Monday, July 26, 2010

Wisdom and World Governance


   An Era of Universal Wisdom

  "Hear counsel, and receive instruction, that thou mayest be wise in thy latter end." (Prov 19:20-22, KJV)
  A good leader imposes law and order in society by applying justice. But in order to do this, he or she must understand what justice is. Plato in the Republic offers several definitions of justice early in the book, such as "knowing what is yours," "might makes right," "giving people what they deserve," and "knowing one's place." Since justice is many things to many people and changes over time, we need more than justice. More than anything, we require wisdom, knowledge in its entirety.

  Why is wisdom a superior model for good governance to justice? Because it involves love and spirit as well as law and right. Wisdom is the virtue of reason, our ruling faculty. It takes everything in, including what we now call "sustainability," the stability over thousands of years that, even in Plato's era, the Egyptians exemplified.

  Wisdom sets up a harmony between the whole and its parts, and each part with its whole. In the Republic, Plato says, "Him we call wise who has in him that little part which rules, (which has) a knowledge of what is for the interest of each of the three parts and of the whole." These three parts are found in both the soul and the state, and each reflects the other. "How can there be the least shadow of wisdom where there is no harmony?" Wisdom takes us beyond questions of directives and obedience; rather than force, its watchword is love and common feeling, the conformity of a dancer to the music.

  Unfortunately, as Socrates had shown, absolute justice and the complete knowledge of total wisdom are impossible for mere mortals. We do not even know our own end, nor can we be certain whether any action, well intentioned or not, will lead to good or bad results. The best answer we can hope for, therefore, is philosophy, which is not wisdom itself but rather love of wisdom. A philosopher does not claim to be wise, only God is wise, but at least loves wisdom and strives after it. Therefore, the closest to an ideal government that we can ever hope for is one led by a philosopher king, or alternatively, a king who is a philosopher.

  The Republic compared the development of leadership material to the mining and refining of metals. Education lasts all our life. It purifies human ore by melting it and skimming off impurities until all that is left is pure metal, our true nature. And just as it is unknown whether we are wise, we cannot know for certain of what metal, gold, silver or bronze, our soul is made until life is over. Here is the original uncertainty principle, every bit as demonstrable as any equation in physics. How often do novelists write, "He himself was surprised by what he said," or of a character, "He himself could not have predicted that he would acted this way."

  In the Republic, education continues throughout middle age, the active phase of life, until age fifty when those whose actions were of purest gold become eligible to serve in government. Plato would have been pleased to observe the common practice in China of retiring at age fifty, though he would have suggested instead of retirement that the old change their career to leadership and management.

  Later, in Plato's more mature work, the Laws, he swung over to the hope that wisdom may in fact be possible. If individuals cannot be wise, then the collective body of the elderly may attain it. The sunset of life is naturally conducive to wisdom. Turbulent waves on the pond of life settle at this time into a smooth surface that reflects the whole of human experience. Plotinus wrote that,

  "Wisdom is a condition in a being that possesses repose. Think what happens when one has accomplished the reasoning process; as soon as we have discovered the right course, we cease to reason. We rest because we have come to wisdom." (Plotinus, qi Wisdom, Mortimer Adler, the Great Ideas, p. 939)

  Plato's Laws suggests that those who show leadership potential -- Shakespeare aptly called them "golden lads and golden lasses" -- establish harmonies of wisdom through special activities that are proven to melt down, as in a cauldron, individual philosophy into a common substance. Even before they graduate from schooling at age fifty, golden lads and lasses should join choirs that sing only songs carefully selected for this purpose.

  Also, they should drink wine and talk together in symposia, not for drunken pleasure but for edification. It is common to resist pain but those who can resist pleasure are much rarer. A drinking party, therefore, cannot be left to itself. It must be carefully supervised to weed out those goldens who are inclined to carouse or behave badly under the influence. Those who endure these guided symposia are a select few. Otherwise, Plato at the end of Book III of the Laws advocated almost complete prohibition, a suggestion that was not taken up on a broad scale until the law of Islam forbade alcohol.


  John Amos Comenius wrote a book called "Universal Education" which also suggested that not only the young but everybody have a guidance counsellor. We all need an array of consultants to carefully dispense good advice throughout our lives.

  "Since human nature has been blinded by its corruption, my Universal Education discussed how it should be safeguarded from downfall by wise guidance, and all its senses kept open to everything..." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 9, para 11, pp. 146-147)

  Beyond Plato's choirs and symposia, wisdom might be inculcated by the use of literature and the arts. Plato was suspicious of poets and artists. Comenius, familiar with the popular mystery plays of his time, suggested that wisdom be taught through what he called "theatres of wisdom,"

  "I mean that all men should be wisely guided from the earliest age and constantly thereafter through the theatres of wisdom, and should all have endless opportunities of exercising their senses, their reason, and their faith." (Comenius, Panorthosia II, Ch. 9, para 11, pp. 146-147)

  These theatres of wisdom seem to have been a combination of drama, similulations and games, experiments that allow each new generation to see the world with all their faculties of sense, mind and faith. These theatres of wisdom would inculcate in everybody an intimate appreciation of what he called pansophy, being universally wise.

  Since Comenius' time, Buckminster Fuller put forward the World Game, a simulation using data about global resources designed to help youth grasp the complexities of running an entire planet. More recently, Jane McGonigal, director of games research for Institute for the Future at Palo Alto, California, has suggested that we tap into the vast pool of time and talent expended by gamers -- according to her there are now half a billion gamers who average 25 hours a week solving difficult problems. (Serious Fun, by Samantha Murphy, New Scientist, 22 May, 2010, p. 37)

  McGonigal points out that we would do well to tap the resource of games and the army of gamers to solve technical challenges posed by the crisis of the present hour. Stopping climate change demands painful sacrifices now for benefits that are uncertain and all but invisible. It demands major lifestyle adjustments while offering few rewards. The authors of computer games mastered long ago this very problem. They tie long term needs with short term incentives in such a compelling way that many people find it addicting.

  Certain computer and video games have already been devised for directly solving global problems. These include "Chore Wars," an online game designed to bring the clever incentives of computer games to the domestic problem of persuading family members to help with housework. Other games in the works include World Without Oil, which helps people think how to adapt to oil shortages, Food Force, for 
disaster relief, and Fate of the World, where players steer the planet through 200 years of a warming planet.

  Undoubtedly, this is an excellent suggestion. Enlisting a vast army of clever problem solvers may well help alleviate some of the dilemmas caused by creeping climate de-stabilization. But this is a purely technical aspect of the problem. We cannot ignore Plato's crucial point that we must first concentrate upon becoming wise. Once we grasp the harmonies of wisdom, we find joy in implementing justice. Then long term thinking becomes the default. The stability of Egyptian civilization, an economy ancient even in Plato's time, will be our model.

  The next section on infrastructure imagines a global building project where wisdom is designed into the very brick and mortar of every building and physical support structure.


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