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.