The Wisdoms of the World

Student Comments and Reactions

The following is a small selection from some of the student responses turned in as summaries of the weekly course content.

On the class itself:

On the first day of class we were asked to complete a seemingly harmless survey which, to the best of our knowledge, was to be used as a measuring stick of our own insight into the one topic which has baffled humans for thousand upon thousands of years. The survey began with what, at that time, appeared to be the rather trivial question of "What is wisdom?" Unwittingly, we went like lambs to the slaughter and offered up our own definitions of this tricky little word. Each and every one of us possessed at least some idea of the nature of this ever-elusive entity; or so we believed. Yet, I am willing to bet my life savings that these initial responses ran the gamut of personal interpretation. Some of us may have alluded to the pragmatic shrewdness of "successful" members of society, while others may have spoken of the "illuminating" wisdom which is seen in the piety of religious figures, and still others may have referred to the "liberating" insight of the world of structured academia. Despite the fact that many of us travel along through life with these dogmatic assurances of what wisdom truly is, I find it utterly fascinating that there is no single consensus as to how to specifically define the entity of wisdom. Even after ages upon ages of quibbling over this one concept, we cannot come to any definitive conclusions regarding its true nature. . . . The fact that we see some essential similarity in all of these distinct cases indicates to me that there must be some underlying current of agreement as to what this concept truly is. Surely there is some structure behind all this confusion. Surely it must all fit together. In order to get a better grasp of the concept of wisdom, we started the course by embarking upon a journey which would allow us to examine the world's various traditions which have purported to gain a true understanding of wisdom.

(Mark Edsell)

Upon entering Wisdoms of the World, I was surprised by the nature of the class. Mostly , I was shocked because for some reason I was under the impression it was just some out there J-term philosophy course. Right? Wrong. In just a month's time I was faced some of the most challenging materials I have ever experienced, massive amounts of information, and ideas which caused me not only to rethink my views but to better comprehend why I think the way I do. During the first week of this course in addition to learning things I had never known, I received a new level of awareness of things which I have seemingly always been conscious. For the first time I considered the hierarchy of wisdom, knowledge and information. Though I had always distinguished these words from one another, I had never really considered why, or maybe more importantly how, they differed. I was first confronted with the task of defining these terms with the entry survey (which was my first indicator that perhaps I did not know what I thought I knew.) I provided partially accurate definition of wisdom, and then I ran into a bit of trouble communicating the fundamental differences between the three, especially between knowledge and information. Then came the question, "Do you claim to be a wise person?" Now this was a query that required a bit of tact in answering because it was somewhat like trying answer someone who would ask "Are you pretty?" or "Are you smart?" In answering too confidently one runs the risk of sounding egotistical. In answering with too little confidence, one might sound like a victim of low self-esteem. Finally came the task of naming the three wisest people we know and then describing one of them, which provided a challenge to those of us who had begun to question our own concepts of wisdom after being asked to define it. I thought that the entry survey was a very effective exercise in showing the class that what we think we know and what really is, are not always the same thing. Philosophy is also another word of which I became profoundly more aware. I gained a better sense of this word from the work which I read last, Bertrand Russell's The Value of Philosophy. It was this article that helped me to better understand the preceding works which we had read and discussed. From this article I not only gained a better comprehension of what philosophy is but why it is important. It was Russell's conclusion which I found most informative:

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination, and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good.

It was also in The Value of Philosophy that I found a very valid argument against one my personal beliefs. To a certain extent I have subscribed to the belief that reality exists within our own consciousness; which is not to say that I believe that reality exists within the realm of my cognizance but rather within the consciousness of mankind. It was Russell's contention that this type of thought robs philosophic contemplation of its value "since it fetters contemplation to Self." I found this to be a very logical point because the key to discovery is going beyond what we already know. Most importantly, Russell's observation helped me to better understand the notion that admitting our own ignorance is a step in the direction of wisdom. However, I still choose to stand firm in aspects of my original belief, which pertain to spiritual concepts existing only insofar as man lets them, but that is a subject I will deal further with later. Now would probably be a good time to get into the body of works we discussed this week.

