Proving Wisdom

Endurance training is pretty basic. It simply involves proper pacing, commitment, and determination. Through continued exercise, stamina and endurance are increased accordingly. But how does one make wisdom enduring? Last time we spoke about reverence and how it roots our wisdom, and this time we’re going to continue the narrative.

After all, if we are enduring, we’re practically immortal.

3.12 This was a favorite teaching of his:

When a person’s good deeds exceed his wisdom, his wisdom will be enduring; but when a person’s wisdom exceeds his good deeds, his wisdom will not be enduring.

We can construct an easy argument about how reverence can cause wisdom to become enduring, but how do good deeds accomplish the same thing? And perhaps as importantly, if two actions can complete the same task, is one preferable to the other, and if so, should we practice only one? Or are both necessary?

Lately I’ve been reading Aristotle’s Ethics for my political theory course. In it, he speaks much of virtue–but he begins by building a foundation upon which to base his entire narrative, a number of axioms upon which he constructs his entire argument. He posits that the aim of any person is to live a good life and that a good life is defined by virtue, and virtue, he says, is both the action and the outcome: By acting virtuous, we become virtuous.

It’s like endurance training: By enduring, we become enduring.

You might be wondering what this has to do with wisdom in general and good deeds in particular, but it’s really quite simple: To make our wisdom enduring, we must act to make it enduring. Both the action and the outcome are one and the same. Do and it shall be done. Now we merely need to construct a way to relate wisdom and good deeds.

We shall prove this relationship by contraposition: Instead of showing why good deeds exceeding wisdom will make it enduring, we shall show why a lack of enduring wisdom leads to wisdom exceeding good deeds. That’s a bit of a mouthful, and unless you’re studying mathematical proofs, it may be a lot to swallow, so as I often due when talking about these teachings, I shall proceed with an example.

Suppose a man has grown wise. He has been educated and has experienced a number of events in his life that has granted him complete understanding of the way things are and what to do with them. He is a good citizen: involved, caring for others, doing what is just. Now suppose further this wisdom fails. Since wisdom is not so much knowledge as understanding, he knows no less, but can no longer relate that knowledge to life. He knows feeding the hungry is good, but he no longer understands why it is good–and therefore abstains from doing so. He knows supporting the elderly is good, but he has lost his understanding for why it matters–and therefore he abstains from supporting them. He knows it is good to avoid littering, but he cannot make sense of its importance–and so he forsakes the whole of the world and abstains from all his actions.

Although his knowledge has been sustained, his wisdom has faltered, and with this faltering, his ability to act justly has also diminished. As the number of good acts he performs dwindles to nothing, his wisdom decays at a slower rate, and thereby his wisdom–what of it he has remaining–shall always exceed the good things he does.

Therefore the claim holds. Quod erat demonstrandum.

However, I feel for some, this proof alone will not be sufficient. What exactly leads from doing good deeds to possessing enduring wisdom? It follows logically that if wisdom is understanding and doing acts of goodness promotes understanding (for we not only apply our knowledge of what is good, but we also witness what impact it has and the ripples it causes to spread outward and touch all beings) then doing good deeds builds the understanding that causes wisdom to endure. As Aristotle said, the action is equivalent to the outcome.

But which is more important–to be reverent or to do good deeds?

And more importantly, must we do both or will one suffice?

I’d like to posit a new theorem in which we state that there exists a unique method to causing one’s wisdom to endure. However, this does not stand to reason if we have just shown that performing good deeds and being reverent will accomplish this same end–so in fitting mathematical fashion, we must show that they are truly the same.

Thus, we shall prove its uniqueness.

Suppose a woman is reverent. She honors those around her and respects all people, no matter their place in life. She, too, has been educated and has experienced life to the point that she has become quite wise–and she seeks to make this wisdom endure for all her years. She feeds the hungry as an expression of her respect toward the less fortunate, an act that fills her with awe when she realizes the lives she is changing and how she has used her small place in life to make a great change. She honors her elders and does whatever she can to support them, whether by taking them grocery shopping or by lobbying on their behalf–and at the day’s end, she basks in the wonder of the difference she has made–not for her own sake, but for all the people she has helped. And last in this example, but not least of all, she picks up that litter and throws it out–not because it feels good, but because it preserves the world and all of its beauty, beauty that no doubt leaves her feeling great reverence.

Therefore, the act of performing good deeds is itself an act of reverence. The two are not mutually exclusive at all. Q.E.D.

If words and arguments do you no good, and if all of this has seemed like some thought experiment with no concrete ending, I offer you a challenge. I challenge you to think of a service project or a good deed you have done and then, as the challenge goes, I ask you to tell me how you felt about it. Before it, during it, after it. Tell me your feelings. And if you don’t feel like telling me, at least be honest and tell yourself.

The last time I was able to do a massive service project I was working at the Welfare Reform Liaison in Greensboro, NC, sorting goods to be resold to low-income buyers. It wasn’t clean, it wasn’t gratifying–but it felt great. Moving around boxes, tearing through everything, sorting it all accordingly–it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t necessarily fun, but it felt good. To see everyone brought together to help someone else–someone we would never know and never meet–was amazing. To see the impact we had on the Welfare Reform workers, to see their gratitude and the passion with which they do this every day–that was awe-inspiring and amazing.

If you’ve ever had an experience like that, how can you argue reverence and performing good deeds are not one and the same? Yes, perhaps we can be reverent without the latter, but the latter never comes alone. By being good people, by acting justly and serving others in our every-day lives, our wisdom will flourish and our wisdom will endure, and through the mark we leave behind, we truly can become immortal.

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