Cool quotations

Cool stuff


“Cool” is remarkably enduring as a word.  It comes from the West African concept, according to Robert Faris Thompson (Jessica Ogilvie, “You Know It,” LAT, Nov. 10, 2012, p.E7)


Traveling light….


The train done gone and the Greyhound bus don’t run

But walkin’ ain’t crowded and I won’t be here long.

Traditional blues verse


Got the key to the highway, I’m booked out and bound to go,

Gone to leave here runnin’ cause walkin’ is mo’ slow

Traditional blues verse




The absolute basics:


Nyach gava yuk vayuk yabek yak hak wak vak wak yuka!

(When you see people needing help, help them!)  Paul Talieje, Walapai elder


Look upon all living beings, thinking them as it were Buddhas; join palms and worship them, as if venerating the World-Honored One; also look upon all living beings, thinking them all as it were great bodhisattvas and good acquaintances.

Huisi, 6th C AD


Lord, grant me the patience to bear the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

St. Francis of Assisi (attrib.).  Still the best advice; the wisdom part is, alas, the rarest.


Do all the good you can,

By all the means you can,

In all the ways you can,

In all the places you can,

At all the times you can,

To all the people you can,

As long as ever you can.

John Wesley



Almost as important:


The most important time in your life is NOW; the most important person in your life is WHOEVER YOU’RE WITH; the most important thing to do in your life is BE GOOD TO THEM

Tolstoi, from the ending of the short story “The Three Questions,” in Fables and Fairy Tales, pp. 82-88; the whole story is worth looking up


Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass; life is about learning to dance in the rain.

Vivian Greene



In the coming world, they will not ask me:  “Why were you not Moses?”  They will ask me:  “Why were you not Zurya?”

Rabbi Zurya of Annopol (quoted by Martin Buber)


Take what you want, then pay for it, says God.

Mediterranean proverb

God gives the pretext for buying but does not say how much it costs.

Persian variant, cited by Evliya Çelebi, p 261


When dooomsday comes, if someone has a palm shoot in his hand, then he should plant it.

Muhammad (Foltz 2003:254)


You cannot prevent the bird of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can prevent him from nesting in your hair.

Arab proverb


Live as though you would live forever, and as though you would die tomorrow.



Quotes from Edmund Burke:

No one made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.  [This one has been probably the most valuable piece of advice I ever got.]

Never despair; but if you do, work on in despair.  [Close second.  Maybe first.]

All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.

Better to be despised for too anxious apprehensions, than to be ruined by too confident security.  (Reflections, p. 9)

Society cannot exist unless a controlling power on will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without.


Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labor of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:

Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.

Habakkuk 3:17-18 (the pinnacle of defiant courage in faith)


“And when he [Jesus] was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation:  neither shall they say, Lo here! Or lo there! For, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

Luke 17:20-21.


I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.

Jesus (John 12:47)


Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.

John Lennon


A long-lost New Yorker cartoon that captures much, if not all, that I have learned about life.  It showed a baseball box score; each of the nine innings had the score Realists 1, Idealists 0.  The final score of the game was Realists 0, Idealists 1.


“There are people who do not live their present life; it is as if they were preparing themselves, with all their zeal, to live some other life, but not this one.  And while they do this, time goes by and is lost.  We cannot put life back into play, as if we were casting another roll of the dice.”

Antiphon the Sophist (quoted Pierre Hadot 2002:188)


Your talent is your gift from God; how you use it is your gift to Him.

Traditional American


We cannot be sure of life for one moment;

We can, by force and self-discipline, by many refusals and a few assertions, in the teeth of fortune assure ourselves

Freedom and integrity in life or integrity in death.  And we know that the enormous invulnerable beauty of things

Is the face of God, to live gladly in its presence, and die without grief or fear knowing it survives us.

Robinson Jeffers (poem, “Nova,” worth looking up)


The wise learn from the mistakes of others, but fools learn only from their own.

Proverb quoted by a student in a class paper; I wish I knew the source


“Let us now praise famous men….

There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.

And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.

But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten….

Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out.”

Ecclesiasticus 44:1, 8-13


The noble nature devotes itself to wisdom and love, of which the first is a mortal god, the second immortal.

Epicurus (Sent. Vat. LXXVIII, quoted McEvilley 2002:621).  Epicurus—who lived around 300 BC—got the idea of brotherly love from contemporary cynics.  His was a missionary philosophy, active till 4th C AD.  Relationships to Buddhism are many and close.  Fairly atheistic about the gods, he recognized a First Principle.


Variations on a theme:

No hay peor lucha que la que no se hace.  (“The only real failure is not trying.”  Literally, “there is no worse struggle than the one not done.”  “Struggle,” though, gives the wrong tone in English.)

There are no stupid questions; the only stupid thing is not asking.


“Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.”  -Shakespeare


If you want to travel fast, go alone; if you want to travel far, go together.

African proverb


Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.  Nothing true or beautiful makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we are saved by faith.  Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the point of view of our friend or foe as from our own; therefore we are saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.

Reinhold Niebuhr (2008 The Irony of American History.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press)


Courtesy costs so little and is worth so much that I’m surprised it is not more popular; but courtesy with encouragement is manna from heaven.  Courtesy not only uplifts the promising, but inhibits the truly dreadful—much more effectively than abuse.  The arrogant actually love abuse and feel obliged to return it with knobs on.  Editors need to know this.

