Sunday, April 1, 2012

Return to the Folly of Wisdom - April Fool's 2012

            Good afternoon, and welcome to my seventh annual observance of April Fool’s Day. I had the idea for this observance some years ago while feeling foolish, and it seemed like the foolish thing to do would be to celebrate that feeling. The paradoxes and tensions that make us feel foolish seem to be built into human life, so I think it can be simultaneously liberating and frustrating to take some time to honor them. Similarly, you may find this speech liberating and frustrating—that tends to be the result of any effort to shed light on confusion; seeing the fog better is a bittersweet improvement. Also I might lie and contradict myself a little.
            The speech, from this point, is 11 minutes long. My longest one yet, so I thank you for your patience.

            The Book of Proverbs is found in the final third of the Jewish Bible, and is considered one of the primary books of ancient Jewish wisdom. As a book on wisdom, it has much to say about fools, including this gem: “As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly.” (26:11) Lovely image, right? The metaphor illustrates how a fool doesn’t learn from their mistakes, and so persists in doing the same harmful activities over and over, despite the experience of harm. I begin my speech today with this verse because I intend to reveal myself equally foolish as the dog—my speech today is on the exact same topic as the one in 2007, and so I call it “Return to the Folly of Wisdom.”
            As a warning, this speech covers a lot of ground, and definitely leaves a lot to be said. I am in the process of ditching the word “spirit” as a rallying point, and seeing to what extent I can organize my teaching around the word “wisdom.” I’m also really early in this process. So consider this speech somewhat of a survey of tensions in “wisdom,” with a focus on the question of how someone might go about teaching wisdom.

            When I spoke on this topic five years ago, I was concerned with defining wisdom so that I could then find it. I now understand how that particular effort was doomed by assumptions I was making about the nature of wisdom—I believed that wisdom was tied to truth, and I believed that truth was monolithic. All one had to do was grip some fundamental, unchanging truth about reality, and all wisdom would follow from that truth. The Book of Proverbs endorses this approach, repeatedly informing us that there is a beginning to wisdom, and it is fear of the Lord. (1:7, 9:10) Without this initial, true reckoning with God, all attempts at wisdom will fail.
            I no longer hold this view, because I’ve lost my faith in monolithic truth. I don’t think wisdom must come from an absolute knowledge of ultimate reality, because, to me, both absolute knowledge and ultimate reality are ultimately elusive. All I get to have, as a human on earth, is personal and shared knowledge gleaned from life and lives. Wisdom is constructed from this ever-shifting, always fragmented body of knowledge.
            So what is wisdom? I can’t give a full definition, but I can point out two aspects of wisdom that I’ve noticed since the last time I spoke on this topic:

1)      In general, I would define wisdom as “advice that leads to success in life.” As a philosopher, I want to add an extra layer to this definition by also defining wisdom as “existential observations through which we understand the nature of life and of success.” To be wise means not just knowing how to get the job done, but also knowing which jobs are worth doing. This double definition of wisdom is clear when reading Ecclesiastes, another piece of biblical wisdom literature. While the advice in Proverbs is mostly practical, the speaker in Ecclesiastes mixes practical advice with sweeping statements about absurdity, time, death, and meaning. Someone who would be wise must be sensitive to life-as-a-whole, in addition to matters of everyday life.

2)     The currency of wisdom is the proverb, the wise saying. The power of the wise saying is in its broadness and brevity; it’s easy to remember and can be applied to many situations. The weakness of the wise saying, of course, is its broadness and brevity; it fails to acknowledge exceptions and never tells the whole story. This is why wise sayings have to be piled-together in order to become wisdom. “Look before you leap” is wise but incomplete advice, as is “Just do it.” A person wielding both of these proverbs is wiser than the individual with only one. And a third proverb is needed to mediate between these two, probably something like “Know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em.”

Ok, so far so good. If these two points do anything, they make sure you understand how complicated wisdom is. Wisdom is about achieving success, but it’s also about questioning the meaning of success. Wisdom is composed of bits of wisdom—proverbs— all of which are fragments, and many of which contradict. To throw on one more complication, I’ll point out that one can be wise in work, in money, in love, in family, in health, and in many other realms, or one can be foolish in some, and wise in others. We can see already that the attempt to become wise is foolish because there is simply too much to be wise or foolish about, and in too many ways! In this life, the odds are likely that I’m going to be foolish about a number of things, on a number of levels.

