Wisdom

I mentioned a couple of years ago that Franny in J.D. Salinger’s delightful novel Franny and Zooey decided to drop out of college because, she said, “no one there talks about wisdom.” T.S. Elliot famously asked “Where is the wisdom we have lost with knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Both of these comments deserve further comment.

As a philosopher who has devoted his life to helping young minds grow, a “philo-sopher,” a “lover of wisdom,” I have often asked myself the same questions. In my field, I have found members of my profession lost in a cloud of jargon searching for the “philosopher’s stone,” the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe. This, in my experience, has translated itself into a bunch of academic introverts weaving themselves into a tangled web of abstruse verbiage splitting hairs with a wicked grin on their collective faces, playing one-up to see who is the cleverest.  One of my professors at Northwestern suggested that if I wanted to succeed in my profession I should find an obscure topic no one knows anything about and write journal articles about it. As Franny asked, what became of wisdom?

This question lead me back to the classics, which I have quoted of late in these posts, writers such as Euripides and Sophocles, who seem to have a better grasp of what it means to be wise. Socrates, reputed to be the wisest man in Athens, insisted that his wisdom (if such it be) consisted in the fact that he knew that he did not know. That is, he did not presume to know things about which he was ignorant — unlike our president-elect who presumes to know more than 97% of the world’s entire scientific community, or anyone else for that matter.

Some distinctions are in order. Wisdom is not about knowledge and it’s not about information. We have both in abundance. We also confuse information with education when we say things such as “she needs to be educated about child-rearing.” No, she needs to be informed about child-rearing. Education is what transforms information into knowledge. Knowledge coupled with experience and common sense may then become wisdom. It depends on many variables, and some have insisted that the experience must involve some degree of suffering. I suspect this is true. In any event, wisdom requires a certain amount of information and a certain amount of knowledge as well. But above all else it requires a sense of how to apply that knowledge and how to weed out the misinformation from the information — a growing problem with bogus news on the Internet, the Fox News channel, and our increasing tendency to reduce all truth to gut feelings.

I would suggest that wisdom is the knowledge of what is appropriate in a particular situation, what the situation calls for. It comes very close to what we loosely call “common sense.” And in my experience, women seem to have more of it than men. It is a wise person who knows what to do and when to do it. A large part of this comes with the skill of critical thinking, which can be taught — and which all college professors of all stripes insist they are teaching (though most are not). We cringe at the word “critical,” because we have been told not to be “judgmental” and criticism is a form of judgment. This, of course, is absurd. Judgment is what separates the wise from the unwise. And criticism allows us to wade through the tons of information and misinformation thrown at its each day and separate out those few items that are worth careful consideration. Education, above all else, involves the development of critical sensibility, the ability to grasp what is essential and important and reject nonsense and blatant falsehood.

Education, therefore, ought to be about wisdom, teaching the skills that allow us to use our minds critically and glean important information from the dreck that surrounds us — and how to apply that information. Too often it is about information, per se, teachings kids the skills they will need to get a job or filling their minds with the information their teachers and professors have decided is important for them to know. The ability to winnow the information ought to be the skill that is taught and we can then hope that the young person will be lucky enough to wed that to a bit of common sense — which I suspect we are born with. Or not. But, in any event, wisdom ought to be discussed in our colleges and universities.

I do believe it can best be discovered by reading the words written by wise men and women who have experience of the world, who know what is appropriate in any circumstance and who have a wealth of common sense. And who write well.

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Remembering Quixote

In a day in which reading books is rapidly becoming a lost art, it is refreshing to read one great author praising another. I have referred from time to time to Don Quixote, but Joseph Conrad’s tribute is by far the most eloquent I have ever read. It appeared in Conrad’s “Personal Record” of his life.

