Someone helped me once, when he discovered that I was looking for wisdom, by suggesting that I learn to put wisdom in some sort of taxonomic order. One is careful to observe that teasing out the characteristics of wisdom is no longer the seeking of wisdom, but a philosophical task, creating tools with which to seek wisdom. Here are the tools I developed, and I offer them here to further a conversation about wisdom. In addition, those of us within the traditions of Western Civilization may find the canon developed by the Akkadians and footnoted by all those who followed, namely the Babylonians, the Hittites, and the Phoenicians, with influence from the Egyptians, and later, the Hebrews and their west Canaanite coevals–we may find this canon, as it were, divisible into three recognizable cords.
the Great Cosmic order
a.k.a. natural law, but not quite natural law.
The first rule of wisdom is that there are no such things as rules in wisdom. There is, instead, an order which can be observed, in part, and can be attributed to a metaphysical force, or, in more secular terms, a mystical force which drives all things. The ancients observed that it would do well for the wise to create within themselves a place for an objective reality, inasmuch as an objective reality is possible under the influence of a metaphysical or mystical force. That is not to say that the ancients believed in an objective reality, but that they thought it wise to align oneself with phenomena which are observable (it is what it is).
For example, springtime is seedtime. Autumn is harvest. In between those times, the seed and the rain run their programs without any help from the farmer (except pest control, perhaps, but not contributing to the program of growth). If you get creative, you’ll starve to death, and, worse than that, you’ll be mocked and derided as a fool.
From there the concept of cosmic justice follows: if you are unjust, there will be retribution. So we have received from the ancients a few proverbs to that effect: “The wheels of justice grind slowly, but fine;” and, from the Judeo-Christian tradition: “Blood cries from the ground.”
Moreover, there is an inherent cruelty to the Great Cosmic Order. You may suffer for no particular reason and for no purpose, not because you did anything wrong, but because you are a piece in a game played by unseen authorities and powers. Eventually, however, the wheel grinds in your favor, but not before you acknowledge that “all flesh is grass” and “all is vanity.” Oh, and by the way, you may already be long dead before the wheels of justice get around to your case, but, you know, justice is still yours.
Therefore, the wise relax, trusting in the Great Cosmic Order to indicate when it might be time to sow and when it might be time to reap. Revolution is almost always a very bad idea, perhaps to overthrow a great injustice, but never to overthrow what is, no matter how cruel the evil from the Great Cosmic Order might be. Such as it is, the task distinguishing among the sources of evil and injustice is a heavy burden to the wise.
The wise are then instructed, once they have aligned themselves to the way things are, to look to themselves as individuals, finding answers to the question, “Am I up to the task of being me?” The initial answer is always, “No, but here’s some advice.”
First, and most importantly, a wise person acknowledges personal limits and attributes: you are who you are; moreover, you are a necessary component of the Great Cosmic Justice, so it is unwise to go about changing who you are. Even if you are successful in changing who you are, there will be retribution, one way or another.
For example, I (5’11”, 180 lbs., varsity letterman in high school basketball, but never elected to all-state, all-county, or all-city) greatly desired to be the next Michael Jordan (6’6″, 195 lbs., perennial NBA All-Star, driven by an extraordinary competitive will and could dunk from the top of the key). I was unhappy as long as I pursued this desire, listening to all the motivational product commercials (Just Do It) and environmental foolishness (Pain is just weakness leaving the body), in spite of good advice from coaches and my parents, who knew better, until I recognized that I am who I am, and my strengths and weaknesses are not conducive to a Hall of Fame career in the NBA. Thus I came to be wise, and the ancient proverb came to pass in my own life which says, “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” If only I could have been like many of my peers who listened to advice before experiencing such bitter disappointment!
Thence I pursued a career in Linguistics…
The individual is next instructed to come into alignment with all those who are coming into alignment with the Great Cosmic Order and struggling with the task of being themselves. It is the most difficult task of wisdom for the easily observable eventuality that we are each situated in different dispositions all along the paths of wisdom. Much interpersonal wisdom is summarized thus: The wise keeps his mouth shut. Less breviloquent, but better: “The prudent conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly.”
Why? Well, who knows who is ready to listen to advice? And who knows if one is so wise as to be up to the task of giving it? One learns the answer not by giving advice, but by behaving as a guide, working out wisdom with humility: “One who is righteous is a guide to his neighbor, but the way of the wicked leads them astray.”
This last one, then, weaves together into one rope the cords of the Great Cosmic Order, the Psychological, and the Interpersonal, to form the ideal society: righteousness vs. wickedness; the righteous individual vs. the wicked ones; neighborliness vs. decadence.
Wisdom is often cast as a drama taking place on the Cosmic Stage, usually a king, representing the transcendental, addressing his son(s), representing the mundane, but wisdom is also cast as a family matter, that is, father and mother addressing their children. In my own observation, I have noted that wisdom is very rarely given as advice for good governance; it is almost always given for a happy household. A happy, content, and prosperous society is built upon the King and his sons or upon Mother and Father and their children. Even when wisdom is addressed to those who govern, it is to the heart of the individual, such as proverbs regarding bribery, usury, and favoritism, among others.
The implication is that wisdom is readily available, accessible with very little mediation from the highest heights right into the marketplace, the bedroom, and the dinner table. In fact, wisdom “shouts aloud in the marketplace” and at the crossroads for the simple, the wise, and the foolish alike. It is most certainly not a design to stratify people from one another, but to distinguish one from another as individuals valuable in small ways; it is to join them in a common endeavor of futility, which acknowledges that the end of wisdom is not in achievement, but in happiness. Good governance is a by-product of wisdom in the household.
“Ashes to ashes;” “Be content that God gave you something to do while you wait for ashes.” “Whoever is slothful will not roast his game, but the diligent man will get precious wealth.”
“In the path of righteousness is life, and in its pathway there is no death” (Proverbs 12:28).