One can live a long life, see much, have wide-ranging experiences, and invest time in the great minds of the past, but without a basic and sincere godliness of life one can still be, to all practical purposes and in the biblical reckoning, a fool.
The Imaginative Conservative recently featured an essay by historian Will Durant, originally posted in 2012, titled “What Is Wisdom?”
Durant answers in the first sentence that “Ideally, wisdom is total perspective—seeing an object, event, or idea in all its pertinent relationships.” Later, he says, “Obviously we can only approach such total perspective; to possess it would be to be God.” His essay is brief and is filled mostly with examples illuminating his point about seeing small events in light of a larger whole, and with advice on how to acquire the broader perspective that, to him, constitutes wisdom. The point is a good one, but more needs to be said.
It’s striking how Durant’s claim that wisdom is a matter of total perspective finds expression in the book of Job, chapter 28. In Job’s rumination there, the operative question is close to Durant’s—not exactly “what is wisdom?” but “where do we get it?” So in verse 12, “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?” And again in verse 20, “From where, then, does wisdom come? And where is the place of understanding?”
Job answers in verses 23-24 that wisdom is found with God, precisely because God has the all-encompassing perspective that human beings profoundly lack:
God understands the way to it,
and he knows its place.
For he looks to the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
Job’s observation is quite poignant in the context of the story, where the dramatic tension stems largely from the fact that Job has no idea why he suffers the way he does. In Job’s estimation, his own lack of wisdom owes much to this problem of his inability to see the whole. In that sense, Durant’s claim about total perspective constituting wisdom accords with Job. But Job points to a crucial element that Durant’s essay misses.
As I noted, Job’s question is not exactly the same as Durant’s. Durant asks what wisdom is, while Job asks where to find it. Durant admits that to possess total perspective would mean being God, and Job indeed says that God has wisdom because he sees the whole. But we aren’t God, as Job and Will Durant both know, and Durant’s solution therefore is that we work toward acquiring all the perspective that we can. He suggests three ways in particular:
First, by living perceptively; so the farmer, faced with a fateful immensity day after day, may become patient and wise. Secondly, by studying things in space through science; partly in this way Einstein became wise. Thirdly, by studying events in time through history.
To these ends, he suggests spending time with great works of literature, music, art, and the great philosophers.
Yes, wisdom is tied to having a broad perspective, and of course we should seek to broaden our own as much as we can in all the ways Durant suggests. But Job’s contemplations direct him differently. According to Job, since fullness of wisdom rests with God, the first implication is not to chase after an increasingly “godlike” perspective, but something simpler:
Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom,
and to turn away from evil is understanding.
Durant defines what wisdom is as an ideal—total perspective—that we might make some progress in approaching even if we can never reach it. Job defines wisdom for us as something more mundane: Fear of the Lord, instantiated in our “turning away from evil.”
Durant approaches the question of wisdom in what the biblical writers might consider an overly intellectualized manner. There is obviously no virtue in narrow-minded, blinkered parochialism. An ever-expanding perspective is necessary to anyone’s growth and mental health throughout life. But for finite beings, the first concern and foundation of wisdom in real life is listening to the voice of the one who has it.
Job’s statement in verse 28 has its more famous counterpart in Proverbs 9:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” In Proverbs also, Solomon seems less concerned with acquiring a wide perspective (though that isn’t absent—he certainly encourages his “son” to consider long-range consequences and to learn lessons from nature), and more concerned with absorbing concrete instruction from the Lord’s mouth:
For the Lord gives wisdom;
from his mouth come knowledge and understanding;
he stores up sound wisdom for the upright;
he is a shield to those who walk in integrity
It would be hard to overstate the power given to words in Proverbs. It is words that constitute the wisdom which Proverbs commends: “To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight… Let the wise hear” (1:2-5); “Wisdom cries aloud… I will make my words known to you” (1:20-23); “Get wisdom, get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth” (4:5); and so on. Of course, spending time with the greats of the past as Durant recommends also must take the form of reading or hearing the words they wrote. But the difference I’m trying to point to is that wisdom, as communicated in Proverbs, is not a gradually absorbed, abstract, widening horizon of perception so much as, to put it bluntly, rules for living.
Even in Ecclesiastes, in which questions of perspective are a major theme, the conclusion is that in fact our perception is so limited that real wisdom, for us, is to enjoy life and focus primarily on simple faithfulness to God in whatever sphere he has placed us: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man” (Ecclesiastes 12:13).
No one will deny that perspective adds weight and depth to life, and it can aid immensely in regards to emotional health and handling the stresses of life. No one will deny that pursuing a broad view of things in the ways Durant suggests is worthwhile, and hopefully it’s clear that I’m not dismissing the value or even necessity of it.
But to succinctly summarize my point: We must remember that one can live a long life, see much, have wide-ranging experiences, and invest time in the great minds of the past, but without a basic and sincere godliness of life one can still be, in the end, to all practical purposes and in the biblical reckoning, a fool. The beginning of wisdom is indeed the fear of the Lord.
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The featured image is “Dream of Solomon” (c. 1694-1695) by Luca Giordano (1634–1705) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened slightly for clarity.