Argument Yes, But Toward Wisdom

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But there is some blundering through the failure of instructors; they teach us to argue, not to live, and some error among pupils, who bring to their instructors not the purpose of developing their soul but their intelligence. So what used to be philosophy, the love of wisdom, has become philology, the love of argument.

Seneca, Selected Letters, #108.24

Seneca lived in the first century, and in his letters addresses human concerns as old as dirt. The ancient philosophers observed, quite often, the distinction between the philosopher and the sophist. I read Plato on the subject while in graduate school at the University of Kansas, and I’ve been thinking about this problem ever since. Who is the person of true wisdom, and who is playacting? And how can you tell?

Seneca’s Letter 108 addresses these questions. He observes that some teachers and instructors who present themselves as learned memorize quotations and familiarize themselves with the great sages of the tradition not to gain mastery in the art of skillful living but instead to present themselves, in appearance, as being persons of wisdom without the substance thereof.

In the closing remarks of Letter 108, Seneca writes:

. . . I want to remind you that listening to philosophers and reading their work is for the purpose of attaining a blessed life, not so as to hunt archaic or artificial language and extravagant images and figures of speech, but to learn beneficial instructions and glorious and spirited sayings which will presently be turned into action. May we learn such things so thoroughly that what were words become deeds. For I think nobody deserved worse of all mortal men than those who learned philosophy as if it were a saleable skill, who live in a fashion different from how they declare that one should live. They are parading themselves around as examples of a useless training, open to every failing they denounce. Such a teacher cannot benefit me any more than a seasick pilot in a hurricane. One must hold on to the helm as the breakers snatch it and struggle with the seas itself, one must rescue the sails from the wind; what help can a ship’s steersman give me who is stupefied and throwing up? Yet how much worse a storm buffets life than tosses any boat? We must not talk but steer. Everything these men say, everything they throw out as the crowd listens to them, is borrowed property: Plato said that, or Zeno said it, or Chrysippus and Posidonius and an immense squadron of so many names of this kind. I will tell you how the speakers can prove that these sayings are their own: let them practice what they preached.

Letter 108.35

Sounds almost biblical.

The subject matter I teach is called “practical theology.” In my view there is no other kind, for in the end all theology, if it is sound, has direct application to reality as it is lived and experienced.

If our arguments are only quibbles about words, and are not in an effort to grasp what is true, we are only sophists and not sages.

In the Christian tradition, it is not enough to rely on “borrowed property.” God’s outside wisdom must be possessed, transforming us from within. This comes not through words, but through a Word, the Word who is Christ. God’s wisdom can be possessed by us, not through argument, but atonement. Wisdom is not arrived upon through abstraction, but by way of an encounter with a person, a living Lord who as our Teacher contours his Way to the exact, particular needs of every student who enters his school of kingdom living.

One Idea to Digest that Day

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I think it is the first proof of a stable mind to be able to pause and spend time with oneself. But now make sure that reading many authors and every kind of book-roll does not represent a kind of unsettled drifting. You should linger over and feed yourself upon a few chosen intellects if you want to take in anything that will stay faithfully in your mind. The man who is everywhere is nowhere. When men spend their life in traveling around, they have many hosts but no real friendships. The same thing must happen to those who do not devote themselves intimately to any one intellect but take in everything at speed and in haste. Food that is evacuated as soon as it is consumed gives no benefit and does not add strength to the body. Nothing delays healing as much as a constant change of remedies. A wound on which medications are tied out does not knit into a scar. A seedling that is constantly transplanted does not build up strength. Indeed, nothing is so beneficial that it can do good on the run; hence a great number of books slackens the mind. So, since you cannot read as much as you possess, it is enough to have the amount you can read. . .When you have surveyed many writing, choose one idea to digest that day.

Seneca, Letter 2 (Book I.2), in Selected Letters [affiliate link]

Seneca lived from 1 BC to 65 AD, a Stoic philosopher who lived during the Roman Imperial Period. Born in Spain and educated in Rome, this man was highly involved in politics. He served as a tutor to an adolescent Nero and later became a close advisor when Nero ascended the throne. Prior to service in Nero’s court, Seneca was exiled after being accused of adultery with the Emperor Caligula’s sister. His life ended in forced suicide, after he was found complicit in a plot to assassinate Nero.

