Anthropology and Education:
Two Speeches -

Memory & Education / Proverbs
 and the Sense of Concrete


Luiz Jean Lauand
(Faculdade de Educação da USP)


I - Memory and Education(1)

Man is a being that forgets!

If we turn back to the millenarian traditions of thinking - both Western and Eastern - looking for the anthropological foundations of pedagogy, the ancients would enjoin upon us the meditation of a very short and simple sentence: "Man is a being that forgets!".

As far back as the time of the ancient Greeks (from Hesiod to Aristotle, from Sappho to Plato), a very important role was assigned to memory (sometimes personified in Mnemosyne) in pedagogy.

A high point in this tradition is Pindar, who, as you know, lived five hundred years before Christ. His Hymn to Zeus (which is a magnificent poem as well as a "treatise" on the philosophy of education) seems(2) to fulfil all the characteristics of a great world-masterpiece.

Pindar's scene is clear: Zeus decides to change chaos into kosmos and, gradually, confusion and deformity are transformed into harmony and beauty. And when his work is finally ready and the world reaches its perfection (with its newly created rivers, forests, animals and man...), Zeus invites the gods to a feast at which he shows his creation to his awestruck peers.

And suddenly, a surprise: one of the immortals begins to speak and points out a serious and unexpected imperfection: in this world, there are no creatures capable of being aware of the divine greatness of Creation and praising it.

For man is a being that forgets!

Man - he that has been gifted by God with the flame of spirit - is, after all, insensible, forgetful - a clod. And, as I have said, it is precisely upon this idea, that man forgets (something forgotten nowadays), that our Western tradition of education has been built.

The Muses (daughters of Mnemosyne), the arts, are a first attempt on Zeus's part to repair this unfortunate human condition: they were given by the gods as companions to man: in order to remind!

And it is the same with philosophy. The great thinkers of the Western tradition consider philosophical discoveries not so much the finding of something new, but precisely discoveries. To discover: to bring to mind something already known (but - because of the enthropical tendency for forgetting - not retained in consciousness).

Naturally, to talk about forgetfulness in man does not mean that he tends to neglect everything, but mainly what is essential. Certainly, he remembers many things: man - a "trivial creature", as Guimarães Rosa says - does not forget his payday nor does he forget to post a business letter or to buy his favourite magazine, and so on... But he does forget the sacred character of man, the presence of the divine in the world, the wisdom of the heart...

The consideration of man's inherent forgetfulness is even more marked in the Eastern tradition. Since the beginning of the Arabic language, its very word for man is Insan. The great profundity of this word is quite patent when we learn that, etymologically, Insan proceeds from verb nassa/yansa (to forget) and means: he who forgets. Oriental acuity in calling man Insan is confirmed by the fact that even the Arabic man in the street is unaware of the deepest meaning of that word. And so, there is a proverbial Arab sentence: Wa ma sumya al-insan insanan illa linissyanihi ("Insan was called Insan because he forgets").

Naturally, its original formulation plays on words, almost as we might say in English: "Sorry is called sorry after sorrow".

So, it is no surprise that in the Koran(3) God presents Himself - in contraposition to man - as He-who-does-not-forget. And it is the same with the Bible(4), when God says "Can a woman forget her little child? Even if she does, I will not forget you".

This forgotten anthropological truth, that man is a forgetful being, is not, after all, so strange to us. And we do not need to turn back to the great philosophies or religions to confirm it. Quite recently, even a simple song - a great world-wide hit - states the same thing. I'm thinking of Irving Gordon's Unforgettable, the recording of which by Nathalie and Nat King Cole, was a great Grammy winner):

Unforgettable, that's what you are

Unforgettable, though near or far

Like a song of love that clings to me

How the thought of you does things to me

Never before has someone been more

Unforgettable, in every way

And for ever more that's how you'll stay

That's why, darling, it's incredible

That someone so unforgettable

Thinks that I am unforgettable too...

In its lyrics, after reasserting the absolute unforgettableness of his sweetheart ("Unforgettable, for ever more... Unforgettable, though near or far... Unforgettable in every way etc."), the songwriter betrays himself, and with two adverbial expressions he ends by admitting human limits and human weakness: he says "more unforgettable" and "so unforgettable" and therefore recognizes the non-absolute character of our remembering: it admits of gradations: more and less; and so it is relative...

Only by taking man's forgetfulness into account, as I said above, can an education worthy of its name come into being. And so, the ancients conceived the pedagogy of dhikr, pedagogy of remembrance, based on the wisdom of the common man, proverbs, tales, memorising, feasts, and so on. And what are we doing here now if not celebrating - in a solemn way - a feast of memories of times past, in other words, com-me morating...?

In this respect, a remark on language. In many languages, "to remember" is linked not to an intellectual process but to the heart: retain in the memory is to know by heart; in French, par coeur; in Portuguese, de cor. And to forget someone in Italian is scordarsi, to take him away from the heart...

Thomas Aquinas with his penetrating mind explains the reasons for remembering and forgetting: "unforgettable is the beloved". And talking about God, the only Rememberer, he says: God loves man and so He does not forget him. "Illud quod aliquis cum studio et diligentia facit, non obliviscitur quin illud faciat; Deus autem studiosus est ad salutem hominum: et ideo non obliviscitur" (In Psalmos 9, 8).

