Category Archives: On Wisdom-Seeking

All Is Vanity: Deal With It

Seneca (ca. 4 B.C. to 65 A.D.) recommends that since life often sends us for a loop, we should just sit down, shut up, and deal with it:

You must reflect that fettered prisoners only at first feel the weight of the shackles on their legs: in time, when they have decided not to struggle against but to bear them, they learn from necessity to endure with fortitude, and from habit to endure with ease. In any situation in life you will find delights and relaxation and pleasures if you are prepared to make light of your troubles and not let them distress you. In no respect has nature put us more in her debt, since, knowing to what sorrows we were born, she contrived habit to soothe our disasters, and so quickly makes us grow used to the worst ills. No one could endure lasting adversity if it continued to have the same force as when it first hit us. We are all tied to Fortune, some by a loose and golden chain, and other by a tight one of baser metal: but what does it matter? We are all held in the same captivity….all life is a servitude. So you have to get used to your circumstances, complain about them as little as possible, and grasp whatever advantage they have to offer: no condition is so bitter that a stable mind cannot find some consolation in it….Abandoning those things which are impossible or difficult to attain, let us pursue what is readily available and entices our hopes, yet recognize that all are equally trivial, outwardly varied in appearance, but uniformly futile within… – “On Tranquillity of Mind,” in Seneca: Dialogues and Letters, ed. and trans. C.D.N. Costa (New York: Penguin Classics, rep. 2005), pp. 46-47

In some respects he sounds like Solomon in Ecclesiastes, but in others it looks like he could take a lesson from Job.

Chill Out

In Ecclesiastes 12:12, Solomon says, “Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.” The Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca (ca. 4 B.C. to A.D. 65) says the same thing about the mind, and he recommends that for the health of one’s soul one should not to let work and study – serious things – consume everything.

The mind should not be kept continuously at the same pitch of concentration, but given amusing diversions. Socrates did not blush to play with small children; Cato soothed his mind with wine when it was tired from the cares of state…Our minds must relax: they will rise better and keener after a rest. Just as you must not force fertile farmland, as uninterrupted productivity will soon exhaust it, so constant effort will sap our mental vigour, while a short period of rest and relaxation will restore our powers. Unremitting effort leads to a kind of mental dullness and lethargy….We must indulge the mind and from time to time allow it the leisure which is its food and strength. We must go for walks out of doors, so that the mind can be strengthened and invigorated by a clear sky and plenty of fresh air…. – “On Tranquillity of Mind,” in Seneca: Dialogues and Letters, ed. and trans. C.D.N. Costa (New York: Penguin Classics, rep. 2005), pp. 46-47

Sometimes in order to really love the pursuit of wisdom, you just have to chill out for a bit. “Bodily exercise may profit little” (1 Tim. 4:8), but that’s not the same thing as saying it profits nothing.

“Set Your Minds on Things Above”

In the Republic, Socrates says

he…whose mind is fixed upon true being, has surely no time to look down upon the affairs of earth, or to be filled with malice and envy, contending against men; his eye is ever directed toward things fixed and immutable, which he sees neither injuring nor injured by one another, but all in order moving according to reason; these he imitates, and to these he will, as far as he can, conform himself. Can a man help imitating that with which he holds reverential converse? (500b-c)

It’s passages like this (see other entries of mine on Platonic love) that make you realize why many of the Church Fathers, and the Medievals as well, thought that Plato was virtually a closet Christian, and why, therefore, some of the main categories of Platonic philosophy could be readily adapted to Christian theology. I mean, didn’t Paul write something very similar sounding in Colossians 3:2 and 2 Corinthians 4:18?

Poetry and Reality

For many ancient writers, the point of poetry is to purify human thoughts and emotions (catharsis; see Aristotle Poetics) by connecting their verbal expressions to the simple, pure rhythms of the world. The very word “verse,” standing in English for “poetry,” is from the Latin word “to turn” (versus), and signifies the turning of a plowman at the end of his furrows, or of dancers moving through their routine, the cycle of the seasons, or even the regular paths of the sun and stars in the heavens. Interestingly, the very form of verse is consciously fashioned on the pattern of the rhythm of footsteps, heartbeats, and breathing: poetic meter has feet.

