BMCR 2023.08.44

Ancient wisdom: an introduction to sayings collections

, Ancient wisdom: an introduction to sayings collections. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2022. Pp. 335. ISBN 9780802875433



This volume provides a critical survey of compendia of proverbial wisdom from the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, including those of the earliest Jewish and Christian traditions. Walter Wilson situates these collections in their particular temporal contexts, summarizing their often complex and sometimes indeterminate textual histories. He seeks to identify the distinctive “moral agenda” of each collection, its particular perspectives on life and ethical priorities in its own time and place. He also compares the kinds of educative work these texts undertake by  cross-referencing formal and thematic parallels in his footnotes, offering a taxonomy of the different genres or species of such sapiential discourse and supplying a bibliography of up-to-date translations and recent scholarship on the individual compilations. Some minor collections of ancient sayings are listed in an appendix, along with a general bibliography and indices of the authors, subjects, scriptural texts and other sources included in the volume. This is a very useful, comprehensive and thoughtfully designed handbook.

In his Introduction, Wilson begins by drawing a distinction between proverbs and maxims, the former primarily the products of oral or anonymous textual traditions, the latter crafted by individual authors, though not always named or authentically denominated. Maxims imitate proverbs, he suggests, in that they are intended to be received as time-honored wisdom in a familiar form.

Epigrams, in their turn, imitate maxims, crafted as pithy, memorable poems. A further category is chreiai, i.e. brief biographical anecdotes punctuated by a succinct moral, “famous last words” or other kind of arresting utterance. Almost all these varieties of proverbial wisdom postulate some kind of individual subject or moral agent – what Wilson calls “the gnomic ‘self’” (11) – as the putative recipient of the wisdom offered, one who will either benefit or suffer from observing or neglecting the recommended or discouraged behavior. Such a person is often sharply contrasted with an opposite number—a “gnomic anti-self,” one might say – the fool who ignores the good advice or wise man who follows it.

Many of these generic human actors are also situated in the favor (or otherwise) of divinities who can bestow blessings or impose sanctions upon them: “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding. For by me thy days shall be multiplied, and the years of thy life shall be increased” (Proverbs 9:9-11).

Wilson stresses the importance of context in interpreting proverbs, both “micro-context,” the precise literary placement of a gnomic saying among its fellows in a series of statements, and “macro-context,” the literary genre governing its particular rhetorical form or thematic resonance in the collection of which it is a part. He distinguishes three dominant modalities in these compendia: (1) more eclectic “gnomologia” or observations on miscellaneous topics in no ostensible order, a form comprising the majority of compilations he reviews; (2) gnomic verses presented in more thematically organized sequences of which he offers two examples—the Greek Carmen aureum and Jewish Pseudo-Phocylides; and (3) wisdom instructions, more programmatic sequences of didactic lore; this is the most ancient and influential genre, he finds, some texts of which were preserved as early as the third millennium BCE in Mesopotamia and Egypt and retain their literary and pedagogical force for many centuries thereafter.

All these collections of sayings are preoccupied with personal behavior, attitudes and choices, “wherein moral agents are confronted by an array of situations that compel them to weigh alternatives and determine the best course of action” (19). These circumstances most often include family relationships and responsibilities, not only from a predominantly male perspective, but almost exclusively from a patriarchal one as well, that of the pater familias or traditional head of a household that includes spouses, children, hirelings, servants and slaves. Peer, patron-client or other hierarchical relationships are frequently addressed as well. And despite the fact that many of these sayings predict good outcomes for good behavior, others acknowledge the mystery and even capriciousness of the fortunes can that befall an individual in life, often adducing the presence and purposes of powers beyond any human comprehension or control: “Indeed you cannot know the plans of the god; / you cannot perceive tomorrow”; “The tongue of man is the steering oar of a boat, / but the Lord of All is its pilot” (Amenomope, 53). And finally, Wilson notes, most of these compilations are in some sense self-validating in that they elevate and authorize the act of speech itself, the special efficacy of an apt word in season, the very “mode of communication represented by the collections themselves” (2). These compendia are thus offered as practical guides for living, cognitive tool-kits for navigating the multiple hazards and opportunities of human life on earth.

Twenty-nine collections are reviewed in twenty-seven chapters, presented not by date, language or cultural provenance, but by brief titles in alphabetical order for quick and easy reference. Since few readers are likely to be familiar with all these texts, it may be useful to give the full list.

