I was thinking recently about the dual nature of the word “wise.” Certainly, having wisdom and being wise are considered to be valuable traits. No one would doubt that Jesus, Buddha, Socrates,1 and many other great thinkers are wise. But the word also shows up in less serious garb with reference to impudent youngsters who make “wisecracks” and can be considered “wisenheimers”—that is, irritatingly smug and clever. Average human beings, the progenitors and inheritors of our folk wisdom, have always been leery of anyone who comes off as too learned, too intellectual, too focused on ideals and on things that, for the rest of us, are one step away from intellectual fantasies.
Folk wisdom is usually concise and to the point. It is carried in sayings that—even the clever ones, which involve a metaphor or a play on words—anyone with a brain can interpret. Consider some favorites: “A clean conscience makes a soft pillow.” “A fool and his money are soon parted.” “A false friend and a shadow last only while the sun shines.” “An empty barrel rattles the loudest.” “Better to be a live dog than a dead lion.” “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”
Folk wisdom doesn’t always run one way. For example, compare the popular saying “It is better to die on your feet than to live on your knees,” originally attributed to Emiliano Zapata in the Mexican Revolution, with the saying above about live dogs and dead lions. But almost all of these sayings, and thousands of others belonging to folk wisdom, hark back to some situation with which the listener can identify and—for the moment, anyway—agree.
Folk wisdom carries the sort of common sense that you heard at your grandmother’s—or grandfather’s—knee, if you were lucky enough to have grandparents. In my case, their observations and admonitions were generous, measured, and sunny but also slightly acerbic. That is because they had lived through enough changes of fortune to know that nothing is promised, the best intentions can go awry, and sometimes all you can do is laugh—at yourself and with the situation.
Folk wisdom also goes beyond clever sayings. Many of the do’s and don’ts of old-time religion hark back to practices that were just common sense when the scribes were writing in the name of religious authority. Eating pork is a bad gamble if you have no way of telling which animal is infected with trichinosis and which is not. Eating shellfish is also risky where refrigeration is unknown and the climate is hot. Having sex within your family unit is always a bad idea because the potential offspring tend to fare poorly. Offering charity to the poor and compassion to the less fortunate invites good feelings and reciprocal actions. Abusing the deaf, the blind, and beggars is usually a sign of personal weakness. Bearing false witness and swearing false oaths will make you unpopular in your neighborhood.
Some of the restrictions in the Bible, however, may be more obscure. For example, the Old Testament has many rules about how to dress your hair and what kind of cloth you can wear. But then, rather than safety issues, they might simply have been reflections of local tastes and passing styles. In the same way, the choice between wearing beards and clean shaving goes back and forth with the generations in Western society.
Interestingly, I once heard of an attempt by a modern group in India to establish a new practice in the villages that would have the force of folk wisdom. A PhD chemist I worked with at the biotech company told me they were teaching peasant women to pour water through five folds of the silk in their saris before giving it to their children. That was the extent: just fold the silk into five layers and pour the water through it. The reasoning—based on advanced scientific principles—was that the five layers of closely woven silk would trap most if not all of the dirt particles and bacteria, and so make the water from whatever source safer to drink. It wasn’t a perfect solution, like filtering the water with a technical apparatus or boiling it. It wouldn’t make water from any source perfectly safe to drink. And it wouldn’t guard against contaminants like heavy metals and other dissolved chemicals. But in the case of local health initiatives, the perfect is the enemy of the good. You can avoid a lot of germs and infections by straining your water through layers of silk, and that was the point of the initiative. It had the beauty of simplicity and did not rely on the practitioner understanding the germ theory of disease or passing this medical knowledge and its implications along to her daughters. The teaching was just to pour water through five layers folded from your sari.
Folk wisdom has been the world’s education system since our days as hunter-gatherers. Back then, we had to teach the young ones which plants to avoid as poisonous and which animals were best left alone. In a primitive society, the teachings of the elders and the sayings of grandmothers can be a serviceable and portable manual of daily survival skills. But such wisdom is not a perfect transmitter of accurate knowledge. Consider, for example, the story about the mother who taught her daughter always to cut both ends off a ham before cooking it, as if the rounded end and its glazing were somehow less beneficial in the processes of cooking and eating. That was just the way the right way to cook ham, she said, and she’d learned that from her own mother. When the child later asked the grandmother about cutting off the ends, the old lady laughed, because she only did that because she didn’t have a pan large enough for a whole ham.
Folk wisdom can also be an unreliable filter for truth and falsehood. Like the Biblical injunctions about hair and clothing, the sayings of elders and the teachings of grandmothers can carry a lot of prejudice and local preference. A distrust of strangers—including anyone who speaks, looks, or acts differently from local norms—might generally be a safe rule at the village level, where people have grown up together and learned to think and act alike, and where strangers can be hostile or possess evil intent. But that teaching becomes dangerously limiting for anyone who plans to travel far afield and mix with people of different customs and sensibilities. It can be lethal in a mixed urban environment where the pressures of population density can make a survival trait of enlightened tolerance for minor differences.
And folk wisdom is no substitute for scientific analysis, broad education, and a lifelong accumulation of knowledge through reading and study. In my view, it is always better to know and understand the reasons behind an observation or a teaching, than simply to accept it on the basis of authority or “that’s just the way we do things.” But not everyone can be a scientist, a scholar, or a deep and reasoned thinker over every aspect of life. For the parts of a question you have not studied yourself and made up your own mind on the basis of inquiry, relying on the wisdom of grandmothers is not a bad bet.
1. Although it is useful to remember that Socrates was condemned to death in Athens for advocating the sort of oligarchic, elitist society practiced in the enemy homeland of Sparta. And his student was Plato, whose masterwork, The Republic, is actually a recipe for creating a police state that would crush the human spirit as thoroughly as any Soviet or Communist society. How much wisdom is there in that?