Circumstance, Exploring Philosophy

Proverbs: If You Lie Down with Dogs…

Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616) is credited with saying that ‘a proverb is a short sentence based on long experience’. Proverbs are often centuries old, providing us with global wisdom’s that have remained relevant throughout time.

“If you lie down with dogs, you will get up with fleas.”

One of the earliest records of this saying in English, appears in James Sanford’s Garden of Pleasure, 1573- “He that goeth to bedde wyth Dogges, aryseth with fleas.” It has consistently appeared in literature and proverb collections down the centuries. As with all ancient proverbs, it has a Latin variant, which says- “qui cum canibus concumbunt cum pulicibus surgent” (they who lie with dogs will rise with fleas).

Put simply, this proverb is a caution to be careful of the company you keep.

In general, we tend to group people together. So, if you associate with people of ill-repute, you can expect to be held in the same esteem- or lack of. Because we tend to group people together, we presume that associates condone each other’s behaviour and share values and attributes. In doing this, we can make some fairly critical assumptions about someone’s character, based solely on who they hang around with.

We’ve gathered that we shouldn’t befriend any gun-slinging bandits or crafty crooks.

The transgressions of our friends needn’t be so blatant however. The habits of those we surround ourselves with rub off on us, whether they be positive or negative. If we surround ourselves with negative people, it’s hard to see how we would keep up a bright positive demeanour. If we surround ourselves with high achieving, productive people, it would make sense that we would copy that behaviour. A standard is set, and we will meet it- whether it be high or low.

Delving a bit further, this proverb warns us to be weary of what behaviour we choose to engage with.

Let’s say that somebody is acting vindictively towards us. They are clearly acting and speaking from a place of embitterment and malice. We respond to this treatment in kind, exponentially prolonging and increasing the negative feelings and behaviour. In taking the bait, we are participating in their game. To ‘get up with fleas’ conjures a severe image, suggesting infection, contamination and rot. That is exactly what happens when we engage in hateful, spiteful, tit for tat. We meet them down in the dregs, instead of remaining on our own path. Our own character suffers by taking part.

This proverb warns us to be mindful of who we surround ourselves with, and what kind of behaviour we engage with.

We are heavily influenced by our peers and our interactions. It’s vital that they serve us, and we them, in a positive, productive way.

Giotto, 1304, The Last Judgement
Giotto, 1304, The Last Judgement
The top part shows Heaven, with Jesus in the middle and the apostles at both sides. Jesus is casting the Last Judgement. The lower part shows the chosen, who will be escorted to Heaven, and the doomed, who will be cast into Hell. The archangels Michael and Raphael are holding the cross in the middle.
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