Friday, May 1, 2015

"I Will Destroy the Wisdom of the Wise"

St. Paul quotes these words in a letter to "the Corinthians"; those Christians residing in Corinth.  It appears the Corinthians were being unduly quarrelsome, or at least too quarrelsome for Paul, who modestly described himself as "called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God."  But I wonder just what was going on, in addition to quarrels, as in this letter Paul indulges in something of a tirade against wisdom, something not normally the subject of anger or disdain.

The words used by Paul which make up the title of this post are borrowed from the cheerful works of the prophet Isaiah, and are attributed to God.  God, it seems, wants to destroy the wisdom of the wise.  It's unclear why he would.  Paul adds to this, stating that God made foolish the wisdom of the world, apparently because the wise failed to understand Jesus was God before Jesus was born and that failure continues as Paul writes.

According to Paul, the wise did not come to God through wisdom, and God choose instead to save those who believe through the "foolishness" of his message.  Greeks, says Paul, seek wisdom, and think the preaching of "Christ crucified" is foolishness.  But the foolishness of God, writes Paul, is greater than the wisdom of the wise.

It's possible I suppose that Paul was being ironic in his use of "foolishness" here, though the Christians of that time and for centuries later were (and are now) not notably ironic in their proselytizing of, or apologies for, Christianity.  They were generally in grim earnest.  So, it's at least possible that Paul thought God's message, and Christ crucified, as establishing the existence of the true God or as signs of it, were ostensibly foolish.  This is a remarkable claim for a believer to make, or at least for a thinker to make.  Wisdom is inadequate to bring us to God--it's foolishness that does the trick, or at least that which is to all appearances foolish.

Given this curious use of language on Paul's part, I'm given to suspect that his supposed encounters or debates with pagan philosophers may not have gone as well for him as we've heard.  Perhaps he was unable to rebut claims that Christian beliefs were foolish, and so was compelled to take the position that if they are in fact foolish, that's the way God wants it.  Being God, the fact that he choose foolish means to bring the truth to fools, rather than the wise, has the result that fools and foolishness are greater than the wise and wisdom.

Regardless, though, such language and such claims regarding the wisdom of the world and the wise, when taken to be the words of God or God's agents, doing his bidding, can have serious consequences.  I think they did have serious consequences indeed when the religion which adopted such claims came to dominate the Roman Empire, as it became part of the doctrine of the state as well as the prevailing religion that the wisdom of the world and of the wise was nothing, the "foolishness" of God everything.

Perhaps it began with the repression of paganism and persecution of pagans during the reign of the Christian emperor Theodosius I.  It's said that Justinian closed the last surviving pagan schools of philosophy some 200 years later.  Perhaps the "triumph" of Christianity wasn't entirely at fault, and that the view that the world is insignificant and truth to be found outside the world which we find in Plato prompted the Western world to turn away from life and the first efforts towards science we see among the ancient Greeks.

It's been maintained that what are called the Dark Ages weren't nearly as dark as they've been claimed to be, and I'm willing to believe that is the case.  But it seems beyond dispute that little in the way of new knowledge was acquired in Europe during those times, and that what passed as knowledge was primarily if not exclusively what was found in the Bible or in the works of the Church Fathers.  The standard of living fell far below that of the Roman Empire, even as to the great of the time.  And why not, the world in which we live being without value?   In a way, the Church if not God did indeed destroy the wisdom of the wise, if that wisdom related to how to live well and flourish in the world, and to the value of learning of the world and its wonders.

For a time, at least.  It's true that Europe gradually became aware of the wisdom of the ancient wise, and even valued it after a fashion.  The Church, which was at the time the only institution having any interest in books and writing, is to be thanked for the dissemination of the old knowledge it has so ruthlessly suppressed.  That began to take place, though, roughly 600 years after Justinian.  And the Church was grudging, even miserly, in its disclosure of what was lost.  It was another 200 years or so before the Renaissance was possible.

It's fun to speculate what would have happened had wisdom not been destroyed.  But we seem to live in a time when the pursuit of knowledge of the world is once more mistrusted and even under attack in some parts of the world.  Religion is once again involved in this, or at least religious fanaticism.  Let's hope historians of the future won't refer to a "New Dark Ages."

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