Archive for Sunday, May 23, 2004

Martin: Wisdom difficult to define, attain

May 23, 2004


One day, somebody said, "I enjoy reading your column, but I'm not always sure what it does for the university."

It was one of those hot-potato moments.

I thought fast and tossed this back:

"Universities create knowledge through research and distribute it through teaching.

"The column suggests that in doing that, universities are one of the sources of wisdom. And that's a great thing. Right?"

I wasn't actually that articulate or concise.

But that's what I meant.

Later, I started to wonder if I was jiving.

I think of this piece I do as a knowledge column. I realized I'd defended it because I love to write about the ideas that come to bright people who passionately study one thing.

The possible jive I detected was in my attempt to connect knowledge with wisdom. I wondered whether that was legitimate.

I called two Kansas University professors of classics, Tony Corbeill and Stan Lombardo, thinking that because they study the ancient Greeks, they would have thought about the relationship of knowledge and wisdom.

In Greek mythology, knowledge is the domain of the God Hermes, Lombardo said. Hermes is both inventive and tricky, but he's a lightweight compared with Zeus, who provides wisdom to mortals, Corbeill said, through the god Apollo.

According to Corbeill, the wisdom of Zeus was given to humans by the god Apollo.

Apollo spoke through prophets who lived in his temple at Delphi. The prophets were always women. They weren't known for their clarity. Their wisdom often came out garbled, or they spoke in riddles.

In Scientific American last year, some researchers reported one possible reason. The prophets may have been sitting in a place where a lot of ethane, methane and ethylene were leaking in.

Imagine sniffing a lot of glue and then channeling Zeus, and you've got the idea.

Whatever the source of the prophets' inspiration, it's significant to me that they weren't easy to understand.

Wisdom sometimes arrives at the door in odd packages, ones that mere mortals have trouble opening.

Another source of the idea that wisdom is difficult is the Greek poet Empedocles.

Empedocles says that to get wisdom, you have to "sift knowledge through the guts of your being," according to Lombardo.

Now the university used to love this word "wisdom."

KU's fifth chancellor, Francis Huntington Snow, thought a KU education was in part about attaining it. He had these words carved on a building that once served as a KU library:

"Whoso Findeth Wisdom Findeth Life."

But the university seldom uses the word wisdom anymore, and it's not the exclusive property of scholars, not by a long shot.

Corbeill says, "It's rare for a polymath to be wise. What comes to mind are people who just learn language after language, for example, as if they're collecting them."

Nevertheless, I've been learning things for 25 years in order to write this column, and as the years have passed, I've become increasingly interested in wisdom -- if not wise.

Given the difficulty of discovering wisdom, of breaking the puzzling code that contains it, my mule-headed persistence hasn't hurt a bit.

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