverbs these lines occur:


            ‘The people's voice the voice of God we call;

                And what are proverbs but the people's voice?

                 Coined first, and current made by common choice?

            Then sure they must have weight and truth withal.’


It will follow from what has just been said, that, how-

ever true in the main, this statement cannot be taken

without important qualifications and exceptions.2

            Herein the force of a proverb mainly consists,

namely, that it has already received the stamp of

popular allowance. A man might produce (for what

another has done he might do again) something as

witty, as forcible, as much to the point, of his own;

which should the hammered at the instant on his own

anvil. Yet still it is not ‘the wisdom of many;’ it

has not stood the test of experience; it wants that

which the other already has, but which it only after a


            1 Chi non pub fare sua vendetta e debile, chi non vuole a vile.

            2 Quintilian's words (Inst. v. i i. 41), which are to the same

effect, must be taken with the same exception: Neque enim

durassent haec in aeternum, nisi vera omnibus viderentur; and

also Don Quixote's: Pareceme me, Sancho, que no ay refran que

no sea verdadero, porque todas son sentencias sacadas de la

misma experiencia, madre de las ciencias todas.

14           Form and Definition of a Proverb.         LECT.


shorter or longer period can acquire—the consenting

voice of many and at different times to its wisdom and

truth. A man employing a ‘proverb of the ancients’

(I Sam. xxiv. 13), one of these ‘short sentences drawn

from long experience,’ as Cervantes calls them, is not

speaking of his own, but uttering a faith and convic-

tion very far wider than that of himself or of any 

single man; and it is because he is so doing that they,

in Lord Bacon's words, ‘serve not only for ornament

and delight, but also for active and civil use; as being

the edge tools of speech which cut and penetrate the

knots of business and affairs.’ The proverb has in

fact the same advantage over the saying now produced

for the first time, which for present currency and

value has the recognized coin of the realm over the

rude unstamped ore newly washed from the stream,

or dug up from the mine. This last may possess an

equal degree of fineness; but the other has been

stamped long ago, has already passed often from man

to man, and found free acceptance with all:1 it in-

spires therefore a confidence which the metal un-

stamped and unattested cannot at present challenge.

And the same satisfaction which the educated man

finds in referring the particular matter before him to

the universal law which rules it, a plainer man finds in

the appeal to a proverb. He is doing the same thing;

taking refuge, that is, as each man so gladly does,

from his mere self and single fallible judgment, in a

larger experience and in a wider conviction.


            1 Thus in a proverb about proverbs, the Italians say, with a

true insight into this its prerogative: Il proverbio s'invecchia,

e chi vuol far bene, vi si specchia.

I.                     Popularity essential.                          15


            And in all this which has been urged lies, as it

seems to me, the explanation of a sentence of an

ancient grammarian, which at first sight appears to

contain a bald absurdity, namely, that a proverb is ‘a

saying without an author.’ For, however without a

known author it may, and in the majority of cases it

must be, still, as we no more believe in the spontan-

eous generation of proverbs than of anything else, an

author every one of them must have had. It might,

however, and it often will have been, that in its utter-

ance the author did but precipitate the floating convic-

tions of the society round him; he did but clothe in,

happier form what others had already felt, or even,

already uttered; for a proverb has oftentimes been in

this respect, the wit of one, and the wisdom of many.

And further, its constitutive element, as we must all

now perceive, is not its utterance on the part of the

one, but its acceptance on the part of the many.  It is

their sanction which first raises it to the dignity of such;

so that every one who took or gave it during the period,

when it was struggling into recognition may claim to

have had a share in its production; and in this sense

without any single author it may have been. From

the very first the people will have vindicated it four

their own. And thus though they do not always

analyse the compliment paid to them in the use of 

their proverbs, they always feel it; they feel that

a writer or speaker using these is putting himself on

their ground, is entering on their region, and they

welcome him the more cordially for this.1


            1 The name which the proverb bears in Spanish points to this

fact, that popularity is a necessary condition of it. This name

16             Form and Definition of a Proverb.             LECT.


            Let us now consider if some other have not some-

times been proposed as essential notes of the proverb,

which yet are in fact accidents, such as may be present

or may be absent without affecting it vitally. Into an

error of this kind they have fallen, who claim for the

proverb, and make one of its necessary conditions,

that it should be a figurative expression. But how

many excellent proverbs, such as Haste makes waste;

—Honesty is the best policy, with ten thousand more,

have nothing figurative about them: Here again the

error has arisen from taking that which is the or-

nament of many, and those oftentimes the best and

choicest, and transferring it, as a necessary feature, to

all. This much of truth there is here, namely, that

the employment of the concrete instead of the abstract

is one of the most frequent means by which the

proverb obtains and keeps its popularity; making in

this way an appeal not to the intellectual faculties

alone, but to the feelings, to the fancy, or even to the

imagination, as well, and stirring the whole man to

pleasurable activity.

            By the help of an example or two we can best

realize to ourselves how immense an advantage it thus

obtains for itself. Thus if one contented himself

with saying, ‘He may wait till he is a beggar, who

waits to be rich by other men's deaths,’ would this

trite morality go half so far, or be remembered half

so long, as the vigorous image of this proverb:  He


is not proverbio, for that in Spanish signifies an apophthegm, an

aphorism, a maxim; but refran, which is a referendo, from the

frequency of its repetition; yet see Diez, Etymol. Worterbuch,

p. 284. The etymology of the Greek paromi<a is somewhat

doubtful, but it too means probably a trite, wayside saying.

I.              Proverbs excite the Imagination.                17


who waits for dead men's shoes may go barefoot?1 Or

again, what is ‘All men are mortal,’ as compared with

the proverb: Every door may be shut but death's

door? or with this: Death always finds some excuse?

Or let one observe:  ‘More perish by intemperance

than are drowned in the sea,’ is this anything better

than a painful, yet at the same time a flat, truism?

But put it thus: More are drowned in the beaker

than in the ocean;2 or thus: More are drowned in

wine and in beer than in water:3 (and these both are

German proverbs), and it is quite a different matter.

There is something that lays hold on us now. We

are struck with the smallness of the beaker as set

against the vastness of the ocean, while yet so many

more deaths are ascribed to that than to this; and

further with the fact that literally none are, and none

could be, drowned in the former, while multitudes

perish in the latter.  In the justifying of the paradox,

in the extricating of the real truth from the apparent

falsehood of the statement, in the answer to the appeal

and challenge made here to the imagination—in all

this there is a process of mental activity, oftentimes

so rapidly exercised as scarcely to be perceptible, yet

not therefore the less grateful.4

            Let me mention now some other helps which the


            1 The same, under a different image, in Spanish: Larga soga

tira, quien por muerte agena suspira.

            2 Im Becher ersaufen mehr als im Meere.

            3 In Wein and Bier ertrinken mehr dens im Wasser,

            4 Here is the explanation of the perplexity of Erasmus. De-

inde fit, nescio quo pacto, ut sententia proverbio quasi vibrata

feriat acrius auditoris animum, et aculeos quosdam cogitationum

elinquat infixos.


18            Form and Definition of a Proverb.       LECT.


proverb employs for obtaining free course among

men, for securing that it shall be listened to with

pleasure by them, that it shall not slip again from their

memories who have once heard it;—helps at the

same time so separable from it, that none can be in

danger of affirming them essential features or condi-

tions of it. Of these rhyme is perhaps the most

frequently recurring. I will enter into no discussion

here on the causes of the charm which rhyme possesses

for us all; but that it does possess a wondrous charm,

that we like what is like, is attested by a thousand

facts, and not least by the rhyming form into which

a multitude of proverbs, and those among the most

widely current, have been thrown. Take a handful

of these: Good mind, good find;— Wide will wear,

but tight will tear;—Truth may be blamed, but cannot

be shamed;—Fury wasteth as patience lasteth;--Be

still, and have thy will;—Little strokes fell great

oaks;— Women's jars breed men's wars ,—A king's

face should give grace; East, west, home is best,

Store is no sore;—Slow help is no help;— Who goes

a-borrowing, goes a-sorrowing;--Measure is treasure.

There are hundreds of the same character behind,

uniting, for the most part, this of rhyme with that

which I spoke of before, namely, extreme brevity and



            1 So, too, in other languages; Qui prend, se rend;—Qui se

loue, s'emboue;—Chi va piano, va sano, e va lontano;—Chi

compra terra, compra guerra;—Quien se muda, Dios le ayuda;

—Ehestand, wehestand;—Wie gewonnen, so zerronnen; and

the Latin medieval;—Qualis vita, finis ita;—Vita crucis, via

lucis;—Uniti muniti. We sometimes regard rhyme as a modern

invention, and to the modern world no doubt the discovery of

I.                   Alliteration in Proverbs.                         19


            Alliteration, which is nearly allied to rhyme, is

another help whereof the proverb largely avails itself.

Alliteration was at one time an important element in

our English versification; it almost promised to con-

tend with rhyme itself, which should be the more im-

portant; and perhaps, if some great master in the art

had at the critical moment arisen, might have retained

a far stronger hold on English poetry than it now

possesses. It might have continued what one declares

it once to have been, namely, ‘the soul of the earliest

English Poetry.’  At present it is merely secondary

and subsidiary. Yet it cannot be called altogether

unimportant; no master of melody despises it; on the

contrary, the mightiest, as in our days Tennyson, make

the most frequent, though not always the most obvious,

use of it. In the proverb you will find it of continual

recurrence, and where it falls, as, to be worth anything,

it must, on the key-words of the sentence, of very high

value. Thus: Frost and fraud both end in foul;


all its capabilities, and the consequent large application of it,

belongs. But proverbs alone would be sufficient to show that

in itself it is not modern, however restricted in old times the

employment may have been. For instance, there is a Greek

proverb to express that men learn by their sufferings more than

by any other teaching; Paqh<mata, maqh<mata (Herodotus, i. 207);

one which in the Latin, Nocumenta, documenta, or, Quae nocent,

docent, finds both in rhyme and sense its equivalent. Another

rhyming Greek proverb, Plhsmonh< e]pilhsmonh<, implying that

fulness of blessings is too often accompanied with forgetfulness

of their Author (Deut. viii. 11-14), is, I fancy, not ancient—at

least does not date further back than Greek Christianity. The

sentiment implies this, and the fact that the word e]pilhsmonh<

does not occur in classical Greek would seem to be decisive

upon it.

20      Form and Definition of a Proverb.          LECT.


Like lips, like lettuce;—Meat and matins minish no

way;—Who swims in sin, shall sink in sorrow;—

No cross, no crown;—Out of debt, out of danger;—

Do on hill as you would do in hall;1  that is, Bear your-

self in solitude as you would in a crowd. Alliterative

proverbs are almost as common in other languages as

in our own, but I shall not count it necessary to quote

them; I will only adduce, in concluding this branch

of the subject, a single Italian proverb, which in a re-

markable manner unites all the three distinctive -fea-

tures of which we have been just treating, brevity,

rhyme, and alliteration: Traduttori, traditori; one

which we might reconstitute in English thus: Trans-

lators, traitors; so untrue very often are they to the

genius of their original, to its spirit, if not to its letter,

and frequently to both; so do they surrender, rather

than render, its meaning; not turning, but only over-

turning, it from one language to another.2

            A certain pleasant exaggeration, the use of the

figure hyperbole, a figure of natural rhetoric which

Scripture itself does not disdain to employ, is a not

unfrequent engine with the proverb for the arousing of

attention and the making of a way for itself into the

minds of men. Thus the Persians have a proverb:

A needle's eye is wide enough for two friends; the whole

world is too narrow for two foes. Again, of a man

whose good luck seems never to forsake him, so that

from the very things which would be another man's


            1 So in Latin: Nil sole et sale utilius; and in Greek: Sw?ma,


            2 This is St. Jerome's pun, who complains that the Latin

Versions of the Greek Testament current in the Church in his

day were too many of them not versiones, but eversiones.

I.                      Hyperbole in Proverbs.                        21


ruin he extricates himself not merely without harm,

but with credit and with gain, the Arabs say: Throw

him into the Nile, and he will come up with a fish in his

mouth; while of such a Fortunatus as this the Germans

have a proverb: If he flung a groat on the roof, a

dollar would come back to him;1 as, again, of the man

in the opposite extreme of fortune, to whom the most

unlikely calamities, and such as beforehand might

seem to exclude one another, befall, they say: He

would fall on his back, and break his nose.

            In all which I have just traced out, in the fact that

the proverbs of a language are so frequently its highest

bloom and flower, while yet so much of their beauty

consists often in curious felicities of diction pertaining

exclusively to some single language, either in a rapid

conciseness to which nothing tantamount exists else-

where, or in rhymes which it is hard to reproduce, or

in alliterations which do not easily find their equiva-

lents, or in other verbal happinesses, lies the difficulty

which is often felt, which I shall often in these lectures

feel, of transferring them without serious loss from one

language to another.2 Oftentimes it will be abso-


            1 Wurf er einen Groschen aufs Dach, fiel ihm Ein Thaler

herunter;—compare another: Wer Gluck hat, dem kalbet ein


            2 Take for example this German proverb:

                        Stultus and Stolz

                        Wachset aus Einem Holz;

its transfer into any other languages is manifestly impossible.

The same may be affirmed of another, commending stay-at-home

habits to the wife: Die Hausfrau soil nit sein eine Ausfrau;

or again of this beautiful Spanish one: La verdad es siempre


22          Form and Definition of a Proverb.         LECT.


lutely impossible. Oftentimes, to use an image of

Erasmus,1 they are like those wines (I believe the

Spanish Valdepenas is one), of which the true excel-

lence can only be known by those who drink them

in the land which gave them birth. Transport them

under other skies, or, which is a still more dangerous

undertaking, empty them from vessel to vessel, and

their strength and flavour will have well nigh disap-

peared in the process.

            Not indeed that this difficulty is always felt. We

feel it most when we seek deliberately, and in a

literary interest, to transfer some proverb which we

admire from its native language into our own or

another. Where, on the contrary, it has transferred

itself, made for itself a second home, and taken root

a second time in the hearts and affections of a people,

in such a case one has often to admire the instinctive

skill with which it has found compensations for that

which it has been compelled to let go, replaced one

vigorous idiom by another, one happy rhyme or play

on words by its equivalent; and all this while the

extremely narrow limits in which it moves have left

to it the very smallest liberty of selection. And thus,

presenting itself equally finished and complete in two

or even more Lang stages, the internal evidence will be

quite insufficient to determine which of these forms is

the original and which the copy. For example, the


            1 Habent enim hoc peculiare pleraque proverbia, ut in ea

lingua sonare postulant in qua nata sunt; quod si in alienum

sermonem demigrarint, multum gratae decedat. Quemadmodum

sunt et vina quaedam quae recusant exportari, nec germanam

saporis gratiam obtineant, nisi in his locis in quibus proveniunt.

I.           Proverbs in Different Languages             23


proverb at once German and French, which I can

present in no comelier English dress than this,

                        Mother's truth

                        Keeps constant youth;


but which in German runs thus,


                        Wird taglich neu;


and in French,

                        Tendresse maternelle

                        Toujours se renouvelle;


appears to me as graceful and tender in the one

language as in the other; while yet so much of its

beauty depends on the form, that beforehand one could

hardly have expected that the charm of it would

survive a transfer to the second language, whichever

that maybe, wherein it found a home. But of a sub-

ject thus opened, I must reserve the further develop-

ment for lectures that will follow.

24              The Generation of Proverbs.          LECT.




                                 LECTURE II.




            My first lecture was occupied with the form and

necessary conditions of a proverb; let us

endeavour in the present to realize to ourselves, so far

as this lies in our power, the processes by which a

people gets together the main body of its proverbs,

the sources from which it most largely derives them,

and the circumstances under which such as it creates

for itself of new, had their birth and generation.

            And first, I would call your attention to the fact

that a vast number of its proverbs a people does not

make for itself at all, but finds ready made to its hands,

entering upon them as a part of its intellectual and

moral inheritance. The world has now endured so

long, and the successive generations of men have

thought, felt, enjoyed, suffered, and altogether learned

so much, that there is an immense stock of wisdom

which may be said to belong to humanity in common,

being the accumulated fruits of all this its experience

in the past. Even Aristotle, more than two thousand

years ago, could speak of proverbs as ‘the fragments

of an elder wisdom, which, on account of their brevity

and aptness, had amid a general wreck and ruin

been preserved.’ These, the common property of the

II.                 Antiquity of Proverbs.                           25


civilized world, are the original stock with which each

nation starts; these, either orally handed down to it,

or made its own by those of its earlier writers who

brought it into living communication with the world

beyond it. Thus, and having reached us through

these channels, a vast chamber of Greek, Latin, and

medieval proverbs live on with us, and with all the

modern nations of the world.

            It is, indeed, oftentimes a veritable surprise to

discover the venerable age and, antiquity of a proverb,

which we have hitherto taken for granted to be quite

a later birth of modern society. Thus we may per-

haps suppose that well-known saying which forbids

the too critical scanning of a present, One must not

look a gift horse in the mouth, to be of English extrac-

tion, the genuine growth of our own soil. I will not

pretend to say how old it is; it is certainly older than

St. Jerome, a Latin father of the fourth century; who,

when some found fault with certain writings of his,

replied with a tartness which he could occasionally

exhibit, that they were voluntary on his part, free-will

offerings, and with this quoted the proverb, that

it did not behove to look a gift horse in the mouth; and

before it comes to us, we meet it once more in one of

the rhymed Latin verses, which were such favourites

in the Middle Ages.

            Si quis det mannos, ne quere in dentibus annos.


            Again, Liars should have good memories is a

saying which probably we assume to be modern; it

is very far indeed from so being. The same Jerome,

who, I may observe by the way, is a constant quoter

of proverbs, and who has preserved some that would

26            The Generation of Proverbs.              LECT.


not otherwise have descended to us,l speaks of one as

‘unmindful of the old proverb, Liars should have good

memories,’2 and we find it ourselves in a Latin writer

a good deal older than he.3 So too I was certainly

surprised to discover that our own proverb: Good

company on a journey is worth a coach, has come down

to us from the ancient world.4

            Having lighted just now on one of those Latin

rhymed verses, let me by the way warn against an error

about them, into which it would be very easy; to fall.

I have seen it suggested that these, if not the source

from which, are yet the channels by which, very many

proverbs of the old world have reached us. I doubt

it exceedingly; should indeed have little hesitation in

denying it wholly. This much we may conclude from

the existence of proverbs in this shape, namely, that


            1 Thus is it, I believe, with Bos lassus fortius figit pedem;

a proverb with which he warns his junior Augustine not to

provoke a contest with him, the weary, but therefore the more

formidable, antagonist.

            2 Oblitus veteris proverbii: mendaces memores esse oporterel

Let me quote here Fuller's excellent unfolding of this proverb:

‘Memory in a liar is no more than needs. For first lies are

hard to be remembered, because many, whereas truth it but one

secondly, because a lie cursorily told takes little footing and

settled fastness in the teller's memory, but prints itself deeper

in the hearer's, who takes the greater notice because of the im-

probability and deformity thereof; and one will remember the

sight of a monster longer than the sight of an handsome body.

Hence comes it to pass that when the liar hath forgotten

himself, his auditors put him in mind of the lie and take him


            3 Quintilian, Inst. 1. 4.

            4 Comes facundus in via pro vehiculo est.

II.                        Rhymed Latin Proverbs.                  27


since these rhymed or leonine verses went altogether

out of fashion at the revival of the classical taste in

the fifteenth century, such proverbs as exist in this

form may be confidently affirmed to date at least as

far back as that period; but not that in all or even in

a majority of cases this shape was their earliest.

Oftentimes the proverb in its more popular form is

vastly superior to the same in this its Latin monkish

dress; the latter by its tameness and flatness betraying

itself at once as the inadequate translation, and not

the genuine proverb. Many are ‘so essentially Teu-

tonic, that they appear to great disadvantage in the

Latin garb which has been huddled upon them.’1

Thus, when we have on one side the English, Hungry

bellies have no ears, and on the other the Latin,


            Jejunus venter non audit verba libenter,


who can doubt that the first is the proverb, and the

second only the versification of the proverb? Or who

would hesitate to affirm that the old Greek proverb,

A rolling stone gathers no moss, may very well have

come to us without the intervention of the medieval



            Non fit hirsutus lapis hinc atque inde volutus?


And the true, state of the case comes out still more

clearly, where there are two, or it may be more, of

these rhymed Latin equivalents for the one popular

proverb, and these quite independent of each other.

So it is in respect of our English proverb: A bird in

the hand is worth two in the bush; which appears in

this form:


            Una avis in dextra melior quam quatuor extra;


            1 Kemble, Salomon and Saturn, p. 56.

28               The Genera/ion of Proverbs.             LECT.


and also in this:

            Capta avis est pluris quam mille in gramine ruris:


and again in this:

            Plus valet in manibus passer quam sub dubio grus.


Who can fail to see here three independent attempts

to render the same saying? Or when Chaucer works

up into his narrative that rule of natural equity, First

come, first serve, in the following verse:


            Whoso first cometh to the mill, first grint,


can any doubt that we have here the proverb, and in

the Latin line,

            Ante molam primus qui venit, non molat imus,


the mere versification of the proverb? Sometimes

the Latin line confesses itself to be only the rendering

of popular saying; thus is it with the following:


              Ut dicunt multi, cito transit lancea stulti


in other words, A fool's bolt is soon shot:

or again:


            Res satis est nota, plus foetent stercora mota,


which may be left without its interpretation.         

            Then, besides this derivation from elder sources,

from the literature of nations which as such now exist

no 1onger, besides this process in which a people "are

merely borrowers and receivers, there is also at some-

what later periods in its life a mutual interchange

between it and other nations growing up beside, and

contemporaneously with it, of their own several in-

ventions in this kind; a free giving and taking, in

which it is often hard, and oftener impossible, to say

which is the lender and which the borrower. Thus

the quantity of proverbs not drawn from antiquity, but

II.                     Proverbs claimed by Many.                      29


at the same time common to all, or nearly all of

the modern European languages, is very considerable.

The ‘solidarity’ (to use a word which it is in vain to

struggle against), of all the nations of Christendom

comes out very noticeably here.

            There is indeed nothing in the study of proverbs,

in the attribution of them to their right owners, in

the arrangement and citation of them, which creates

more perplexity than the fact of finding the same

proverb in so many different quarters, current among

so many different nations.  In quoting it as of one, it

often seems as if we were doing wrong to many;

while yet it is sometimes almost, and oftener altogether,

impossible to determine to what nation it first be-

longed, so that others drew it at second hand from

that one;—even granting that any form in which we

now possess ie is really the oldest of all. More than

once this facts has occasioned a serious disappoint-

ment to the zealous collector of the proverbs of his

native country.  Proud of the rich treasures which in

this kind it possessed, he has very reluctantly dis-

covered on a fuller investigation of the whole subject,

how many of these which he counted native; the

peculiar heirloom and glory of his own land, must at

once and without hesitation be resigned to others,

who can be shown beyond all doubt to have been in

earlier possession of them:  while in respect of many

more, if his own nation can put in a claim to them as

well as others, he has no choice but to allow that it

can put in no better than many competitors, and fre-

quently a claim not as good as theirs.1


            1 Kelly, in the preface to his very useful collection of Scotch

30            The Generation of Proverbs.             LECT.


            This single and undoubted fact, that nations are

thus continually deriving proverbs from one another,

is sufficient to show that, however the main body of a

nation's proverbs may be, some almost as old as itself,

and some far older, it would for all this be a serious

mistake to regard the sum of them as a closed account,

neither capable of receiving, nor actually receiving,

addition nor suffering diminution. The mistake is of

the same character as that sometimes made about the

words of a language. So long as a language is living,

it will be appropriating foreign words, putting forth

new words of its own; at the same time that it suffers

other, and not seldom very good ones to retire into

obscurity, and in the end to disappear and die.

Exactly in the same way, so long as a people have any

vigorous energies at work in them, are acquiring any

new experiences of life, are forming any new moral

convictions, for these new experiences and col-

victions new utterances will be found; and some

of the happiest of these will receive that stamp of

general allowance which shall constitute them pro-

verbs. And this fact makes it certain that the col-

lections which exist in print will he very far from

embracing the whole body of proverbs in circulation.

They preserve, indeed, may others; many, as I have

said, which have now become obsolete, and which

would, but for them, have been forgotten. I speak

not, however, of these, but of the many rather which,

living on the lips of men, have yet never found their

way into books, however worthy to have done so;

and this, either because the sphere in which they


proverbs, describes his own disappointment at making exactly

such a discovery as this.

II.                      Unregistered Proverbs.                 31


circulate has continued always a narrow one, or that

the occasions which call them out are very rare, or

that they, having only lately risen up, have not hitherto

attracted the attention of any who cared to record

them. It would be well, if such as take an interest in

the subject, and are sufficiently well versed in the

proverbial literature of their own country to recognize

these unregistered proverbs when they meet them,

would secure such from that perishing, which, so long

as they remain merely oral, might easily overtake

them; and would make them at the same time, what

all good proverbs ought certainly to be, the common

heritage of all.1


            1 The pages of Notes and Queries are always open to receive

such, and in them they might be safely garnered up. That there

are such proverbs to reward him who should carefully watch for

them, is abundantly proved by the immense addition, which, as

I shall have occasion hereafter to mention, a Spanish scholar

was able to make to the collected proverbs, so numerous before,

of Spain. Nor do we want other indications of the like kind.