Martin Carver (“Editorial,” Antiquity, 334:967-972, p. 967)


Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Traditional; the most practical advice of all time.


Cyrus cylinder:  Propaganda by Cyrus the Great after conquering Mesopotamia, but states very clearly his religious and ethnic tolerance policies, shown by his treatment of the Jews and other religions.  See British Museum translation online.  The first known statement of religious tolerance in the world.


When you sit with good company, sit long, for God does not count against your lifespan the time spent eating in good company.

Ja’far ibn Muhammad.  (This is not only a wonderful quote, it is literally true.  There is an excellent correlation between longevity and time spent relaxing with friends.)


Happiness is like a butterfly; the more you chase it, the more it will elude you, but if you turn your attention to other things, it will come and sit softly on your shoulder.

Henry David Thoreau


The most important question in the world is, ‘Why is the child crying?’

Alice Walker (q by Goff et al, psych file, p. 526)


We do not find meaning lying in things nor do we put it into things, but between us and things it can happen.

Martin Buber, Between Man and Man (NY: MacMillan, 1947, p. 36)


The great Jewish theologian Dov Baer once said:  “I went to my teacher not to hear him explain the Torah, but to see how he tied his shoes.”  When called on this rather cryptic remark, he explained:  “Anyone can talk about the Torah.  With him, his slightest act was the Torah.”  Retold from Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim  (I forget the name of the teacher…because somehow this says something about the teacher, but much more about Dov Baer.)


When the great Hasid, Baal Shem Tov, the Master of the Good Name, had a problem, it was his custom to go to a certain part of the forest.  There he would light a fire and say a certain prayer, and find wisdom.  A generation later, a son of one of his disciples was in the same position.  He went to that same place in the forest and lit the fire, but he could not remember the prayer.  But he asked for wisdom and it was sufficient.  He found what he needed.  A generation after that, his son had a problem like the others.  He also went to the forest, but he could not even light the fire.  “Lord of the Universe,” he prayed, “I could not remember the prayer and I cannot get the fire started.  But I am in the forest.  That will have to be sufficient.”  And it was.  Now, Rabbi Ben Levi sits in his study in Chicago with his head in his hand.  “Lord of the Universe,” he prays, “look at us now.  We have forgotten the prayer.  The fire is out.  We can’t find our way back to the place in the forest.  We can only remember that there was a fire, a prayer, a place in the forest.  So, Lord, now that must be sufficient.”   (Story told by Shmuel the Tailor, quoted Barbara Myerhoff, Number Our Days, 1978, p. 112; this is the most consoling story I know)


Some lines from the Baal Shem Tov himself:  “What does it mean, when people say that Truth goes all over the world?  It means that Truth is driven out of one place after another, and must wander on and on.”  And:  “Alas!  The world is full of enormous lights and mysteries, and man shuts them from himself with one small hand.”  (Quoted from Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer of Mezhizh, the “Baal Shem Tov,” by Martin Buber)


Remember that life…is often the choice among lousy alternatives.  The key to functioning, to wisdom and to life itself is often to choose the least lousy alternative that is practicably attainable.  (Edwin Shneidman 1981:153; the most trenchant statement of the world’s leading expert on suicide, on how to view life to keep you from suiciding)


And if, amid the cataclysms that clamour round us everywhere nowadays, you declare that all this babble about beauty and flowers is a vain impertinence, then I must tell you that you err, and that your perspectives are false.  Mortal dooms and dynasties are brief things, but beauty is indestructible and eternal, if its tabernacle be only in a petal that is shed tomorrow.

Reginald Farrer, plant explorer and botanist (from Rainbow Bridge, written not long before he died in the remote mountains of Tibet on a plant expedition)


Savoir pour prévoir, prévoir pour pouvoir.  (Know in order to predict, predict in order to be able to do something.)   —Auguste Comte (19th century) on the goals of sociology.


A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps, both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; And a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.

James Madison, in letter, 1822 (quoted Ross, oil, p. 245).


Don’t mourn. Organize!  Organize!

Last words (according to legend) of the great labor union organizer Joe Hill


He drew a circle that shut me out,

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout;

But Love and I had the wit to win,

We drew a circle and took him in.

Edwin Markham


We have careful thoughts for the stranger,

And smiles for the sometime guest,

But how oft for our own the bitter tone,

Though we love our own the best.

Margaret E. Sangster (1838-1912; often quoted now as “We have kind words…” or “We have pleasant words…”)


One can always manage straw for the cow, a leaf for God, food for the hungry, and kind words for all.

Proverb, India


Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,

Or what’s a heaven for?

Robert Browning (from “Andrea del Sarto,” an otherwise forgettable poem, 1855)


One Ainu phrase for death is “to have space for thought” (Batchelor 1901:548)


If you don’t like the news, go out and make your own.

Graffito on a Berkeley newspaper rack, ca. 1968


Only dead fish go with the flow.

American saying


The Value of Money

With money, we can buy:

A bed but not a dream

Books but not intelligence

Food but not appetite

Adornments but not beauty

A house but not a home

Medicines but not health

Luxuries but not joy

Illusions but not happiness

A crucifix but not a Savior

A church but not belief.

