The Politics of Wisdom and Folly—Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 (Alastair Roberts)

The Politics of Scripture, Lectionary

Proverbs presents a vision of political wisdom that calls for deep moral integrity of political actors, both in their most public and in their most private behavior. It offers an alternative to the cynical demoralization of contemporary entertainment-driven politics, with its celebration of permission and transgression.

Does not wisdom call,
and does not understanding raise her voice?
2 On the heights, beside the way,
at the crossroads she takes her stand;
3 beside the gates in front of the town,
at the entrance of the portals she cries out:
4 ‘To you, O people, I call,
and my cry is to all that live.

22 The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
or the world’s first bits of soil.
27 When he established the heavens, I was there,
when he drew a circle on the face of the deep,
28 when he made firm the skies above,
when he established the fountains of the deep,
29 when he assigned to the sea its limit,
so that the waters might not transgress his command,
when he marked out the foundations of the earth,
30   then I was beside him, like a master worker;
and I was daily his delight,
rejoicing before him always,
31 rejoicing in his inhabited world
and delighting in the human race.

To many readers, the book of Proverbs may appear to be a grab bag of wise sayings, lacking coherence, unifying theme, or overarching structure. Each pithy proverb stands alone, with little more than a nodding acquaintance with those surrounding it. However, closer examination reveals the presence of an image that dominates and frames the entire book, seen in the personification of Wisdom.

Much of the book of Proverbs is presented as the teaching of Solomon, especially directed to a royal son, instructing him to cleave fast to the lessons taught to him by his mother and father. The character of the addressee of the book should alert us to the fact that the wisdom being spoken of is necessarily a political wisdom, a wisdom for rule.

Within the book of Proverbs two thematic threads are closely interwoven: the youth’s relationship with wisdom and the young man’s search for a woman. The quest of the young royal for understanding is narrated as if it were the search of the single man for love. This romantic quest is presented as a diptych, the youth caught between two prospects—Wisdom and Folly—both vying for his affections.

Wisdom calls out aloud in the bustling thoroughfares, in the thronged squares, at the gates, on the high hill, and on the elevated places (1:20-23; 8:1-11; 9:3-6). Her appeal is public and directed to all.

She is to be found in the places of commerce, social interaction, and rule, addressing herself to the civic and political life of the people. Like the king who prepared the wedding feast in Jesus’ parable, she sends out her maidens and invites people to partake of her bounty, to eat of her bread and drink of her wine (9:4-5).

Wisdom is the one by whom kings reign, rulers judge, and princes rule (8:15-16). Her words are plain and not hidden, straightforward and not perverse. The father and mother direct their son to pursue, heed, hold fast to, and love Wisdom (4:3-13): she will be his source of life and wellbeing. Those who seek Wisdom diligently will find her and receive life by her.

Alongside this figure of Wisdom stands Folly. Folly, described in chapter 9 and related to the seductress of chapters 5 and 7, bears a superficial resemblance to Wisdom. She, too, is to be found on the street and she also invites the young men to her house. However, her words are enticing and perverse, laced with flattery, and her ways treacherous.

Promising the delights of secret and forbidden pleasures, she quietly leads men astray in the dimness of the gloaming, picking them off individually and furtively, drawing them away from the openness of the public square, to the dark and uneven back alleys in the night, and finally to their doom.

The personification of Folly is clearest in chapter 9:13-18, where she mimics many of the actions of Wisdom and exactly echoes her words from earlier in that same chapter: ‘You who are simple, turn in here!’ Like Wisdom, she offers all who hear her food and drink, yet, where Wisdom gives her guests her bread and wine, Folly offers stolen water and bread ‘eaten in secret’ (v.17), the forbidden character of her meal underlying its appeal.

The way in which the seductress/Folly and Wisdom are set up side by side is deeply instructive, as it brings some key truths to light. The reader is brought to see in the seductress something more than merely an adulteress or prostitute, but an image of Folly—Wisdom’s opposite—more generally. The reader is also made to relate the quest for Wisdom with the young man’s quest for a wife in illuminating ways.

In light of this thematic interplay, it is quite fitting that the book of Proverbs should conclude in an acrostic extolling the virtuous wife—the ‘woman of valor’—in language powerfully redolent of earlier descriptions of Wisdom (31:10, cf. 3:15, 8:11; v.15, cf. 9:2, 5; v.11, cf. 3:14; v.30, cf. 1:7). From aleph to tav, the woman of Proverbs 31:10-31 is the complete woman, the resolving chord in whom the two central thematic explorations of the book most decisively combine.

The conceptual interplay between the pursuit of Wisdom and sexual faithfulness and continence is central for Proverbs. Both understanding and folly begin with the heart: folly with the love of error and hatred of reproof (empowering Folly’s weapon of flattery), but understanding with the love of wisdom (philosophia) and the pursuit of uprightness. Without a humble and faithful love for Wisdom, the greatest intelligence can be reduced to a factory of self-pleasing and self-deluding rationalizations.