Thus, the editor of what was till very lately quite the best

modern collection of German proverbs, records this one, found

in no preceding collection, and by himself never heard but

once, and then from the lips of an aged lay servitor of a monas-

tery in the Black Forest: Offend one monk, and Me lappets of all

cowls will flutter as far as Rome; (Beleidigestu einen Munch, so

knappen alle Kuttenzipfel bis nach Rom;) and yet who can

doubt that we have a genuine proverb here, and one excellently

expressive of the common cause which the whole of the mo-

nastic orders, despite their inner dissensions, made ever, when

assailed from without, with one another? It is very easy to be

deceived in such a matter, but the following, which is current

in Ireland, I have never seen in print:  The man on the dyke

always hurls well;’ the looker-on at a game of hurling, seated

indolently on the wall, always imagines that he could improve


32             The Generation of Proverbs.           LECT.


            But it is not merely proverbs, which, though

current on the lips of men, have never yet been regis-

tered, that are wanting to complete our collections.

There are besides them, a vast number in every

European literature, certainly in our own, which are

still lurking in books, in those mainly of the early and

middle period of our literature, and which have never

been gathered out of these. Before we could flatter

ourselves that a complete collection, or one at all

approaching to completeness, had been made, it

would need that the whole of English literature should

have been carefully and intelligently dragged, with the

special object of drawing these from the innumerable

lurking places in which at present they so effectually

lie hid, that, although from time to time encountered

by the rare readers of our older books, they yet form

no part of any collected body of our proverbs, and

are taken no account of, when we are estimating our

riches in this kind. It is little likely that such a task

will ever be undertaken; yet something in this way

might be accomplished, if every reader of an Eliza-

bethan drama, of a volume of Puritan divinity, of

Fuller, of a hundred more, would make a note of the

proverbs or proverbial phrases which they severally

offered, and where these are new, be at pains that by

one channel or another they should enter into the

common stock of our collected proverbs.1


on the strokes of the actual players, and, if you will listen to

him, would have played the game much better than they; a

proverb of sufficiently wide application.

            1 Several such proverbs, of my own noting, I have used in

this little volume, as for instance that very beautiful one which

I never met but in the writings of Tyndal, Be still, and have thy

II.               Unregistered Proverbs.                       33


            And as new proverbs will be born from life and

from life's experience, so too there will be another

mine from which they will be largely dug, from the

plays and poems which a people have made heartily

their own. Precious fragments of these they will con-

tinually detach, most often word for word; at other

times wrought up into new shapes with that freedom

which men claim to exercise in the modifying or

moulding of whatever they thus appropriate to their

own use. These fragments thus detached they wil

give and take as part of their current intellectual

money. Thus ‘Evil communications corrupt good

manners1 (I Cor. xv. 33) is word for word a metrica

line from a Greek comedy. It is not very likely that

St. Paul had ever read this comedy, but the words for

their truth's sake had in his time or before it been

taken up into the common language of Greek-speaking

men ; and not as a citation, but as a proverb, he uses

them. And if you will, from this point of view, glance

over a few pages of one of Shakespeare's more popular

dramas,—Hamlet, for example,—you will be surprised,

should your attention never have been called to this

before, to note how much has in this manner been

detached from it, to pass into the every-day use and


will; nor this, which I have found in the same: Of little med-

dling cometh much rest. Fuller would yield numbers, as for

instance these:  Fury wasteth as patience lasteth.I am black,

but I am not the devil.—It is ill wool that will take no dye. — The

more courtesy, the more craft. Wander in his Deutsches Spricka-

worter-Lexicon, pp. xvii–xx, gives a very interesting account of

what he is doing in this way to enrich, or rather to learn the

extent of the riches of, the proverbial literature of Germany.

            1 Fqei<rousin h@qh xrh<sq ]  o[mili<ai kakai<.

34             The Generation of Proverbs.              LECT.


service of life; and you will be prepared to estimate

higher than ever what he has done for his fellow-

countrymen, the ‘possession for ever’ which his writ-

ings have become for them. And much, no doubt, is

passing even now from favourite authors into the

tissue, the flesh and blood of a nation's moral and

intellectual life; and as ‘household words,’ as a

portion of its proverbial philosphy, for ever incorpor-

ating itself therewith. We have a fair measure of an

author's true popularity, I mean of the real and lasting

hold which he has taken on his nation's heart and

imagination, in the extent to which it has thus fared

with his writings.


            In another way additions from time to time are

made to the proverbial wealth of a people. Some

event has laid strong hold of their imagination, has

stirred up the depths of their moral consciousness;

and all which they have then felt they have gathered

up for themselves, perhaps in some striking phrase

which was uttered at the moment, or it may be in

some allusive words, understood by everybody, and

which at once summon up the whole incident before

their eyes.

            Sacred history furnishes us with one example at

the least of this generation of a proverb. Of that say-

ing, ‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’ we know the

exact manner in which it grew to be a ‘proverb in

Israel.’ When the son of Kish revealed of a sudden

that nobler life which had hitherto been slumbering in

him, undreamt of alike by himself and by others, took

his part and place among the sons of the prophets,

and, borne along in their enthusiasm, praised and

II.                The Cranes of Ibycus.                         35


prophesied as they did, showing that he was indeed

‘turned into another man,’ then all that had known

him before exclaimed one to another, some probably

in sincere astonishment, some in irony and unbelief,

‘Is Saul also among the prophets?’ And the question

they asked found and finds its application as often as

any one reveals suddenly, at some crisis of his life,

qualities for which those who knew him the best had

hitherto given him no credit, a nobleness which had

been latent in him until now, a power of taking his

place among the worthiest and the best, which none

had at all deemed him to possess. It will, of course,

find equally its application, when one does not truly

step, but only affects to step of a sudden, into a higher

school, to assert his place in a nobler circle of

thought and action than any in which hitherto he has


            Another proverb, and one well known to the

classical scholar, The Cranes of Ibycus,l had its rise

in one of those remarkable incidents, which, witnessing

for God's inscrutable judgments, are eagerly laid

hold of by men. The story of its birth is indeed one

of a moral interest so deep, that I shall not hesitate

to repeat it, even with the risk before me that Schiller's

immortal poem on the subject, or it may be the

classical studies of some here present, may have made

it already familiar to a portion of my hearers. Ibycus,

a famous lyrical poet of Greece, journeying to the

games at Corinth, was assailed by robbers:  as he fell

beneath their murderous strokes he looked round, to see

if any witnesses or avengers were nigh. No living thing


            1 Ai[   ]Ibu<kou ge<ranoi.

36             The Generation of Proverbs                   LECT.


was in sight, save only a flight of cranes soaring high

over head. He called on them, and to them com-

mitted the avenging of his blood. A vain commission,

as it might have appeared, and as no doubt it did to

the murderers appear. Yet it did not prove so. For

these, sitting a little time after in the open theatre at

Corinth, beheld this flight of cranes soaring above

them, and one said scoffingly to another, ‘Lo, there,

the avengers of Ibycus!’ The words were caught up

by some near then; for already the poet's non-

appearance at the games had awakened anxiety and

alarm. Being seized and questioned, they betrayed

their guilt, and were led to their doom; and The

Cranes of Ibycus passed into a proverb, very much as

our Murder will out, to express the wondrous leadings

of God whereby continually the most secret things of

blood are brought to the open light of day.

            Gold of Toulouse1 is another of these proverbs in

which men's sense of a God verily ruling and judging

the earth has found its embodiment. A Roman

Consul had taken the city of Toulouse by an act of

more than common perfidy and treachery; and

possessed himself of the immense hoards of wealth

there stored in the temples of the Gaulish deities.

From this day forth he was so hunted by calamity, all

worst evils and disasters, all shame and dishonour,

fell so thick and fast on himself and on all who were

his, and were so traced up by the moral instinct of

mankind to this accursed thing which he had made

his own, that any wicked gains, fatal to their pos-


            1 Aurum Tolosanum; see Merivale, Fall of the Roman

Republic, p. 63.

II.                      History in Proverbs.                        37


sessor, acquired this name of ‘Tolosan gold;’ while

of him, at once the sinner and the sufferer, it would

be said ‘He has gold of Toulouse.’

            Another proverb, which in English has run into

the following posy, There's many a slip 'twixt the cups

and the lip, descends to us from the Greeks, and

has a very striking story connected with it. A master

treated with extreme cruelty his slaves who were

engaged in planting and otherwise laying out a vine-

yard for him; until at length one of them, the most

misused of all, prophesied that for this his cruelty he

should never drink of its wine. When the first

vintage was completed, he bade this slave to fill

a goblet for him, and taking this in his hand he

taunted him with the failure of his prophecy. The

other replied in the words which have since become

proverbial. As he spake, tidings were brought of a

huge wild boar that was wasting the vineyard. Setting

down the untasted cup, and snatching hastily a spear,

the master went out to meet the wild boar, and was

slain in the encounter; and thus, as we are told, the

proverb, Many things find place between the cup and

the lip, arose.1

            A Scotch proverb, He that invented the Maiden first

hanselled it, is not altogether unworthy to rank with

these. It alludes to the well-known historic fact that

the Regent Morton, the inventor of a new instrument

of death called 'The Maiden,' a sort of anticipation


            1 Polla> metacu> pe<lei ku<likoj kai> xei<leoj a@krou. In Latin,

Inter calicem et os multa cadunt; in French, Entre la bouche

et le verre le vin souvent tombe a terre; in Spanish, De la mano

a in boca se pierde in sopa.

38             The Generation of Proverbs.                   LECT.


of the guillotine, was himself the first upon whom the

proof of it was made. Men felt, to use the language

of the Latin poet, that ‘no law was juster than that

the artificers of death should perish by their own art,’

and embodied their sense of this in the proverb.

            Memorable words of illustrious men will frequently

not die in the utterance, but pass from mouth to

mouth, being still repeated with complacency, till at

length they have received their adoption into the

great family of national proverbs. Such were the

gnomes or sayings of the Seven Wise Men of Greece,

supposing these to have been indeed theirs, and not

ascribed to them only after they had obtained uni-

versal currency and acceptance. So too a saying, at-

tributed to Alexander the Great, may very well have

arisen on the occasion, and under the circumstances,

to which its birth is commonly referred. When some

of his officers reported to him with something of

dismay the innumerable multitudes of the Persian

hosts which were advancing to assail him, the youthful

Macedonian hero silenced them and their apprehen-

sions with the reply: One butcher does not fear many

sheep; not in this applying an old proverb, but, as

the issue proved, framing a new, and one admirably

embodying the confidence which he felt in the

immeasurable superiority of the Hellenic over the

barbarian man;—and this saying, having been once

launched upon the world, has since lived on, the

occasions being so numerous on which it would find

its fit application.

            Taking occasion from this royal proverb, I observe

by the way, that it would be a great mistake to assume,

though the error is not an uncommon one, that


II.                           Popularity of Proverbs.                 39


because proverbs are popular, they have therefore

originally sprung from the bosom of the populace.

What was urged in my first lecture of their popularity

was not at all intended in this sense; and the sound

common sense, the wit, the wisdom, the right feeling,

which are their predominant characteristics, alike con-

tradict any such supposition. They spring rather from

the sound healthy kernel of the nation, whether in high

place or in low; and it is surely worthy of note, how

large a proportion of these with the generation of

which we are acquainted, owe their existence to the

foremost men of their time, to its philosophers, its

princes, and its kings; as it would not be difficult to

show. And indeed the evil in proverbs testifies to this

no less than ale good. Thus the many proverbs in

almost all modern tongues expressing scorn of the

‘villain’ are of themselves sufficient to show that for

the most part they have their birth not quite in the

lower regions of society, but reflect much oftener the

convictions, prejudices, and passions of those higher

in the social scale.

            Let me adduce another example of the proverbs

which have grown out of an incident, which contain

an allusion to it, and are only perfectly intelligible

when the incident itself is known. It is this Spanish,

Let that which is lost be for God; one the story of

whose birth is thus given by the leading Spanish com-

mentator on the proverbs of his nation:—The father

of a family, making his will and disposing of his goods

upon his death-bed, ordained concerning a certain cow

which had strayed, and had been now for a long time

missing, that, if it was found, it should be for his

children, if not found, for God: and hence the pro-


40            The Genera/ion of Proverbs.                 LECT.


verb, Let that which is lost be for God, arose. The

saying was not one to let die; laying bare as so won-

derfully it does some of the subtlest treacheries of the

human heart; for, indeed, whenever men would give

to God only their lame and their blind, that which

costs them nothing, that from which they hope no

good, no profit, no pleasure for themselves, what are

they saying in their hearts but that which this man

said openly, Let that which is lost be for God.

            This subject of the generation of proverbs, upon

which I have thus touched so slightly, is one upon

which whole volumes have been written.1  Those who

have occupied themselves herein have sought to trace

historically the circumstances out of which various

proverbs have sprung, and to which they owe their

existence; that so by the analogy of these we might

realize to ourselves the rise of others whose origins lie

beyond our vision, obscure and unknown. No one


            1 Erasmus in the Preface to his Adagia has a few excellent

words on the subject, which are well worth quoting: Quibus

ex rebus accedat novitas adagiis, mox ostendemus; nunc quot

in modis celebritas contingit, paucis indicabimus. Veniunt

igitur in vulgi sermonem, vel ex oraculis numinum; vel a sa-

pientium dictis, quae quidem antiquitas oraculorum instar cele-

bravit; vel a poeta quopiam maxime vetusto; vel e stem, hoc

est tragicorum vel comicorum actis fabulis; praecipue vero co-

mcedia mutuo quodam commercio et usurpat pleraque jactata

vulgo, et gignit traditque vulgo jactanda, nonnulla ducuntur

ex fabularum argumentis; ex historiis aliquot mutuo sumpta

sunt. Quaedam profecta sunt ex apophthegmatis, hoc est, scite

breviterque responsis. Sunt quae ex verbo temere dicto sunt

arrepta. Denique mores, ingenium, seu gentis, sive hominis

alicujus, sive etiam animantis, postremo rei quoque vis quaepianm

insignis et vulgo nota locum fecerunt adagio.


II.                            Obscurity of Origin.                        41


will deny the interest of the subject, of the being ena-

bled thus to preside at the birth of a saying that has

lived on and held its ground in the great struggle for

existence which is raging everywhere, and has not

ceased, from the day it was first uttered, to be more

or less of a spiritual or intellectual force among men.

Still the cases in which this tracing of the genesis of

proverbs is possible are rare, as compared with the

far larger number in which the first birth is veiled, as

is almost all birth, in mystery and obscurity. And

indeed it could scarcely be otherwise. The vast

majority of proverbs are foundlings, the happier found-

lings of a nation's wit, which the collective nation,

refusing to let perish, has taken up and adopted for

its own. But still, as must be expected with found-

lings, they can for the most part give no distinct

account of themselves. They make their way, relying

on their own merits, not on the merits of their parents

and authors; whom they have forgotten; and who

seem equally to have forgotten them, or, at any rate,

fail to claim them. Not seldom, too, when a history

has been offered to account for a proverb's birth, it

must remain an open question, whether the story has

not been subsequently imagined for the proverb,

rather than the proverb grown out of the story.1


            The proverb thus springing out of the actual life

of men, however it may be often impossible to trace


            1 Livy's account of Cantherium in fossa, and of the manner

in which it became a rustic proverb in Italy (xxiii. 47), is a case

in point, where it is very hard to give credit to the parentage

which has been assigned to the saying (see Doderlein, Lat.

Synonyme, vol. iv. p. 289).

42                 The Generation of Proverbs.          LECT.


the circumstances of its rise, will continually find its

way back to active life again. It will attest its own

practical character by the frequency with which it will

present itself for use, and, it may be, will have been

actually used, upon earnest and notable occasions;

throwing its weight into one scale or the other at some

critical moment, and sometimes with decisive effect.

I have little doubt that with knowledge sufficient one

might bring together a large collection of instances,

wherein at significant moments the proverb has played

its part, and helped to bring about issues, of which all

would acknowledge the importance.

            In this aspect, as having been used at some crisis

or turning-point of things, and as part of the moral

influence brought to bear on that occasion for effect-

ing a great result, no proverb of man's can be com-

pared with that one which the risen Lord used when

He met his future Apostle, but then his persecutor, on

the way to Damascus, and ‘warned him of the fruit-

lessness and folly of further resistance to a might

which must overcome him, and with a more disastrous

overcoming, at the last:  It is hard for thee to hick

against the pricks1 (Acts xxvi. 14). It is not always

observed, but adds much to the fitness of this pro-

verb's use on this ever-memorable occasion, that it

was already, even in that heathen world to which

originally it belonged, predominantly used to note the

madness of a striving on man's part against the over-

mastering power of the gods for so we find it em-

ployed in the chief passages of heathen antiquity in

which it occurs.2


            1 Sklhro<n soi pro>j ke<ntra lakti<zein.

            2 AEschylus, Prom. Vinct. 322; Euripides, Bacch. 795

II.               Employment of Proverbs.                   43


            I must derive the second illustration of my asser-

tion from a very different quarter, passing at a single

stride from the kingdom of light to the kingdom of

darkness, and finding my example there.  We are

told then, that when Catherine de Medicis desired to

overcome the hesitation of her son Charles IX., and

to draw from the wretched king his consent to the

massacre, afterwards known as that of St. Bartholomew,

she urged on him with effect a proverb, which she had

brought with her from her own land, and assuredly

one of the most convenient maxims for tyrants that

was ever framed: Sometimes clemency is cruelty, and

cruelty clemency.

            Later French history supplies another and a more

pleasant illustration. At the siege of Douay, in 1667,

Lewis XIV. found himself with his suite unexpectedly

under a heavy cannonade from the besieged city. The

charge is brought often against Lewis that he was

deficient in personal courage; I believe unjustly;

while yet, in compliance with the entreaties of many

round him, who urged that he should not expose

so valuable a life, he was about, in somewhat un-

soldierly and unkingly fashion, immediately to retire;

when M. de Charost, drawing close to him, whispered

the well-known French proverb in his ear: The wine

is drawn; it must he drunk.1 The king remained

exposed to the fire of the enemy for a suitable period,


Pindar, Pyth. ii. 94-96. The image is of course that of the stub-

born ox, which when urged to go forward, recalcitrates against

the sharp-pointed iron goad, and, already wounded, thus only

wounds itself the more.

            1 Le vin est verse; it faut le boire.

44             The Generation of Proverbs.                LECT.


and, it is said, held in higher honour than before the

counsellor who had with this word saved him from

an unseemly retreat. Let this on the generation of

proverbs, with the employment which at critical

moments has been made of them, for the present


III.           Proverbs of Nations Compared.                   45




                            LECTURE III.







            ‘THE genius, wit, and spirit of a nation are dis-

covered in its proverbs,’—this is Lord Bacon's

well-worn remark; although, indeed, only well-worn

because of its truth.  ‘In them,’ it has been further

said, ‘is to be found an inexhaustible source of

precious documents in regard of the interior history,

the manners, the opinions, the beliefs,1 the customs,

of the people among whom they have had their


            1 The writer might have added, the superstitions; for pro-

verbs not a few involve and rest on popular superstitions, and a

collection of these would be curious and in many ways instruc-

tive. Such, for instance, is the Latin (it is, indeed, also Greek)

A serpent, unless it devour a serpent, grows not to a dragon;

(Serpens, nisi serpentem comederit, non fit draco); which Lord

Bacon moralizes so shrewdly:  ‘The folly of one man is the for-

tune of another; for no man prospers so suddenly as by other

men's errors.’  Such again is the old German proverb: The

night is no man's friend (Die Nacht ist keines Menschen Freund):

which rests, as Grimm observes (Deutsche Mythol. p. 713) on

the wide-spread feeling in the northern mythologies, of the

night as an unfriendly and, indeed, hostile power to man. And

such, too, the French: A Sunday's child dies never of the plague

(Qui nait le dimanche, jamais ne meurt de peste).

46            Proverbs of Nations Compared.          LECT.


course.1  Let us put these assertions to the proof,

and see how far in this people's or in that people's

proverbs that which is nearest to their heart reveals

itself to us; how far the comparison of the proverbs

of one nation with those of other nations may be

made instructive to us; how much this comparison

will tell us severally about each. This only I will ask,

ere we enter upon the subject, namely, that should

I fail here in eliciting anything strongly characteristic,

if the proverbs regarded from this point of view should

fail to reveal to you any of the true secrets of a people's

life, you will not therefore misdoubt the assertions with

which my lecture opened; or assume that these

documents would not yield up their secret, if ques-

tioned aright; but only assume that the test has been

unskilfully applied; or, if you would not willingly find

fault, that my brief limits have not allowed me to make

that clear, which with larger space at command I

might not have wholly fallen short of doing.

            I am very well aware that in pursuing this line of

thought, we are ever liable to deceive ourselves and to

impose upon others, picking out and adducing such

proverbs as conform to a preconceived theory, passing

over those which will not fit themselves into this.

There is no doubt such a danger needing to be

guarded against; nor do there want a multitude of

these sayings which cannot be made to illustrate dif-

ferences, for they rest on the broad foundation of the


            1 We may adduce further the words of Salmasius: Argutae

hae brevesque loquendi formulae suas habent veneres, et genium

cujusque gentis penes quam celebrantur, atque acumen osten-


III.                    Greek Proverbs.                              47


universal humanity, and not on anything which is

peculiar and national. But, with all this, enough of

proverbs, I am persuaded, will remain, and such as

may with perfect good faith be adduced, to confirm

these assertions; we may, I am convinced, learn from

the proverbs current among a people, what is the true

moral tissue of their lives; the aspects under which

they contemplate life; in what ways honour and dis-

honour are distributed among them; what is of good,

what of evil report in their eyes; with much more which

it can never be unprofitable to know.


            To begin, then, with the proverbs of Greece.

What we are most struck with in these, and what, the

more they are studied, the more fills the thoughtful

reader with astonishment, is the evidence they yield of

an entire people penetrated and leavened through and

through with the most intimate knowledge of their

own mythology, history, and poetry. The infinite

multitude of slight and fine allusions to the legends

of their gods and heroes, to the earlier incidents

of their own history, to the Homeric narrative, the

delicate side glances at all these which the Greek

proverbs constantly embody,1 presuppose an acquain-

tance, indeed a familiarity, with all this on their parts

among whom these proverbs passed current, which is

perfectly marvellous. In many and most important

respects, the Greek proverbs, taken in the aggregate,

are inferior to those of some nations of modern

Christendom. This is nothing strange, the Christian


            1 Thus   ]Ai~doj kunh?a@plhstoj pi<qoj--  ]Ilia>j kakw?nXarw<nioj

qu<raLh<mnion kako<nxou<sea xalkei<wn.

48                Proverbs of Nations Compared.    LECT.


religion would have done little for the world, would

have proved ineffectual for the elevating, purifying,

and deepening of man's life, if it had been otherwise.

But, with all this, as bearing testimony to the high

intellectual training of the people who employed them,

to a culture not restricted to certain classes, but which

must have been diffused through the whole nation, no

other collection of proverbs can bear comparison with

the Greek.1

            It is altogether different with the Roman. These, the

genuine Roman, the growth of the Italian soil, are very

far fewer in number than the Greek, as was indeed to be

expected from the far less subtle and less fertile genius

of the people. Hardly any of them are legendary or

mythological; this again agrees with the fact that the

Italian pantheon was very scantily peopled as compared

with the Greek. Very few have much poetry about

them, or any very rare delicacy or refinement of

feeling. In the matter of love indeed, not the Roman

only, but Greek and Roman alike, are immeasurably

inferior to those which many modern nations could

supply. Thus a proverb of such religious depth


            1 On proverbs in general, but mainly on Greek proverbs,

there is a pleasant article in the Quarterly Review, July, 1868.

I append a small group of these:  Ai[ xa<ritej gumnai<. a@kairoj

eu@noia ou]de>n e@xqraj diafe<rei.gluku>j a]pei<r& po<lemoj.a]ndro>j

kakw?j pra<ssontoj e]kpodw>n fi<loi.a@rktou parou<shj i!xnh mh>

zh<teia]ei>  gewrgo>j ei]j ne<wta plou<sioj.di>j pro>j to>n au]to>n

ai]sxro>n proskrou<ein li<qon.e]xqrw?n a@dwra dw?ra.zei? xu<tra, zei?

fili<a.Qeo>j h[  ]Anai<deia.kakou? ko<rakoj kako>n w]o<n.a]nh>r de>

feu<gwn ou] me<nei lu<raj ktu<pon.kak&? su>n a]ndri> mhd ] o!lwj

o[doipo<rou.dru?oj pesou<shj pa?j a]nh>r culeu<etai.h#qoj a]nqrw<pou



III.                 Roman Proverbs.                             49


and beauty as our own, Marriages are made in heaven,

it would have been quite impossible for all heathen

antiquity to have produced, or even remotely to have

approached.1  In the setting out not of love, but of

friendship, and of the claims which it makes, the

advantages which it brings, is exhibited whatever

depth and tenderness of affection they may have.2

This indeed, as has been truly observed,3 was only to be

expected, seeing how much higher an ideal of friend-

ship existed in the old world than of love, the full

realization of which was reserved for the modern

Christian world. But all this admitted, the Roman

proverbs possess substantial merits of their own. A

vigorous moral sense speaks out in many;4 and even


            1 This Greek proverb on love is the noblest of the kind which

I remember:  Mousikh>n e@rwj dida<skei, ka@ntij a@mousoj ^# to> pri>n.

