We began our reading of Plato’s Theaetetus in Arithmetic today. Like many of the ‘zetetic’ (seeking) dialogues, it focuses upon a central question:
What is knowledge?
And like many of these dialogues, a question of Socrates, quickly dismissed, is yet worth our attention. In passing, Socrates asks Theaetetus if wisdom is the same thing as knowledge:
Knowledge and wisdom are therefore the same thing? (145 e)
It is at this point which I usually ask students to discuss the meaning of ‘wisdom’. Almost without fail, someone will volunteer the idea that “wisdom is applied knowledge”. Wisdom, they say, is a kind of know-how or expertise.
But after going through a few examples, we find that such a definition is insufficient. Today we considered:
- a doctor who can operate with skill
- a money-manager who can make money multiply
- An engineer who builds bridges
In each case, we meet someone with a certain skill or expertise. Each has a certain amount of information and is good at using that knowledge. But the students intuited that such falls short of what we ultimately mean by wisdom.
While information and knowledge are governed by higher and more complete forms of knowledge, wisdom governs the whole by directing according to purpose and value.
The engineer studies arithmetic, then multiplication, algebra, calculus, and eventually engineering. She may learn to do her job well: to build excellent bridges. But what if her client tells her he can only pay 85% of her fee. She knows that stress tolerances are always calculated to be on the safe side. Perhaps she can skimp on the concrete or the cable. She must now choose between data. On the one hand she knows risk factors, while on the other hand, she has bills to pay.
Information cannot of its own accord give moral or meaningful direction.
Her engineering knowledge alone cannot order data. Knowledge at this level is merely skill and information. It is wisdom which recognizes and honors purpose, meaning, value.
The surgeon’s science is not sufficient to determine if an operation is ethical. The money-making art does not alone establish a purpose for the money which it makes.
Wisdom, by setting its gaze on something far beyond the world of the practical, is able to restore place and meaning to that work-a-day world. The man who stores up wealth has lost purpose; just as the person who operates without conscience. Such people are at the mercy of happenstance and the spirit of the age.
Wisdom teaches us what money is for, it teaches the value of true health, and ultimately love of neighbor. Without wisdom, we are like people who stumbles through a dark room.
But from whence does such wisdom come?
Any child knows the goodness of a doctor. The doctor heals and health is good. There is a certain share of wisdom which we all have. But many of us come to a point where we discover that we desire a greater share of such wisdom.
But one grows sick and looses the desire to live, another becomes entangled in an obsessive behavior or relationship. Disconnection, isolation, anger, listlessness, confusion, doubt, despair, apathy: these can be our teachers.
We discover that we are not quite wise enough. We are not as self-sufficient as we thought. Life beats us down, or we beat ourselves into such a state of distress that we look beyond ourselves for a way to live.
This kind of distress has its philosophic counterpart in aporia (wayless). In such a moment, a person may despair and turn back to the to the shadow life of popular wisdom and self-soothing, or they may begin their search in earnest. That is, they despair unto God and discover the true Way.
Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.
In reverence we cling to God because in Him is fullness of life. We know that the wisdom we need to truly live and serve Him is a wisdom larger than we can ever fully encompass or possess. Rather, Wisdom is a Person, the Son, and our wisdom is to be oriented to God in Him.
To the world we are like the philosopher Thales pictured above. We become so enamored with Heavenly Realities that we appear to loose sight of the very ground upon which we walk. Of course, Thales is only half true, for it is knowledge of heavenly realities which ultimately informs this life.
Information is not Enough
As Christians and as human beings, we tend to treat information as if it was wisdom. We are prone to make idols of our minds and ideas. For instance, the law instructs us in wisdom, but the final lesson of the law is that it is an insufficient master. Though we attempt to structure our lives upon a foundation of rules, procedures, and practices, we find that we are insufficient in performance and understanding. And not only are we insufficient, but we are unsatisfied.
Wisdom is a disposition which finds sufficiency not in knowledge or skilled performance, but in looking unto the Father.
The question of wisdom, quietly set aside early in Plato’s Theatetus, may help us understand some of Theaetetus’s difficulties throughout the discussion. Yet, we see a glimpse of the mature Theaetetus in the preface, a man who still may not be able to say what wisdom or knowledge is, who yet lived and died in its pursuit.
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