Wisdom: a forgotten concept

by frankbeswick

Modern Education talks about skills and knowledge, but the concept of wisdom is completely overlooked.

Philosophy means the love of wisdom. It is a subject which I studied at theological and teacher training colleges and later as a masters course at Manchester University, UK. But when you examine school curricula wisdom has no place, and is not even mentioned in educational discussions about curriculum content. When politicians argue about education policy it is always about how educational standards are vital to economic progress. They speak of skills, mathematical and scientific knowledge and so on. They might discuss moral education, but wisdom does not seem to have much of a role in their vocabulary. But wisdom and how to gain it is integral to the life well-lived. We should pay more attention to it.

Image courtesy of manolofranco.

Teachers of Wisdom

This is a discussion not merely confined to Christianity, for the concept of wisdom belongs to all religions worthy of the name, and Philosophy, the love of  wisdom, has been built around the quest for it, though it does not exclusively confine the subject or the quest inside its own subject boundaries. The Greek term for wisdom is Sophia and the Hebrew word is Hokhmah, but Hinduism and Buddhism  are both quests for wisdom and they each have their own terms for it. The Bible possesses a whole set of books in the Old Testament known as the Wisdom Literature, the works not of the prophets but of the sages, the wise men of Israel. The New Testament records the visit of the Wise Men to Jesus. These were Zoroastrian scholars from Persia [ I am making no comment on the historicity or otherwise of the story of the Wise Men.] But the story testifies to  the fact that people knew that these scholars were genuinely wise and  were to be respected.

For the Jews of the Old Testament period wisdom involved knowing  the word of God and acting upon it. For them God was manifested in several mediating realities that passed  down from Him to humans. There was wisdom [Hokhmah] Word [Dabar and in Greek Logos] and Shekinah [Glory.] These realities were the mean by which God  worked in the world and were not fully distinguishable from each other. But the Wisdom of God contained the Torah [Law] and his Word carried that law unto humans. A person who  had this wisdom was not merely one in possession of academic knowledge, but one who participated in the divine blessings, one who was touched by the divine. 

The New  Testament inherits this tradition, as indeed it is heir to  the riches of Judaism, from which Christianity springs and to which it is intimately related.John chapter 1, the Prologue, describes Christ as the Logos, the Word of God, incarnate among humans. The Logos carried with it the wisdom of God, so for the writer of John Christ was the incarnate wisdom of God, God's revelation of what He is and humans should be.  

Outside the Judaeo-Christian tradition

Plato gave us the famous simile of the cave.He tells of how a group of people are chained in a cave, where they only see shadows of the objects in the real world  thrown by the light of a fire. One man escapes and climbs from the cave to the real world lit by the light of the sun,which represents the highest form, the form of the Good.  He is the one who has gained wisdom. Eventually he is able to look at the sun the source of all wisdom. But when he returns to the cave to enlighten his fellows they belittle him, for they are trapped in un-wisdom. In Plato's view wisdom consists of knowing a higher world than this one, the world of the forms. For example,there is the form of woman, in which all woman participate, and it is better to know the form of woman than it is to know any individual woman,and there is a whole range of forms in this higher world. For Plato  knowledge of the world, practical or in our day scientific knowledge is mere belief, pistis. Wisdom comes with the knowledge of the forms. There is dianoia, mathematical wisdom, which is knowledge of the forms not dependent upon the form of the good. Then there is episteme or noesis, the knowledge of the forms dependent upon the form of the Good, such as justice and moral concepts. 

For Plato the pursuit of  wisdom was an elite task, and only a few men and even fewer women were capable of achieving it.  Only those who had gained wisdom were fit to rule in Plato's ideal world. It was he who produced the ideal of the philosopher-king. No one now accepts Plato's view of the forms, but he was a philosopher very influential in the intellectual history of Europe, and in the first millennium until Aquinas Catholic philosophy was deeply influence by Plato's ideas.    

But the Eastern religions have their own wisdom traditions, and there is in their religious life a search for enlightenment. Hinduism is very complicated, too much for me to go through in an article, but Hindu holy men have long thought that humans suffer from maya [illusion] so the job of religion is to cut through the web of maya to achieve a true knowledge of the world, which in Hindu thought manifests God. This is done by a long and devoted course of meditation and self-denial.

Buddhism inherits the Hindu tradition in some ways, but broke from it. Buddhists replace illusion with delusion. Whereas illusion is a false view of reality, delusion is false understandings of the self and values, which lead to dukkha [suffering.] But the remedy in the two faiths is similar, a course of meditation under a wise guru who can led initiates into the higher way of wisdom. This is combined with ascetism, which in Buddhism follows the middle way between the extremes of ascetic practice and a non-ascetic life style, for Buddha was wise enough to have discovered that extreme asceticism leads nowhere.   

