A thoughtful person will eventually come to realize that all manner of contradictory wisdom exists about what one ought to do in a given situation or how one ought to behave.
So for example, someone who’s considering an investment might be told to “strike while the iron is hot,” i.e., take action quickly because the opportunity might be lost. But they also might be told, “slow and steady wins the race” or “don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Similarly, a person who’s looking for a partner might be told: “opposites attract.” But how does this match up with the adage that “birds of a feather flock together,” i.e., you’re better suited to match with someone who’s like you?
By definition, proverbs are short sayings or maxims used to make a point or illustrate some version of a universal truth.
Because some variant usually exists, or has existed, in all languages and cultures, proverbs are often divorced from any context. They’re ancient sayings that have been modified, recast, revised, and restated throughout history.
Proverbs can also have a specific story associated with them, as is the case with the proverbs of the Greek fabulist Aesop (c. 620–564 BCE).
For example, in the story titled “A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing,” a wolf who finds himself unable to approach a flock of sheep owing to a vigilant shepherd puts on the skin of a flayed sheep and gains the trust of a young lamb, which the wolf soon eats. Few people remember the details of the story today, but everyone knows the concept as well as the last line: “Appearances can be deceiving.”
Meanwhile, according to a write-up in the British publication the Daily Mail, the first use of the proverb “a fish stinks from the head down” is attributable to 16th-century Italy. Today the phrase can be used to describe any situation regarding mismanagement or corruption at the highest echelons of an organization, but in the original context it apparently is meant to suggest that if a servant is disorderly, it’s because his or her master is the same.
So What’s the Problem, Exactly?
There’s something very human about the common use and application of proverbs divorced from story — the lack of attachment to any context, the saying employed to provide justification for some action or belief. It’s almost the approach of a salesman or a lawyer, of someone who wants you to mentally go from Point A to Point B and needs a hook to get you there.
But while some of these proverbs make sense, others are nonsensical.
What does it even mean to say that a fish stinks from the head down, anyway? If you put your nose next to a rotting fish, doesn’t the whole thing just smell like a rotting fish? According to the Daily Mail write-up above, the proverb is flat wrong; fish actually rot and stink starting with the guts.
Indeed, to think of these sayings as representing anything close to wisdom, or even reality, is like relying on bad science to make an important decision.
Even when a proverb is married up with its story — such as “slow and steady wins the race,” which comes from the Aesop fable “The Hare and the Tortoise” — a proverb amounts to relying on a single case study as evidence.
Don’t get me wrong.
Case studies can be helpful, especially because they provide language and imagery with which to conceptualize a particular issue.
The problem with proverbs is that they cater to the pathways of our brain which, as social science research shows, might be thought of the lazy person’s route — the route that is well-worn, easy, and not necessarily the best fit for the situation.
In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, the Nobel-prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman (b. 1934) calls this lazy cognitive process System 1. Unlike the slower, more deliberate System 2, this first cognitive process produces fast, initiative reactions and decisions. As shown in test after test, however, System 1 is not always very reliable when it comes to making logical decisions.
System 1 has great evolutionary value. Throughout the ages, the survival of people, families, and even larger groups has been enabled by fast decisions made based on little to no evidence or information. People still need System 1 today, of course, and yet many of us do not live so close to the bone as in prior years. We have available to us many sources of information and many valid ways of looking at things coupled with enough leisure time to give System 2 a chance to weigh in.
For the thinking person, then, I would argue that an over-reliance on proverbs is not only foolish — it can be intellectually, emotionally, and even physically dangerous.
“You only live once,” or “YOLO,” has become a sort of short-hand for getting out of your comfort zone and trying new experiences.
Not always a bad thing.
However, YOLO can be interpreted very differently depending on whether one is contemplating jumping from a helicopter on skis or going to a party about which one is feeling some anxiety.
In the first case, the statement “you only live once!” seems foolish. Indeed, my response to someone who said this in such a situation would be: “Then why are we doing this? My one life is too precious to risk it by jumping from a helicopter on skis!”
In the second case, YOLO seems more appropriate — you only live once, so why not be a little adventurous and get out of your comfort zone instead of sitting in your room like a wall flower and doing nothing?
My point is that such sayings do not in and of themselves represent wisdom.
They require interpretation, and they can become perversions unless moderated by good judgement and situational awareness.
As with any decision-making framework, we should try our best to critically question the language we are using to think about things and ask ourselves whether we are being led astray by that language.
For some people, the consequences might literally be a matter of life and death.