Jun 30, 2013 at 10:49 AM
There is a famous quote from Washington that I see posted regularly.

"Government is not reason; it is not eloquence; it is force. Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master." - George Washington 

This quote was researched by a team at Yale several years back. It is entirely apocryphal, appearing in none of Washington's written works or known speeches and first appearing in 1902. It might be a worthwhile statement, I don't care to argue it. My point is that it did not originate with George Washington.

As with so many other false but timely quotes, it ran past me again in my facebook feed today, and got me thinking about the origins of the adage it obliquely quotes. The ancient adage goes:

 'Fire is a useful servant, but a fearful master'

It has long contained a critically important maxim to pass along. These days, fire is rarely a part of a child's life.

In any case, this was consistently passed down through western Europeans since the beginning of civilization there, originating probably elsewhere and earlier. Who knows, probably a hundred generations or more. However, today, at least in the Americas, nearly no one of western European descent knows it, or thinks on its importance. Perhaps we must invent a replacement for electricity, since most houses burn down from electrical fires. Amazing how only a few generations can completely wipe away ages of learning, just by ceasing to pass along the old adages. There were dozens of offshoots of the master/servant theme of adages, such as love, curiosity, imagination, etc... but fire is where it began, as with many things.

  • A stitch in time saves nine,
  • Honey catches more flies than vinegar,
  • Your eyes are bigger than your stomach,
  • Everything in moderation,
  • A watched pot never boils,
  • Idle hands do the devil's work,
  • A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step,
  • You must find a way or make one,
  • Well begun is half done,
  • All's well that ends well,
  • There is honor even amongst thieves,
  • Beggars cannot be choosers,
  • Don't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes,
  • Actions speak louder than words,
  • Better a certain enemy than a doubting friend,
  • The same sun shines on us all, (and it's corollary)
  • Hard rain makes everyone equally wet,
  • Penny wise, pound foolish,
  • Look to the past, look to the present, see the future,
  • Cut off one's nose to spite one's face,
  • The remedy is worse than the disease, 
  • Act well, fear nothing,
  • Never rob Peter to pay Paul,
  • Many others lost with time...

I could dig into each of these is great detail and come up with fascinating depth. There are infinite variations, messages and sometimes polaric meaning depending on who used it. 'Stitch in time' alone is often interpreted to have three rather different meaning. Without digging deeper, (although I recommend you do, if only to comprehend the ancestral wealth of proper scolding in its concentrated form), there are useful bits of knowledge in there that we've lost touch with completely as a culture, simply by dropping out the habits of passing along adages. The concept of the passing down of a moral code (oral or otherwise) has practically disappeared in this passive/recessive age. Aside from a few holdouts, we mostly leave television in charge of informing young minds -- an entirely foolish practice.

Thus they have completely disappeared from use. The notable exception exists of using these colorful turns of phrase as idiomatic seasoning in similar communication. Something along the line of 'Season new food with old spice'. (Yes, that's where the brand name comes from.) A practice that apparently was used by the unknown originator of the above quote from pseudo-Washington.

What I understand from seeing so many false quotations from our apocryphal heroes is that we, in America, are desperately seeking truth, heroics, common sense, and idealism in our leaders and finding none. A sad thought, and I hope my musings have lead me to the wrong conclusion.