Wisdom: The Foundation of Virtue by Kim Reisman
Does not wisdom call, and does not understanding raise her voice? On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live. O simple ones, learn prudence; acquire intelligence, you who lack it. Hear, for I will speak noble things, and from my lips will come what is right; for my mouth will utter truth… I, wisdom, live with prudence, and I attain knowledge and discretion… I have good advice and sound wisdom; I have insight, I have strength… The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts long ago.”
Proverbs 8:1-7, 12, 14, 22 (NRSV)
Wisdom has always been the first of the virtues. It holds this distinctive position in part because it grounds all the other virtues. As we’ll see as we move through the year, the virtues are interconnected, each adding and enhancing the value of the others; each needing the others to make it what it is. Yet, while the rest of the virtues work together to deepen the individual meaning of each, wisdom appears to provide a foundation for all of them. Wisdom is the stage upon which the roles of the other virtues are played out. Justice is crucial, but we’re lost as to how to achieve it without wisdom to guide us when interests compete. Courage is laudable, but it’s mere rashness without wisdom to steer it toward a moral cause. Patience is important, but it becomes sabotage without wisdom to help us discern when the time for response is upon us. Love is the more excellent way, but it becomes simple sentiment without wisdom to shepherd us as we seek to put it into action.
When we speak of the virtues, we are speaking of the mystery of goodness. There is much we’ll never be able to comprehend or achieve. Wisdom, however, is the search for the truth in the midst of that mystery. For the Greek philosophers, wisdom was the intellectual virtue of knowing the truth. There are two stumbling blocks to truth: ignorance and ideology. Ignorance is simply not knowing; it’s not having wisdom because we don’t know the truth. In contrast, ideology is the twisting of the truth for the purpose of power; we don’t have wisdom because we’ve altered the truth for our own purposes.
In the biblical sense, there is more to wisdom than simply having knowledge. Thus, while ignorance was a great enemy in Greek philosophy, from the biblical perspective, ideology is the far greater evil. In the Christian sense, you can be wise without a great deal of knowledge; but you will never have wisdom if you seek to twist the truth. Rather than being an intellectual virtue, biblical wisdom contains a distinctly moral component. That component is prudence. We can have intellectual virtue but without the moral component of prudence we will not have wisdom.
Wisdom as prudence is a form of practical and moral reasoning. It’s the art of taking the time necessary to think things through and anticipate what might happen. It’s the common sense virtue of discerning what is true, what is right, and how to live. As we explore the virtues, we’ll discover how badly we need, as individuals and in our various societies, to awaken the virtues. As we seek to awaken them, we must first begin with wisdom. We no longer live in a world where order prevails, where there is one prevailing way and one prevailing truth. We live in a world of chaos, of diversity and competing truths. It’s in this world that we must rediscover wisdom and in so doing approach the mystery of goodness and draw closer to God.
As you pray and fast this month, bring your community to mind. What sort of conflicts exist – warring forces, each claiming to have the truth? Begin making a list of some of them. How might these forces be twisting the truth for the purpose of power? Within your Christian community – local and national – do you see signs of “competing truth” which threaten the unity of the Body of Christ? List those as well.
During the coming weeks, I pray you will become more aware of situations where ignorance and ideology are blocking truth and wisdom, and that you would press on toward a rediscovery of wisdom which moves you closer to the good, whole self God intended you to be.