Sophology: The Study Of Wisdom

This is An Exploratory Essay on Sophology: The Study Of Wisdom.


  1. Wisdom: preliminary notion
  2. Analysis of the situation calling for wisdom
  3. What wisdom is not
  4. Wisdom, psychiatry, midwifery
  5. Sophology as a justified neologism: against philosophy
  6. Some analogies of wisdom
    1. Winning, losing – losing one’s soul
    2. Economics as a pseudo-analogy of wisdom
    3. The Great Chain of Wisdom – the real economics of wisdom
    4. Luck, fate, destiny
  7. Wisdom as care of the soul
  8. Axioms of sophology – an outline
  9. Wisdom as care of soul – some starting points
    1. How to care for the soul
    2. Spiritual exercises: ascetics
    3. The inner voice
    4. Inner voice and spirituality
    5. Healing disorders
    6. Wisdom literature

1- Wisdom: Preliminary Notion

Wisdom concerns the judgments, decisions, choices or actions that are deemed, after reflection, best at a given point in a life story. It is what is best not just in general – the “good in itself” (i.e. independent of the surrounding situation or circumstances) – but also what is best given the kind of thing under consideration, and given the circumstances or situation that a person finds himself in [see 3, below].

We speak of what is wise with respect to automobile and finances and animal treatment and city government, and each of these presupposes that we understand something about what is best for a particular car, how money matters are best handled, what laws and actions are best for people living together in a close community – and always in the context of a story. Wisdom is, after all, a kind of “wissen” or knowing.

But wisdom is not just any knowing, as when we say that an acquaintance “knows something” about automobiles. That means he knows more than we do, has some insight into the operation and care of some aspect of mechanical vehicles. But if we want to know what is best for our car as a whole we want to take it to someone who knows how to take care of it in the way of what it fundamentally is – a motorized ground-based carriage that we control and that gets us from one place to another speedily and safely and comfortably, along the surface of roads and highways designed as pathways for that purpose. It concerns what is best for the auto, this auto, in these circumstances or this stage of its “life”.

Furthermore wisdom is not confined to things human. Animals also make selections concerning what is best for them, and do so after considering alternatives, using mental processes at least analogous to deliberation. They seek what is best for themselves and those under their care in a given situation. And just as the kind of knowledge we seek for our auto is the knowledge of what is best for it as the kind of thing it is and in the circumstances that it is in, so any animate thing seeks what is best for it as the kind of thing it is in the environment that it is in.

Wisdom concerns choices for the best, and anything capable of selecting alternatives is capable of choices that are wise or foolish.

Since we do not know what kind of deliberation takes place with intellects incapable of speech, sophology concerns itself with human wisdom. For a human, wisdom concerns what is best for the kind of thing a man is – a living, conscious person engaged in the drama of a lifetime. The term that is most often used to express the dramatic component of human activity has been called “soul”, and what this is must be carefully distinguished so that we do not waste our time considering what is best for what is not fundamentally and essentially us. We will try to map out what we mean by “soul” in section #7, below, but first the idea of wisdom needs further clarification.

Detail of The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509

Detail of The School of Athens by Raphael, 1509

2- Analysis of the Situation Calling for Wisdom

Wisdom makes its appearance in a situation that is as yet unresolved, and calls for a decision. If the situation is capable of clear and finite rational analysis, the wise choice or course of action is virtually automatic (a “no-brainer” in the sense that it does not call for reflection), and the foolish choice is either the erroneous option or inaction. If the situation is unclear or leads to virtually infinite analysis, then the usual course of action is either random (e.g. flip of a coin) or hesitant. The hesitant route may seek some non-rational or a-rational authorization for the choice at hand – spiritual advice, the sense that this is the choice that was meant to be. Or it may call for some heroic or inventive/creative solution, or at least a creative compromise that follows a recognized pattern which vaguely and imperfectly fits the situation at hand, but is not the usual course of action.

Solving a technical problem is a clear example of the fully finite/rational situation – e.g. a failed light switch. Is it the fixture, the bulb, the switch on the wall, a blown fuse, or a local outage of electrical energy from the commercial utility? A moral problem like whether to seek an abortion is an example of the latter. Do I take life into my own hands or let it happen to me, i.e. become a mother, give birth? Or it may be simply a life-style choice: should I join the Democratic Party? Become a vegetarian? Move to Canada? Quit my job?

