Reflections On Wisdom

The Nature of Wisdom

Wisdom joins together the questions:

  1. What is real, really real, or ultimately true?
  2. What is good?
  3. What do I know?

Wisdom is the knowledge of how the real courses through while activating the good. To put that definition in a different form: wisdom is virtuous conduct flowing directly, immediately, and intuitively from the most complete understanding of reality.

Yet another way of putting it: wisdom joins together all these questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. Who are you?
  3. What are we?
  4. What, essentially, is so, is the case, is real?

Wisdom is the synthesis of self-knowledge, other-knowledge, and we-knowledge, all of which are grounded in knowledge of the real.

Put most pithily, wisdom is a ‘special’ yet universally available kind of knowledge. Wisdom is acting knowingly by being what one knows. 

The Quietness of Wisdom

Wisdom may be demonstrated in a steady gaze, a single word, a certain gesture, a kind of composure, a loving embrace, or just in silence. Of course, wisdom can also be ‘longwinded,’ but usually it ‘leaves no trace’ (The Daodejing).

Discovering Wisdom

To discover wisdom is to ‘come upon,’ as if by accident but not without intent, a kind of deep, intuitive, articulate or unarticulated knowing. It says without saying, ‘I am here. We are here. And this I know, this we know.’ The hereness, the true sense of presence, is entirely at one with the knowingness. 

It’s not that there is no doubt when wisdom is here. It’s that there can be no doubt; no such doubt can arise. Wisdom is that quiet.

I wouldn’t say that wisdom is propositional knowledge, technical knowledge (how to), or participatory knowledge per se. Of course, to come to wisdom requires ongoing participation, yet wisdom goes beyond participation while also partaking of it. It’s the knowledge of being (most emphatically so) and of acting (quietly so) on one’s own, in two’s, and in a commons. Ramana Maharshi often says, “Just be still.” In stillness, one may discover wisdom. The Greeks said, “Just be in dialogue.” Wisdom may also come through truth power.

Probably, wisdom will need to arise through deep silence (the Christian theologian Raimon Panikkar speaks of ‘interior silence’ as the propitious condition for ‘an experience of God) and through truth power.

Discovering a Wisdom Commons

Each has an aspiration or dedication to another being’s and to other beings’ becoming wise. This is a noble aspiration, and this, surely, is the truth of philia (caring for you for your own sake). Philosophia is the loving (truly loving) inquiry into the way of leading a wise life. Philia is the friendly love of ‘the others.’ A wise communitas would yoke together philosophia with philia.

Mystery: One Condition

One condition for the possibility of wisdom is mystery. It is the prima facie opacity of reality, of myself, of This, and of the other. In the midst of this, I am dumbfounded yet not blinded.

Clearly, this is one compelling reason why sages have told us that the path of wisdom begins with wonderment, astonishment, or amazeness. (Cf. “The fear of the Lord [to wit, awe and humility] is the beginning of Wisdom.”)

Yet mystery is not only a condition; it is also the endpoint. For the truest, fullest knowledge of being and of acting is also the greatest ignorance. This convergence, though cast in the form of paradox, couldn’t be more apt: since the path of wisdom “empties one out” (as Christians would say: it is kenosis, or self-emptying), the special kind of knowledge we call wisdom–knowing by virtue of being and acting by virtue of knowing being–is immediately a kind of ignorantia, a stupefaction, a beautiful light wherein God appears by not ever fully appearing. True wisdom humbly encounters the awe–and remains, unstintingly, steadily there. 


In the beginning and in the end is mystery. The wise one knows this by being it fully.

Wisdom is loving embrace of It All.

The Triple Silence

Silence, I’ve been saying for many years, is not or not just the absence of speech; nor is it strictly the absence of sound. It is the ineffable fullness anterior to all rustlings and ‘felt’ between and within all rustlings.

Raimon Panikkar assures us that there are three forms of silence at the heart of all religious traditions: the silence of the intellect, the silence of the will, and the silence of action (The Experience of God, p. 133).

