Home Up Peace
Perhaps only the wise should be asked to define  wisdom. It is possible that no one definition from whatever wise source will suffice, that wisdom itself is not a single thing either possessed or not possessed by certain special people. Like intelligence, there may be many different kinds of wisdom, some known, some not. Even the most learned observer might not be able to recognize every significant manifestation of wisdom.  
You have given us an impossible task. In my adolescent youth I heard stories about a very wise man who lived in Greece thousands of years ago. They called him Socrates. His students loved and respected him, though the important people running things in his home town considered him to be a trouble maker. Throngs of young men would sit for hours listening to him debate pompous orators who claimed to possess wisdom. Anyone could see that Socrates possessed far more wisdom than any of the celebrated men of learning with whom he argued, this in spite of the fact that he always insisted that he knew nothing.

One day four of his most advanced students came to him asking to be taught of wisdom. "Very well," replied Socrates. "The first thing you must do is go down to the sea shore and study the clam. When you have learned all there is to know about the clam, return and I will teach you of wisdom."

The next day early in the morning the four went to one of the beaches where clams often could be found. Dividing up the work, each focused on a different aspect of clam life. One studied the habitat. Another looked at diet. The third examined mating behavior and the fourth catalogued physical characteristics. Comparing notes throughout the day, they amassed an impressive record of their investigations and returned late that night to Athens. The next morning they were waiting at the usual place in the market when Socrates arrived to meet students. Anxious to present their voluminous records, one stepped up and announced "Sir. We have done as you asked. We have studied the clam and recorded everything we could learn about the creature. Now, will you teach us of wisdom as you promised?"

Socrates accepted the package of papers, briefly scanned the contents, then set them aside. "Yes. Now you are ready for the next lesson." Pausing for a period so long the students became uneasy, Socrates finally continued: "Go down to the seashore and study the clam. When you have learned all there is to know about the clam, return and I will teach you of wisdom."

The students thinking they must have missed something rather obvious resolved to make their next trip to the beach more comprehensive. This time they took along provisions enough for many days of camping and serious research. Each evening after a meal by the campfire, they reviewed the day's work and planned new activities for the next day. 

As the days stretched into weeks, they added topics to their growing body of data which included information about different stages of the clam's life cycle, numerous varieties discovered, composition and coloration of the shells, detailed drawings of the clam's anatomy, distribution of colonies for several leagues on either side of their base camp, methods of locomotion, and more; eighty-seven categories in all. To add a little humor to their work, they even learned everything they could about culinary preparations of clams. 

Finally, reaching a point where no one could think of anything more to study, they packed up everything and returned to Athens. By mutual agreement, they all returned to their families for a few days of rest and met one more time to go over all their work before confronting Socrates. At last satisfied they had met the challenge, they loaded all reports and research samples on a cart and approached the usual place favored by Socrates. 

"Sir. We are prepared to present our research findings at your pleasure." Socrates smiled expectantly and nodded. Whereupon the four students in turn orally presented summaries of their very specific findings, supporting their presentations with the written records and many exhibits and noting that they had learned how difficult is the acquisition of knowledge. Finally, one concluded with; "Now sir, I think you will agree we have learned all there is to know about clams. We beg you to precede with the teaching of wisdom as promised." 

Throughout the hours of presentations, Socrates sat in silence occasionally nodding his understanding, his appreciation of the hard work which the students had completed. "Excellent. You have learned this lesson well, so we can now precede." Waiting for the effect of his words to reveal themselves in his students' expressions he now added: "This is what you must next do." Again pausing and with a mischievous twinkle in his eye he continued: "Go down to the seashore and study the clam. When you have learned all there is to know about the clam, return and I will teach you of wisdom."

Only deep respect for their great teacher kept the four from expressing their dismay. Instead, they gathered up all the materials they had brought for the presentation and reloading them again onto the cart, returned to a private courtyard at one of their homes. "What can this mean?" asked one. "Surely we have not overlooked anything in our work, but that is exactly what the master seems to be implying. He must be laughing at us right now." 

"Well. For all we know, the clams might be laughing at us as well." joked one. All joined in a welcome chuckle to break the tension. "Of course there is no way we could know that." Suddenly, all seemed to grasp the implications of the remark at the same moment. Someone quickly added: "We can't know if clams have emotions either or how they might reason." Another added "We don't know if clams were known to the ancients... or if they will still exist a thousand generations from now." Another gushed: "And, who can say what knowledge of clams might be found outside the boundaries of the known world?" 

As quickly as the outbursts had begun, they ended and the four rushed back to the market, interrupting a minor argument between Socrates and a well dressed Sophist inquisitor. "Master! You have given us an impossible task. There is no way anyone can know everything about anything." 

In a rare display of fatherly affection, Socrates arose and gathered the four boys in a brief embrace whispering so only they could hear: "Now, you are ready to begin learning about wisdom."

Socrates is said to have searched in vain for even one truly wise man, finally concluding there was no one wiser than he, while he himself professed to know nothing, and thus could hardly be considered wise.


Beauty in ugliness

If wisdom is nothing else, it is equanimity. As a young college student I struggled with the fundamental wisdom captured 400 years ago by William Shakespeare's words in Hamlet: 

"There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

In the intervening half century since I first read those words, my own understanding of "the good - the true - the beautiful" has been battered ruthlessly. Today, my white hair makes me deeply reluctant to judge the ultimate value of anything, for I have seen beauty in ugliness, virtue in wrong, and truth in error. I of course, am not the first to face such a realization.


Who can say? The ancient Chinese Buddhists left us a tale about a wise old farmer visited both by good fortune and calamity. Elder Wu's lifelong friend and neighbor died. Family members expressed their sympathy saying "This is a terrible thing that has happened." Wu replied "Maybe it is bad. Maybe it is good. Who can say?" 

A few days later old Wu learned his dead friend had bequeathed an oxen to him. Friends all congratulated Wu on his good fortune. Wu replied "Maybe it is good. Maybe it is bad. Who can say?"

With the oxen, Wu and his son could till more land, ensuring a bountiful harvest and prosperity. Not more than a week passed and the oxen stepping into a rodent hole fell on the son and broke his leg. Friends offered their condolences. "What bad luck." said one. "Maybe it is bad. Maybe it is good. Who can say?" replied Wu.

In this particular year, China's northern borders faced invading hoards of Mongols and the Emperor commanded his armies to conscript every available able bodied young man to face the enemy. Wu's son with his broken leg could not be taken for the pending battles. Friends hearing of this and seeing all of their own sons marching off to war, muttered among themselves "How fortunate is old Wu." Wu thought to himself "Maybe it is good. Maybe it is bad. Who can say?"

In my own life can be found abundant examples of foolish, unwise actions. Without any intentional effort on my part, the years have tempered my impetuousness and left me with fewer temptations to act brashly. Ordinary life experiences alone have edged me closer to wisdom and I imagine the same must be true for most people. 

For what it is worth, I now believe that wisdom is what we get when we return to the mysteries as if for the first time, and finally understand their loving message:

Life is an illusion without any intrinsic meaning. From mere appearances we each find our own unique personal reality. The limitations of our genetic and social heritages define the normal boundaries of our individual possibilities, but faith in just about anything can propel us beyond the constraints of our birthright and open up opportunities for boundless joy and possibilities.



Reference photo: author
 August 2002

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