So What is Wisdom

I am going to suggest that wisdom is the knowledge and understanding of the highest good and how to achieve it. But this is not mere academic grasp of concepts, such as might be gained at university, for the good must be internalized, accepted and made to come to fruition in the wise person's life. So for example, a religious minister who knows much about theology, but who does not live by his own principles, is not wise. He might produce eloquent  sermons, but as Paul says in First Corinthians 13 he is merely a gong booming or a symbol clashing- empty!

There are others whose lives lack wisdom. Take the case of a computer expert who uses his  skills to perpetrate scams. He/she has great expertise, but a life in which the mind is given over to creating scams is a life of serious un-wisdom, for the good is not present within it, and his/her inner life is ugly, cruel and selfish, given to superficial and false values. Such a one is a well-trained barbarian. Sadly, there are many trained barbarians in the world.

The computer expert discussed above has a practical skill, but he/she has not allied it to wisdom. On the other hand, the Benedictine gardeners who restored the soils of Europe depleted by Roman rapacity [Sacred Gardens, by Martin Palmer] had practical gardening skills which they allied to wisdom gained by religious study, prayer and meditation. But the distinction between the two skills is artificial, for their wisdom flowed over into the way in which  they gardened, for they worked patiently and with much self-sacrifice, not taking over-much from the earth and giving back much to it. The example of these monks should be held in front of the technocratic industrial and political elite of today, for it shows that skills alone are insufficient. To exercise stewardship of the Earth and society we need people not only skilled, but those who are wise, people who have thought deeply about the good and internalized it , taken it to heart and tried to realize it in their lives. Such people ponder deeply upon life and how to live it well, they seriously seek the good. Plato was only half right, for the wise person should not be king, but wisdom should be a quality necessary in politicians, and yet so few seem to have it.    

How to Gain Wisdom

The way up the mountain has several paths, but all have in common the need to internalize good and make it part of your life. This involves paying attention to what Christians call the inner life, but as I don't want to imply that wisdom is a purely Christian matter I must say that other religions have their own understanding  of the inner life. This is the life of the mind or spirit, and it is cultivated by quiet reflection on spiritual matters and by prayer and meditation. My meditation knowledge comes from within the Christian tradition, but there are other traditions and people must judge for themselves which is best for them.   

Thus wisdom cannot be taught as a curriculum subject, or even as a component of religious education. The educator, even if he/she possesses it,does not control it and cannot give it on a plate to others. The educator can only point the way, showing the students examples of wise people, in the hope that they will be inspired to follow. But students should  be made aware that wisdom is an essential element in the life well-lived. But  sadly, in what passes for education in our country the inspectors are only interested in ticking boxes that indicate that targets have been met, and they pass their limited view of human of learning down to schools. I have come through three inspections and did well in each case, but it did not endear me to the education system, but anyway, I am retired now and unwilling  to return.

But I will finish by saying that when I taught Religious Education/Studies I used an example which caught the imagination even of those who had no belief. I would say that the quest for religious truth is like a road, you step on it when you ask questions,and every time you think or question you move forward. The students really liked this analogy. But this is the path of wisdom, a life-long road the journey along which is driven by thinking, reflecting and praying about what really matters in life. 

Updated: 12/09/2016, frankbeswick
 
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blackspanielgallery on 12/13/2016

Well said that wisdom cannot be taught. People often confuse knowledge for wisdom, but wisdom is an ability to perceive things beyond just applying factual knowledge. It has to do with understanding which is higher than just knowing.

frankbeswick on 12/10/2016

You say many wise things, Dustytoes. The quest for wisdom is a lifelong adventure.

You are right about pressures, for an intellectual elite, be they in academia or politics, presumes to tell us what to think and uses sanctions such as scorn and social pressure to enforce, if not conformity, at least timid silence.

dustytoes on 12/10/2016

The world has made us believe that we cannot think for ourselves. We are told what to do - healthcare comes to mind - and must follow "their" way of thinking. Unfortunately I think there are people who don't want to exert much effort and are happy to simply follow the crowd. Our recent presidential election comes to mind here (and every election, really). So many people vote according to how their family votes, or their friends, and few really know anything about what the candidate stands for. Sadly, some people are happy to be dumb. They settle into their way of life and never care to improve themselves. Wisdom is something we should always chase. We can never have enough.

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