Wisdom’s cornerstone is the humble admission that we’re not truly wise, yet knowing nothing is not wisdom. So then what, exactly, is wisdom?
The Wisdom of Sirach (ca. 200-175 BCE) tells us “Wisdom was created before all other things, and prudent understanding from eternity.” (Sirach 1:4 NRS) The wise act with prudent understanding. Sirach personifies wisdom using her Greek name, Sophia (sophia is the Greek word for wisdom). Loving wisdom with friendly, sibling love, in Greek – Philo love, is Philo-Sophia. We call that love philosophy, a word probably originated by Pythagoras (b. ca. 570 BCE, d. ca. 495 BCE) and the adherents of Pythagoreanism.
By its very name, philosophy assumes that the philosopher knows what wisdom is and has acquired some wisdom to love. Whence?
Whence THEN cometh Wisdom?
Whence then cometh wisdom? and where is the place of understanding? Seeing it is hid from the eyes of all living, and kept close from the fowls of the air.
Destruction and death say, We have heard the fame thereof with our ears. God understandeth the way thereof, and he knoweth the place thereof. For he looketh to the ends of the earth, and seeth under the whole heaven; To make the weight for the winds; and he weigheth the waters by measure. When he made a decree for the rain, and a way for the lightning of the thunder: Then did he see it, and declare it; he prepared it, yea, and searched it out. And unto man he said, Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding. (Job 28:20-29:1 KJV, ca. 500 BCE)
If we want to be take Job’s advice, what we must hunt for wisdom. In so doing, we must also find understanding without which we cannot act wisely; wisdom provides real world advice.
Hunting for Wisdom
Sirach’s hunt for true wisdom starts with nature, with creation. He writes that Wisdom is God’s first creation. This is based on the text: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image,” (Genesis 1:26 NRS) – who is “us”? God and Sophia, God and Wisdom. For the Gospel according to John, that “us” is God and the Word, God and Christ Jesus (John 1:1).
On a more practical level, ancient humans acquired knowledge of what was safe to eat, how to make tools, how to hunt, how to treat certain illnesses, how to store food and avoid famine, how to work together to survive. One can at least imagine that those who survived into old age often became an asset for teaching others even as their physical abilities to hunt and perform arduous tasks decreased, giving rise to the sage elders of the communities. The wise human was being born.
As time passed and the needs of life became less of a daily foraging exercise, some people began to have leisure time to study and ponder what might be better and how things in nature work. Sirach gives us an eloquent dialogue toward becoming a wise scribe (doctor of the Jewish law), starting with the need for leisure time to study and reflect:
The wisdom of the scribe depends on the opportunity of leisure; only the one who has little business can become wise. How can one become wise who handles the plow, and who glories in the shaft of a goad, who drives oxen and is occupied with their work, and whose talk is about bulls? He sets his heart on plowing furrows, and he is careful about fodder for the heifers. So too is every artisan and master artisan who labors by night as well as by day; … All these rely on their hands, and all are skillful in their own work. Without them no city can be inhabited, and wherever they live, they will not go hungry. Yet they are not sought out for the council of the people, nor do they attain eminence in the public assembly. … But they maintain the fabric of the world, and their concern is for the exercise of their trade.
How different the one who devotes himself to the study of the law of the Most High! He seeks out the wisdom of all the ancients, and is concerned with prophecies; he preserves the sayings of the famous and penetrates the subtleties of parables; he seeks out the hidden meanings of proverbs and is at home with the obscurities of parables... (Sirach 38:24-39:3 NRS)
While that sounds magnificent, it doesn’t really make much sense, does it? I mean if the wise person is excluded from the toils and troubles of daily life then their wisdom provides less help to the common person. Indeed, that characterizes the disconnect between the elite experts and the common person. Such “wise” persons may become totally disconnected from people like you and me, making the application of their “wisdom” problematic and potentially destructive. However, the seldom read fourth book of Maccabees (ca 100 CE) ,which is more of a philosophical discourse than Maccabean history, gives a hint about what the building blocks of Wisdom may be: Now the kinds of wisdom are rational judgment, justice, courage, and self-control. (4 Maccabees 1:18 NRS) Those tenants are indeed the foundation of wisdom and wisdom seeking for everybody.