Perhaps, given what I wrote yesterday about the obstacles in the way of the way of action (or karma yoga), I’ll need to reconsider. Surely, Gandhi’s approach to nonviolence was a way of silent action. Surely, he must have understood: there is no self, there is other, there is doer, there is no deed. All of this is merely happening, if you will, thanks to God.

Notwithstanding the qualifier I just added in the last paragraph, I’m still inclined to believe that the two paths open to us moderns today are the path of knowledge and the path of love. Thus, what is foregrounded in the former is the silence of the intellect; in the latter, the silence of the will.

The seeker on the path of knowledge begins with inquiry. She does not know what she wants to know, and what she truly wants to know is What Is or Who She Is. At some point, the seeker realizes the error of her way. She must stop seeking, stop trying to get something or be something or have something. At just this moment, the silence of the intellect is experienced.

Poetic souls and sensitive beings gravitate toward the path of love. Each must realize deep in his bones: “I can’t do. I’m helpless. I am weak.” In supplication and prayer do they thus begin to surrender themselves to divine grace. St. Benedict beautifully begins his Rule for monastics by speaking of the steps of humility. For pride–I can do it on my own; I am enough; I am the agent of my life–is the thorniest vice. Out of true helplessness and surrender, the heart is opened wide. The pure heart is now ready to receive divine grace.

True silence is Life Itself drenched entirely with meaning. Just be this silence.

Three Minus One Paths To God

Raimon Panikkar observes that there are three paths to God or the ultimate:

By means of knowledge (jnana): through the effort of the intelligence to transcend itself: God is seen as an I.

By means of love (bhakti): through the heart’s desire to seek what can fill it: God is seen as a thou.

By means of deeds (karma): through the creativity of the creature who wishes to imitate the creator by creating–that is, by doing: God is seen as a he or she (the model, the artist) (The Experience of God, p. 97)

This is an excellent short account of ‘the ways to God,’ but I want to suggest that the third path, given the development of the modern world, is beset by problems on all sides.

One must take into account the dominance of Total Work. The latter requires the belief that one is a separate self, a human agent claiming to be the doer. And being a doer presumes that there are (ontologically distinct) others on whose behalf one is doing good deeds. Thus, it does not begin with the great existential humility needed in order for one to embark on the path. “I [alone] can’t do. I am powerless. I am clueless. I am helpless. I am completely at a loss.”

Which, quite naturally and because the above expressions are expressions of love, brings me to the two very legitimate paths today: surrender to God or come to ultimate knowledge of Reality. These two paths are nicely spoken of by Ramana Maharshi. In brief, surrender everything to God or inquire until one truly knows it all.

Love all or know all. That is all. In the end, the love of the Christian mystic converges with the knowledge of the Eastern jnani, love and knowledge both arriving at the same centerless center.

The Second Axial Age: Three Paths In Need Of Synthesis

The First Axial Age

Karl Jaspers famously argued that the Axial Age, occurring between 8th and 3rd BCE, introduced the conceptual framework that has been with us since. Most notable among other discoveries was that of transcendence, and so we find The Upanishads speaking of liberation from the bondages brought about by suffering, the Presocratics like Parmenides and Empedocles showing us the mystical oneness of Reality (according to Peter Kingsley), the Buddha disclosing that there is a path leading to nirvana, the Daoists pointing to the Dao that is beyond and before all names, and so on. In fact, the conceptual and more than conceptual relationships between immanence and transcendence, the visible and the invisible, the one and the many are those we are still grappling with and trying to sort out.

To his credit, the late Ewert Cousins, in Christ of the 21st Century, suggested, as early as 1994, that we may be entering a Second Axial Age. Here, I’d like to provide the briefest of sketches of what a Second Axial Age might entail.

I. Classical Greeks: Wisdom

The Classical Athens in particular bequeathed to all of us the central question: what is wisdom? Of course, “Socrates” is the name we rightly give to this question, yet the question of wisdom was, as Pierre Hadot skillfully demonstrates, taken up by Platonists, skeptics, Epicureans, Stoics, Cynics, and no doubt beyond.

Let us say that the question of wisdom opens up a path for us today: the question of wisdom is also and at once a question about how to be wise, about how to lead a wise life.

