Sunday, March 16
Proverbs 12: The chapter continues the series of couplets containing contrasts: love/hate (verse 1), good/wicked (verse 2), wickedness/righteousness (verse 3), virtuous wife/shameful wife (verse 4), and so on.
Such sustained emphasis on contrasts and distinctions should put to rest the recent idea that biblical teaching is non-analytical and non-critical. For several generations some of those who dislike classical philosophy have pretended that "Semitic thinking" is unlike "Greek thinking" in this respect. They have told us that the Greeks applied critical distinctions to dissect ideas and look at them in an objective, detached way that separated the knower from the known. On the other hand, the Semites (so the story goes) took a unitive approach to knowledge, in which the knower became identified with the what was known.
This version of the matter, however, involves an oversimplification that does justice to neither the Semites nor the Greeks. While it is true that the common Semitic verb for knowing, yadaÔ, implies union rather than division (as in "Adam knew his wife"), another common Semitic verb for knowing, bin, means knowledge of a discursive, critical sort. Both aspects of knowledge, that is to say, are contained in Semitic epistemology. Similarly, with respect to the Greeks, the application of critical, objective distinctions, of the sort characteristic of dialectics, should not be taken as the goal of classical Greek philosophy. Dialectics is a means, rather, of arriving at metaphysical contemplation, gnosis (the Sanskrit jnana), in which the knower and the known are united.
In short, the differences between Greek and Semitic approaches to knowledge cannot be reduced to the elementary distinction between analytical and contemplative knowledge. Nor can either approach be reduced to a single, simple description.
Monday, March 17
Proverbs 13: Wisdom is not something that a young man can discover on his own. He either has the good sense to receive it as an inheritance or he will simply never have it. He must, therefore, listen and pay attention. It will be difficult, however, to listen and pay attention if he is forever running his mouth (verse 3). Custody of oneŐs tongue, then, is absolutely required for the attaining of wisdom.
This habit of guarding oneŐs tongue, in order the better to hear and learn instruction, can become a life-long habit, a distinguishing characteristic of the wise man even when he grows older. We see this phenomenon in a special way in the traditions of ancient Egypt, where the "silent just man" became a moral ideal of Egyptian culture, exemplified in The Instructions of Ani in the second millennium before Christ all the way to the ascetical literature of the Christian monks of the Egyptian desert. The "silent just man" maintained strict control over his tongue, and in order to maintain control over his tongue he was obliged to keep guard also over his emotions. His speech, when he did speak, would bear wise counsel and insight. Such a man could be trusted. To him could be given responsibilities over serious matters, even the destiny of nations.
It was proverbial in antiquity, and not only in Egypt, that no man could safely govern anything outside of himself until he learned to govern his own soul (16:32). And a man began to learn this discipline in his youth, by not opening his mouth except to ask questions and to seek instruction.
Tuesday, March 18
Proverbs 14: Wisdom is the foundation of homes and households (verse 1). This is the inherited wisdom of the ages, conservatively handed down in the tradition of "families and villages" (to borrow AristotleŐs coupling). Since the experience of family necessarily involves the transmission of identity, the tradition or inherited wisdom is not peripheral to family life. Unassailable tradition, based on perceived absolutes, is not something with which a family can do without. It is of the essence, and it is this sense of traditionŐs essential character that injects a note a urgency in the rhetoric of the Book of Proverbs. The exhortations in Proverbs are matters of life or death. Hence, this sense of urgency goes far to account for the toughness of discipline inculcated throughout the book.
Consequently, moral indifference or relativism, based on skepticism and an overly critical spirit, spell the death of wisdom and therefore the death of family life (verse 11). Nowhere does the Bible tolerate the relativism and despair (including a sympathy for suicide) that characterized some primitive writings of Mesopotamia, such as the ancient Dialogue of Pessimism. The latter work, written over three thousand years ago, reads today like a work of recent Existentialism. If such attitudes were characteristic of the philosophy of Mesopotamia, it is no wonder that Abraham insisted that Isaac should not go back there (Genesis 24:5-6).
The Book of Proverbs, in mighty contrast, represents the voice of moral and metaphysical absolutes, a wisdom based on the sense of the scrutiny and presence of God (verses 2,26-27; cf. 13:14; 15:39,11,29).
Wednesday, March 19
Proverbs 15: This chapter contains several references to the acceptance of correction (verses 5,10,12,31,32). Among a young manŐs worst enemies is his innate resistance to correction, a resistance spawned of rebellion and an independent spirit. Giving in to such a spirit generally produces three results, all of them bad: First, it strengthens a manŐs spirit of rebellion. ( A rebelŐs spirit is useful in the face of oppression; otherwise, it is a counterproductive trait in a man. A sustained spirit of rebellion, a spiritual chip on the shoulder, renders a man useless for any purpose.) This leads to hardness of heart and self-absorption. Second, refusal to accept correction deprives a man of instruction about some point on which at least one other person thought he needed instruction. Third, it discourages that same person from making some attempt at correction and instruction in the future. Thus, many valuable lessons will be lost if the young man does not early recognize and deal with these inner impulses of rebellion. Following such impulses is not the path to wisdom.