From a believer’s or fideist’s perspective, the hesitant option calls on “faith” to enter and solve the problem. “Faith” seeks authentication from an outside source – a “hands across the void” contact with an invisible or hidden agency. The demythologized aspect of this is a decision to wait until a clearer grounding appears from revealed, imaginative, or subconscious sources.

The sophologist (see below, section 5) rejects (or perhaps tolerates) the existentialist premise that in such a situation any choice is of equal value, so that no solution can be called wiser than another (but any choice is better than no choice or paralysis). The sophologist also rejects (or perhaps brackets) the absolutist/fideist premise that there is a clear and divinely ordained set of laws governing every situation such that only one choice is best, and that only God or some other revealed or supernatural source knows what that choice is – that man alone is not omniscient, and is reliant on revelation from a sacred or spiritual realm. And finally, the sophologist rejects (or perhaps steps around) the skeptical premise that all choices are illusory, because wisdom is not achievable.

3- What wisdom is not:

  1. Wisdom is not a rule or set of rules, because rules are abstract (context-independent) and wisdom is concrete (context-dependent). The fool is not incapable of grasping and applying rules; what the fool fails to grasp is the appropriateness of a given rule for a given situation. Don Quixote grasps the rule that evil giants must be vanquished; he fails to grasp the situation that this windmill is not an evil giant.
  2. So it also is not a virtue, because virtues are actions in accordance with the concept of a rule (Kant), and can be taught and learned, whereas wisdom (as good judgement in the proper application of rules) cannot.

The student of wisdom needs to show that what is essential to wisdom escapes the restrictions of merely virtuous behavior. Being wise is being in some way heroic, being the protagonist in a story of triumph over temptation and adversity, distraction and disaster; being true to a cause, wishing that single thing that is good and noble and bringing it to pass. It is not following the rules but following The Rule, or sometimes throwing them, or it, away. This is also why wisdom and prudence are not the same: heroic acts are seldom prudent, whereas they are always wise. There are therefore acts, which are wise but not prudent, just as there are acts that are prudent but not wise. Prudence is generally doing what is best given the “ad hoc” situation, but not in the sense of a total life drama.

Here is one possible (neo-Aristotelian) approach: the soul is the form of the body only in the sense that it is the form that the body takes in passing through life’s stages and decisions, as it moves and is moved by passions and actions. It is NOT the form of the body as its mere shadow or reflection, a ghostly double of the machine. It is the form of the passive body as its active unity, and its unity is its story, its biography, what it did and where it went and why it did and went. Without that biography there is no body, since nothing remains of what it started with – all its matter has passed through it like water up a waterspout. What stays the same, what is the unity, is the pattern of a life from birth to death, and the mark it makes, the connections it forges, the traces it leaves behind.

4- Wisdom, Psychiatry, Midwifery

Wisdom’s province is care of the soul (in classical Greek, yuch meletaw – psuche-meletaw). This is not the same as cure of the soul (the Greek yuch iatros – psyche-iatros). Just as there are physicians dedicated to healing the body, there are psychiatrists dedicated to healing the soul; and just as there are nurses whose mission it is to care for the sick, there are (or should be) soul-nurses whose mission is to care for the soul.

Furthermore this is the identity closest to the mission Socrates saw for himself. He identified himself as a “midwife” (Greek maieutria – maieutria), not a physician (Greek iatros – iatros). And just as labor and delivery are not technically speaking part of the process of illness-cure-recovery, so also soul-care is not the same or in the province of soul-cure. This is admirably preserved in the classical Greek verb for “care” -“meletaw” – which means both “care for” and “exercise of” – as in “to keep in good shape.” Caring for the soul is then doing what is necessary or best to keep it in good shape, in good condition, healthy for the kind of thing it is, in balance, in tune.

Does the psychologist have a legitimate claim to expertise in care of the soul? Insofar as the psychologist allows himself to be bound by the model of “science,” where that is taken to mean modern, experimental, mathematical, empirical natural science, the answer must be no. Man as a soul is invisible, “spiritual” in the sense of being capable of action according to imagination. Natural science does not claim to deal with the invisible, the spiritual, the imaginary, the possible. Natural science also does not claim “care” as part of its arsenal of tools; being “disinterested” is one of its virtues, caring one of its vices. We cannot adopt a “disinterested” outlook on ourselves as human actors on the imaginary/heroic horizon without actual schizophrenia.

