The possibility of wisdom I
Where is the Life we have lost in living?Good questions, these desperate cries in The Rock by T.S.Eliot, and ones that we should think about not merely to create in ourselves a sense of nostalgia or loss, but to actually understand ourselves and the time we live in. Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge or, god forbid, information? Why does it sound strange to call someone a 'wise' person? Why do young people look down upon the elderly instead of going to them for advice? And why are they probably right if they believe that good advice will not be forthcoming?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
Let us, for a moment, go to an essay by Walter Benjamin, Der Erzähler. One of the themes which runs through this text is that we have lost and are losing an ability that once seemed the most unproblematic and most sure of all: the ability to share our experiences. Here, 'experience' is my translation of 'Erfahrung', and the translation is not entirely truthful; 'Erfahrung' carries connotations of wisdom and having learned something, as does 'experience' is some expressions, such as 'an experienced person'.
According to Benjamin, what one person experiences can no longer be easily formed into something that he can share with others, that everyone can learn from. He gives us an intriguing image of the soldiers that returned from the first World War, not richer, but poorer in communicable experience:
Hatte man nicht bei dem Kriegsende bemerkt, daß die Leute verstummt aus dem Felde kamen? nicht reicher - ärmer an mitteilbarer Erfahrung. ... Und das war nicht merkwürdig. Denn nie sind Erfahrungen gründlicher Lügen gestraft worden als die strategischen durch den Stellungskrieg, die wirtschaftlichen durch die Inflation, die körperlichen durch die Materialslacht, die sittlichen durch die Machthaber.According to Benjamin, then, the first World War showed that much of the experience that had been transferred from generation to generation was lies - or at least, was no longer applicable. The situation had changed so drastically that the wisdom of old was the meaningless folly of today.
Here we have, not the, not even an, but at least a partial answer to the question why wisdom has lost its elevated position in contemporary society. As the world has begun to change faster and faster, the experience of yesterday is less and less relevant for the reality of present life. How should you grow up in a world of internet and computer games, of world-wide terrorism and globalisation, of fast-food and commercials aimed at small children, and so on? Nothing our parents lived taught them anything with respect to that; let alone our grandparents.
Experience is valid only for a moment - then, when it is no longer new, it is no longer interesting. Erfahrung becomes Erlebnis. We miss the quiet, the time, the slow process of accumulation and refinement that transforms lived events into wisdom.
But fear not - we will slouch onwards.