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Monday, April 25, 2011

Humanist Bible review series: Wisdom (3/15)

(c) Walker Publishing Co. Inc.
This is part of a series of reviews on each 'book' within the new book, The Good Book: A Humanist Bible, by A.C. Grayling. Click HERE to go to the beginning of this series for more explanation.

In this review we'll look closer at the book of Wisdom. Throughout the book, threads of Lao Tzu, Confucius, and even a little Sun Tzu can be found. Strands of Socrates, Plato, and other Greek philosophies are also present, even so as to include the same phrasings, analogies, and terminologies found in these and other prominent works. Again, there are continued echoes of Christian biblical structure and themes, or alternatives to them, but this should be no surprise since the wisdom stream within Christianity was also inspired by Greek thought in certain ways and parts. As with The Good Book in general, an effort is made to summarize these thoughts into a cohesive overview. As Grayling states in the fourth chapter, "The gaining of knowledge is accumulation; the acquisition of wisdom is simplification" (Wis 4:7).

Grayling provides an ample collection of advice regarding self discipline, and the benefits of wisdom as a salve for the suffering. Taking the example of Epictetus, Grayling employs the analogy of slavery and freedom; the latter being possible through understanding of wise teachings and their implementation by our reason, kept firmly at the helm.

Equally emphasized is the importance of humility in all things; among them our approach to knowledge. In the first chapter he sets about describing the importance of admitting what we do not know:
"The wise say of things they have not heard, 'I have not heard', and of the things they have not seen, 'I have not seen'." --Wis 1:14-15

The theme of humility is continued concerning provisional beliefs, contingent upon the latest evidence. Both the Christian bible and this Humanist one have their fools, but the contrast between them paints a vivid picture of the distinction between the Humanist and Christian thought when it comes to belief. In the Christian scriptures, Psalm 14:1 says, "the fool is one who has said in his heart there is no God". But the Humanist fool is one who claims to know what they have not seen and whose beliefs are immutable. As Grayling writes, "No one came to be wise who did not know how to revise an opinion. The wise change their minds when facts and experience so demand. The fool either does not hear or does not heed" (Wis 4:12-13).

In my own work, I am in the process of constructing a naturalistic spiritual practice I call Synthophy, and in that work I draw on many of these same traditional sources of wisdom. What I call the Control Doctrine is largely inspired by the Stoics, and also something on which Grayling spends a good deal of time. He draws out the distinctions between what is in our control and what is not. One cannot help but be reminded of the Serenity Prayer, but this is no surprise since both this book of Wisdom and that Christian notion were inspired by the Stoic control doctrine. As Marcus Aurelius advised himself, we should learn to focus on what we control, and when we do, then our happiness is not contingent upon externals. As Wisdom states:
 "You will be unconquerable, if you enter only into combat you can win." --Wis 12:6

Continuing with Stoic inspiration, Grayling also provides summaries of their thoughts on judgment, and how it is not things which harm us, but our judgments of them. Along with this is advice on accepting the world as it is and as it must be. In one passage reminiscent of Ecclesiastes in the Christian bible he writes:
 "For there is a proper time for all things; including a proper time to grieve, and to prepare to die." --Wis 10:10

But while acceptance of what we cannot control and open mindedness are praised, we are also cautioned to stand on our rationally sound principles, without bending because of pressure from others: "[Someone wise] will teach that as a rock is not shaken by the wind, so the wise are steadfast through both blame and praise" (Wis 4:17). We are advised to accept critics with confidence: "For if anyone should propose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt but he who is deceived about it" (Wis 18:16), and to live rightly and not in a vulgar manner: "Avoid vulgar entertainments; but, if occasion calls you to them, keep alert, that you may not imperceptibly slide into vulgar manners" (Wis 17:7).

Given the many numerous categories of things which could be considered 'wisdom', Grayling must have had a challenging time compiling Wisdom without it coming of as a detached laundry list of maxims. He has organized it well and in a sensible manner, but while its advice is profound and worthy, it lacks the poetry and eloquence of the previous book of Genesis. This is due to the nature of the subject matter, surely. However, to his credit, Grayling has employed at least one strategy in holding the work together in a beautiful way. At the end of each and every chapter of Wisdom, we are asked repeatedly: "The question to be asked at the end of each day is, 'How long will you delay to be wise?'" In the final chapter, the final lesson is that we must not merely study or talk about wisdom, but apply it in our lives without hypocrisy or delay. Finally, the repeated question is answered, "And the great lesson that the end of each day teaches is that wisdom and the freedom it brings must daily be won anew." Wise words.

The next part in this series will look at the next book of Grayling's bible, Parables.


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