Throughout the history of the west, the great thinkers, philosophers, poets, and religious writers have spent a considerable amount of time writing on the topic of wisdom. Injunctions toward the acquisition of wisdom form the basis of the classical model of education which, far from being a mere acquisition of skills, was seen to be the necessary preparation of the mind, body, and soul for the gaining of wisdom throughout the course of life. That wisdom is not merely knowledge can be attested to by both Plato and Solomon—an agreement which demonstrates the dual-basis of western culture. However, in recent centuries, the quest for this foundational virtue seems to have disappeared from the cultural consciousness. In the past five centuries (that is, since the Enlightenment) the acquisition of wisdom seems to totally fall off the radar, not just for those writing about education, but also in terms of spiritual praxis. It seems curious that this intellectual and spiritual virtue of wisdom, which those who established Western culture valued so highly, should suddenly disappear, and its disappearance begs the question: why?
To understand the nature of the agreement of Plato and Solomon that wisdom is not just the possession of knowledge (as a thing in itself), a preliminary look at both Plato’s and Solomon’s understanding of what wisdom actually is seems to be in order. In Book V of Plato's Republic, Socrates makes a series of interesting statements of epistemology. The first is his rhetorical question, “...how can that which is not ever be known?” (Plato 6). With this statement, Socrates is definitively confining our ability to know only to things that are, a concept that has a long history in Pre-Socratic Greek philosophy, a full explanation of which lies outside the scope of this discussion. Nevertheless, this definition that limits what we can know only to things that exist is the necessary foundation for the analogy which defines the relationship of knowledge to ignorance, and these to opinion:
And we are assured, after looking at the matter from many points of view, that absolute being is or may be absolutely known, but that the utterly non-existent is utterly unknown ... But if there be anything which if of such nature as to be and not to be, that will have a place intermediate between pure being and absolute negation of being ... And, as knowledge corresponded to being, and ignorance of necessity to non-being, for that intermediate between being and not-being there has to be discovered a corresponding intermediate between knowledge and ignorance. (Plato 6)
In this analogy, knowledge is equivalent to being and ignorance to non-being. The intermediate between the two, which may be defined as the gradient between the two poles of knowledge and ignorance, is opinion (Plato 7). To be sure, Plato offers no definition of wisdom in Book V of the Republic, but with a slight reliance on inference, it might be said that the pursuit of true knowledge, and therefore of true being, is for Plato the act of becoming wise.
Wisdom, then, and the relationship of it to knowledge, is of vital importance. To Plato, wisdom does not seem to be a thing in itself, as knowledge or ignorance are (with their analogues in that which is and that which is not, respectively), but rather the action of acquiring knowledge/being. This agrees with Solomon—traditionally regarded as the author of the Book of Ecclesiastes—who famously proclaims: “For in the abundance of wisdom/There is the abundance of knowledge,/And he who increases knowledge will increase suffering” (Eccles. 1:18). Such a statement presents a classic statement of logic, A is equal to B and B is equal to C, where A is wisdom, B is knowledge, and C is suffering. By implication then, an abundance of wisdom increases suffering. The question then arises, why would abundant wisdom, which seems to be the result of acquiring knowledge of the world (things that are), result in suffering? This is further complicated by the discourse in the second chapter of Ecclesiastes, which declares “Then I saw that wisdom excels foolishness/As light excels darkness./The wise man's eyes are in his head, but the senseless man walks in darkness” (Eccles. 2:13-14). Here, the author of Ecclesiastes makes an analogy of his own, that wisdom is like light, and foolishness is like darkness. This has an interesting relationship to Plato, in that, in the Republic (in Book VII) Plato creates the extensive, famous “Allegory of the Cave,” in which his liberated captive, upon beholding the brilliant light of the world beyond the cave, is able to see real things that are, rather than the mere shadows of imitations. The escaped prisoner is literally and metaphorically enlightened, which draws an inescapable parallel back to Ecclesiastes, which states “Who knows the wise?/And who knows the interpretation of a thing?/A man's wisdom will make his face shine” (Eccles. 8:1).