            2 In this respect the Latin proverb, Mores amici noveris, non

oderis, on which Horace has furnished so exquisite a comment

(Sat. i. 3, 24-93), and which finds its grateful equivalent in the

Italian, Ama 1' amico tuo con it difetto suo (Love your friend with

his fault), is worthy of all admiration.

            3 By Zell, in his slight but graceful treatise, On the Proverbs

of the ancient Romans (Ferienschriften, vol. ii. p. 1-96).

            4 Thus, Noxa caput sequitur;—Conscientia, mille testes. I

subjoin a few more Latin proverbs; but of these two or three

perhaps are medieval or modern. Heroum filii noxae.—Lupus

pilum mutat, non mentem.—Galeatum sero duelli poenitet.—

Gladiator in arena consilium capit.—Ex scintilla incendium.—

Sui cuique mores fingunt fortunam.—Piscis primuni a capite

foetet.—Ubi uber, ibi tuber.—Simul sorbere et flare difficile est.

—Qui celocem agere nescit, onerariam ne petat [Jer. xii. 15].—

Nescis quid serus vesper vehat.—Bona tergo formosissima.—

Virum improbum vel mus mordet.—Amicus certus in re incerta

cernitur.—Ubi amici, ibi opes.—Nec nulli sis amicus, nec omni-

bus. —Nunquam periclum sine periclo vincitur.—Sine pennis

50                    Proverbs of Nations Compared.          LECT.


when this is not so prominent, they wear often a

thoroughly old Roman aspect; being business-like

and practical, frugal and severe, wise saws such as

the elder Cato must have loved, such as will have been

often upon his lips;1 while in the number that relate

to farming, they bear singular witness to that strong

and lively interest in agricultural pursuits, which

formed so remarkable a feature of the old Italian life.

            It will not be possible to pass under even this

hastiest review more than a few of the modern families

of proverbs. Let us turn first to those of Spain.3  I

put them in the foremost rank, because Spanish

literature, poor in some provinces wherein many other

literatures are rich, is eminently rich in this; and

deserves this praise whether we regard the quantity or


volare haud facile est.—Dies adimit aegritudinem.—Ars non

habet osorem, nisi ignorantem. —Aliquis in omnibus est nullus

in singulis.—Medice vivere est misere vivere.—Liter n: marsu-

pium non sequuntur.—Beneficium accipere, libertatem est ven-

dere. — Homini diligenti semper aliquid superest.

            1 He has preserved for us that very sensible and at the same

time truly characteristic one, Quod non opus est, asse carum est.

            2 These are three or four of the most notable—the first

against ‘high farming,’ to which I have never seen an appeal in

modern controversies on the subject: Nihil minus expedit quam

agrum optime colere (Pliny, H. N. vi. 18). Over against this,

however, we must set another, warning against the attempt to

farm with insufficient capital: Oportet agrum imbecilliorem

esse quam agricolam; and yet another, on the liberal answer

which the land will make to the pains and cost bestowed on it:

Qui arat olivetum, rogat fructum; qui stercorat, exorat; qui

caedit, cogit: and one more, which no doubt is true: Agricolam

vendacem oportet esse, non emacem.

            3 On Spanish proverbs see Ticknor, History of Spanish Lite-

rature, ch. 39.

III.                     Number of Spanish Proverbs.              51


quality of the proverbs which it owns.1  I should

call the mere number of Spanish proverbs astonishing,

if the German, of which presently, did not exhaust any

astonishment on the score of the mere number of pro-

verbs which any nation could possess. A Spanish col-

lection I have used while preparing these lectures,

contains between seven and eight thousand, but can

make no pretence to containing all; for I have searched

it in vain for several with which from other sources I

had become acquainted. So far from doing this, there

exists a manuscript collection brought together by a

distinguished Spanish scholar, which is reported to

contain from five and twenty to thirty thousand.2

            And their quality is on a par with their quantity.

It needs only to call to mind some of those, so rich

in humour, so double-shotted with homely good sense,

wherewith the Squire in Don Quixote adorns his dis-

course, until oftentimes they constitute not the fringe

and border, but the main woof and texture of it: and

then, if we assume that the remainder are not alto-


            1 This was the judgment of Salmasius, who says: Inter

Europos Hispani in his excellunt, Itali vix cedunt, Galls

proximo sequuntur intervallo.

            2 What may have become of this collection I know not; but

it was formerly in Richard Heber's library (see the Catalogue,

vol. ix. no. 1697). Juan Yriarte was the collector, and in a note

to the Catalogue it is stated that he devoted himself with such

eagerness to the bringing of it to the highest possible state of

completeness, that he would give his servants a fee for any new

proverb they brought him; while to each, as it was inserted in

his list, he was careful to attach a memorandum of the quarter

from which it came; and if this was not from books but from

life, an indication of the name, the rank, and condition in life of

the person from whom it was obtained.

52             Proverbs of Nations Compared.            LECT.


gether unlike these, we shall acknowledge that it

would be difficult to rate them more highly than they

deserve. And some are in a loftier vein; we might

indeed expect as much; for taking, as we have a right

to do, Cervantes himself as the truest exponent of the

Spanish character, we should be prepared to meet in

the proverbs of Spain a grave thoughtfulness, a stately

humour, to find them breathing the very spirit of

chivalry and honour, and indeed of freedom too;--

for in Spain, as throughout so much of Europe, it

is despotism, and not freedom, which is new. The

expectation is abundantly fulfilled. How eminently

chivalresque, for instance, the following: White hands

cannot hurt.1  What a grave humour lurks in this:

The ass knows well in whose face he brays.2 What a

stately apathy, how proud a looking of calamity in

the face, speaks out in the admonition which this one

contains: When thou seest thine house in flames,

approach and warm thyself by it.3 What a spirit of

freedom, which refuses to be encroached on even by

the highest, is embodied in another:  The king goes as

far as he may, not as far as he would;4 what Castilian

pride in the following:  Every layman in Castile might

make a king every clerk a pope. The Spaniard's con-

tempt for his peninsular neighbours finds emphatic


            1  Las manos blancas no ofenden. Calderon has taken this

for the title of one of his plays. Many of his plays, like Shake-

speare's, have proverbs for their titles: thus, Mariana sera otro

dia—Casa con dos puertas mala es de guardar—Guardate de la

agua mansa—Bien vengas, mal, si vienes solo.

            2 Bien sabe el asno en cuya cara rebozna.

            3 Quando vieras to casa quemar, llega te a escalentar.

            4 El rey va hasta do puede, y no hasta do quiere.

III.                    Spanish Characteristics.                        53


utterance in another: Take from a Spaniard all his

good qualities, and there remains a Portuguese.

            Nations will occasionally in their proverbs indulge

in a fine irony upon themselves, and show that they

are perfectly aware of their own weaknesses, follies,

and faults. This the Spaniards must be allowed to

do in their proverb, Succours of Spain, either late or

never.1  However largely and confidently promised,

these Succours of Spain either do not arrive at all, or

only arrive after the opportunity in which they could

have served has passed away. Certainly any one who

reads the despatches of England's Great Captain

during the Peninsular War will find in almost every

page of them justifications of this proverb, will own

that those who coined it read themselves aright, and

could not have designated broken pledges, unfulfilled

promises of aid, tardy and thus ineffectual assistance,

by a happier title than Succours of Spain. And then,

again, what a fearful glimpse of those blood-feuds

which, having once begun, seem as if they could never

end, blood touching blood, and violence evermore

provoking its like, have we in the following:  Kill, and

thou shalt be killed, and they shall kill him who kills



            1 Socorros de Espana, o tarde, o nunca. The Italians have

a proverb in which they express their sense of the tardiness of

the despatch of all business in Spain, and the infinite delays

which are sure to attend it—May my death come to me from

Spain (Mi venga la morte da Spagna), for so it will come late

or not at all.

            2 Mataras, y matarte han, y mataran a quien to matara.

These which follow are all good, and some very good: Quien a

lobo embia, carne espera.—Quien en la plaza a labrar se mete,

54              Proverbs of Nations Compared.              LECT.


            The Italians also are eminently rich in proverbs;

yet if ever I have been tempted to retract or seriously

to modify what I shall have occasion by-and-bye to

affirm of a nobler life and spirit as predominating in

proverbs, it has been after the study of some Italian

collection. ‘The Italian proverbs,’ it has been said

not without too much reason, though perhaps also

with overmuch severity, ‘have taken a tinge from their

deep and politic genius, and their wisdom seems

wholly concentrated in their personal interests. I

think every tenth proverb in an Italian collection is

some cynical or some selfish maxim, a book of the

world for worldlings.’1 Certainly many of them are


muchos adestradores tiene.—Con agua pasada no muele molino.

—A carros quebrados carriles a fartos.—Buscais cinco pies al

gato, y el no tiene sino cuatro.—En los nidos de antano no hay

pajaros hogano.—El mal cobrador hace mal pagador.—La oveja

lozana dijo a la cabra, Dame lana.—El dia que te casas o te

sanas, o te matas.—Quando el corsario promete misas y cera, con

mal anda la galera.—Quando Dios quiere, con todos vientos

llueve.—Quando te dier-en la vaquilla, acude con la soguilla.—

Quando to dieren el anillo, pon el dedillo.—Pierde el lobo los

dientes, rnas no las mientes.—Quando mayor ventura, es menos

segura.—No pidas al olmo Ia pera; pues no la lleva.—Una vez

sali, y diez me arrepenti.—Uno piensa el bayo, y otro el que to

ensilla.—Nacen las alas a la hormiga, para que se pierda mas

aina.—No con cada mal al fisico, ni con cada pleito al letrado),

ni con cada sed al jarro.—Mas quiero asno que me lleve, que

cavallo que me derrueque.—Jurado ha el bano de to negro no

hacer blanco.—Necio es, que piensa que otros no piensan.--Mas

vale humo de mi casa que fuego de la agena.—Al fin se canta la

gloria.—Aunque la mona se vesta de seda, mona se queda.--

Quando pienses meter el diente en seguro, toparas en duro.—

Mandan al mono, y el mozo al gato, y el gato a su rabo.

            1 Cusriosities of Literature, London; 1838, p, 391. Les Ita-

III.           Machiavellianism in Proverbs.                  55


shrewd enough, and only too shrewd; inculcating an

universal suspicion, teaching to look everywhere for a

foe, to expect, as the Greeks said, a scorpion under

every stone, glorifying artifice and cunning as the true

guides and only safe leaders through the perplexed

labyrinth of life, and altogether seeming dictated as

by the spirit of Machiavel himself.1

            Worse than this is the glorification of revenge

which speaks out in too many of them. I know

nothing of its kind calculated to give one a more

shuddering sense of horror than the series which

might be drawn together of Italian proverbs on this

matter; especially when we take them with the com-

mentary which Italian history supplies, and which

shows them no empty words, but truest utterances of

the nation's heart. There is no misgiving in these

about the right of entertaining so deadly a guest in

the bosom; on the contrary, one of them, exalting

the sweetness of revenge, declares, Revenge is a morsel

for God.2  There is nothing in them (it would be

far better if there were) of blind and headlong

passion, but rather a spirit of deliberate calculation,

which makes the blood run cold. Thus one gives

this advice:  Wait time and place to act thy revenge,


liens s’y montrent ruses, gracieux et moqueurs, is the judgment

of a French writer, F. Denis, in a slight but clever essay on

what he calls The Philosophy of Sancho.

            1 These may serve as examples:  Chi ha sospetto, di rado e in

difetto.—Fidarsi e bene, ma non fidarsi e meglio.—Da chi mi

fido, mi guardi Iddio; di chi non mi fido, mi guardero io.—Con

arte e con inganno si vive mezzo 1' anno; con inganno e con arte

si vive 1’ altra parte.—A mal passo 1' onore.

            2 Vendetta, boccon di Dio.

56                  Proverbs of Nations Compared     LECT.


for it is never well done in a hurry;1 while another

proclaims an immortality of hatred, which no spaces

of intervening time shall have availed to weaken:

Revenge of a hundred years old hath still its sucking

teeth.2 We may well be thankful that we have in

England, so far at least as I am aware, no sentiments

parallel to these, embodied as the permanent convic-

tions of the national mind.

            How curious again is the confession which speaks

out in another Italian proverb, that the maintenance

of the Roman system and the study of Holy Scripture

cannot go together.  It is this: With the Gospel one

becomes a heretic.3  No doubt with the study of the

Word of God one becomes a heretic, in the Italian

sense of the word; and therefore it is only prudently

done to put all obstacles in the way of that study, to

assign three years' and four years' imprisonment with

hard labour, as was lately assigned in Spain, to as many

as shall dare to peruse it; yet certainly it is not a little

remarkable that such a confession should have em-

bodied itself in the popular utterances of the nation.

            But while it must be freely owned that the charges

brought just now against the Italian proverbs are

sufficiently borne out by too many, they are not

all to be included in the common shame. Very

many there are not merely of a delicate refinement of

beauty, as this, expressive of the freedom in regard of

thine and mine which will exist between true friends:


            1 Aspetta tempo e luogo a far tua vendetta, che la non si fa

mai ben in fretta. Compare another: Vuoi far vendetta del

tuo nemico, governati bene, ed e bell' e fatta.

            2 Vendetta di cent' anni ha ancor i lattaiuoli.

            3 Con 1' Evangelo si diventa eretico.

III.                         National Mind of Italy.                    57


Friends tie their purses with a spider's thread;l and

of a subtle wisdom which has not degenerated into

cunning and deceit; others too of a still nobler stamp;

honour and honesty, plain dealing and uprightness,

have here their praises, and are not seldom pro-

nounced to be in the end more than a match for all

cunning and deceit. How excellent in this sense is

the following: For an honest man half his wits is

enough, the whole is too little for a knave;2 the ways,

that is, of truth and uprightness are so simple and

plain, that a little wit is abundantly sufficient for those

who walk in them; the ways of falsehood and fraud

are so perplexed and crooked, that sooner or later all

the wit of the cleverest rogue will not preserve him

from being entangled therein. How often and how

wonderfully has this found its confirmation in th lives

of evil men ; so true it is, to employ another proverb

and a very deep one from the same quarter, that The

devil is subtle, yet weaves a coarse web3


            1 Gli amici legano la borsa con un filo di ragnatelo.

            2 Ad un uomo dabbene avanza la meta del cervello; ad un

tristo non basta ne anche tutto.

            3 Jeremy Taylor appears to have found much delight in the

proverbs of Italy. In the brief foot-notes appended to his Holy

Living I counted five and twenty such, to which he makes more

or less remote allusion in the text. There is an excellent

article on ‘Tuscan Proverbs’ in Fraser's Magazine, Jan. 1857.

I subjoin a small group. A nave rotta ogni vento e contrario.—

Chi ha tempo, non aspetti tempo.—Chi ha la sanita e ricco, e

non lo sa.—Chi non da fine al pensare, non da principio a

fare. —Fammi indovino, ed io ti faro ricco. —Fra l' incudine e 'l

martello non metta la mano chi ha cervello.—Chi edifica, sua

borsa purifica.—La morte sempre trova qualche scusa.—Il

diavolo e facile da invitare, ma non da scacciare.—E meglio

58          Proverbs of Nations Compared.                LECT.


            On French proverbs I cannot linger long. They

have very much the excellence which we should before-

hand have expected; being full of grace and finish;

with a rapier's point and polish; yet at the same time

often with the rapier's coldness as well.l

            And the German proverbs I must hastily pass

over. Whatever other merits they possess, and they

possess many, and of such different kinds that it is

difficult, if not impossible, to seize their most charac-

teristic features, they may certainly boast of being the

most numerous family of proverbs in existence.2  I

shall often have occasion to recur to them.


cader della finestra che del tetto.—Chi piglia leoni in assenza

suol temer dei topi in presenza.—Chi troppo abbraccia, nulla

stringe.—Chi offende, scrive nella rena, chi e offeso nel marmo.

—Ad un tristo un tristo e mezzo.—I1 diavolo tenta tutti, ma

1' ozioso tenta it diavolo.—A flume famoso non andar a pesca. --

Chi vuol it lavoro mal fatto, paghi innanzi tratto. —Chi non vuol

servir ad un sol signor, a molti ha da servir.—Chi si fa fango,

it porco lo calpesta.—Corpo satollo non crede all' affamato.--

Dall' aqua cheta mi guardi Iddio, dalle correnti mi guardero io.

—Chi ha arte da per tutto ha parte [cf. Phaedrus, Fab. iv. 21].

—Chi asino e, e cervo esser si crede, al saltar del fosso se

n' avvede.—Se il giovine sapesse, ed it vecchio potesse, non v' e

cosa che non si facesse.

            1 Donner est mort, et preter est bien malade.—Il ne faut pas

faire d'un diable deux.—D'un sac a charbon ne peut sortir que

la poussiere noire. —Un sot savant est plus sot qu'un sot ignorant.

—Le mal est gros du bien.—L'homme est un arbre renverse.--

A bon demandeur bon refuseur.—Le fol cherche son malheur. --

La gloire qui dine de 1'orgueil fait son soupe de mepris.—Tous

les renards se trouvent chez le pelletier.—Qui veut prendre un

oiseau, qu'il ne 1'effarouche.—On ne trouve jamais meilleur

messager que soi-meme.

            2 I was disposed once to claim this pre-eminence for the pro-

III.                   English Proverbs.                       59


            English proverbs in like manner have so many

excellences without having any one excellence which

is greatly predominant, that in their case also it is

difficult to seize upon features which more than any

other are peculiarly their own.1  With Scotch it is


verbs of Spain, but the 30,000 of which I spoke just now are

immensely outnumbered by the contents of Wander's Deutsches

Spichworter-Lexicon, which when completed will certainly not

contain less than 100,000; if, indeed, this almost incredible

number is not exceeded. It may give some notion of the Ger-

man opulence in this line of things when I mention that under

Haus' are ranged 686 proverbs, under 'Frau' 770, under ‘Gluck’

1025, under, ‘Gott’ 2660; that is, there is this number of pro-

verbs in which these severally constitute the principal word;

while other words yield proverbs in the same proportion. I

subjoin a very small handful of these:—Die Augen sind weiter,

als der Bauch.—Mancher sucht Einen Pfennig, und verbrennt

dabei drei Lichter.—Dem Esel traumet von Disteln.—Frau und

Mond leuchten mit fremden Licht.—Es giebt rnehr Diebe als

Galgen.—Dem Diebe will kein Baum gefallen, daran er hange.

— Gedanken sind zollfrei, aber nicht hollenfrei. --Besser zweimal

fragen, denn einmal irre gehn.—Wass man Gott opfern will,

muss man nicht von Teufel einsegnen lassen.—Vermogen sucht

Vermogen.—Zu viel Gluck ist Ungluck.—Wenn der Esel auch

eine Lowenhaut tragt, die Ohren gucken vor.—Wenn der Fuchs

Richter ist, gewinnt schwerlich eine Gans den Process.—Wenn

der Fuchs sie todt stellt, so sind die Huhner in Gefahr.

            1 I append here a few of these: Who hath horns in his bosom

need not put them on his head.—Better a little loss than a long

sorrow.—A fool always rushes to the fore.—Folks' dogs bark

worse than themselves.—A bribe enters without knocking.—

Prosperity makes friends, adversity proves them.—What can

you expect from a hog but a grunt? —High winds blow on high

hills.—A man will never change his mind if he has no mind

to change.—Mettle is dangerous in a blind horse.—What, keep

a dog and bark myself? It is of no use flogging a dead horse.

--The hobgoblin reads his own writing,—Losers may have leave

60        Proverbs of Nations Compared.     LECT.


easier. Of course an immense number of Scotch

proverbs are identical with our own, or it may be, dis-

tinguished from them only by slight dialectic differences.

But this is by no means the case with all. Many of

ours, so far as I can trace them, have at no time had

free course in Scotland; while Scotland in the same

way possesses many which have never crossed the

border, and in which we have no share. Other nations

may own larger collections of proverbs, and may pro-

duce single proverbs of a grace, tenderness and eleva-

tion, which none of these can match; but I know of

no collection so uniformly good, in which so few flat,

pointless, and merely trivial are to be found. Their

one serious fault as a whole is that there are so few

among them which move in, or assume, or at all reach

out after, an ideal world, higher than that in which we

commonly move; but as maxims of prudential morality

they deserve all praise. Thus, what better in this way

could be found than the following: Raise nae mair

deils than ye're able to lay? It need not be said that

they are canny; and some over canny and with the

touch of a too visible contempt for those that are other-

wise; as, for instance, this one: Fools make feasts, and

wise men eat them. They are almost always witty; as

these are:  As long as ye serve the tod [the fox], ye maun

carry his tail—A craw is nae whiter for being washed—

Dinna lift me before I fall—A blate cat makes a proud


to speak.—He dances well to whom Fortune pipes.—Where

God has his Church, the devil has his chapel. If thy name be

up, thou mayest lie abed till noon.--Drawn wells are seldom

dry. —He that will eat the kernel must crack the nut.—Treat

thy horse as a friend, and mount him as an enemy.—It is a sad

house where the hen crows louder than the cock.

III.                          Scotch Proverbs.                              61


mouse—As good eat the deil, as the hail he's boiled in;

while this, if not witty, yet is wise: Better keep the deil out

than hae to turn him out. This that follows is in a higher

strain, in that strain of which I just now complained that

Scotch proverbs offer too few examples: A thread will

tie an honest man better than a rope will do a rogue,

How far the Irish may have a stock of home-born pro-

verbs I cannot undertake to say; but the poet Spenser,

who long dwelt in Ireland, records a very characteristic

one as in his time current among the Irish. It is this:

Spend me and defend me; and no doubt exactly ex-

presses their idea of what they owed to their native

chiefs, and what these owed in return to them. There

has been no time in which their leaders have not taken

them only too well at their word so far as the first half of

the proverb reaches, and have not failed prodigally to

spend them; while if they have ever undertaken to

defend, these undertakings have issued exactly as must

ever issue all undertakings to defend men from those

evils wherefrom none can effectually protect them but


            Russian proverbs appear to me to be singularly

good. I have no choice, however, but to pass, them by

with this slight notice, and to wander still further afield.

The proverbs of the Eastern world go far to tell

the story of the East. Thus, what description of

Egypt as it now is, could set us at the heart of its

moral condition, could make us to understand all

which long centuries of oppression and misrule have

made of it and of its people, as compared with the

Arabic proverbs now current there?1  In other books


            1 These Arabic Proverbs of the Modern Egyptian, London

62             Proverbs of Nations Commared          LECT.


others describe the modern Egyptians, but here they

unconsciously describe themselves. The selfishness,

the utter extinction of all public spirit, the servility,

which no longer as with an inward shame creeps into

men's acts, but utters itself boldly as the avowed law

of their lives, the sense of the oppression of the strong,

of the insecurity of the weak, and, generally, the

whole character of life, as poor, mean, sordid, and

ignoble, with only a few faintest glimpses of that

romance which we usually attach to the East; all this,

as we study these documents, rises up before us in

clearest, though in painfullest, outline.

            Thus only in a land where rulers, being evil

themselves, instinctively feel all goodness to be their

foe, and themselves therefore entertain a corresponding

hostility to it, where they punish but never reward,

where not to be noticed by them is the highest

ambition of those under their yoke, in no other save

a land like this could a proverb like the following,

Do no good, and thou shalt find no evil, have ever

come to the birth. How assured a conviction that

wrong, and not right, is the lord paramount of the

world must have settled down on men's spirits, before

such a word as this, (I know of no sadder one), could

have found utterance from their lips.1


1830, were collected by the traveller Burckhardt, and after his

death published with his name.

            1 Yet this very mournful collection of Burckhardt's possesses

at least one very beautiful proverb on the all-conquering power

of love: Man is the slave of beneficence. I will add a few

others, Persian, Arabic, Turkish. They all seem to me to pos-

sess more or less merit, and some to be eminently characteristic

of that East to which they belong. Thus, He who has need of

III.                         Chinese Proverbs.                    63


            The author of an article on Chinese proverbs in

the China Review expresses himself thus:  ‘If it be

asked what is the distinguishing note of Chinese

proverbs? I would say, a certain quiet and keen

long-headedness, a somewhat cynical and worldly

view of human nature, but a piercing insight into it,

reminding one most of those incisive Florentine

bywords recovered for us by the unwearied diligence

of George Eliot. And thus the proverbs of China

are marked more by wisdom than by sweetness, for

they have sprung from the heart of a hard-working,

not too much rejoicing, people. They turn more on

the foibles of humanity than its excellences.’1


a dog, calls him Sir Dog.—He is the true sage who learns from all

the world. —It is ill sport between the cotton and the fire. — Treat

thy horse as a friend, and mount him as an enemy.—Two water-

melons are not held in one hand. —Thou wilt catch more flies

with a spoonful of honey than with a cask of vinegar. —The king

makes free with an apple; his servants have cut down the tree.

