This proverb is attributed to Pubilius Syrus (85-43 BCE). Syrus was a Syrian born author (hence the surname ‘Syrus’ which means ‘Syrian’), however he lived later in Rome. He wrote down the proverb ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ in a book called ‘Sententiae’ which is widely believed to be his best work. ‘Sententiae’ roughly translates as ‘sayings’ or ‘proverbs’.
In the centuries that followed, this proverb was widely translated into different languages – including English. One of the earliest English translations of the proverb was in the works of John Heywood during the Renaissance.
In the present day, this proverb is used very often, and many people who cite this proverb do not realize that its origin is in the ‘Sententiae’ of Syrus.
The meaning of this proverb.
The proverb ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ has been interpreted in two slightly different ways. Both of these interpretations are in current use, and it is hard to say which one is the more common. Thus, it is worthwhile noting down both of the interpretations.
The first way in which this proverb is interpreted is that it is said to mean that ‘a person who moves around a lot is free from responsibility’. Just as a stone that rolls quickly through the grass does not allow moss to grow on it, someone who is always moving from place to place never accumulates responsibilities such as a family, a steady job or a home with a mortgage.
Secondly, this proverb is often used in order to express the idea that ‘someone who moves around a lot does not put down roots or form attachments’. Perhaps this second meaning of the proverb is one with a slightly more negative connotation than the first meaning, cited above.
Of course, these two interpretations of the proverb can coexist. It is perfectly possible for someone who moves around a lot and never stays in one place for very long to be both blissfully free from care and slightly less blissfully free from strong attachments. Thus, it could be said that the two meanings of the proverb are very closely related and do not cancel each other out at all.
It is clear that this proverb operates via a central metaphor, whereby:
- A rolling stone is someone who changes their ideas, life style, friendship group or location very often.
- Moss signifies the attachments and responsibilities that can build up if we stay in one place for a substantial amount of time.
Expansion of this idea
This proverb inspired the name of one of the world’s most famous rock bands, ‘The Rolling Stones’. Often just known as ‘The Stones’, this band is headed by Mick Jagger and it was begun in Britain several decades ago. The Rolling Stones are still going strong, and they continue to perform concerts all over the world. With a name like theirs, though, surely their fans would expect no less!
The proverb has inspired other famous musicians, too. In the 1960s, Bob Dylan penned what is one of his most famous works: the song entitled ‘Like a Rolling Stone’. The song’s lyrics and theme (and, of course, the title too) were inspired by this proverb.
Importance of the proverb.
1. Living life to the full: Some people just are not suited to settling down – or at least, not until they have explored the world first! This proverb has some helpful advice for people like that: i.e. if they want to be free from responsibility, and thus free to do all of the things that they want to, they should try and travel as much as possible.
2. A helpful caution: If we meet someone who appears to be a ‘rolling stone’ in this proverbial sense, remembering this proverb can give us a useful perspective on things. No matter how much we love or like that person, the proverb ‘a rolling stone gathers no moss’ will remind us not to expect to form strong and lasting attachments with them – unless they are prepared to change their nature as a rolling stone!
3. Giving us insight into our lives: If we find it hard to form strong or lasting attachments with people, this proverb can give us some insight into why. Perhaps it is because we move around too much and do not settle down long enough in one place.
4. Freedom: Remembering this proverb can give us a sense of freedom. If we are weighed down with cares, we can become a rolling stone for a time and free ourselves from the burdensome habits that we have accumulated. Go travel and see the world and you will come back refreshed!
5. Quality time: The proverb reminds us that it is important to spend quality time with our friends and loved ones – and our pets too! Otherwise, we will be like rolling stones and will find it hard to get attached to each other properly.
6. Facing up to responsibility: This versatile proverb can also motivate us to face up to our responsibilities. If we have a family to look after, a mortgage to pay or a job to show up for each day, very often we need to make sure that we respect this fact and not let others down. ‘Rolling stones’ can, if they have important responsibilities, end up letting people down if they are not careful, so this proverb can also be a cautionary one.
7. Planning for the future: ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss’ is a great proverb to meditate on when we are planning our future. Do we want to travel around a lot? Or do we want to settle down? Often, we cannot have it both ways, so thinking about the implications of each option is very important.
‘A rolling stone gathers no moss’ is a multivalent and rich proverb. It is often a very accurate reflection of life and relationships. And, remembering the proverb can help us to act in the best way possible with respect to other people, and also with respect to the various duties and responsibilities that we have. This versatile proverb can express both the joys of roaming free and the joys of settling down and meeting our responsibilities!