The wisdom of the ages

I think Solomon had it right. According to the story, when God asked him what he most desired, instead of asking for power or possessions, he asked for wisdom. There is evidence all around that it is entirely possible to accumulate a great deal of power and possessions without necessarily basing this on a commensurate amount of wisdom. In Solomon’s case, as well as returning a baby to its rightful mother, he also managed to do quite well for himself materially.

There is no shortage of places we can look to gain wisdom. Humans have been wrestling for a long time with questions of how to make good decisions in a consistent way, consistent both with other individual decisions, and with something overarching that gives a framework, a set of values or principles that we can use to guide our lives.


I gravitated towards Stephen Covey’s approach for a number of reasons. I happened to hear a talk he gave when I was a student and hadn’t ever heard of the man. It was free, someone said I should go, and someone else drove me there. Life as a student can be as simple as that. I can’t remember anything of note that he said that night. But when I came across him later, I remembered the name, and it turned out he had written the best-selling Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. And when I started reading that, I was sold. I liked that he recognised the difference between substance and style and that, in the long run, that difference matters. And I appreciated the honesty of what he offered – not quick fixes, not techniques, but challenges to how we act and treat ourselves and each other.

A few years ago I came across the phrase “to have or to be.” It struck a chord in me. And I think that fact in itself says something. It’s that moment when we hear an echo of something we already knew but couldn’t bring out into the open, or find words to express. It turns out that this phrase (and I have no idea if the person it came from was even aware of this) is the title of a book by Erich Fromm. Bearing in mind that this was written in 1976, just listen to the opening sentence and then some extracts from the next page:

The Great Promise of Unlimited Progress – the promise of domination of nature, of material abundance, of the greatest happiness for the greatest number and of unimpeded personal freedom – has sustained the hopes and faith of the generations since the beginning of the industrial age. […]

The grandeur of the Great Promise, the marvellous material and intellectual achievements of the industrial age, must be visualised in order to understand the trauma that realisation of its failure is producing:

Unrestricted satisfaction of all desires is not conducive to well-being.

The dream of being independent masters of our lives ended when we began awakening to the fact that we have all become cogs in the bureaucratic machine, with our thoughts, feelings and tastes manipulated by government and industry and the mass communications that they control.

The gap  between rich and poor nations has ever widened.

Technical progress itself has created ecological dangers which may put an end to all civilisation and possibly to all life.

And that’s just from the first couple of pages. He doesn’t mess around. The back cover gives a good summary of the book – “two modes of existence struggle for the spirit of humankind: the having mode, which concentrates on material possessions, power, and aggression, and is the basis of the universal evils of greed, envy, and violence; and the being mode, which is based on love, the pleasure of sharing, and in productive activity.”

He raises questions that I find worthwhile engaging with, wrestling with, comparing with alternative perspectives, and ultimately asking “what does this mean for me?”

And of course there are many other writers and thinkers, different slants on the same questions and challenges, going back centuries. Marcus Aurelius doesn’t become any less relevant over time. And I’m currently listening to some letters Seneca wrote centuries ago that are as useful a challenge today as they were when he wrote them:

There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

AC Grayling tried to compile some of these traditions of wisdom literature in The Good Book. I find it hard to engage with that particular book, but I admired the attempt (not to mention the amount of work involved!). And there are some great parables and proverbs in there that you can dip in and out of – a quick source of something to reflect on for a while. My favourite memory of his book was when he was at the Edinburgh Book Festival several years ago at an event chaired by Richard Holloway, who marched in holding the book out in front of him in the way he (apparently) used to when an Episcopalian minister.

It’s not just in overtly “wisdom literature” that we can find inspiration. Fiction can in some cases be just as effective. And some writers have done very well from writing fiction which is based around a message or a perspective the writer wants us to engage with.

Just to start with, there’s Jonathan Livingston Seagull, The Little Prince, pretty much anything by Paulo Coelho. They seem to have the ability to help us to stop for long enough to think and reflect. Sometimes we might even take action as a result. But there are countless other works of fiction that can teach us something, allow us to experience something through the perspective of a fictional character that we will never experience in real life. Just because they don’t set out to teach us something doesn’t mean they do not do so.

One thing all these books have in common is the ability to surprise me each time I read them, or just dip back into them. It’s the “that wasn’t there the last time I read it” feeling that comes from seeing something for the first time that is particularly relevant to a question I’m thinking about or a problem I’m struggling with. Often I find I did know the answer all along, it was just something I couldn’t quite get a proper hold of, or something I was trying to avoid accepting. Wisdom is valuable, but it is not as often easy or convenient, particularly when it requires me to do something I would rather not. I suspect Solomon felt a bit nervous when his solution to identifying the baby’s mother was to suggest cutting the baby in half, with the real mother the only one of the two not to find this a pragmatic solution. But we all benefit from the thoughts, experiences and challenges of others that help to form a body of wisdom that is handed down over generations. Maybe we will even contribute to that in some little way in how we treat other people with our words and actions.

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