The Great Conversation:
By Gabriel Blanchard
Scholars the world over will doubtless agree that the greatest artistic embodiment of wisdom in the last hundred years (perhaps, in the last five hundred) was Bugs Bunny.
In the first installment in this series, we discussed the simplest meaning of wisdom, i.e. knowledge, and enumerated other meanings we’d be reviewing. In the second, we discussed two more: the wisdom of simplicity, and wisdom as one of the cardinal virtues. Today, we turn to the fourth: the sense in which wits or cunning are a form of wisdom.
4. Wisdom is cunning.
Most of us would be hard pressed to give a concise definition of the word cunning; it means “wisdom” or “cleverness”—but sort of in an evil sense? Or at least a crafty, devious, out-the-back-way sort of sense. Yet this set of connotations alone already places wisdom at odds with itself; we have identified wisdom as one of the virtues. Unfortunately, we have entirely too much evidence from history to pretend that bad men are witless. A man may have an exact memory, intellectual subtlety, and immense erudition—and that man may be known to history as Bernard Gui.* Put in terms of the social lessons most of us learn before we hit double-digit ages: smart people and good people are often not the same people.
This can be puzzling. It seems to suggest that being good and being smart are alternative—we’ve got to pick one. Intelligence helps us survive, especially without the shells or antlers or speed other animals have; but being with people who are good to us is one of the main reasons we want to survive in the first place. Philosophic types (we are on no account to be trusted) may try to avoid this uncomfortable paradox, for instance by using St. Thomas’s famous simile: the virtues are like fingers on a hand; all else being equal, fingers naturally grow together, so growth in wisdom does imply growth in the other virtues.
That is true as far as it goes. But, as any Scotists** among our readers will have been quick to point out, we use the same word for the wisdom of the wicked and the wisdom of the just because they really do have something in common. We are still able to know things we cannot comprehend (in the sense of knowing them exhaustively). More than that, St. Thomas qualified his own opinion when he gave it. “All else being equal, the virtues grow this way” is what he said; but “all else” has an annoying habit of not being equal nor anything like it. So, maybe the morally grey have a type of wisdom as well; and we may be shocked to recognize one of the voices who backs us up here. The Lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light (Luke 16.8).
This brings us to one of the favorite tropes of the student of folklore: the Trickster figure. Every culture tells stories, and nearly all cultures share a few literary archetypes—stock characters, plots, settings, and symbols. From time immemorial to this day, in books and TV shows and podcasts and films, figures like the Wise Mentor, the Wicked Stepmother, or James McAvoy can be found repeatedly incarnated in slightly different forms. Tricksters are among them; they are prone to deceit—not typically using blunt lies, but technicalities, half-truths, and other sorts of wordplay—and most are pranksters as well, frequently just for the fun of it. The elves and fairies of Germanic, Celtic, and French folklore are typical examples. Scottish tradition posits two distinct kinds of fairies, the Seelie and Unseelie Courts†: members of the Seelie Court take harsh revenge for insults, and indulge in a playfulness humans may find frightening, but are generally beneficent and sometimes even go out of their way to help humans; the Unseelie Court, however, who are possessed of similar powers, are deeply malicious as well as dangerous—and may pose as members of the Seelie.
Now, as the Trickster is defined by deceitfulness and mischief, we might expect Tricksters to be evil in most cases, or at least antagonistic. Many Tricksters from the literature of Europe and the Mediterranean certainly fit the bill. Reynard the Fox in Chaucer‘s “Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” the Norse god Loki in the Elder Edda, Morgan le Fay in Malory, the riddling Sphinx defeated by Oedipus at Thebes—not all could quite be called evil (especially since most come in multiple versions), but they’re definitely hostile. Modern interpretations of Satan often cast him as a Trickster, especially those with a Faustian bargain as their premise.
However, benevolent Tricksters are in truth quite common—perhaps even more common than the hostile forms. Many Tricksters are really looking to prove the worthiness of the people they test; sometimes they are even full-blown mentors—an excellent example is Yoda when he meets Luke Skywalker near the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back and pretends at first to be a mere foolish, time-wasting local as a way of sizing him up.
