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!