The quote above, found in one of his philosophical letters, made me think of the oft cited self-description of John Wesley, who called himself “a man of one book.” Wesley referred to the Scriptures. He was a student of the Bible, first and foremost.

But Wesley read other books. This is evident through his sermons, journals, and other works. But Wesley read these other books through the lens of the Scriptures. He read widely, but routinely returned to Scripture. His interaction with other minds was done in consult with his familiarity with the mind of God, as it has been revealed through the canon of the Bible.

Seneca’s advice also made me think of Cal Newport, who’s commendation of the deep life and slow productivity aligns well with Seneca’s prescribed benefits of association with select intellects, key writings, and the contemplation of “one idea to digest that day.”

Make The Days Count

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When I tell my graduate students, who are mostly in their late twenties, to contemplate the fact that they have fifty or sixty Thanksgivings left, and twenty or thirty with their parents, they look pretty shocked. And it’s not just young people–remember that the average American considers the beginning of “old age” to be six years after the average person dies. We avoid thinking realistically about the length of our lives and the time left, lulling us into the false belief that we have all the time in the world.

Arthur C. Brooks, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, p. 94

Brooks says to think about the people, places, and experiences you value most, and dedicate time toward investing in the people, visiting the places, and partaking in the experiences that you designate as vital. We’re mortal. Brooks observes our lives are driven by the desire for “more, more, more,” while a life well lived accepts constraints and is spent in pursuit of fewer objectives with greater intensity. The wise “chip away” what doesn’t satisfy and focus intently on the people, places, and experiences that bring deep satisfaction.

I’ll admit that I’m trying to figure this out. I’m narrowing down my commitments and designating more time for strengthening ties with family members, building friendships, deepening my faith, and humbling myself in service to others. Life is brief. It is rich. And also a gift. I’d like to make the most of it, while it lasts.

Beware Potted Theology

Philosopher Susan Stebbing has something important to say to us about thinking clearly. Peter West, writing for Aeon, pass along this crucial insight of Stebbing:

What does thinking clearly involve? One important step, Stebbing argues, is to train ourselves out of bad habits of thinking. For example, she describes what she calls ‘potted thinking’. This is oversimplifying ideas using crude characterizations or slogans. While slogans aren’t always a bad thing, Stebbing thinks that they have a tendency to oversimplify more nuanced or sophisticated views and to hide the intricacies of an idea behind a catchy phrase. . . .

To the contemporary reader, this metaphor is perhaps a little dated, with her talk of ‘potted thinking’, because Stebbing is drawing a comparison with potted meat: a vacuum-packed product such as Spam that you might find in a wartime ration pack. She is careful to explain that we should always stop and examine the metaphors we see being used in public discourse. (As she puts it: ‘Do not accept the metaphor too hastily’!) With that in mind, she explains the metaphor:

Potted meat is sometimes a convenient form of food; it may be tasty, it contains some nourishment. But its nutritive value is not equivalent to that of the fresh meat from which it was potted. Also, it must have originally been made from fresh meat, and must not be allowed to grow stale. Similarly, a potted belief is convenient; it can be stated briefly, sometimes also in a snappy manner likely to attract attention.

Her point is that potted thinking takes something that once had high ‘nutritive value’ and packages it in a way that’s easier to sell but harder to find any genuine nourishment in. The worst type of potted thinking, according to Stebbing, is when we grow into the habit of ‘using words repeated parrot-fashion’ – put another way, when we start talking in slogans that have no thought or consideration behind them at all.

I thought of our preaching, often characterized by sound bites and sloganeering, catchy phrases and displays of cleverness, perhaps a distillation of something true, but processed nonetheless.

The New Testament speaks of the difference between solid food and milk. Hebrews 5:14 says, “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” Hebrews 5:12, in the same passage, contains this rebuke: “In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!”

1 Peter 2:2-3 says, “Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.”

In 1 Corinthians 3:1-2, Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready.”

The challenge in preaching is to offer the Word of God in a helpful way, a way that fosters maturity and invites growth, that aids each person in thinking clearly about the gospel for themselves.

We want people to receive the full nutritional value that comes via knowledge of the truth, not a potted theological substitute.