When I used to teach American literature as part of our sophomore curriculum, I always looked forward to teaching the Ben Franklin excerpts from “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”
Why? First of all, these proverbs and aphorisms reflect a way of thinking that gives great insight into the American psyche and identity of a certain age — the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Second, our continued references to these sayings indicate a kind of lasting wisdom that transcends the centuries that have passed since they were written. Third, I appreciate the economy of words, saying much with so little. Fourth, I challenged my students to explain their meaning, apply them to our contemporary times, and come up with some of their own.
Here are some of Franklin’s famous sayings, with a bit of commentary of my own.
Love your neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge. But if you trim your hedge, you can keep the best qualities of your neighbor in your line of vision while blocking out the worst. This saying may also add to the debate about a barrier on our southern border.
Beware of little expenses; a small leak will sink a great ship. And credit cards, though only half an ounce in actual weight, can bring tons of debt and a Great Lake full of financial burden.
Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterward. Your ears are a different story. If you tune out a spouse, you will likely never hear the end of it.
If your head is wax, don’t walk in the sun. I continue to be amazed at how many men nowadays choose to shave their heads, especially since it is cold around here five months out of the year.
They who have nothing to trouble them will be troubled at nothing. More recently, Bobby McFerrin said it best with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” Avoid trouble at all cost? Not going to happen, but by why not eliminate concerns over matters that you cannot influence or control?
Life’s tragedy is that we get old too soon and wise too late. It amazes me how our children in their mid-20s have increased their respect for their parents who knew absolutely nothing when they (the kids) were teenagers.
He that is good at making excuses is seldom good at anything else. Amen to this. Teachers are particularly good at excuse detection. Teachers who are also parents are even better. Politicians, beware.
He that is of the opinion money will do everything may well be suspected of doing everything for money. Money may not be the root of all evil, but it certainly has compromised the values of many who have either too much of it or too little.
What maintains one vice would bring up two children. Those who are addicted to drugs or alcohol, to gambling in its myriad forms, or to illicit, immoral sex can vouch for this.
To be humble to superiors is duty, to equals courtesy, to inferiors nobleness. I couldn’t say it any better. To be humble is to have a proper sense of your place in the universe (not too high and not too low) along with an accurate assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses.
He that falls in love with himself will have no rivals. Updated inclusive wording: They who fall in love with themselves will have no rivals. The story of the self-absorbed Narcissus is one that we have all observed in others or can relate to ourselves.
Little strokes fell great oaks. Yes, a huge project can be overwhelming unless you chip away at its various tasks in a step-by-step process. But when it comes to taking down an actual oak tree, a chainsaw works much better.
Jim Brooks is a retired English teacher, and a regular contributor.