The Cost of Wisdom

Wisdom is born out of experience; it is born out of suffering. We receive the loving embrace of Lady Wisdom only when we have defeated Lady Folly

“Nothing in life is free” — unattributed

Any teacher (or parent) worth their salt will want their students (or children) to be wise. In Christian circles, Solomon is often seen as the paragon and exemplar of wisdom. We have the story of Yahweh coming to Solomon in a dream and asking him what he would like. Solomon asks to be able to discern between good and evil, and so pleased with his answer, Yahweh grants him this—and (let the reader understand) more.

Perhaps some get the idea, then, that if they wish to be wise, they must simply ask for wisdom from God. This is confirmed by St. James when he tells his audience that if anyone lacks wisdom, they should ask God for it. But there is a paradox here. It is the same paradox of the so-called efficacy of prayer: that is, prayer does not “work” (like the modernists think it ought) but the proof of the “working” of prayer is in the act of praying itself, for the purpose of prayer is to be in communion with God. In the same way, the asking for wisdom does not magically give one wisdom; the very asking is the proof that one is already wise: the wise one knows he is not wise. As Socrates says, “The only thing that I know is that I know nothing.”

But what does it mean to receive wisdom and how does one become wise? By denying that one is wise? By simply praying to God for wisdom? This is a start. And as we see in the story of Solomon, this is how one begins to attain wisdom; but there is more to Solomon’s story than that one chapter.

We do well to remember that Solomon not only asked for wisdom but also accumulated for himself numerous foreign wives and concubines, was syncretistic in his worship, and gathered many horses and chariots. This is not the behavior of a wise man. For many, these nefarious and debaucherous actions characterize the life of King Solomon and they almost see the wise king as an entirely separate figure. My students, for instance, connect Solomon so closely with his sin that they are surprised to find him among the glorious ones in Dante’s Paradiso. We may be tempted to excuse Solomon’s sins as proof that no one is perfect—even those found in the Bible, for God is the only Perfect One—but let us not dismiss the necessity of experience in gaining wisdom.

The wise one cannot become wise in isolation. All the more, the wise one is not the one who knows many things. That is to say that wisdom comes with experience, wisdom comes with practice and participation. In the same way, if one wishes to become patient he must endure impatient situations; one does not magically become patient through prayer (though praying requires patience, which is the same sort of paradox)—it requires living and being. If one wishes to have more self-control, he will necessarily have to be confronted with temptation. If one wishes to be courageous, he must find something he fears and master it.

This is true of all the virtues and all the fruits of the Spirit: encountering and experiencing the opposition can make one higher. It is true, of course, that one may learn from the experience of another and receive it as wisdom for themselves, but the wiser one necessarily had to experience something in order to become worthy of imitation; and we do not regard Solomon, Socrates, or even Christ himself as wise because they merely learned from others’ experiences. There is something deeper and darker about the greatest of their wisdom.

Toward the end of his life, Solomon penned the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes. This is not merely a fact but it is truth. Did Solomon know what he was asking of Yahweh when he was just a boy? Do teachers and parents know what they are asking when they hope and pray that their children become wise? Teachers and parents wish for their children to be wise, perhaps, that they may know the difference between a good and bad decision, or good and bad friends, or to avoid harm and any number of troubles, but do we not realize that true, lasting wisdom comes with experience? Do we not realize that Dante and Boethius both wrote their greatest works while locked in dungeons? Solomon, then, was only able to write the Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, he was only able to be considered the wisest man, he was only able to tell the truth about women and wine and wealth to his son because he lived it.

We do not get the wisdom of Solomon without the sinfulness of Solomon. Wisdom is born out of experience; it is born out of suffering. We receive the loving embrace of Lady Wisdom only when we have defeated Lady Folly; we receive the throne of Wisdom only when we have endured the Cross, as the Pieta shows us. Can a man truly be wise without difficulty? Can a man truly be great without strife? Do we remember what happened to Socrates? or Boethius? or Dante? or St. John the Baptist? or Christ himself? Do we really know what we mean when we are praying for students to be wise? Have we considered the cost of wisdom?

I do not mean to suggest that we should not desire wisdom for our students. What I do mean to suggest is that we should couple our prayer for their wisdom with a prayer for their faithfulness to God. I do not mean to suggest that we should recommend that our students marry temple prostitutes, worship false gods, and get themselves thrown into prison and executed by their government (though some of this may happen). I do mean to suggest, however, that if we wish for our students to be wise, we should expect great difficulty in their lives which provides the opportunity for wisdom, learning, and sanctification: they may lose a child, they may lose the use of their legs, they may lose their job; they may be forced to move homes, have their house robbed, or have a loved one assaulted. Of course, we do not pray and wish for these things to happen to our students and children, but we must also realize that Wisdom sits atop a very high and very difficult mountain.

Again, we must not only pray that our students are wise but that they are faithful to Christ. It is not a matter of if difficulties come, but when—especially for those who desire to follow a godly life. Nothing in life is free. Wisdom comes at a cost.

“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it.”

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