A Christian reading of this theme in Proverbs should see more in the Sacred Text, not less, than a merely Jewish reading of it. Even the simplest, plainest reading of Proverbs, based on the most literal sense of the Text, shows the importance of being open to correction. The Christian reader, however, reading the Scriptures through the lens of Christ, will recognize God the Father as the True Parent who speaks in these lines. Thus, the submission that all children owe to the discipline of their parents becomes the symbol of a greater docility that GodŐs children owe to their heavenly Father. That is to say, the Christian reader should see more in the meaning of Proverbs in this regard: "Furthermore, we have had human fathers who corrected us, and we paid them reverence. Shall we not much more readily be in subjection to the Father of spirits and live?" (Hebrews 12:9)
Thursday, March 20
Proverbs 16: Proverbs deals with more than human effort. This book shares, rather, the conviction of the BibleŐs historians and prophets (including the author of Job) that God reigns over human history and has plans of His own with respect to human destiny (verses 1-4,9,25,33). Man is not in charge of history. The "big picture" is not manŐs responsibility. Consequently, God does not let him see the big picture. GodŐs governance of history is unfathomable.
This is not to say, of course, that human choices count for nothing in the course of events. It means only that man should restrict his concerns to those aspects of life that he can actually do something about, and these are determined largely by the circumstances in which Divine Providence places him. Each man must do his duty, as determined by those responsibilities, leaving to God the outcome of events. Man must be content to do right "as God gives us to see the right" (Abraham Lincoln). At the same time, GodŐs loyal and obedient servant takes strength from the remembrance that God holds governance over the whole historical process. Even as men struggle to remain faithful, while not seeing the larger picture of which their own efforts are but a part, faith in a ruling God offers the proper basis for a sane, holy, and rational hope. This truth has special pertinence for those charged with the rule of nations (verses 10,12-15).
Friday, March 21
Proverbs 17: Wisdom is learned and practiced in the home and the community (or the village, as Aristotle would say). It has to do with simple, quotidian experiences, both domestic and immediately social. Consequently, a number of these maxims are concerned with manŐs life in his home and in society: the blessings of a quiet household (verse 1), the raising of children (verses 21,25), dependable servants (verse 2), reverence for the younger and older generations (verse 6), the maintenance of friendships, even the friendships of others (verses 9,17), the resolution of conflicts (verse 14), and respect for the poor (verse 5).
The perfect man, we are told, is the one who "does not stumble in word" (James 3:2). Because a manŐs speech is his chief means of associating with his family and his community, his ability to govern his tongue will chiefly determine the quality of his social relationships. It is a manŐs speech that will make or break him in the moral and social orders. Without proper control of his tongue, a man is of no decent use to either God or his fellow men. It is not surprising, therefore, that this chapter on manŐs domestic and social life should contain several references to the power of speech, not only good speech (verse 7) and controlled speech (verses 27-28), but also perverse speech (verse 20) in a number of forms, such as mendacity (verses 4,7), ridicule (verse 5), and gossip (verse 9).
Saturday, March 22
Proverbs 18: Many commentators have spoken of the "pragmatic" motive in much of the Book of Proverbs. That is to say, very often what are recommended in this book are things that have been proven to work; these things get good results. Or, to borrow the expression of William James, they have "cash value." Such things have been tried for generations, and only a fool would abandon them.
We should be cautious about this approach to Proverbs, however, because the pragmatic motive in this book is not identical to that of William James, Charles Sanders Peirce, John Dewey, and their kindred spirits. The pragmatism of these men rested on a fundamental agnosticism with respect to ultimacy. Persuaded that the correct answers to ultimate questions ("Does God exist?" "Is manŐs willed activity free?") must remain unknown to the human mind, these pragmatists recommended that human endeavor, including human thought, should follow only such lines of action as would prove to be useful and productive, such lines of action as would "get good results." That is to say, human beings should do and think only such things as really work. If a thing or a thought does not work Ń if experience shows a thing or a thought to be unproductive Ń prudence dictates that it should not be pursued. (Thus, for instance, William James rejected the theory atheism because it does not lead anywhere. Atheism promises nothing and delivers nothing. It is not a useful idea. The idea of GodŐs existence, on the other hand, has proved itself a very useful and productive idea.)
The problem with this brand of pragmatism is that it separates human activity from human knowledge. It is based on an agnosticism with respect to the most important philosophical questions ever posed to the human mind, and it attempts to formulate a manner of life and thought divorced from real answers to those very real questions. How, after all, can I know whether something really "works," if I have no idea what it is supposed to do? How can I know whether or not I am making "progress" (John DeweyŐs favorite word), if I do not know where I am going? How can I seek the human good, if I have no idea what "good" means or the purpose of human existence?
Quite different is the pragmatism of the Book of Proverbs. It does not rest on an agnosticism about the fundamental questions in life, but on discerned and solid answers to those questions. For Proverbs it is not the case that (to use William JamesŐs expression) "truth happens to an idea." Truth abides, rather, in the structure of reality, and a truthful idea is not the creation of the human mind at all. It is an idea created in the mind by the very truth that inheres in reality. Men are said to live wisely if their minds and activities are shaped by the truth that God placed in the structure of reality.
At the same time, this discernment of truth in the structure of reality does not come solely from theorizing about reality. Sometimes, and perhaps frequently, it comes from the godly effort to deal with the concrete exigencies of human life. For this reason, perhaps, the deepest insights into the reality of life in this world often come to very practical men as they grapple with the shape of history by making godly decisions in difficult and trying circumstances. It may be the case that sometimes a philosopher/king must first be a king in order to become a philosopher.