I teased today’s teaching last week when I explained my recent absence from writing and today I bring it back, but before we get to it, I offer a question to consider: What is wisdom? Who is wise? And why would–or would not–wisdom last over time?
It may be beneficial to take a moment to think thoroughly of these things before reading onward, but if you’d rather rush ahead, that’s okay, too–just keep all these thoughts in mind for later.
3.11 Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa taught:
When one gives priority to reverence over wisdom, his wisdom will be enduring; but when one gives priority to wisdom over reverence, his wisdom will not be enduring.
As I typically do with these types of teachings, I’ll begin with a definition: What is wisdom? In my political theory course just this last week we were required to read some Plato in which he defines, speaking as Socrates, wisdom to be the understanding that you do not know everything–and somehow, it seems, this realization causes an intelligent being to suddenly be considered “wise.” I think this definition is a little lacking, however; personally, I like to think wisdom is the difference between knowing and understanding.
We can all know what something is. That’s basic. Blue is a color. Bamboo is a grass. All dogs are canines but not all canines are dogs. However, it takes a certain level of prowess, perhaps even mastery, to turn that knowledge into understanding. What is blue? A wavelength. Grass? A broad category of plants. A canine? A similar category of animals to grass (such that foxes, wolves, and dogs are all a part). Even so, this all just pokes fun at wisdom–by supplying more knowledge. I might be able to understand the intricacies of light, and even explain them, but I can’t begin to tell you the biology that differentiates grasses from foxes.
All this talk has been fairly academic in nature–and being in college as I am, that’s to be expected, but true wisdom should also extend beyond classroom courses. There is a certain kind of understanding that you gain from experience in a field or experiencing unusual things or just living life to old age. This kind of wisdom cannot be taught in a classroom; it can only be obtained through hands-on learning.
And when all of these elements combine, someone can truly be wise.
So what is reverence? It’s one of those words, at least for me, that I can put a finger on but can’t necessarily put into appropriate words. It’s something a lot like respect, but coupled with a dose of awe and wonder. It’s common for us to express reverence in a religious sense–an instance in which we highly regard another, such as a god, with a sense of awe at what that deity has done for us. I visited the Duke Chapel not too long ago and I can’t help but describe my feelings as reverent. The magnanimity of standing in this overflowing Gothic cathedral filled me with the utmost awe and, although not dedicated to my god, the religious significance of the location filled my entirety with respect for those who were there.
So that’s reverence, and now that we know of wisdom, too, we can address this teaching head-on.
It begins with a proposition: If priority is given to reverence over wisdom, then wisdom will be enduring. The inverse is also given as true: If priority is not given to reverence over wisdom, then wisdom will not be enduring. When we read this, we cannot easily prove either statement before the other–instead, we must proceed singularly as if there is but one statement to prove.
The conversation begins by asking what it means to give reverence priority over wisdom. Think about this for a second–what does that mean to you? Does it mean respecting our elders over our own opinions? Does it mean learning in wonder regardless of what we already know? Or does it mean something else?
For me, it means all of the above. If we give priority to reverence over wisdom, we are open to learning from others–from our elders and mentors, our teachers and our professors, and also our peers. In a way this equates well with what Plato said–that those who admit to not knowing everything are wise. This reverence is humbling and it allows us to add to our wisdom over time, fortifying our wisdom with every passing moment.
It follows that if we give priority to wisdom over reverence we have lost the respect for others that makes learning easy to come by. We have learned to regard our wisdom as the greatest there is and as such we have been blinded by our own ignorance and made unable to see what others–new people and experiences–can teach us. We have shut our minds and closed our hearts. We can take in nothing more.
Likewise, we can now see that if we put reverence over wisdom, we will exist in a constant state of learning. Our knowledge will increase, our understanding will flourish, and our wisdom will endure for all the days of our lives. However, if we put wisdom over reverence, we will devolve into closed-minded drones full of information, but lacking in insight; our wisdom will never grow and in time, our wisdom will not only wither but also be surpassed by those around us as the world changes and what we know becomes outdated and irrelevant.
Of course, this entire theorem is built upon the axiom that wisdom is the difference between knowledge and understanding, and we have not proved this result, have we? For me, it’s what I believe, and until I’ve been given a convincing argument otherwise, I doubt my views will change. But what if you define wisdom differently? If wisdom is not the difference between knowledge and understanding, then this entire teaching may teach something completely different–although, in all likelihood, the methods used to reach my conclusion may very well be the same methods you use to reach yours.
So, I ask again, what is wisdom? What does it mean to you?