I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me. There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siegeworks against it. Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. So I said, ‘Wisdom is better than strength.’ But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded. The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war. Ecclesiastes 9:13-18
As this reflection from the wisdom literature implies, skill in wisdom is vital to diplomacy, negotiations, and similar other efforts that seek peaceable resolutions to adversarial relations, approaching hostilities, conflict, or war. Here, the value of wisdom as greater than both military might and royal authority is evident. A powerful king was backed down by a skilled negotiator who, although poor in this world’s goods, was rich in wisdom and thereby able to prevent his city and its inhabitants from being destroyed. Afterward, however, this negotiator’s wisdom, which saved the city, became despised, scorned, and was no longer heeded. One can’t help but wonder if the next generation picked up the implements and machinery of war and, professing themselves wise, destroyed the “much good.”
Beginning with this post we are making a transition to the historic wisdom tradition’s vital role in efforts that seek peaceable resolutions to adversarial relations, approaching hostilities, conflict, or war. Traditionally this takes us into the fields of diplomacy, negotiations, mediation, and relevant other areas. But so as not to get too wordy in these posts, I will often just use the word “diplomacy.” Unfortunately, the wisdom tradition’s connection to diplomacy has pretty much been lost to us today. It is a missing dimension in our contemporary understanding of the resources the tradition provides.
So far in this series of posts on the wisdom tradition, we have been concentrating chiefly on wisdom as a vital agency for peaceableness in local, community, and regional contexts where human diversity is normative, cooperation essential, and flourishing desired. And I have tried to present this with a fresh take on the sages and their wisdom that is faithful to the wisdom texts.
To briefly recap the previous posts, I tried to show that the sages offer us more than books of wisdom, such as Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. That is, they call us to much more than simply memorizing some interesting proverbs so we can have them at the ready to apply when situations call for it. As good as that can be, the sages call us to a particular way of reasoning about life. A close reading of the biblical wisdom literature can reveal the sages way of reasoning. The previous posts have been seeking to do that, as will this next series.
Long story short, the books of wisdom, like all books, emerged from a way of reasoning about life. For instance, Leo Tolstoy, a strong believer in Jesus’ teachings, grounded his novels in a way of reasoning that he called “nonresistance to violence.” Charles Dickens, whose many writings are hard to classify, seems to have reasoned from a moral outrage at the many and widespread injustices of urban, nineteenth century England. The same holds true for nonfiction books, whose authors have their ways of reasoning about life. Regarding foreign policy, for instance, to read books by political neoconservatives is to get a much different way of reasoning than you will get in books by religious writers who are pacifists. The former is known to lead to militaristic foreign polices; the latter never does.
The sages, too, had a way of reasoning about life, out of which an oral wisdom tradition emerged and, later, writings such as we have in the wisdom books of the Bible. In the previous posts, I have been trying introduce, mainly in situations of local, community, and regional diversity, several “lost” but vital aspects of the sages’ way of reasoning. If applied, these can help us to build and sustain cooperation and peace in our pluralistic societies.
We of course must be careful here. We cannot know the mind of these ancients with certainty. But from a close engagement with the wisdom literature, some things seem pretty clear, and to that end in the previous posts we have been identifying a way of reasoning about life that is:
- foundationally about a peace that the Hebrew Bible calls shalom;
- not partisan, sectarian, or nationalistic but intercultural (for all peoples everywhere);
- not about religious instruction but our activities outside of church, synagogue, and mosque;
- does not present wisdom as ideological, or as any sort of abstraction, but as personal and relational;
- reveals wisdom as a highly respected legal arbiter in places of authority in the old-world Middle East;
- central to the teaching of Jesus in Roman-occupied Palestine.
These aspects of the sages way of reasoning about life can be identified (summarized) as the wisdom norms of “peaceableness” (shalom) and (human) “mutuality,” which were briefly introduced in some of the previous posts. Beginning with the next post, we will continue to keep local, community, and regional contexts in mind, but we will start looking at how relationships and views in those contexts affect the shapes and conditions of international life. We will be exploring some truly fascinating wisdom narratives in the old-world Middle East that take us into areas of diplomacy, negotiations, and international affairs.
On this journey, shalom and mutuality will come with us, and we will meet other norms of wisdom, such as insight and skill, that are essential to ending adversarial international relations and building more cooperative ones. And as we go along, as in the previous posts, I will include contemporary illustrations. Some, like the next one, may surprise. So, a rabbi walks into a suk . . . .
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
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