Many years before Sirach, books such as Job (ca. 500 BCE) and the works of Plato (ca. 400 BCE) gave rise to works known as wisdom literature and philosophy texts. Indeed, in Sirach chapters 38 and 39, one may see echos of Plato’s republic with gold, silver, and bronze classes of persons – a notion that Plato self-describes as a lie. This is where wisdom and philosophy begin to part: the tendency of philosophy to become more of a mental exercise than a practical guide to reasonable ethics and ways in which to achieve harmony with nature and each other. Perhaps the ultimate polemic for such a trend is Voltaire’s Candide which roundly and raucously rejects Leibnizian Optimism. He does so by showing, in hyperbole and the absurd, that Leibniz did not have prudent understanding of the real world in which people live their lives.
Accordingly, when we review literature from philosophers, we should consider that we’re reading one point of view. Plato’s use of dialogue is very seductive in this manner, but the reader must remember that Plato writes both sides of the conversation to shore up his argument. It’s not only fair to question the argument, it’s necessary.
Still, ancient philosophers like Aristotle, and to a lesser extent Plato, encompassed everything including science and physics and meta-physics – that which undergirds the physical world – in their studies and teachings while more recent philosophical treatises focus on the esoteric and the abstract. Much practical wisdom does come from lofty western philosophical ideas and mystic observations of the east, but ascendant western society has focused on practical wisdom acquired through scientific investigations. Those investigations focus on predictable, reproducible results allowing application of these theories and experiments to the benefit of humanity in medicine, increased standards of living, and so forth and so on.
Some, perhaps many, branches of science are mostly theoretical because we do not understand the physicality that creates observable, repeating phenomena (quantum physics for example). We craft models that fit collected observations to predict what will happen in other cases, including engineering use cases. We also craft experiments to prove or disprove theoretical predictions and, quite often, the failure of those experiments produces new advances in science.
At the end of the day, in the realms of the infinite and infinitesimal, our scientific theories diverge and give rise to puzzling questions about what space and time really are, about the possibility of infinite universes, about the impact of an observer, going all the way back to Plato, Aristotle, and meta-physics searching for understanding. Our species, homo sapiens sapiens – the wise wise man, is not yet so wise.
Rational judgement, to western thought, is then based on data that supports a conclusion regarding the likely outcome of a decision. Making such judgments on technical matters has been my job as a Chief Engineer for many years. Cost, schedule, technical performance, and a host of other things are used to make the best decision, but that decision is about product, not about people except inasmuch as the effort required and the pressure on those doing the work must be taken into account.
Where people are involved, our rational judgment continues to fail us because results with people are not neatly repeatable experiments. The wise course is then to limit rational judgement to those decisions that must be made rather than those that the majority find pleasing, a choice made wise by applying rational thought to the judgement process in the western model – we will never have enough data to make good decisions and, like science, when we are dealing with the individual, the infinitesimal human unit, or the larger society, the infinite human unit, our models break down and lead to division rather than unity.
In an free society, the decision making structure is like pyramid with the fewest decisions being made at the highest levels and the most being made by each individual. When this pyramid begins to invert and there are more rules applicable to the general population enforced by the overall majority of the citizenry at a federal level than there is individual control, rational judgement has not been successful, often leading to violent change.
In the most ancient texts regarding justice, two basic forms are present: (1) Justice where punishments are never assigned to leaders (Hammurabi, Lipit-Ishtar both ca 1800 BCE) and (2) Justice where punishments are equally applied to all persons (Hebrew Bible, Egyptian Book of the Dead), noting that the book of the dead applies to the afterlife whereas the Hebrew Bible, like Hammurabi and Lipit-Ishtar apply to daily life; the point is that the Egyptian concept of true justice applied to the royalty as well as the common person.
The concept of justice universally includes two phases (a) the determination of whether or not a person is guilty of an offense and (b) the determination of the punishment for the guilty person. Those punishments, universal until recent times, were from a warning to death. I think that they should be universally changed to a range from warning to life in prison, but that’s a post for another time.
