Monday, June 30, 2008

The Forgotten Virtue


While recently watching Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Salomen Torres successfully close out another game, a thought suddenly occurred to me. Other than the famous Biblical king and philosopher and a 70s soul and R&B singer, I could not think of another person named either "Solomon" or "Salomon."

I suppose there is nothing inherently unusual that a Biblical king hasn't inspired modern nomenclature; after all, I don't know that many Jeroboams or Hezekiahs, either. However, those monarchs weren't renowned for a specific virtue as Solomon was. And I fear that it is more than just the name that our society has buried, I've come to realize that we rarely speak of that which made Solomon famous in his day---wisdom.

In the NIV Bible, there are 58 references to wisdom. The books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes in particular deal with the concept of wisdom as a main theme. I don't have a similar concordance for the writings of Plato and other Greek philosophers, but a Google search of "Socrates" and "wisdom" turns up over a million hits. Obviously, the societies of centuries past concerned themselves greatly with defining and discerning wisdom. Even as recently as the 19th Century, writers such as Emerson and Thoreau were adding to the genre which has come to be known as "wisdom literature."

Today, we are no less obsessed than Aristotle himself when it comes to defining and categorizing people and ideas, and the proliferation of the mass media means more people are able to join in the practice of assigning designations to individuals or movements than ever before. So theoretically, the use of an adjective like "wise" or a noun like "wisdom" should be easier to find than when surveying ancient literature. Yet it rarely crops up, even in places where we would expect to find it.

One such place it would seem to be useful would be on the presidential campaign trail. Yes, I know that we are often cynical about candidates, but in actuality, every four years we still lay it on pretty thick with our praises. Barack Obama recently called John McCain "honorable." The "maverick" senator has enjoyed a string of compliments along those lines for the last several years. He has been called "heroic," he has been called "principled," he has been called "effective" in his role as a senator, but despite being of an age which one would think would confer such a title, I have not heard him referred to as "wise."

Obama himself has been lauded with seemingly every adjective in the book, from "charismatic" to "effusive" to "energetic," and no less than Bob Dylan said he was "redefining... politics from the ground up." But I haven't heard anyone refer to him as "wise" (though I did find one blogger who referred to his "wisdom on Iraq"). He himself has littered his speeches with adjectives (and a right-wing blog takes him to task for an alleged overuse of them), but I have not heard him reference wisdom.

Because we still see the recurrent archetype of the wise old man in fiction, it seems odd to me that nobody, whether rightly or wrongly, is appointed that role in real life. When the term "wisdom" is bandied about, it is often in an ironic way ("wise guy") or in a way that diffuses its power in such a way as to render it meaningless ("conventional wisdom"). Elsewhere, other words are substituted so that we don't have to even to confront it anymore; i.e. "wisdom literature" has transformed into "self-help books."

I think there are advantages to this paradigm shift. Most obviously, if we don't look to others for wisdom, we can develop the self-reliance that Emerson himself championed. Also, we aren't as likely to be taken in by charlatans. However, I'm disturbed by one possibility that may have already arisen by this neutering and diluting the power of this word. In removing the word from our lexicon, we could be removing the idea, and therefore the virtue itself. People may aspire to be kind, honorable, diligent, or intelligent, but may no longer aspire to being wise. And then we would be neglecting the words of a wise man who said "Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding. Esteem her and she will exalt you; embrace her, and she will honor you" (Prov 4:7-8 NIV).

2 Comments:

Anonymous Arthur Hull said...

Azore, this is a good topic to bring to peoples attention. It seems no one is seeking wisdom anymore. The pursuit of worldly desires have choked out the pursuit of godly wisdom, it seems. I like how Solomon speaks of wisdom in Proverbs 4, he speaks in terms of "though it cost all you have", he seems to think that wisdom is pretty important, might I say "the most" important. I also like that he refers to wisdom as a person. Wisdom is a person, God, or better yet Jesus Christ. In another place Jesus says, "I am the Truth", He refers to truth as a person, Himself, how can we claim to know anything if we do not know the one who created everything, if we forsake the most important thing (God), then how can we claim to know anything else, it is like trying to drive a car without gas, it may be a beautiful car and you may look really good sitting in it, but you are not getting anywhere in it. That is the way it seems with worldly wisdom, I hear a lot of seemingly intellegent things being said by well meaning (I hope) people that sound really good, but if you dig down even a little bit there is no substance, there is no gas in the tank, if you will. Jesus Christ said what He meant and meant what He said, every time, with never a wasted word, He alone has the words of life and the gas for the tank. I'll end with this, "Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you." Matthew 6:33

1:20 PM  
Anonymous Tim said...

Salomon makes outdoor gear http://www.salomonsports.com/

2:38 PM  

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