What do we mean by “wisdom”?
When the common man can use the word “tweet” without a paralyzing sense of shame, we have to wonder whether the days of choosing our words carefully have passed us by. There may once have been a time when those who gleefully quoted the maxims of Belloc truly understood what they were saying, but today even the purported defenders of Catholic culture are often caught up in the vagaries of verbal vogue. Do we quote the likes of Bl. Newman because of his profound depth, or because that’s what Catholics are “supposed” to do?
Sadly, this seems particularly true within the insulated enclosure of the Catholic intellectual niche (even within Thomism), where the word “wisdom” gets bandied about with relative frequency. Whether the setting is an ivory tower or an Irish pub, we can often catch one cultured Catholic bewailing to another the world’s lack of wisdom. Quick to diagnose the maladies of a secular age, we are often just as quick to tack the adjective “sapiential” onto whatever remedy we happen to be prescribing.
More often than not, such criticisms run something like this: “The world is too functional, too utilitarian, everything we do is for the sake of something else;” or “People today have lost the ability to appreciate the world, to let themselves get caught up in the ‘deep down things.’” While these arguments may identify legitimate social maladies, nothing demands that “wisdom” be the medicine to cure them. In fact, if we really appreciated what wisdom is, we would see that demanding wisdom as the cure to concerns like these is much like prescribing Percocet for a papercut.
Recall that three of the great intellectual virtues (and, as it so happens, three of the Gifts of the Holy Spirit) are knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. Knowledge is the virtue that guides and governs our reasoning, so that we can quickly and easily (and joyfully!) draw one truth from another. Understanding goes deeper, and gives us richer insight into the very principles we start with. Unlike knowledge, it doesn’t move from one truth to another, but rather contemplates and penetrates a single truth.
And wisdom? Wisdom can consider all the same things as knowledge and understanding, but it does so from the very highest perspective: God’s. And because it sees all things from His ultimate viewpoint, it also falls to wisdom to consider all things in their proper order. This last point is critical, powerfully captured in the O Sapientia antiphon, which reads, “O Wisdom, who came from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from end to end and ordering all things mightily and sweetly: come, and teach us the way of prudence.”
The difference between the three can be illustrated by considering an innocent mistake. St. Thomas says that Christ assumed the affection of wonder “to teach us to wonder,” and from this one might conclude that wonder is something we should desire in itself. The virtue of knowledge can teach us that this is wrong simply by pointing out that the conclusion doesn’t follow, any more than it would follow that, because Christ teaches us how to suffer, we should therefore desire suffering in itself. The virtue of understanding can also correct this error, but in a different way: by contemplating with greater insight the nature of wonder, it becomes immediately obvious that it is not the kind of thing we should want, even if it is inevitably something we experience. But wisdom, which sees everything in its proper place within a higher order established by God, would take a still different approach. By wisdom, it is seen that St. Thomas treats wonder, alongside fear and sorrow, as a defect, not a virtue. And this is only right, since our perfection is to be like God, who knows Himself as First Truth, but does not wonder at Himself.
So, if our self-referentially cultured Catholics are correct in saying that the world is too utilitarian, what we need is a healthy sense of knowledge – the pursuit of truth that is ultimately not for the sake of something else, but for truth’s own sake. And if they are correct in saying that our contemporaries are unable to let themselves get caught up in what is deepest, a renewal of understanding is the real remedy.
But a hasty prescription written for wisdom will have the terrible result of making it seem like nothing more than the other two. It whitewashes wisdom and fails to appreciate that it is the highest of the intellectual virtues precisely because it leads us back to the very highest explanation. Wisdom is like arriving at the summit of a mountain and gazing out upon the vista that lies before us. From this vantage point alone are we able to take in the whole panorama that is the harmonious order of the colors and shapes of the landscape. Here at the top, we delight in the vision.
In the Book of Wisdom, the Holy Spirit teaches us, “Wisdom is more active than all active things: and reacheth everywhere by reason of her purity. For she is a vapour of the power of God, and a certain pure emanation of the glory of the almighty God: and therefore no defiled thing cometh into her. For she is the brightness of eternal light, and the unspotted mirror of God’s majesty, and the image of his goodness.”
Wisdom is not the newest drug with which to fix the modern malaise. She is the culmination of the image of God in our souls. When we pray for her, let’s mean it.
Norman Rockwell, Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence