Where is Wisdom to be Found?

…the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.

—Koheleth

Am I a misanthropist? Not really, it’s not humanity I hate as much as it is certain idiots. After a life of reading and working through the gamut of our literary, philosophical, scientific, historical, and artistic milieu, our cultural heritage: this thing we call Western civilization for lack of a better term – I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all for naught, that most of the vast archive of textuallity in our libraries is plain bullshit, delusion, madness. I don’t mean it wasn’t worth it, but that for the most part this struggle of men and women across centuries, these cries to the void, or rants and railings against the stupidity of the age fell on ignorant and mindless beings. Why? Because the human species for the most part lives out their lives enfolded in ignorance, having never awakened to the messages left in the bottles of time and libraries. Most people if they read at all pick up an occasional magazine, cartoon, or – in our time, browse the image ridden web reading about current events: Hollywood stars, sports Moghuls, political malfeasance, trivia, the rants and cravings of … yes, creatures such as myself…  but they never – and, again, I say never will pick up a book and read it, and not only read it but work through it, listen, digest, contemplate, mulch over, speak to others about it, write about it, let it sink down and become a part of them… we are all an illiterate and mindless generation that get our brain food from the crumbs of culture rather than the dark hinterlands of true culture.

Admittedly, as much as I rail against humanism, I know in the end that I’m a product of it, that’ll I’ll never escape that fact, that it was those very humanists who encouraged me to read, to write, to think, to explore the vast world of learning. I have no actual quarrel with these men and women. How could I? They were just as deluded as I am in believing that knowledge was going to ultimately give them something back, that it would give them that ineluctable and indefinable essence of the philosophical holy grail: Wisdom. It want, it will only lead you up to that strange and bewildering height of the sublime and ridiculous where one can confront nothing more and nothing less than one’s own ignorance. For in the end it is not learning, no matter how deep and long one reads, that will give you wisdom. No. Wisdom is this impossible confrontation with the absolute however you define it: God, Void, Abyss…  the limit of thought, the horizon beyond which you must leave off human learning and enter into a deeper ignorance, awaken to powers within and without that will disturb you, frighten you, terrorize you, and give you the dark and painful truth: that human knowledge and learning will not give you the thing you seek, that your life, your love of books, of knowledge, of science, etc., is but the ashes of a dead world on the edge of nothingness. Human kind will one day disappear, vanish into that evolutionary slime pit from which it once arose never to be seen or heard from again, and all our vane struggle to attain knowledge and wisdom will disappear with us. Nothing will remain. That is wisdom, the harsh truth we are gifted with, the terrible responsibility of life, of death:

Nothing in this universe returns. Only endless death and silence, the wastelands of the void, the eternal darkness of scattered light… the cold and unending vectors of an Abyss – a black hole at the very core of this mindless rage where light turns night and the decay of stars gives way to the great emptiness

Wisdom literature has always been harsh for a reason… Koheleth, the Gatherer, of the Old Testament was probably the boldest and still primal wisdom writer, and gave us in the end the first hint of nihilism in literature, of a world without salvation, redemption, God, etc. A world in which wisdom was in fact accepting the determinism of the cosmos over which none of us has any control or mastery; and our misery and despair come from not accepting this fact – but, instead, seeking to control and master our fates as if we could.

The New Testament was bound to a quest for another type of Wisdom: the peace that passeth understanding. Ultimately that is the failure of intellect and an acceptance of the irrational fate that surrounds us on all sides. God, Christ, all this human crap and anthropomorphic shedding of tears, pity, etc. this personification of the impersonal and indifferent truth of the Absolute, the limit and boundary of our thought comes to this key truth: that we are blind and lost among delusions, that for all our knowledge we are still ignorant and bound by powers that we will never master or control. Some will despair, while others like Voltaire or Falstaff will produce wit and excess, grace and charm – the power of laughter in the face of the impossible. Bataille’s wisdom – the tears of laughter. Pain and suffering, misery and distemper prevail, yet the only antidote is laughter and wit – the twin powers that can push back the annihilating light if only for a moment.

As Plato through Socrates said long ago Wisdom, the Good Life, cannot be taught by way of technê (i.e., knowledge, craft, expertise, etc.), only by way of living and knowing (Sophia). For Plato, the Good was not merely an intellectual construct or ideal. It was something that could be experienced directly — and this experience was the highest attainment in life. He left us with some beautiful descriptions of this experience. Here, for example, is a passage from the Phaedo:

“But when returning into herself . . . [the soul] passes into the other world, the region of purity, and eternity, and immortality, and unchangeableness, which are her kindred, and with them she ever lives, when she is by herself and is not let or hindered; then she ceases from her erring ways, and being in communion with the unchanging is unchanging. And this state of the soul is called wisdom. . . .

