Sunday, November 15, 2009

Wisdom literature

The other day I asked a well-informed friend to say, off the cuff, what the expression “wisdom literature” suggested to him. He responded that it would include things like Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, John Milton and so forth. In other words, the great books. In an era in which the classics are struggling for survival, this seems as good a definition as any. We read these perennial works because we hope to find wisdom in them. And if one persists, one is rarely disappointed.

And yet, with all due deference to my friend, the actual nature of the genre of wisdom literature, as the term is employed by historians of literature and religion, is more modest. The works in this category tend to be relatively short and as a rule do not aspire to any great literary heights. Nor do they posit any highly developed philosophical system, though some have a distinct religious tincture. These writings are nonetheless significant as distillations of guiding principles and motifs that may be discerned in daily life. The category of wisdom literature is in fact very ancient, going back to the roots of our civilization in pharaonic Egypt and the ancient Middle East.


At all events, the genre is clearly much more broadly represented. Let us take a latter-day example, one that we owe to Benjamin Franklin. Poor Richard's Almanack was a yearly publication Franklin issued from 1732 to 1758. The pamphlets provided the calendar, weather, poems, sayings, and astronomical and astrological information that a typical almanac of the period would contain. Yet the series is chiefly remembered as a repository of Franklin's aphorisms and proverbs, many of which live on in the American vernacular. In modern editions these maxims are usually printed separately, allowing the whole to function as an example, humble though it may be, of wisdom literature.

The maxims are a blend of older, often proverbial wisdom with what appear to be original formulations by Franklin himself. Franklin’s craftsmanship is so expert that it is not easy to tell at first sight which is which. “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise,” though typically Franklinian, is in fact an English proverb attested from 1496.

Max Weber regarded the Poor Richard collection as a prime examplar of the Protestant Ethic, with its emphasis on industry, thrift, and deferred gratification. He cited such precepts as these: “Remember that time is money. He that can earn ten shillings a day by his labor, and goes abroad [outside], or sits idle, one half of that day, though he spends but sixpence during his diversion or idleness, ought not to reckon that the only expense; he has really spent, or rather thrown away, five shillings besides. ... He that kills a breeding sow, destroys all her offspring to the thousandth generation. He that murders a crown, destroys all that it might have produced, even scores of pounds.”

There is no doubt that these features are important. However, the analysis that reduces Poor Richard to a kind of scolding version of the Protestant Ethic misses the elements of wit, paradox, and even cynicism that contributed so much to the popularity of the gathering. For example, “Keep your eyes wide open before marriage, half shut afterwards” and “All would live long, but none would be old.”

Franklin began publishing Poor Richard's Almanack on December 28, 1732, and would go on to issue it for 25 years, bringing him much economic success and popularity. One precept he does not offer, though, is: publish an almanac. That is perhaps not advice of general applicability.

Franklin’s overall message would perhaps best be stated this way: success in life requires a nimble balancing of guiding principles. Only through experience can each person tell which mix is best.

The concept of wisdom literature is something of a loose, baggy monster. Still, we may hazard some general principles. Standing over against the Euclidean ideal of systematic presentation that progresses from the simple to the complex, the arrangement tends to be casual, almost random. As in life itself, contradictions may occur now and then. The individual items are generally short and pithy. Some maxims comprise a distillation of experience, while others are precepts proffering advice. The aim is to help the individual to live better (or at least more honestly), and to avoid pitfalls along the way.


By far the most important repository of ancient wisdom literature stems from Egypt of the pharaohs. These texts, which seek to inform, teach or persuade, were called sebayt or "instruction." The genre includes maxims, such as Ptahhotep’s; complaints, such as the Eloquent Peasant; laments, such as Ipuwer; prophecies, such as that of Neferti; and testaments; such as that of King Amenemhet.

Texts of wisdom literature come from all periods of ancient Egypt; in fact, more compositions of this type have been recovered than any other form of Egyptian secular writing. The crucial period, however, was the Middle Kingdom (2055-1650), when intellectuals began to reflect on the disasters that had befallen the country during the preceding First Intermediate Period.

Some texts were popular as school texts; others were copied by scribes for their own pleasure. In this way earlier texts continued to be prosper as classics down through the centuries.

A major subcategory consists of maxims and advice for living. Sometimes the author (e.g. Ptahhotep) records his counsel to his son as to how lead a proper and successful life.
The maxims proffer a range of advice, from correct behavior in social situations to proper conduct toward superior and subordinates. Their overarching purpose is the transmission of Ma’at, justice, including right and proper behavior, both for its own sake and as the key to a happy and successful life. The individual who follows this path is often described as "the still man" or "the silent man" – that is, the calm and effacing person – or the knowledgeable man, as opposed to the fool. The opposite of the "silent man" is the "heated man." The silent man is not so much taciturn as thoughtful, temperate, and judicious, one who insists upon taking a moment or more to reflect upon the situation before responding to the words and actions of the hothead who confronts him.

