If you have yet to heed my advice to make Parabola magazine part of your regular reading, perhaps this excerpt from the Spring issue will convince you. It’s very rare I reproduce someone else’s writing in its entirety on the Magpie, but this essay below by Lee Van Laer is worth breaking convention.
If one traces the roots of the word wisdom, one discovers that wis- is, logically enough, related to the word wit, and that both ultimately trace their origins back to an Indo-European root related to the Sanskrit veda (knowledge) and Latin videre (to see). The -dom originates from the Latin dominus, master.
So wisdom is a mastery of seeing. But it must be referred to as a mastery of seeing from within, an inner vision or understanding. In traditional societies, and traditional religions, this inner wisdom or inner seeing was held as the most valuable kind of insight. Often attained through age, but not always by education, wisdom is presumed, in tradition and mythology alike, to carry an emotive content as well as an intellectual one; and it usually embodies itself in a venerated figure, a master clothed, more often than not, in robes of humility, which denote compassionate practice. Often the master also manifests a commanding physical presence; so his corporeal presence carries an equal weight with his emotional and intellectual capacities. Traditionally, he is wise who balances these three qualities.
Wisdom does not loom large in the modern psyche. It has been replaced by knowledge, which does not pretend to emotive value; in its least appealing forms, it even eschews such associations. It is strictly about things and the manipulation of them; and, unsurprisingly, it’s directed outwardly, towards the technologies of life and not their meanings. So we have many people who, externally speaking, are able but not wise; active but not prudent.
And perhaps this defines our society and our age as much as any other set of words: activity without prudence, or, imprudent doing.
To have prudence is to have foresight, to attend to. But attention is born from within, not from outward circumstances; and in the great esoteric traditions, as well as the traditional religions, attention is of a divine origin, not a worldly one.
The idea is hardly a new one. The great Sufi mystic and philosopher Ibn Arabi insisted that man’s duty was to extend his intellect beyond the territory of the everyday into the challenging and mysterious realm of divinely inspired wisdom. This inner seeing, Arabi tells us, is essential to the meaning of our existence: of man, he says, For the Reality [God], he is as the pupil is for the eye through which the act of seeing takes place. (1)
And it is no coincidence that Emanuel Swedenborg titled one of his greatest works Divine Love and Wisdom. Of wisdom and seeing, Swedenborg wrote:
... since what is wholly itself and unique is substance and form, it follows that it is the unique substance and form, and wholly itself; and since that true substance and form is divine love and wisdom, it follows that it is the unique love, wholly itself, and the unique wisdom, wholly itself. It is therefore the unique essence, wholly itself, and the unique life, wholly itself, since love and wisdom is life.
All this shows how sensually people are thinking when they say that nature exists in its own right, how reliant they are on their physical senses and their darkness in matters of the spirit. They are thinking from the eye and are unable to think from the understanding. Thinking from the eye closes understanding, but thinking from understanding opens the eye. They are unable to entertain any thought about inherent reality and manifestation, any thought that it is eternal, uncreated, and infinite. (2)
Arabi and Swedenborg shared a notable consonance of philosophy, as Henri Corbin has pointed out; and both of them, men with intellects and education unusual for any age, insisted that seeing—intelligence in the form of wisdom—was an essential part of the spiritual path.
Both of them, however, were referring to an inner intelligence, an intelligence born of a divine spark within man, with which they both had personal experience. Swedenborg called the arrival of divine intelligence in man the inflow; G.I. Gurdjieff referred to it as an influence. All of these teachers felt that man needed to open his heart—and perhaps his very soul itself—to this inward flow of a divine energy, which the Christians call Grace, in order to become informed—inwardly formed—in accordance with divine law. Only then can prudence be acquired; and only after that can action be wise.
Wisdom, in other words, is the outward manifestation of an inward quality, not the self-reflexive relationship of outward qualities to one another. In this sense, for right action to be possible every active must begin as a contemplative. Rather than separating them, contemplation and action must undergo a marriage that is born from an inner attention.
This is where the beginning of wisdom lies.
1 Ibn-Al-Arabi, Bezels of Wisdom (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980), 51.
2 Emanuel Swedenborg, Divine Love and Wisdom, trans. George F. Dole (West Chester, PA: Swedenborg Foundation’s New Century Edition, 2003), 67–68.