Western society embraces justice that is equally applicable to all persons regardless of rank, wealth, or any discriminating factor except competence to understand charges and mount a defense. That said, we continue to face a conundrum in our justice systems because the rich and powerful are able to avail themselves of services and techniques that the poor cannot making justice inherently unequal and unjust. Likewise, sentences are more impactful on the poor than the wealthy inasmuch as the wealthy leave prison rich and the poor not only have little but now also have an additional impediment to getting a job.
Compounding this problem is the use of police activities to provide funds for local, state, and federal governments through fines and statutes (see the Ferguson Report and the RICO Act which allows seizure of money and property before trial). When the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education “We conclude that in the field of public education the doctrine of ‘separate but equal’ has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”, we could and perhaps should have embraced the concept that the “public defender” provided to the poor created a separate and inherently unequal tier of the justice system because it does just that.
Therefore, in summary, our extant justice system needs improvement based on rational thought to make its burden equal to all persons. As it is, it does not fit the needs of the wise or the prudent. It also needs pruning of rules in large measure to decrease the number of decisions being made for people at high levels which currently threaten the upended pyramid.
The one thing that we lose sight of in our justice system is that justice in sentencing the guilty must include mercy. It must take into account the impact on the person sentenced as well as the aggrieved or injured (or dead) party and their families and associates. This is the purpose of justice, to balance the scales, to make people whole. We often lose sight of this in favor of punishing “wrong doers” which is not at all the point of a justice system. No, its purpose is to remedy harm, to deter future harm, and, for the incarcerated, to return better people to society after their period of punishment.
The acts of a fool are often courageous and the acts of the wise are often cowardly. Only a fool puts himself between a bullet and someone she doesn’t know, yet police do this every day. Only a fool rushes into a fire in a house owned by people he doesn’t know to save a dog he doesn’t know. But firemen do that every day. The wise say that the good of the many outweigh the needs of the few or the one, but our first responders and good citizens say that the needs of the one outweigh the merits of their own lives. This, then is courage. And it is just and wise and merciful because it inspires all people.
Rosa Parks chose to act with courage by not moving. Knowing that this led to arrest, the wise might shun that action. This is courage.
Courage is required of those employing rational judgment. We must speak out against that which is unjust, and sometimes we must be courageous in our approach, and always in our voting. People don’t want to hear rational arguments when they conclude that society is in error, that the needs of the one outweigh other needs at times.
So, then, the courage upon which wisdom lies is the willingness to use our talents to the betterment of one or all by seeking to remedy and improve through peaceful insistence and persistence that wrongs be righted.
I must admit that I’ve got a temper, and speaking or acting out of anger is never wise because what one says and does is not rational. When we lose self control, it should be to do those courageous acts that save or help others, not to rant at a person in the drive through. And of course the most obvious need for self control is in sexual attraction, in dealing with lust, a state that also universally leads to irrational acts and which, again, requires the intent to be felicitous and never hurtful.
In the Biblical narrative, we are warned constantly of the impact our speech (and texts and posts) have on others and to exercise self control in what we say and do. This skill is perhaps the hardest to acquire in our hunt and it one that we never perfect. That’s why the hunt never ends.
Wisdom is the knowledge, mercy, and ability required to make and support just, courageous, rational, practical judgements while controlling one’s self in prejudgment and knowing when one is not wise enough to render such a decision.
Of the planks set by 4 Maccabees, one is lacking: humility. I have yet to encounter a human that did not have better mastery of some task or topic than I do meaning that everyone is smarter than I am, at least in some area. We must have the humility and honesty to admit this if we seek wisdom.
Why, thou sayest well. I do now remember a saying,Shakespeare, as you like it
‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man
knows himself to be a fool.’ The heathen
philosopher, when he had a desire to eat a grape,
would open his lips when he put it into his mouth;
meaning thereby that grapes were made to eat and
lips to open. You do love this maid?
If the day comes when I can write a post without intense study, scrutiny of my own positions, and changing some of those positions, I shall be wise. That day will never come, so these posts take quite some time to prepare. I hope you find them at least mildly helpful in your own hunt for wisdom.