Sunday, October 14, 2018

Wisdom 7:7-11 and Philosophy

 "Therefore I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called upon God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me. 
I preferred her to scepters and thrones, and I accounted wealth as nothing in comparison with her. 
Neither did I liken to her any priceless gem, because all gold is but a little sand in her sight, and silver will be accounted as clay before her. 
I loved her more than health and beauty, and I chose to have her rather than light, because her radiance never ceases. 
All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth."

Our modern understanding of morality sees it as a matter of figuring out abstract rules of behavior. A philosophy class in ethics might devote its time to pondering artificial circumstances as a way to tease out such rules: What should one do, for example, if you happen to be standing next to a railway switch with a train bearing down which will run over 5 people, and you could switch it onto a side track where it will only run over 1 person? Do you do nothing and allow the five to die? Or do you switch the track and condemn to death the one, who would have survived without your intervention?

This approach is quite foreign to the ancient approach to morality. The ancient approach did not concern itself with rules so much, as with describing and creating the character of a man who would show good judgment in any circumstance. Good judgment was known as the virtue of phronesis to the Greeks and we understand it under the name of prudence or wisdom, although our understanding of prudence is a more timid version of what the Greeks meant by phronesis. Our prudent man is the sort of man who avoids taking chances, whereas the Greek wiseman was fully prepared to take chances if the situation truly called for it.

The quote from Wisdom that starts this post summarizes the ancient view of wisdom nicely. Wisdom is more valuable than gold, silver, scepters or thrones, because the man who is not wise (i.e. the fool) will not use such wealth in a manner that is truly to his advantage. On the other hand, the wise man who is not rich will nonetheless possess the character virtues that will allow him to become rich; or, better yet, acquire those things that truly make a fulfilled life (which might be other than thrones or riches). So wisdom is a far more valuable thing to have than any earthly possession or title.

The author of the Book of Wisdom would not be surprised by modern studies that show that the lives of winners of large lottery prizes are, after a few years, indistinguishable from what they were before they got lucky. They may now have a rusting snowmobile in their backyard and drive a 10 year old Mercedes, and have travelled to Vegas a few times, but as the years go by they end up pretty much where they would have otherwise. The reason, according to ancient wisdom, is that their original circumstances had more to do with their character than luck; and without a change of character, a little luck will not make a lasting difference. Instead of saving and investing the money they've won, they buy a boat and a trip to the Caymans. Instead of spending the money on more education, they spend it on buying Cristal for their friends at the bar. In a few years, the money is gone and they are back where they were.

There is an assumption lurking behind the modern understanding of morality that is not always acknowledged. The assumption is that the difficult part of morality is finding out exactly what the moral rules are; once they are known, it is assumed, following them is not such a difficult thing. The ancients had the opposite view: The basics of morality are not difficult to know - don't lie, cheat or steal, kill your neighbor or covet his wife. The hard part was following morality once it was known. 

Even more difficult from the ancient view was how, beyond merely avoiding doing evil, to construct your life so that it is as fulfilling as possible. This is something that requires much more than just rule following. It means discovering what human life is really about, and acquiring the virtues necessary to attain it.

Modern morality has nothing to say about this. It views "freedom" as the greatest good, and is indifferent to what one does with that freedom, as long those abstract moral rules are followed. The great modern moral crusades, then, concern themselves with defending the rights of individuals to be or to do what they want with their freedom- change from a boy to a girl, for instance, or call themselves a girl when they look exactly like a boy.

For the average person, who is basically of good character and is wondering what to do with his life, the modern answer of "whatever you want" is disappointingly empty. For those so disappointed, the ancients stand ready to listen and answer.