It has been said that the first lesson of history is that we don’t learn from it. Perhaps the second lesson is Mark Twain’s witticism that history may not repeat itself but it sure does rhyme. In any case, one of the things I am assuming on this blog is that with the agency of wisdom there is an ineluctable sense both of the timeless and of the timely. We have considered the former here. In this post I want us to consider the latter in terms of history, especially as wisdom engages with the practical, everyday purposes in human activity. That is, she lives and moves and has her being where people interact and events are manifested. There, wisdom desires the present to write the future by learning wisely from the past.
Insight is vital to the process of wise historical development, and thus to gaining wisdom. In the Hebrew Bible insight is as inseparable from wisdom as a river is from water. The word “insight” denotes the kind of perceiving, discerning, or understanding that comes through focused observation and learning from history. It is often indicated by the word bina. Proverbs 1:2, for example, explains that the proverbs of Solomon are good for attaining bina (insight) and hokma (wisdom). Proverbs 4:5 reads: Get bina, get hokma, and verse seven reads: Hokma is supreme; therefore get hokma. Though it cost all you have, get bina.” Proverbs 2:2-3, 5:1, 21:30, and other passages in the wisdom literature also insist on this marriage of wisdom and insight.
What I want to call attention to is that we gain wisdom from insight about learned lessons. Much, if not most, of the wisdom writings that we have today, whether of Egypt, Israel, or elsewhere from the old-world Middle East, originated in an oral tradition that resulted from the sages lengthy investigations into creation/nature and human relationships and experience. From this in-depth research, the sages (wisdom teachers) gained insight about creational laws (laws of nature, to some), about patterns of human behavior,and about historical developments.
By “using their powers of observation and the ability to think rationally,” writes Leo Perdue, “the sages sought to understand God, social institutions, and the moral life through their reflections on creation and human experience, including their own” (In Search of Wisdom; 76). For our gaining of wisdom, then, insight, we may conclude, with its depths of discernment, takes effort; it is not usually gained though leisurely thinking.
From their studied observations, the sages gained insight into the regularities of life and the act-consequence connection. Simply stated: What you sow, you reap. Over time, such insights were developed into wisdom instruction on a wide variety of topics, such as as are found in the book of Proverbs: gaining further knowledge about the created order of things; cultivating moral conduct, prudent behavior, and virtue; recognizing principles for living well; understanding the outcomes (foolish or wise) not only of an individual’s but also of a government’s choices; and recognizing contrasts, as between the wise and the foolish, the just and the unjust, the good and the bad.
Insight about such matters in the book of Proverbs is often artfully crafted in pithy sayings of wisdom, such as maxims, epigrams, adages, or proverbs, intentionally brief in length, compact in meaning, easily intelligible to their audience, memorable, and every now and then delivering a graphic kick; e.g., Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman who shows no discretion; food gained by fraud tastes sweet to a man, but he ends up with a mouth full of gravel; righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people (Proverbs 11:22; 20:17; 14:34).
The sages also honestly accounted for the hard facts of life’s irregularities and contradictions. For instance, Proverbs indicate that a crook may prosper, that a good person may suffer, that a bad person may rule, that a person with wisdom may not act wisely, and so forth. The entire book of Job, in fact, we could say, is about when the rules don’t apply.
In the next post we will discuss what has been called the “great brooding” process that is necessary for insight to emerge and to help us to gain wisdom.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by archer 10 Dennis (permission via Creative Commons)