Let wisdom be defined as exhibiting virtuous conduct that flows immediately, intuitively, and directly from the completest understanding of the cosmos. In this way, wisdom is the elegant yoking together of the good and the real; its actual exhibition or manifestation is beautiful or graceful or radiant.

This is the first path we are invited to follow, and we can devote our entire lives, as we ought, to being wise and therefore to conducting ourselves wisely with and on behalf of all beings.

II. Early Christians: Love

The Gospel is contained in former Pope Benedict’s first encyclical, which is entitled Deus Caritas Est (“God is love”). I find it very pithily and poignantly stated in Matthew 22:36-40:

“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Love God and love thy neighbor as thyself. The central term, on my interpretation, is love.

The question opened up for us today is this: what is love, and how is it possible to create a global community consisting of all living beings and bound together by love?

III. Buddhists and Hindus: Liberation

Buddhists and Hindus (NB: I’m only familiar with Advaita Vedantists) both urge us to see that we are neither the mind nor the body and also that the world is unreal. The invitation is to understand, as fully and intuitively as possible, that what we really are is the Unborn, Unmanifest Reality. While they lay out different paths, they aim at the same goal: liberation from the suffering brought about by mind-concocted ignorance.

Thus, both traditions ask, “What is really real, and who, essentially am I?” And both demonstrate the answer to the first question is identical with the answer to the second. In other words, Atma (the True Self, or who I truly am) is Brahman (or Ultimatel Reality).

“What is liberation,” both ask, “and how can we free ourselves from seemingly endless delusions or vexations?” These questions are as alive today as they were when they were first posed thousands of years ago.

IV. The Need for Synthesis

The convergence we need is akin to the synthesis effected by St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was able to synthesize the received Aristotelian cosmology (“the Greek dispensation”) with the likewise received Augustinian theology (“the Christian dispensation”).

For us, they synthesis sought must elegantly combine, while going beyond, the path of wisdom, the path of love, and the path of liberation.

What is this higher path that transcends while including all three?

‘Reality Is Trinitarian’

Raimon Panikkar argues that God should be understood not in dualist or in monist terms but in terms of nonduality. Here he goes:

If, in the monotheistic perspective, there is one absolutely omniscient being who embraces and understands all of reality [from which He is, in a certain sense, separate–AT], that is not the case for the Trinity. Nevertheless, there are not three Gods: this is non-dualism. God is not one [pace monotheism], but neither is God two [pace dualism], nor any multiplicity [pace pantheism]. It is only through the constant negation of duality, by the refusal to close the process, in the conscious renunciation of trying to understand everything, in the neti neti of apophatic mysticism, that we can approach the trinitarian mystery (The Experience of God: Icons of the Mystery, p. 65).

A page later, Panikkar concludes, “Reality is Trinitarian” (p. 66).

This is too true, and yet I also want to make sure that Panikkar’s words are understood correctly. For he also makes it clear that this neti neti is a form of passivity that is more passive than all forms, or acts, of passivity. It is a “yin attitude.” This yin attitude is a deep surrender and, as such, does not fall prey to the “desiccation” about which I’ve previously written. Surrender is of the Heart to the Heart and thus is ever deep in the Heart.

Following this thread about the nature of surrender, we should read Panikkar’s story about Huang Po (Huangbo) very carefully:

A being athirst for God, in search of the experience of God, he goes off into the valley to do penance, to meditate, to prepare himself, to purify himself. But he achieves nothing, finds nothing. Then he cries, groans, and beseeches. When he hears a voice from the top of the mountain, he climbs to the summit of the mountain in order to listen. But once there, he neither finds no head anything. He goes back into he valley with the feeling that he is being mocked, that he has been deceived. He cries out and groans again, and again he hears the voice. He climbs back to the summit of the mountain and finds nothing but silence. He descends and climbs, climbs and descends. Finally he becomes silent, stops beseeching, and stops searching. He then becomes aware that the voice he had heard was nothing but his own echo. (Ibid, p. 59)

Who is silent? From whom does the voice emerge?

Reality is Trinitarian.