On Wisdom: a Philosopher’s Fumbling Sketch of That Which He Seeks (11/17/16)

It occurs to me, yet again, that persons driven by the pursuit of pleasurable or happy states generally move in a very different direction than those who seek wisdom above all else. Why is this the case? We all know the quote from Ecclesiastes: “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow,” but are wisdom and ordinary happiness really so diametrically opposed? I, for one, am not content with gross generalities here. If we are to arrive at a more nuanced and adequate understanding of the relationship between wisdom and happiness, where should we begin?

If wisdom involves one kind of knowledge more than any other, “self-knowledge” is as good a candidate as any other. One very good reason for putting self-knowledge at the top of the list is that its pursuit meets with so many emotional resistances. Some of these are moral in character, because we find it deeply disquieting to acknowledge morally repellent and vicious inclinations, desires, fears, and weaknesses in ourselves. Our pride and vanity obviously act as dams or filters holding back such unflattering constituents of our unlit or repressed interior. Typically, others in our midst (or online or on TV) serve as convenient targets or scapegoats for these “shadow projections.”

Another impediment to self-knowledge is the obscure or opaque character of the inner world – certainly for those whose attention is habitually inclined to outer-directedness. The stark transition – abruptly pivoting from familiar outer-directedness to introspection – is like suddenly moving from outdoors on a sunny afternoon into a candlelit room. Momentary blindness and disorientation – along with feelings of mild or intense anxiety – are to be expected.

If we may be permitted to say that wisdom consists chiefly in knowing how to be in the world at large – fully and with minimal blinders and armor – then we can surely see how self-knowledge is the cornerstone as well as the crown of wisdom. And while it is easy to show that there can be no deep wisdom without a clear and capacious intellect (though we know all too well that there are “learned fools” and clever scoundrels who scarcely deserve to be called ‘wise’), there can be no real wisdom where exceptional moral virtue is deficient or absent. How can one be called ‘wise’ who is not also courageous, honest, just, and temperate? We could add a few more: patient; forgiving; resourceful; resilient. Mightn’t we, following Nietzsche’s cue, include cheerfulness here, even if it defies the stereotype?

But if such cheerfulness is to be more than a mask concealing wisdom’s grim gravitas, it certainly cannot be feigned or frothy. It must not be there as a strategic means of concealing everything that is weighty, cold, and severe about wisdom, but as a humanizing, counterbalancing warmth that comes from the generosity and natural buoyancy of hard-won insights that pertain to the fragility and poignant evanescence of all that is individually human. Perhaps here, more than in any other way, genuine wisdom displays that plenitude of compassion hinted at in those touching words uttered from the Cross, long ago: “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.” The generosity of wisdom is always truly empathetic and never condescending, precisely because it remembers all too painfully the blinkered and blighted condition in which its mockers and cynical detractors are immured. Wisdom, in its patience, understands that those enclosing and suffocating walls afford no ultimate protection against the larger mysterious reality that dwarfs and baffles the isolated and self-alienated ego – and that these walls can only be lowered or removed from within and not by external forces, no matter how great. The confused, fearful soul, like the crustacean, automatically produces a new, quickly-hardening shell around itself as soon as the old one is dropped or forced off. The evolutionary move from hard-shelled, beetle, crab, and turtle to thin-skinned human is the biological equivalent to an expansion of psychic “surface area” and an accompanying sensitization of the unarmored creature.

Thus, we return to our initial description of wisdom as an ongoing, evolutionary process of learning how to be, “fully and with a minimum of blinders and armor,” in the world at large. Viewed in this way, we see the identity of wisdom and love, since it entails a good deal more shedding and letting go then accumulating and clinging. Of course it is both desire and fear that constitute the principal impediments to shedding and letting go, as both Christ and the Buddha taught. There is a kind of nakedness and a degree of faith (in the absolute value of true, silent centeredness) in wisdom that is utterly fearless – so fearless, in fact, that many have supposed that our very humanity must be triumphed over – and shed like a corpse by a departing spirit – before it can be attained. That is certainly one way of looking at it. Another way is simply to regard wisdom as the consummation and fulfillment of human promise and potential. But what do such interpretations of a real but mysterious process actually matter, ultimately, from the stillpoint at the center where both thought and action are seen as rungs on a ladder leading from the realm of dreams into pure, formless awareness? Wisdom is the portal through which the known and the unknowable may kiss – and paradoxically, there is no kiss that is both so enchanting and disenchanting at one and the same “time,” just as there is no moment that is both so enduring and so time-less.



One thought on “On Wisdom: a Philosopher’s Fumbling Sketch of That Which He Seeks (11/17/16)

  1. I enjoy your vocabulary, Paul, your choice of words.
    I would say the pursuit of self-knowledge has driven me insane, as it is a will ‘o the wisp, an ignis fatuus, something that it is useless to seek to attain, a hell.
    Wisdom for me would be silence in the face of the demands of the world on me for an explanation of my verbal and physical behavior.


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