Once a dutiful and thrifty peasant’s wife wrapped her shawl about her shoulders, took up her basket, and told her husband, “Otto, I’m leaving now to go over the hill to nurse my sister Anna. She’s down with the fever and her children need lookin’ after. I won’t be returnin’ for several days. Look after yourself. And remember, when the cattle dealer comes to buy our three cows, make sure you don’t strike a bargain with him unless you can get at least two hundred thalers for them. Nothing less. Do you hear?”
“For ‘eaven’s sake, woman, just go. Go ‘n peace. I will manage that!”
“You, ‘ndeed,” said the woman. “You who are wont to do the most foolish things. I’m tellin’ you now, we ourselves will be very lean cows this winter without that money.” And having said that, she went on her way.
Two mornings later the cattle dealer came. When he had seen the cows, he said, “I’m willing to pay two hundred thalers. They’re worth that. I will take the beasts away with me at once.”
He unfastened their ropes and drove them out of the cowhouse, but just as the cattle dealer was leaving the husband said, “Wait. You must give me the two hundred thalers now, or I cannot let the cows go.”
“True,” answered the cattle dealer, “but I have forgotten to buckle on my money belt this morning. Have no fear, however, you shall have security for my paying.”
“And what shall that be,” Otto asked, “as you have nothing with you?”
“But I have these three cows with me,” said the cattle dealer. “I will take two cows with me and leave one, and then you will have a good pledge.”
The man saw the force of this and let the cattle dealer go away with two cows, thinking, “How pleased my wife will be when she finds how cleverly I have managed it!”
That parable from early 19th century European folklore makes us smile. How easily old Otto got rooked, we tell ourselves. A fool and his money are soon parted. We know better. We are wiser than that guy. But why? Why do we think that? Well, we recognize which one of the parable’s three main characters is the fool, which is the con artist, and which is wise. And we’re pretty sure we’re like her.
At heart, the parable is about wisdom and folly. But what is wisdom? It’s such an important question, because when we act with wisdom we are kept from being foolish. For such an easily asked question, however, it’s not so easily answered. Take a stab at it yourself and I think you’ll see what I mean.
Yet we need an answer because wisdom is a big deal, both according to the Bible, which tells us to seek wisdom, and from the witness of history, where we see that wisdom has been one of the chief objects of human search as far back Eden. Wisdom is more precious than rubies and yields more profits than silver and gold, the book of Proverbs explains. Nothing you desire can compare with her, we are told in its pages. Therefore seek wisdom.
Like our longings for love, faith, truth, happiness, and freedom, wisdom is a deeply constituted human desire. Nearly a third of the Jewish Bible, the Writings, contains wisdom literature, and it is there that we find the well known first principle: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom (e.g., Proverbs 9:10; Job 28:28). As David Ford, Britain’s leading wisdom theologian, writes: “In the Bible itself, apart from the desire for God there is no desire that is more passionately and loudly encouraged than the desire for wisdom” (Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love).
In the Christian tradition, the New Testament indicates that from childhood Jesus grew in wisdom, and a close reading of much of Matthew’s and John’s Gospels will disclose Jesus’ wisdom-based way teaching about life and relationships (see: Ben Witherington, Jesus the Sage: The Pilgrimage of Wisdom). First Corinthians chapters one through four includes a sophisticated argument from St. Paul – a rabbi trained in the wisdom tradition – about the wisdom of the Cross. And much of the epistle of James is committed to a wisdom agenda.
Other traditions have also seen wisdom as a hallmark human concern. In conversations with his disciples, Buddha was known for his wisdom, as was Confucius, who, five hundred years before Christ, emphasized a practical moral and ethical wisdom that helped to change Chinese society.
The philosophers of ancient Greece were known as lovers of wisdom (philo = love; sophia = wisdom), and for at least one of them, Aristotle, practical wisdom (phronesis) entailed taking virtuous decisions that led to living well, including in political life. And in Islam, the Qur’an explains that God grants wisdom, and its readers are exhorted to pray for wisdom, as their Bibles exhort Jews and Christians to do.
The human race has a long history with wisdom, and it’s a history which discloses that wisdom is not confined to any one culture or people; instead, wisdom cries to be heard in every time and place. As Emerson wrote: “Wisdom has been poured into us as blood.”
Still, none of this answers the important question: What is wisdom? I offered some answers, beginning here, as this blog was launched. But as i said in those posts, that did not exhaust the possible answers, because the closer you explore the historic wisdom tradition, the more you discover more about wisdom than you thought you knew. At least, that has been my experience.
So in the next post I want to offer some further possibilities to: What is wisdom? For it is in knowing and practicing wisdom more fully and consistently that we become less foolish actors on this great stage God has created for us.
©2014 by Charles Strohmer
Image by Tartarin2009 & Seattle Municipal Archives respectively (permission via Creative Commons)