The crux of the problem lies in the inability to know who really has acquired true knowledge (and is therefore, according to the theory so far, wise), and who is speaking from ignorance. In a polis with democratic values, such as that of ancient Athens or even of the modern west, opinion, which is neither true knowledge, or complete ignorance, but a mixture of the two, is well nigh impossible to determine simply through the application of human reason. Reason may help to evaluate differing opinions, and logic can help winnow away the more useless and ignorant opinions, but to truly find a truly wise person who has absolute knowledge of things as they are seems impossibly difficult—and so, I conclude that it is from this fundamental inability to really know who is wise or who knows the interpretation of a thing (as noted from the first verse of the eighth chapter of Ecclesiastes) is the source of the suffering that comes from the increase of knowledge, and therefore wisdom.
It should be noted that Plato's discourse on the difference between knowledge/being and ignorance/non-being, and the “flux which is caught” between them—that is, opinion—offers no solution on how to determine who has wisdom and who does not. Indeed, the Preacher—who is the speaker for the large majority of the Book of Ecclesiastes—concludes his discourse with “Vanity of vanities ... All is vanity” (Eccles. 12:8). If we were to end there, indeed, the suffering would be great. A sort of agnostic skepticism would be the result: a belief that, even if there is true knowledge out there, and even if it is knowable, no one could ever truly believe anyone that claimed to have such knowledge, because it might just as easily be merely their opinion. Thankfully, the key to understanding Ecclesiastes, and, by extension, resolving the crises between who truly knows and therefore truly has wisdom, comes at the end of the text: “Hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God/And keep His commandments,/For this is the whole man.”
If the fear of God and the keeping of His commandments is the whole of man, and understanding this fundamental limit that is placed on human beings from outside our own sphere of control, is the source of wisdom, this also agrees with Socrates, who famously was said to be the wisest of men, because he claimed to know nothing. Wisdom, then, can be said not to be only knowing things (that would be mere knowledge), but knowing that we are limited—and that there are limits to what we, as human beings, can know. Affirmation of our own limitations is part of affirming not only our place in the world, but also that the world (and reality itself) has an existence outside of us and the utilitarian purposes to which we can put it.
In classical education, learning the virtue of 'knowing one’s place' in the order of creation was part of the spiritual and intellectual virtues of a liberal arts education. That this is true no longer, thanks in large part to the fact that liberal arts programs have succumbed to the culture of utility, means that the freedom to acquire wisdom is now lost on the majority of people in our society. In his book, The Life of the Mind, Schall reflects that, in Book Seven of the Republic Plato “suggests that it is possible to learn or to be exposed to things too soon, or that it is impossible to learn many things if we begin the project of learning them too early in life” (Schall 60-61). Considering this, when reflects on the basic theme of all the primary works so far—which I would define as “What does it mean to be liberally educated?”—the implications are fascinating. One could almost conclude that, as they say, timing is everything. To that end, Clement of Alexandria writes that “So, before the Lord’s coming, philosophy was an essential guide toward righteousness for the Greeks. At the present time, it is a useful guide toward reverence for God” (Clement 169). Just as in the larger picture of human history, the study of philosophy proves useful for the formation of the soul toward the Good so that one may know the revealed Truth of Christ, the God-man.
In the Stromateis, Clement of Alexandria says that our preliminary training makes us ready to see the Truth when it is presented. This implies that, even were we to shown the truth before hand, we would not necessarily be able to see it for ourselves, or understand it. Such a condition might be called “premature enlightenment.”
As one ages, one often finds new passages of interest, new or different lessons to learn even from works one read ages ago. In fact, it seems that, as the mind matures, so too the understanding of wise words. Perhaps it is the growth in wisdom in the individual soul that allows like to respond to like. Schall makes this point in his further reflection on the thought Plato in The Life of the Mind, where he mentions that Plato did not think that anyone was capable of being “fully wise or mature much before he was fifty” (Schall 62). There is an old adage says that ‘with age comes wisdom’—and, while Plato may have disputed that one becomes wiser just by travelling through time in one direction for set period or interval, the point seems well made that if one is in the pursuit of wisdom, the accumulation of knowledge and experiences will then enable one to grow in wisdom as one ages.