            Ok, ok, I hope you’ll forgive me when I say that all of this was just an introduction to the general idea of wisdom. The real folly comes out in a riddle, which I will express as two questions about wisdom: How is it acquired and how is it transmitted? I hope you can see that these questions are two sides of the same riddle.
            The first question, taken alone, actually has some obvious answers. Most wisdom is acquired through experience. If I had to make a formula out of it, I’d say that obtaining wisdom equals experience plus reflection. This explains why wisdom is most often paired with age—the longer someone has lived, the more chances they’ve had to learn about life, about themselves, and about what works and what doesn’t work. Wisdom isn’t just knowing; it’s ‘knowing better,’ and a person usually is able to know better after many opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. You can see here why reflection is key; the fool repeats mistakes, while one both is wise and becomes wise through a commitment to learning from experiences.
            Experience appears to be the most powerful teacher of wisdom, and this point exposes how wisdom is never purely intellectual. Like Bob Marley says “Who feels it knows it.” I like to think of wisdom in terms of the Kabbalistic term da’at, which is metaphorically represented not by the head or heart, but by the spine. Wisdom is truth about life that is ingrained in a person, fixed there by hard-won lessons.
            I’ll share two bits of wisdom that I earned the hard way, both in my senior year of college. Now, I’m going to be vague about the stories behind these lessons—they were powerful experiences, but often that also means they were very private.
The first one is “Being smart is different than being good.” If this is an obvious point to you, then way to go—I spent most of my life thinking that my intelligence would keep me from harming myself or others. At the beginning of my senior year, I learned this wasn’t true; I learned just how much I had the ability to hurt other people, despite my book smarts. This was a humbling experience, one that made me more sensitive and self-critical—these two traits, essential to wisdom, are difficult to obtain without difficult experiences.
My other bit of wisdom goes like this: “Embrace your incompleteness.” At the end of senior year, I felt simultaneously triumphant and ridiculous. I had learned so much but was only just beginning to grow and mature as a person. And the only way to continue growing was by being honest with myself and others about all of the information, skills, and maturity that I lacked. To hide those failings meant to protect them; only by exposing them to the light of day could I begin to overcome them. This is a hard piece of wisdom, because the instinct is to hide or ignore our weaknesses, and certainly never to allow others to point them out.
            So, really, it’s easy to say how to become wise—live life, reflect on experiences, and be open to growing and learning.

            The second question is what turns this whole wisdom-venture into a riddle: Can wisdom be transmitted? That is, if one person has a bit of wisdom, how can they successfully give it to another? I’m doubtful that this is possible, and so I have reason to suspect that the would-be teacher of wisdom is actually a great fool.
            For the moment, let’s think of wisdom as simply this internal perspective that enables wise behavior. In terms of how this perspective is acquired, it seems like “experience” “reflection” and “proverbs,” are arranged in a very specific order—experience and reflection produce the perspective, and the perspective can then be expressed as a proverb. Do you see the problem? The proverb comes after the wisdom, and never before. So using a proverb to try to make someone wise is foolish. Any proverb I ever appreciated was one I already knew, or one for which I had the kind of experience that enabled me to appreciate it as soon as I heard it. Any proverb for which I was too young or foolish would bounce right off me, or more likely, disappear into me, waiting until I had enough experiences to activate it. For example, I heard the expression “You get what you give,” for years and years before I had the wisdom to understand it. In this way, it seems like wise sayings are not worth much—the foolish can’t hear them, and the wise know them already.
            The other major reason that teaching wisdom is foolish is that young people are punks. If they don’t know what you’re talking about, they assume that you must not know what you’re talking about. If it doesn’t make sense to them, then it doesn’t make sense at all. Lousy punks. Of course, I am also one of them. I trust my own eyes, my own reasoning, and my own sense of the world. When someone tells me something that negates that, I naturally repulse it.
            The problem is that there seems to be no proper place for skepticism in the traditional model of giving wisdom. According to the book of Proverbs, only a fool would reject a proverb. And yet, even the book of Proverbs has a term—simpleton—to refer to an individual that believes everything they hear. I think there are some wise sayings in the book of Proverbs; two of my favorite are “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a distressing word stirs up anger” (15:1) and “Iron sharpens iron, as one person’s mind sharpens another.” (27:17) Great sayings. Then again, Proverbs tells us “Don’t fail to discipline your child; though you beat him with a rod, he will not die.” (23:13) Interpreted literally, this is a horrifying proverb. But if I am merely a student of wisdom, do I have any right to question the wisdom that’s given to me? After all, what do I know? The Book of Proverbs repeatedly discourages the listener from “appearing wise in one’s own eyes.” (3:7, 26:12) Of course, given this expression, it seems like there should no wisdom literature at all—who would be foolish enough to think they had wisdom to give? Can any wise person have the strong-headed confidence necessary to present themselves as a wise person?

            Ok, this is running long, so I’ll sum up. Wisdom can’t be taught because proverbs are only for those who already understand. Wisdom can’t be taught because the wise student learns to think for themselves, rather than simply accept the authority of others. Wisdom can’t be taught because wisdom is gained through life experiences and personal reflection, rather than lectures and proverbs. Wisdom can’t be taught because anyone who would pose as a wise person exposes their foolish lack of humility. The attempts to teach the wise virtues of humility, listening, and discernment are all undone by the teacher’s lecturing and desire to be taken as authority.  
            This is the folly of teaching wisdom. I hope you’ve all learned something. The best I can recommend, if you find that you simply must offer your wisdom to others, is to expect failure. Expect your words to be unappreciated, at least in the short term. Maybe years down the road, when your listeners have gained their own wisdom, they will appreciate yours. As for myself, I will continue exploring the potential for the concept of wisdom to be a rallying point for virtue and values in a secular sense, and I will return again and again to the work of teaching wisdom. Thank you.