A Primer on Proverbs

“I have found that the best way to give advice to your children is to find out what they want and advise them to do it.”
Harry S. Truman (1884 –1972, the 33rd US President)

Where can you get good advice these days? Talk TV? The news? The net? Consumer Reports can advise you on buying a car. Books with advice on handling the opposite sex are falling off the shelves. Every commercial you see and hear is geared to advise you on what you need. Advertisers often target the young because they presume their advice-filters are not yet well developed. Be wise.

Harry Truman’s wit in the quote above is worth a smile but passing wisdom on to the young is serious business. Advising the young is as old as recorded history.

  • In 44 BC, Cicero (Roman statesman) dedicated his essay De Officia (on Duties) to his son Marcus. His fatherly advice became a classic of Western literature. He loved his son enough to want him to love learning and learn virtue.
  • In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (Act One), young Laertes received such fatherly advice as: “Neither a borrower nor lender be” and “To thine own self be true.” In context, however, the fictional father was more concerned with superficial appearances than character.
  • In 1599, about the time Hamlet was written, King James (of Bible translation fame) wrote Basilikon Doron (Kingly Gift) in 1599 to implant royal ideals in his four-year-old son.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh penned Instructions to His Son and to Posterity while in prison in 1611. His advice included warnings of betrayal by beauty or flattery. Of money, he wrote, “Don‘t spend it before you have it.”
  • Lord Chesterfield (1694 – 1773) wrote over 400 letters to his sons. One letter in 1748 said, “Wear your learning, like your watch, in a private pocket.” A 1766 letter said; “Be sure never to speak of yourself, nor against yourself, but let your character speak for you.”
  • In 1783, George Washington (1732 – 1799, 1st US president)) advised his nephew; “True friendship is a plant of slow growth, and must undergo and withstand the shocks of adversity before it is entitled to the appellation.”

Parents (and uncles like Washington) will never stop trying to pass on good advice to children. Much of that advice has ended up as great literature, even if the author’s own kids ignored it. In any case, wise advice needs to go beyond just finding out what they already want. Sorry Harry.

Standing above all other noble attempts to enlighten the young is the biblical book of Proverbs. It is a father’s “instructions to his sons” (4:1), written to give “knowledge and discretion to the young” (1:4). It is God’s letter to young apprentices on the art of living.

What sagely advice does Proverbs offer young people? First of all, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” (9:10). Start there! Secondly, be open to good advice and shun the nonsense. My favorite proverb is: “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (4:23). Keep your advice-filter clean and well oiled. Also, develop a hunger for wisdom and a passion for learning. Wisdom will not just land in your lap. It must be pursued. I think that’s why wisdom is portrayed (like “Liberty” on the Hudson River) poetically in Proverbs as a woman — a most worthy woman. It’s simply an ancient literary devise, so the call to wisdom in Proverbs rings loud and clear for both girls and boys. So, incline your ear to her. Set all lesser things aside and purse her as a young man would a decent woman, or a wise young woman would desire a virtuous man.

Go for it!

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