That is not to say that wisdom can be stockpiled like some great hoard, on which we sit growing fatter and richer off it, like the dragon, Smaug, in Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Wisdom does not seem to be just a mere commodity. One of the purposes of liberal arts education, according to Seneca, is not to mere be acquainted with the ideas or plot of great works (such as the Odyssey), but to understand the point of the work—to be able to gain moral, ethical, or other instruction about how one ought to live from the work (Seneca 99). In such a schema, each time we “learn” more about the world, and hence ourselves, the more connections we are able to make with the things we already “know” and the things we have just learned. So, in the growth of wisdom, each new thing that one apprehends about the world, and about the self, casts new light on each things previously apprehended. In this way, everything one knows, everything one is, becomes a kind of prerequisite for each new encounter. Thereby, the liberally educated man, who values wisdom, is constantly reevaluating himself according to what he has learned.
This is precisely the lesson that Plutarch attempts to teach Nicander in “On the Student at Lectures.” Plutarch writes that the student should “immediately on leaving a lecture in the philosophic school, look at himself and examine his own mind, to see if it has got rid of any useless and uncomfortable growth and become lighter and more at ease” (Plutarch 147). Not only should we put to use what we learn through reexamining our own minds, as Plutarch recommends, but we must also be prepared to jettison any “useless” things that we already “knew.” We are called, it seems to a sort of intellectual holism; always integrating the new that is beneficial, and prepared to exorcise from ourselves those ideas which, upon later reflection, are but a cancer.
The danger of not understanding this process and expecting to gain all knowledge and all wisdom easily, without struggle, and without due attention to times and seasons of man’s life, is summed up especially well by Schall:
If they consider or experiment on something before they have either the maturity or judgment sufficient to examine it or recognize its evidence, young potential philosophers will easily become discouraged by the whole enterprise. They will think, because they did not easily see the point, that there is nothing there to be seen or learned, however highly it is praised by the dons, the sophisticated, the canon of great books, or the tradition. These disillusioned potential philosophers will suspect that the consideration of the things of the mind, of the things worthy to know for their own sakes, is a fraud and deceit because they cannot effortlessly grasp them. But the highest things are, for our kind, conditioned on a period of advent and waiting. That we are not given all things at once is not a defect in our creation. It may well be part of its glory (61-62).
There are prerequisites to the proper understanding of things, Schall reminds us. Mere exposure to the classics of liberal learning, to the great tradition itself, may be no more likely to lead us to a virtuous life, if we had no inclinations toward virtue in the first place. In fact, even some of Socrates' own students and associates became very un-virtuous men (Alcibiades and Critias come immediately to mind as examples of this). Without the proper formation of the mind and soul, even in the liberal arts tradition, freedom—much less true wisdom—is likely not to be the result. In the modern day, we cannot take for granted the assumption that the spiritual, ethical, and moral formation of people has taken place the way that the teachers of the great tradition have been able to in the past.
All the same, understanding somewhat about what wisdom is, and how one could go about acquiring it as was done in the past, why has modernity forsaken the pursuit of this lofty spiritual and intellectual virtue? Moreover, why does its disappearance coincide with the era known as “The Enlightenment”—arguably the birth of modernity? Perhaps it is because the emergence of modernity was spurred by the development of the market culture, where everything has been subjected to market forces. As such, there is no market for wisdom, and the market has simply winnowed it away like so much useless chaff. In the market culture, the value is placed on work qua work; all things are evaluated by their utility to facilitate greater and more productive work. There is no room left for the acquisition of wisdom, because leisure—that time which is necessary for the contemplative life that leads to wisdom—is gone from modern life. Work has, for Western society, become an all-embracing, all-consuming passion (Leisure 4). As such, it has taken over even the idea of education, where educated man is no longer the inheritor of the liberal, or freeing, arts, but is instead relegated to the status of the “intellectual worker” (Leisure 6). Such a change in status changes the nature of the educator from the one who passes on the traditional body of foundational knowledge, to the individual whose job it is to produce “intellectual” items (books, scholarly articles, research, etc). This change in status to intellectual workers places the thinking mind divorces the philosophic disciplines (which, Pieper claims are naturally furthest from the world of “work”) from the contemplative state of mind wherein human beings become capable of looking and seeing the world “as it is” (Leisure 8, 9).