A chief place where this linkage of human consciousness to the natural world’s order and symmetry is found in Hesiod’s Theogony:

But they (the Muses) went to Olympus, glorying in their sweet voice,
in ambrosial dance, and all about them the dark earth reechoed
as they sang, and a lovely beating rose beneath their footsteps
as they went to their father, who is king in the heavens,
who himself holds the thunder and the flashing lightning.

( . . . )

And if a man has anguish in his newly-troubled soul
and a heart stupefied with grief, yet, when a singer,
the servant of the Muses, chants the glorious deeds
of men of old and the blessed gods who inhabit Olympos,
at once he forgets his anguish and remembers nothing
of his griefs; for the goddesses’ gifts soon turn him away from these. [Lines 68-98]

By linking emotions to periodicity, to regularity, poetry has a calming effect. It reminds men–who might otherwise feel overwhelmed by the seeming chaos and unpredictability of an often-violent world–of the fundamental orderliness of the world, and enables them to come to better terms with their lives.

There are, of course, differences between poetry written in different languages. Greek poetry was always sung, and so for all its beauty and suppleness it cannot attain to the likeness of living speech. It is a dance, not a conversation. On the other hand, English (Saxon) poetry has always been more like a marching footstep than a dancing footstep, and so it can get closer to living speech. If English poetry can’t have a Homer, Greek poetry can’t have a Shakespeare. Similarly, neither of those languages can have a Vergil, for Latin can incorporate both the stress accents of normal speech and the meter aspects of singing found at the end of lines.

[The bulk of this article is a summary of an unpublished article by Dr. Karl Maurer from the Classics dept. at the University of Dallas.]

Know Your Limits

Aristotle has the following to say about recognizing one’s intellectual limitations and taking care to properly order one’s studies toward a good end:

Now each man judges well the things he knows, and of these he is a good judge. And so the man who has been educated in a subject is a good judge of that subject, and the man who has received an all-round education is a good judge in general. Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be in vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. And it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living, and pursuing each successive object, as passion directs. For to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit; but to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit. (Nicomachean Ethics 1094b29-1095a12)

So, according to Aristotle:

(1) If you want to render a judgment about a subject, make sure you know that subject,

(2) An “all-round education” makes for a much better judge of matters generally speaking,

(3) Don’t let your studies be governed by your passions, because then you aren’t aiming for knowledge but merely for action,

(4) Failure to observe such guidelines as these makes one intellectually incontinent, depriving one of the benefits that might otherwise come from knowledge obtained.

Wise advice for everyone.

The Beginning of Wisdom (4): Provisional Conclusions

Last time we were looking at Job’s experience of finding wisdom. At the risk of being repetitious, let me say that as wisdom-seekers ourselves, we must realize that it takes Job a great deal of time and painstaking (not to mention painful) thinking to arrive at the insight that we human beings do not even know where wisdom is.

From the moment he begins his self-defense in Chapter 3, Job assumes continually that he knows what is going on, and that God owes him an explanation. Throughout the discussions with his friends, Job puts the very concept of human wisdom itself on trial. Like Socrates, he wants to be instructed by someone who knows better than himself (6:24). He admits that human concepts of justice cannot contain the Almighty, rendering the human complaint against God nonsensical (9:3, 12-15).

But as his friends’ counsel makes him further despair, Job at last assaults the very legitimacy of human wisdom. On the one hand, “Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days” (12:12). This would seem to encompass both Job and his three friends, who are older men with much life experience. Yet on the other hand, neither his own nor his friends’ speeches make sense of his suffering, so it seems that “[God] takes away understanding from the chiefs of the people of the earth and makes them wander in a pathless waste” (12:24).

Some chapters later we read, starkly, that wisdom “is not found in the land of the living” (28:13), but “is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air” (28:21). And at the last, after God recites for four chapters the plethora of things Job does not know about the world, Job confesses his ignorance: “I have uttered what I did not understand, things to wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3), and repents in dust and ashes.