Mexican folk wisdom (my translation, from a sign in a Mexican restaurant in Redding, CA).

There’s more (shared by Adolfo Tovar Verduzco online, my trans again):

A position but not respect

A watch but not time

Blood but not life

Sex but not love


I am traveling, I,

I go round the world.

I cause the mist.

When I climb the mountaintops

I cause clouds, I cause the rain.

Long live Coyote!  He will always be.

This song cures sadness and relieves bad times.  Life is a dream, and the world is a banquet.

Old Man Coyote, from the Chumash of Fernando Librado (T. Blackburn, December’s Child, pp. 226-227)


The Scythian nomad Anacharsis found himself in Greece, where he had a conversation with the super-rich Lydian king Croesus.  Croesus launched a discussion among the court sages as to who was the bravest of beings.  Anacharsis said:  “The wildest animals, for they alone would willingly die in order to maintain their freedom.”  The conversation turned to the most just, and Anacharsis said “The wildest animals, for they alone live in accordance with nature, not in accordance with laws.  Since nature is a work of God, while law is a ordinance of man, and it is more just to follow the institutions of God than those of men.”  Croesus rather sarcastically asked if the beasts were also the wisest, to which Anacharsis replied that they were, because “wisdom consists in showing a greater respect to the truth than to the ordinance of the law.”

Diodoros, via Knauer 1998:14


Jai yen yen:  “Cool heart,” a Thai ideal


We are all kernels on the same corncob

Tewa proverb (quoted Cajete 1994:165)

One thing you can’t recycle is wasted time.



Every fire is the same size when it begins.

Seneca proverb


It’s not where you’re bred but where you’re fed.  (Doğduğu yerde değil, doyduğu yerde.)

Turkish proverb


A table without vegetables is like an old man devoid of wisdom.

Medieval Arab proverb, quoted Ahsan 1979:13


The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.

Richard Feynman; widely quoted


Angels never fight at all; people quarrel but reconcile without delay; demons fight and remain unreconciled all day or more.

Ancient Greek (see Dawes and Baynes, Three Byzantine Saints, p. 225)


“Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness.  When change is absolute there remains no being to improve, and no direction is set for possible improvement; and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual.  Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana, from The Life of Reason (NY 1905), vol. 1, p. 284.

“He who does not forget the past is master of the future.  This is why the man of superior attainments (chun-tzu), when he handles the state, observes it in the light of antiquity.”

Jia Yi, ca 170 BCE, quoted Bodde, p. 87.

“Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it, but those who DO know history are condemned to stand  by helplessly while the others repeat it.”

New Yorker cartoon, 2013


Advice by the Iroquois to a missionary (in 1634) who became ill:  Look on nature, for “Thou wilt become cheerful, and if thou art cheerful thou wilt recover”

Missionary friar Le Jeune, 1634, as quoted by Eleanor Leacock, in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 6, p. 193.


Never doubt that a small, committed group of people can change the world.  Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

Attrib. Margaret Mead; not in her published works but so typical of her thought that it is accepted as something she said.  It also appears to be literally true, as least of beneficial changes.


Get it!  Get it better, or get it worse!  No middle ground or compromise.

Thomas Eakins (the great artist) to his student Henry Tanner, the first great academically-trained African-American artist, when Tanner was discouraged by the racism he encountered in the art world; Eakins had no patience with racism or with the possibility of Tanner giving up because of it.  Tanner eventually moved to France because of racism in the US, and, tragically, his work is still extremely undervalued, with racism as one pretty obvious reason.


Nor can it be but touch of arrogant ignorance, to hold this or that Nation Barbarous, these or those times grosse, considering how this manifolde creature man, wheresoever hee stand in the world, hath alwayes some disposition of woorth….

So that it is but the clouds gathered about our own judgement that makes us think all other ages wrapt up in mists, and the great distance betwixt us, that causes us to imagine men so farre off to be so little in respect of our selves.  Wee must not look upon the immense course of times past as men overlook spacious and wide countreys, from off high mountains and are never the neere to judge of the true nature of the soile, or the particular sight and face of those territories they see…. the best measure of man is to be taken by his owne foot.

Samuel Daniel, 1603 (A Defense of Ryme, from Daniel’s Poems and a Defence of Ryme, ed. Arthur Sprague.  New York: Russell and Russell, 1963.  Vol. 4, pp. 49, 51-52)


Man proposes, God disposes.

Age-old, with Biblical, Greek and Latin ancestry


There’s no failure in life until you try to be something you’re not.

Modern Native American saying, as related by Luke Madrigal


Advice by a famous ancient Greek sculptor, asked for the secret of his success: “Make the nose too big and the eyes too small.”

(Working with marble, you can make the nose smaller but not bigger, and the eyes bigger but not smaller.  In other words, make your mistakes in the direction you can fix.  A modern equivalent would be:  Know when to make Type I vs Type II errors.)

Another (originally) ancient Greek line about sculpture:  “The bear was in the stone already; I merely set him free.”   A version of the line is found in pseudo-Diogenes the Areopagite, p. 195.  Recently recycled, with claims it was said by Inuit and other Native American carvers.