Furthermore psychology renders itself suspicious by focusing on feelings as independent of meaning and intentionality, and by refusing to deal with questions of moral values, and by failing to respect privacy, dignity, and honor (group therapy violates all of these for some questionable gains in “communication” and “information”).

5- Sophology as a Justified Neologism: Against Philosophy

Does the philosopher have a legitimate claim to expertise in care of the soul? Insofar as the philosopher (or lover of wisdom) is enamored of wisdom or is in love with it, he is a poor guide – as poor as any lover might be as a good judge of the beloved. Insofar as a philosopher has abandoned this role or this love, he is just as poor a guide – as poor as any divorced spouse or jilted lover is to have a balanced view of the alienated object of his affections. And insofar as a philosopher is not a philosopher at all, as most deny they are (insofar as they do not accept wisdom as the true or ultimate object of their attention) he has no special relationship with wisdom, except insofar as it masquerades as just another concept or a word subject to description, analysis, or deconstruction. (It is noteworthy that there is no entry for “wisdom” in the 1994 Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, by Simon Blackburn; nor is there one for prudence. In the definition of “philosophy,” “love of wisdom” is mentioned, but then ignored in the remainder of the definition.)

Most professional philosophers today conform precisely to the ancient definition of the sophist: they teach the techniques of excellence in speaking, thinking, and argumentation to students who are the children of parents wealthy enough to pay the tuition; they teach it as a means to political power (we would say “success”); and they practice their art without measuring the consequences for the moral outcome or the true betterment of their charges. Most accept that they are not teachers of wisdom, but rather of logical methods of thinking or speaking, and are not embarrassed by it. But since for centuries the title of philosophy is conferred upon practitioners of this academic sophistry, and since also the term “sophist” retains the onerous connotations Socrates and Plato gave to it (as charlatans or dealers in the false appearance of true wisdom – we would call it “marketing”), we propose that rather than revise the language or insult the professionals, we introduce a term better suited to the task at hand: the study of wisdom is sophology.

Sophology is not easily subsumed under the traditional title “philosophy” because to be or become wise or to be a student of wisdom is not the same as being an object of love or desire. Philosophers since Plato has been in the awkward position of parlaying themselves as amateurs (lovers) who seduce others to wisdom as Plato’s Socrates is alleged to have seduced the youth of Athens; and yet they are committed to offering their services as professionals who can teach this vague subject matter and receive pay for doing so – as the Sophists (the antagonists of Socrates) were alleged to be doing. Socrates argued passionately (if not convincingly enough to save his own life) that he was not a sophist and that he was not a seducer of youth. What then was he? I would suggest that he was the first sophologist – a practitioner of wisdom as care of the soul – who suffered the consequences of mislabeling himself. He offered dialectical reasoning as a spiritual exercise for the perfection of the souls of those who sought his wisdom.

Furthermore, if philosophy is the outcome of an unrestricted desire to know, i.e. knowing for the sake of knowledge itself, sophology is the outcome of a restricted desire to know for the sake of becoming a wiser person, or at least what it is to make sense of the idea of wisdom. The desire to know becomes subordinated to the aim of achieving wisdom.

Finally, there is no recognized branch of philosophical learning devoted to spiritual exercises for care of the soul – plausibly termed “Ascetics” – independent of ethics, aesthetics, logic, metaphysics, epistemology, etc. The ancient practice of spiritual exercises has been absorbed into religion and completely abandoned by rationalistic philosophy at least since the time of the Hellenistic schools of Stoicism and Epicureanism, the last practitioners of philosophy as a way of life.

To true believers in philosophy we issue the invitation: let us agree that modern philosophy’s job is virtually finished, that it has fulfilled its purpose, and now it is time to put “philosophy” behind us. It is time to stop being lovers of wisdom in order to take our places in a larger story as pro-creators. It is time to stop being amateurs and infinite analyzers and smart thinkers and step upon the stage to become the thing we have discussed. We have expended all our efforts making sense of the story; it is time to complete the circle, to enact the story of making sense.

6- Some Analogies of Wisdom

A- Winning, Losing – Losing One’s Soul

The wisdom of Christianity declares that the ultimate moral defeat is loss of the soul, and this is contrasted with winning the whole world: “What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world but suffer the loss of his soul?”

