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Wise is the one who does not make himself god

Naked Questions/12 - We need a double gratuitousness: both in giving and receiving

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 24/01/2016

Logo Qohelet"Wisdom cries aloud in the street, in the markets she raises her voice; at the head of the noisy streets she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks."

Book of Proverbs, 1,20-21

Wisdom exists. On this earth there is nothing better than to desire and seek it. But it remains far away, because if you get too close, it disappears or is transformed into something else that's simpler and more trivial. It is something very different from what we call intelligence, talent, wisdom, competence or culture today.

These are forms of capital that we can and must manage, grow, cultivate, we own them and are responsible for them. Wisdom is something else. It is not a stock at our disposal. It interacts with our natural and moral capital, but it is different. There are people capable of wisdom who are not particularly clever, they are not learned, or little experienced. It is a gift that, like all gifts, doesn't really depend on merits. Even children can speak words of wisdom. It is a free breath of wind blowing where it wants. Like beauty, truth, holiness and happiness, it can and should be sought, but is never the simple result of a deliberate project. It is not a virtue, it is a gift. Sometimes it comes only when we lost the will to master it.

"I said, “I will be wise,”. but it was far from me. That which has been is far off, and deep, very deep; who can find it out?" (Ecclesiastes 7,23-24) Wisdom escapes us. Its depth is too deep, its distance too far. Yet, sometimes, it is noted, it acts, works and transforms history. And we can recognize it: «Who is like the wise And who knows the interpretation of a thing? A man's wisdom makes his face shine, and the hardness of his face is changed» (8,1).

Wisdom then has its typical brilliance; it changes one's facial features. Others who look at these people can see their shining face - like that of Moses, when he came down from Mount Sinai with the tablets of the law. Wisdom is a relationship, its splendour appears to those who recognize it in the faces of others. Under the sun we can see the signs of wisdom from its light on a human face. The witness of wisdom is the other person that sees its unique light, which is a good mirror only if it is opaque and absorbs the light that does not have to be returned to the wise one. This poverty is typical. The wise one casts a special light that gets lit inside a relationship, a light that disappears when they look, narcissistically, in a mirror other than the other person's eyes in front of them. This constitutive relatedness of wisdom is an intrinsic device of gratuitousness that prevents the wise one to appropriate his wisdom to and for himself, risking the loss of light on his face. When the wise man begins to see his own face brighter than that of others and to fall in love with its different light, wisdom disappears for lack of gratuitousness: «That water is not for me» (Bernardette Soubirous).

All wise people are always provisional wise people. They give off the light of wisdom only while they experience it. And between one experience of wisdom and another they are poor and needy as all living beings under the sun, they speak the words used by all others and they have the light of all faces. So the special light of wisdom is ephemeral, it only lives inside a specific relationship and while the experience lasts. It cannot be accumulated; we cannot keep it in a treasure chest. If wisdom is a gift-gratuitousness, there are no "professional" wise people: «do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?» (7,16).

Wisdom is far away, deep in depths. No wise person is wise forever and ever. Wisdom is an experience. If we are wise and until we can feel wisdom, and no matter how many wise and bright words we said before, we have no guarantee of continuing to utter them tomorrow, too. We can only hope so. There is no wisdom without the renewal of its miracle of generosity, here and now.

For this reason it is not true that the wise ones are always the best witnesses of the words they say. True wisdom that speaks words transforming the lives of others is not always able to transform the lives of those who say them. Wisdom always exceeds the wise one, however great and a true witness they may be. The proof of the wise ones' wisdom is not their moral life, their testimony is not the truth about their words. The splendour of their face and words is the proof of the presence of their wisdom. This is one of the great mysteries of charis-gratuitousness on earth.