…It was not in nature’s plan for us her chosen children to be creatures base and ignoble—no, she brought us into life, and into the whole universe, as into some great field of contest, that we should be at once spectators and ambitious rivals of her mighty deeds, and from the first implanted in our souls an invincible yearning for all that is great, all that is diviner than ourselves.  Therefore even the whole world is not wide enough for the soaring range of human thought, but man’s mind often overleaps the very bounds of space….  And this why nature prompts us to admire, not [only] the clearness and usefulness of a little stream, but the Nile, the Danube, the Rhine, and far beyond all the Ocean; not to turn our wandering eyes from the heavenly fires, though often darkened, to the little flame kindled by human hands, however pure and steady its light; not to think that tiny lamp more wondrous than the caverns of Etna…”

Longinus (Havell 1890:68)


If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance; let us ask, Does it contain any abstract easoning concerning quantity or number?  No.  Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence?  No.  Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

David Hume (Selections, ed. by Charles Hendel, Scribners’ 1927, p. 193)




Once, when I was not yet born, how could I know life’s delight?  Now I have not yet died; how can I know that death is not delightful?

Last words of an ancient Chinese philosopher (from Zhuangzi—I think)


A way of looking is also a way of not looking.

Chinese Taoist saying (ascribed—I can’t find the source; it seems to be a free translation; at any rate, it’s a thoroughly Taoist idea).


When people bring up your flaws, you resent them for it; but when a mirror reflects your ugliness, you consider it a good mirror.

Huai Nan Tzu (“The Tao of Politics,” p. 75)


Even the greatest fool is right once in a hundred times; even the wisest sage is wrong once in a hundred times.

Chinese proverb, going back to Confucius or his time.   (For the rest of us, that last part is more like one in five.)


One adept at learning is like the king of Qi who, when eating chicken, was satisfied only after he had eaten a thousand feet: if he were still unsatisfied, there would always be another chicken foot to eat.

Lü Buwei.  2000.  The Annals of Lü Buwei.  Tr. John Knoblock and Jeffrey Riegel.  Stanford:  Stanford University Press.  P. 129.


There are no thousand-year-old states, no hundred-year-old households, and no ten-year-old abilities.

Mu He, a tomb text from 168 BCE (Shaughnessy, I Ching, p. 247, retranslated).  Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but the message is clear: your talents, and you, are not long for this world; do what you can while you can.


We have not followed a path made by a single footprint, nor taken advice from only one viewpoint, or allowed ourselves to be trapped or bound by things; thus we have not advanced or shifted with the age.

Good advice from the authors of the Huainanzi, proudly summing up their accomplishment; tr. Major et al, slightly revised


Whenever people don’t live out their lives or their life is cut short, it is always caused by not loving or cherishing themselves, they exhaust their emotions, push their sense of purpose to the extreme, pursue fame and profit, collect poisons and damage their spirit, internally damaging the bone and marrow and externally spoiling the sinews and flesh.  Qi and blood perish, the channels and network vessels become congested….

Sun Simiao, tr. Sabine Wilms


One day Master Huai-jang asked Ma-tsu, “why are you practicing meditation?”  And Ma-tsu answered, “I’m trying to become a buddha.” Huai-jang picked up a brick next to Ma-tsu’s hut and started to grind it on a rock.  When Ma-tsu asked what he was doing, Huai-jang replied, “I’m trying to make a mirror.”  Ma-tsu said, “But how can you make a mirror by grinding a brick?”  Huai-jang answered, “And how can you become a buddha by practicing meditation?”

Red Pine (Han-Shan p. 102), from the Chuantenglu.  The expression “No matter you much you polish a brick, you can’t make a mirror” has become proverbial in Chinese, like “you can’t make a silk purse from a sow’s ear” in English, specifically in regard to people—you can’t change a fool.


The superior person, in treating others, would rather emphasize the positive than insist on perfection.

Ouyang Xiu (Historical Records of the Five Dynasties, p. 273, tr. Richard Davis, slightly corrected)


“If he does not recite and chant (=study) as a child, does not analyze and discuss as a youth, and does not instruct and admonish as an elder, then it can also be said he has become a person without a legacy.”  Da Dai Liji


“When someone in antiquity who was gripped by an obsession for flowers heard speak of a rare blossom, even if it were in a deep valley or in steep mountains, he would not be afraid of stumbling and would go to it.  Even in the freezing cold and the blazing heat, even if his skin were cracked and peeling or caked with mud and sweat, he would be oblivious.  When a flower was about to bloom, he would move his pillow and mat and sleep alongside it to observe how the flower would go from budding to blooming to fading.  Only after it lay withered on the ground would he take his leave…. This is what is called a genuine love of flowers….”  Yuan Hongdao (1568-1610), tr. Judith Zeitlin, in “The Petrified Heart: Obsession in Chinese Literature,” Late Imperial China 12:1-26, 1991, p. 3.


A Chinese painter stopped at an inn for one night.  He planted bamboos.  Someone asked:  “You are staying here only one night.  Why are you planting bamboos?”  The painter turned to the bamboos and said:  “What is the use of talking to such a person?”

Chinese folktale


When I was in China in 1978, I noticed that almost every hotel had a large painting of a pine in the reception area, labeled “welcoming-guests pine.”  I realized there must be a story, so I asked about this.  I learned that, according to folklore, there was an artist who was so poor that he could not afford a servant, but so absorbed in his painting that he often missed a knock on the door.  He thus painted a pine (symbol of integrity, evergreen against the storm) and labeled it “welcoming-guests pine” to serve the function.  This started a tradition.


