Sunday, November 01, 2009

Proverbs 17 - 18: The Weakness of Categories; The Power of Language

Proverbs 17

My first thought for this go-round was that I'd extend my typology of Proverbs from last time and do a proverbial census. This is the kind of thing that, if all goes well, could lead to a pie chart, which would of course be awesome.

It started off well enough, with two new categories added to the ones from last time (dubious assertions, tautologies, judgments): assertions of faith and Proverbs of reward and revenge, the promises of better life for the virtuous and punishment for the evil, which I also talked about last time. But as I began the business of fitting each Proverb into one of the categories, I found my definitional edges starting to crumble.

Take 17:26, for instance:

It is not good to punish an innocent man,
or to flog officials for their integrity.
My first impulse was "judgment," a statement of principle. But then, you could also be a little cynical and call it a dubious assertion, for surely anyone who has read Machiavelli can imagine situations where it might be a good idea to punish some innocent men in order to preserve peace, prosperity, and public order. Or on the other hand, you could call it a tautology: the definition of "innocent" is more or less "those not deserving punishment."

Similarly with Verses 21 & 25:

To have a fool for a son brings grief;
there is no joy for the father of a fool.

A foolish son brings grief to his father
and bitterness to the one who bore him.
My first thought was "judgment"; they are an assessment that foolishness is bad. But then I thought, wait a minute, that's a pretty dubious assertion -- I know people whose children are kind of numbskulls, and they are happy enough in general and have reasonably good relationships with their kids too. Too, there's a whiff of tautology here in the obviousness of the statement, the idea that a parent wouldn't want they child to have bad qualities hardly being breaking news.

So, I gave up the categorizing.

Proverbs 18

In reading this Chapter, I noticed statements that seemed to imply a philosophy of knowledge. That's not to say that this chapter is "about" a philosophy of knowledge, mind you -- the individual Proverbs seem as much a grab-bag as ever. What set me off was probably 18:4

The words of a man's mouth are deep waters,
but the fountain of wisdom is a bubbling brook.
Now a statement like this leaves lots of room for interpretation, of course, but it also seems to suggest that it doesn't want to be interpreted too much. It seems to argue for the concept of "Keep It Simple, Stupid" or of Occam's Razor. This might be a comfort for someone trying to dredge some understanding out of Derrida or Kant. Calls to prefer "common sense" over that too-fussy book larnin', though, are dangerous; they tend to render people resistant understanding or appreciating the workings of complex systems, and most systems are complex systems.

The chapter has numerous admonitions that it is better to shut up and listen than to shoot your mouth off.

A fool finds no pleasure in understanding
but delights in airing his own opinions.
A fool's lips bring him strife
and his mouth invites a beating
A fool's mouth is his undoing,
and his lips are a snare to his soul.
He who answers before listening --
that is his folly and his shame.
The idea that you should shut up when you don't know what you are talking about is of course a compelling one, especially to anyone reading the reader comments on the average newspaper article. But there is also a very conservative element at play here. Solomon the King is famously wise -- he's really made it the hallmark of his brand -- and here he is saying that people who aren't wise should just shut the hell up. It is awfully convenient for him and his hold on power.

Because certainly, the author of Proverbs 18 understood the power of language. Check out Verse 17:

The first to present his case seems right,
till another comes forward and questions him.
Or the odd Verse 8:

The words of a gossip are like choice morsels;
they go down to a man's inmost parts.
This is perhaps an unfortunate metaphor, as the first thing that jumps into most heads about "choice morsels" is that they are tasty and highly desireable. I think the intended concept, though, is that gossip will worm its way into a person's inner being and be destructive there, rather than nourishing. Another curious metaphor follows at Verse 21:

The tongue has the power of life and death,
and those who love it will eat its fruit.
Bizarre imagery aside, the idea seems fairly clear: language is powerful, and knowing how to use language confers power.

Next Time: Proverbs and the Poor, Proverbs in the Marketplace, and other good advice.

Today's Text: Proverbs 17 - 18.

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