In a recent airing of a PBS travel program, a group of San Francisco-area college students were filmed visiting China, their ancestral home. After arriving in a wayside village, one of the women students quoted the ancient proverb, “When you drink water, remember the source, ” and then asserted, “That's very Chinese!” There is a similar Chinese aphorism that rebukes those who would drink from a fountain without first giving thought to the ancestor who had dug the well. In both instances, the notion is the same: we owe our lives, but also our daily conveniences, to those who came before us. Whether Chinese or American, Asian or Western, the proverb aptly applies to all. Our ancestors planted the trees whose fruits we now eat; they built the roads and bridges over which we now drive. Indeed, it is they who handed down to us the storehouse of folk wisdom that we draw upon daily to guide, enrich, and inform our lives.
For those of us who study cultural history, much of what we find in ancient proverbial wisdom centers around themes of memory and connection. Ancient wisdom encourages us to be ever mindful of our ties, as well as our obligations, to the past. The way we go in this life follows after those who came before us. “Via trita, via tuta, ” the old Roman adage asserts, “The beaten path is the safe path.” There is a certain comfort and assurance in knowing that the road we travel upon is a familiar one and that it will not lead us astray. The image that emerges, then, is of one generation after another following a trail blazed by revered ancestors-of following and then of passing on a tradition set down in custom as well as in word.
At the same time, the connection is not only from past to present, but also from present to future. A people's life continues onward ever mindful of their connection to their forebears, but also of what guideposts or markers they will leave for their descendants. Someday, we too will be ancestors, and the wisdom we have gleaned from our experiences will guide those who follow after us-or so we hope.
Four centuries ago, Sir Francis Bacon published De Sapientia Veterum (On the Wisdom of the Ancients), a delightful book of Classical myths and fables in which he sought to recover examples of “humane wisedome” from antiquity that had been “buried in obliuion [oblivion] and silence.” In his Preface, Bacon observed that “There is found among men … a two-fold use of Parables, and those … referred to contrary ends; conducing as well to foulding [folding] up and keeping of things under a vaile [veil], as to the inlightening [enlightening] and laying open of obscurities.” These Parables, he noted, must