But winning and losing are not, generally speaking, moral categories. On the face of it, there is nothing moral about winning or immoral about losing. Yet we feel bad about losing -sometimes worse than if we have committed a moral offense or a sinful act. This is because winning or losing is an aspect of total freedom rather than natural or moral law. In sport, for example, we freely choose to compete; whereas we do not simply choose to speak or act in moral situations – we feel compelled.

So the ethician or moralist has little to say about winning and losing, even though they may argue about cheating at cards or on one’s spouse. A basketball foul is not a sin, nor is it evil in any sense, even though it breaks a rule. Not all deviation from rule is unnatural or unethical or sinful; not the arbitrary rules of games and sport.

What then can we say about winning or losing one’s soul? Or being successful at a career or business? Yet these are the very stuff of wisdom. Would we regard an unsuccessful person who nonetheless led a morally blameless life as someone who made wise decisions? Yet we are all failures in some regard – all losers at something. Supposing 30% of the population is “successful” or winners at the game of life – having achieved professional status, affluence, wealth, social prestige, political power, and fame. What of the other 60-70%? Are these criminals? Or is society 70% morally corrupt?

Even more fundamentally, we all lose our lives at the end of it, and each day we look forward to losing something – if nothing else, losing consciousness. Losing control actually accounts for most of the greatest joys of life – “falling” in love, “falling” asleep, the ecstasy of sexual orgasm, being swept away by emotion by a powerful drama or exciting sporting event or a musically moving concert.

Wisdom, or at least one aspect of it, is learning to accept loss gracefully, and yet not lose hope, or despair about continuing in life.

B- Economics as an Analogy of Wisdom

Just as winning and losing at sport both is and is not a metaphor for wisdom, so also the financial or economic analogy is instructive. A philosophical acquaintance insists that one of the cardinal principles of ethics is the principle of ownership – that a person should “own himself.” This is certainly a classic theme of ethics: autonomy rather than heteronomy – to be self-ruling rather than ruled by others, to be free rather than being a slave.

But it is questionable whether this is literally possible much less desirable. One can disown or give away or sell a possession; one cannot literally do this with oneself (stories of selling one’s soul to the devil to the contrary notwithstanding). In place of a capitalistic model of self-ownership (which appears as a form of selfishness anyway) the concept this philosopher is aiming at might be better served by the expression “minding oneself” – as in tending a store or being careful about manners and politeness. Minding oneself is almost redundant: it is making mine what is mine – choosing to take care of what care is, a me, a self. This is also the essence of the Greek aphorism meleta yuchn – meleta psychen – take care of the soul or exercise it, keep it in good shape.

At the heart of the appropriateness (or mis-) of this economic metaphor is an attitude towards experience. If we ought to own ourselves, then it must be possible not to; but it is not possible to retain our integrity but not own up to our experience. To disown an experience is to be in bad faith, to disclaim what is truly ours in a non-disownable form; it is the wedge driven between saying and being, and as such it is a lie, a falsehood, a fundamental evil. But if we cannot disown an experience without driving this wedge, how less likely it is that we could split the subject of that experience from itself – the one who has the experience. It is like saying “Yes, that is the experience, but it is not me that had it.” In such a posture the experience stands as the constant, the person or self becomes the variable. The result is a contribution to personal disintegration.

So also we must locate and relocate where freedom is to be found. I am not free not to have experience (at all), but I am free to not have this or that experience – I can choose to avoid certain kinds of experience (when possible). If I could disown myself then it would be possible to be this or that person, which if literally true would render identity or sameness of person impossible. But in fact I can choose to be this or that kind of person, but not to be a person or a grapefruit. (If I choose to be a grapefruit it is choosing to be the kind of person who acts/looks/imitates a grapefruit). There is no civilization that I am aware of that does not hold a person accountable for his or her own acts, which presupposes an identity or sameness of person throughout, including at the time of heightened passion, irrationality, even insanity.

C- The Great Chain of Wisdom – The Real Economics of Wisdom

There is an economy to wisdom such that the most valuable human commodity – time freely given, wisely spent – is compressed, intensified, and preserved in a manner analogous to that “Great Chain of Being” so familiar to the ancients and medievals, so haunting to the moderns, and so absent from post-modern thought. The Great Chain of Wisdom is preserved partly in great literature – the symbolic work of wisdom – but also in surviving institutions, cultural products (art & music & architecture) and the enduring structure of society. To study wisdom, then, is to study all of these things from the point of view of gleaning what it was and is and will be, best for us to spend our time-bucks on, and to share as our heritage to our children and theirs after them.