“If I am stabbed with a knife yet remain woodenlike, it must be because I am dead.  So it is if people are dying from deprivation yet I just stand by like a block of wood.  Doing good is like drinking when thirsty and eating when hungry….. There are two roads: to be humane, the road to life; and to be inhumane, the road to death.”

Gao Panlong, ca. 1593; tr. Joanna Handlin Smith (2009:60)


Two variants of a Chinese traditional formula for happiness (both from folklore):

If you would be happy for three hours, get drunk.

If you would be happy for three days, kill a pig and eat it.

If you would be happy for three months, get married.

If you would be happy for a lifetime, plant a garden.


If you would be happy for an hour, take a nap.

If you would be happy for a day, go fishing.

If you would be happy for a month, get married.

If you would be happy for a year, inherit a fortune.

If you would be happy for a lifetime, help others.


The longest journey begins with a single step.  –Chinese proverb


Highest loyalty and considerateness is like the earth: it creates all things and makes no boast of it.  Highest honor is like the seasons: they change all things without any obligation to do it.  The loyal person does not lie.  The honest person does not weasel out.  The good person is like this: not forgetting the living or turning his/her on the dead.

From a text found in a tomb at Guodian, dated ca 300 BC; my translation, after Scott Cook’s superb workup in The Bamboo Texts of Guodian, Cornell UP, 2012, vol. 1, p. 577.  The whole text is short but extremely powerful.


Chinese proverbs (Rohsenow 2002):

He doesn’t blame his household’s short rope, he blames the community for having a deep well (B128)

Don’t value a foot of  jade, but value an inch of time (B131; to understand this you have to realize the Chinese used sundials—the shadow advanced about an inch an hour).

Mend the roof in fine weather, and when not thirsty start digging a well (B150)

This one led to a medical saying:  “Waiting for an illness to appear before taking medicine is like waiting until you’re thirsty to dig a well.”  (Red Pine tr., Han-Shan p. 102, from the Suwen Ssuchi Tiaoshan Taolun.)

Don’t fear being slow, just fear stopping (B162; bu pa man, jiou pa zhan)

A man once cheated by a candy seller will not trust a sweet mouth again (C24; that would go great in Southern dialect, double meaning and all: I got took by the candy man and I ain’t trustin’ no sweet mouth no more.)

Lighting up a seven-storey pagoda is not as good as lighting an ordinary lamp in a dark place. (D151)

East gate, carrying-pole lost; west gate says there’s a revolution!.  (By the time the story travels that far, it’s grown that much.  Dongmen shi tiao biandan, ximen shuoshi zaofan.) (D179)

Freezing to death, stand straight and face the wind; starving to death, never bend.  (D183; Chinese history in 10 words.)

Do more, more mistakes; do less, fewer mistakes; do nothing, no mistakes! (D 222)  (Teddy Roosevelt said this even better:  “To avoid all criticism be like the oyster: do nothing, say nothing, be nothing.”)

Feng sheng feng, long sheng long, laoshu sheng de hui da dong.  (The world’s greatest poem.  Lit. Phoenixes bear phoenixes, dragons bear dragons, rats bear ones that can dig holes.  F49)

A white-washed crow isn’t white for long.

In a melon patch don’t tie your shoes; under a plum tree don’t adjust your hat. (G167.  Don’t do things that will obviously arouse suspicion.)

Guan fang lou, guan ma shou, guang zhong tangwu ji shi chou.  The public hall leaks, the public horse is thin, and in the public hall the chicken shit stinks.  (G124; a typical bit of wry Chinese folk poetry.)

The face is easy to wash, the heart more difficult (L96)

Sharp knives cut, the wounds may heal; evil words hurt, the hatred never dies.  (L99)

When hunters enter the mountains they see only game; when herb gatherers enter the mountains, they see only medicinal herbs (L103)

Whole life without slander, no competence. (L123)  (The only people who go through their whole lives without slander are those who can’t do anything.)

Running water is never stale and door hinges are never worm-eaten. (L133; a classic Daoist line)

Dragons many, no water control; hens many, no laying eggs. (L140; dragons control water.  Too many cooks spoil the broth.)

Better one mouthful of heavenly peach than a whole basket of rotten apricots.  (N50)

Better a dog in time of peace than a human in time of war. (N77; this is the nearest real Chinese proverb to Jose Luis Borges’ wonderful “Chinese curse,” “May you live in interesting times.”)

A fur robe worth a thousand gold is not made from a fox’s armpit. (Q40)

When people hit bad luck, a mouthful of cool water will get stuck in their teeth. (R31)

People when many can eat a wolf, wolves when many can eat people. (R47)

When people have pure hearts, dogs won’t eat shit.  (R223; or, just as cynical, “When the millennium comes, dogs will still eat shit and wolves will still eat people.”)

A snake may enter a bamboo tube, but in its heart is wriggling.  (S178)

The river may rise, but it won’t rise over the little ducks. (S329; ordinary people survive all!)

Low people talk and don’t do, middling people talk and do, top quality people do and then talk. (X3; variant of ending, “…and say nothing.”)