And so, in a rather unexpected way, we have terminated with the suggestion that the classical pedagogy of remembering - besides being a pedagogy of the Muses and arts, of feeling and wisdom - is something more: it is a pedagogy of love...

Thank you very much

In the second speech, we will turn our attention to a somewhat "technical" aspect of the education of memory: proverbs - especially Arab proverbs - as reminders. It is a short study on the central role that proverbs play in Arab culture and education and a special reason why they are "great reminders": their sense of the concrete. For a philosopher like Thomas Aquinas, the sense of the concrete is the essence of "the first law" of memory: "There are four things whereby a man perfects his memory. First, when a man wishes to remember a thing, he should take some suitable yet somewhat unwonted illustration of it, since the unwonted strikes us more, and so makes a greater and stronger impression on the mind; and this explains why we remember better what we saw when we were children. Now the reason for the necessity of finding these illustrations or images, is that simple and spiritual impressions easily slip from the mind, unless they be tied as it were to some corporeal image, because human knowledge has a greater hold on sensible objects. For this reason memory is assigned to the sensitive part of the soul..."(5).

II - Proverbs and the Sense of the Concrete: the Basis of Arab Education(6)

An outstanding philosopher of language, Johannes Lohmann, suggests(7) that language and thinking should be considered not as independent elements, but in their interaction, they are rather a system or, as he says: "system of language / thinking".

In some way such a system underlies the philosophies, culture and education of those who speak any language. One of his most important examples is precisely the "Arabic system" (or in a more general way, the Semitic system).

In another work(8) I have pointed out seven characteristics of the Arabic system, trying to show how mathal (pl. amthal) - the Arabic word for proverb, metaphor, comparison, example etc. - is at the very core of the cultural and pedagogic manifestations of the Arabic system. In this section (along with its sample of amthal(9)) one aspect will be emphasized: the Arab sense of the concrete and the particular, expressed by its amthal.

It is a well known fact of semantics that many Arabic words present a cumulative sense, a phenomenon that philosophers like Ortega y Gasset or Julián Marías call "pensamiento confundente"(10). Often the main sense of a word is concrete and from this the other (abstract) senses are derived. An English example (originating perhaps from Semitic/ biblical influences) is the word "way" (meaning both road and a person's manners or style...) parallel to the multiple senses of the Arabic root "t-r-q" (or Hebraic derek). Naturally, to the Oriental imagination the personal way of thinking or doing something is inspired in the random "ways" of the desert (where there are no highways and each one chooses his own "way").

If this sense, the concrete is somehow everywhere present - every language is in some degree metaphoric(11) - but the Arabic tendency for the concrete is remarkable: not only in its lexicon, but also in its sentences and, in a general way, the concrete reaches the whole mentality and the Arabic Weltanschauung. This sense of image and the concrete - even in the very meaning of the word mathal - is specially expressed by Arab proverbs, which very often translate particular and material aspects of reality and extract general rules of behaviour from them.

And so, while we, for example, say "Like father, like son" - or in an even more abstract way in the Brazilian proverb: "A educação vem do berço" (lit.: "Breeding comes from the cradle") - the Arab prefers to express this with a striking appeal to the senses:

His father, onion; his mother, garlic: where can good fragrance come from?(12)

Notice that for the Oriental imagination, behaviour is, above all, associated with the sense of smell, (good or bad) odour, and when a child is like his parents the Arab says:

Min rihat ummuhu (or abuhu)

From the fragrance of his mother (/father).

Rather than articulating abstract concepts (as in our Western "Love is blind" or the Brazilian proverb "Quem o feio ama, bonito lhe parece" - lit.: "He who loves the ugly, thinks it is beautiful"), the Arab, always with images in his mind, prefers:

The ape in his mother's eye (is a) gazelle.

In the East, attitudes and emotions should not only be visible, but be shown with exuberance - for example at a funeral, you are supposed to keen; at a wedding, to sing and dance... And so, a guest must observe the mathal:

(Much) Eating shows love.

For the Arab, comparison is always present. To say that something is impossible (eg. to expect competence and thoroughness in a task given to a lackadaisical person), he says:

Say to camel: play this flute!

(As is known, the lips of the camel do not close and his toes cannot be separated).

Instead of long (and useless...) speeches about envy, we find the very incisive mathal:

Not finding in the rose any fault, people nicknamed it "red cheeks".

And against foolish obstinacy:

You, who ask for honey from the behind of a wasp.

I told him that it is a he-goat, but he keeps trying to milk it.

A piece of advice with a warning of the dire consequences of such and such an action is stronger when linked to a vivid image:

A jackal has swallowed a sickle. When the times comes for him to excrete it, you will hear his howling.

Proverbs, thousands of living proverbs, collect experience, realism (and, sometimes the ruthless realism) of experience.

Give your dough (lit. bread) to a baker even though (orig. wa law) he may eat half of it.