  1. ’Abot [‘Fathers’ in Hebrew, an anthology of sayings from sixty-three sages, third century CE]
  2. Ahiqar [Aramaic, late fifth century BCE]
  3. Amenemope [Egyptian, 600-400 BCE]
  4. Anii [Egyptian, ca. 1000 BCE]
  5. Ankhsheshonqy [Egyptian, first century BCE]
  6. Ben Sira [also called Sirach or Ecclesiasticus, Hebrew, early second century BCE]
  7. Cato [the Elder (234-149 BCE), two collections attributed to this author compiled in the fourth century CE]
  8. Counsels of Wisdom [Babylonian, after the mid-second millennium BCE]
  9. Democritus [of Abdera, Greek in two separate collections, early fourth century BCE]
  10. Epictetus [Greek, early second century CE]
  11. Papyrus Insinger [Egyptian, first century BCE or first century CE, named for a MS owner]
  12. Isocrates [Greek, fourth century BCE]
  13. Menander [Greek, late fourth century BCE: sixty-five sayings, plus many more by others]
  14. Merikare [Egyptian, 2150-2025 BCE]
  15. Pseudo-Phocylides [a Jewish text in Greek, first century BCE or first century CE]
  16. Porphyry [Greek, late third century or early fourth century CE]
  17. Proverbs [Hebrew, attributed to Solomon (tenth century BCE), compiled fourth century BCE]
  18. Ptahhotep [Egyptian, early second millennium BCE]
  19. Publilius [Latin, first century BCE]
  20. Pythagorean Collections [Greek, sixth century BCE and after]
  21. The Seven Sages [Greek, fifth century BCE and after]
  22. Sextus [Greek, ca. 200 CE, the longest and earliest Christian collection]
  23. Shuruppak [Sumerian, twenty-fifth century BCE]
  24. Silvanus [Coptic, translating a lost Greek Christian original, mid-fourth century CE]
  25. Sumerian Proverb Collections [Sumerian (a learned, that is, “dead” language at the time), 2000-1600 BCE]
  26. Syriac Menander [Syriac from a lost Greek original, late sixth or seventh century CE]
  27. The [Syrian Greek] Gospel of Thomas [second century CE, preserved in a Coptic translation, fourth century CE]

“The Instructions of [the Man from] Shuruppak” [#23] is the oldest extant anthology of proverbial wisdom in world literature. It is situated in its narrative frame at a crucial moment in Sumerian mythological and dynastic tradition. The speaker is an antediluvian king of Shuruppak addressing his son Ziusudra, who will survive the upcoming Flood like the biblical Noah or Utnapishtim the Faraway in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The advice of a father to his son on the cusp of this destructive cataclysm is presented as the most “precious” and durable gift he can offer for use in the new world to come. The wisdom encapsulated in his words will ensure not only the successful renewal of civilized life on earth, but the continued prosperity of their own house in overseeing it. Some verses thus acknowledge the obvious benefits of strong royal authority, but also its political and economic challenges: “The palace is a huge river, but its interior is a goring bull. The income is unrivaled, but the expenditure is endless” (245). Even so, the thrust of most of these sayings is much more humdrum and mundane, stressing ordinary human relationships and necessities—respect for elders, maintenance of social harmony, hard work and careful management of resources. The gods take only a distant interest in these earthly preoccupations and the cast of characters include very human and familiar types of people: the fool, the shameless man, the poor man, the drunkard, the thief, the shepherd, the prostitute, the wet nurse, the warrior, the leatherworker, the fisherwoman, the strong man, the “big” man, the boaster. Many of these figures are given a chance to speak, whether through indirect discourse or in their own voices. Their observations are naturally illustrative of their personalities or social identities. In fact, the “wisdom” offered by these proverbs is often rather quotidian, obvious, even banal. Home truths are not necessarily new truths, even way back in ancient Mesopotamia.

The oldest Egyptian compendium is “The Instruction of Ptahhotep” [#18], a royal vizier serving between 2388 and 2356 BCE, though the text is likely to have been composed some centuries later, closer to 1900 BCE. It achieved a long-lasting place in the ancient Egyptian literary canon, giving subsequent scribes considerable difficulty in construing its archaic language. A narrative prologue includes a request by the aging vizier to the king for his son to be appointed in his place, including a promise to “instruct him in the decisions of the judges and the wisdom of those who lived in earlier ages” (194). As a further incentive for the king to approve this petition, Ptahhotep enumerates in plangent terms the ills of old age that have beset him: “The eyes are blurred, the ears are deaf, and vigor wanes because of weariness … The memory is gone and cannot recall even yesterday … Even standing and sitting are a bother” (194), a kind of complaint echoed elsewhere in these compendia and carefully cross-referenced by Wilson, as usual, in his footnotes.

As intimated above, the present reviewer is most familiar with later medieval compilations of sayings in Old English, Old Norse and Celtic languages, some of which are derivative or imitative of these antique compendia, biblical and otherwise. Especially popular as a Latin schoolbook in late antiquity, the Middle Ages and Renaissance was the Dicta Catonis attributed to the Elder Cato [#7]. Many of its verses were thereafter adapted or translated into vernacular tongues, illustrating the multi-purpose function of these collections of wise sayings for the formal education of the young and their continuing edification throughout life. This ongoing educational purpose is clearly stressed in Cato: “Do not stop learning; wisdom increases through study. / Mere length of time rarely yields prudence” (90) – a consideration which is nonetheless qualified by the following verse: “When you have acquired learning from much study, / Know that life has much to teach you as well” (90).

Even when not gathered into such compendia, familiar and formulaic sayings constantly bubble up in conversation, public discourse and virtually every other form of literary or rhetorical expression. They are an implicit component of human communication, “word-units” neatly captured in prose or verse, but multiply applicable to a variety of situations. In this sense, gnomic sayings are often inconsistent with others right next door in their own collections and so offer a multi-purpose repertoire of responses to the challenges of life. They are at once durable building-blocks of a society’s value system or world-view and flexible components of an individual’s own cognitive experience and decision-making. They are also ideal, of course, for ironic observation or sarcastic comment, often adducing ironies of their own: “Rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee” (Proverbs 9:8); “Whoso diggeth a pit shall fall therein” (Proverbs 26:27); “The wicked flee when no man pursueth” (Proverbs 28:1).

Expansive in its inclusiveness and meticulous in its scholarship, this user-friendly volume will be an invaluable resource to all students of archaic proverbial traditions in world literature, both for quick reference and deeper study.