The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
Having discussed wisdom as a synonym for knowledge, we may shift to wisdom as a form of moral goodness.
As discussed in our first installment of this series, one meaning of wisdom is simply knowledge (especially knowledge gained by experience, but knowledge in general). In The Silmarillion, Tolkien names one of his Elvish clans the Noldor, and derives their name from an Elvish root ngol meaning “to know,” glossing the clan name as “the Deep Elves” or “the Wise”; but those who are familiar with the plot of The Silmarillion will know that calling the Noldor “wise” in any other sense is dubious at best! Incidentally, Tolkien’s work is an ideal place from which to begin discussing our next definition of wisdom:
2. Wisdom is simplicity.
As everyone knows, the principal protagonist of The Lord of the Rings is not (as it might be in a more conventional story) the long-bereft heir and redoubtable warrior of high Númenórean lineage, Aragorn; it is instead a Hobbit, Samwise Gamgee. Except for a few flower names like Lobelia, most of the Hobbit names in both The Lord of the Rings and its predecessor are Old English or Norse, and Samwise is no exception. We reviewed the origin of wīs in our last, while the element sam is related to the prefixes semi- and hemi-, leading to a name that literally means “Part-wise,” or more colloquially “Halfwit.”*
But of course readers of the book are meant not only to like and sympathize with Sam, but to see how his own mostly unsophisticated and unreflective outlook has a wisdom of its own. It is a wisdom that the wisest characters—Elrond, Faramir, Frodo, Galadriel, Gandalf—deeply appreciate, and which, although none of them meet Samwise, we may comfortably predict would probably be overlooked by those characters who are (in the Biblical phrase) “wise in their own eyes”: Denethor, Saruman, Sauron, the Witch-king. Sam’s wisdom is especially contrasted with the immense subtlety of Sauron, an intellect created before Middle-earth itself and yet so corrupted by malice that he can no longer grasp the simple loyalties and affections of creatures like Hobbits. Samwise in particular is in many ways protected from corruption by his simplicity; even when tempted by the Ring, he can conceive of nothing but the notion of being a colossal hero-gardener by its means, which he promptly dismisses as ridiculous—though it does in a sense come true when he restores the Shire after he, Frodo, Merry, and Pippin return home. (Arguably his highest moment in the narrative† comes when he “speaks in tongues,” breaking out into a version of the Elves’ hymn to Elbereth in the dark in Cirith Ungol; yet, teasingly, even here, when he finishes, it says that “he became Samwise the Hobbit again.”) To some extent, this naturally shades into our next meaning.
3. Wisdom is virtue.
Wisdom, or prudence, is one of the four traditional cardinal virtues, alongside justice, courage, and temperance; these are so named from the Latin word cardo, meaning “hinge”—the idea being that these are the virtues upon which good character hangs, as a door hangs on hinges. (In the Christian schema there are also three theological virtues, namely faith, hope, and charity, for a total of seven.) Wisdom is frequently understood as the leader of the virtues, in the sense that it “lights the way” the others need to follow. Dante puts this image to use in the Paradiso: as Dante is lifted by Beatrice toward the final vision of God, the souls of the redeemed are found rejoicing among the planets,‡ each rewarded for their peculiar virtues. For instance, the martyrs, whose special virtue was courage, are found in Mars, its association with violence being thus redeemed; the special virtue of the great contemplatives was temperance, and they are found in Saturn, its association with death being transfigured into death to self and to the world. Those who were great theologians and divines in life are the souls found in the Sun; they illuminate all the rest of the cosmos, and preëminently exemplify the life of the blessed, “pure intellectual light fulfilled with love.”
At a purely practical level, wisdom simply means taking the time and effort to think out what one is doing and plan it as sensibly as possible. At a deeper level, it can indicate a kind of vision: a power to recognize moral goodness as inherently beautiful and desirable for its own sake. It is here, especially, that wisdom-as-virtue tends to cross paths with wisdom-as-simplicity. A passage from Graham Greene’s heartbreaking, magnificent novel The Power and the Glory springs to mind. The hero (more exactly, antihero) of the novel is a dissolute priest, on the run from Communist authorities in 1930s Mexico; thus far, he has been carrying on ministry in secret, plagued by continual self-doubt due to his bad character. The principal antagonist, a policeman and a fierce believer in Communism, hunts him for months and finally captures him, and sourly tells him that he’ll get the martyrdom he wants—but the priest replies, “Oh, no. Martyrs are not like me. They don’t think all the time.”
To be continued …
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
The Wisdom of Jesus, Son of Sirach
Aurelius Prudentius Clemens, Psychomachia
Dante Alighieri, Paradiso
William Shakespeare, King Lear
William Law, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
C. S. Lewis, Perelandra
*Though not used for the purpose today, simple used to be a euphemism for intellectual disability, and Tolkien suggests the translations halfwise, simple for Sam’s name in the appendices to The Lord of the Rings. Why Sam’s parents would so name him is not explained, as it strikes many of us as rather unkind! One possible explanation would be that Samwise had Down syndrome or some similar condition that typically involves intellectual disability and is identifiable by physical features.
†There is one other contender: namely, his moment of compunction and pity for Gollum at Gorgoroth, when he finally refuses to kill him.
‡This is of course constructed according to the Ptolemaic cosmos, meaning both that the astrological “influence” radiated by the planets is taken to be real, and that the arrangement of things is geocentric and ordered slightly differently from the Copernican-Galilean system we are familiar with. From the bottom upward, it went: the Earth (the sphere of the living); the Moon (the sphere of those who forsook the religious life but repented); Mercury (the sphere of those who idolized earthly glory but repented); Venus (the sphere of those who idolized earthly love but repented); the Sun (the sphere of theologians); Mars (the sphere of martyrs); Jupiter (the sphere of statesmen); Saturn (the sphere of mystics); the Fixed Stars (the sphere of the Apostles and the Mother of God); the Primum Mobile (the border of the universe, from which all motion comes).
The halfwit who wrote this is Gabriel Blanchard, CLT’s editor at large and an uncle to seven nephews. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you enjoyed this piece, check out our Author Bank and the great men and women on it who helped shape and deepen our concept of what wisdom is. We have profiles of Archimedes, Julius Cæsar, the “Pearl” poet, Bartolomé de Las Casas, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Sigmund Freud, and many more.
Published on 14th September, 2023. Page image of the inscription from the One Ring in J. R. R. Tolkien’s legendarium, obtained under an attribution share-alike license (source).