The economy of wisdom is measured in time-bucks, which have their own properties. They can be multiplied socio-culturally, but they cannot be increased by one cent individually. They are a rapidly dwindling asset of individuals approaching old age and/or death; they are in greatest abundance as the inheritance of a newborn infant who knows absolutely nothing of their value. They are devalued by those who choose to, or are forced to, or lack the humanity or imagination (which are the same thing) to anything but “kill” time or “waste” time or “do” time. They are treated as crassly commercial products by those who declare that “time is money” or who regard time as a factor in a productivity formula. They are dissected by scientists and technologists who slice it into ever-smaller increments – milliseconds, nanoseconds – or lump them into inconceivably inhuman megaliths – millennia, light-years…

Consider a time-buck as one hour of human time, my lifetime. I can expect to live perhaps 100 years, which at 24 hours a day, 365 days a year comes to 24365100 or 876,000 time-bucks. Assume 8 hours of sleep a day and another 2 carrying out bodily functions (eating, eliminating, having sex, bathing, brushing teeth, etc); that amounts to 10/24 of total time, so (10/24)*876,000=365,000 – leaving roughly 500,000 discretionary time-bucks as our inheritance at birth. By the time we become aware that we can take responsibility for this inheritance we are about 10 years into our lives, leaving about 450,000. The last ten years are equivalent to the first ten in terms of our ability to take responsibility for our own time: most of it is spent trying to keep body and soul together, so knock off another 50,000 hours. We now have 400,000 total time-bucks to spend between our 10th and 90th years – about 5,000 a year. Less perhaps, but certainly not more. This is our most valuable commodity. Wisdom concerns how we spend this inheritance, how we pass it on to the next generation.

D- Luck, Fate, Destiny

Americans generally presume that the outcome of human events is pretty much a matter of our own choosing, and that while luck may have something to do with it, “Fate” and “Destiny” do not. Luck is contingent and local, but is not the outcome of some overall plan that is imposed on our lives no matter what we happen to choose to do with it. Other cultures have taken precisely the opposite point of view: that no matter what we choose, our overall destiny or fate is determined, and we are bound by this over and above all personal selection.

But destiny does not necessarily refer to an externally imposed outcome. What it may refer to is the dim or peripheral awareness that my life has a pattern to it, that this pattern is not solely of my own choosing, and that interacting with this pattern is not always a matter of conscious choice, but may involve a kind of knowing or activity appropriate to itself and not solely confined to discursive thought. That may be what is involved not only in the arts – theatre, poetry, art, and music – but also in sport, in prayer and contemplation, or the drama of daily living. Whatever form this takes, it is an attempt to contact and express our sense of being IN the world and ON the world like a person riding the crest of a wave, and feeling the swell and power of the sea below.

7- Wisdom as Care of the Soul.

Soul is not merely mind, because to lose my mind is not the same as to lose my soul, and what is best for my soul may not necessarily be what is best for my mind. The mind concerns what is mine, and what pertains to a conscious self or an ego. A soul concerns the larger locus of that self or ego in its context of the drama of its life – its feelings, non-conscious underpinnings, relationships, ambitions, failures – and therefore not only what is mine. It concerns the story of a person as a whole, as someone with dignity, honor and pride (but also indignity, dishonor and shame), and deserving of respect for the power he has and exercises (but also deserving of contempt for its impotence and lethargy). Soul is what holds our interest as actors in a story, as characters in heroic legends and myths, as capturers of imagination. It is therefore concerned as much with who we are not as who we are, as much with what we are not thinking as what we are thinking. It escapes the bounds of “being” by engaging as much in the possible as in the actual, what is not as well as what is.

While soul and mind are not different things but different aspects of the same thing, namely me, when we talk about one or the other we seem to be talking about capabilities that are aiming in different directions. The mind seeks truth, form, clarity, rationality, ideas, insights, patterns, laws, etc. The soul seeks beauty, balance, joy, bliss, ecstasy, drama, peace, compassion. Mind tends towards things it can grasp, and therefore prefers everything its own size; soul seeks to surrender to something larger than itself. The mind affirms truth regardless of its beauty; the soul recoils from ugliness and opts for beauty over truth. Mind affirms or denies; soul loves or hates. Mind wants to keep soul at arm’s length, and soul will have none of it, will not allow any distance at all between itself and anything else. Mind is asexual; soul is saturated with sexuality.

