There is a great fund of ancient literature that is worthwhile to read not only for historical interest but also for present-day application. Among these works are Aesop's Fables and the Confucian Analects. To these I would add the Jewish wisdom literature including Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Job, Sirach, and the Wisdom of Solomon. Here I will discuss the book of Proverbs.
Scholars separate chapters 1-9 as a post-exilic introduction to the book of Proverbs, which is itself a collection of collections of older sayings, most of them placed under the heading "proverbs of Solomon" but also some attributed to Agur (30:1-14) and Lemuel (31:1-9). The truth is that we don't know the names, places, and dates of the people who originally formulated these proverbs. Roland E. Murphy comments: "The reader may well be disappointed to be studying sayings that have no specific context, or only an uncertain 'editorial' context. But that is part of the charm of the proverbs; each one can be confronted and applied anew." (Proverbs, p. 69)
The exhortation of Proverbs is summed up in 4:7, "The beginning of wisdom: Get wisdom!" This stands as an alternative to the refrain that "the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom." The truth is that one need no more posit the reality of a sentient supreme being in order to appreciate Proverbs than one need to imagine Wisdom as an actual lady crying out on street corners (1:21). Indeed Wisdom herself emerges as a quasi-deity in the book, a pre-existent co-artisan (8:22-31). Murphy remarks on Lady Wisdom, "She does not mention the Lord; she does not urge conversion to God, but to herself!" (Proverbs, p. 12) While there is a tendency for theists, as our compilers are, to theologize, those tendencies are, for a skeptic, appreciably muted in the book of Proverbs.
The fundamental presupposition of Proverbs is the dichotomy between good and evil, just and wicked, wise and foolish. At times this dichotomy dissolves any reality of the complexity and duplicity of human beings. The wicked temptress of the introductory chapters in particular seems unreal. But it can be said that the sharp distinction between good and evil in literature generally is not written for an exact description of reality but in order to sharpen the individual reader's moral sense. The way of light and the way of darkness is the stereotyped decision that confronts each of us in manifold ways in daily life, and while there are shades of gray, upholding a commitment to the light will allow one to see more clearly how to handle even a complex situation.
The sharp distinction between good and evil is accompanied by the belief in consequences: "Joy for the just, acting rightly; but ruin, for evildoers." (21:15) There is no hint of Pascal's Wager in the book of Proverbs, and the reward for doing good and avoiding evil is not to be found with "pie in the sky, or else you'll fry." Each receives his just desserts as consequences in the present world. "The just is recompensed on earth; how much more the wicked and the sinner!" (11:31) The metaphor of karma is possibly latent but not a necessary interpretation. The Socratic concept that doing good is its own reward is more evident, as in 11:17, "The kind person benefits himself, but the cruel one harms himself."
As Aristotle realized, riches are not an end in themselves, and a contemplative life is a fine thing. "How much better to get wisdom than gold, preferable to silver, to get understanding." (16:16) Homer would be happy with this statement: "A name is preferable to great wealth, and graciousness better than silver and gold." (22:1) And those get-rich-quick spam messages are clearly contrary to the Bible, which says, "Wealth in haste counts for little, but one who gathers by hand will have much." (13:11) And also, "A lazy person has great craving, but nothing else! but the desire of the diligent is fulfilled." (13:4) This complements the advice of 23:4-5, "Do not wear yourself out to acquire wealth; have enough sense to stop. Will you let your eyes fix on it?--It is gone! For it grows wings for itself and flies to the sky like an eagle."
The one who reads the Bible looking for contradictions will not be disappointed with the book of Proverbs, but he will be deceived. Proverbs by design can only capture a single angle on reality, and discretion must be used in selecting which saying to apply. This is evident in the famous contradiction in 26:4-5: "Do not answer a fool according to his folly, lest you too become like him. Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes." Compare the present-day sayings "look before you leap" and "one who hesitates is lost." Both are good advice.
There are several other sayings on folly. For example, "A rebuke gets to an intelligent person better than a hundred lashes on a fool." (17:10) This one is a memorable image: "Like a dog that returns to its vomit, a fool repeating his folly." (26:11) Here's one that applies to internet discussions: "The anger of a fool is known immediately, but whoever conceals insult, a clever one!" (12:16) And also this: "One who answers before listening, his the folly and shame." (18:13) And another think to keep in mind is 15:1, which says, "A soft answer turns back wrath, but a sharp word stirs up anger." The complement of this saying is 28:23, "Whoever rebukes a person finds favor afterwards, more than one who is smooth-tongued."
Here's one that anyone in debt can relate to: "The rich have power over the poor; and one who borrows, a slave to one who lends." (22:7) This one reminds me of Robert Frost: "Do not remove the ancient boundary mark that your ancestors have fixed." (22:28) And remember, don't count your eggs before they're hatched, and "Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day can bring forth." (27:1) I also found this saying apposite: "One who disregards a fault, one who seeks friendship; one who insists on it, one who loses a companion." (17:9)
The question arises: what is the value of proverbs, when any truth can be learned from one's own experience and contemplation? To this I answer that it is not wise to ignore the experience and contemplation of the human beings who have lived before you. You can benefit from their knowledge and apply it without committing all the same mistakes. You can more easily recognize general truths when they have been set down in writing before you. And, of course, it is easier to follow principles when they are remembered with a good turn of the phrase.
I will conclude with a saying from the book of Proverbs that every skeptic can appreciate: "The simple person believes everything, but the clever one watches his step." (14:15)
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