Here are some suggestions. Distrust the "wise men" who show themselves as a model for those who see and follow the glow of their face, showing their life as a measure of the wisdom of their words. And distrust those who believe and say that they possess wisdom, as well as those who feel they are its owners, who think they have it always at hand, who consider it their capital they may avail of at all times. They are certainly fake wise men. The first wisdom of the wise is the awareness of themselves not being humble the source of wisdom as they say, but a source from which, sometimes without knowing the reasons, different and always new kind of water comes out. What they know is that they are like a blind man who sometimes sees and shows things. When wisdom is lit inside a relationship, the first to be surprised, grateful and amazed by the wisdom present there is the one who finds a previously unknown light in their own face, and becomes the listener of his/her own words, because they are not only his/her. Qoheleth was able to give us words of wisdom because he never thought of having reached it.

There is a third warning: it is not good to tell the wise that their face is shining with a different light, because that way we expose them to the greatest temptation. In order not to reduce the wise light on earth gratuitousness is required in the wise, but also in those who watch them and benefit from their wisdom. And if the first gratuitousness is hard, the second one is no less arduous, either. If, in fact, the great temptation of the wise is falling in love with themselves and taking possession of their own wisdom, their desire to transform the true and ephemeral light into a fake and constant light, then those who contemplate and benefit from that wisdom are always tempted to institutionalize the glow of that face, not to be content with a temporary glow, and so turn the wise one in an unchanging and unchangeable god. In the generative relationship of wisdom the ever present risk is that of idolatry.

The virtue of the wise one is then in knowing how to resist in the specific painful effort of giving the gift of a light that they can neither know nor control. Wisdom only blooms among equals, and only among the poor. The kingdom of wisdom is the realm of these poor people: those who do not make themselves god and those who do not want to worship an idol. To understand Qoheleth's vision of wisdom we have should not forget his polemic with the "apocalyptic" movements of his time, populated by visionaries who entertained enchanted crowds by their tales of revelations, of which they were the only and undisputed masters. In this world there are certainly some more knowledgeable people, some who are less so and many who are foolish. There are also some very wise people, but there is no guarantee that wisdom and its light will always activate even in the most knowledgeable people. Qoheleth loves and seeks wisdom, but warns of the wise ones when they become a status or a social category, an élite that uses the light shining on their face "for profit".

There are artificial and cold lights on people's face, artfully modified facial features and winks that convince only the flatterer type of followers of the false wise men. Those who are familiar with the life of people who have experienced wisdom know that their biggest challenge was to preserve wisdom through the passing of years. There comes a point when the temptation to take possession of the light that they give as gift to the others becomes very strong, almost invincible. And that's when, very often, the light unperceivably begins to change in its brightness and the face starts to lose the ancient traits. Gratuitousness disappears, and so do its typical fruits: freedom, joy, the presence of the poor. It is a process involving the ex-wise and their listeners, and therefore it is a trap from which it is difficult to escape, but not impossible.

Let us not forget that Qoheleth presents himself to his listeners with the name of Solomon (chapter 1), who was the wisest king, but in the last part of his life he suffered a setback. The complex, ambivalent and mysterious personal story of King Solomon is an essential background to understand Qoheleth's words on wisdom. Although wise in his youth, the aging Solomon's heart was "turned away" by his wives, and he worshiped foreign gods (1 Kings 11) - a fact that may partly explain the harsh criticism Qoheleth exerts on women: (7.26-28). Not even the wisest of all men was always wise and will be for all his life.

All of us, however, can be wise, we all have had experiences of this wisdom in life. At least once. It is not a luxury, available only for a few chosen souls, leaders of some spiritual clubs. Real wisdom is popular, it dwells inside the houses of all, in the workplaces, in the streets, in the markets. It is the light that we see lighting up in the face of a friend who, poor just like us, collects our pain and is able to tell us words of life that always console us, sometimes even save us. The light that we have seen many times in the faces of our parents, when they gave us those few different words with which we can still keep walking. And while we warm ourselves by the light of wisdom - if the light of the other person's face does not warm us then it is not the light of wisdom - we all gain an experience of the distance of the wisdom, and of the "deep depth". And so we continue to desire and seek it, with gratuitousness.

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