Más sabe el diablo. . .

It's a phrase of Mexican origin, I'm told:  "Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo." It translates to "The devil knows more because he is old than because he is the devil."

Often, proverbs in our native tongue do not surprise us as they are so common. We may not think twice about an expression like "The apple does not fall far from the tree," but its use in another language requires an explanation of what the phrase implies. Because a phrase is well-known to us, it may not captures us quite the way that one from a second language might. Sometimes expressions are so particular that they only can be understood in a particular context. [Another wonderful Mexican phrase, "No me cae el veinte," refers to a 20 peso coin getting stuck in a pay phone. The adage is a means of expressing that the speaker does not understand a concept that the other has shared-- just as the coin is stuck in the payphone and one cannot yet proceed with the call. Sadly, inflation and technology are rendering that phrase obsolete.]

Similarly, this Spanish-language wisdom requires some unpacking: "Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo." The devil knows more because he is old than because he is the devil.

One attribute of the phrase is to suggest that the devil and all his wiles, enticements, deceptions, and lures are not born of any special gift so much as a deep and long encounter with human nature, a keen observation of humans and our choices. The devil has been at the task of temptation for a long time, and he knows his trade, suggests the saying.

The phrase in actual use conveys a positive sense of what one learns from experience.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell, via his 10,000 Hour Rule, holds that 10,000 hours of "deliberate practice" are needed to become world-class in any field. While others now dispute Gladwell's conclusion (cf. a study from Princeton), this phrase suggests that experience matters, and it matters more than natural or supernatural gifts.

Here, I'd differentiate "experience" from "occurrences." One can be a bystander to or even participant in great moments of human history without any deep engagement or deep reflection. Our lives are filled with many daily events and occurrences. An encounter with a stranger, travel across the globe, a simple exchange while making a purchase at the grocery store, an occurrence becomes experience, or wisdom, through reflection that digests and synthesizes the event.

It ain't enough just to be there; one has to engage both at the time and after to draw real learning from it. In so many ways, the pace of modern life discourages this deeper reflection that allows occurrences to develop into genuine experience. The following adaptation of the adage, in a way, makes the same point with humor:
"The devil knows more because of Facebook than because he is the devil." While some may disclose embarrassing behavior on Facebook and others may share too many cat videos, converting an occurrence into experience requires reflection. And the reflection bears a prize that is worth the effort that teaches a deeper way of seeing.

As a teenager in forensics, I often concluded my speeches: "Guido the plumber and Michelangelo obtained their marble from the same quarry, but what each saw in the marble made the difference between a nobleman's sink and a brilliant sculpture." A really fine lawyer will see things in law that others, even decent lawyers, may not see. A great architect will imagine edifices in glass, steel, and stone that others cannot conceive. There is a place for natural gift, but, at the heart of it, the difference is the development and refinement of a vision born of experience and imagination.

The Mexican adage "Más sabe el diablo por viejo que por diablo" encourages us not to rely so much on natural gift as acquiring a deeper vision, learning from our experiences.