Soul and consciousness are similarly distinguishable but are not distinct things. While we lose consciousness every day, soul never sleeps; and whereas awareness dies and is reborn each day, soul is in this sense immortal. Consciousness seeks to win by grasping its objects; soul seeks to lose by surrendering itself to what it loves.

Soul is also distinguishable from feelings, passions, and emotions, which are temporary bodily states. Any of these states may be elicited from either a mental or a psychal (sic) source, but the source is the soul when it concerns the dramatic enactment of character, the mind when it concerns, for example, the perception of danger or the challenge of competition.

If the soul is a kind of activity, it does not exhibit itself in all of our activities. Some of our acts are habitual. Of these, some are acquired; others are non-acquired or instinctive. But there are also habitual acts, which are neither acquired nor reflexive nor instinctive. These are the habits of soul, which incline towards choices of a certain kind, or towards a certain end. They are the habits that want the story to turn out a certain way and agitate until it does. These soul-choices are those for which no reason is apparent, forthcoming, or derivative from others. They often incline towards outcomes unforeseen and unpredictable. They operate through appetite, desire, imagination, and motivational energy.

Finally, soul and mind interact in strange ways, doing a kind of dance that is not easy to recognize or interpret. The soul wants to give the mind a hug; and the mind, perplexed, wants to know why. The mind wishes to explain something to the soul, and the soul misinterprets the message as an invitation or a rebuke. The mind acts on the soul by making offerings; it proffers various objects to the soul the way we offer a dog something to sniff at (reminiscent also of “burnt offerings” to the gods). It does not know in advance (only after much experience) how the soul will react. If the offering is pleasing, the soul responds with joy, excitement, producing a state we call “happiness;” if the offering is displeasing the soul may respond with anger, sadness, agitation, depression, anxiety, horror, or a stony coldness. The soul acts on the mind by fixation or distraction, by releasing or withholding mental energy, even to the point of shutting consciousness down altogether. Mind is the soul’s only defense against the infinity of love. Soul is the mind’s only defense against the infinity of analysis.

Given the peculiarities of this relationship it is clear that we need a roadmap or a plan for dealing with the demands and tendencies of each if we are to have peace in the family. That map is what spiritual advisors from time immemorial have recognized as navigable only by means of “spiritual exercises.” Wisdom, as care of the soul, takes the form of spiritual exercises. The drama of one’s life is the enactment of the story of these spiritual exercises, without which one cannot make sense of the development or decay of character, or the convoluted attempts to escape from the imperative to display oneself before the world as an actor in that world and not merely a spectator of it.

8- Axioms of Sophology: An Outline:

  1. PRIMACY OF CHOICE. Every self-conscious person judges some acts, some beliefs, some chosen values as better than others. Wisdom is whatever it is that guides such choices.
  2. THREE DIMENSIONAL MAN. All human choices involve at least three complex contexts within which all persons live, and within which each orients himself.  These orienting horizons of a person are body, mind, and soul. A simple characterization of these would be as follows: My body is where I am.  My mind is how I know where I am.  My soul is how I know where I am is home.
  3. PERSONAL WISDOM. Because humans are not born wise but grow in wisdom, sophology is concerned with the development of the soul’s character. To study wisdom is to set out to make rational sense of the unfolding of a personal story. This gives sophology its immediate, primary datum.
  4. HISTORICAL WISDOM. The assembly of received judgements concerning the unfolding of the personal stories of people throughout the ages constitutes the subject matter that is recognized collectively as the wisdom of mankind. This is an historical study.
  5. REASON, EXPERIENCE, IMAGINATION. These primary data can and must be studied, empirically, speculatively and imaginatively, using the tools of insight and reason, but not limited by them. They cannot be completely divorced from stories.
  6. PUBLIC ACCESS. Neither the rational study of personal story nor the personal story of rational study, are the exclusive province of academic departments of language and literature, psychology and psychoanalysis, sociology and cultural anthropology, philosophy or religion. They are the common concern of all men as civic and self-conscious entities. They are in the public domain.
  7. CIRCULAR FORM. Wisdom always takes the form of a circle. Within this circle there are several polarities within which the discussion of wisdom must occur: (A) narratio-ratio; (B) transcendence-grounding; and (C) orientation-alienation.
  8. NARRATIO-RATIO. Wisdom has moments both diachronic (taking place consecutively) and synchronic (taking place at the same time).  The diachronic moments we callnarratio; the synchronic moments we callratio.