If the country has no muddy legs, in the city starvation kills the oily mouths. (S35; an answer to those who look down on farmers for being dirty)

In the shallows you can catch shrimp and fish, but enter the deep water and you can catch flood dragons. (X99)

Students like cow hairs, successes like unicorn horns.  (X196; reference is to the relative numbers; certainly true in my experience as a teacher.)

One day no work, one day no food.  (Y254; a classic Zen line, to counter the idea that Buddhist monks should not work.  I posted it on the refrigerator when my kids were young.)

Lots more good ones—see the book.





If anything can go wrong, it will.

Traditional; Murphy’s Law


An orphan has to cut his own umbilical cord.  [If you’re alone without help, you have to get used to doing everything for yourself.]

Turkish proverb (Levi and Sela p. 256)


“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”  David Hume, A Treatise on Human Nature, p. 462.


“Were one to go round the world with the intention of giving a good supper to the righteous and a sound drubbing to the wicked, he would frequently be embarrassed in his choice, and would find that the merits of most men [and women] scarcely amount to the value of either.”

David Hume, “Of the Immortality of the Soul,” in Writings on Religion, Anthony Flew, ed., pp. 29-38; quote on p. 34,.  Chicago and La Salle, IL:  Open Court.)

“I have never been impressed by the argument that, as complete objectivity is impossible in these matters (as, of course, it is), one might as well let one’s sentiments run loose.  As Robert Solow has remarked, that is like saying that as a perfectly aseptic environment is impossible, one might as well conduct surgery in a sewer.”

Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), Chapter 1, page 30
Now, in his heart, Ahab had some glimpse of this, namely:  all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.

Moby Dick, chapter 41, p. 202 of Penguin 2001 edn.


Man’s greatest good…is to chase and defeat his enemy, seize his total possessions, leave his married women weeping and wailing, ride his gelding, use the bodies of his women as a nightshirt and support, gazaing upon and kissing their rosy breasts, sucking their lips which are as sweet as the berries of their breasts.

Attrib to Genghis Khan (by folklore; from “Collected Chronicles,” quoted by Paul Ratchnevsky, Genghis Khan, p. 153)


“Cleopatra’s nose:  Had it been shorter, the whole face of the earth would have been changed.”  (Modern readers may need this explained.  Short noses were considered ugly in Pascal’s time.  If Cleopatra had been ugly, she would not have seduced Caesar and Mark Antony; the Roman republic might have survived, and thus Rome never fallen; we might all be speaking Latin now….  This is Pascal being sarcastic about conjectural history.)

Pascal (tr. Roger Ariew; 2005:6)


We run carelessly over the precipice after covering our eyes to prevent our seeing it.

Pascal (ibid. 52 but reworded)


We are so presumptuous that we would like to be known throughout the world, even by people who will come when we are no more.  And we are so vain that the esteem of five or six people close to us pleases and satisfies us.

Pascal (ibid. 33)


The purest and most ritually careful imam in town had spent hours dressing and purifying himself for the Friday service.  Just as he came to the mosque, a filthy, unclean, impure street dog came rushing past and ran right into him.  He closed his eyes, turned his face toward heaven, and slowly said: “If Allah wills…it was a cat.”

Near Eastern folktale


Mi ddarllenais ddod yn rhywfodd

I’r byd hwn wyth ran ymadrodd,

Ac i’r gwrangedd, mawr lles iddynt,

Fynd a saith o’r wythran rhyngddynt.

(tr:)  They say there are eight parts of speech, and they say the women, God bless them, went off with seven of them.

Welsh folk rhyme (from A People’s Poetry, Hen Benillion, Glyn Jones, p. 108)


“The only thing anyone ever learned from the study of history is that no one ever learned anything from the study of history.”  G. W. Hegel (as quoted by Hayden White, 1987:82)


“The tree of humanity forgets the labour of the silent gardeners who sheltered it from the cold, watered it in time of drought, shielded it against wild animals; but it preserves faithfully the names mercilessly cut into its bark.”  Heinrich Heine, 1833 (as quoted in Gross 1983:323)


If you find that the Bullock can toss you, or the heavy-browned Sambhur can gore,

Ye need not stop work to inform us: we knew it ten seasons before.

                        Maxims of Baloo, from Kaa’s Hunting, in Rudyard Kipling, Jungle Book 1 (p 46)


“Humankind cannot bear very much reality”—T. S. Eliot (from “Four Quartets”)


“Had I only been a better writer, I could have saved the world!”

–Supposedly the last words of a famous French sage, but I have never found an actual reference, and this appears to be academic folklore.  However, “if it isn’t true, it’s a good story,” as the Italians say, and it certainly is exactly the way I feel on some mornings.


The shortest refutation of environmental determinism:  “Where the Greeks once lived, the Turks now live, and there’s an end on it.”  Georg Hegel (quoted Geertz 1963:6).


Some ancient Greek tried to lure Diogenes, the cynic who lived in a barrel, back into consumerism, so they lured him down to the Athens city market—extremely busy and active in those days.  They said:  “There, what do you think of that?”  His answer was:  “Behold, how many things there are in the world that Diogenes does not need.”

Exactly my sentiments in Macy’s or Target….


