On Classical Education and Being a Classical Teacher

Wisdom and Folly: A Tale of Two Houses

Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn out her seven pillars; She has slaughtered her meat, she has mixed her wine, she has also furnished her table. She has sent out her maidens, she cries out from the highest places of the city, “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!” As for him who lacks understanding, she says to him, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Forsake foolishness and live, and go in the way of understanding. (Proverbs 9:1-6)

A foolish woman is clamorous; She is simple, and knows nothing.  For she sits at the door of her house, on a seat by the highest places of the city, to call to those who pass by,
who go straight on their way:“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here”; And as for him who lacks understanding, she says to him,“Stolen water is sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.”But he does not know that the dead are there, that her guests are in the depths of hell. (Proverbs 9:13-18)

I noticed several things while reading these passages.

First, it is interesting that Wisdom’s house has seven pillars.  There has been much speculation about the identity of these seven pillars, which Scripture itself does not identify.  Some have claimed that the pillars are common “core themes” of all religions, and have listed them as the origin and nature of the universe, the nature of God, the nature of man, the nature of salvation, modes of existence, the destiny of man, and the final state of the universe.  Others have noted that in Matthew 5 there are seven Beatitudes describing actions of the one who fears God and two that passively describe what happens to such a person.  On this reading the seven pillars would be the seven active Beatitudes.  Medieval Christian educators held that the seven classical Liberal Arts (listed as Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithemetic, Astronomy, Geometry, and Music) were seven pathways to wisdom.  Additionally, seven is a number often associated with Wisdom, as in the concept of the Seven Sages of Greece or the Seven Wonders of the World (products of Wisdom-seekers).  Whatever the meaning of the seven pillars, since Scripture draws attention to the fact that they are there they must be important.

Conversely, it is interesting to me that the architecture of Folly’s house is not similarly described.   Wisdom’s house seems to be more interesting and complex a thing than Folly’s, meriting a description of what holds it up.   It seems likely that more work has gone into the house of Wisdom than that of Folly, not just because the former has seven hewn pillars but also because Wisdom herself slaughtered her meat and mixed her wine while Folly stole what she has on her table. Wisdom prepared a meal, a process that can involve a great deal of time and effort.  Consuming and internalizing the meal so prepared – not to mention properly appreciating it – also requires time and effort.  There is no short cut to preparing, eating, and digesting a good meal.

If we think of some of the above possible identifications of the seven pillars, this becomes clear.  The Beatitudes are not just moralistic maxims to be memorized and repeated as if on a test; they describe a godly lifestyle, a pattern of living over long periods of time that takes a person through both good and bad and delivers him safely to his goal.  There is no shortcut to a life characterized by the Beatitudes.  Saying them is quite simple.  Living them is quite complicated.  The same is true with the classical Liberal Arts education.  The seven paths to Wisdom that are the Liberal Arts are formal disciplines of study that require years to master (if indeed one can ever be said to have mastered them in so short a time as the average human life).  There is no shortcut to Wisdom.  Whatever you were doing outside her house when you were “simple,” once you enter her house complexity and arduous labor begin.

Proverbs 9 shows us that Wisdom put serious work into both her house and what she offers the simple inside it.  There is something original and complex about the products of Wisdom.  The implication is that the Wisdom-seeker will learn from her to do serious, original work that has an element of complexity to it.  After all, a student fully trained will be like his teacher (Lk. 6:40).

Second is the nuanced discussion of simplicityWe Americans have a motto: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”  A people with a heritage of rugged individualism, we want things to be “practical” and “relevant.”   We like what is presented to our minds for consideration to be “no nonsense.”  We want to know “just the facts” so we can quickly get to “the bottom line.”  We even borrow from mathematics the idea of “the lowest common denominator” to express This drives us often to reduce what seems complex at first glance to easy slogans and formulas.  As Protestants, we like to say that the Bible is “clear.”  What we seem to mean by that is that for the most part (excepting Revelation) the Bible is “simple” to understand.  Other things may be complex, but the Bible is not.  We tend to suspect invocations of “nuance” and “sophistication” in the theological application of the Bible because these things muddy the waters, make us think harder about what we think Scripture “plainly” says than we might first wish to.

Interestingly, here in Proverbs 9 simplicity is the key characteristic of those whom both Wisdom and Folly call into their houses.  But whereas Wisdom calls the simple to forsake their simplicity, Folly calls them to maintain it.  Wisdom’s “way of understanding” is not identified with but contrasted with the state of simplicity.  Wisdom, we are here told, is not a simple thing at all, but the cure for simplicity.  It follows that to desire the results of finding Wisdom to be simple rather than complex is actually to remain in a state of foolishness.  Wisdom enriches one’s mind, makes it more subtle, more sophisticated.  It does not make one’s mind more content with simplicity, but increasingly less content with simplicity.

But perhaps we should ask what “simplicity” means.  Surely saying that Wisdom is not “simple” does not mean there are no things that are, in fact, simple in some important sense.  Isn’t it simple to understand that God is good and the Devil is bad?  Isn’t it simple to see what is right and wrong on issues like abortion, murder, stealing, and sexual immorality?  What is complicated or sophisticated or nuanced about the maxim “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (v. 10)?  Examples could no doubt be multiplied from Scripture and many areas of life.  When it comes to things that truly are simple, the attempt to inject “sophistication” into the discussion starts to sound like the serpent’s subtle (!) “Yea, hath God really said?”

A fair objection, but I am sticking to my guns on this one.  I submit that to talk responsibly about Wisdom and simplicity, we have to make a distinction right from the start that is simultaneously simple and sophisticated.   The distinction is this: It is not the concepts involved in Wisdom-seeking that are complex, but the journey of learning to apply the concepts to real life. Wisdom’s invitation itself is very simple: “Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”  But the simplicity ends the moment one turns in to Wisdom’s house.  Once over the threshold, complexity assaults the seeker: “As for him who lacks understanding, she says to him, “Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.  Forsake foolishness and live, and go in the way of understanding.

It is simple to say “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” but what does “the fear of the Lord” look like in practical, daily terms?  Proverbs 8:13 equates fearing the Lord with hating evil.  Thanks to our human tendency to readily confuse the appearance of good with actual good, sometimes evil is not easy to discern.  Hebrews 5:14 equates the maturity it takes to handle solid food with training to be able to discern good and evil.  Training takes time.  It is not simple, but complex.

Thus, actively developing the wisdom to discern evil (and so acquiring the beginning of wisdom, fearing the Lord) is  not as easy as saying “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”  Wisdom is not simple.  Wisdom is complicated.  Wisdom is sophisticated.  Wisdom is a house that is difficult, not easy to live in.  If we are in a house that is easy to live in, we are not in the house of Wisdom.  If we think we have it all figured out because it’s all really so very simple, we are not wise but foolish because of our simplicity.

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