       (1) Narratio is essential because self-consciousness is the metaphorical or imaginative representation of a subject in a virtual space-time, an “I” that is on a journey from birth to death, and this is what is presupposed when we ask,  “What is the meaning of life?”  It is presupposed by the question “Who am I and where am I going?”  It requires that we can tell the story of our lives. The true representation of that story to ourselves is what we mean by character.

       (2) Ratio is essential because narratio presupposes language, structure, meaning, syntax, and even logic inasmuch as the limits of logic are the limits of ego-consistency.  When we ask the “meaning of life” question it presupposes we can make sense of the story of our lives, that it has some meaning.  We expect that making sense makes sense.

       (3) The dialectical nature of the relationship between these two moments is such that not only does the story make sense but also the sense makes a story.  This is the ethical timetable, the unfolding of character. The discursive component of wisdom (ratio) takes as its primary datum the personal story (narratio) that deals with judgements evaluative of wise acts, beliefs, and chosen values.

  1. TRANSCENDENCE-GROUNDING. A second circle of wisdom concerns the movements of transcendence and grounding.  We call transcendence all the acts that separate soul from immediate experiences – generalization, abstraction, verbalization, symbolization, artistic expression, experimentation, etc.  We call grounding all the acts that move soul back to the particularity of time and place, the specificity of story.
  2. ORIENTATION-ALIENATION. A third circle of wisdom concerns orientation/disorientation, winning-losing-placing-showing in profane and sacred space, the play of conscious-unconscious in working out our destiny.
  3. SPIRITUAL EXERCISES. The rational expressions of the relationships displayed in these circles are known as spiritual exercises. They constitute the rules by which the drama of life is enacted.

Wisdom as Care of Soul – Some Starting Points

A- What must we do to care for the soul?

    1. Enact a regimen of unique spiritual exercises appropriate to yourself.  If necessary, engage a mentor as “therapy for the sane.” In doing so:
    2. Listen for the inner voice, and not just of overt conscience but also of covert discontents and yearnings (what makes us “heartsick” or causes us to “lose our way” or kills the spirit). The voice of the soul is the realm of imagination and inspiration rather than of reason and exposition.  It is also the voice of opinion (doxa– doxa) rather than science (episthmh – episteme).
    3. Make sense of what you hear from that voice (reason and will are also parts of the soul, and their voices must be heard).  Know it as the voice that moves and is moved.  Listen to this voice for counsel rather than command; it recommends rather than rules. Know it also as part of yourself rather than coming from some supernatural place.
    4. Pay attention to content and not just form. Total callousness with respect to content is the hallmark of formalists of all stamps (the examples chosen, for example, by linguistic analysts are usually totally trivial or slightly humorous, but they could just as well be horrifying or obscene or sacrilegious).  Just as wisdom is not context-independent, it is not content-independent.
    5. Find the points of your authentic grounding

B- Spiritual Exercises: Ascetics.

Spiritual exercises are for the MIND, since the soul cannot be directly forced to do anything at all.  Spiritual exercises are for the purpose of keeping the mind in touch with the soul by deliberate activities – premeditating, meditation, memorization, preparing for death, etc. Most traditional spiritual exercises involve an element of self-discipline or self-denial.  These are helpful because it is precisely by denial that the demands of what is being denied reveal themselves or make themselves known. When we say “no” to some aspect of ourselves, the result is that (like the infant that it started out as) that aspect of ourselves wails with protest, and that is typically the first voice that we hear.

But (like the more mature person we eventually become) that wailing voice is overlaid by others, and it is this multi-layered conversation we seek to begin and to advance as we proceed through the steps of any spiritual exercise.  Self-denial is not not an end-in itself, nor is it co-extensive with spiritual exercises as such. Their more beneficial aspects are positive and affirming. There are both positive and negative moments to all ascetics, and the positive moments are all in some way creative and imaginative.  It may be as simple as thinking or saying something meaningful in the language we speak, or as complex as working on a painting or on something musical, or a work of performance art. It is always involved in some positive or negative way with beauty.  It may even involve engagement with religious ritual, but only to the extent that we are truly personally involved. In any form, they aim at keeping the soul in good shape.

