Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

What ‘wisdom’?

Can humanity today show itself capable of developing a way of life that may be called, against all odds, one marked by WISDOM?

This seems highly unlikely, given the state of the world economy (which has a lot to do with short-sightedness and wastefulness), and more importantly, the planetary ecology. Fact is, humans have shown themselves to be immensely clever, intelligent beings (some of them, at least) but a good argument can be made that they lack “wisdom”, that elusive – and today hardly intelligible – capacity or quality of combining experience, knowledge, insight, sound judgment and decision-making into a life-practice that has a salutary effect on the people who can do this, as well as on those around them.

At the recent international Conference on the Humanities and Social Sciences in an African Context, which took place at St Augustine’s College of South Africa in Johannesburg, a surprising number of papers dealt with the topic of wisdom, some of them obliquely, some centrally. Professors Thaddeus Metz of the University of Johannesburg and Gerard Walmsley of St Augustine College, for example, focused directly on wisdom, with Metz arguing for “Wisdom as the Primary end of Higher Education: Why Citizenship is not enough”, and Walmsley conducting an illuminating overview of “Education for Wisdom: Yesterday and Today”. Both speakers pointed out that, although this notion was very prominent in ancient thinking, the contemporary literature on wisdom is relatively sparse, and moreover, that much of it leaves a lot to be desired. Nevertheless, they agreed, wisdom has relevance for today. This is the case despite – or perhaps precisely because of – the postmetaphysical, technocratic world in which we live, and we can learn a lot from ancient philosophy in this regard.

One of the thinkers that Walmsley alluded to in this context – who also happens to be one of my own favourites – Pierre Hadot – is a valuable source for understanding what wisdom was for the ancient Greeks, and any attempt to re-inscribe its value in our own historical context would benefit from reading Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life (Blackwell, 1995). He reminds one that in the ancient world, knowledge or theory was never considered an “end in itself” but was “put in the service of practice” in no uncertain terms. Hence, the philosopher:

“Knows that the normal, natural state of men should be wisdom, for wisdom is nothing more than the vision of things as they are, the vision of the cosmos as it is in the light of reason, and wisdom is also nothing more than the mode of being and living that should correspond to this vision.” (Hadot 1995 p58.)

Needless to stress, ancient philosophers also knew that most people do not live according to such wisdom, which is why philosophers – who were said to be “in love with wisdom” – were regarded as being strange, and in a sense “atopos”, without a place. All that changed, of course, when philosophy became an intellectual, theoretical discipline to be taught at university, and (as Robert Pirsig argued in his novel, Lila) more often than not philosophy morphs into “philosophology” – a derivative phenomenon where students are expected to regurgitate what they have memorized from textbooks during examinations and tests, in contrast to philosophy “proper”, where philosophical “knowledge” gives rise to a certain praxis, or phronésis (practical wisdom) on the part of the person who can rise to the “invitation to philosophy”. What this means, becomes clearer where Hadot says (in an interview; 1995, p. 281):

“I have tried to define what philosophy was for a person in antiquity. In my view, the essential characteristic of the phenomenon ‘philosophy’ in antiquity was that at that time a philosopher was, above all, someone who lived in a philosophical way. In other words, the philosopher was someone whose life was guided by his or her reason, and who was a practitioner of the moral virtues. This is obvious, for example, from the portrait Alcibiades gives of Socrates at the end of Plato’s Symposium. We can also observe it in Xenophon, where Hippias asks Socrates for a definition of justice. Socrates replies: ‘Instead of talking about it, I make it appear through my actions’. Originally, then, philosophy is above all the choice of a form of life, to which philosophical discourse then gives justifications and theoretical foundations. Philosophical discourse is not the same thing as philosophy.”

The point about an “invitation” to philosophy is therefore that, while today philosophy as “philosophology” can be “taught” as a subject to be studied and passed in an examination, philosophy in the sense of practical wisdom cannot be “taught”, but at best be demonstrated on the part of someone who lives according to his or her philosophical insights. The latter includes, crucially, the insight that all knowledge is provisional and limited (Socrates’s famous “docta ignorantia”), and that human beings are finite and fallible. What seemed like a good idea yesterday, may turn out to be not such a good idea today – in both theory and practice. Geocentrism may have seemed a plausible belief 2000 years ago, but since Copernicus, at least, heliocentrism (regarding our own solar system) has persuasively replaced it. Similarly, monarchical autocracy may have seemed an acceptable political system yesteryear, but today democracy (which is by no means a self-evident concept, by the way) does not have any serious competitors in the political arena.

Why would it be advisable to re-cultivate “wisdom” in this sense, today, when “skills” are all the rage (combined with economic productivity and political docility) and living autonomously according to philosophical insights seems like a mere mirage on the horizon? Thomas Princen articulates one reason why “wisdom” should be resurrected today, where he remarks (in Treading Softly p30):

“As long as proponents of infinite growth on a finite planet keep the conversation on their terms, within their vision of endless abundance for all for all time, it continues – until the path drops off a cliff or erodes to a muddy impassable gully. And I am convinced that on this path greenhouse loading continues, dispersion of persistent toxic substances continues, and freshwater drawdown continues, not to mention job loss, family stress, and community decline.”

In the absence of any clear, ecologically-informed political and economic vision on the part of world leaders (even on the part of the great hope for change of recently re-elected US President Barack Obama) as far as the grim prospect of possibly unstoppable ecological degradation (to the point where there is a lack of fresh water) goes, it seems to me that ordinary people are called upon to adopt a renewed practice of wisdom. They have to do so in the face of the generally accessible, scientifically validated knowledge, that humanity is in the process of upsetting the ecological applecart, to the detriment of future generations and other living creatures, in its greedy pursuit of material (so-called) “wealth”. We should learn to live according to what Princen calls a “logic of sufficiency” — instead of a (consumer-driven) “logic of excess” — which would be a practice of wisdom, today.

Some people are already doing it. My young friends who returned from Britain, sick of living the “life” of consumers, are already far advanced in setting themselves up, on land made available to them by interested friends, to live according to the principles of permaculture. And they are not alone; the awareness is spreading. Not long ago a woman who has taught herself these principles came to give a talk at the Mountain Club of South Africa’s Eastern Cape branch (where my partner and I are members) and it was astonishing to learn that people are increasingly turning to what is, essentially, a new beginning of what might be called “planetary wisdom”. It is not all there is to wisdom, but it’s a good start.

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