“. . .Indulgence — as someone said — is the most intelligent of all virtues. I venture to think that it is one of the least common, if not the most uncommon of all. I would not imply by this that men are foolish — or even most men. Far from it. The barber and the priest, backed by the whole opinion of the village, condemned justly the conduct of the ingenuous hidalgo who, sallying forth from his native place, broke the head of the muleteer, put to death a flock of inoffensive sheep, and went through very doleful experiences at a certain stable. God forbid that an unworthy charl should escape merited censure by hanging on to the stirrup-leather of the sublime caballero. His was a very noble, a very unselfish fantasy, fit for nothing except to raise the envy of the baser mortals. But there is more than one aspect to the charm of that exalted and dangerous figure. He, too, had his frailties. After reading so many romances he desired naively to escape with his very body from the intolerable reality of things. He wished to meet eye to eye the valorous giant Brandabarbaran, Lord of Arabia, whose armor is made of the skin of a dragon, and whose shield, strapped to his arm, is the fate of a fortified city. Oh, amiable and natural weakness! Oh, blessed simplicity of a gentle heart without guile! Who would not succumb to such consoling temptation? Nevertheless, it was a form of self-indulgence, and the ingenious hidalgo of La Mancha was not a good citizen. The priest and the barber were not unreasonable in their strictures. Without going so far as the old King Louis Phillipe, who used to say in his exile, ‘The people are never at fault’ — one may admit that there must be some righteousness in the assent of the whole village. Mad! Mad! He who kept in pious meditation the ritual vigil-of-arms by the well of an inn and knelt reverently to be knighted at daybreak by the fat, sly rogue of a landlord, has come very near perfection. He rides forth, his head encircled by a halo — the patron saint of all lives spoiled or saved by the irresistible grace of imagination. But he was not a good citizen.”

Socrates once said a person cannot be a good citizen and a good person. Jesus said we cannot worship two masters, God and Mammon. I wonder. So, apparently, does Conrad. In J.D. Salinger’s tales of Franny and Zooey, Franny quits college because she hasn’t heard anyone talk about wisdom. She would have done well to have read Cervantes. Or George Eliot. Or the early Platonic dialogues. Or the New Testament. Franny must have been receiving very poor advice: she missed all the really important stuff!  It saddens me to think that fewer and fewer people will read the adventures of the mad, holy knight of La Mancha — as it does to think that fewer and fewer will read anything at all. Conrad’s tribute, written by a man using his second (or third) language, gives us a sense of what they are missing.

Wisdom Revisited

No one has asked, but the topic fascinates me, so I will ruminate again briefly on the nature of wisdom. I have noted in a previous blog that it is not mere information or knowledge, but it is knowledge of what is appropriate in any given situation. In addition to a wealth of experience, either direct or vicarious, it requires a great deal of common sense and a willingness to proceed slowly. It demands the imagination to anticipate outcomes and consider alternatives. This, in turn, requires a sense of history and if not knowledge of human nature then certainly knowledge of human tendencies. It is more intuitive than discursive, though critical thinking is certainly involved: one does not simply stumble ahead blindly. But if we think of intuition in its primitive meaning of intellectual sympathy and acknowledge that the feminine aspect of the human psyche (the yin of Chinese philosophy) is where we usually find sympathy, it is not surprising that women are frequently wiser than men. I dare to use this sort of language despite the fact that we are told we must deny fundamental differences between men and women. In any event, as intellectual sympathy, intuition is contrasted with discursive thinking which regards the object of knowledge as standing over against the subject; intuitive knowledge is an immersion of the subject with the object. Herein lies the basic nature of wisdom: becoming one with the object. It is not knowledge, it is understanding and it requires a balance between intuition and discursive thought, with emphasis on the former.