—If the monkey reigns, dance before him.—Though thy friend

be honey, do not swallow him up.—Keep the dogs near when

thou suppest with the wolf.—Who chatters to you, will chatter

of you. —The dust of the sheepfold is ointment for the sore eyes

of the wolf.—Cast thy bread upon the waters; God will know

of it, if the fishes do not.—Stones and sticks are flung only at

fruit-bearing trees.—When once thy cart is overturned, everyone

will show thee the way.

            1 The proverbs which follow will, I think, bear this judg-

ment out: It is easier to visit friends than to live with them.

—Master easy, servant slack.—A coach and four cannot bring

back a word once uttered.—Better go home and make a net

than jump into a pool after fish.—Great folks may set the town

in a blaze, common people must not even light a lantern.—All

ten fingers cannot be of the same length. —Leave to the tiger the

care of attacking the wolf.—The tiles which defend thee in the

64           Proverbs of Nations Compared.         LECT.


            Other families of proverbs would each of them tell

its own tale, give up its own secret; but I must not

seek from this point of view to question them further.

I would rather bring now to your notice that even

where they do not spring, as they cannot all, from the

central heart of a people, nor declare to us the se-

cretest things which are there, but dwell more on the

surface, they have still oftentimes local or national

features, which it is worth our while to remark. Thus,

how many clothe themselves in an outward form and

shape, borrowed from, or suggested by, the peculiar

scenery or circumstances or history of their own land;

so that they could scarcely have come into existence

at all, not certainly in the shape that they now wear,

anywhere besides. Thus our own, Make hay while

the sun shines, is truly English, and could have had

its birth only under such variable skies as ours,--not,

at any rate, in those southern lands where, during the

summer time at least, the sun always shines. In the

same way a fine Cornish proverb tells the story of

obstinate wrongheads, who will take no warning

except from calamities, dashing themselves to pieces

against obstacles, which with a little prudence and

foresight they might easily have avoided:  Who will

not be ruled by the rudder, must be ruled by the rock.

It sets us at once upon some rocky and wreck-strewn

coast ; we feel that it could never have been the

proverb of an inland people. And this, Do not talk


wet weather were fashioned in the dry.—The ripest fruit does

not drop into the mouth. —Who borrows to build, builds to sell.

—In accounts finish all, or you have finished nothing. —You may

be arrested by mistake, but not released.

III.                     Localised Proverbs                          65


Arabic in the house of a Moor,1—that is, because there

thy imperfect knowledge of the language will be

detected at once,—this, wherever we met it, we should

confidently affirm to be the Spanish version of a

proverb not strange to ourselves:  It is hard to halt

before a cripple. In like manner a traveller with any

experience in the composition of Spanish sermons and

Spanish dishes could make no mistake about the

following: A sermon without Augustine is as a stew

without bacon.2 Big and empty, like the Heidelberg

tun,3 could have its home only in Germany; that

enormous vessel, known as the Heidelberg tun, con-

structed to contain nearly 300,000 flasks, having now

stood empty for hundreds of years. As little does

the following, It's not every village parson whom Dr.

Luther's shoes will fit,4 leave us in any doubt to what

people it appertains. And this, The world is a carcase,

and they who gather pound it are dogs, plainly proclaims

itself as belonging to those Eastern lands, where the

unowned dogs prowling about the streets of a city

are the natural scavengers that assemble round a car-

case thrown in the way. So too the form which our

own proverb, Man's extremity, God's opportunity, or

as we sometimes have it, When need is highest, help is

nighest, assumes among the Jews, namely this, When

the tale of bricks is doubled, Moses comes,5 plainly roots


            1 En casa del Moro no hables algarabia.

            2 Sermon sin Agostino, olla sin tocino.

            3 Gross and leer, wie das Heidelberger Fass.

            4 Doctor Luther's Schuhe sind nicht alien Dorfpriestern


            5 Cum duplicantur lateres, Moses venit. This proverb was

a favourite one with the German Protestants during the worst

66            Proverbs of Nations Compared.       LECT.


itself in the early history of that nation, being an

allusion to Exod. v. 9-19, and without a knowledge

of that history would be wholly unintelligible. The

same may be said of this: We must creep into Ebal,

and leap into Gerizim; in other words, we must be

slow to curse, and swift to bless (Deut. xxvii. 12, 13).

            But while it is thus with some, which are bound

by the very conditions of their existence to a narrow

and peculiar sphere, or at all events move more natu-

rally and freely in it than elsewhere, there are others

which we meet all the world over. True cosmopolites,

they seem to have travelled from land to land, and to

have made themselves a home equally in all. The

Greeks obtained them probably from the older East,

and again imparted them to the Romans ; and from

these they have found their way into all the languages

of the modern world.

            Much, I think, may be learned from knowing what

those truths are, which are so felt to be true by all

nations, that all have loved to possess them in these

compendious forms, wherein they may pass readily

from mouth to mouth: which, thus cast into some

happy shape, have become a portion of the common

stock of the world's wisdom, in every land making for

themselves a recognition and a home. Such a pro-

verb, for instance, is Man proposes, God disposes;1

one I believe that every nation in Europe possesses,

so deeply upon all men is impressed the sense of

Hamlet's words, if not the very words themselves:


times of the Thirty Years War. Gustavus Adolphus was the

Moses who should come in the hour of uttermost need.

            1 La gente pone, y Dios dispone.—Der Mensch denkt's;

Gott lenkt's.

III.            Metamorphosis of Proverbs.                  67


                        ‘There's a divinity that shapes our ends,

                        Rough-hew them how we will.’


            Sometimes the proverb does not actually in so

many words repeat itself in various tongues. We have,

indeed, exactly the same thought; but it takes an

outward shape and embodiment, varying according to

the various countries and various periods in which it

has been current and thus we have proverbs totally

diverse from one another in form and appearance, but

which yet, when looked at a little deeper, prove to

be at heart one and the same, all these their diffe-

rences being only, so to speak, variations of the same

air. These furnish almost always an amusing, often an

instructive, study; and to trace this likeness in diffe-

rence has an interest lively enough. Thus the forms

of the proverb, which brings out the absurdity of

those reproving others for a defect or a sin, which

cleaves in an equal or in a greater degree to themselves,

have for the most no visible connexion at all, or the

very slightest, with one another; yet for all this the

proverb is at heart and essentially but one. We say

in English: The kiln calls the oven, ‘Burnt house;’

the Italians: The pan says to the pot, ‘Keep for

you'll smutch me;1—the Spaniards: The raven cried

to the crow, ‘Avaunt, blackamoor;’2—the Germans:

One ass nicknames another, Longears;3—while it must

be owned there is a certain originality in the Catalan

version of the proverb:  Death said to the man with

his throat cut, ‘How ugly you look.’ Under how rich


            1 La padella dice al pajuolo, Fatti in la, the to mi tigni.

            2 Dijo la corneja al cuervo, Quitate alla, negro.

            3 Ein Esel schimpft den andern, Langohr.

68           Proverbs of Nations Compare       LECT.


a variety of forms does one and the same thought

array itself here.

            Take another illustration of the same fact. Coals

to Newcastle is a thoroughly home-born phrase, ex-

pressing well the absurdity of sending to a place that

which already abounds there, as water to the sea, or

fagots to the wood: but it is only English in the out-

ward garment which it wears in its innermost being

it belongs to the whole world and to all times. Thus

the Greeks said:  Owls to Athens,1 Attica abounding

with these birds; the Rabbis:  Enchantments to

Egypt, Egypt being of old accounted the head-quarters

of all magic; the Orientals:  Pepper to Hindostan;

the Germans:  Deals to Norway; while in the Middle

Ages they had this proverb:  Indulgences to Rome,

Rome being the centre and source of this spiritual

traffic; nor do these by any means exhaust the


            I adduce some other variations of the same kind,

though not running through quite so many languages.

Thus compare the German, Who lets one sit on his

shoulders, shall have himpresently sit on his head,2 with the

Italian, If thou suffer a calf to be laid on thee, within a

little they'll clap on the cow,3 and, again, with the Spanish,

Give me where I may sit down; I will make where I

may lie down.4 All three alike remind us that undue

liberties are best resisted at the outset, being otherwise


            1 Glau?kaj ei]j  ]Aqh<naj.

            2 Wer sich auf der Achsel sitzen lasst, dem sitzt man nachher

auf dem Kopfe.

            3 Se ti lasci metter in spalla it vitello, quindi a poco ti met-

teran la vacca.

            4 Dame donde me asiente, que yo hare donde me acueste.

III.                           Various Proverbs.                            69


sure to be followed up by other and greater ones; but

this under how rich and humorous a variety of forms.

Not very different is the lesson of these that follow.

We say:  Daub yourself with honey, and you'll be

covered with flies; the Danes:  Make yourself an ass,

and you'll have every man's sack on your shoulders;

the French:  Who makes himself 'a sheep, the wolf

devours him;1  and the Persians:  Be not all sugar, or

the world will gulp thee down;2 to which they add,

however, as its necessary complement, nor yet all

wormwood, or the world will spit thee out. Take

another group. We are content to say without a

figure: The receiver's as bad as the thief;  but the

French:  He sins as much who holds the sack, as he

who puts into it:3 and the Germans: He who holds

the ladder is as guilty as he who mounts the wall.4 Or

again, we say:  A stitch in time saves nine; the

Spaniards:  Who repairs not his gutter, repairs his

whole house.5  We say: Misfortunes never come single;

the Italians have no less than three proverbs to

express the same popular conviction:  Blessed is that

misfortune which comes single; and again One mis-

fortune is the vigil of another, and again:  A misfor-

tune and a friar are seldom alone.6 The Germans


            1 Qui se fait brebis, le loup le mange.

            2 There is a Catalan proverb to the same effect: Qui de tot

es moll, de tot es foll.

            3 Autant peche celui qui tient le sac, que celui qui met


            4 Wer die Leiter halt, ist so schuldig wie der Dieb.

            5 Quien no adoba gotera, adoba casa entera.

            6 Benedetto e quel male, the viensolo.--Unmal e la vigili,

dell altro.—Un male e un frate di rado soli.

70                  Proverbs of Nations Compared     LECT.


say:  Many go out for wool, and come bath shorn; but

the Romans long ago:  The camel that desired horny

lost even its ears.1  Many languages have this proverb

God gives the cold according to the cloth;2 it is very

beautiful, but attains not to the tender beauty of our

own: God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb.

            And, as in that last example, will there be not

seldom an evident superiority of a proverb in one

language over one, which resembles it closely in

another. Moving in the same sphere, it will yet be

richer, fuller, deeper. Thus our own, A burnt child

fears the fire, is good; but that of many tongues, A

scalded dog fears cold water, is better still. Ours does

but express that those who have suffered once will

henceforward be timid in respect of that same thing

from which they have suffered; but that other the

tendency to exaggerate such fears, so that now they

shall fear where no fear is. And the fact that so it

will be, clothes itself in an almost infinite variety of

forms. Thus one Italian proverb says:  A dog which

has been beaten with a stick, is afraid of its shadow;3

and another, which could only have had its birth in

the sunny South, where the glancing but harmless

lizard so often darts across your path:  Whom a ser-

pent has bitten, a lizard alarms.4 With a little varia-


            1 Camelus cornea desiderans etiam aures perdidit. The

camel in AEsop's fable asks horns of Jove. Indignant: at the

foolish request, he deprives it of its ears.

            2 Dieu donne le froid selon le drap.—Cada cual siente el frio

como anda vestido.

            3 In Spanish: Quien del alacran esta picado, la sombra 1e


            4 Cui serpe mozzica, lucerta teme.

III.                    New Testament Proverbs.                      71


tion from this, the Jewish Rabbis had said long

before: One bitten by a serpent, is afraid of a rope's

end; even that which bears so remote a resemblance

to a serpent as this does, shall now inspire him with

terror ; and the Cingalese, still expressing the same

thought, but with imagery borrowed from their own

tropical clime: The man who has received a beating

from a firebrand, runs away at sight of a firefly.

            Some of our Lord's sayings contain lessons which

the proverbs of the Jewish Rabbis contained already;

for He did not refuse to bring forth from his treasury

things old as well as new; but it is instructive to

observe how they acquire in his mouth a decorum and

dignity which, it may be, they wanted before. We are

all familiar with that word in the Sermon on the

Mount, ‘Whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile,

go with him twain.’  The Rabbis have a proverb to

match, lively and piquant enough, but certainly lack-

ing the gravity of this:  If thy neighbour call thee ass,

put a pack-saddle on thy back; do not, that is, with-

draw thyself from the wrong, but rather go forward to

meet and to welcome it.

            Sometimes a proverb, without an entire transfor-

mation, will yet on the lips of different nations be

slightly modified; and these modifications, slight as

they are, may be eminently characteristic. Thus in

English we say, The river past, and God forgotten, to

express with how mournful a frequency He whose

assistance was invoked, and perhaps earnestly invoked,

in the moment of peril, is remembered no more, so

soon as by his help the danger has been surmounted.

The Spaniards have the proverb too; but it is with

72      Proverbs of Nations Compared        LECT.


them:  The river past, the saint forgotten.1 In its

Italian form it sounds a still sadder depth of ingrati-

tude:  The peril past, the saint mocked;2 the vows

made to him in peril remaining unperformed in safety;

and he treated somewhat as, in Greek story, Juno was

treated by Mandrabulus the Samian. Of him we are

told that having under the auspices of the goddess and

through her direction discovered a gold mine, in his

instant gratitude he vowed to her a golden ram; this

he presently exchanged in intention for a silver one;

and again this for a very small brass one; and this

for nothing at all. Certainly the rapidly descending

scale of the gratitude of this gold-finder, with little

by little the entire disappearance of his thank-

offering, might very profitably live in our memories, as

so perhaps it would be less likely that the same should

repeat itself in our lives.


            1 El rio pasado, el santo olvidado.

            2 Passato il punto, gabbato il santo.

IV.                   Analysis of Proverbs.                     73





                             LECTURE IV.







            I PROPOSE in my three remaining lectures to

justify the attention which I have claimed for

proverbs, not merely by appealing to the authority of

others who in divers lands and in divers ages have

prized and made much of them, but by bringing out

and setting before you, so far as my skill reaches,

some of the excellences by which they are mainly dis-

tinguished. Their wit, their wisdom, their poetry, the

delicacy, the fairness, the manliness which characterize

so many of them, their morality, their theology, will

all by turns come under our consideration. At the

same time I shall beware of presenting them to you

as though they embodied these nobler qualities only.

I shall not keep out of sight that there are proverbs,

coarse, selfish, unjust, cowardly, profane; ‘maxims’

wholly undeserving of the honour implied by that

name.l Still as my pleasure, and I doubt not yours,

is rather in the wheat than in the tares, I shall, while

I make no attempt to keep such out of sight, prefer to

dwell in the main on proverbs which present nobler

features to us.


            1 Propositiones quae inter maximas numerari merentur.

74                 Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.              LECT.


            And first, of the poetry of proverbs. Whatever is

from the people, or truly for the people, whatever

either springs from their bosom, or has been cordially

accepted by them, still more whatever unites both

these conditions, will have more or less of poetry, or

imagination, in it. For little as the people's craving

after wholesome nutriment of the imaginative faculty,

and after an entrance into a fairer and more harmonious

world than that sordid and confused one with which

often they are surrounded, is duly met and satisfied,

still they yearn after all this with an honest hearty

yearning, such as may well put to shame the palled in-

difference, the only affected enthusiasm of too many,

whose opportunities of cultivating this glorious faculty

have been so immeasurably greater than theirs. This

being so, and proverbs being, as we have seen, the

sayings that have found favour with the people, such

as they have made peculiarly their own, we may confi-

dently anticipate that there will be poetry, imagination,

passion, in them. A closer examination will not put

our confidence to shame.

            Bold imagery, lively comparisons we have a right

to expect to find in them. Nor do we look for it in

vain. As a proof, let serve our own:  Gray hairs are

death's blossoms;1 or the Italian:  Time is an inaudible

file;2 or the Greek:  Man a bubble;3 which last

Jeremy Taylor has expanded into such glorious poe-


            1 In German: Grau' Haare sind Kirchhofsblumen; but older

than either German or English ; for we may compare Erinna:

paurolo<goi poliai<, tai> gh<raoj a@nqea qnatoi?j.

            2 Il tempo e una lima sorda.

            3 Pomfo<luc o[ a@nqrwpoj.

IV.                           Poetic Imagery.                          75


try in the opening of the Holy Dying; or the Turkish:

Death is a black camel which kneels at every man's

gate; to take up, that is, the burden of a coffin there;

or this Arabic, on the never satisfied eye of desire:

Nothing but a handful of dust will fill the eye of man;

or another from the same quarter, worthy of Mecca's

prophet himself; and of the earnestness with which he

realized Gehenna, whatever else he may have come

short in:  There are no fans in Hell; or this other,

also from the East:  Hold all skirts of thy mantle ex-

tended, when heaven is raining gold; improve, that is,

to the uttermost the happier crises of thy spiritual

life; or this Indian, suggesting that good should be

returned for evil:  The sandal tree perfumes the axe

that fells it; or this, current in the Middle Ages

Whose life lightens, his words thunder;1 or once

more, this Chinese:  Towers are measured by their

shadows, and great men by their calumniators; how-

ever this last may have a somewhat artificial air, as

tried by our standard, about it.

            There is a French proverb:  One can go a long way

after one is weary;2 which presents itself to me as

having; the poetry of an infinite sadness about it, so

soon as one gives it that larger range of application

which it is capable of receiving, and which, no doubt,

it was intended to receive. How many are the way-

farers utterly weary of the task and toil of life, who are

still far off from their journey's end; and who despite

of this weariness of theirs will have no choice but to


            1 Cujus vita fulgor, ejus verba tonitrua. Cf. Mark iii. 87:

ui[oi< bronth?j.

            2 On va bien loin depuis qu'on est las.

76              Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.              LECT.


fulfil those long stages which may still remain for

them before their journey will be completed.

            There may be poetry in a play upon words; and

who can refuse to recognize as much in that exquisite

Spanish proverb:  La verdad es siempre verde?

which I must leave in its original form; for were I

to translate it, The truth is always green, its charm and

chief beauty would have disappeared. It finds a pen-

dant and complement in another, which I must

equally despair of adequately rendering:  Gloria vana

florece, y no grana: all glory, this would say, which is

not true, can shoot up into stalk and ear, but can

never attain to the full grim in the ear. Nor can we

refuse the title of poetry to this Eastern proverb, in

which the wish that a woman may triumph over her

enemies clothes itself thus:—May her enemies stumble

over her hair;—may she flourish so, may her hair,

the outward sign of this prosperity, grow so rich and

long, may it so sweep the ground, that her detractors

and persecutors may be entangled by it and fall.


            And then, how exquisitely witty many proverbs

are. Thus, not to speak of one familiar to us all,

which is perhaps the queen of all proverbs:  The road

to hell is paved with good intentions, and admirably

glossed in the Guesses at Truth:  'Pluck up the stones,

ye sluggards, and break the devil's head with them,'

take this Scotch one:  A man may love his house well,

without riding on the ridge; it is enough for a wise man

to know what is precious to himself, without making

himself ridiculous by evermore proclaiming it to the

world. Or take this of our own, which has not to my

knowledge hitherto found its way into any of our col-

IV.                              Wit of Proverbs.                           77


lections; When the devil is dead, he never lacks a chief

mourner; in other words, there is no abuse so enor-

mous, no evil so flagrant, but that the interests or

passions of some will be so bound up in its continu-

ance that they will lament its extinction; or this

Italian:  When rogues go in procession, the devil holds

the cross;1  when evil men have all their own way,

worst is best, and in the inverted hierarchy which is

then set up, the foremost in badness is foremost also

in such honour as is going. Or consider how happily

the selfishness and bye-ends which too often preside at

men's very prayers are detected and noted in this Portu-

guese:  Cobblers go to mass, and pray that cows may

die;2 in the hope, that is, that leather may be cheap;

or take another, a German one, noting with slightest

exaggeration a measure of charity which is only too

common:  He will swallow an egg, and give away the

shells in alms; or this from the Talmud, whose inter-

pretation I may leave to yourselves:  All kinds of wood

burn silently, except thorns, which crackle and cry out,

We too are wood. While treating of witty proverbs, I

know of no wittier, and it is something more than witty,

for rightly followed up it may lead to some very, deep

heartsearchings, than this of our own, The cat shuts its

eyes while it steals cream. How often men become

wilfully blind to the wrong which is involved in some

pleasing or gainful sin, refuse to see the evil of it;

and may thus be fitly compared to the cat in the

adage, shutting its eyes while it steals the cream.


            1 Quando i furbi vanno in processione, il diavolo porta la


            2 Vao a missa capateiros, rogao a Deos que morrao os car-


78                Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.                   LECT.


            The wit of proverbs spares few or none. They

are, as may be supposed, especially intolerant of fools.

We say:  Fools grow without watering; no need there-

fore of adulation or flattery, to quicken them to a

ranker growth; for indeed The more you stroke the cat's

tail, the more he raises his back;1 and the Russians:

Fools are not planted or sowed; they grow of themselves;

and the Danes:  Fools have no need of a passport;2

they present themselves everywhere and find an

entrance everywhere without one ; while the Spaniards:

If folly were a pain, there would be dying in every house;3

having further an exquisitely witty one on the folly of

a pedant as the most intolerable of all follies: A fool,

unless he know Latin, is never a great fool.4  And here

is excellently unfolded to us the secret of the fool's

confidence:  Who knows nothing, doubts nothing.5

            The shafts of their pointed satire are directed with

an admirable impartiality against men of every sort

and degree, so that none of us will be found to have

wholly escaped. To pass over those, and they are

exceedingly numerous, which are aimed at members

of the monastic Orders,6 I must fain hope that this

Bohemian one, pointing at the clergy, is not true; for


            1 This is Swedish: Zu mera man stryken Katten pa Swanzen,

zu mera pyser pan.

            2 Galne Folk have ey Pas-Bord fornoden.

            3 Si la locura fuese dolores, en cada casa darian voces.

            4 Tonto, sin saber latin, nunca es gran tonto.

            5 Qui rien ne sait, de rien ne doute.

            6 An earnest preacher of righteousness just before the Refor-

mation quotes this one as current about them: Quod agere

veretur obstinatus diabolus, intrepide agit reprobus et contumax


IV.                      Cynical Proverbs.                         79


it certainly argues no very forgiving temper on our

parts in cases where we have been, or fancy ourselves

to have been, wronged. It is as follows:  If you have

offended a cleric, kill him; else you will never have peace

with him.1 And another proverb, worthy to take its

place among the best even of the Spanish, charges the

clergy with being the authors of the principal spiritual

mischiefs which have grown up in the Church:  By

the vicar's skirts the devil climbs up into the belfry.2

Nor do physicians appear in the Middle Ages to have

been in very high reputation for piety; for a Latin

medieval proverb boldly proclaims:  Where there are

three physicians, there are two atheists.3 And as for

lawyers, this of the same period, Legista, nequista,4

expresses itself not with such brevity only, but with

such downright plainness of speech, that I shall excuse

myself for attempting to render it into English. Nor

do other sorts and conditions of men escape. ‘The

miller tolling with his golden thumb,’ has been often

the object of malicious insinuations; and of him the

Germans have a proverb:  What is bolder than a miller's


            1 It is Hus who, denouncing the sins of the clergy of his

day, records this proverb: Malum proverbium contra nos con-

finxerunt, dicentes, Si offenderis clericum, interfice eum; alias

nunquam habebis pacem cum illo.

            2 Por las haldas del vicario sube el diablo al campanario.

            3 Ubi tres medici, duo athei. Chaucer, it will be remem-

bered, introduces this as one trait of his ‘Doctour of Phisike.’

                        ‘His studie was but litel on the Bible.’

Of course those which imply that they shorten rather than pro-

long the term of life, are numerous, as for instance, the old

French: Qui court apres le miere, court apres la biere.

            4 In German: Juristen, bosen Christen.

80                Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.                   LECT.


neckcloth, which takes a thief by the throat every morn-

ing?1  Evenhanded justice might perhaps require:

that I should find caps for other heads; and it is not

that such are wanting, nor yet out of fear lest any

should be offended, but only because I have much

ground to cover, that I refrain. And yet one word be-

fore I hasten onward. I said just now that the shafts of

their pointed satire were directed against men of every

degree. I might have said against persons of every

degree; for let none who can be included in this last

designation suppose that they escape; certainly not

wives, when a proverb so ungallant as this is current

about them:  Next to nae wife, a gude wife is the best;

or this:  He that has lost a wife and sixpence has lost

sixpence. Maidens too can as little hope to escape,

when the same Scottish soil which yielded the two I

have just quoted, has yielded this third as well, All are

gude lasses; but where do all the ill wives come frae?

