Bruegel_proverbs2

Introducing The Proverbial Skeptic

Political language... is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. –George Orwell, Patron Saint of The Proverbial Skeptic

Welcome to The Proverbial Skeptic, Big Think’s new blog about sayings, quotes, aphorisms, quips and nuggets of supposed wisdom. Here we will examine and out anything well said but untrue, deceitful, wrong, or plain stupid.

Is all we have to fear really fear itself? Should we ask not what our country can do for us, but what we can do for our country? Does time heal all wounds?

In the most recent installment of the Star Trek franchise, Captain Kirk uses the phrase: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”. Disagreeing, Spock tells him that that phrase is attributed to a Fifteenth Century Arabic prince who was later killed by his own men.

Christopher Hitchens, in a beautiful example of a takedown of the conceit of trying to express profound truth in a turn of phrase, wrote: “Every day, The New York Times carries a motto in a box on its front page. 'All the News That's Fit to Print,' it says. It's been saying it for decades, day in and day out. I imagine most readers of the canonical sheet have long ceased to notice this bannered and flaunted symbol of its mental furniture. I myself check every day to make sure that the bright, smug, pompous, idiotic claim is still there. Then I check to make sure that it still irritates me. If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it's as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be, then at least I know I still have a pulse. You may wish to choose a more rigorous mental workout but I credit this daily infusion of annoyance with extending my lifespan.”

I hadn’t ever really thought about whether “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is a smart thing to say, which got me thinking about how convincing good rhetoric is. Rhetoric is an incredibly powerful tool, one which Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and Hitler understood how to deploy to great effect. So did JFK and Mark Twain and Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama and Bill O’Reilly and George Orwell and Shakespeare and really anybody who has gained influence through their words. From that list, anyway, we can see that it can be a good thing or a bad thing. But how often, like with the famous and apparently fatal words of the Arabic Prince, are we charmed and convinced by the simple beauty and presentation of a saying or aphorism or piece of advice?

Which sayings are true, and which ones just sound nice? Are there proverbs to which the answer is simply a resounding “Nope”? Are there patterns to phrases we find convincing or profound, and do they really have anything to do with truth or good advice?

All of these questions and more will be raised and hopefully answered right here at The Proverbial Skeptic.

 

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