Outside the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England. Photo by Mark Kerrison/In Pictures via Getty
There are no transcendent insights that rise above human difference. Yet wisdom exists if we look in the right places
Then, one day, your best friend since childhood comes to you and says that their father has passed away. You love this friend and their father immensely. The father was practically yours as well. But one thing stands between you: they are as ardent a believer in the Christian afterlife as you are in the nothingness to come. You have spent your life cultivating the wisdom necessary to deal with loss and give advice and consolation, but your friend needs neither of these. They are sure that their father has passed into a better place and are simply thankful that he has gone home to be with God. At least that’s what they say, but you can tell that underneath the veneer they are profoundly grief stricken. To complicate the situation further, imagine that you are white and identify with your sex at birth, while your friend is Black and nonbinary. For them, the Church has been welcoming through their transition, and it is the one institution in this world that they trust, given how often they have been harassed at the hands of state institutions like the police.
You, too, are grieving for the loss of your friend’s father, and you want to be able to share this difficult time with them, but instead you find yourself both enraged and paralysed. You are angry that your friend refuses to accept that there is neither heaven nor hell, and you cannot believe that someone you love so much is so taken in by what you consider lies and fantasy. At the same time, you know the importance of the Church for your friend, and do not want to come off condescending or patronising. You don’t know what to do, and begin to ask yourself what good your pursuit of wisdom has been for all these years. Have you actually learned anything about how to live well? What texts or stories could possibly have taught you to prepare for this moment? Surprising as it may seem, classic wisdom texts like the ones you’ve been reading have, in fact, much to help you understand this situation. You just haven’t been taught to see them that way.
Indeed, most contemporary accounts teach you that issues of identity destroy the pursuit of wisdom. In The Closing of the American Mind (1987), for example, the American philosopher Allan Bloom argued that the point of an education should be to explore ‘what is accessible to all men as men through their common and distinctive faculty, reason.’ He found, however, that universities were more likely to teach a cultural relativism focused on how different cultures approached the truth. According to Bloom, this splintering of truth into culture also manifested on an individual level, as people pursued studies based on their class, gender or race – not their common concern for what it meant to be wise. Moreover, no one was encouraging them to do otherwise: ‘[F]athers and mothers have lost the idea that the highest aspiration they might have for their children is for them to be wise.’
uch a lament is not limited to conservative critics of the university. In a more recent book, Rescuing Socrates (2021), the American Studies scholar Roosevelt Montás makes a similar complaint to Bloom’s, but from a different angle. As a Dominican student at Columbia University in New York in the 1990s, Montás felt the identity-based closedness that Bloom diagnoses: his professors and classmates assumed he had certain ideas based on his cultural identity. But what he found most meaningful was not this particular identity but, via Socrates, ‘a sort of identity that felt true to my deepest self … the life of the mind – a way of living that held out the possibility of absorbing the disparate parts of who I was into some kind of integrated whole.’
Bloom and Montás are certainly not alone in criticising this replacement of profundity with identity politics. Nor are they alone in the implicit argument that wisdom itself is something separate from the question of group identity. As the psychologist Igor Grossmann noted in 2020 in his helpful summary for Aeon of the state of wisdom studies, one of the key goals is to find a definition of wisdom that transcends individual cultures by identifying common threads around the world. Once we look at the emerging definition more closely, however, we may notice something interesting.
The two key features of the current definition are: moral groundedness and metacognition. Grossmann writes that the first implies ‘ideas such as the sense of shared humanity, pursuit of truth, recognition of the need to balance personal interests with other people’s interests, and a general willingness to cooperate and have compassion for others.’ This is very similar to what we find in the humanist definitions.
We find continual reflections on the relationship between cultural particularism and universal wisdom
Metacognition, meanwhile, is about your ability to reflect on your own thinking: showing humility, listening to others, learning from your experiences. While Grossmann does not draw a direct line between this second feature of wisdom and engaging cultural differences, there is an obvious parallel. To be wise does not only mean learning about what we share as humans. It also means being able to work through our differences reasonably without abandoning our moral insights.
Perhaps surprisingly, this challenge to unite shared humanity and cultural identity is not unique to the modern world. If we look at some of the classic texts to which these writers refer – Greek philosophy and the Hebrew scriptures – we find continual reflections on the relationship between cultural particularism and universal wisdom. While the quest for a common humanity is certainly present in ancient texts, there is also an idea in wisdom traditions that, to truly be wise, we have to learn to live with different ideas of the truth. Wisdom in this sense is not separate from identity, but is about figuring out how humans can live well and develop universal standards of wellbeing, while also knowing that no single standard of wellness will ever be meaningful to everyone. And, given that our cultures and communities do not fully define us, this is as true within cultures as between them.
Pace Bloom and Montás, I would argue that part of the reason that wisdom has been downgraded in education is because of the very opposition between universal truth and particular experience.[…]
Continue reading: Can’t agree what wisdom means? All the more reason to seek it | Aeon Essays
Edited byNigel Warburton
None of us knows the universal truth, we all only own a part of it, and therefore we shouldn’t call nonsense what we don’t believe or don’t understand, which often is the same.
There is also a wisom of the heart. If a friend hurts, hold him in your arms and hug him, words don’t help.
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