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Dialect Proverbs
From the philosophy of Heraclitus to Vasco’s rock music
“everything flows”
Tuttu vave, tuttu vene
gnenti se mmantene

[It all comes, it all goes
nothing keeps]
(Salento)
by Alberto Sobrero
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Bruno Maggio. China

We know that proverbs have a strong pragmatic mooring. They are born of the observation of events and the cycles of nature, of the behaviour of people and animals, of the structure and the deformations of society, and from a prolonged and comparative observation, general laws, precepts and vetoes can be deduced.

On the basis of these considerations, we can usually identify two types of proverbs: the didactic ones, that inform and broadcast the results of these observations (one example is : “If it rains on Saint Bibiana’s Day / it rains for forty days and a week”), and the ‘sententious’ types that give out advice on behaviour to adopt or to be wary of (“What goes around comes around”).

For modern science it is easy to demonstrate that a) the validity of the observations and of the predictions is slight (if it rains on the 2nd December, St. Bibiana’s Day, the bad weather might last, but the probability that these two facts are correlated is low), and b) advice and precepts are apodictic, lacking the support of an organic or shared ethical canon (“What goes around comes around” falls back on a code based on vendetta and is in net contrast with Christian morality, on which the majority of proverbs in Italy are based). That’s true. It’s a pity that the logic of proverbs moves in circles that are well removed from that of scientific method, and is nearer to the world of nature worship, folk culture and sometimes poetry.

Seldom does it happen that the proverb has the backing both of faith and of science, a solid pragmatic base and a touch of authentic philosophy. All in two lines, obviously. But this month’s proverb has just these characteristics: a rare example.

Everything comes / everything goes / nothing keeps”: nothing on earth repeats itself identically, everything – slowly or quickly – changes: the old makes way for the new, but the new is soon old and is in turn replaced, and so on ad infinitum. Change is life, and life is continuous flux. We are reminded of another well-known proverb, a French one this time: Tout casse, tout passe, tout lasse (“Everything breaks, everything passes, everything becomes boring and everything can be substituted”), which is often used to console people who are suffering great sorrow, and to remind them that time is a good medicine.

But our proverb hides a deeper thought: its wording is very similar to that panta rei (“everything flows”) of Heraclitus (the 6th/5th century Greek philosopher): “everything changes and nothing stays still”, “you cannot step twice into the same stream” and “you cannot touch a mortal substance in the same state twice because it must dissolve and be generated continually, it comes and goes”. It’s the philosophy of becoming, which illuminates all the history of philosophical thought for two and a half millennia, from Heraclitus to Nietsche, Schopenhauer and Camus. And manages to land up, in these times of weak thought, in the strident empirics of pop songs (I’m thinking of Vasco Rossi and his Dannate nuvole [Damned Clouds]: “When I think that nothing exists / only smoke / nothing real / nothing is real / nothing is real / and maybe you know / but you will go on / who knows why?”), right down to the vulgarity of “scrapping the write-offs” as a principle of renewal.

Becoming as the essence of life: a principle that embraces the lower planes of the simplistic philosophy of the man in the street – who experiences in first person the excitement and then the drama of the inevitable following-on of life’s seasons up to old age and death – but also the higher planes of empirical and rationalistic thought.

Land and sea, hope and resignation, the laws of nature and norms of behavior: all the wisdom of man. In two lines.

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