            What a fine knowledge of the human heart will

they often display;—this Persian saying, for example,

on the subtleties of pride, though I know not whether

it is a proverb in the strictest sense of the word:  Thou

shalt sooner detect an ant moving in the dark night on

the black earth, than all the motions of pride in thine

heart. And on the wide reach of this sin the Italians

say:  If pride were an art, how many graduates we should

have.2  And then how excellent and searching is this

word of theirs on the infinitely various shapes which


            1 Bebel: Dicitur in proverbio nostro: nihil esse audacius

indusio molitoris, cum omni tempore matutino furem collo appre-


            2 Se la superbia fosse arte, quanti dottori avressimo.



IV.                  Unpleasant Truths in Proverbs.          81


this protean sin will assume:  There is who despises

pride with a greater pride,1 a proverb founded, as

might seem, on the story of Diogenes, who, treading

under his feet a rich carpet of Plato's, exclaimed,

‘Thus I trample on the ostentation of Plato;'  ‘With

an ostentation of thine own,' being the sage's excellent

retort;—even as on another occasion he excellently well

observed, that he saw the pride of the Cynic peeping

through the rents of his mantle: for indeed pride can

array itself quite as easily in rags as in purple; can

affect squalors as easily as splendours; occupation

of the lowest place and last being of itself no security

at all for humility; out of a sense of which we very

well have said:  As proud go behind as before.

            Sometimes in their subtle observation of life they

arrive at conclusions which we would very willingly

question or reject if we might, but to which it is im-

possible to refuse a certain amount of assent. Thus

it is with the very striking German proverb:  One foe

is too many; and a hundred friends too few.2 There

speaks out in this a sense of the much more active

principle in this world which enmity will too often

prove than love. The hundred friends will wish you

well; but the one foe will do you ill. Their bene-

volence will be ordinarily passive; his malevolence

will be constantly active; it will be animosity, or

spiritedness in evil. The proverb will have its use,

if we are stirred up by it to prove its assertion false,

to show that, in very many cases at least, there is no


            1 Tal sprezza la superbia con una maggior superbia.

            2 Ein Feind ist zu viel; and hundert Freunde sind zu



82              Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.                   LECT.


such blot as it would fix on the scutcheon of true

friendship. In the same rank of unwelcome proverbs

I must range this Persian one:  Of four things every

man has more than he knows of sins, of debts, of years,

and of foes; and this Spanish:  One father can support

ten children; ten children cannot support one father;

this last, so far as it has a ground of truth, attesting

the comparative weakness of the filial as set over

against the paternal affection, so that to the one those

acts of self-sacrificing love are easy, which to the other

are hard, and often impossible. At the same time,

seeing that it is the order of God's providence in the

world that fathers should in all cases support children,

while it is the exception when children are called on

to support parents, one can only admire that wisdom

which has made the instincts of natural affection to

run rather in the descending than in the ascending line;

a wisdom to which this proverb, though with a certain

exaggeration of the facts, bears witness.

            How exquisitely delicate is the touch of this French

proverb:  It is easy to go afoot, when one leads one's

horse by the bridle.1  How fine and subtle an insight

into the inner workings of the human heart is here

displayed; how many cheap humilities are in this

proverb set at their true value. It is easy to stoop

from state, when that state may be resumed at

will; to forego the homage which may be re-

claimed at any moment, to part with luxuries and

indulgences, which one only parts with exactly so

long as it may please oneself. No reason indeed is to


            1 Il est aise d'aller a pied, quand on tient son cheval par la



IV.                 False Humility detected.                83


be found in this comparative easiness for the not

‘going afoot;' on the contrary, it may be a most

profitable exercise; but every reason for not esteem-

ing the doing so too highly, nor setting it on a level

with the toiling upon foot of him, who has no horse

to fall back on at whatever moment he may please.

            There is, and always must be, a vast deal of rough

work to be done in the world; work which, though

rough, is not therefore in the least ignoble; and the

schemes, so daintily conceived, of a luxurious society,

which repose on a tacit assumption that this work will

endure to be left undone, that, at any rate, nobody

shall be told off to do it, are judged with a fine irony

in this Arabic proverb:  If I am master, and you are

master, who shall drive the asses?1  The following

proverb is, or rather used to be, current among the

slave population of St. Domingo, who ridiculed with

it the ambition and pretension of the mulatto race

immediately above them. These, in imitation of the

French planters, must have their duels too—duels,

however, which had nothing earnest or serious about

them, invariably ending in a reconciliation and a feast,

the kids which furnished this last being in fact the

only sufferers, their blood the only blood which was

shed. All this the proverb uttered:  Mulattoes fight,

kids die.2  This too with its keen appreciation of the

fact that our faults may be hidden from others, but


            1 The Gallegan proverb, You a lady, I a lady, who shall

drive the hogs afield? (Vos dona, yo dona, quen botara

aporca fora?) is only a variation of this; and so too our own:

I stout and you stout, who will carry the dirt out? It need not be

observed that 'stout' here is equivalent to proud.

            2 Mulates qua battent, cabrites qua worts.



84                   Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.                    LECT.


scarcely from those with whom we are brought into the

nearness of daily life, is witty, and comes to us from a

Creole source:  The shoe knows whether the stocking has


            And proverbs, witty in themselves, often become

wittier still in their application, like gems that acquire

new brilliancy from their setting, or from some novel

light in which they are held. No writer that I know

has a happier skill in thus adding wit to the witty than

Fuller, the Church historian. One or two examples

drawn from his writings will shew this. He is describ-

ing the indignation, the outcries, the remonstrances,

which the multiplied extortions, the intolerable ex-

actions of the Papal See gave birth to in England

during the reigns of such subservient kings as our Third

Henry; yet he will not have his readers to suppose

that the Popes fared a whit the worse for all this outcry

which was raised against them; not so, for  The fox

thrives best when he is most cursed;1 the very loud-

ness of the clamour was itself rather an evidence how

well they were faring. Or again, he is telling of that

Duke of Buckingham, well known to us through Shak-

speare's King Richard the Third, who, having helped

the tyrant to a throne, afterwards took mortal dis-

pleasure against him; this displeasure he sought to

hide in the deep of his heart, till a season should

arrive for shewing it with effect; but in vain; for, as

Fuller observes, It is hard to halt before a cripple, the

arch-hypocrite Richard, he to whom dissembling was


            1 A proverb of many tongues beside our own:  thus in

the Italian: Quanto pin la volpe e maladetta, tanto maggior

preda fa


IV.                            Proverbs in Fuller.                      85


as a second nature, saw through and detected at once

the shallow Buckingham's clumsier deceit. And the

Church History abounds with similar happy applica-

tions. Fuller, indeed, possesses so much of the wit

out of which proverbs spring, that not seldom it is

difficult to tell whether he is adducing a proverb, or

uttering some proverb-like saying of his own, destined

to become such, or at all events abundantly deserving

to do so. Thus I cannot remember ever to have met

any of the following, which yet sound like proverbs—the

first on solitude as preferable to ill-fellowship:  Better

ride alone than have a thief's company;1 the second

against certain who disparaged one whose excellences

they would have found it very difficult to imitate:

They who complain that Grantham steeple stands awry,

will not set a straighter by it,2 while in another he

warns against despising in any the tokens of honour-

able toil:  Mock not a cobbler for his black thumbs.3

            But the glory of proverbs, that, perhaps, which

strikes us most often and most forcibly about them, is

their shrewd common sense, the sound wisdom for the

management of our own lives, or the management of

our intercourse with our fellows, which so many of

them contain. In truth, there is no region of practical

life which they do not occupy, for which they do not

supply some wise hints and counsels and warnings.

There is hardly a mistake that in the course of our

lives we have committed, but some proverb, had we

known and attended to its lesson, might have saved

us from it.  ‘Adages' indeed, according to the more


            1 Holy State, iii. 5.                  2 Ibid. ii. 23.

                                   3 Ibid. iii. c. 2.


86                    Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.            LECT.


probable etymology of that word, they are, apt for

action and use.1

            Thus, how many of these popular sayings turn

on the prudent governing the tongue,—I speak not

now of those urging the duty, though such are by no

means wanting,—but the wisdom and profit of know-

ing how to keep silence as well as how to speak

seeing that, as one which I only know in its German

form says,  It is better to stumble with the foot than

with the tongue.2  The Persian is no doubt familiar

to us all:  Speech is silvers, silence is golden; with

which we may compare the Italian:  Who speaks,

sows; who keeps silence, reaps;3 and on the safety

that is in silence, I know none happier than another

from the same quarter, and one most truly character-

istic of Italian caution:  Silence was never written

down;4 while, on the other hand, we are excellently

warned of the irrevocable nature of the word which

has once gone from us in this Eastern proverb:  Of

thy word unspoken thou art master; thy spoken word

is master of thee; even as the same is set out else-

where by many striking comparisons; it is the arrow

from the bow, the stone from the sling; and, once

launched, can as little be recalled as these.5  Our own,

Who says what he likes, shall hear what he does not


            1 Adagia, ad agendum apta; this is the etymology of the

word given by Festus.

            2 Besser mit dem Fusse gestrauchelt als mit der Zunge.

            3 Chi pal la semina, chi tace raccoglie ; compare the Swedish

Battre tyga an illa tala (Better silence than ill speech).

            4 Il tacer non fu mai scritto.

            5 Palabra de Boca, piedra de honda. —Palabra y piedra suelta

no tiene vuelta.


IV.            Prudence optimized in Proverbs.            87


like, gives a further motive for self-government in

speech; while this Spanish is in a higher strain:  The

evil which issues from thy mouth falls into thy bosom.1

Nor is it enough to abstain ourselves from all such

rash or sinful words; we must not make ourselves

partakers in those of others; which it is only too easy

to do; for, as the Chinese have said very well:  He

who laughs at an impertinence, makes himself its accom-


            And then, in proverbs not a few what profitable

warnings have we against the fruits of evil companion-

ship, as in that homely one, which certainly is as old

as Seneca,2 and no doubt older, Who lies down with

dogs shall rise up with fleas; or, again, in the old

Hebrew one: Two dry sticks will set on fire one green;

or, in another from the East, which repeats the same

caution, and plainly shows whither such companion-

ship will lead:  He that takes the raven for a guide,

shall light upon carrion.

            What warnings do many contain against unreason-

able expectations, against a looking for perfection in

a world of imperfection, and generally a demanding of

more from life than life can yield. We note very well

the folly of one addicted to this, when we say:  He ex-

pects better bread than can be made of wheat; and the

Portuguese:  He that will have a horse without fault,

let him go afoot; and the French:  Where the goat is

tied, there she must browse.3 Again, what a word of


            1 El mal que de tu boca sale, en tu seno se cae.

            2 He has it word for word:  Qui cum canibus concumbunt,

cum pulicibus surgent.

            3 La ou la chevre est attachee, it faut qu'elle broute.


88             Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.                  LECT.


timely caution on the wisdom of considering often-

times a step which, being once taken, is taken for

ever, lies in the following Russian proverb:  Measure

thy cloth ten times; thou canst cut it but once. And in

this Spanish the final issues of procrastination are well

set forth:  By the street of ‘By-and-bye' one arrives at

the house of ‘Never.' How pleasantly a wise discre-

tion which shall avoid all appearance of evil is urged

in this Chinese proverb:  In a field of melons lace not

thy boot; under a plum-tree adjust not thy cap. And

this Danish warns us well against relying too much on

other men's continence in speech, since there is no

rarer gift than that of keeping a secret:  Tell nothing

to thy friend which thine enemy may not know. Here

is a word which we owe to Italy, and which, laid to

heart, might go far to keep men out of lawsuits, or,

being entangled in them, from refusing to accept

tolerable terms of accommodation:  The robes of law-

yers are lined with the obstinacy of suitors.2 Other

words of wisdom and warning, for so I must esteem

them, are these: this, on the danger of being overset

by prosperity:  Everything may be borne, except good

fortune;3 with which may be compared our own:

Bear wealth, poverty will bear itself; and another of

our own, It is hard to lift a full cup without spilling;

and another Italian which says:  In prosperity no

altars smoke.4 This is on the exposure which is sure


            1 Pot la calle de despues se va a la casa de nunca.

            2 Le vesti degli avvocati sono fodrate dell' ostinazion dei


            3 Ogni cosa si sopporta, eccetto it buon tempo,

            4 Nella prosperity on funiano gli altari.


IV.             Prudence of epitomized in Proverbs.           89


sooner or later to follow upon the arraying of ourselves

in intellectual finery that does not belong to us:

Who arrays himself in other men's garments, remains

naked in the middle of the street;1 he is detected and

laid bare, and this under conditions which make de-

tection the most shameful.

            Of the same miscellaneous character, and derived

from quarters the most diverse, but all of them of

an excellent sense or shrewdness, are the following.

This is from Italy: Who sees not the bottom, let him

not pass the river.2  This is current among the free

blacks of Hayti:  Before fording the river, do not

curse mother alligator;3 that is, provoke not wantonly

those in whose power you presently may be. This

is Spanish:  Call me not ‘olive,' till you see me gathered;4

being nearly parallel to our own:  Praise a fair day at

night. This comes to us from Portugal:  Do you wish

to become poor, without knowing how, set workmen

on and do not overlook them.5  The following is

French:  Take the first advice of a woman, and not the

second;6 a proverb of much wisdom; for in processes


            1 Quien con ropa agena se viste, en la calle se queda en


            2 Chi non vede it fondo, non passi 1' acqua.

            3 Avant traverse rivier, pas jure maman caiman. This and

one or two other Haytian proverbs quoted in this volume I have

derived from a curious article, Les moeurs et la litterature negres,

by Gustave d'Alaux, in the Revue des deux Mondes, 15 mai,


            4 No me digas oliva, hasta que me veas cogida.

            5 Ques ser pobre, e naom o sentas, mete obryros, e naom

s vejas.

            6 Prends le premier conseil d'une femme, et non le second.


90                 Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.              LECT.


of reasoning, out of which the second counsels spring,

women may and will be inferior to us; but in intui-

tions, in moral intuitions above all, they surpass us

far; they have what Montaigne ascribes to them in a

remarkable word, ‘1'esprit primesautier,' the spirit

which may be compared to the leopard's spring, taking

its prey, if it take it at all, at the first spring.

            And I must needs think that for as many as are

seeking diligently to improve their time and oppor-

tunities of knowledge, with at the same time little of

these which they can call their own, a very useful hint

and warning against an error that lies very near, is

contained in the brief Latin proverb:  Compendia,

dispendia. Nor indeed for them only, but for all, and

in numberless aspects, it continually proves true that

a short cut may be a very long way home; yet the

proverb can have no fitter application than to those

little catechisms of science, those skeleton outlines

of history, those epitomes of all useful information,

those thousand delusive short cuts to the attainment

of that knowledge, which can indeed only be acquired

by such as are content to travel on the king's highway,

on the old and royal road of patience, perseverance,

and toil. Surely these compendia, so meagre and so

hungry, with little nourishment for the intellect, with

less for the affections or the imagination, barren

catalogues of facts, bones with no flesh adhering to

them, we may style with fullest right dispendia, wasteful

as they generally prove of whatever money and time

and labour is bestowed upon them; and every true

scholar will set his seal to the following word, as

wisely as it is grandly spoken:  ‘All spacious minds,


IV.                    Proverbs about Books.                    91


attended with the felicities of means and leisure, will

fly abridgments as bane.1

            And being on the subject of books and the choice

of books, let me put before you a proverb, and in this

reading age a very serious one; it comes to us from

Italy, from whence so many had books have come,

and it says:  There is no worse robber than a bad book.2

None worse, indeed, perhaps none so bad; other

robbers may spoil us of our money: but this robber

of our ‘goods'—of our time at any rate, even assum-

ing the book to be only negatively bad; but of how

much more, of our principles, our faith, our purity of

heart, supposing its badness to be positive, and not

negative only. What a cleaving stain on the memory

and the imagination an unholy book will often leave.

One proverb more on books may fitly find place here:

Dead men open living Men's eyes; I take it to contain

implicitly the praise of history, or perhaps rather of

biography, and an announcement of the instruction

which a faithful record of those who have long passed

away may yield us.3

            Here are one or two thoughtful words on educa-

tion. A child may have too much of its mother's


            1 Bacon (Advancement of Learning) has not expressed him-

self less strongly:  ‘As for the corruptions and moths of history,

which are epitomes, the use of them deserveth to be banished,

as all men of sound judgment have confessed, as those that have

fretted and corroded the sound bodies of many excellent his-

tories, and wrought them into base and unprofitable dregs.'--

And again in his Essays:  ‘Distilled books are like women's dis-

tilled waters, flashy things.'

            2 Non v' e il peggior ladro d' un cattivo libro.

            3 Los muertos abren los ojos a los vivos.


92                  Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.                  LECT.


blessing; yes, for that blessing may be no blessing at

all, but rather a curse, if it take the shape of foolish

and fond indulgence; and in the same strain is this

German:  Better the child weep than the father.1 And

this, like many others, is found in so many tongues,

that it can hardly be ascribed to one rather than

another:  More springs in the garden than the gardener

ever sowed.2  It is a proverb for many, but most of all for

parents and teachers, that they lap not themselves in a

false dream of security, as though nothing was at work or

growing in the minds of the young under their charge,

but what they themselves had sown there; as though

there was not another who might very well be sowing

his tares beside and among any good seed of their

sowing. But this proverb has also its happier side.

There may be, there often are, better things also in

this garden of the heart than ever the earthly gardener

set there, seeds of the more immediate sowing of God.

In either of these aspects this proverb deserves to be

laid to heart.

            Proverbs will sometimes outrun and implicitly

anticipate conclusions, which are only after long

struggles and efforts arrived at as the formal and

undoubted conviction of all thoughtful men. After

how long a conflict has that been established as a

maxim in political economy, which the brief Italian

proverb long ago announced:  Gold's worth is gold.3


            1 Es ist besser, das Kind weine denn der Vater. Compare

the Scotch proverb, Better bairns should greet than bearded men

—a proverb employed, if I remember rightly, on one very memor-

able moment in Scottish history.

            2 Nace en la huerta lo que no siembra el hortelano.

            3 Oro e, the oro vale.


IV.                   Gold's Worth is Gold.                         93


What millions upon millions of national wealth have

been, as much lost as if they had been thrown into the

sea, from the inability of those who have had the

destinies of nations in their hands to grasp this simple

proposition, that everything which could purchase

money, or which money would fain purchase, is as

really wealth as the money itself. What forcing of

national industries into unnatural channels has

resulted from this, what mischievous restrictions in the

buying and selling of one people with another. Nay,

can the truth which this proverb affirms be said even

now to be accepted without gainsaying, so long as the

talk about the balance of trade being in favour of or

against a nation, as the fear of draining a country of

its gold, still survive?

            Here is a proverb of many tongues:  One sword

keeps another in its scabbard;1--surely a far wiser

and far manlier word than the puling yet mischievous

babble of our shallow Peace Societies; which, while

they fancy that they embody, and that they only

embody, the true spirit of Christianity, proclaim them-

selves in fact ignorant of all which it teaches; for

they dream of having peace the fruit, while ate the same

time ‘the root of bitterness' out of which have grown

all the wars and fightings that have ever been in the

world, namely the lusts which stir in men's members,

remains strong and vigorous as ever. But no; it is not

they that are the peacemakers: In the face of an evil

world, and of a world determined to continue in its

evil, He who bears the sword, and who though he fain


            1 Una spada ties l' altra nel fodro.

94                Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.               LECT.


would leave it in the scabbard yet will not shrink, if

need be, from drawing it, he bears peace.1

            A remarkable feature of a good proverb is the

immense variety of applications which it will admit,

which indeed it challenges and invites. Not lying on

the surface, but going deep down to the heart of

things, it will prove capable of being applied again and

again, under circumstances the most different. Like

the gift of which Solomon spake, ‘whithersoever it

turneth, it prospereth;' like a diamond cut and

polished upon many sides, it reflects and refracts

the light upon every one. There can be no greater

mistake than the attempt to tie it down and restrict it

to a single application, when indeed its glory is that

it is ever finding or making new applications for itself.

            It is nothing strange, and needs no proof, that

with words of Eternal Wisdom this should be so.

Yet suffer me to adduce in confirmation words which

fell from our Lord's lips in his last prophecies about

Jerusalem:  Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the

eagles be gathered together (Matt. xxiv. 28); words of

which probably there is a certain anticipation in Job

(xxxix. 30). Who would venture to affirm that he

had exhausted the meaning of this wonderful saying?

For is it not properly inexhaustible? All history is a

comment upon it. Wherever there is a Church or a

nation abandoned by the spirit of life, and so a

carcase, tainting the air of God's moral world, around

it assemble the ministers and messengers of Divine

justice, ‘the eagles' (or more strictly ‘the vultures,'

for the eagle feeds only on what itself has killed), the


            1 Qui porte epee, porte paix.


IV.           Proverb of Divine Authorship.              95


scavengers of God's moral world; scenting out as by

a mysterious instinct the prey from afar, and charged

to remove presently the offence out of the way. This

proverb, for such it has become, is finding evermore

its fulfilment. The wicked Canaanites were the car-

case, and the children of Israel the commissioned

eagles that should remove this out of sight. At a

later day the Jews were themselves the carcase, and

the Romans the eagles. And when, in the progress

of decay, the Roman empire had quite lost the spirit

of life, the reverence for law, and those virtues of the

family and the nation which had deservedly raised it

to that pre-eminence of power, the northern races,

the eagles now, lighted upon it, to tear it limb from

limb, and make room for a new creation that should

grow up in its stead. Again, the Persian empire was

the carcase; Alexander and his Macedonian hosts,

the eagles that by unerring instinct gathered round it

to complete its doom. The Greek Church in the

seventh century was too nearly a carcase wholly to

escape the destiny of such, and the armies of Islam

scented their prey, and divided it among them.  In

modern times it can hardly, I fear, be denied that

Poland did in the same way invite its doom; and

this one may say without in the least extenuating their

guilt who tore it asunder; for what it may have been

just for one to suffer, may have been most unrighteous

for others to inflict. Where indeed will you not meet

illustrations of this proverb, from such instances on

the largest scale as these, down to that of the silly and

profligate heir, surrounded by sharpers and black-legs

and usurers, and preyed on by these? In a thousand

shapes, in little and in great, it remains true that


96                  Poetry, etc. of Proverbs.               LECT.


Wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be

gathered together.

            Or, lastly, consider a proverb familiar as it is brief:

Extremes meet.  Brief as it is, it is yet a motto on

which whole volumes might be written; which is

finding its illustration every day,—in things trivial

and in things most important,—in the lives of single

men, in the histories of nations and of Churches.

Consider some of its every-day fulfilments,—old age

ending in second childhood,—cold performing the

effects of heat, and scorching as heat would have

done,—the extremities alike of joy and of grief finding

utterance in tears,—that which is above all value

qualified as having no value at all, as invaluable,—

the second singular  ‘thou' instead of the plural ‘you'

employed in so many languages to inferiors and to

God, but not to equals. Or take some moral fulfil-

ments of this same proverb; note those who begin

their lives as spendthrifts often ending them as misers;

the flatterer and the calumniator meeting in the same

person;1 the men who yesterday would have sacrificed

to Paul as a god, to-day eager to stone him as a

malefactor (Acts xiv. 18, 19; cf. xxviii. 4–6); even

as Roman emperors would one day have blasphemous

honours paid to them, their bodies on the next: day

dragged by a hook through the streets of the city, to

be flung at last into the common sewer. Or observe


            1 Out of a sense of this the Italians say well, Who taints

me before, smudges me behind (Chi dinanzi mi pinge, di dietro

mi tinge). The history of the word ‘sycophant,' and the manner

in which it has travelled from its original to its present mean-

ing, is a very striking confirmation of this proverb's truth.



IV.                  ‘Extremes Meet.'                       97


again in what close alliance hardness and softness,

cruelty and self-indulgence (‘lust hard by hate'), are

continually found: or in law, how the summunz jus,

where unredressed by equity, becomes the summa

injuria, as in the case of Shylock's pound of flesh,

which was indeed no more than was in the bond. Or

observe, on a larger scale, the inner affinities between

a democracy and a tyranny, which Plato has so

wonderfully traced.1  Or read thoughtfully the history

of the Church and of the sects, and note how often

things apparently the most remote from one another

are found to be in the most fearful proximity:  how

often, for example, a false asceticism has issued in

frantic outbreaks of fleshly lusts, and those who at

one time were fain to live lives above angels, have

ended in living lives below beasts. Again, regard

England at the Restoration, exchanging all in a

moment the sour strictness of the Puritans for a

licence and debauchery unlnown to it before. Or,

once more, consider how similar in some ways is the

position taken up by the Romanists on the one side,

by the Quakers and Familists on the other. Seeming,

and in much being, so diverse from one another, they

yet have this fundamental in common, that Scripture,

insufficient in itself, needs a supplement from with-

out, those finding such in a Pope, and these in an 'in-

ward light.'2 With these examples before you, not to

speak of many others which might be adduced,3 you


            1 Rep. ii. 217.

            2 See Jeremy Taylor, Dissuasive from Popery, part ii. b. i.

sect. II, § 6.

