The independent news organization of Duke University

The best essays become proverbs

Consider any truism, from “a stitch in time saves nine” to “what goes around comes around.” Nobody comes into this world with an innate knowledge of those lines, yet they feel obvious to the point of cliche; it’s hard to imagine a time when those lines didn’t go without saying. That time must have existed, though. Truisms find their origins in larger, didactic works, like Aesop’s fables or Jesus’ parables. They serve as a distillation of those stories’ cores. Every time we use a proverb, then, it’s shorthand for humanity’s favorite works. I’d contend, then, that all the best essays will become proverbs. 

This begs the question: what makes an essay proverb-able? What makes them the ‘best’? The likeliest contender would be having something intelligent to say. However, the majority of clever ideas do not translate into sayings. Every day, brilliant people are writing books and giving speeches with clever ideas, yet they aren’t getting quoted. Proverbs always contain wisdom, though; it’s like a venn diagram where the first circle is surrounded by the second. All truisms contain intelligent ideas, but not all intelligent ideas become proverbs. That means there must be a filter, keeping most thoughts out of the collective consciousness.

The most obvious culprit is the reality of prestige and the privilege it is coated in. If you are famous and respected—like Jesus or, to be more mundane, a celebrity—then your ideas will have more exposure. That is true, but I would argue that this solves a different question, namely: why do we mostly hear from Harvard professors and celebrities? 

Realities like privilege clarify why the thought of marginalized—or even ordinary—people rarely become widespread. It’s hard to be quoted when you aren’t being listened to. However, even amongst the privileged and famous, there are those whose thoughts do not end up in yearbooks. Conversely, plenty of sayings have no identifiable author, famous or not; their creator could be anyone. In fact, their anonymity would suggest that they weren’t famous, at least not published. Otherwise, someone would’ve given them credit by now. Privilege, then, cannot be the sole arbiter of whose words are immortalized, though it has and does cost us a lot of wisdom.

One might say it’s the sheer force of ‘quotability;’ certain works have a line which sounds cool and is easy to reference. That is also tenuous. Though Jesus has some memorable one-liners, they work because they distill the message of a story, not because they are slick. In fact, some of Jesus’ best stories have no quotable lines; the phrase “good samaritan” doesn’t even function as a proverb, yet people use it as much as “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Conversely, something like a Marvel movie is full of one-liners and ‘quotables,’ but they are about as memorable as a trip to the gas station. Outside of its position as a cultural touchstone—a function of billions of dollars in marketing—nobody is quoting The Avengers to make a point. 

By the same token, we can eliminate simplicity as a contender. It is true that communicating in simple terms is always desirable; there is nothing more irritating than a confusing essay or speech. However, plenty of ideas have become iconic—expressed through shorthand—while being indecipherable. Hegel’s writing is so infamous for this that mentioning him feels lazy. Even then, dialectics are renowned and brought up, with varying degrees of accuracy, all the time. Simplicity, as a characteristic of truisms, does sound right, though. It’s hard to think of a well-referenced truism or idea that cannot be explicated with some degree of simplicity. At the very least, once they’ve been explained, they feel clear.

Clarity and simplicity are not perfect synonyms, however. One can make themselves clear with a complex metaphor, and one can also confuse others with simple language. Simplicity is like the oil to clarity’s machine: it makes things more efficient, but the cogs can turn without it.

Proverbs, truisms, universal wisdoms—they are always lucid. Regardless of how they are presented, the essential quality is clarity of thought. After all, it is never unclear what Jesus means, and it is obvious that his parables have a message in mind. Iconic yet esoteric works are understandable once they’re unpacked. Even if they are not understandable to everyone, their ideas are clear. This is what separates Jordan Peterson, a celebrity academic who is mostly quoted as a joke (see: his lobster metaphor) from, say, Friedrich Hayek, a Nobel laureate whose writings from the 1940’s still emerge in modern discussion. Both of them are difficult reads, but, regardless of one’s opinion on either of them, it is obvious that Hayek knows what he means. The same cannot be said for Peterson, and his ideas lack staying power as a result.

There are, however, times when it is unclear why an idea’s presentation is confusing—one of the many solid arguments against difficult writing. Unfortunately, complex prose isn’t going anywhere and, even if it were, we’d still have an intellectual canon full of it. How, then, does anyone know what a lucid idea is? I would compare it with two metaphors. A difficult yet clear idea feels like walking uphill: painful, but you know where you’re going. Meanwhile, a confused idea is like getting lost in a forest: there’s an added sense of purposelessness. Either way, you’re taking a hike, but being lost is a unique sort of suffering.

In a certain sense, metaphor is central to this discussion. At the end of the day, most of our proverbs are usually references to the central metaphor of a story. That metaphor could be somewhat esoteric, like Freud’s iceberg, or as simple as a glass house. Consistently, however, those metaphors are easy to understand. There isn’t a single proverb based on a mixed, or otherwise confused, metaphor. That’s important. 

After all, coming up with the perfect way to analogize your situation or idea reveals your clarity of thought. As an added benefit, it simplifies things for your audience. Conversely, there is no better way to tell that someone’s thinking is cloudy than a faulty comparison. In that sense, the secret to being quotable isn’t one’s intelligence, or even their ability to express ideas well. Rather, it is their clarity of thought and their ability to re-express it. 

Proverbs, as it would happen, are a useful measure of that. The best essays become proverbs because both are the product of a clear mind. The best essays have simple, quotable lines because their authors knew how to distill their message. It’s like what Einstein said, “If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough.” Note that critical word: ‘understand.’ Knowing what we think, and knowing what we want to say—that’s how we leave an impression.

Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. 

Discussion

Share and discuss “The best essays become proverbs” on social media.