(Lauren Ganoe)

On Plato's Allegory of the Cave:

In his Allegory of the Cave, Plato presents us with one of the most brilliant images of Wisdom that the world has ever known. He speaks of a group of slaves chained to a rock who are only capable of seeing the images which are cast upon the wall in front of them. One of the slaves manages to free himself from the shackles and is amazed to learn that the images which were constantly in front of his face, and around which he had constructed his "reality" are nothing more than shadows cast by actual objects which lurked out of the field of normal vision. There are many lessons to be learned from Plato's allegory, all of which are attempts to point us in the direction of wisdom. Probably the greatest lesson to be learned is that things simply are not as they appear. The world which we perceive is not the world as it truly exists. Any image of reality based on our perceptions which we may hold to be true is nothing more than a representation of the reality which resides outside of the realm of the phenomenal. We often attempt to define "reality" with the parameters of verbal communication, while we forget that the words are nothing more than shadows cast upon a wall by the objects which exist beyond the vision of those facing the wall.

The more and more one studies the world's wisdom traditions, the more and more one sees how this Platonic theme reoccurs, in one form or other, in most concepts of wisdom. For instance, the Chinese tradition of Taoism rejects the idea of language as being our most useful tool for truly coming to terms with wisdom. Similar to the Platonic tradition, they felt that the ultimate understanding of wisdom was a thing which remained outside the realm of verbal communication, and that any attempt to grasp it through symbolic representation did nothing more than dimmed the picture of its complete existence. What I find peculiar is that in spite of the fact that the Taoists begin the teachings by stating that the true essence of Tao is something that cannot be given in language, they still continue to attempt to define it in such a manner. They fall into the same Confucian trap which they make a point to avoid. They condemned the Confucians for constructing their reality around the shadows on the wall, and laud themselves for having broken their chains which enabled themselves to venture out of the cave and come face to face with the ultimate reality. Yet, they elect to return to the cave and rebind themselves to the shackles of hollow sound and characters, once again constructing a sense of reality around the shadows.

(Mark Edsell)

On Aristotle:

For Plato, in the "allegory of the cave" from the Republic, wisdom can be seen as having been gained by ascending from opinion and "reality as imagined" from the prisoner's viewpoint staring at the shadows in the cave to knowledge of the Forms. Of course, you have to believe in the Forms if you want to posit Them as the highest knowledge attainable.

Assuming the existence of the Forms, the act of contemplating and having the Forms as one's intentional object is an act in which one attains sophia. Aristotle was not readily convinced that thinking about the Forms was sophia, but he was convinced that the highest wisdom one could attain was of the speculative and theoretical sort. Though sophia was viewed as the highest wisdom, the related idea of phronesis was nonetheless important. Aristotle's logic can be seen as an attempted to give phronesis to sophia. This is assuming that, via language, his system of reasoning is able to pin down in reality what is sagacious and true.

His phronesis is inseparably connected with ethical decisions because it is concerned with our behavior. One must remember that the philosophy of Aristotle was concerned with life as lived within a society. And this fact necessarily entails that one has practical and ethical concerns. Aristotle believed that there was a best way to manage these concerns, and that this best way was manifested in the act of choosing the correct or proper action in a given situation. It becomes apparent that one must know what is correct or proper, and for Aristotle what is proper is acting in accordance with his own doctrine of the mean as proposed in the Nicomachean Ethics.

(Kevin Kaufmann)

On Hebrew Wisdom Literature:

Just as our conception of wisdom effects our religious beliefs, religious beliefs effect what we consider wisdom. The community in which an individual lives and experiences constitutes that individual's view of the world. The community conditions belief in a particular reality and conditions some conception of wisdom. This is evident in the Hebrew wisdom literature of the Bible. What ultimately constituted wisdom for the Hebrew culture was faith in YAHWEH or God, although this is broad generalization. Wisdom, especially of the theological or philosophic sort, ultimately comes as a gift from God and was to be viewed as an end in itself. It appears that it is through this type of wisdom that God made Himself evident to His believers. . . . Hockmah, roughly translated as practical wisdom, was . . . [p]ropriety in deference to God [which] was seen as a way to material well-being. Failure was seen as caused by not acting properly in accordance with God.

