Jun 24, 2009

Heart of Culture and Society - Wisdom

[Note 22/03/10: In each age every population has an outlook based on their geographical and socio-political situation. Thus, there is a certain difficulty in translating into English religions and mythological texts. However, whatever the difficulty in translations are there are certain themes that are important to all religions and cultures all over the world which is what the following extracts show]

Probably the most famous ‘wise man’ was an ancient Greek by the name of Socrates. His story goes something like this:

While Socrates was chillin in his home, minding his own business, he heard that the ‘Oracle at Delphi’ has declared that ‘there is no man wiser than he’.

The Oracle was a person who was something of a ‘Diviner’, where a person has the ability to read ‘signs’ presented by the world around them or through devices such as deep trance or something like the runes used by the ancient druids.

So when Socrates heard that he is the ‘wisest’ he had to pay attention. The first thing he did was get confused, “what is the interpretation of this riddle? for I know that I have no wisdom, small or great. What can he mean when he says that I am the wisest of men?”. So he decided to go and ask others around him who he had heard called wise before. Thus began his little quest.

He realized that if he found one man who knew the meaning of wisdom then he has found someone wiser than himself and would be proof that the Oracle is wrong. Upon cross examination he discovered that the rich and powerful men that he questioned, known for their wisdom, had no idea what wisdom was. When asked ‘what is wisdom’ they would define it in terms of something else like doing an activity or having an attribute like virtue which was also defined in terms of some activity.

In short, no one Socrates talked to could define wisdom specifically. They could only point to activities that they thought were wise or led to wisdom.

By this experimentation Socrates concluded that no body knew what wisdom was.

The only difference between himself and the ones that were thought to be wise was that he didn’t delude himself into thinking he knew what wisdom was.

He also pissed off a bunch of rich and powerful men for proving that they weren’t wise so they labeled him with charges of heresy and brought him to court.

So if Socrates was the wisest man and he didn’t know what wisdom is, is there any way for us to know what wisdom is? Or at least have an idea of where to look?

One way of looking as wisdom is illustrated by Platos Cave Allegory;

To understand this parable imagine a civilization that has spent it’s entire existence in a cave lit by a fire. This society believes that the shadows on the cave wall, that is cast by the fire, is actually themselves and their friends and family. They believe they are the shadows on the cave wall because they are chained to the ground and their face is locked in a position facing the wall.

Now imagine one person breaks his/her chains and steps out of the cave. This person sees color for the first time. Even sees his/her own hand for the first time as the chains are gone. Now this cave of shadows escapee has a serious problem…how do you explain to people who have never seen anything but shadows what color is? How can you explain a tree or even the blue dome of the sky? You can’t. They won’t even have words for the color blue or red since they live in the black, white and gray world of shadows.

Plato’s theoryis that like a cave dweller who has stepped into the sunlight, the wise man too has stepped out of society and culture. When he comes back to his people to explain what he has learned, he discovers that there are no words in the language to define what he knows. So he must talk in riddles and parables.

This same concept is expressed right at the beginning of the book of Proverbs (Old Testament)

“let the wise listen and add to their learning
and let the discerning get guidance
for understanding proverbs and parables,
the sayings and riddles of the wise.”

The author is suggesting that the wise talk in parables and riddles. So, why can’t a wise person just say what wisdom is and tell us how to attain it as well?

The following quote puts in perspective the difficulty of explaining ‘knowing’:

The Fragrance of the Rose

The disciples were absorbed in a discussion of Lao-tzu's dictum:
"Those who know, do not say;
Those who say, do not know."
When the master entered,
they asked him what the words meant.
Said the master, "Which of you knows the fragrance of a rose?"
All of them indicated that they knew.
Then he said, "Put it into words."
All of them were silent.

from One Minute Wisdom by Anthony DeMello

This illustrates how difficult it can be to express knowledge from one sense (sense of smell) into words.

If it is difficult to explain basic experiences into words then wisdom (which is supposed to encompass an understanding of life and our place in it) could be just as difficult to express.

The idea of parables as a teaching tool is expressed in every major belief system. Here is a small sample:

We have put forth for men in this Qur'an every kind of parable, in order that they may receive admonition.
Islam. Qur'an 39.27

And when he was alone, those who were about him with the twelve [disciples] asked [Jesus] concerning the parables. And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; so they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven."
Christianity. Mark 4.10-12

The biblical tales are only the Torah's outer garments, and woe to him who regards these as being the Torah itself!
Judaism. Zohar, Numbers 152a

First take up the words, Ponder their meaning, Then the fixed rules reveal themselves. But if you are not the right man, The meaning will not manifest itself to you.
Confucianism. I Ching, Great Commentary 2.8.4

When the man of highest capacities hears the Tao He does his best to put it into practice. When the man of middling capacity hears the Tao He is in two minds about it. When the man of low capacity hears Tao He laughs loudly at it. If he did not laugh, it would not be worth the name of Tao.
Taoism. Tao Te Ching 41

CONCLUSION: Since all the above traditions indicate a similar idea of wisdom it is reasonable to say that wisdom is something that all cultures AND religions have in common. So a wise person in one society, if he is truly wise, may also be a wise person in another society.

What else do our world cultures and religions have in common? That is what this series of posts will look at…from time to time.


Click here to check out a little test that claims to estimate your level of wisdom

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