What Happened to Wisdom?

Philosophy As every student of Phil 101 knows, the Greek word philosophy (philo-sophia – φιλοσοφία) means ‘Love of Wisdom’. Socrates (460-399 BC) was perhaps the most famous western example of developing that love, regardless of opposing social trends and other impediments. (Once a young man in my Phil 101 class asked, ‘Why should we believe anything Socrates says? He was gay!’ So much for critical thinking! Not to mention open-mindedness, tolerance, ad hominem falacy, etc.)

Socrates once likened the search for Wisdom to a lover’s efforts to please his beloved, who seemed never satisfied with his  attempts. But modern philosophers haven’t had much to say about Wisdom. Instead, they talk a lot about the dumbing down of American education and society – especially a lack of critical thinking – something my teaching career confirms. I’ve watched and written about the decline in Critical Thinking for many years. Some folks may be smart or ‘street wise’ – especially the underclass. But ordinary Americans generally can’t tell fact from opinion, let alone truth, knowledge or wisdom – neither what those terms involve, nor how to acquire it (mostly by practice).

As the number of religious believers steadily declines, so the idea of wisdom has become less and less a meaningful or fruitful topic. I don’t hear scientists talking about ‘wisdom’. There’s a change in world view from pre-modern to modern times. Genuine modern thinking – 1890s to 1960s – rejected idealistic and romantic thinking in favor of realism – i.e. seeing the world as it is. From that perspective, religion was generally seen as an effort to avoid facing harsh reality – e.g. loss of loved ones, mortal illness, even death itself. Freud – an atheist – explained God as the ideal Father who knows us intimately, loves us and will never let us down the way real fathers do.

Science v. Religion Scientists have often been at war with religion. Their views certainly don’t express the Love of Wisdom that ancient philosophers in both the West and the East spoke about. The latter recognized divine beings, and tried to understand their place in a good life. Ancient Greece still influences our best thinkers. But the Far East – e.g. China, Japan,  South-East Asia and India – offer much about wisdom as well. This 2021 journal article from Springer discusses the changes and differences of Eastern and Western thinking. See especially the Abstract, from which the following is taken: “Wisdom views in different cultural contexts are closely connected with the corresponding culture’s worldview. …Firstly, the early wisdom concepts, both in China and the West, contain the elements of intelligence and virtue. Whereas … the western concept of wisdom has then shifted to the role of cognition and knowledge. By contrast, the traditional Chinese wisdom concept has been treating wisdom as a virtue. … Secondly, both Chinese and the Western philosophy advocate using wisdom to solve real-life problems. Western thinkers focus on practical problems in the material world, i.e. reconciling conflicts between people and the world through understanding and changing the environment. However, Chinese philosophers focus on internal spiritual problems, i.e. improving the individual realm to solve the contradictions inside oneself. Thirdly, both China and the West highlight the comprehensive application of multiple thinking modes. While comparing with the West, which is excelled in using logical and analytical thinking modes and utilizing rational cognition, China is far better at using dialectical and holistic thinking modes and applying intuitive comprehension” [my emphasis added]. Taoist art often shows dramatic and overwhelming scenes of nature, where humans are a small part, hardly noticeable. No egoism here!

In my view, very few scientists today are interested in philosophy, let alone real wisdom, with its emphasis on character, a good heart, usefulness to others, modesty, acceptance of criticism, the ‘shoulders of giants’, and distinguishing what benefits society from personal views. They just want what they label ‘the facts’. With audiences larger than class rooms – as in political speech making, or marketing campaigns – popular common false beliefs are often reinforced by influencers who encourage their audiences to believe what they want to believe. ‘The facts’ or ‘The truth’ don’t come to mind, except as common ways of speaking. Indeeed, it’s more and more doubted that there IS any truth, independent of opinion, in this our age of relativism.

