What is wisdom? For a time I struggled with this question. But then I settled upon an answer: wisdom is knowing how to live one’s life well. And for a time, that answer satisfied me. But then I found it too general, and so I sought for another, and again, for a time, was satisfied with the answer I found: wisdom is knowing what in life is worth doing, and what is not. For as humans, we’re often so blind. As Solomon observed:
There is a way that seems right to a man.
But in the end it leads to death.
There is such an array of things that grope for our attention, promising life, but ending in death. The plea of the psalmist speaks poignantly:
Lord, turn my eyes away from worthless things.
Why plead for such a thing unless there were a propensity in his heart to strive after worthless things? It begs the question. Why can’t he recognize those worthless things, those things which promise life but end in death? It is when we encounter something beautiful that we understand those worthless things for what they really are. And not beautiful in the sense of a beautiful painting – but beauty which inspires the heart to shake off the mundane shackles of good enough and fight for something more. When we encounter something truly beautiful, our hearts are filled with that indefinable longing to live life to the full and are reminded once more of the solemn truth of life: that we are under a curse. As Henry David Thoreau declares:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living was so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life.
God has buried a knowledge within our hearts, a dormant, restless force that awakens when it encounters true beauty, a fervent resolve to hold onto beauty and meaning, to somehow keep it from slipping away. This is what the ancients called the ‘true good.’ This is the ‘world without end’ that God has placed within our hearts.
When we are unhurried and wise, we perceive that only great and worthy things have any absolute and permanent existence, that petty fears and petty pleasures are but the shadow of reality.
It is only by perceiving what is truly beautiful that our petty fears and petty pleasures are seen for what they really are, the shadows of reality. And once we perceive the true good, we are changed into something more – fighters.
Plato describes this in The Republic. He argues that perceiving the true good is the ultimate object of knowledge, and that a perception of the true good is more prized than any other form of knowledge. He analogized it to the sun, which is not sight itself, but allows for sight to exist. Knowledge of the true good allows for all other types of knowledge.
The paramount goal of life is not to attain happiness. The paramount goal of life is to learn how to fight for things worth fighting for. That is what wisdom is. For all of life is a battle. As Marcus Aurelius noted:
Life is more like wrestling than dancing
And in the Bible we see this description of the righteous man:
Though a righteous man falls seven times, he rises again.
The true goal of life is to learn how to fight for things worth fighting for – to find the courage and resolve to throw off comforts and trifling things in search of something more. The righteous one is by nature a fighter who grates against the easy flow of what society claims life to be, who won’t become mired in the apathy of good enough.
Encountering truly beautiful things always prompts this type of response within the human heart. And it is not always some grand encounter. Often, it is a simple thing:
A man feels the need to just be alone. One night, he takes a drive to a secluded spot and sits beneath the stars. He sees the world stretch away before him, and something seems to rise up inside him saying that though he works and saves and stores and builds his future, those things are just the things people do with their time, not the things that make life worth living. And he feels something rise up within him that says there is more potential here in this moment for joy and passion than there is in a lifetime of storing and saving and building.
Suddenly his life seems small compared to what he once dreamed it would be. Whatever this thing called life is, he knows he has not really lived it. His heart is filled with a longing to be bold, to be fierce and courageous. He vows that if he could do things over again, things would be different.
Long enough have you dream’d contemptible dreams,
Now I wash the gum from your eyes,
You must habit yourself to the dazzle of the light and of every moment of your life.
Long have you timidly waded holding a plank by the shore,
Now I will you to be a bold swimmer,
To jump off in the midst of the sea, rise again, nod to me, shout, and laughingly dash with your hair.
An encounter with the true good should prompt two responses. One, a longing to be better, to shun the resignation of the flesh and live one’s life to the full. Two, this longing should produce a resolve to surrender one’s life to the plans of the Lord. For that is his only hope for finding real purpose. And seeing the beautiful has shown him that living with purpose is the only thing that matters.
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God has prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
Whatever this thing called life is, an encounter with the beautiful shows him that he has not lived his life well, and it gives him the longing and the resolve to live his life to the full. It should fill him with a sense of purpose, to know his destiny, longing for noble deeds, deeds that God has prepared beforehand for him, that he should walk in them. But this only occurs if one abandons their pride, which is no small matter. If not, the encounter with the beautiful will end in nothing more than a midlife crises, and a subsequent, vain attempt to reclaim the glory of one’s youth, or suchlike show.
Most have not considered wisdom in this way. Most consider wisdom as the pursuit of the mind. But wisdom is not primarily an intellectual force. Wisdom is a passionate force:
If you call out for insight,
And cry aloud for understanding,
And if you look for it as for silver
And search for it as for hidden treasure,
Then you will understand the fear of the Lord
And find the knowledge of God.
For the Lord gives wisdom.
Wisdom is not the pursuit of intellectuals. Wisdom is the pursuit of fighters. That is why the Bible often refers to wisdom as dwelling in the heart, not in the mind:
Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom
Wisdom reposes in the heart of the wise
It is with the heart that we perceive the truly good and beautiful – with the heart that we are changed into those who would fight for something more than the dead passions of the flesh and the dictates of modern society. But sadly, we do not often see it. For we have been burdened with a curse. And this curse is the decay of beauty and meaning. We are born into the flesh, the craving for comfort and pleasure and the mundane of every day. We are surrounded in death, and have grown to seek it. As the ancient poet has said:
You think the shadow is the substance:
So to you, the substance has become a cheap toy.
But in rarer moments, something comes along that jars us free, forcefully, of the mire we come to wallow in. It shows us a very important truth: to be a person of purpose is more important than to search for happiness. Here is some advice from Marcus Aurelius:
Return to your sober senses and recall yourself. When you have roused yourself from sleep and perceived that they were only dreams which troubled you, then in your waking hours look at the things about you as you looked at the dreams.