            3 Extremes meet. Truths, of all others the most awful and

interesting, are too often considered as so true, that they lose all


98             Poetry, etc. of  Proverbs.               LECT.


will own that this proverb, Extremes meet, or its

parallel, Too far East is West, reaches very far into

the heart and centre of things. With this much said

on these aspects of the subject, for the present I must




the power of truths, and lie bed-ridden in the dormitory of the

soul, side by side with the most despised and exploded errors,'--  

COLERIDGE, Aids to Reflection.


V.                The Morality of Proverb.                       99





                            LECTURE V.






            WHETHER I desired this, or did not, I

have been obliged to touch already on the

morality of proverbs. The subject has offered itself to

us continually, in one shape or another; yet hitherto

we have rather cast side-glances upon it, than set it

before us as a distinct subject for consideration. Toy,

this morality of proverbs I propose to devote the pre-

sent lecture. But how, it may be asked at the outset,

can any general verdict be pronounced about them?

In a family like theirs, so vast in numbers, spread so

widely over the face of the earth, must there not be

found worthy members and unworthy, proverbs noble

and base, holy and profane, heavenly and earthly;—

yea, heavenly, earthly, and devilish? How can they

be judged together, and, so to speak, in a mass?

What common verdict of praise or censure can be pro-

nounced upon them all? Evidently none. The only

question, therefore, for our consideration must be,

whether there exists any such large and unquestion-

able excess either of the better sort or of the worse,

as shall give us a right to pronounce a judgment on

the whole in their favour or against them, to affirm of


100             The Morality of Proverbs.                 LECT.


them that their preponderating influence and weight

is thrown into the scale of the good or of the evil.

            And here I am persuaded that no one can have

devoted serious attention to this question, but will

own (and seeing how greatly popular morals are

affected by popular proverbs, will own with thankful-

ness), that in the main they range themselves under

the banners of the right and of the truth. Not deny-

ing that there are numerous exceptions, he will yet

acknowledge that of so many as move in an ethical

sphere at all, far more are children of light and the

day than of darkness and the night. Indeed, the

comparative paucity of morally unworthy proverbs is

a very noticeable fact, and one to the causes of which

I shall presently recur.

            At the same time, affirming this, I find it necessary

to make certain explanations, to draw certain distinc-

tions. In the first place, I would not in the least deny

that a very large company of coarse proverbs are

extant. It needs only to turn over a page or two of

Ray's Collection of English Proverbs, or of Howell's,

or indeed of any collection in almost any tongue, which

has not been carefully, weeded, to convince oneself

of this. Nor are these extant only, but, some at

least of them, living on the lips of men. Having their

birth, for the most part, in a period of a nation's

literature and life, when men are much more plain-

spoken, and have far fewer reticences than is after-

wards the case, it is nothing strange that some of

them, employing words forbidden now, but not for-

bidden then, should sound coarse and indelicate in

our ears: while indeed there are others, whose offence

and grossness these considerations may mitigate, but


V.                      Coarse Proverbs.                    101


are quite insufficient to excuse. But at the same

time, gross words and images (I speak not of wanton

ones), had as they may be, are altogether of a different

character from immoral maxims and rules of life.

And it is these immoral maxims, unrighteous, selfish,

or otherwise unworthy rules and suggestions of con-

duct, whose number I would affirm to be, if not abso-

lutely, yet relatively small.

            Then too, in estimating the morality of proverbs,

this will claim in justice not to be forgotten. In the

same manner as coarse proverbs are not necessarily

immoral, but may be quite the contrary, so our appli-

cation of a proverb may very often be hardhearted and

selfish, while the proverb itself is very far from so

being. This selfishness and hardness may lie in it

not of primary intention, but only in our abuse; and

not seldom these two things, the proverb itself, and

men's ordinary employment of it, will demand to be

kept carefully asunder.  He has made his bed, and now

he must lie on it;—As he has brewed, so he must drink;

As he has sown, so must he reap;1—if these are

employed to justify our refusal to save others, so far

as we may, from the consequences of their own folly

and imprudence, or even guilt, why then they are very

ill employed; and there are few of us with whom it

would not have fared hardly, had all those about us

acted in the spirit of these proverbs so misinterpreted

had they refused to mitigate for us, so far as they

could, the consequences of our errors. But if the


            1 They have for their Latin equivalents such as these: Colo

quod aptasti, ipsi tibi nendum est.—Qui vinum bibit, faecem

bibat.—Ut sementem feceris, ita metes.


102                 The Morality of Proverbs.             LECT.


words are taken in their proper sense, as homely

announcements of that law of divine retaliations in the

world, according to which men shall eat of the fruit of

their own doings, and be filled with their own ways,

who shall gainsay them? What do they affirm more

than almost every page of Scripture, every turn of

human life, is affirming too; namely, that the ever-

lasting order of God's moral universe cannot be vio-

lated with impunity, that there is a continual returning

upon men of what they have done, and that-oftentimes

in their history their judgment may be read?

            Charity begins at home is the most obvious and

familiar of these proverbs, selfishly abused. It may

be, no doubt it often is, made the plea for a selfish

withholding of assistance from all but a few, whom

men may include in their ‘at home,' while sometimes

it receives a narrower interpretation still; and self, and

self only, is accounted to be ‘at home.'  And yet, in

truth, what were that charity worth, which did not

begin at home, which did not preserve the divine

order and proportion and degree? It is not for no-

thing that we have been grouped in families, neighbour-

hoods, and nations; and he who will not recognize

the divinely appointed nearnesses to himself of some

over others, who thinks to be a cosmopolite without

being a patriot, a philanthropist without owning a dis-

tinguishing love for them that are peculiarly ‘his own,'

who would thus have a circumference without a centre.

deceives his own heart; and, affirming all men to be

equally dear to him, is indeed declaring all to be

equally indifferent. Home, the family, this is as the

hearth at which the affections which are afterwards to

go forth and warm in a larger circle, are themselves to


V.                   Prudential Morality.                       103


be kept lively and warm; and the charity which does

not exercise itself in outcomings of kindness and love

in the narrower, will be little likely to seek a wider

range of action for itself. Wherever else charity may

end, and the larger the sphere which it makes for

itself the better, it must yet begin at home.1

            There are, again, proverbs which, from another

point of view, might seem of an ignoble cast, and as

calculated to lower the tone of morality among those

who received them; proposing as they do secondary,

and in a measure therefore unworthy, motives to

actions which ought to be performed out of the

highest. I mean such as this:  Honesty is the best policy;

wherein honesty is commended, not because it is right,

but because it is most prudent and politic, and has the

promise of this present world. Now doubtless there

are proverbs not a few which, like this, move in

the region of what has been by Coleridge so well

called ‘prudential morality;' and did w e accept them

as containing the whole circle of motives to honesty or

other right conduct, nothing could be worse, or more

fitted to lower the tone and standard of our lives.

He who resolves to be honest because, and only

because, it is the best policy, will be little likely long to

continue honest at all. But the proverb does not pre-

tend to usurp the place of an ethical rule; it does not

presume to cast down the higher law which should


            1 Concerning other proverbs, which speak a language in

some sort similar, such as these, Tunica pallio propior, Frons

occipitio prior; I have more doubt. The misuse lies nearer;

the selfishness may very probably be in the proverb itself, and

not in our application of it; though even these are not incapable

of a fair interpretation.


104              The Morality of Proverbs.              LECT.


determine to honesty and uprightness, that it may put

itself in its place; it only declares that honesty, let

alone that it is the right thing, is also, even for this

present world, the wisest. Nor dare we, let me

further add, despise prudential morality, such as is

embodied in sayings like this. The motives which it

suggests are helps to a weak and tempted virtue, may

prove more useful assistances to it in some passing

moment of a strong temptation, however little they can

be regarded as able to make men for a continuance

even outwardly upright and just.

            And once more, proverbs are not to be accounted

selfish, which announce selfishness; unless they do it,

either avowedly recommending it as a rule and Maxim

of life, or, if not so, yet with an evident complacency

and satisfaction in the announcement which they make,

and in this more covert and perhaps still more mis-

chievous way, taking part with the evil which they-

proclaim. There are proverbs not a few, which a

lover of his race would be very thankful if there had

been nothing in the world to justify or to provoke, if,

in fact, they could be shown to have no right to exist;

for the convictions they embody, the experiences on

which they rest, are very far from complimentary to

human nature: but seeing they express that which is,

it would be idle to wish them away, to wish that this

evil had not uttered itself in human speech. Nay, it is

much better that it should have so done; for thus

taking form and shape, and being brought directly

under notice, it may be better watched against and

avoided. Such proverbs, not selfish, but rather de-

tecting selfishness and laying it bare, are the following;

this Russian, on the only too slight degree in which


V.               Selfishness Unmasked.                 105


we are touched with the troubles of others:  The

burden is light on the shoulders of another; with which

the French may be compared:  One has always enough

strength to bear the misfortunes of one's friends.1  Such

is this Italian:  Every one draws the water to his own

mill;2 or as it clothes itself in its Eastern imagery,

and calls up the desert-bivouac before our eyes:  Every

one rakes the embers to his own cake. And such this

Latin, on the comparative wastefulness wherewith that

which is another's is too often used:  Men cut broad

thongs from other men's leather;3 with many more of

the same character, which it would be only too easy to

bring together.

            With all this, I am very far from denying that im-

moral proverbs, and only too many of them, exist.

For if proverbs are, as we have recognized them to be,

a genuine transcript of what is stirring in the hearts of

men, then, since there –is cowardice, untruth, selfish-

ness, unholiness, profaneness there, how should these

be wanting here? The world is not so consummate a

hypocrite as the entire absence of all immoral proverbs

would imply. There will be merely selfish ones, as

our own:  Every one for himself, and God for us all;

or as this Dutch:  Self's the man;4  or as the French,

more shamelessly cynical still:  Better a drape for me,

than two figs for thee;5 or, again, such as proclaim a


            1 On a toujours assez de force pour supporter le malheur de

ses amis. I confess this sounds to me rather like an imitation

of Rochefoucault than a genuine proverb.

            2 Ognun tira 1' acqua al suo molino.

            3 Ex alieno tergore lata secantur lora.

            4 Zelf is de Man.

            5 J'aime mieux un raisin pour moi que deux figues pour toi.


106                The Morality of Proverbs.              LECT.


doubt and disbelief in the existence of any high moral

integrity anywhere, as Every man has his price; or

assume that poor men can scarcely be honest, as It is

hard for an empty sack to stand straight; or take it

for granted that every man would cheat every other if

he could, as the French:  Count after your father;1 or,

if they do not actually ‘speak good of the covetous,'

yet assume it possible that a blessing can wait on that

which a wicked covetousness has heaped together,

as the Spanish:  Blessed is the son, whose father went

to the devil; or find cloaks and apologies for sin,

as the German: Once is never;2 or such as would

imply that the evil of a sin lies not in its sinfulness,

but in the outward disgrace annexed to it, as the

Italian:  A sin concealed is half forgiven;3 or, as

Comus has it, ‘Tis only daylight that makes sin. Or,

again, there will be proverbs dastardly and base,


            1 Comptez apres votre pere. Compare the Spanish:  Entre

dos amigos un notario y dos testigos.

            2 Einmal, keinmal. This proverb, with which we may com-

pare a French one, On peut user une fois 1'an de sa conscience,

was turned to such bad uses, that a German divine thought it

necessary to write a treatise against it. There exist indeed

several old works in German with such titles as the following,

Ungodly Proverbs and their Refutation. Nor is it for nothing

that Jeremy Taylor in one place gives this warning: ‘Be curious

to avoid all proverbs and propositions, or odd sayings, by which

evil life is encouraged, and the hands of the spirit weakened.'

In like manner Chrysostom (Hom. 73 in Matt.) denounces the

Greek proverb:  gluku> h@tw kai> pnica<tw.

            3 Peccato celato, mezzo perdonato. This is the faith of

Tartuffe :

            Le scandale du monde est ce qui fait 1'offense;

            Et ce n'est pas pecher, que pecher en silence.


V.                  ‘Scoundrel Maxims.'                  107


as the Spanish maxim of caution, Draw the snake

from its hole by another man's hand; put, that is,

another, and it may be for your own profit, to the

peril from which you shrink yourself;—or more das-

tardly still, ‘scoundrel maxims,' an old English poet

has called them; as that which is acted on only too

often:  One must howl with the wolves;1 in other

words, when a general cry is raised against any, it is

safest to join it, lest we be supposed to sympathize with

its object; safest to howl with the wolves, if one would

not be hunted by them. In the whole circle of pro-

verbs there is scarcely a baser or more cowardly than

this; and yet who will say that he has never traced in

himself the temptation to conform his conduct to it?

Besides these there will be, of which I shall of course

spare you any examples, proverbs wanton and impure;

and not merely proverbs thus earthly and sensual,

but others devilish; such as those Italian on the

sweetness of revenge which I quoted in my third


            Then, too, there are proverbs about which it is

difficult to determine whether they ought to be in-

cluded in this catalogue of immoral proverbs or not;

and which, doubtless, if put on their defence, would

have much to say for themselves, while yet they can

hardly escape this charge altogether. I refer to those

which embody, deepen, and propagate unfavourable

judgments about whole classes of men, judgments

which at the worst can be true only of some, and must

often be exaggerated even in respect of these. Take


            1 Badly turned into a rhyming pentameter:

                        Consonus esto lupis, cum quibus esse cupis.


108                 The Morality of Proverbs.           LECT.


for example, the proverbs about the ‘villain' or peasant

—I have referred to them already—in almost all the

languages of modern Europe. They are in themselves

exceedingly curious, furnishing as they do a descend-

ing scale from the expression of a slight contempt for

his clownishness and unmannerly ways to that of

intensest scorn for the servility, greediness, ingratitude,

knavery, and ill conditions of every kind which are

freely credited to him. They abundantly explain how

in some languages, in our own for example, whatever

is worst and wickedest comes in the end to be bound

up in the ‘villain's' name. But whatever may have

been his faults, we may be quite sure that they are

caricatured and exaggerated here that this army of

hostile proverbs, all directed against him, represent in

good part the passions and prejudices of the aristo-

cratic and middle classes; these, as we cannot doubt,

finding in such hard sayings about the peasant, a justi-

fication of their dislike, and an excuse for their treat-

ment of him. In this sense these proverbs, with any

others conceived in the same spirit, must be owned to

have wrought for ill.1


            1 One is embarrassed with the multitude of these in which

this scorn or hatred of the ‘villain' utters itself. Torriano has

thirty Italian proverbs under ‘villano;' they are almost every

one conceived in this spirit. These may serve as specimens:

Al villano, se gli porge it dito, e' prende la mano.--Chi vuol

castigar un villano, lo dia da castigar ad un altro villano.--.Il

villan, gettata la pietra, nasconde la man. —Fa ben al villano, e'

ti vuol mal; fagli mal, e' ti vuol bene.—Ponge i1 villano chi

l' onge, e onge chi lo ponge [so the medieval Latin proverb:

Ungentem pungit, pungentem rusticus ungit]; but Wander has

405 proverbs under 'Bauer;' of these quite the larger number


V.                          Immoral Proverbs.                        109


            But, all this being freely admitted, these immoral

proverbs, rank weeds among the wholesome corn, are

yet comparatively rare. In the minority with all

people, they are very much indeed in the minority

with most. The fact is well worthy of note. Surely

there lies in it a solemn testimony, that however men

may and do in their conduct continually violate the

rule of right, yet these violations are ever felt to be

such, are inwardly confessed not to be the law of

man's life, but transgressions of the law; and thus,

stricken as with a secret shame, and paying an un-

conscious homage to the majesty of goodness, they do

not presume to raise themselves into maxims, nor, for

all the allowance which they find, pretend to claim

recognition as abiding standards of action.

            Proverbs about money, how we may use and how

abuse it, are very numerous. As the sphere in which

the proverb moves is no world of fiction or imagina-

tion, but that actual and often very homely world

which is round us and about us; as it is the character


are utterances of the same character; here are half a dozen

almost taken at random: Der Bauer and sein Stier sind Ein

Thier.—Wer einem Bauer aus dem Koth hilft, hat ebenso viel

Dank, als der ihm hineingestossen hat.—Ein Bauer gibt kein

gutes Wort, als wenn er gewinnen oder betrugen will.--Wenn

der Bauer ein Feldmann wird, sterben ihm alle Freunde.—Wenn

sich die Bauern tief bucken, haben sie den Teufel im Rucken.—

Der Bauer ist nicht zu verderben, man hau' ihm denn Hand and

Fuss ab. There are many proverbs in French which tell the

same tale, see Le Livre des Proverhes Francais by Le Roux de

Lincy, vol. ii. pp. 80-83, and I believe in every other modern

literature of Europe. Abundance too in medieval Latin; but

let one, a very detestable one, suffice: Rustica gens est optima

fiens, et pessima ridens.


110                   The Morality of Proverbs.                LECT.


of the proverb not to float in the clouds, but to set its

feet firmly on this common earth of ours from which

originally it sprung, treating of present needs and

every-day cares, this could not be otherwise;1 and

in the main it would be well if the practice of the

world rose to the height of its convictions as expressed

in these. Frugality is connected with so many virtues

—at least, its contrary makes so many impossible—

that the numerous proverbial maxims inculcating this,

and none are more frequent on the lips of men, must

be regarded as belonging to the better order.2  Above

all, this is true when they are taken with the check

of others, which forbid this frugality from degenerat-

ing into a sordid and dishonourable parsimony; such,

I mean, as our own:  The groat is ill saved which

shames its master. In how many the conviction speaks

out that the hastily gotten will hardly be honestly

gotten, that ‘he who makes haste to be rich shall not

be innocent,' as when the Spaniards say:  He who will

he rich in a year, at the half-year they hang him;3 in

how many others, the confidence that the ill-won will

also be the ill-spent, that in one way or another it

shall have no continuance,4 that he who shuts up


            1 In Wander's Deutsches Sprichwirter-Lexican (see back, p.

59), there are 1420 proverbs under 'Geld,' that is, proverbs in

which this is the principal word, and it is manifest that these

cannot at all exhaust the proverbs having to do with money.

Thus ‘Gold' yields more than 200 more.

            2 There are a few inculcating an opposite lesson: this is one:

Spend, and God will send; which Howell glosses well; ‘yes, a

bag and a wallet.'

            3 Quien en un ano quiere ser rico, al medio le ahorcan.

            4 Male parta male dilabuntur.—Wie gewonnen, so zerronnen.

Compare Euripides, Elect. 948:


V.                        Proverbs about Money.               111


unlawful gain in his storehouses, is shutting up a fire

that will one day destroy them. Very solemn and

weighty in this sense is the German proverb:  The

unrighteous penny eats up the righteous pound;1 and

the Spanish, too, is striking:  That which is another's

always yearns for its lord;2 it yearns, that is, to be

gone and get to its rightful owner. In how many

the conviction is expressed that this mammon, which

more than anything else men are tempted to imagine

God does not concern Himself about, is yet given

and taken away by Him according to the laws of his

righteousness; given sometimes to his enemies and

for their sorer punishment, that under its fatal influence

they may grow worse and worse, for The more the carte

riches, he wretches; but oftener withdrawn, because

no due acknowledgment of Him was made in its use;

as when the German proverb declares:  Charity gives

itself rich; covetousness boards itself poor;3 and our

own, Covetousness bursts the bag; and the Danish

Give alms, that thy children may not ask them; while

the Talmud reaches still nearer to the heart of things

when it says, Alms are the salt of riches; the true

antiseptic, which shall prevent these riches from them-


                        [O d ] o@lboj a@dikoj kai> meta> skaiw?n cunw>n

                        e]ce<ptat ]  oi@kwn, smikro>n a]nqh<saj xro<non.


            1 Ungerechter Pfennig verzehrt gerechten Thaler.

            2 Lo ageno siempre pia por su dueno.

            3 Der Geiz sammlet sich arm, die Milde giebt sich reich. In

the sense of the latter half of this proverb we say, The charitable

gives out at the door, and God pacts in at the window; and again,

Drawn wells are seldom dry; though this last is capable of a far

wider application.


112                  The Morality of Proverbs.             LECT.


selves corrupting, and from corrupting those that have


            At the same time, as it is the very character of the

company of proverbs to look at matters all round and

from every side, there are others to remind us that

even this very giving shall itself be with forethought

and discretion; with selection of right objects, and in a

due proportion to each; for indeed there is an art in

giving as in everything else. The Greeks, who never

lost sight of measure and proportion, taught us this

when they said, Sow with the hand, and not with the

whole sack;2 for as it fares with the seed-corn, which,

if it shall prosper, must be providently dispersed with

the hand, not prodigally shaken from the sack's mouth,

so must it fare with benefits that shall do good either


            1 A Latin proverb on the moral cowardice which it is the

character of riches to generate, Timidus Plutus, says more

briefly what Wordsworth has said more at large in one of his

noblest sonnets, written in the prospect of invasion, and ending

with these words:

                                                ‘riches are akin

                        To fear, to change, to cowardice, and death.'

Compare Euripides :

            Deilo<n q ] o[ plou?toj kai> filu<yuxon kako<n.


            2 T^? xeiri> dei? spei<rein, a]lla> mh< o!l& t&? qula<k&. Plutarch

affords here an instructive example of the manifold applications

whereof a proverb may be capable. Corinna, he tells us, found

fault with Pindar that his poetry was not richer in mythical

allusion. After a little he brought her a hymn which he had

composed, and having recited the three first lines in which

there was no less than five of these allusions, she stopped him,

laughing and saying, One must sow with the hand, not from the

sack's mouth.


V.                     Warning against Subtle Sins                113


to those who impart or to those who receive them.1

A Danish proverb urges the same lesson, which says,

So give to-day, that thou shalt be able to give to-morrow;

or in a slightly different form, So give to one, that thou

shalt have to rive to another.2  And take these two as

closing the series; and first this Italian, which teaches

us in a homely but striking manner, with an image

Dantesque in its vigour, that ‘a man shall carry nothing

away with him when he dieth,' Our last robe, that is,

our winding sheet, is made without pockets;3 and

then, secondly, this Russian, which, looking out

beyond this present world, declares that there is that

which even money is impotent to do, Gold has wings

which carry everywhere except to heaven.

            There are proverbs which contain warnings against

subtle sins and temptations, such as it is only too easy

to fall into. What a warning, for instance, against

that most familiar temptation of looking forward to

certain advantages, as increase of fortune, advance in

worldly position,, which may accrue to us through the

death of some who now stand, or whom we fancy to

stand, between us and the good that we desire, is

contained in that proverb:  It is ill standing in dead

men's shoes. It is indeed ill in many ways, ill because,

feeding on hope, we may abate our present industry; ill

because the advantage we look for may never come

but another may fill the emptied place, another inherit

the coveted hoards; and ill, because the expectation of

the event that is to give us what we wait for may so


            1 Thus Seneca Multi sunt qui non donant, sed projicaant.

            2 Giv saa i Dag, at du og kandst give i morgen,—Give een

at du kand give en anden.

            3 L' ultimo vestito ce lo fanno senza tasche.



114                The Morality of Proverbs.                 LECT.


easily and by almost unmarked degrees pass into the

desire for that event; and thus we, before we know it,

may become transgressors in spirit of the sixth com-


            Let me further invite you to observe and to admire

the prevailing tone of manliness which pervades the

great body of the proverbs of all nations: to take note

how very few there are which would fain persuade you

that ‘luck is all,' or that your fortunes are in any other

hands, under God, except your own. This our own

proverb, Win purple and wear purple, proclaims,

Other proverbs there are, but they are quite the

exceptions, to which the gambler, the loafer, the idler,

the so-called ‘waiter upon providence,' can appeal.

But for the most part they courageously accept the law

of labour, No pains, no gains,—No sweat, No sweet,—

No mill, no meal,1 as the appointed law and condition

of man's life. Where wilt thou go, ox, that thou wilt

not have to plough?2 is the Catalan remonstrance

addressed to one, who imagines by any outward change

of condition to evade the inevitable task and toil of

existence. And this is Turkish:  It is not with saying,

Honey, Honey, that sweetness comes into the mouth;

and to many languages another with its striking image.

Sloth, the key of poverty,3 belongs. On the other hand,

there are in almost all tongues such proverbs as the


            1 This is the English form of that worthy old classical pro-

verb:  feu<gwn mu<lon, a@lfita feu<gei, or in Latin:  Qui vitat

molam, vitat farinam.

            2 Ahont aniras, bou, que no llaures?  I prefer this form of

it to the Spanish:  Adonde ira el buey, que no are?

            3 Pereza, llave de pobreza.


V.                           Manly Proverbs.                    115


following:  God helps them that help themselves:1  or,

as it appears with a slight variation in the Basque

God is a good worker, but He loves to be helped; or, as

it was current long ago in Greece:  Call Minerva to

aid, but bestir thyself.2  And these proverbs, let me

observe by the way, were not strange, in their spirit at

least, to the founder of that religion which is usually

supposed to inculcate a blind and indolent fatalism—

however some who call themselves by his name may

have forgotten the lesson which they convey. Cer-

tainly they were not strange to Mahomet himself;

if the following excellently-spoken word has been

rightly ascribed to him. One evening, we are told,

after a weary march through the desert, he was camp-

ing with his followers, and overheard one of them

saying, ‘I will loose my camel, and commit it to God;'

on which the prophet took him up:  ‘Friend, tie thy

camel, and commit it to God;'3 do, that is, whatever

is thy part to do, and then leave the issue in higher

hands; but till thou hast done this, till thou hast thus

helped thyself; thou hast no right to look to Heaven

to help thee.

            How excellently genuine modesty and manly self-

assertion are united in this:  Sit in your own place,


            1 Dii facientes adjuvant; compare AEschylus

            Speu<donti saut&? xw[ qeo>j cuna<yetai.

And again,

            Ei@wqe t&? ka<mnonti suspeu<dein qeo<j

And Sophocles:

            Ou]k e@sti toi?j mh> drw?si su<mmaxoj Tu<xh

            2 Su>n   ]Aqhn%? kai> xei?ra ki<<nei.

            3 According to the Spanish proverb : Quien bien ata, bien

desata. Compare our own:  Fast bind, Fast find.


116                  The Morality of Proverbs.          LECT.


and no man can make you rise; and how good is this

Spanish, on the real dignity which there often is in

doing things for ourselves, rather than in standing by

and suffering others to do them for us:  Who has a

month, let him not say to another, Blow.1 And as a

part of that which I just now called the manliness of

proverbs, let me especially note the lofty utterances

which so many contain, summoning to a brave en-

countering of adverse fortune, to perseverance under

disappointment and defeat and a long-continued in-

clemency of fate; breathing as they do a noble con-

fidence that to the brave and bold the world will not

always be adverse. Where one door shuts another

opens;2 this belongs to too many nations to allow

of our ascribing it especially to any one. And this

Latin:  The sun of all days has not yet gone down,3

however, in its primary application intended for those

who are at the top of Fortune's wheel, to warn them

that they be not high-minded, seeing there is yet time

for many a revolution in that wheel,4 is equally good

for those at the bottom, and as it contains warning for

those, so strength and encouragement for these; for,

as the Italians say:  The world is for him who has

patience.5 And then, to pass over some of our own, so

familiar that they need not be adduced, how man-

ful a lesson is contained in this Persian proverb:  A


            1 Quien tiene Boca, no diga a otro, Sopla.

            2 Donde una puerta se cierra, otra se abre.

            3 Nondum omnium dierum sol occidit.

            4 In this sense magnificently glossed in one of Calderon's

finest passages. It occurs in La Gran Cenohia, Act iii. Sc. 2.

            5 Il mondo e, di chi ha pazienza.


V.                            Persian Proverb.                   117


stone that is fit for the wail, is not left in the way. It

is a saying made for them who appear for a while to

be overlooked, neglected, passed by; who perceive in

themselves capacities, which as yet no one else has

recognized or cared to turn to account. Only be

fit for the wall; square, polish, prepare thyself for

it; do not restrict thyself to the bare acquisition of

such knowledge as is absolutely necessary for thy

present position; but rather learn languages, acquire

useful information, stretch thyself out on this side and

on that, cherishing and making the most of whatever

aptitudes thou findest in thyself; and it is certain thy

turn will come. Thou wilt not be left in the way;

sooner or later the builders will be glad of thee; the

wall will need thee to fill up a place in it, quite as

much as thou needest a place to occupy in the wall.

For the amount of real capacity in this world is so

limited, that places want persons to fill them quite as

really and urgently as persons want to fill places;

although, as it must be allowed, they are not always

as much aware of their want. This too from the

Talmud is a manful proverb, looks cheerfully in the

face the defeat of larger purposes and plans of life,

and suggests the spirit in which the summons to come

down and take a humbler sphere of work should be

accepted:  If I cannot keep geese, I will keep goslings.

            Among these brave proverbs of which I have been

speaking, I must count this Dutch one:  Money lost,

nothing lost; courage lost, much lost; honour lost, more

lost; soul lost, all lost.1  And this Italian and Spanish,


            1 Goed verloren, niet verloren; moed verloren, veel veloren;

eer verloren, meer verloren; ziel verloren, al verloren.


118                The Morality of Proverbs.              LECT.


deserves here a place,  If I have lost the ring, yet the

fingers are still here.1  In it is asserted the compara-

tive indifference of that loss which reaches but to

things external to us, so long as we ourselves remain,

and are true to ourselves. The fingers are far more

than the ring: if indeed those had gone, then the man

would have been maimed; but another ring may

come in place of that which has disappeared, or even

with none the fingers will be fingers still, for indeed,

as another Italian proverb declares, Who has a head

will not want a hat.2  And as at once a contrast and

complement to this, take another, current among the

free blacks of Hayti, and expressing well the little

profit which there will be to a man in pieces of mere

good luck, such as are no true outgrowths of anything

which is in him; the manner in which, having no

root in him out of which they grew, they will, as they

came to him by hazard, go from him by the same:

The knife which thou hast found in the h ghway, thou

wilt lose in the highway.3

            But these numerous proverbs, urging self-reliance,

bidding us first to aid ourselves, if we would have


            1 Se ben ho persol' anello, ho pur anche le dita;—Si seper

dieron los anillos, aqui quedaron los dedillos.

            2 A chi ha testa, non manca cappello.

            3 In their bastard French it runs thus: Gambette ous trouve

nen gan chimin, nen gan chimin ous va pede li. It may have

been originally French, at any rate the French have a proverb

very much to the same effect: Ce qui vient par la flute, s'en

va par le tambour; compare the modern Greek proverb:

 ]Anemomazw<mata, daimonoskorpi<smata (What the wind gathers,

the devil scatters); and the Latin, Quod non dedit Fortuna, non



V.                  Abuse of Proverbs.                              119


Heaven to aid us, must not be dismissed without a

word or two at parting. Prizing them, as we well

may, and the lessons which they contain, at the high-

est, it will still be good for us ever to remember that

there lies very near to all these such a mischievous

perversion as this:  ‘Aid thyself, and thou wilt need

no other aid;' even as they have been sometimes, no

doubt, understood in this sense. As, then, the pen-

dant and counterweight to them all, not as unsaying

what they say, but as fulfilling the opposite hemis-

phere in the complete orb of truth, let me remind you

of others like the following, often quoted or alluded to

by Greek and Latin authors:  The net of the sleeping

(fisherman) takes;1—a proverb the more interesting,

that we have in the words of the Psalmist (Ps. cxxvii.

2), when accurately translated, a beautiful and perfect

parallel:  ‘He giveth his beloved' (not ‘sleep,' as in

our Version, but) ‘in, sleep;' God's gifts gliding into

their bosom, they knowing not how, and as little

expecting as having laboured for them. Of how many

among the best gifts of every man's life will he not

thankfully acknowledge this to have been true; or, if

he refuse to allow it, and will acknowledge no euda'-

monia, no ‘favourable providence' in his prosperities,

but will see them all as of work, and not of grace, how

little he deserves, how little likely he is to retain them

to the end.


            1 Eu@donti ku<rtoj ai[rei?.—Dormienti rete trahit. The reader

with a Plutarch's Lives within his reach may turn to the very

instructive little history told in connexion with this proverb, of

Timotheus the Athenian commander; a history which only re-

quires to be translated into Christian language to contain a deep

moral for all (Sulla, c. 6).


120                  The Morality of Proverbs.           LECT.


            I should be wanting to hearers such as those who

are assembled before me, I should fall short of that

purpose which has been, more or less, present to me

even in dealing with the lighter portions of my subject,

if I did not earnestly remind you of the many of these

sayings, which, having a lesson for all, yet seem more

directly addressed to those standing, as not a few of us

stand here, at the threshold of the more serious and

earnest portion of their lives. Lecturing to a Young

Men's Society, I shall not unfitly press these upon your

notice. Take this Italian one, for instance:  When you

grind your corn, give not the flour to the devil, and the

bran to God;—in the distribution, that is, of your lives,

apportion not your best years, with their strength and

vigour, to the service of sin and of the world, and

only the refuse and rejected to your Maker; the wine

libation poured out to the god of this world, and

only the lees reserved for Him; for indeed, if you so

do, there is another ancient proverb, which in English

runs thus:  It is too late to spare, when all is spent;1

that will condemn you. The words have obviously a

primary application to the goods of this present life;

it is ill saving here, when nothing or next to nothing is

left to save; but they are applied well by a heathen

moralist (and the application lies very near), to those

who begin to husband precious time, and to live for

life's true ends, when life is nearly gone, is now at its

dregs; for, as he well urges, it is not the least only

hich remains at the bottom, but the worst.2 On the


            1 Sera in imo parsimonia.

            2 Seneca (Ep. i,): Non enim tantum minimum in imo, si

pessimum remanet.



V.                    Proverbs for Young Men.                 121


other hand, The morning hour has gold in its mouth;l

and this, true in respect of each of our days, in which

the earlier hours given to toil will yield larger and

more genial returns than the later, is true in a yet

higher sense, of that great life-day, whereof all the

lesser days of our life make up the moments, is true

in respect of moral no less than mental acquisitions.

The evening hours have often only silver in their

mouths at the best. Nor is this Arabic proverb, as it

appears to me, other than a very solemn one, having

a far deeper meaning than at first sight might seem:

Every day in thy life is a leaf in thy history; a leaf

which shall once be turned back to again, that it may

be seen what was written there, and that whatever was

written may be read out for all the world to hear.

            Among the proverbs having to do with a prudent

ordering of our lives from the very first, this Spanish

seems well worthy to be adduced:  That which the

fool does in the end, the wise man does at the beginning;2

the wise with a good grace what the fool with an ill;

the one to much profit what the other to little or to

none. A word worth laying to heart; for, indeed,

that purchase of the Sibylline books by the Roman

king, what a significant symbol it is of much which at

one time or another, or, it may be, at many times, is

finding place in almost every man's life;—the same

thing to be done in the end, the same price to be paid

at the last, with only the difference, that much of the

advantage, and perhaps all the grace, of an earlier com-

pliance has passed away. The nine precious volumes


            1 Morgenstund' hat Gold im Mund.

            2 Lo que hate el loco a la postre, hace sabio al principio.

122              The Moralily of Proverbs.               LECT.


have shrunk to six, and these dwindled to three, while

the like price is demanded for the few as for the many;

for the remnant now as would once have made all our


            We every one of us have made, we probably shall

make again, many and serious mistakes in the conduct

of our lives. We may stupidly refuse to be taught by

these mistakes, acting them over anew; or, angry with

ourselves and losing all heart, we may throw up the

game in despair. But there is a more excellent way

than either that or this a way which the Latin pro-

verb, To-day is the scholar of yesterday,1  points out.

Let our ‘to-day' learn of our ‘yesterday.' Believe me

there is a teaching in our blunders and our errors, in

what we have done in our haste or in our pride, which

is not anywhere else to be obtained—not from wise

books, not from the exhortations of wise men, but

oftentimes only to be gotten from those. Man has

been likened well to a diamond which can be polished

only in its own dust.

            In a former lecture I adduced a proverb which

warned against a bad book as the worst of all robbers.

There are books which are not bad, nay, which in the

main are good, but in which there is yet an admixture

of evil. Such is the case with many which we have

derived from that old world, whose moral atmosphere

had not yet been purified by the presence of Christ's

Spirit in its midst. Now there is a proverb, which may

very profitably accompany us in our study of all such

books:  Where the bee sucks honey, the spider sucks

poison. Keep this in mind, you who are making

yourselves acquainted with the classical literature of


            1 Discipulus est prioris posterior dies.

V.             Proverbs on the Conduct of Life          123


antiquity, the famous writers of heathen Greece and

Rome. How much of noble, how much of elevating

do they contain: what love of country, what zeal for

wisdom, may be quickened in us by the study of

them; what intellectual, yes, and even to us Chris-

tians what large moral gains will they yield. Let the

student be as the bee looking for honey, and from the

fields and gardens of classical literature he may store

of it abundantly in his hive. And yet from this same

body of literature what poison is it possible to distil,

what loss, through familiarity with evil, of all vigorous

abhorrence of that evil, till even the worst enormities

shall come to be regarded by us with a speculative

curiosity rather than with an earnest hatred;—yea,

what lasting defilements of the imagination and the

heart may be contracted here, till nothing shall be

pure, the very mind and conscience being defiled.

Let there come one whose sympathies and affinities

are with the poison and not with the honey, and in

these fields it will not be impossible for him to find

deadly flowers and weeds from which he may suck of

this poison more, far more than enough,

            With a few remarks on two proverbs more I will

bring this lecture to an end. Here is one with an

insight at once subtle and profound into the heart of

man:  Ill doers are ill deemers. Instead of any com-

mentary on this of my own, I shall quote some words

of Henry More, the Cambridge Platonist, which were

not intended to be a commentary upon it at all, while

they furnish notwithstanding a far better one than any

that I could give. He is accounting for the offence

which the Pharisee took at the Lord's acceptance, as

recorded in the Gospel, of the affectionate homage

124            The Morality of Proverbs.            LECT.


and costly offering of the woman that was a sinner

‘Which familiar and affectionate officiousness, and

sumptuous cost, together with that sinister fame that

woman was noted with, could not but give much

scandal to the Pharisees there present. For that

dispensation of the law under which they lived making

nothing perfect, but only curbing the outward actions

of men it might very well be that they, being con-

scious to themselves of no better motions within than

of either bitterness or lust, how fair soever they carried

without, could not deem Christ's acceptance of so

familiar and affectionate a service from a woman of

that fame to proceed from anything better than some

loose and vain principle, . . . for by how much every

one is himself obnoxious to temptation, by so much

more suspicious he is that others transgress, when

there is anything that may tempt out the corruption, 

of a man.'1  Thus the suitors in the Odyssey, even at

the time when they are themselves plotting the death of

Telemachus, are persuaded that he intends to mix poison

with their wine and to make an end of them all.

            And in this Chinese proverb which follows, Better

a diamond with a flaw, than a pebble without one,

there is, to my mind, the assertion of a great Chris-

tian truth, and of one that reaches deep down to


            1 On Godliness, b. viii. How remarkable a confirmation of

the fact asserted in that proverb and in this passage lies in the

twofold uses of the Greek word kakoh<qeia; having, for its first

meaning, an evil disposition in a man's self, it has for its second

a readiness on his part to interpret for the worst all the actions

of others. Compare the Greek comic poet:


                        !Ostij ga>r o]mnu<onti mhde>n pei<qetai,

                        Au]to>j e]piorkei?n r[%d w[j e]p statai.


V.                     Chinese Proverb.                        125


the very foundations of Christian morality, the more

valuable as coming to us from a people beyond the

range and reach of the influences of direct Revelation.

All whom I address may not be aware of the many and

malignant assaults which were made on the Christian

faith, and on the morality of the Bible, through the

character of David, by the self-righteous Deists of the

last century. Taking the Scripture testimony about

him, that he was the man after God's heart, and

putting beside this the record of those grievous sins

in which he was entangled, they sought to set these

grievous, yet still isolated, offences in the most hateful

light; and thus to bring him, and the Book that

praised him, and the God who found pleasure in him,

to a common shame. But all this while, the question

concerning the man, what he was, and what was the

moral sum-total of his life, to which alone the Scripture

bore witness, and to which alone it was pledged, this

was a question wherewith they concerned themselves

not at all; while yet it was a far more important ques-

tion than what any of his single acts may have been;

and it was this which, in the estimate of his character,

was really at issue. Of the flaws there can be no doubt,

in him, as in every other except the one ‘entire and

perfect chrysolite;' but were they flaws in a diamond?

If so, then we are bold to affirm that the one diamond

even with these flaws outvies and outvalues a mountain

of pebbles without such. Not to say that in all likeli-

hood the pebbles on closer inspection would be found

not so much to be, as to seem to be, without blemish,

their flaws escaping immediate detection, while the

clearer and more translucent medium revealed at once

the presence of these.

126                   The Theology of Proverbs.                 LECT.






                                   LECTURE VI.



                  THE THEOLOGY OF PROVERBS.



            I ENDEAVOURED in my last lecture to furnish

you with some helps for estimating the ethical

worth of proverbs. Their theology alone remains to

consider; the aspects, that is, under which they con-

template, not now any more man's relations with his

fellow-man, but those on which in the end all other

must depend, his relations, direct and immediate, with

God. Between the subject-matter, indeed, of that

lecture and of this I have found it nearly impossible

to draw any very accurate line of separation. Much

which was there said might nearly as fitly be spoken

here; some things which I have reserved for this

lecture might already have found an entrance there.

This, however, is the subject which I now keep

directly before my eyes, namely, what proverbs have

to say concerning the moral government of the

world, and, more important still, concerning its

Governor? How does all this present itself to the

popular mind and conscience, as attested by these?

What, in short, is their theology? for such, good or

bad, it is evident that to no small amount they have.

            Here, as everywhere else, their testimony is a

mingled one. The darkness, the error, the selfish-

ness, the confusion of man's heart, out of which he

V.                   Ethical and Theological.                          127


oftentimes sees distortedly, and sometimes sees not at

all, have all embodied themselves in his word. Yet

still, as it is the very nature of the false, in its separate

manifestations, to resolve into nothingness, though

only to be succeeded by new births in the same kind,

and appointed for the same doom, while the true

abides and continues, it has thus come to pass that

we generally have in those utterances on which the

stamp of permanence has been set, the nobler voices,

the truer faith of humanity, in respect of its own

destinies and of Him by whom those destinies are


            I do not hesitate to say that the glory of proverbs

in this their highest aspect, making many of them

full of blessing to those who cordially accept them, is

the conviction of which they are full, that, despite all

appearances to the contrary, this world is God's world,

and not the world of the devil, nor of those wicked

men who may be doing his work, and receiving his

wages. Precious indeed is this faith of theirs, that

however the ‘tabernacles of the robbers' may prosper

in the world for a while, in the long run this world

will approve itself to be God's; which being so, that

it must be well in the end with the doer of the right,

the speaker of the truth, and ill with them that for-

sake these; no blind ‘whirligig of time,' but the hand

of a living God, in due time ‘bringing round his

revenges.'  It is not easy to estimate too highly the

value of their bold and clear proclamation of this

conviction; for it is, after all, the belief of this or the

denial of this, on which everything in the life of each

one of us turns. On this depends whether we shall

separate ourselves from the world's falsehood and

128                 The Theology of Proverbs.                  LECT.


evil, and do vigorous battle against them; or acquiesce

in these, and be ourselves dominated by them.

And first, hear a proverb of our own:   A lie has no

legs; this is true in small and in great; let the lie be

the petty spiteful falsehood which disturbs the peace

of a family or a neighbourhood for a day or one of

the huger falsehoods not in word only but in act, to

which a far longer date and a far ampler sphere are

assigned, which for a time seem to fill the world, and

to carry everything in triumph before them. Still the

lie, in that it is a lie, always carries within itself

the seeds of its own dissolution. As the Greek poet

said long ago, ‘It never arrives at old age.'1  Its

priests may prop it up from without, may set it on its

feet again, after it has once fallen before the presence

of the truth, yet this all will prove labour in vain.

Raised up again it may be; but this will only be, like

Dagon again to fall, and more shamefully and with a

more irrecoverable ruin than before.2  On the other

hand, the vitality of the truth, as contrasted with this

short-lived existence of the lie, is well expressed in a

Swiss proverb:  It takes a good many shovelfuls of earth

to bury the truth. It does so indeed bury it as deep

as men may, it will have a resurrection notwith-

standing. Those who have conspired against it may

roll a great stone, and seal the sepulchre in which it

is laid, and set a watch upon it; yet for all this, like


            1 Sophocles:  Ou]de<n poq ] e!rpei yeu?doj ei]j gh?raj xro<non.

            2 Perhaps the Spanish form of this proverb is still better:

La mentira tiene cortas las piernas; for the lie does go, though

not far. Compare the French: La verite, comme l' huile, vient


VI.               How to Shame the Devil.                 129


its Lord, it comes forth again at the appointed hour.

It cannot die, being of an immortal race; for, as the

Spanish proverb nobly declares, The truth is daughter

of God.1

            Again, consider this proverb:  Tell the truth, and

shame the devil. It is one which will well repay a few

thoughtful moments bestowed on it, and the more so

because, even while we instinctively feel its truth, the

profound moral basis on which it rests may not reveal

itself to us at once. Nay, the saying may seem to

contradict the actual experience of things; for how

often telling the truth—confessing, perhaps, some

great fault, taking home to ourselves, it may be,

some grievous sin—must appear anything rather than

a shaming of the devil; a shaming indeed of our-

selves, but rather a bringing of glory to him, whose

glory, such as it is, is in the sin and shame of men.

And yet for all this the word is true. The element

of lies is the only element in which he who is ‘the

father of them' lives and thrives. So long then as a

wrong-doer presents to himself, or seeks to present to

others, the actual facts of his conduct different from

what they really are, conceals, palliates, distorts,

denies them,—so long, in regard of that man, Satan's

kingdom stands. But so soon as ever the things

concerning a man are seen and owned by himself

as they indeed exist in God's sight, as they verily

are when weighed in the balances of the eternal

righteousness; when once a man has brought himself

to tell the truth to himself and to God, and, where

need requires, to his fellow-men, then, having this


            1 La verdad es hija de Dios.

130                      The Theology of Proverbs.           LECT.


done, he has defied the devil, abandoned his standard;

he belongs to the kingdom of the truth; and, belong-

ing to it, he may rebuke, and does rebuke and put to

shame, all makers and lovers of a lie, even to the

very prince of them all.  ‘Give glory to God,' was

what Joshua said to Achan, when he would lead him

to confess his guilt (Josh. vii. 19; cf. John ix. 24).

This is but the other and fairer side of the tapestry;

this is but the exhortation to shame the devil on its

more blessed side.

            Once more;—the Latin proverb, The voice of the

people, the voice of God,1 is one which it is well worth

our while to understand. If it were affirmed in this

that every outcry of the multitude, supposing only it

be loud enough and wide enough, ought to be ac-

cepted as God's voice speaking through them, no

proposition more foolish or more profane could well

be imagined. But the voice of the people here is some

thing very different from this. The proverb rests on

the assumption that the foundations of man's being

are laid in the truth; from which it will follow, that

no conviction which is really a conviction of the

universal humanity, but reposes on a true ground;

no faith, which is indeed the faith of all mankind,

but has a reality corresponding to it: for, as Jeremy

Taylor has said:  ‘It is not a vain noise, when many

nations join their voices in the attestation or detesta-

tion of an action:' and Hooker:  ‘The general and

perpetual voice of men is as the sentence of God

Himself. For that which all men have at all times

learned, nature herself must needs have taught; and


            1 Vox populi, vox Dei.

VI.                      The Voice of God.                     131


God being the author of nature, her voice is but his

instrument.'1  The task and difficulty, of course, must

ever be to discover what this faith and what these

convictions are; and this can only be done by an

induction from a sufficient number of facts, gathered

from sufficiently diverse quarters, and in sufficiently

different times, to enable us to feel confident that

we have indeed seized that which is the constant

quantity of truth in them all, and separated this

from the inconstant quantity of falsehood and error,

evermore offering itself in its room; that we have

not taken some momentary cry, wrung out by in-

terest, by passion, or by pain, for the voice of God;

but claimed this august title only for that true voice

of humanity, which, unless everything be false, ‘and

earth's base built on stubble,' we have a right to

assume an echo of the voice of God.

            Thus, to take an example, the natural horror

everywhere felt in regard of marriages contracted

between those very near in blood, has been always

and with right appealed to as a potent argument

against such unions. The induction is so large, that

is, the nations who have agreed in entertaining this

horror are so many, oftentimes nations disagreeing

in almost everything besides; the times during which

this instinctive revolt against such mixtures has been

felt, extend through such long ages; that the few ex-

ceptions, even where they are the exceptions of civi-

lized nations, as of the Egyptians who married their

sisters, or of the Persians, among whom marriages

more dreadful still were permitted, cannot be allowed


            1 Eccles. Pol. i. § 8.

132              The Theology of Proverbs.             LECT.


any weight; and of course still less the exception of

any savage tribe, in which all or nearly all that

constitutes the truly human in humanity has now

disappeared. These exceptions can only be regarded

as violations of the divine order of man's life; not as

evidences that we have erroneously imagined such an

order where there was none. Here is a true voice of

the people; and on the grounds laid down above, we

have a right to assume this to be a voice of God as

well. And so too, on the question of the existence

of a First Cause, Creator and Upholder of all things,

the universal consent and conviction of all people,

the consensus gentium, must be considered of itself a

mighty evidence in its favour; a testimony which

God is pleased to render to Himself through his

creatures. This man or that, this generation or the

other, might be deceived, but hardly all men and all

generations; the vox populi makes itself felt as a vox

Dei. The existence here and there of an atheist no

more disturbs our conclusion that it is of the essence

of man's nature to believe in a God, than do such

monstrous births as from Time to time find place,

children with two heads or with no arms, shake our

assurance that it is the normal condition of man to

have one head and two arms.

