Oct 18, 2009

Clifford on Reading Proverbs

In his discussion on how Proverbs work, Richard J. Clifford, “Reading Proverbs 10–22,”
Interpretation 63 (2009): 243, makes the following helpful observations.

“Proverbs do not provide us with information. Does the saying ‘A stitch in time saves nine’ tell us anything we don't already know? Is it found in the curriculum of apprentice tailors? Listen to one of the greatest aphorists of English literature, the eighteenth-century essayist Samuel Johnson: ‘Men more frequently require to be reminded than informed.”[1] To paraphrase: human beings require the infusion of fresh ideas and perspectives at key times, typically when they have a question or are about to make a decision. Proverbs stimulate reflection and enable us to see things in a new way. They are a stimulus to insight and decision.

“The performance aspect of Proverbs, its orientation to decision-making, explains a remarkable feature of the book of Proverbs. It does not provide factual data, its instructions are notably empty of ‘content,’ and its maxims can seem trite if one expects new data. Rather, Proverbs’ sayings give readers a perspective. Listen to Johnson again, this time in his essay on the achievement of the poet Alexander Pope: ‘. . . new things are made familiar, and familiar things are made new.’[2] Proverbs are sharpening agents; they remove the ordinariness from everyday actions. They are about vision and action.”

[1] Samuel Johnson, “Rambler, No. 2,” cited in W. J. Bate, Samuel Johnson (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977), 291.
[2] Samuel Johnson, “The Life of Alexander Pope” in Lives of the Poets: Pope, cited in J. P. Hardy, Samuel Johnson: A Critical Study (London: Routledge, 1979). 200.

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