Accordingly, if I were to list the wisest thinkers I have encountered in my intellectual travels I would certainly list George Eliot at the top (especially in Middlemarch and Felix Holt, Radical) — as mentioned in a previous blog. I would also list Edith Wharton  (especially in The House of Mirth and Fruit of the Tree) who knew the people around her well and understood the flaws as well as the strengths of the age in which she lived and wrote. I would also add Jane Austen in all of her novels. Among the men who seem to have abundant common sense and are highly intuitive, but also exhibit the balance noted above, I would list Plato’s early “Socratic” dialogues (especially “Apology,” and “Euthyphro”), Dostoevsky (especially in his novels The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment), Hermann Hesse (especially Narcissus and Goldmund), Huxley in his Brave New World, Joseph Conrad (especially in Heart of Darkness), Cervantes, Swift, the Greek poets, and, of course, Shakespeare. I need to get to know him better, but it is quite possible that Ralph Waldo Emerson should be added to the list. Fewer women appear on this list than men, of course, because for so many years women were denied the opportunity to express themselves seriously in print. Indeed, for so many years they were not taken seriously at all. Now we would have them all turn into men in order to become “successful.”

As I said in that previous blog on the subject, J.D. Salinger’s fictional character Franny was absolutely right: we don’t talk much (if at all) about wisdom in our schools. Part of that may be the result of the academic gender attacks that have disallowed the distinctions between ways of thinking that I would regard as essential to an understanding of what wisdom is. Be that as it may, we teach to the tests, as the teachers say, and undervalue imagination, and the poets and writers who have so much to teach us. If this seems like an indictment of an academic culture that is mired in ideology and focuses on testing and outcomes, that preaches that “no child should be left behind” and which pushes young people into narrow “career” channels from which they emerge with a smattering of knowledge about a few things so they can make a living — if, I say, this seems like an indictment of that culture, then so be it.

Lost Wisdom

Many years ago, when I was working my way through J.D. Salinger’s novels, I recall that Franny (of Franny and Zooey)  dropped out of college because she hadn’t heard anyone speak about wisdom. That impressed me at the time and I heard it later echoed in T.S. Eliot’s provocative question, “where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?” Indeed. Our schools teach information and knowledge, but they do not teach about wisdom. Where, then can it be found? One would think the philosophers would have a firm grasp of the elusive creature, because they are, presumably, “lovers of wisdom.” But aside from Socrates, and perhaps Kant and maybe Albert Camus, I can think of few philosophers whom I would regard as truly wise. In fact, the wisest person I have encountered in my intellectual journey is a woman who called herself George Eliot — because she wanted to be taken seriously by those who read her works. Indeed, Eliot was so wise that readers sent her scores of letters asking her advice about everything from soup to nuts. And, apparently, she always attempted to answer the queries.

The “Book of Job” tells us that the price of wisdom is above rubies, yet as Franny says, no one seems to want to talk about it. There are books that contain a great deal of wisdom, including but not limited to the Bible and George Eliot’s novels. Cervantes was a supremely wise man, as was Jonathan Swift, in his way. The writers are out there as are the books from which we can learn a great deal about our world and the folks who people it. But we waste so much time reading whatever is the latest fashion on the supposition that what is newer is better, or what confirms my predispositions is what is worth reading. To which I say “bollocks!” What is older is better, whether we like what it says or not, since it has withstood the test of time. We know, or can soon find out, who the wise writers were. They are the ones who have been read by the wise persons who have followed them, like Winston Churchill, who learned at the feet of Shakespeare.

I have said some demeaning things in past blogs about the military mind, questioning whether the phrase “military intelligence” might be an oxymoron, for example. It is a concern I share with many. But there have been a few wise military men, including George Washington and Dwight Eisenhower. And I would hasten to add to the list Omar Bradley who had this to say about wisdom: “If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom and prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” Now that’s worth pondering. And it is precisely those insights and profound observations that comprise wisdom. They disturb us and force us to think, whether we want to or not.  They go well beyond mere information or knowledge  — which is what we teach in our schools to Franny’s chagrin. Perhaps it is time to return to those who have looked long and hard at the human condition and returned to us on the pages of their books with words that will enable us to stand on their heads as we seek to look further.

We hear at every turn that there are so many books and so little time. This is true, but the important question is how many of those books are worth reading? I suggest there is plenty of time to read good books because most of what is out there is not worth reading. Not even if Oprah makes the recommendation!