            This last is one of the proverbs which may be said

to belong to the Apology for Natural Religion. There

are others, of which it would not be far-fetched to

affirm that they belong to the Apology for Revealed.

Thus it was very usual with Voltaire and other un-

believers of his time to appeal to the present barren-

ness and desolation of Palestine, in proof that it could

never have supported the vast population which the

VI.          Apology for Revealed Religion.            133


Scripture everywhere assumes or affirms. A proverb

in the language of the arch-scoffer himself might, if he

had given heed to it, have put him on the right track,

had he wished to be put upon it, for understanding

how this could have been:  As the man is worth, his

land his worth.1  Man is lord of the outward condi-

tions of his existence to a far greater extent than is

commonly assumed; even climate, which seems at

first sight so completely out of his reach, it is in his

power immensely to modify; and if nature stamps

herself on him, he stamps himself yet more powerfully

on nature. That word of the Psalmist is no mere figure

of speech:  ‘A fruitful land maketh He barren for the

wickedness of them that dwell therein' (Ps. cvii. 34).

God makes it barren, and ever less capable of nourish-

ing its inhabitants; but He makes it so through the

sloth, the indolence, the selfish shortsightedness, the

quarrels among themselves of those that should have

dressed and kept it. In the condition of a land may

be found the echo, the reflection, the transcript of the

moral and spiritual condition of those that should

cultivate it: where one is waste, the other will be waste

also. Under the desolating curse of Mohamedan

domination the fairest portions of the earth have gone

back from a garden to a wilderness: but only let that

people for whom Palestine is yet destined return to it

again, and return a righteous nation, and in a little

while all the descriptions of its earlier fertility will be

more than borne out by its later, end it will easily sus-

tain its millions again.

            How many proverbs, which cannot be affirmed to


            1 Tant vaut 1'homme, tant vaut sa terre.

134                The Theology of Proverbs.              LECT.


have been originally made for the kingdom of heaven,

do yet in their highest fulfilment manifestly belong

it, which claims them as of right for its own:  even

as it claims, or rather reclaims, whatever else is good

or true in the world, the seeds of truth wherever dis-

persed abroad, as belonging rightfully to itself. Take

for example that beautiful proverb, of which Pytha-

goras is reputed the author:  The things of friends are

in common.1  Where does this find its exhaustive ful-

filment, but in the communion of saints, their com-

munion not with one another merely, though indeed

this is a partial fulfilment, but in their communion

with Him, who is the Friend of all good men? That

such a conclusion lay legitimately in the words

Socrates plainly saw; who argued from them, that

since good men were the friends of the gods, there-

fore whatever things were the gods', were also theirs;

being, when he thus concluded, as near as one who

lacked the highest light of all could be to that great

word of the Apostle's, ‘All things are yours.'

            Nor can I otherwise than esteem the ancient

proverb as a very fine one, and one which we may

gladly claim for our own:  Many meet the gods, but few

salute them. How often do the gods (for I will abide

by the language which this proverb suggests and

supplies), meet men in the shape of a sorrow which

might be a purifying one, of a joy which might elevate

their hearts to thankfulness and praise; in a sickness

or a recovery, in a disappointment or a success; and

yet how few, as it must be mournfully confessed, salute

them; how few recognize their august presences in


            1 Koina> ta> tw?n fi<lwn.

VI.                    One Man, no Man.                       135


this joy or this sorrow, this blessing added or this

blessing taken away. As this proverb has reference

to men's failing to see the Divine presences, so let me

remind you of a very grand French one expressing the

same truth, under the image of a failing to hear the

divine voices, those voices being drowned for too many

by the deafening tumult and hubbub of the world:

The noise is so great, one cannot hear God thunder.1

            Here is another proverb which the Church has

long since claimed, at least in its import, for her own:

One man no man.2  I should be slow to believe that

whoever uttered it first, meant by it nothing more than

Erasmus gives him credit for—namely, that nothing

important can be effected by a single man, destitute of

the help of his fellows.3  The word is far profounder

than this, and rests on that great truth upon which the

deeper thinkers of antiquity laid so much stress

namely, that in the idea the state precedes the indivi-

dual, man not being merely accidentally gregarious, but

essentially social. The solitary man, it would say, is

a monstrous conception, so utterly maimed and

morally crippled must he be; the condition of solitari-

ness involving so entire a suppression of all which

belongs to the development of that wherein the true

idea of humanity resides, of all which differences man

from the beasts of the field. In this sense, and not

in that merely trivial one of Erasmus, One man is no

man; and this, I am sure, the proverb from the first


            1 Le bruit est si fort, qu'on n'entend pas Dieu tonner.

            2 Ei$j a]nh>r, ou]dei>j a]nh<r.—Ein Mann, kein Mann.

            3 Senses est, nihil egregium praestari posse ab uno homine,

omni auxilio destituto.

136              The Theology of Proverbs.           LECT.


intended. Nor may we stop here. This word is

capable of, and seems to demand, a still higher appli-

cation to man as a destined member of the kingdom

of heaven. But he can only be training and educat-

ing for this, when he is, and regards himself, as not

alone, but as the member of a family. As one man he

is no man; and the strength and value of what is called

Church-teaching is greatly this, that it does recognize

and realize this fact, contemplates and deals with

the faithful man, not as isolated, but as one of an or-

ganic body, with duties which flow as moral necessities

from his position therein; rather than by himself; and

as one whose duties to others are indeed only oppor-

tunities for the exercise of private graces for his own

benefit.  ‘We are what we are by reciprocation; the

individual is not the factor, but the product, of


            There is another proverb, which Socrates (or Plato

speaking by the mouth of Socrates), did not fail to

quote often against the sophists, the men who flattered

and corrupted the nobler youth of Athens, promising

to impart to them easy short cuts to the attainment of

wisdom and knowledge; such as should demand no

exercise of labour or patience or self-denial upon their

parts. With the proverb, Good things are hard,2 he

continually rebuked their empty pretensions; and

made suspicious at least their delusive promises; and

surely this proverb, true in the sense wherein Plato used

it, and that sense one earnest and serious enough, yet


            1 I quote these last few words from a noble lecture on Ideal

substitutes for God, by James Martineau.

            2 xalepa> ta> kala<.

VI.                A Great City, a Great Solitude.             137


reappears, glorified and transfigured but, recognizable

still, in more than one of our Saviour's words: for in-

deed what else does He say when He reminds his dis-

ciples of the strait gate, or of that holy violence by

which alone they could scale the heights of the king-

dom of heaven?1


            1  The deepening of a proverb's use among Christian nations

as compared with earlier applications of the same may be illus-

trated by an example, which, however, as not being directly

theological, and thus not bearing immediately upon the matter

in hand, I shall prefer to append in a note. An old Greek and

Latin proverb, A great city, a great solitude (Magna civitas,

magna solitudo), dwelt merely on the outside of things, and

meant no more than this, namely, that a city ambitiously laid

out and upon a large scheme would with difficulty find inhabi-

tants sufficient, would wear an appearance of emptiness and

desolation; as there used to be a jest about Washington, that

strangers would sometimes imagine themselves deep in the

woods, when indeed they were in the centre of the city. But

with deeper cravings of the human heart after love and affection,

the proverb was claimed in a higher sense. We may take in

proof these striking words of De Quincey, which are the more

striking that neither they nor the context contain any direct refer-

ence to the proverb:  ‘No man,' he says, ‘ever was left to him-

self for the first time in the streets, as yet unknown, of London,

but he must have felt saddened and mortified, perhaps terrified,

by the sense of desertion and utter loneliness which belongs to

his situation. No loneliness can be like that which weighs upon

the heart in the centre of faces never ending, without voice or

utterance for him; eyes innumerable that have "no speculation"

in their orbs which he can understand; and hurrying figures of

men and women weaving to and fro, with no apparent purposes

intelligible to a stranger, seeming like a masque of maniacs, or

a pageant of shadowy illusions.' A direct reference to the pro-

verb is to be found in some affecting words of Lord Bacon, who

glosses and explains it exactly in this sense:--‘For a crowd is

138            The Theology of Proverbs.          LECT.


            I cannot speak with confidence of the proverb

Amantes amentes, whether it belongs to the old heathen

or to the modern Christian world this much, how-

ever, is certain, namely, that it is a proverb capable of a

very lofty application.  ‘We are fools for Christ's sake,'

said the Apostle Paul, he being one of the amentes,

but only because first one of the amantes. And how

many since might have taken the words on their lips,

even as they have illustrated them by the fine mad-

ness of their lives. Francis of Assisi stands out

before me as eminently one of the first and foremost

among these, the Amantes amentes of the proverb; his

scholar Jacopone, author of the Stabat Mater, is


            This method of looking in proverbs for a higher

meaning than any which lies ion their surface, or which

they seem to bear on their fronts; or rather this search-

ing out their highest intention, and claiming that as

their truest, even though it be not that which those

who use them generally perceive in them, or that lay

nearest to them at their first generation, will lead in

many interesting paths. Nor is it merely those of

heathen antiquity that shall thus be persuaded often,

and that without any forcing, to render up a Christian

meaning; but (as might indeed be expected) still

more often those of a later time, such as the world had

seemed to challenge for its own, shall be found to move

in a spiritual sphere as that to which they are most

native. Take in evidence these four or five, which

come to us from Italy:  He who has love in his heart,


not company, and faces are but a gallery of pictures, and talk

but a tinkling cymbal, where there is no love.

VI.                    Christian Proverbs.                      139


has spurs in his sides;—Love rules without law;---

Love rules his kingdom without a sword;—Love knows

nothing of labour;--Love is the master of all arts.1

Take these in their original beauty, or even with the

necessary drawbacks of my English translation; and

how exquisitely do they set forth, in whatever light

you regard them, the free and fresh-springing impulses

of love, its delight to labour and to serve; how

worthily do they glorify the kingdom of love as the

only kingdom of a free and joyful obedience. While

yet at the same time, if we would appreciate them at

all their worth, is it possible to stop short of an ap-

plication of them to that kingdom of love, which,

because it is in the highest sense such, is also a king-

dom of heaven? And then, what precious witness do

these utterances contain, the more precious as current

among a people nursed in the theology of Rome,

against the assertion that selfishness is the only motive

sufficient to produce good works: for in such an

assertion the impugners of a free justification con-

stantly deal; charging this that we hold, of our justi-

fication by faith only (which, when translated into the

language of ethics, is quite as important in the province

of morality as in that of theology), with being an

immoral doctrine, such as must remain barren in deeds

of charity, as compared with a doctrine which should

connect these deeds with a selfish purpose of pro-

moting our own interest thereby.


            1 Chi ha 1' amor nel petto, ha lo sprone ai fianchi.—Amor

regge senza legge (cf. Rom. xiii. 9, 10).—Amor regge il suo

regno senza spada.—Amor non conosce travaglio (cf. Gen.

xxix. 20, 30).--Di tutte le arti maestro e amore.—Di tutto con-

dimento e amore.

140                The Theology of Proverbs.               LECT.


            There are proverbs which reach the height of

evangelical morality.  ‘Little gospels'1 the Spaniard

has somewhat too boldly entitled some of his; and

certainly there are too many which, as at once we

feel, could nowhere have been born and obtained

circulation save under the influence of Christian faith;

being in spirit, and often in form no less than in spirit,

the outcomings of it. Thus is it with that exquisitely

beautiful proverb of our own:  The way to heaven is by

Weeping-Cross;2 nor otherwise with the Spanish:

God never wounds with both hands;3 not with both,

for He ever reserves one with which to bind up and

to heal. And another Spanish, evidently intended to

give the sum and substance of all which in life is to be

desired the most, Peace and patience, and death with

penitence,4 gives this sum certainly only as it presents

itself to the Christian eye. And this of our own is

Christian both in form and in spirit:  Every cross

hath its inscription, the name, that is, inscribed

upon it, of the person for whom it was shaped; it was

intended for those shoulders upon which it is laid, and

will adapt itself to them; for that fearful word is never

true, which a spirit greatly vexed spake in the hour of

its impatience:  ‘I have little faith in the paternal love

which I need; so ruthless, or so negligent seems the

government of this earth.'


            1 Evangelios pequenos.

            2 Compare the German:  Der Weg zum Himmel gent durch

Kreuzdorn. Compare the medieval obverse of the same:  Via

Crucis, via lucis.

            3 No hiere Dios con dos manos.

            4 Paz y paciencia, y muerte con penitencia.

            5 Memoirs of Margaret Fuller, vol. iii. p. 266. Of words like

these, wrung out from moments of agony, may we not hope that

VI.                  Christian Proverbs                       141


Of the same character is that ancient German pro-

verb:  When God loathes aught, men presently loathe

it too.1  He who first uttered this must have watched

long the ways by which shame and honour travel in

this world; and in this watching must have noted how

it ever came to pass that even worldly honour tarried

not long with them from whom the true honour

whereof God is the dispenser had departed. For the

worldly honour is but a shadow and reflex that waits

upon the heavenly; it may indeed linger for a little,

but it will be only for a little, after it is divorced from

its substance. Where the honour from Him has been

withdrawn, He causes in one way or another the

honour from men ere long to be withdrawn too.

When He loathes, presently man loathes also. The

saltless salt is not merely cast out by Him, but is

trodden under foot of men (Matt. v. 13). A Lewis

the Fifteenth's death-bed is in: its way as hideous to

the natural as it is to the spiritual eye.2

            We are told of the good Sir Matthew Hale, who

was animated with a true zeal for holiness, an earnest

desire to walk close with God, that he had continually

in his mouth the modern Latin proverb, We perish by

permitted things.3  Assuredly it one very well worthy


our own proverb, For mad words deaf ears, is often graciously

true, even in the very courts of heaven?

            1 Wenn Gott em Ding verdreusst, so verdreusst es auch bald

die Menschen.

            2 The following have all a right to be termed Christian pro-

verbs: Chi non vuol servir ad un solo Signor, a molti ha da

servir;—E padron del mondo chi lo disprezza, schiavo chi lo

apprezza;—Quando Dios quiere, con todos vientos llueve.

            3 Perimus licitis.

142             The Theology of Proverbs.             LECT.


to be of all remembered, searching as it does into the

innermost secrets of men's lives. It is no doubt true

that nearly as much danger threatens the soul from

things permitted as from things unpermitted; in some

respects more danger; for these last being disallowed

altogether, do not make the insidious approaches of

the other, which coming in under allowance, so easily

slip into dangerous excess.


            It would be interesting to collect, as with rever-

ence one might, variations on Scriptural proverbs or

sayings, which the proverbs of this world supply; and

this, both in those cases where these have grown out

of those, owing more nearly or more remotely their,

existence to them, and in the cases as well where they

own an independent life,—so far, that is, as aught

which is true can be regarded as independent of the

absolute Truth. Some which I shall proceed to quote

evidently belong to one of these classes, some to the

other. Thus Solomon has said:  ‘It is better to dwell

in the corner of the housetop than with a brawling

woman in a wide house' (Prov. xxi. 9); and again:

‘Better a dry morsel and quietness therewith, than an

house full of sacrifices with strife' (Prov. xvii. I).

With these may be compared a Latin proverb, which,

however, turning on a play of words, I have no choice

but to cite in the original:  ‘Non quam late sed quam

laete habitas, refert.'1  The Psalmist has said:  ‘As he

loved cursing, so let it come unto him' (Ps. cix. 17).

The Turks express their faith in this same law of the


            1 Compare this Spanish:  Mas vale un pedazo de pan con

amor, que gallinas con dolor.

VI.                  Proverbs and Scripture.                       143


divine retaliations:  Curses, like chickens, always come

home to roost:  they return, that is, to those from whom

they went forth, while in the Yoruba language there is

a proverb to the same effect:  Ashes always fly back in

the face of him that throws them; while our own, Harm

watch, harm catch, and the Spanish, Who sows thorns,

let him not walk barefoot,1 are utterances of very

nearly the same conviction. Our Lord declares, that

without his Father there falls no single sparrow to the

ground, that ‘not one of them is forgotten before

God' (Luke xii. 6). The same truth of a providentia

specialissima (between which and no providence at all

there is indeed no tenable position), is asserted in the

Catalan proverb:  No leaf moves, but God wills it.2

Again, He has said:  ‘No man can serve two masters'

(Matt. vi. 24); compare the Spanish proverb: He who

must serve two masters, must lie to one.3  Or compare

with Matt. xix. 29, this remarkable Arabic proverb:

Purchase the next world with this; so shalt thou win

both. Christ has spoken of ‘mammon of unrighteous-

ness'—indicating hereby, in Leighton's words, ‘that

iniquity is so involved in the notion of riches, that it

can very hardly be separated from them;' and this

phrase Jerome illustrates by a proverb which would

not otherwise have reached us; ‘that saying,' he says,

‘appears true to me:  A rich man is either himself an


            1 Quien siembra abrojos, no ande descalzo. Compare the

Latin: Si vultur es, cadaver expecta; and the French: Mau-

dissons sont feuilles; qui les sense it les recueille.

            2 No se mou la fulla, que Deu no ha vulla. This is one of

the proverbs of which the peculiar grace and charm nearly dis-

appear in the rendering.

            3 Quien a dos senores ha de servir, al uno ha de mentir.

144              The Theology of Proverbs.             LECT.


unjust one, or the heir of one.'1  Again, the Lord has

said:  ‘Many be called, but few chosen' (Matt. xx.

16); many have the outward marks of a Christian

profession, few the inner realities. Some early Chris-

tian Fathers loved much to bring into comparison

with this a Greek proverb, spoken indeed quite inde-

pendently of it, and long previously; and the parallel

certainly is a singularly happy one:  The thyrsus-bearers

are many, but the bacchants few;2 many assume the

outward tokens of inspiration, whirling the thyrsus

aloft; but those whom the god indeed fills with his

spirit are few all the while.3 With our Lord's words

concerning the mote and the beam (Matt. vii. 3, 5)

compare this Chinese proverb:  Sweep away the snow

from thine own door, and heed not the frost upon thy


            1 Verum mihi videtur illud: Dives aut iniquus, aut iniqui

haeres. Out of a sense of the same, as I take it, the striking

Italian proverb had its rise:  Mai divento fiume grande, che non

v' entrasse acqua torbida.

            2 Polloi< toi narqhkofo<roi, pau?roi de< te ba<kxoi.

            3 The fact which this proverb proclaims, of a great gulf

existing between what men profess and what they are, is one

too frequently thrusting itself on the notice of all, not to have

found its utterance in an infinite variety of forms, although none

perhaps so deep and poetical as this. Thus there is another

Greek line, fairly represented by this Latin:

            Qui tauros stimulent multi, sed rarus arator;


and there is the classical Roman proverb: Non omnes qui

habent citharam, sunt citharoedi; and the medieval rhyming


            Non est venator quivis per cornua flator;


and this Eastern word: Hast thou mounted the pulpit, thou

art not therefore a preacher; with many more.

VI.       Use of Proverbs in Sermons.                   145


neighbour's tiles. And is there not the echo or the

anticipation—which, it does not matter much—of

more than one of our Lord's most solemn exhortations

(as of Matt. xix. 28, 29), in this proverb of the Tal-

mud, Divorce from this world is marriage with the


            We of the clergy might make freer use of proverbs

in our public teaching than we do. Great popular

preachers, or, seeing that this phrase has now so

questionable a sound, great preachers for the people,

such as have found their way to the common heart of

their fellow men, have not disdained largely to employ

them. Any who would know how rich the German

tongue is in these, and at the same time of what

vigorous and manifold application they are capable,

need only turn to the writings of Luther. One who in

this intent has gone through the sixteen folio volumes

which these writings fill, reports to the existence of

three thousand proverbs therein. Our country con-

gregations would gain not a little by such a use of our

proverbs as I suggest. Any one, who by after investi-

gation should seek to discover how much our rustic

hearers carry away, even from the sermons to which

they have attentively listened, would rarely find that

it is the course and tenor of the argument, supposing

the discourse to have contained such. But if any-

thing was uttered, as it used so often to be by the

best Puritan preachers, tersely, pointedly, epigramma-

tically, this will have stayed by them, while all beside

has passed away. Now the merits of terseness and

point, and sometimes of apparent paradox, which have

caused other words to be remembered, are exactly the

146                The Theology of Proverbs,                 LECT.


merits which signalize the proverb, those by whose aid

it has obtained such general acceptance as it possesses.

            It need scarcely be observed, that in this sphere

and region they will need to be used with discretion.

It is not every good proverb will be good for a sermon.

The pulpit must be always grave; a quite different

thing from being dull—which last it should never be.

But this being kept in remembrance, that which I

suggest might, I am persuaded, be done, and with

profit. Thus, in a discourse warning against sins of

the tongue, we might produce many words of our own

to describe the mischief it inflicts which would be

flatter, less likely to be remembered than the old pro-

verb:  The tongue is not steel, but it cuts.  On God's

faithfulness in sustaining, upholding, rewarding his

servants, there are feebler things which we might

bring out of our own treasure-house, than to remind

our hearers of that word:  He who serves God, serves a

good Master. And this one might sink deep, telling

of the enemy whom every one of us has the most to

fear:  No man has a worse friend than he brings with

him from home, standing too as it does, in striking

agreement with Augustine's remarkable prayer,  ‘De-

liver me from the evil man, from myself.'1  Or again:

Ill weeds grow apace;—with how lively an image does

this set forth to us the rank luxuriant upgrowth of

sinful lusts and desires in the garden of an uncared-

for, untended heart. And then on the danger of

overlooking and forgetting all the suffering of others

which keeps out of our sight, which is not actually

submitted to our eyes:  What the eye does not see, the


            1 Libera me ab homine malo, a meipso.

VI.                        Proverbs in Sermons.                  147


heart does not rue. Or take again the world's confes-

sion that he who hides his talent is guilty not less than

he who wastes it, as it utters itself in the following

proverb:  He who does no good, does evil enough. I

know not whether we might presume sufficient quick-

ness of apprehension on the part of our hearers to

venture on the following:  The horse which draws its

halter is not quite escaped; but I can hardly imagine

a happier illustration of the fact, that so long as any

remnant of a sinful habit is retained by us, so long as

we draw this halter, we make but an idle boast of

our liberty; we may, by means of that which we still

drag with us, be at any moment again entangled in

the bondage from which we seemed to have altogether


            Some of the noblest proverbs in every language

are those embodying men's confidence in God's moral

government of the world, in his avenging righteous-

ness, however much there may be in the confusions

of the present evil time to suggest a doubt or provoke

a denial of this. When, for example, the Germans

say, God is a creditor who has no bad debts,1—in as

much, that is, as sooner or later, in this world or the

other, He gets in all that is due to Him--this may

seem familiarly, almost too familiarly, spoken; though,

indeed, who has a right to quarrel with words which

express so well a very real, indeed a very awful, truth?

Or take this, Punishment is lame, but it comes, which,

if not old, yet rests on an image derived from antiquity,

but has also merits of its own, however inferior in


            1 Gott ist ein Glaubiger, der keine bosen Schulden macht.


148               The Theology of Proverbs.               LECT.


energy of expression and in fulness of sense to that

ancient Greek proverb:  The mill of God grinds late,

but grinds to powder;1 for this brings in the further

thought, that his judgments, however long they tarry,

yet when they arrive, are crushing ones. There is

indeed another of our own, not unworthy to be set

beside this, announcing, though under quite another

image, the same fact of the tardy but terrible advents

of judgment:  God moves with leaden feet, but strikes

with iron hands. And then, how awfully sublime

another which has come down to us as part of the

wisdom of the ancient heathen world:  The feet of the

(avenging) deities are shod with wool.2 Here a new

thought is introduced—the noiseless approach and

advance of these judgments, as noiseless as the steps

of one whose feet are wrapped in wool,—the manner

in which they overtake secure sinners even in the

hour of their utmost security. Who that has studied

the history of the great crimes and criminals of the

world, but will with a shuddering awe set his seal to

the truth of this proverb? Indeed, meditating on

such and on the source from which we have derived

them, one is sometimes tempted to believe that the

faith in a divine retribution evermore making itself

felt in the world, this sense of a Nemesis, as men

used to call it, was stronger and deeper in the better

days of heathendom, than alas! it is in a sunken

Christendom now.3


            1  ]Oye>  Qew?n a]le<ousi mu<loi, a]leu<ousi de> lepta<. We may com-

pare the Latin: Habet Deus suas horas et rnoras; and the

Spanish; Dios no se queja, mas lo suyo no lo deja.

            2 Di laneos habent pedes.

            3 Thus how solemn and sublime a series of passages on this

VI.                 Proverbs not Profane.                      149


            But to resume. Even those proverbs which have

acquired a use which seems to unite at once the trivial

and the profane, may yet on closer inspection be