C- Care of the Soul – The Inner Voice

What is elementary in caring for the soul is listening to and for the inner voice.  This is the voice expressed in poetry, art, music, beauty and passion. It is not the voice of action, duty, and responsibility.  It is also not the voice of appetite and desire. And it is not the commanding voice of the will. It is not any of these things directly, while it is all of them indirectly.  What it is directly is the voice sometimes heard in still and quite moments of solitude and reflection, the sort of thing that prayer stimulates (or perhaps used to).  It thrives in the realm of imagination and inspiration rather than of reason or exposition.  It has sometimes been known as intuition, and it is the birthplace of opinion as well as prejudice.  Learning to deal with it is learning to make and then correct stupid or politically incorrect generalizations.  It is the nursery of wisdom, and should never be left unattended.

Wisdom takes this voice seriously because of both its synchronic circularity and its diachronic linearity.  It recognizes itself in not only in rational balance, beauty, and harmony, but also in narrational drama.  From that perspective it is clearly the choice of all layers of society and the motor for the entire entertainment industry and every style of music and fashion.  Entertainment is the extroversion and inevitably the trivialization of the interiority of spiritual exercises (this is probably why Plato regarded entertainment art as evil).

D- Inner Voice & Spirituality

How am I to tell when I have heard this authentic inner voice? If I ask for distinguishing features, I am applying rationality to it, expecting that it exhibit beforehand the features of a rational object.  [That must be done eventually, but until we know how to hear it consistently, reasoning about it is lethal.] A century and a half of observations of the non-rational component to human nature would be cast aside if this route were to be taken.  This is a matter of priorities.  Wisdom uses reason to improve a person, and does not see reason as an end in itself.

The alternative seems to be something vaguely discernible as spiritual.  It seems that the discovery of God within us is a two-step process: the first step is learning to hear that inner voice, to care for the soul, and then through that the voice of God is heard.  But it also appears that most institutionalized religions and their converts skip the first step altogether, misinterpret it as the voice of conscience, or reduce it to an historical footnote.  Authentic spirituality begins with care of the soul.  If it then proceeds to deny the soul it sinks into idolatry.

The inner voice is not some arcane or super-worldly experience. It is rather, as many oriental thinkers have emphasized, “nothing special”.  It is a matter of grasping, for example, the difference between knowing about something and realizing it.  It is insight into a concrete situation, grasping its essence, getting the point.  It is also what is included by the much-maligned term “intuition.” Learning to hear the inner voice is a process of reestablishing direct acquaintance with that part of ourselves that plays with ideas, daydreams, entertains a thought, even makes stupid or politically incorrect generalizations.  It is the font of molten-metal opinion before that cools to meet the forge of reason.

E- Healing Disorders

Insofar as each of the three aspects of ourselves – body, mind, and soul – seeks to retain its own unity, each will try to repair any defect or distress in the others by calling on the means at its own disposal.  “Psychosomatic illness” is just a designator of this at the physical level, but there are also disorders of the soul and of the mind such that our emotional and imaginative lives become dominated by a single or related group of fixations, or we will be prevented from balanced insight and reasoning by blockage of an idea or set of ideas of an irrational nature.

Because of the complexity of these processes, healing these states of affairs has become the business of specialists – physicians, psychiatrists, therapists, etc.  Healing of the soul is generally left to religious specialists whose training tends to be in a particular dogma or revelatory school of beliefs.

But ultimately self-management is a personal matter never surrendered to another person or a subordinate function without cost.  The expense always entails a loss of freedom, spontaneity, surprise, and a deeper discovery of self and non-self achievable only by truly spiritual exercises of the sort that grasps the heroic possibilities of a life-story.  Wisdom seeks the balance of the major identifiers of self without succumbing to the tyranny of one over the other.

Thus the efforts of philosophy ever since Socrates and Plato to demonstrate the supremacy of the reasoning part of the soul may represent an abandonment of the ideal of sophia as a balancing and blending operation such that reason takes its proper place – but neither more nor less than that place – in the total functioning of an integrated and connected personality.  Wisdom seeks a balance or blending of these functions, even though the leading function is conscious understanding.  But as any good leader knows, there are times for speaking and times for listening, times for activity and times for passivity.  A good leader knows when it is time to stand aside and let someone or something else step onto stage center.  A wise person knows when it is time to be a leader or a follower, to be an actor or a spectator, to step forward or withdraw.

By Glenn Shipley

This article is borrowed from

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