“Nequiquam, quoniam medio de fonte leporum

Surgit amari aliquit quod in ipsis floribus angat”

Lucretius, Book IV, lines 1133-1134, on the sorrows of love—even having sex with passionately loved ones ends, and leaves some guilt or grief.  (Incidentally, in the standard translation of this, the translator has some fun translating Lucretius’ sarcastically over-learned Greek words as French.)


“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority:  still more when you add the tendency or certainty of corruption by full authority.”  Lord Acton, 1887, commenting on the then-new idea of Papal infallibility


“We may see the small value God has for riches by the people he gives them to.”  Alexander Pope (Gross, Oxford Book of Aphorisms, 1983:102).

In my childhood this had become proverbial in the Midwest:  “If you want to know what God thinks of money, look at whom he gives it to.”  I like this phrasing better than Pope’s.  Related was a sarcastic Midwestern line on tasteless McMansions:  “Shows what God could do if he had money.”


Explanations exist; they have existed for all time; there is always a well-known solution to every human problem—neat, plausible and wrong.

  1. L. Mencken (from “The Divine Afflatus,” New York Evening Mail, Nov. 16, 1917, reprinted in Prejudices, second series, Alfred A. Knopf, 1920, pp. 155-179; on p. 158).  The article is on inspiration and simplistic explanations for it; Mencken’s sarcastic one was that it’s all from indigestion.


Puritanism:  The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.

  1. L. Mencken, from A Book of Burlesques, 1916


The answer is What’s your question?

Sign in a Denver restaurant


“The problem with quotes on the Internet is you can never be certain they’re authentic—Abraham Lincoln.”

Quote (anonymous) on the Internet


“Here is the familiar paradox that all general theories of the relativity of truth must brand themselves as biased or erroneous.”

Max Black, “Linguistic Relativity: The Views of Benjamin Lee Whorf,” in Theory in Anthropology:  A Source Book, R. A. Manners and D. Kaplan, eds.  London:  Routledge, Kegan Paul.  Pp. 437


“Well, the best recipe for apple pie can’t be eaten but it would be odd to regard that as an inadequacy.”  Same, p. 444.


“I suppose the process of acceptance will pass through the usual four stages:

  1. This is worthless nonsense,
  2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view,
  3. This is true, but quite unimportant,
  4. I always said so.”
  5. B. S. Haldane, reviewing a book for Journal of Genetics, 58:464 (review title “The Truth About Death”)


“One might recall…an anecdote of Darius.  When he was king of Persia, he summoned the Greeks who happened to be present at his court, and asked them what they would take to eat the dead bodies of their fathers.  They replied that they would not do it for any money in the world.  Later, in the presence of the Greeks, and through an interpreter, so that they could understand what was said, he asked some Indians, of the tribe called Callatiae, who do in fact eat their parents’ dead bodies, what they would take to burn them [as the Greeks did].  They uttered a cry of horror and forbade him to mention such a dreadful thing.  One can see by this what custom can do, and Pindar, in my opinion, was right when he called it ‘king of all.’”  (Herodotus 1954, orig. ca. 400 BCE)


“What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument” (C. S. Lewis; quoted by Peter Coates 1998:46 from Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, Oxford University Press, 1944, p. 28).


Everyone describes the fair according to how well he did there.

Spanish proverb on what is now called the Rashomon effect


Failure is an orphan, success has a hundred fathers.

Anonymous folk wisdom


The millipede has many legs, but the snake is faster.

Chinese traditional (see Huainanzi p. 526)


If you make people think they think, they’ll love you; but if you make them think, they’ll hate you.

Anonymous folk wisdom


When you’re up to your ears in alligators, it’s hard to remember you set out to conserve the wetland.

Traditional (slightly updated)


Don’t try teaching a pig to sing; you merely waste effort and annoy the pig.

American proverb


Futile argument is like shearing a pig: you get too much squealing and too little wool.

Russian rough equivalent


Reality is what refuses to go away when I stop believing in it.

Anonymous folk wisdom


On trying to hurry things up by doing a lot at once:  “You can’t make a baby in one month by impregnating nine women.”

More anonymous folk wisdom


Never attribute to conspiracy what can be explained by stupidity.

More folk wisdom


What can’t be cured must be endured.

Anonymous proverb, to which Old Man Coyote adds:  what can’t be cured must be uninsured


People will always do what is rational, once they have exhausted all other possibilities.

Old Man Coyote


Life is too serious to take seriously.

Old Man Coyote


Our need for control is the only human need that is never satisfied.  Since understanding is the only form of control that is good in large quantities, the wise will seek understanding instead of other forms.

Old Man Coyote


Whether one thinks the glass is half full or half empty may depend on whether it is filling or emptying.

Old Man Coyote


Growing up in a family gives to human life the tension between fair-and-equal and hierarchic-and-respectful.  As adults, if we don’t go primarily with the former, we regress to childhood and ultimately babyhood.

Old Man Coyote


Happiness is failing at something worth failing at;

Unhappiness is succeeding at something not worth doing.

Old Man Coyote


Self storage.

Riverside sign–near a cemetery


“The young scholars soon fell into a way of traveling from one school to another, as the contemporary saying went, seeking the liberal arts at Paris, law at Orleans, medicine at Salerno, magic at Toledo, and manners and morals nowhere”

George Whicher, The Goliard Poets, p. 3.  The universities in question were the leading ones in those fields at that time.  This proves that nothing ever changes….