(Let experts or professionals do things for you, however expensive it may cost. In the long run it pays)

Proverbs are an invitation to accept reality as it is. People are different and should be treated differently:

Feed your dog and it guards your house; starve your cat and it eats your mice.

The realism of proverbs/experience is often close to pessimism and sarcasm:

Don't worry! The fox has promised it will never again eat chickens.

Its realism sometimes turns into pragmatism:

You've already got the grapes, why bother to fight the watchman!

The Arab sense of the concrete sometimes offers, in some amthal, an astonishing blend of realism and poetry:

Because of the rose, the weeds are watered.

Who is your favorite child? The youngest one until he is grown up; the absent one, until he comes back; the sick one until he recovers

Paradoxically linking the rough experience with the grace of the image, the Arab amthal acquire an extraordinary educative strength: all (scholars or illiterates alike) share this rich legacy of tradition, which makes it possible, in a living and persuasive way, to see reality clearly and make decisions accordingly.

Let's finish with some more Arab proverbs(13):

The oppression of the cat rather than the justice of the mouse.

They brought the wolf to teach him reading. They said: "Say A" he said, "A goat". They said, "say B", he said "A kid".

That which you put in the pot you take out by the spoon.

He who needs (something from) the dog, says to it "Good morning milord".

Ah, it is on credit! Weigh me two hundredweight.

If a rich man eats a snake, people say, "This is wisdom!". If a poor man eats a snake, they say, "This is foolishness!".

They asked a hungry man, "How much is 2 + 2?" He answered, "Four loaves".

No oil-vendor calls out "My oil is rancid".

Be rather an enemy of a prince than an enemy of a simple sentinel.

He who does not eat garlic does not smell of garlic.

My friend, and the apple of my eye, (but) do not come near my purse!

(He is the sort of man who) when he shakes hands with you, you need to count your fingers.

(1). This part is a speech on the occasion of the graduation ceremony of Faculdade de Educação da Universidade de São Paulo, 18th December, 1995. The first part of this speech is based on the chapters of Michèle Simondon "Mnémosyne, mère des Muses" in La Mémoire et l'Oubli dans la Pensée Grecque jusqu'à la fin du Ve. siècle avant J. C., Paris, Société d'édition "Les Belles Lettres", 1982; Bruno Snell "Pindar's Hymn to Zeus" in The Discovery of the Mind - The Greek Origins of European Thought, Cambridge, Harvard Univ. Press, 1953; and especially Josef Pieper Nur der Liebende singt, Schwabenverlag, 1988, p. 35 et seq. The translation into English has been revised by Alfredo H. Alves.

(2). We have only fragments of this poem...

(3). XX, 50-52.

(4). Is 49, 15.

(5). II-II, 49, 1 ad 2. Translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province. E-text: New Advent Inc. "Et sunt quatuor per quae homo proficit in bene memorando. Quorum primum est ut eorum quae vult memorari quasdam similitudines assumat convenientes, nec tamen omnino consuetas, quia ea quae sunt inconsueta magis miramur, et sic in eis animus magis et vehementius detinetur; ex quo fit quod eorum quae in pueritia vidimus magis memoremur. Ideo autem necessaria est huiusmodi similitudinum vel imaginum adinventio, quia intentiones simplices et spirituales facilius ex anima elabuntur nisi quibusdam similitudinibus corporalibus quasi alligentur, quia humana cognitio potentior est circa sensibilia. unde et memorativa ponitur in parte sensitiva".

(6). This section is the modified version of parts of the lecture El Álgebra como ciencia Árabe at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid - Departamento de Estudios Árabes e Islámicos de la Facultad de Filosofía y Letras -, Madrid, 14-4-98. The translation into English has been revised by Alfredo H. Alves.

(7). Lohmann, Johannes "Saint Thomas et les Arabes (Structures linguistiques et formes de pensée)", Revue Philosophique de Louvain, t. 74, fév. 1976, p. 30-44.

(8). Educação moral e provérbios - os amthal árabes, tese de livre-docência, São Paulo, FEUSP, 1995.

(9). The proverbs quoted in this paper are taken from Freyha, Anis A Dictionnary of Modern Lebanese Proverbs, Beirut, Librairie du Liban, 1974.

(10). Cf. Lauand, L. J. "La metodogía del filosofar de Pieper y el lenguaje" Cuadernos de Cultura y Ciencia, Ediciones de la Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, Madrid, n.1, 1996.

(11). In this respect, Alfredo H. Alves has published an interesting essay about the extension of meanings of the English word board: "A board, a long narrow piece of sawn timber less thick (under 2 1/2 inches) than a plank came to mean, among many other things, a body of men sitting in council to deliberate on important matters, the Board of Trade, the Electricity Board etc. How did this metamorphosis come about?..." Alves "Board" in Lauand, L. J. Filosofia e Linguagem Comum, Curitiba, PUC-PR, 1989.

(12). This translation into English preserves the absence of verb "to be": according to Lohmann the main difference between Arabic system and Indo-European systems. The Arabic "nominal" phrase induces its speaker to an immediate association of images...

(13). The following proverbs are taken from Freyha, Anis A Dictionnary of Modern Lebanese Proverbs, Beirut, Librairie du Liban, 1974.