A close conceptual relation between righteousness, faithfulness, and prudence in sexual relations and marital bonds and the pursuit of understanding and political wisdom is surprising and perhaps scandalous in the contemporary world, where the public realm of politics is considered hermetically sealed both from the sex lives of our leaders and of the electorate. Yet Proverbs controversially implies that these things can never be separated. Both rulers and voters who cannot faithfully direct and guard their loves and desires are compromised political actors.

The effect of royal consorts upon the hearts of kings is an ongoing theme in the Old Testament scriptures, whether for folly and evil, as in the case of Jezebel with Ahab, or for wisdom and good, as in the case of Esther with Ahasuerus. Developing the same theme from a different angle, in Wisdom of Solomon 8, Wisdom is depicted as a woman Solomon seeks from God to be his royal consort.

Here in Proverbs 8, as in Wisdom of Solomon, the female character of Wisdom is a personification (like other figures such as the Grim Reaper or Old Father Time), a noble daughter in whom God himself delights. God’s creative rule in the world was established in and with Wisdom, who is at play within it.

As Wisdom’s source is in God, she must be sought accordingly, the fear of the Lord being the necessary starting point. The consort of the righteous king, the queenly Wisdom will be known in the honorable playfulness of the faithful and loving royal union and will establish and make his house great. The king’s determination to set his heart completely upon Wisdom is the foundation upon which all rests, the inner integrity of the ruler’s faithful loving heart producing the broader integrity of the kingdom.

Proverbs’ vision of the necessity and centrality of the well-ordered heart in faithful rule and of the inextricability of political wisdom and private desires may not sit easily with certain cultural convictions concerning the sacred privacy of people’s wallets, bedrooms, and Internet histories.

However, regarding the politics of folly manifested in a figure such as Donald Trump, I am struck by the timeliness of this challenge. Donald Trump epitomizes the permissiveness of and the centrality of entertainment in a decadent society, ‘authenticity’ of personality eclipsing integrity of character. His clear lack of probity, fidelity, honesty, and humility does little damage to him when these very vices serve to render him such a compelling figure in our entertainment media.

Likewise, accusations of dishonesty and unprincipled self-advancement increasingly barely dent politicians such as Hillary Clinton, from whom electorates largely expect such things.

The politics of folly is a form of politics that flatters us in our own lack of personal integrity, requiring no humility or change of us. It celebrates and exemplifies that which is transgressive and permissive—‘stolen water’ and ‘bread eaten in secret’ (Proverbs 9:17). In figures like Trump we celebrate authenticity in vice over inconsistency in virtue. This form of politics is a farce performed before a cynical and demoralized public. It is a politics that is parasitic upon and intensifying of the moral decadence of an entertainment driven society.

Like the flatteries of the seductress, it leads down to the grave. When we no longer expect deep moral integrity of our leaders and even favor leaders who visibly lack such integrity on account of their entertaining transgressions and their exemplary permissiveness, we leave ourselves ever more exposed to the threat of politicians who cannot be held to either promise or principle.

Against such a form of politics stands the politics of Wisdom. This is a politics that begins in the loves and desires of the well-guarded heart. It is a politics that calls for personal humility, financial probity, marital fidelity, scrupulous honesty, and self-mastery of both politicians and the public. It is a politics that resists the lure of the transgressive and the permissive championed by our entertainment media.

Against the deadly apathy, cynicism, demoralization, and disillusionment encouraged by the politics of folly, the politics of Wisdom can be a politics of love and delight. The more principled and personally consistent we are in our commitment to that which is good, the more we are freed to rejoice in it.

‘And now, my children, listen to me:
happy are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
Happy is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favour from the Lord;
but those who miss me injure themselves;
all who hate me love death.’

One thought on “The Politics of Wisdom and Folly—Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 (Alastair Roberts)

  1. The Politics of Wisdom and Folly was a welcome and very informative reading to me, especially since I have been emerged in writing a personal essay-Going from “0 to 70” a life’s journey in search of Divine Wisdom and Knowledge; however, Folly hitched a ride along.

    In addition to the Politics of Wisdom and Folly, I learned from reading the perspectives from some of the top world thinkers regarding wisdom the following:
    1) It is an import virtue.
    2) Nicholas Maxwell- a contemporary philosopher- advocates that academia ought to alter its focus from the acquisition of knowledge to seeking and promoting wisdom;
    3)Erikson, Maslow, and Kohlber discussed wisdom respectively as an optimum stage of human development; related wisdom to mental health and authenticity; and presented advance stages of associated wisdom with finding a meaning in life.
    4) In Ecclesiastes Chapters 1 and 2 King Solomon laid out his case for excessiveness – the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing-that is to say he gave his heart to know wisdom, and to know madness and folly: and he perceived that this also was vexation of spirit; for in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.
    4: Solomon wrote: Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.

    5. Finally, Dr. Roger Walsh in his book-The World’s Great Wisdom: Timeless Teaching for Religious and Philosophers (2014, page 7); raised two ominous questions: both must be asked and addressed by all. “Where is wisdom, we have lost in knowledge? Where is knowledge we have lost in Information?” (T. s. Eliott91936) Dr. Walsh maintains that this is a dangerous imbalance, and the fate of our species and our planet may well depend on giving wisdom a more central place in both our persona and public lives.

    C.W. III
    2/20/2017

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