Skepticism as to the human, more so Hebrew, limits of wisdom is evident in Ecclesiastes. In this book of the Bible, observations are made about the random nature of material well-being relative to propriety. Pious individuals seemed to go without reward (Job, for example) while the impious prospered. The author of Ecclesiastes appears to doubt the relation of propriety and material well-being. What I understand to be wisest for the Hebrews is to have faith in God and admit God's actions as humanly unfathomable. The same sentiment is expressed at the end of the last chapter of Ecclesiastes:

Chapter 12, verse 11The sayings of the wise are like goads, and like nails firmly fixed are the collected sayings that are given by one shepherd. 12 Of anything beyond these, my child, beware. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. 13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

(Kevin Kaufmann)

On the Transcendentalists:

From the opening statements on the first page of Emerson's "Self-Reliance," "to believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men-that is genius," it is clearly observable that the Transcendentalists maintain a position that focuses on and encourages the individual. It is this type of attitude that arrives at new and innovative ways of thinking and exposes new fields of thought. It is only by breaking out of the traditional modes of thought and behavior that we can make progress. By progress I do not necessarily mean technological advancements or smoother roads on which to drive our faster cars. By progress I am referring to an increase in the quality of life as opposed to lifestyle. If we live our lives in a manner that strictly follows conventional customs and norms then we are doomed to never truly experience life for ourselves for our perception of the world around us will tailored to conform with the accepted ideals. Every and all individuals experience the world around them in a unique and individualized fashion and in order to draw from that experience all that it is worth it is necessary to be uninhibited and uninfluenced by external influences. Hence, Thoreau's time spent at Walden was not an attempt to commune with nature or live by the most austere means possible. Rather, Walden was Throreau's attempt to experience and interpret Nature () for himself, free from any distraction or obstacles that might contaminate his experience.

(Jason Morgan)

One student chose to communicate his understanding of the course materials in a more creative and imaginative means than the usual descriptive essay. What follows is a small selection taken from the longer narrative:

So now I'm walking through a leafy wooded place. Ordinarily I would just say that I was walking through a forest, but it had sort of an artificial feel to it. I'm walking, looking all around, mostly up into the trees, kind of wondering why they look so disinterested when I not only step into a huge mud puddle, but trip over some guy.

Let me tell you about this guy. First off, he was totally naked, and so thoroughly covered in mud that it took quite a while to sink in that he really was nude. Second, and I swear this is true, he never ever not once stopped smiling. I don't know about you but after like an hour or so of constant smiling my cheeks hurt like hell, it's a perfect example of one of those things you never notice until to late. Anyway the main thing that impressed me, or at least impressed upon me, the most about him was his eyes. His eyes just looked right into me like, well I guess like if the disinterested trees of the forest had eyes I could imagine them looking similar. He gave me a look that said he had me completely figured out. Needless to say by this time I didn't have a clue how to react. On top of all the other stuff that has gone on today now I have this naked oldish guy eyeing me from the middle of a mud puddle.

I tried as best I could to gather my bluster. "you're going to catch a cold if you stay in that puddle," I managed. He thought that was a very funny thing to say, at least I assume he thought it was a funny thing to say because he started laughing at me.

"What does a cold look like," he chuckled at me.

"Huh," I said.

"Would you be so kind as to explain to me what exactly a cold looks like so that when one comes along I will know to try to grasp it," he said.

"You can't see a cold or any other adjective for that matter," I said.

"Am I an adjective?" he asked.

"No, you're a naked man covered in mud." I replied.

"Then why did you trip over me." He said.

"I didn't see you." I said.

