The Pursuit of Wisdom



This is the first post of a two-part essay on wisdom and education.

The roots of Western education largely rest in the Greek love of pursuing wisdom. In Nicomachean Ethics and Protrepticus, Aristotle envisions those who constantly contemplate wisdom, which is the highest end of humanity, as being like gods. “Understanding,” Aristotle states, “is by nature our end and the exercise of it the final activity for the sake of which we have come into being,” for “every man has been made by god in order to acquire knowledge and contemplate.” Every person, Aristotle says, “who exercises his intellect and cultivates it [is] in the best state and most dear to the gods.” Indeed, it is by means of rational contemplation that people make themselves immortal like the gods.

Such a depiction of the pursuit and attainment of wisdom is still proffered by professors to their pupils. For instance, Cardinal Newman states in his Oxford University sermons that,

Wisdom is the clear, calm, accurate vision, and comprehension of the whole course, the whole work of God; and though there is none who has it in its fullness but [Christ] who “searcheth all things, yea, the deep things of the Creator,” yet “by [God’s] Spirit” they are, in a measure, “revealed unto us.” . . . [The wise person] “hath the mind of Christ”. . . . and know[s] all things.

Or, more recently Mark Roche states in his book Why Choose the Liberal Arts? that “The liberal arts student whose education has been successful lives for ideas, for the life of the mind, in which ideas have no less value than things.” By engaging in contemplation, Roche says, students “abandon the contingent and engage the eternal” thereby participating in “the activity that most mirrors the divine” and bringing them “closer to God.”

This unqualified praise of the pursuit of wisdom and trust in the (quasi-)divinization it delivers to its devotees finds an interesting interlocutor in the ancient Israelite wisdom text of Ecclesiastes. In Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth (or, in translation, the Teacher or Preacher) offers an alternate assessment of wisdom and its benefits:

“For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow” (1:19; ESV).

How does Qoheleth come to this conclusion? What experiences and ruminations shaped his views on wisdom, its fruit and cost? And, given Qoheleth’s evaluation, how should professors—especially those teaching in wisdom-rich, core-text courses—help their students approach wisdom? These are the questions that the next installment will attempt to outline.

Scott A. Ashmon is Director of Core Curriculum at Concordia University Irvine