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Proverbs Lecture

We usually think of a proverb as a short, pithy saying making a point. And we do find some of these in the book of Proverbs, but that is not the entirety of the book. There are longer passages that give advice in a more straightforward way. There are also passages that are more literary in nature, like the personification ("the attribution of a personal nature or human characteristics to something nonhuman, or the representation of an abstract quality in human form.") of Wisdom in Proverbs 1:20-33, which is much longer than we expect a proverb to be.

Proverbs is what we call wisdom literature, as is Ecclesiastes.  It is in some ways analogous to Greek philosophy.  Greek philosophy had three main branches:

  1. Logos - logic.  The rules of reasoning.
  2. Physis - physics.  The study of nature.
  3. Ethos - ethics.  The study of moral behavior.

The book of Proverbs is most similar to the ethical writings in Greek philosophy.  It lacks the speculation of the other branches of philosophy. 

The conceit of Proverbs is that the speaker is a father and the addressee is his son. If we want to make it more inclusive, we an call it a parent to a child. The book paints a picture of two types of ignorance:

  1. The child. The child has the type of ignorance that is the absence of knowledge. It can hopefully be fixed by the liberal application of parental advice. Children know they are not wise and and willing to gain that wisdom.
  2. The fool. Fools have an arrogant form of ignorance which rejects all wisdom they don't want to believe.  It is an active rejection of and hostility toward wisdom. Fools think they are already wise and resent the meddling of old fuddy-duddies. My own father had a saying about this type of ignorance: "The fool changed against his will is of the same mind still."  I'm not sure why he was telling me that.

Proverbs gives advice in a number of areas:

  1. Religion. "The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom." Ethical systems have starting points that lead out to the other areas of ethics. For Aristotle, ethics are grounded in the city, the community. For Confusius, they are grounded in reverence for ones parents. For Proverbs, the starting place is fear of God.
  2. Friends. The book is full of warnings against the bad influence of the wrong friend, both male and female. Human adolescents are particularly dangerous to themselves and others. Their bodies have developed as well as parts of their brains. But the pre-frontal cortex is undeveloped, leading them to risky behavior. The new flood of carbonated hormones coursing through their bodies and brains don't help, either. Add to that the influence of peers and sex partners pushing them to do the wrong thing, and you have a real mess.
  3. Work. The book has a lot of advice focused on getting ahead through hard work and warnings against sloth. It also gives warnings against wasteful spending.
  4. Dealing justly with others. There is a lot on honesty and reliability in ones dealings.
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