Failing religion Traditional religion plays a smaller and smaller role, as  various ‘generations’ take their turns in Western Culture (especially in America). Jacob Needleman has followed the so-called new religions for many years. Though he’s an atheist, his 1970 book by that name outlines trends he thought were important in order to see the psychological and social problems that traditional religions failed to solve. Recent generations (Millennials, Gen X, Gen Y, Gen Z etc) have added to that skepticism about the old religions. So the idea of finding wisdom in the context of religious beliefs continues to lessen proportionately. Perhaps surprising, the most recent (youngest) generation are actually more tolerant than their ‘elders’ about religious beliefs, of certain kinds. These young people criticize the hypocrisy of old-school faithfuls, who have been and remain intolerant about their competitors (e.g. Catholic v. Protestant, or Evangelical v. Presbyterian); who refuse to recognize LGBTQ …; who try to outlaw women’s right to abortion, etc.

There are philosophers of science, who have dealt specifically with the problems and nature of scientific thought. For example, whether it’s possible for humans to have free choice in a world governed by fixed ‘laws of nature’. David Foster Wallace – primarily a fiction writer – took on the opponents of free choice, successfully in my opinion. And there are great scientists, who were also philosophers – i.e. lovers of wisdom. The history of astronomy, since the Renaissance, gives prime examples. Here’s a discussion in All About Space Magazine of major astronomers, including Copernicus, Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Newton and Einstein. Other, more specifically philosophical critics, e.g. Descartes, Pascal, Swedenborg, Kant, and Kierkegaard spoke about the lack of serious rational discourse among ordinary people. Most of these critical thinkers are from Northern Europe, perhaps because in Southern Europe, e.g. Spain and Portugal, the Church had more influence to decide how nature works. France and Italy had their own issues of religious interference, which the revolutions in France and America illustrate.

Kant v. Swedenborg I’m particularly interested in Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), having been raised by followers of his theological teachings, and in Immanuel Kant – perhaps the most creative and influential Enlightenment philosopher – who in 1766 published a diatribe against Swedenborg – Dreams of a Spirit Seer . The tone of that book is scathing and angry – almost personal – although the two men had never met. In fact it was completely out of character for Kant – the ultimate rationalist. The reason for this has been discussed since the book came out. Here is one contemporary analysis published in 1980 at New Theism by Wm. R. Woofenden – a follower of Swedenborg – which may help clarify the mystery. It’s a long read.

Swedenborg claimed to have been divinely chosen at age 57 to help humans understand Scripture – both Old and New Testament. His life was complex, involving both Lutheran heritage and commitment to science and rational thought. Dr. Jonathan Rose made this 8 minute summary video Who Was Swedenborg? For purposes of this post, I think Swedenborg’s most relevant idea is the following: Regardless of what Scripture says literally – some of which is historically true, and some only symbolic – there is always an inner sense, which requires interpretation. Divine Love and Wisdom come to humans through the Lord God Jesus Christ who was God’s incarnation. He became the means of salvation for every human – Christian or not – who believes in God, by whatever name, and who lives a life of love and service to her/ his fellow humans.  ‘Faith alone’ is useless, as the Apostle James argued clearly (James 1: 14-25). The Lord is indeed the Good Shepherd (John 10: 1-42; Psalm 23). He stands at the Door and knocks (Rev. 3:20). But only those who choose to open and accept his offer of happiness will find it. Our free will is inexorable, in Swedenborg’s theology. Not to choose in favor of the Divine Love by rejecting evil and loving our neighbor is to favor ourselves. We can’t do both.

Kant’s religious views – discussed in this Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy article – changed radically over the years. He grew up as a  Pietist Lutheran. In middle years he argued that God can’t be known, but religious beliefs can encourage moral development, if they  conform to his famous rule – the Categorical Imperative – that every truly good deed must be motivated by a principle which holds for all humans. That quickly rules out religious behavior that is mindless ritual, or worse, hypocrisy to gain favor or wealth. But Kant’s posthumus works – though speculative and not yet well understood by critics – suggest a disappointing turn to naturalism. He abandons the idea that God is transcendent.



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