Exploring Philosophy, Meaning

Proverbs: The Frog in the Well…

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.

“The frog in the well knows nothing of the sea.”

This Japanese proverb is said to have come from a Chinese fable which is attributed to philosopher Zhuang Zhou, who lived around the 4th century BC. The fable appears in The Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese text which is regarded as a foundational text of Taoism. The fable, which was untitled, told a story of a frog who had always lived in his well. He believed his well to be all that existed. He was then visited by a sea turtle who told him of the great ocean. Upon hearing this, the frog realized he had a very limited view of the world. There are a few variations of this proverb, one of which is ‘the frog in the well cannot talk of Heaven’.

Like the frog in his well, we can often believe that what we know, is all that there is to know.

Of course it’s a ridiculous thought, but this is exactly why we often approach situations and conversations with such dogged determination. This proverb warns us to be modest about the extent of our experiences. What we have not lived, we cannot fully understand. It would be easy to acknowledge this in another person, how narrow and restricted their view is. It is however, more difficult to admit our own limitations. We would have to reveal that we don’t know it all. That there may be a whole world outside the boarders of our understanding. We would have no choice but to be humble in our dealings. The benefit in doing so however is that we are open to constant expansion. After all, the frog in the well who now knows of the ocean, is a different frog indeed!

Lu Zhi, Zhuangzi Dreaming of a Butterfly, mid 16th cent.
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