What the book of Job shows us about wisdom exhibits not the kind of “simplicity” that uncareful readers who assume a “literal” or “face value” meaning of a text that is easily grasped, but rather a weighty sophistication. The text leads us step-by-painful step to realize that we must not merely read it in some pious “devotional” manner, but go through the quiet, sober, length of time it takes to contemplate it – perhaps going through much misunderstanding, as did Job himself, before we grasp its meaning and find wisdom.

The idea throughout Job is plainly that wisdom for us begins with profound humility in the face of that which we cannot understand and cannot acquire on our own.

Let’s return to where we started, the biblical fact that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” What may we glean from this too short survey? The quality that functions as the gateway to wisdom, “the fear of the Lord,” shows itself in such attitudes as self-abasement in the face of those specially gifted by God with discernment, humility enough to set aside our own claims to knowledge and learn from others, and, maybe most importantly, abjectly refusing to say that we even know where wisdom is (let alone that we have found it), and, each and every day living coram Deo – before the face of God Himself who dwells in unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16) but who has, in His gracious condescension to us, united us with Christ, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col.2:3).

The Beginning of Wisdom (3): Knowing that You DON’T Know

Winding down this short series on the beginning of wisdom, I want to reflect for a few minutes on the lessons of the Book of Job.

Sometimes Scripture illustrates wisdom with what has been described as an “act-consequence” dynamic. Two prominent examples are:

He who gathers crops in summer is a prudent son,
    but he who sleeps during harvest is a disgraceful so
n. – Proverbs 10:5

The wealth of the rich is their fortified city,
    but poverty is the ruin of the poor.
– Proverbs 10:15

Simple pairings like these, drawn originally, no doubt, from close observation of the norms and happenings in agrarian life, seem to indicate that the theory and practice of wisdom is relatively uncomplicated, perhaps even a matter only of “common sense.” And in truth, sometimes it is precisely this way. In many aspects of life, there is a “givenness” to the world as God made it and as we encounter it, an observable and knowable “way things are” that only the dullest of the dull – or else the willfullest of the willful! – can fail to see. Yet to realize the scope of wisdom, and far we all always have to go in our search for it, we must probe deeper in light of the whole of Israel’s story.

The conflict of the book of Job reveals a complex picture of the relationship of divine providence and human suffering. We should attentively note that the pattern of act-consequence does not play out in Job’s life: his suffering has nothing to do with the way he has lived, and none of the traditional and “common sense” explanations for his suffering given by his friends turns out to be correct.

Consider Job’s initial assessment of his trials, “Shall we accept good from God and shall not we receive evil?” (2:10), about which we read “Job did not sin with his lips.” At first glance, we may think it proper to derive from this the idea that we may not question God’s sovereign decisions, but must merely submit so as to avoid sinning by impious speech. There follows on this declaration thirty-six chapters of eloquent speeches, attempting to theologically explain what has happened to Job. But at the end, both Job and his friends are forced to realize that all their “wisdom” is actually foolishness, for only God has wisdom and only God actually knows where it is.

Attend to the different ways God deals with Job and Job’s friends. Job gets a four chapter recitation of seemingly endless items about the world that he does not know and cannot explain, after which he confesses, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things to wonderful for me, which I did not know” (42:3), and, despising himself, repents in dust and ashes. Job’s friends, however, hear God say to them, “…you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:10).

We should ask: what did Job speak about God that was right? What did his friends speak about God that was wrong? The difference between them is that whereas both Job and his friends entered into lengthy theological explanations of Job’s sufferings and God’s purposes, only Job at last came to realize that for all his supposed “learning,” he was profoundly ignorant and could not give an explanation.

There’s just something about having wisdom that makes one want, seemingly bizarrely, to say, “Actually, I don’t have any wisdom, but I’m really busy looking for it!” In the final installment of this series, I’ll draw these threads together.

The Beginning of Wisdom (2): “Simplicity” vs. Humility

Last time we looked at the definition of the fear of the Lord as presented in Proverbs 1 and saw that there it involves attending carefully to Solomon’s words. It’s my belief that we, in an age of universal literacy and a mode of education that has convinced us all really important things should be “simple” to grasp, should take care not to imagine that just “simply” reading the words of Solomon in English automatically grants us the sort of understanding Solomon himself was directly given by God.

