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Some maxims (Syriac & Arabic)   1 comment

At the beginning of CFMM 306 are a few maxims, first in Syriac, then in Arabic (Garšūnī):

CFMM 306, f. 1r

The ink and hand are none too lovely, but the thoughts are, at least. English’d they are:

  • Don’t believe everything you hear.
  • Don’t tell* everything that you see.
  • Don’t say everything that you know.
  • Don’t do everything that you are able to do.
  • Don’t give all you possess.

(*The Syriac has “judge”; the word can mean “declare”, but having to do with a dream, that is, to judge the significance of a dream and to declare it to the dreamer.)

These are maxims of reticence or prudent withholding, all of this basic theme, and they reflect the experience of those who, having given too freely of their means or knowledge, have gotten into trouble, lost relationships, and more. There are, of course, notable traditions of maxims and proverbs spanning ancient near eastern and classical literature (at least Sumerian, Akkadian, Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and Latin), and the sentiments indicated above are hardly unique among those traditions. Erasmus’ Adagia would supply as with many similar items fromg Greek and Latin, richly commented upon — there is to my knowledge nothing comparable for ancient near eastern literature taken comprehensively — but it will suffice to list a few that are to hand.

  • Aḥiqar, Saying 15 (Lindenberger, pp. 75-76): “Above all else, guard your mouth; and as for what you have h[eard], be discreet! For a word is a bird, and he who releases it is a fool.” (מן כל מנטרה טר פמך ועל זי שמעת הוקר לבב כי צנפר הי מלה ומשלחה גבר לא לבב). The last line here brings to mind Homer’s ἔπεα πτερόεντα (“winged words”); perhaps Martin West or others have made the connection before, too, but I’m unaware of it, if so. (For the present purposes, for this and the other sayings from Aḥiqar, I have not marked the few conjectured letters of the Aramaic text as such: see Lindenberger for discussion of each case.)
  • Saying 53 (Lindenberger, 140-141): “Do not reveal your [secr]ets before your [frien]ds, lest your reputation with them be ruined.” (סתריך אל תגלי קדם רחמיך אל יקל שמך קדמיהם)
  • Saying 59 (Lindenberger, 149, partly reconstructed from Armenian and Slavonic versions): “Do not be too sweet lest you be [swallowed]; do not be too bitter [lest you be spat out].” (אל תחלי ואל יבלעוך אל תמר ואל ירקוך)

A quick scan of the gnomai Menandri (ed. Dindorf) yields these admittedly only slightly related finds, the iambic trimeters of which I apologize for not rendering analogously:

  • 90. Γλώσσης μάλιστα πανταχῆ πειρῶ κρατεῖν. Make every effort to rule especially over your tongue.
  • 448. Πρᾶττε τὰ σεαυτοῦ μὴ τὰ τῶν ἄλλου φρόνει. Mind your own business: don’t worry with the affairs of others.

There’s much more in the gnomai about friends, women (not much in appreciation!), parents, and old age.

From the Monosticha Catonis, we might mention:

  • 13. Rem tuam custodi. Watch over your own matter(s).
  • 23. Cui des, videto. Consider to whom you might give something.
  • 31. Nihil temere credideris. Believe nothing rashly.
  • 54. Pauca in convivio loquere. Say little at a party.
  • 57. Minime iudica. Don’t judge at all. [esp. for the Syriac version of the second maxim given above]

And finally, two lines from Leonard Cohen, “Waiting for the Miracle” (from The Future):

If you’re squeezed for information,

That’s when you’ve got to play it dumb.

So then, here’s to sharing and giving, but doing so with care, so advised from Aḥiqar to Cohen! I do hope, though, that you will share any related maxims from antiquity (or later) that come to mind in the comments!


James M. Lindenberger, The Aramaic Proverbs of Ahiqar, Johns Hopkins Near Eastern Studies (Baltimore and London, 1983).

The gnomai of Menander will be found in Dindorf’s Aristophanis comœdiæ…accedunt Menandri et Philemonis fragmenta (Paris, 1846); the monosticha Catonis are easily discoverable online.

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