Perhaps the most significant philosophical casualty of the modern era is the disappearance of the concept of wisdom. The modern world began with doubt about the metaphysical basis of traditional wisdom, progressed to doubt about the very possibility of wisdom, and has now reached the point where it has even forgotten that there is a concept of wisdom. This is one of the more depressing aspects of the case of Chris McCandless from Into the Wild. Here was a highly intelligent, talented, passionate young man who graduated from
I am not talking about his penchant for radical living and taking chances. A radical lifestyle that calls into question “normal” and “safe” ways of living may be an expression of deep wisdom. Socrates, St. Francis, St. Thomas Aquinas and Kierkegaard all lived more or less radical lives. But they understood that such a lifestyle is truly “radical” only to the extent that one has understood and mastered oneself. Most people, in thrall to various passions and vices, need the restrictions and pressures of society to keep the bad side of their natures in check. Absent such pressures, such people become “free” only in the sense that their vices are given head. In places where the civic structure has broken down, it isn’t peace and universal brotherhood that breaks out but riots, looting and arson. Only the man who has attained a high degree of virtue is capable of stepping outside the structure of society without such a move turning self-indulgent.
All this was once part of the essence of wisdom, the wisdom taught at Plato’s Academy and the medieval universities. Students then were far more truly radical than they are now (living as beggars, for instance, just to be able to hear lectures at the
This is particularly the case with the vice of pride, to which men of great passion and talent, like Chris McCandless, are particularly vulnerable. Seeing the lust, gluttony and envy that are common vices in mankind but seem to have been largely absent from himself, it was almost inevitable that McCandless would become subject to the vice of pride over the fact. He might have understood this about himself if he had attended the
McCandless finished college only out of duty to his family and couldn’t wait to hit the road on graduation. The result was entirely predictable. He renounced his old self by giving all his money away and severing completely his ties with his family, and began the search for transcendent truth as a “supertramp.” Of course, money or no money, he was still the same man with the same virtues and vices; his considerable virtues carried him for awhile but, unfortunately, the vice of pride eventually caught up to him in the Alaskan wilderness.