Wisdom is not the sort of thing that we get off the retail shelf, neatly packaged to aggrandize our preferences and agitate our itch to impulse-acquire. Unless God grants wisdom to us directly, as He did Solomon, we’re going to have to invest a good bit more effort in getting hold of it than we may at first find comfortable.

Ancient Wisdom Literature, a genre of which portions of Scripture are a substantial part, possesses the paradoxical feature of sometimes being really super-simple to understand (“Look at the ant, sluggard! Consider her ways and be wise!”, Prov. 6:6), and other times being maddeningly complex (“Answer a fool according to his folly…do not answer a fool according to his folly…,” Prov. 26:4-5).

So, moving on, we read in Proverbs 9:1-9 that a characteristic of wisdom is that it is the opposite of simplicity and having no sense. Now simple, a word we Moderns frequently use in our impatience to have “just the facts” so we can use them to “get things done,” was just two chapters earlier (7:6-27) represented as just the kind of thing that the adulteress uses to snare the unwary young man.

Now this is interesting. Chapter 9 goes on to state that it is those who are already wise who will, perhaps paradoxically, be very willing to receive rebuke and additional instruction so that they can add to their wisdom. It seems, then, that wisdom is not the sort of thing that one obtains immediately (say, just by reading something and concluding it is “simple” to understand), but rather, a thing that, if one actually has it, is pretty self-effacing.

As attentive readers, we should notice that it is only after speaking of the wise person as someone who receives rebuke in order to add to his wisdom that we see again a reference to “the fear of the Lord.” This quality, said to be the beginning of wisdom, stands thus clearly connected not with a self-aggrandizing belief that oneself either already has wisdom or else that it is really quite simple to get hold of. Rather, we see here that wisdom is a quality that involves a fair bit of sophistication, having sense, and being open to correction.

In a word, getting wisdom requires humility, and so if we refuse to be humble, we dare not imagine that we have or even can get wisdom.

The Beginning of Wisdom (1): The Fear of the Lord

Today I want to take a brief look at the quality we see held up in multiple places as the beginning of wisdom, “the fear of the Lord” (Prov. 1:7; Prov. 9:10; Job 28:28; Ps. 111:10).

If we want to know what wisdom is, and Scripture repeatedly says it begins with this single quality, the fear of the Lord, we should try to determine what that quality involves. It’s easy, I think, for any of us to assume we’re most of the time going to pretty easily know what the Bible means since we’re reading it in English and it was written to be understood. But the Bible shares one feature with all ancient literature, and it’s that it has to be read carefully and reflectively, not least because it does not always convey its meaning immediately and without much interpretive effort. This is especially true of Wisdom Literature.

Interestingly, in the passages noted above, the precise meaning of the phrase the fear of the Lord is not given – meaning that Scripture expects us either to already know or to be prepared to go searching for it. As I hope to show in this series of posts, a key tenet of a wisdom-seeker is not assuming he or she already knows and so doesn’t need to go looking. Myself, I think if we go looking for the meaning of the phrase, closely attending to words and phrases and other contextual clues, we will find it.

For instance, the first 6 verses of Proverbs 1 describe the wisdom of Solomon, a man especially illumined by the Lord so that he was the wisest man who ever lived or ever would live (I Kings 3:12). Following this list of how Solomon’s wisdom might affect one’s life, we read about “the fear of the Lord.” It seems to be a summary of the attitude we should have as we read Solomon’s words, illumined as they are by God. By heeding Solomon’s words, we fear the Lord who gave Solomon surpassing wisdom – and this is the beginning of wisdom for us.

But let’s not stop with this seeming straightforward exhortation: heed Solomon’s words. A wisdom-seeker who is not granted, as Solomon was, direct insight by the Lord, but who is instead told to pay attention to Solomon’s words, will take that to heart and begin attentively contemplating Solomon’s words. In the next few posts, I will try to show what that looks like.