Comments on La Rochefoucauld

I will be posting short essays on each of La Rouchefoucauld's Maxims

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Maxim 639

"The cleverest course for the not so clever is to know when to accept the wise guidance of others."

Herein certainly lies the difficulty. How does one know if you are among the not so clever? Nobody wants to think of themselves as being among this group. And who among us is wise? There are those who certainly think of themselves as wise, and they are the first to insist that everyone listen to them, but it is these people who are in fact the least wise. They are, more often than not, the least of the not so clever.

The question that has to be answered here is: what do we mean by wise? Who among us is wise? A philosopher is a "lover of wisdom," but who among us is even a philosopher nowadays, let alone a wise man? And what is wisdom?

Let me suggest a few definitions. 1) Knowledge deals with understanding facts, and thus is many. 2) Wisdom deals with understanding truth, and thus is one. 3) Beauty is the combination of knowledge and wisdom. Wisdom sees the world as one, unified, holistic. But we can have many kinds of holistic thinking that even come into conflict with knowledge. And when that happens, we can and often do have tragedy. Marxism is a holistic world view that has very little relationship to the facts of the world. Thus, it comes into conflict with nature. In doing so, it results (and certainly resulted) in tragedy. This does not negate the kind of personalized Marxism of someone like Alain Badiou, wherein one thinks egalitarianism in order to treat each person as equal, but it does negate the political enforcement of such ideas.
Of course, I am not entirely sure one can have a truly wise world view that neglects facts. And if we accept Socrates’ definition of ethics as knowledge, then we would also have to support a kind of wisdom without ethics – which is absurd. So to be truly wise, we cannot neglect knowledge. Thus, although something like Marxism may appear to be wise, it cannot in fact be. At the very least, it does not fit the definition of the beautiful given above. And this is where we get into trouble, when those who follow a world view that has the appearance of wisdom think they are wise, and convince others that they are wise.

And this is indeed the situation in which we find ourselves in the present day. We have many followers of ideas that have the appearance of wisdom, but lack some of the fundamental elements of true wisdom. This is perhaps why Nietzsche said that Christianity (as it was being practiced in his day and, I would argue, as it is practiced by too many Christians in the United States) leads to nihilism, since it become more and more disconnected from facts and knowledge and, thus, from ethics. To the extent that the Catholic Church has continued to accept facts and knowledge as being compatible with Christianity, it managed to avoid the danger of nihilism.
We also have too many in politics who, because they are Marxists and socialists in varying degrees, think of themselves as wise, and thus the rightful rulers of all people. But these, too, only have the appearance of wisdom. The outcomes of their ideas throughout the world have proven time and time again their lack of true wisdom.

So how do the not so clever come to know who the wise are? Doesn’t the ability to recognize the wise itself require a kind of wisdom? Perhaps it does. But we will certainly never be wise until we realize, along with Socrates, that we know nothing. And the only way we can reach that knowledge is to know more and more, until we come to know just how little we actually do or can know. Then we will become wise. But when was the last time you met a Socrates?


Post a Comment

<< Home