Ordinary Wisdom

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.

psychological wisdom

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…

Interpersonal Wisdom

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.

Ordinary Wisdom

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).


Embrace Your Mediocrity

With Charts and graphs!

Karmakaiser’s tapestry called to mind a little meta thing I used to do called: “How special am I?” reminiscent of this classic demotivator. There’s a scale, you see, to measure ordinariness. On the right side of the scale, where everyone wants to be, is extraordinarily valuable, capped by indispensable, as in, history and civilization would cease without these individuals. On the left side of the scale, where most of us reside, is ordinary. The scale should be oriented horizontally, you see, so that your bourgeois sensibilities aren’t shocked; i.e., sure, pal, if you work hard enough, you can pass over to the right. I mean, if you were to be foolish enough as to orient the scale vertically, you’d realize you are where you were placed. And we wouldn’t want mass despair, now would we? The quotient of indignation present on social media would plummet to dangerous levels, and we would row ourselves merrily down the stream. So, here it is, horizontal, like we all will be, anyway:

Ordinary 1

The granularity is a little coarse, so let’s zoom in a bit to see what kind of person would reside to the right (my bias is Western Civilization).

Ordinary 2

What would it take to pass from the left to the right?

Ordinary 3

Oh, right. That’s unfortunate. But what is the relationship that gets what’s going on on one side to the other somehow? Oh, I don’t know: osmosis, I guess. The point is that we, the ordinary, have our thing to do, and it does an individual good to embrace one’s mediocrity so that he can get his thing done in a way that satisfies oneself and contributes to the pleasure of the ordinary around us. One could argue that history might exhibit a tendency toward civilization producing a big prosperous society when the ordinary are left alone.* When the ordinary presume to stratify, creating elite privileged classes, well, poverty quickly pursues that society into the ground (“quickly” being a relative term, depending on where you are in history).

I notice that the more I insulate myself from the world, the further to the right I find myself. As soon as I emerge from my cave, I fly leftwards. Alas.

[*If I knew how to obfuscate further, I would have done it here.]

McCloskey, Lawler and Middle Class Virtues

Libertarians can often get left out of some of the more interesting bits of cultural commentary going on today. This is not a fault of libertarianism or more broadly the economic frame of mind per se, even stalwart critics of global market capitalism, like Jacobin’s Mike Beggs, are willing to admit most economists are not positivist boogiemen:

Criticism of the incoherence or unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economics can be easily deflected – most economists will freely admit they are simply heuristics and would be quite happy to be considered pragmatic “casual empiricists.

But all the same, there can be a tendency to double down on economic consequentialism when criticisms of the market surface. It doesn’t do much to reply to the charge the suburbs are alienating with statistics on how cheap the houses are, and how good the schools. It doesn’t do much to reply that the death of the locally owned bookstore isn’t so bad, because now we can get all the books we want on Amazon Prime with Two Day Shipping. The critic is making a point about flourishing, not optimization. The critic can just point out that you are missing the point and that we are made for eudaimonia, not mammon.

This is why I am happy to be writing under the banner of Sweet Talk as I believe Deirdre McCloskey is a useful corrective to the claim that capitalism gains us the world but rids of our soul. She gives libertarians and market oriented conservatives an account not just of human enrichment but of human flourishing. In particular, I want to put her in conversation with the Postmodern Conservative Peter Lawler at National Review (formerly of First Things).

Central to most center right apologies for the modern era is a simple rapture for the virtue of ordinariness. Ordinary people get a lot detractors no matter who they happen to be or in what era. Marx has unkind things to say of the idiocy of rural life, and Jane Jacobs is one of the earliest critics of those who fled the urban core for the safety, and she would likely say banality, of the suburbs. This is a very common social cycle, what is rising is admired and praised, until it is a little too common, then it is derided as alienating and then as it passes away it is eulogized as a unique social structure that was a ticket to a full and dignified life. So it was with the subsidence farmer, the yeoman farmer, the skilled urban tradesman, the factory worker and on and on it goes.

What is constant is the ordinary people. This type of person who fulfilled many social roles throughout history but remains remarkably constant in its character, and is perhaps best identified with Tolkien’s Hobbits. Unpretentious, respectful of philosophers but suspicious of too much abstraction too far from reality, loyal, friendly, always attempting to be as good as one understands where one is, the hobbit is fondly remembered in his past forms, but frequently chided in his present reality. Today’s hobbits are bourgeois and what unites Peter Lawler and Deirdre McCloskey is a love for ordinary people and a belief that even here and now, in some cases especially here and now, it is possible to have a flourishing purposeful life, even if that life is in a Wal-Mart.

For Lawler human nature is like a tall oak,  our feeling of verticality and our sense that the “best way to feel good is to be good” is not going away anytime soon. He believes that “virtue is alive in the tacky McMansions we find in sprawling exurbs.” We cannot rid ourselves of our nature even when we look toward Singularity. Biotechnology cannot get rid of our human anxiety and neither can our loss of the front porch. We will always want to be good, and always make outlets for that to happen. Lawler notes that the bourgeois man, the free man who must work, in many ways heightens the contradictions of our existential problems. Simple aristocratic complacency and leisure is not open to us and neither is the constant work and unity of purpose of a slave’s life. We are free and bound to labor as bourgeois man, neither master nor slave. This is similar to how man is the rational animal, neither angel nor ape. This middle class of the middle being brings in our constant need for industry and it never satisfies. This should, for Lawler, bring about our Augustinian condition, that “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”

If Lawler’s account for our current condition constitutes an apology, McCloskey’s constitutes a triumph. Her Bourgeois Era begins with an account of why this form of being good allows for mass human flourishing and enrichment. Not only have we gained the world we have kept our souls. She sees criticism of the bourgeois by the tastemakers of society she has named the “clerisy” as being both self-serving and hypocritical. She makes the following criticism in her book The Bourgeois Virtues:

The left side of the clerisy has never wavered in its 150-year-old campaign against the system that has made its arts and sciences possible. Most educated people in our time, though enriched by bourgeois virtues in themselves and in others, imagine the virtue of their lives as heroic courage or saintly love uncontaminated by bourgeois concerns. They pose as rejecting bourgeois ethics.

The educated and artistic class owes their very existence as a mass of society and not just a narrow Republic of Letters to the mass enrichment of society in the first place. McCloskey is firmly committed to the belief that the good life is also the profitable one in many cases.

Now all this is not to say that the two are identical in their praise of our condition. McCloskey is a progressive Episcopalian who praises modern contraception and the belief that abortion is between a woman and her doctor. This is ground that Lawler, as a conservative Catholic, simply cannot tread. Lawler is more circumspect seeing our heightening of Augustinian restlessness as having plenty of outlets that, while fun, will not alleviate our condition. A man can try many rivers before tripping into the Tiber. But what McCloskey and Lawler share in common is a basic orientation toward the ordinary person rather than away. While Lawler sees mixed goods in modernity, he affirms what is good as being authentically so, even in the exurbs. It is this love of hobbits that must be our starting place if we are to look at the world. We must love what is here, now and not fall into utopianism or nostalgia, and that means loving in part or in whole the tacky, hobbitity bourgeoisie.