Once decoupled from the contemplative, the idea of the world as a knowable place has, unsurprisingly, gone out of fashion in the circles of intellectual workers. In a worldview that sees no essential reason why human thought should have any meaningful relationship to reality, it should not comes as a surprise that “intellectual work” being done in the name of education has descended into mere critiques of language, where interpretation has become the slave of the particular “mode” of analysis being employed. Such an approach has nothing to do with leisurely contemplation. Where meaning is divorced from the means, there can be no getting at Truth.
Pieper says later in Leisure that leisure is that “which leads man to accept the reality of creation and thus to celebrate it” but that “[l]eisure is only possible...to a man at one with himself, but who is also at one with the world” (29). This concept of at-oneness with the world, and celebrating the reality of it, is connected very closely to Pieper’s thoughts on the necessity of the festive in the role of man’s inner life. This is stated quite explicitly at the end of Leisure, where Pieper says:
The Christian cultus, unlike any other, is at once a sacrifice and a sacrament. In so far as the Christian cultus is a sacrifice held in the midst of the creation which is affirmed by this sacrifice of the God-man—every day is a feast day […] Now, our hope is that the true sense of sacramental visibility in the celebration of the Christian cultus shold become manifest to the extent needed for drawing the man in us, who is ‘born to work’, out of himself, and should draw him out of the toil and moil of every day into the sphere of unending holiday, and should draw him out of the narrow and confined sphere of work and labour into the heart and centre of creation. (52-53).
Pieper suggests that the cure for the total work mentality is a return of the sacred and sacramental, as the festive is the key component of a leisurely culture. “Festivals are doomed,” Pieper says, “unless they are preceded by the pattern of religious praise” (In Tune with the World 37). The worshiping act is, essentially, an acceptance of one’s place within the world—leading to both the essential parts of leisure: an acceptance of reality, and the celebration of at-oneness with the world. It is only by affirming reality, and by celebrating our union with it, that true wisdom can be achieved. This leads us into the realm of worship—that which is revealed truth, and goes beyond the daily activities of work.
Nevertheless, it does matter what we worship. Mere humanistic ideological constructs (Liberty, Fraternity, and Equality leap to mind) are not enough to sustain the joy necessary for true festivity. Pieper defined joy as “an expression of love…Joy is the response of a lover receiving what he loves” (In Tune with the World 23). This love must be directed away from us, not just individually, but also collectively; the glorification of the humanity, is not sufficient for the sustaining of festal joy. Worship of the transcendental God is an absolute necessity to the achieving of this right relationship to reality and to the self. This is where the Christian Eucharist becomes the essential sacrament and expression of this transcendental worship. Through the Eucharist, man takes the gifts of the good creation, provided by God, in the form of wheat and grapes, and through the application of his own meaningful work changes these things into bread and wine; these elements, produced by the cooperation of the human with the divine, are then offered back to God sacrificially. They are then received back again, by the people, as God’s own body and blood. These acts of taking, giving, and receiving are essentially celebratory of the goodness of creation (thereby affirming it) and in receiving them back through eating and drinking, express a unity in man with both the world and the transcendent. As such, the Lord’s Day, or Sunday, becomes essential to the contemplative life, because it is a day on which no work is done; not because work is prohibited, but because the voluntary sacrifice of the proceeds of a day’s labor, and the mental, spiritual and physical rest that are necessary to both the contemplative life and, therefore, the acquisition of wisdom, are exhibited on that day.
Because there is no way to sell this conception of the universe, and our place within it, there is no way for the market culture to absorb and market wisdom. In fact, the “culture industry” seeks to find ways to totally eliminate that which it cannot rebrand and sell. As Horkheimer and Adorno have put it,
Even in their leisure time, consumers must orient themselves to the unity of production. […] This dreamless art for the people fulfils the dreamy idealism which went too far for idealism in its critical form. Everything comes from consciousness—from that of God for Malebranche and Berkley, and from earthly production management for mass art. Not only do hit songs, stars, and soap operas conform to types recurring cyclically as rigid invariants, but the specific content of productions, the seemingly variable element, is itself derived from those types. The details become interchangeable. (98)
This becomes a serious problem as our culture becomes more and more reliant on technology for both information and entertainment, as it enables the “ease of acquisition” of mere knowledge that Schall talks about, and cheapens the whole of human learning. It should be no surprise, though, that the “culture industry” has come into existence and proceeds lock-step with the rise of mass media and mass entertainment. The illusory nature of the culture of “total work” is evident in the fact that it has to reassert itself on every level of human experience. Horkheimer and Adorno summarize this well, saying,
“The whole world is passed through the culture industry. The familiar experience of the moviegoer, who perceives the street outside as a continuation of the film he has just left, because the film seeks strictly to reproduce the world of everyday perception, has become the guideline of production…the more easily it creates the illusion that the world outside is a seamless extension of the one that has been revealed in the cinema” (99).