The most outrageous regional putdown AND the greatest be-careful-what-you-wish-for line in history—said by the great Turkic emperor Babur after conquering India (16th century) and taking a long look at what he had won:

“The people of Hindustan have no beauty; they have no convivial society, no social intercourse, no character or genius, no urbanity, no nobility or chivalry.  In the skilled arts and sciences there is no regularity, proportionality, straightness or rectangularity.  There are no good horses, no good dogs, no grapes, no muskmelons or first-rate fruits, no ice or good water, no good bread or cooked food in the bazaars, no hammams, no madrasas, no candles, no torches, or candlesticks.”  (Tr. Stephen Dale, in The Muslim Empires of the Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals, p. 73)


Los Angeles Times, health section (p 1, 7), Mar 17 2003, notes that married people are happier than single ones not because marriage makes you happier but because happier people get married and stay so—this from prospective studies.  And (later) widows/widowers often happier than when married.  So much for marriage.


Nothing worth doing is worth doing perfectly.

Kristin Hawkes (“The Optimizer’s Epigram,” in her article “Why Hunter-Gatherers Work,” Current Anthropology 34:31-362, p. 342)


Without taste, genius is but sublime folly.

Attributed to various people, most often Chateaubriand but no one is sure.

Lord, I thank Thee for denying me the gift of taste.

Old man coyote


Modern version of St. Francis’ Prayer (see above): God grant me the coffee to change the things I can, and the wine to bear the things I cannot change.

From the Internet; “wisdom” of course has dropped out, being not even a concept in the contemporary world.


On prohibition:  “If you were to forbid people to roll camel dung into little balls with their fingers, people would do it, because they would assume there must be pleasure in it.”

Arabic proverb (attributed, not very believably, to Muhammad)


The first novel by Alexandre Dumas, of Three Musketeers fame, did not sell.  So under a false name he wrote a review of it in a leading journal, saying it was a shocking book that would corrupt the morals of the young.  It promptly became a best-seller.

–folktale; maybe true!


Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.  (Aus so krummen Holtze, der Mensch gemacht ist, kann nichts ganz Gerades gezimmert werden.)

Immanuel Kant, tr, Isaiah Berlin and made famous from his book title The Crooked Timber of Humanity; from Kant’s Idea for a Universal History with a Cosmopolitan Purpose; deriving apparently from:

Consider the work of God; for who can make straight, what he hath made crooked?

Ecclesiastes 7:13.


I’m losing money on every skin, and if it weren’t for the turnover I’d go broke.

Alleged remark by anonymous 19th-century fur trader (a bit challenged on economic theory)


I said, “I will keep watch upon my ways,

So that I do not offend with my tongue.

I will put a muzzle on my mouth

While the wicked are in my presence.”

Psalm 39 (Episcopal version)


Alle Leute recht getan

Ist eine Kunst die niemand kann.

(Doing well by everybody is an art known to nobody.)

German proverb, as quoted by my anthropologist friend Gabriela Eichinger Ferro-Luzzi


I against my brother, my brother and I against our cousin, my cousin, brother and I against our village, and our village against the world.

Middle Eastern proverb; a slightly different Afghan version is quoted by Scott Atran, Talking to the Enemy, p. 256


I never borrowed his pot, and anyway I returned it to him in perfect condition, and anyway it was cracked when he loaned it to me!

Folk wisdom (or sarcasm) from India


Malay proverbs:

Where there’s a will there’s a thousand ways, where there’s no will there’s a thousand excuses.

Better a wise man for a foe than a fool for a friend.

Where there are no eagles, the grasshoppers say, We are eagles.

Even if ten ships come, the dogs have no loincloths but their tails.


Ulrich, Johannes; Joachim I. Krueger; Anna Brod; Fabian Groschupf.  2013.  “More Is Not Less: Greater Information Quantity Does not Diminish Liking.”  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 105:909-920.

  1. 917: “We believe [there is] a tendency among social psychologists of seeking to prove naïve folk psychologists wrong…. A related epistemological tendency in this field is to identify a psychological bias in the minds of ordinary people and to hold it responsible for a host of irrational, incompetent, or undesirable behaviors…leaving researchers in wonder ‘how people manage to get out of the door in the morning, let alone fly to the moon’ (North & Fiske, 2012, p. 88).” North, M. S., and S. T. Fiske.  2012.  “A History of Social Cognition.”  In Handbook of the History of Social Psychology, A. W. Kruglanski and W. Stroebe, eds.  New York: Psychology Press.  Pp. 81-99.

Old Man Coyote says:  Well, two people have walked on the moon, eight billion can’t get their lives together….


Belize proverbs:

Don’ call di halligator [crocodile] “long mout’” till you cross di riba.  (“Long mouth” is presumably insulting to crocodiles.)

Wat di jankro do befo di jekass die?  (Said of a person who flaunts and shows off his money, especially if his money was gotten by less than noble methods.  “Jankro” is phonetic spelling of “John Crow,” the Caribbean nickname for vultures.  The proverb means “What did the buzzard do before the jackass died?”  I think this gets it absolutely perfectly for most of our corporate rich.)


The world is like a huge guitar.  –William of Conches, tr. G. Dufy (Cathedrals, p.77)


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