"Exactly." He said.

He seemed very pleased with my answer. So pleased, I think, that he got up out of his mud puddle and put a loose robe on, over the mud and all. Then he said, "Time to wake up, boy."

"What are you talking about," I asked.

"You still don't see me do you," he said more than asked, "Do you know where you are? Do you know how you got here?"

I thought about that one for at least a couple of hours while we walked through the almost forest, because the fact of the matter was that I didn't know where I was. That didn't bother me to much. I get lost often enough that I more or less expect it. More often than not when I actually get to where I wanted to go I'm very pleasantly surprised. What did bother me though was that I couldn't remember anything after I left the house. What also bothered me, well not really bothered so much as just took notice of the fact that the mud man was smiling at me while I was wracking my brain trying to account for the lost time. Damn it. Time has been messing with me all day. All right, all right…start from the beginning, I thought.

"I was fretting over how to begin this paper," I thought out loud, "That damn frog kept saying either I shouldn't do it at all, or I should set the beginning of the first page on fire."

"Kama," mud man said.

I stopped and looked up at his crusty smiling face. Kama, I think that's Hindu for pleasure, one of the things people want.

I was still trying to work through the original question much less think about why mud man decided to say pleasure in Hindu, when I said, "Then I found out my couch was really home to chronologically impaired culture."

"Artha," he said.

Now I had to seriously consider this. Artha ,I think is the Hindu word for success, or value. Success is also one of the things people can really desire, along with pleasure. Well…sure I guess not doing the paper would have been pleasing, not to mention how much fun it would be to set it on fire, but it definitely wouldn't last. Wait a second, the frog suggested those courses of action, and the frog was nothing more than the personification of my own 'will to evil'. I always did think of the frog as more selfish than evil. How pleasing would it be to satisfy purely selfish desires?

Artha, success, the aborigines in my couch. I did keep affirming to myself that they were in my couch. Essentially affirming my ownership of the native aborigines in my couch, whom by their own admission have always been there. What is more successful than ownership of an entire civilization. Hold up. I'm thinking of them as a primitive culture. That assumes I'm in a position to know the difference between primitive and non-primitive. Am I successful in that I don't consider myself a primitive, or that I desire to be a non-primitive, and what good would it be to succeed. The aborigines in my couch were every bit as smart as anyone I ever met, well maybe not the frog.

At that point I started muttering to myself, "What happened next? I was stunned by the natives' existence, I wandered out into the hallway where Ishmael told me of his dream about god."

"Dharma," mud man said.

I think I actually slapped my forehead when he said that one. I know I definitely sat down in the dirt. Again I was muttering to my self, "Dharma, that's a tricky one. It could mean a lot of different stuff to different people. To me, whether its a correct translation or not, it means something along the lines of ethical good behavior or knowing right from wrong or something along those lines. It's also one of the things people can truly desire as well. Ishmael's mystical dream very clearly said that doing the god's work was good. Ishmael himself said that he didn't want to lose the knowledge of the will of the god. He was obviously one of those who desire Dharma. I know that I don't desire mystical knowledge of right and wrong."

Then after I was all muttered out I looked up from the dirt I was sitting in to the dirt encrusted on mud man's still smiling face and said, "Moksha."

"Now," mud man said, "finally you see me."

He helped he to my feet and we started walking again.

He said, "This is the forest of the pratyeka buddhas. Every person who manages to gain self enlightenment has to walk through this woodland. Every tree in the forest grows on the discarded self's of the buddhas. Every leaf of every tree is a desire extinguished. Someday this forest will cover the world."

"Am I awake," I asked.

"impetuous boy! You have merely learned that you are asleep. It's up to you to find out if you want to wake up. Now you know where you are and how you got here," he said.

"who are you," I asked.

He said, "I take care of the forest. I suppose that makes me a gardener. Call me Sid."

"Where are we going Sid," I asked.

Still smiling he replied, "Over the hill there. I would like to show you the archery range."

(Pat Buckley)