As cinema and television grow closer together in terms of production quality, and as more and more people can watch these imitations of reality in the privacy of their own homes, on a wide array of mobile devices thanks to the internet, the access to facsimiles of reality is prevalent on a scale previously unimaginable.
But, it is not limited to the illusions of cinematography. The illusion that a person can know everything about the great works of western culture simply because they can all be downloaded on a single disk, or a single flash drive, to be searched and scanned at one’s convenience, is itself only a simulacrum of education and erudition. To really learn something from a great work, to really absorb its meaning and make it part of one’s self, one must do as Plutarch suggested to Nicander, and listen without questioning, reserving judgment until one has heard the whole of the argument. It is too easy to pilfer a work for pithy quotes, or passages that agree with one’s own opinions. Indeed, such a culture of easy information encourages an elevation of opinion, while simultaneously discounting the existence of objective truth or objective reality. By denying objective truth, the culture industry can recreate what it has destroyed outside itself as lies within itself (Horkheimer and Adorno, 107). In achieving a sort of artificial omnipresence, it has squeezed out any ability for the contemplative life, or wisdom, to flourish.
The market culture no longer only markets what culture produces, it now produces culture. Since it does not value wisdom—precisely because wisdom has no marketable value, being a virtue of the soul—it is seen as useless and worthless. The man who would devote himself to its acquisition would almost certainly be seen as a fool or a madman--it should come as no surprise that one of the jokes asked of those in pursuit of a liberal arts degree is "Would you like fries with that?" Nevertheless, this virtue of the soul is one that the Christian cannot deny, since the very revelation of Christian truth is that Wisdom has himself become a man for the purpose of the salvation of mankind. Nor should it surprise us that as western culture loses touch with its Christian moorings, wisdom and the contemplative life should begin to be looked upon as aberrant and mad. The Apostle Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of the age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (RSV, 1 Cor. 1:20-21). To be able to evaluate what is true knowledge from what is either merely opinion or true ignorance, we must look through the lens of the revealed truth of God to make sense of the great tradition of western knowledge, which is the unique gift of our personhood, made in the image and likeness of God himself. His gift is exactly this: that by His grace we are able to attain His wisdom through proper study combined with proper spiritual formation.
Works Cited or Consulted
Clement of Alexandria. “from the Stromateis” The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to be an Educated Human Being. Ed. Richard Gamble. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007.169-175.
Horkheimer, Max & Theodore Adorno. The Dialectic of Enlightenment: Cultural Memory in the Present. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. Palo Alto: Standford University Press, 2002.
Pieper, Josef. In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. Trans. Richard Winston & Clara Winston. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999.
Pieper, Josef. Leisure: The Basis of Culture. Trans. Alexander Dru. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1998.
Plato. “The Republic.” The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to be an Educated Human Being. Ed. Richard Gamble. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007. 6-9.
Plutarch. “On the Student at Lectures” The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to be an Educated Human Being. Ed. Richard Gamble. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007. 142-153.
Schall, James V. The Life of the Mind. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2006.
Seneca. “On Liberal and Vocational Studies” The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to be an Educated Human Being. Ed. Richard Gamble. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007. 98-105.
The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha. Revised Standard Version. Ed. Herbert G. May and Bruce M. Metzger. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1977.
The Orthodox Study Bible. Saint Athanasius Academy Septuagint (SAAS). Ed. Metropolitan Maximos+, Michael Najim, Eugene Pentiuc, Jack Norman Sparks. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008.