The soul is in the very likeness of the divine, and immortal, and intellectual, and uniform, and indissoluble, and unchangeable…”

This is Plato’s idealism, his seeking of a fixed, bounded, pure world of Ideas, etc.

Biblical wisdom was of another sort, Ethos rather than the Good: this sense of the lived experience of change rather than fixity, the wisdom in Koheleth or Ecclesiastes:

“Then I looked on all the works that my hands had wrought, and on the labour that I had laboured to do: and, behold, all was vanity and vexation of spirit, and there was no profit under the sun. And I turned myself to behold wisdom, and madness, and folly: for what can the man do that cometh after the king? even that which hath been already done.

Yet, in our age of nihilism, there is the aesthetic as Nietzsche would advocate: the ability to stylize our cosmic uncertainties, to produce an overall pattern to our meaningless existence, to give it a shape that is neither the Good of the Plato, nor the Ethos of Koheleth, but rather the martialing of the power of our non-knowing lived experience and intellect; neither binding us to some eternal world of verities (Plato), or to some ancient tradition of received wisdom (Ethos), but rather in process of lived uncertainty that everything is revisable (Scientia) in a chaotic chaosmos.

7 thoughts on “Where is Wisdom to be Found?

  1. I have problems with him and his current of thought, but for my money James Hillman manages to salvage a certain amount of wisdom from Western tradition. There’s a sincere attempt to counter humanistic sentiment, through shedding Christian accretions to our roots in Greece. I get a lot from non-Western traditions, but I respect his rigour in mining the West for ways of facing a multiplicitous, inhuman world.

    That said, it seems unremarkable that a tradition largely based on thought would fail to satisfactorily accommodate reality. Hillman probably opposes ‘images’ to thought, but while his actual practice (psychotherapy) can be useful, it seems far too bourgeois to cut the mustard, to put it mildly. His book We’ve Had 100 Years of Psychotherapy and the World is Getting Worse shows he’s honest enough to wrestle with this, though.

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    • Yea, back in the 80’s I read through most of Adler, Freud, Jung and their disciples.. then on to the anti-psychiatry of Laing, Guattari, et. al., and the influx of Japanese forms among the Kyoto School, the strange amalgam of New Age and Jung in those 50’s thinkers from Eliade to Keryeni, etc. and on and on…

      As you say, Hillman in some ways reminds me of Rorty – a pragmatist: both part of that middle-class American milieu, progressives who still believed in reformism, etc., believed humans could change, that politics mattered, that the world would come round, etc. In the end I get a hint that they all despaired that it would…

      Wisdom literature has always been harsh for a reason… Koheleth, the Gatherer, of the Old Testament was probably the boldest and still primal wisdom writer, and gave us in the end the first hint of nihilism in literature, of a world without salvation, redemption, God, etc. A world in which wisdom was in fact accepting the determinism of the cosmos over which none of us has any control or mastery, and our misery and despair come from not accepting this fact; but, instead, seeking to control and master our fates as if we could.

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      • There’s harshness in wisdom literature, but I would suspect anything that is simply categorisable as ‘harsh’ as having fallen a little short of ‘awakening’. Maybe I’m lucky or stupid or both, I really don’t feel the need currently for coming to terms with it all coming to nothing. Though a friend has interesting things to say about it from a kind of Advaita Vedanta point of view:

        Nihilism is the great danger of our current age and has to be overcome. Essentially the nothingness of nihilism is an objective relative nothingness, not a non-objective absolute nothingness. Nihilism is how you might interpret what I am saying if you were confined to the mind.

        https://dreamflesh.com/interview/absolutely-nothing-joel-biroco/

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      • That’s mere Kyoto School warmed over… a false apprehension of one phase of nihilism – or, what Nietzsche termed “passive nihilism” as against “active nihilism” or amor fati… but even Nietzsche was a little too optimistic for my taste, he still believed in a return, a Western form of karma, the eternal return of the Same. The harsh truth is there is no return, once only – a transition between two abysses. As Emerson once had it there is only one thing: I and the Abyss. But we’ve come to realize the “I” is but a fiction of the Abyss, not its mirror.

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