The popular wisdom of proverbs

Better late than never

Andrés Amorós is a kind writer. I enjoy his writings. A recent one attracted me at first because of its title: Vulgar Philosophy. The truth of proverbs (Fórcola, 2023). A book to read without rushing and continually stopping in the plot of themes and sayings that Amorós manages to link with the ease of a master. An endless number of proverbs parade, with brief and incisive comments from the author that elicit reflections, responses, and smiles from the reader. The proverbs are, certainly, popular wisdom, distilled from the experience of the average citizen. Sayings remind us that in life there is everything like in a pharmacy: potions that restore our health, as well as potions that can kill us. And so we can say “God helps those who get up early” and, also, that “Waking up early doesn’t make the dawn come any sooner.” Does one say cancel out the other? No, both give light, one to be diligent and the other to not expect fruits before their time.

That is why Amorós points out that “if the proverb cannot be accused of something, it is do-goodism, naive optimism. Quite the opposite. It is not surprising. To anyone who does not close his eyes, experience teaches him that evil exists and that it has so many varieties: envy, ambition, pride, greed, stupidity, meanness… In catechism, we learned the list of the seven capital sins, which can easily be prolonged.  It is difficult to accurately gauge Rousseau’s immense error in defending that man is good by nature and blaming his bad actions on the society that corrupts him. It’s not like that, it’s not true. Deceiving yourself by seeing rosy things leads to nothing. Proverbs do not fall into that naive simplicity” (p. 213).

Amorós also remembers that “the criticism of excesses and the defense of moderation, in all areas, is one of the basic principles of what we can call the philosophy of our proverb” (p. 170). The unbridled voluntarism, typical of a certain contemporary culture of success, has a lot to learn from the restraint of proverbs, which appeal to humility and curb personal arrogance, encouraging us not to claim victory prematurely and, at the same time, make us pretty to face the consequences of one’s own decisions, standing up when the potatoes burn: to the chest. No shaking off the body.

Common sense resides in proverbs. They say a lot, but they don’t intend to say it all, which is why they enlighten each other to see the landscape more widely. “The common sense of the proverb,” says Amorós, “connects the impossible with what is unreasonable. Pascal, a true genius, defended that the heart has its reasons, that reason does not understand. It is true, but the opposite can also be true. Eugenio d’Ors’s reply was not just a game of wit: Reason has its feelings, in that the heart does not beat. They are both right: every human being moves in that balance (p. 212).” Indeed, both are correct in having captured the reasons of the heart and the feelings of human reason.

For those of us who have spent decades or years in our personal narrative, the issue of time, of what we did or what we could have done, is an issue that we turn to in one way or another. Amorós also thinks so and writes that “it is often said that some geniuses—Cervantes, Shakespeare, Bach, Goya—were ahead of their time. It is very possible. Most of us, on the other hand, can summarize our biography with the enumeration—always, incomplete—of the things to which we have arrived late. A saying comforts us somewhat, giving us the illusion that we have ended up remedying it: “Better late than never (p. 177).” Agree, and I would add that there is always time to do your best, even when the circumstances are adverse.