Tuesday, October 08, 2002

Thought of the day: the need for, and problem with, wisdom
What is wisdom? God knows we need it; we're so overworked, overstressed, over-entertained, and generally overwhelmed by the forces of life today that we neglect wisdom and exist in a bland state of existence in which reason and contemplation take a back seat to the "virtues" of efficiency, speed, wealth, and the other strange things that drive us. As Quentin Schultze says, we value efficiency over wisdom, and digital ephemera over ages of recorded thought, at our peril. And I agree. To reach back and connect to monks, missionaries, artists and authors who have gone before, who lived in different worlds from ours and yet speak to us with the power of their thought, is powerful indeed. It jolts us out of our Velveeta-bland, hypnotic consumptive lives and confronts us with a larger context.

But who is wise? And what do we do with their frailties? For example, Augustine was one of the most spiritually brilliant people who ever lived. His wisdom has endured and shaped the souls of thinkers for centuries. But Augustine thought women were inferior beings. Aquinas thought women were deformed men. Thomas Jefferson, in Notes on the State of Virginia, describes black people as a form of animal. On a less serious, but sincere note, many of the people I admire are nonetheless Republicans. So the question is, where does time-transcendent wisdom end and folly begin? How do we reconcile the fact that these paragons of wisdom uttered, sometimes in the same breath or book, statements that seem absurd or insane to the least educated person today? And what does it say about wisdom that it can exist, coherently in the mind of an author, so proximate to such folly? And if their folly is due to the blinders of their cultural contexts, is their wisdom independent from their cultural contexts?

People go to college to yawn through class periods and get a degree so they can make more money; wisdom isn't part of the equation. I tried to avoid that routine and actually engage with the wisdom being introduced, to expand my mind, to focus on something other than the money. But one of the most disillusioning realizations of college for me was that wisdom is fleeting, uncertain, and inconsistent in a broken and confusing world. Aquinas is prophet one moment, pig the next. My professors whom I revered as speaking a higher truth were also, at times, misguided, misinformed, misunderstanding. And what is the standard by which I tried to sort out the gold from the chaff--my own agreeableness? My own cultural context which filters reality according to arbitrary standards (i.e. what is beautiful, what is normal, what is good)? Should I try to improve on both the wisdom and mistakes of the past, or be frustrated that I will be prone to similar, old and new, mistakes? More sobering is the fact that while I think religion offers wisdom and reason to a broken world no matter how silly our secular institutions say it is, still religion has led people to do foolish things--to discriminate, to judge, to kill--and not coincidentally, but directly. For the moment I've left it at this: wisdom is like a pinata--we swipe at it repeatedly, not always sure of what we're swiping at, and sometimes, unexpectedly, we strike it, the satisfaction of which compensates for the empty feeling we have much of the rest of the time when we miss.

Related earlier thought: How can we change the world until we see it the same way?
Related earlier thought: It's harder to respect the wise when they don't roll up their sleeves
Previous Thought: Is life urgent?

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