One of the most significant landmarks of the genre is the Instructions of Amenope, composed in the New Kingdom. The author advocates a life of devotion to moral conduct and public service, grounded in religious belief. One section admonishes, "Something else of value in the heart of god is to stop and think before speaking… The hot-headed man … may you be restrained before him. Leave him to himself, and god will know how to answer him." A key passage in the book of Proverbs (22:17- 24:22) is purloined from this Egyptian text, vividly demonstrating the general indebtedness of the Hebrew bible’s wisdom literature from this ancient Egyptian genre.

In the Hebrew Bible,several books rank, as a whole or in part, as wisdom literature: Job, Proverbs, Qohelet (Ecclesiastes), Psalms, Song of Songs, Wisdom of Solomon, and Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus). The latter two are deuterocanonical and generally omitted from Jewish and Protestant bibles.

In both tone and content, these texts are markedly different from the Yahweh-saturated portions of the Hebrew bible. Instead, they acknowledge the plethora and instability of human emotions as we experience them in daily life. Avoiding any facile discouragement of the interplay of such emotions, wisdom texts highlight these human responses to life. The task of reconciling them with divine providence is not always easy, as the book of Job famously demonstrates. While the wisdom writers treat the miracles of the ancient times as historical facts, they say nothing about a miraculous element in the lives of their own time. In fact the authors of these texts regard God as standing outside the world of physical nature and man, so that he is to a significant degree hidden and inscrutable. This sense of distance has given rise to a modern notion that these texts are religiously skeptical. They are not, but they are questioning.


For a fuller analysis, I turn now to one of the shorter books of this genre, Qohelet or Ecclesiastes. The main speaker in the book, identified by the name or title Qohelet (“the one who assembles”), introduces himself as "son of David, and king in Jerusalem." The work includes some personal or autobiographic matter, at times expressed in aphorisms and maxims set forth in terse paragraphs with reflections on the meaning of life and the best way of life. While Qohelet clearly endorses wisdom as a means for achieving a well-lived earthly life, he is unable to ascribe a transcendental significance to it. In the light of the overarching senselessness, he suggests that one should enjoy the simple pleasures of daily life, such as eating, drinking, and taking enjoyment in one's work, which are gifts from the hand of God.

Modern scholars have established that the work has no possible connection with King Solomon. Since it contains Persian loan words, it must date from after the return from the Babylonian captivity, that is after 539 BCE. The language of Qohelet is a late form of biblical Hebrew, coming close to postbiblical Mishnaic Hebrew. Accordingly, most critical scholars today assign the book’s composition to between 300 and 200 BCE--to the Hellenistic Period.

The book has always sat somewhat uneasily in the canon of the Hebrew bible, though it is generally accepted by Jews--and by Christians following them. During the first century CE its standing was challenged. Arguments against the inclusion of Qohelet were alleged opposition to statements in Psalms, internal incoherence, and heresy (supposed Epicureanism). However, those who favored its candidacy eventually prevailed.

Illustrating the commonplace that “the bible is full of quotations,” Qohelet includes a number of set pieces that have sunk deep roots in our culture. At 1:2, for example, we find: "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity" (KJV).

In accord with the general purposes of wisdom literature, Qohelet's stated goal is to find out how to ensure one's benefits in life. For Qohelet, the inevitability of death necessarily overshadows any such quest. Pessimistically, Qohelet concludes that life (and indeed everything) is senseless. But we must not despair, for Qoheleth advises his audience to make the most of life, to seize the day, for there is no reliable means of securing favorable outcomes in the future.

The word conventionally rendered as vanity may be more accurately translated as “senseless.” In the Hebrew this word is hevel, הבל, which literally means vapor or breath. Clearly, Qohelet uses the expression metaphorically, and its precise meaning has been extensively debated. As has been noted, older English translations often render it vanity. Because in modern usage this word has often come to mean "self-pride," losing its Latinate connotation of emptiness, some translators have abandoned the word. Other translations include empty, futile, meaningless, absurd, fleeting, evanescent, or senseless. Some versions prefer the literal rendering vapor of vapors, leaving further interpretation to the reader.

Another famous set piece is the passage that “everything has its time (ch. 3): “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die,” and so forth (NRSV).

Verse five contains the earliest known metaphor for sexual release that is characterized as “getting one’s rocks off.” There is, the texts informs us, “a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together.” The sexual interpretation of this verse has been denied, but in my view it is clearly present.

Reading the bible offers all sorts of unexpected satisfactions.



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