By Bob Litton
“Every man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding the limit.”
— Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915)
In all my reading of history, religion and literature, I know of only two episodes that illustrated unequivocally effective wisdom. One was the biblical story of Solomon, who resolved a dispute over a baby by ruling that the child would be cut in half and each of two women claiming to be its mother would receive an equal portion. The actual mother, as Solomon had foreseen, thereupon repudiated her claim in order to save the child’s life. Solomon declared that the whole baby would be given to her. The other incident — the source of which I cannot recall — involved a quarrel between two young brothers over a candy bar their mother had bought for them. The mother, perhaps taking her cue from the Solomon story, declared that one son would be allowed to cut the bar in two and the other son would have the first opportunity to select.
These two anecdotes, while certainly plausible, are yet apocryphal. They are nonetheless worth pondering and even relishing. The reason they are believable and satisfying is that they are uncomplicated, perhaps even simplistic, considering that such clear-cut instances are rare. Most of the issues we have to resolve, especially among regions and societies, are much more complicated and complex. In these latter cases, wisdom per se usually takes a back seat to economic and territorial interests as well as to conflicting egos. The disputants spend as much or more time abating those pressures as they do attending to the primary, essential problems.
I wonder how many of us have deluded ourselves into believing that the lesson of Solomon and the baby is readily applicable in every situation. The Taliban and the Tea Partiers seem to do so. They have two-faceted eyes — like the sans culottes of Marat and Robespierre’s time, when the labeling approach of “right” and “left” was invented. They are like bibbers too deep in their cups; there is no arguing with them, for they cannot formulate a coherent sentence. Yet they are extraordinarily difficult to subdue. It seems as though a smirking Fate anoints them to be burdens to the sober authorities.
The main handicap for a “wise” insight is that it most often takes a long time to germinate, to bud and to blossom. And by the time it reaches any of those stages it is intermingled — even submerged in — a nest of factions. In such a situation, the voice of wisdom is like a kernel or a nucleus within a larger, chaotic, protoplasmic mass — all ready to explode. How can anyone listen to wisdom in such a scenario as that? Yet, did not Ben Franklin pull it off near the conclusion of the 1787 constitutional convention? In a speech, which he had written but someone else reportedly read aloud, he said:
I confess that I do not entirely approve of the Constitution at present; but, sir, I am not sure I shall never approve of it, for, having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged, by better information or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. Most men, indeed, as well as most sects in religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them, it is so far error. (Richard) Steele, a Protestant, in a dedication, tells the pope that the only difference between our two churches in their opinions is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But, tho many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain French lady, who, in a dispute with her sister, said: “But I meet with nobody but myself that is always in the right.”
In these sentiments, sir, I agree to this Constitution with all its faults — if they are such — because I think a general government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people if it is well administered; and I believe, further, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other. I doubt, too, whether any other convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution; for, when you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?
It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does, and I think it will astonish our enemies, who are waiting with confidence to hear that our counsels are confounded like the builders of Babel, and that our states are on the point of separation, only to meet hereafter for the purpose of cutting one another’s throats. Thus I consent, sir, to this Constitution, because I expect no better, and because I am not sure it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good. I have never whispered a syllable of them abroad. Within these walls were they born, and here they shall die. If every one of us, in returning to our constituents, were to report the objections he has had to it, and endeavor to gain partizans (sic) in support of them, we might prevent its being generally received, and thereby lose all the salutary effects and great advantages resulting naturally in our favor among foreign nations, as well as among ourselves, from our real or apparent unanimity. Much of the strength and efficiency of any government, in procuring and securing happiness to the people, depends on opinion, on the general opinion of the goodness of that government, as well as the wisdom and integrity of its governors. I hope, therefore, for our own sakes, as a part of the people, and for the sake of our posterity, that we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending the Constitution wherever our influence may extend, and turn our future thoughts and endeavors to the means of having it well administered.
On the whole, sir, I can not help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would, with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name on this instrument.
Note how Franklin (1) acknowledged the limitations of his own judgment; (2) stressed the numerous influences affecting any joint enterprise, particularly a political one; (3) pointed out that the continued success of the Constitution depends on the strength or frailty of the people; and (4) called upon his co-framers to sublimate their prejudices in order to secure ratification of the document.
That was as much as wisdom could accomplish given the culture, the characters, and the uncertainties of the time. Of course the Constitution had flaws in it — one of them of the most absurd sort — as every one of its signers was aware, although the framers didn’t agree on which parts were flawed. It took a civil war and many extended and bloody protest movements to iron out some of the wrinkles; and I believe almost as many wrinkles were added in later as were ironed out — by the Supreme Courts, the Congresses, and the people. There is no completely forward movement in the advance of human wisdom, if, indeed, there is any advance at all.
While wisdom is sometimes wistfully sought and anticipated — like a Christmas present — it is more often ambitiously claimed, like an elixir. The term “wisdom” is not even used much anymore, not as much anyway as it was in the eighteenth century and earlier. Since the burgeoning scientism of the nineteenth century and the doubts that it placed on almost every human belief and institution, there has been too much disillusionment for “wisdom” to retain its former luster.
We do still prize intelligence: a very different quality, yet slightly related to “wisdom” as a substructure. One is born with a certain level of intelligence; wisdom develops over time through experience. As Franklin noted, the changes in his worldview evolved from years of experiences and reflection on those experiences. Intelligence is something that can be scientifically measured; while wisdom is as indeterminate and transitory as a manna. Intelligence is used to perceive and gather data; wisdom draws inferences, sometimes mysterious, ironical inferences from that data. Intelligence can be used for misguided or evil purposes; wisdom cannot.
Several thinkers over the centuries — from whoever wrote Ecclesiastes on down — have warned people away from wooing wisdom. Some have averred that only he can be called wise who admits most often that he is a fool. At seventy-four years, each morning when my eyelids struggle to open, I ask myself if I am ready yet to accept such fatalism. “O Athena,” I pray, “Please spring from my forehead fully formed!”