The Trickster protagonist is also common, and is a favorite device in fairy tales. The great classical example is Odysseus. Bugs Bunny is a great success as a Trickster hero, one who easily commands our liking despite taking outrageously disproportionate revenge against most of his enemies; he arguably has a touch of the Seelie Court about him, with his warning declaration that this or that affront “means war,” and his power of producing useful objects from nothing. Still more cunning (given her lack of cartoon-character powers) is Scheherazade, the heroine of The Thousand Nights and a Night, who contrives to save both her own life and that of every woman in the kingdom by curing the madness of the Shah. Muslim folk tales also commemorate a thirteenth-century Sufi mullah, Nasreddin Hodja, who (like Hershele of Ostropol) had a great gift for riddling talk and often used it to defuse disputes or escape awkward situations: in one story, a neighbor whom the Hodja dislikes but does not wish to offend asks to borrow his donkey, and the Hodja politely lies that he has already loaned it to someone else; the donkey promptly betrays its owner by braying loudly, which the neighbor naturally points out, and the Hodja retorts, “Who are you going to believe, me or a donkey?”‡
Fascinatingly, an illustrious figure whom we have touched upon once already is also a clear example of a Trickster hero: Jesus. The Gospels are not usually thought of as funny, yet they overflow with wordplay, jokes, riddles, and sarcasm. The battle of wits with the Sadducees in Matthew 22 is an excellent example. The Sadducees, who doubtlessly regarded Jesus as a Pharisee,§ open with false deference—they are “just asking questions,” as it were. They then not only ridicule the idea of the resurrection of the dead, but do so by citing an example plainly drawn from a source, the Book of Tobit, which some Pharisees might accept as Scripture§ but which they themselves rejected. Jesus first cuts through the false politeness with a blunt and escalating pair of insults (“Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures”), proceeds to frame his answer in terms of another doctrine they deny (“they are as the angels of God in heaven”), and concludes by moving the argument onto their own ground and refuting them there (“have ye not read … ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? God is not the God of the dead, but of the living”).
Yet even this stuff is small fry, for those who take the Gospels as essentially historical. Arguably, there is nothing so delightfully insolent as letting your enemies devise a plan to get rid of you, going along with it, allowing them one day of respite—and then letting them find out, secondhand, that that same guy they cannot stand is somehow up and making a nuisance of himself again.
To be continued …
Marie de France, “The Lay of Sir Launfal”
G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday
Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
Dorothy L. Sayers, Gaudy Night
*Bernard Gui (made modestly famous by the novel The Name of the Rose) was a notorious inquisitor of the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries; his vile, bloodthirsty book, Practica Inquisitionis Heretice Pravitatis or “Guidelines for the Investigation of Heretical Perversion,” proved horribly influential. The closest analogue in American history might be Cotton Mather, arguably the most fanatical of the judges in the Salem Witch Trials and one of the very few who never made any public apology for his role in the hysteria.
**Scotists are disciples of the philosophy of John Duns Scotus, who lived a generation after Aquinas. One of Scotus’s best-known ideas is called univocity of being—i.e., when we say things about God, we are not merely making analogies (as Aquinas argued), but expressing truths. A reasonably good introduction to the topic can be found in David Knowles’ The Evolution of Medieval Thought.
†Seelie is an old word of the Scots language (a close sister-language of Modern English, also descended from Middle English but with a larger influence from Scots Gaelic); it means “blessed” or “innocent.” Seelie and the English silly are both descended from the Anglo-Saxon sǣliġ; seelie preserved the old meaning of the word, which in Modern English drifted from “innocent” through “gullible” to “amusing by harmless foolishness.”
‡To the present author’s mind, a clean atmosphere would doubtless be nice too, but the opportunity to make jokes of this type is the best argument against the modern craze for cars in existence.
§This may confuse some readers, given that Jesus is typically presented as being in conflict with the Pharisees. However, this was probably conceived at the time as a debate internal to Pharisaic Judaism; note that Matthew contains an explicit affirmation of the Pharisees’ authority in the next chapter. Jesus offered different midrash (moral, theological, and ritual interpretations of the Torah) from that of a mainstream Pharisee, but in many key ideas—the resurrection, the ethical priority of mercy, and sacred Scripture including other books than the Torah—Jesus is easily identifiable as a Pharisee (and even as mostly aligned with the House of Hillel, one of the two chief Pharisaic schools of midrash). This diversity arose partly because the canon of the Hebrew Bible had not been settled back then. The Pharisees accepted something close to the modern Hebrew Bible, with some debate over whether any of the books widely called “apocrypha” also qualified; the Sadducees, like Samaritans (then and now) and modern Karaites, only recognized the Torah; the mystical and apocalyptic Essenes and some Jews of the Greek-speaking diaspora embraced a larger library even than the Pharisees.
Gabriel Blanchard (always supposing he really wrote this) is CLT’s editor at large. He lives in Baltimore, MD.
If you liked this piece, try your luck with some of our other content here at the Journal—the Great Conversation series includes posts on everything from art to duty to sin. Thank you for reading, have a good weekend, and (word to the wise) don’t offend any anthropomorphic rabbits.
Published on 22nd September, 2023. Author thumbnail depicts Gabriel Blanchard as painted by Hyacinthe Rigaud (source). Page image of Sir Joseph Noel Paton’s 1849 painting The Quarrel of Oberon and Titania, the king and queen of the fairies and also the “background” principals in A Midsummer Night’s Dream; the “foreground” plot of the play occurs largely because Oberon’s servant Puck mistakenly applies a love potion to the wrong person. (Oberon and Puck are traditional figures in the fairy-lore of northwestern Europe: Oberon hails originally from thirteenth-century France; Puck has either Irish or Scandinavian origins, and from the linguistic background of his name seems to be centuries older than his appearance in Shakespeare.)