Monday 28 August 2023

A Word to the Wise

Philosophy is a sailboat that deftly catches the fair breeze…

By Andrew Porter

We live in a time in which most people, were you to ask them ‘Do you think you’re wise?’, would look askance or confused and not answer straightforwardly. They are not prepared for the question by long anticipation and living in that habitat. But you might hear answers such as, ‘I’m wise about some things’ or ‘I’m pretty savvy when it comes to how to handle people’. But your question would remain unanswered.

Maybe it’s the circles I run in, but it seems that there's little to no hankering for wisdom; it is not prevalent. It is as if many people feel that moral relativism – the common zeitgeist – has taken them off the hook and they are relieved. But choices have a way of illuminating obvious help or harm. There’s really no getting off the hook.

Wisdom can be encapsulated in a reasoned decision by an individual, but it is always in tune with larger reason. One of the great things about Plato as a philosopher is that he walks around and into the thick of the question of wisdom with boldness and perspective. A champion of reason, he grounds human morality in virtue, but emphasises that it is part of a ‘virtue’ of reality: the nature and function of the ontologically real is to be good, true, and beautiful.

This immersion of humankind and personal choices in a larger environment seems a crucial lesson for our times. This odd and ungrounded era we live in does not have a ready and able moral vocabulary; it, more often than not, leaves moral nuance like an abandoned shopping cart in the woods. Why is Plato one of the best voices to re-energise as his philosophy applies to current-day issues and angst?

One of the problems of individuals and institutions in contemporary times is that they think they are wise without ever examining how and if that’s true. So often, they – whether you yourself, a spouse, a boss, politicians, or fellow citizens – assume a virtue they own not. This is exactly what Socrates, in Plato's hands, addresses. What are some of the problems in the world open to reform or transformation?

Certainly, social justice issues continue to rear their head and undermine an equitable society. Entrenched power systems and attendant attitudes are not only slow to respond, but display no moral understanding. Today, it seems there is a raft of problems, from psychological to philosophical, and the consequences turn dire. At the root of all actual and potential catastrophes, it seems, is a lack of that one thing that has been waylaid, discarded, and ignored: wisdom.

Plato crafted his philosophy about soul and virtue, justice and character, in alignment with his metaphysics. This is its genius, making a harmony of inner and outer

In the Republic, Plato himself oscillates between saying that a philosopher-king, the only assurance the city would be happy and just, would be a lover of wisdom and actually wise. In our time, the problem is a lack of desire to find or inculcate wisdom. Societies have, in general, hamstrung themselves. We do not have ready tools to care about and value wisdom, however far off. We do not, to any cogent degree, educate children to be philosopher-kings of their own lives.

Western societies and perhaps Eastern ones as well have not increased in wisdom because they have abandoned the pursuit. The task is left unattended. The current problem is not that the world (or smaller entities such as companies, schools, and individuals) cannot find a truly wise person; so-called civilisation acts wilfully against finding or even thinking about finding such. It is a mobile home that's been put up on blocks.

Philosophy can inculcate the kind of consciousness that the 20th century Swiss philosopher, Jean Gebser, called integral reality, which perceives a truth that, as he says, ‘transluces’ both the world and humankind (in the sense of shining light through). In short, philosophy holds the promise of educating. It is not a crazy old man on his porch, moving his cane to tell the traffic to slow down; rather, philosophy is a sailboat that deftly catches fair breeze – and moves us forward.


Bill Braden said...

It's indeed hard to think of a wise person in public life today. Perhaps the wise person avoids public life!

Keith said...

To my mind, Andrew, the thing about wisdom is the ostensible, elemental need for it in all fields of human endeavor: from the sciences to the humanities, and of course in everyday, garden-variety decision-making. Wisdom, at its best both informed and rational, may necessitate an understanding of what we know, what we don't know, and what is unknowable — epistemic uncertainty, let’s call it. More important is judgment in the face of alternatives. However, wisdom and judgement are slippery, for there’s a subjective side to them, based on culture and values. Wisdom is like water, which seeps into every crevice and runs along every channel to ever-increasing levels of “everywhereness” — unequaled in its power to shape human behavior. Accordingly intentionality is in play. But intentionality is not a topic for now, as it introduces a wholly new aspect: that is, how the free-will-verses-determinism-verses-compatibilism debate is foundational to wisdom and judgment.

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