The five languages of wisdom (L:HtR/UtW)

Screen Shot 2020-03-18 at 10.18.53 AMWritten for lovers of literature interested in self-actualization, Literature: How to Read and Understand the World teaches readers how to derive principles of wisdom from literature and apply them to their lives. The book achieves this through a series of five essential steps, including identifying with literary characters, aggregating principles of wisdom from their experience, and applying those principles to readers’ lives. Along the way, the author reveals his own transformation through this process. Literature: How to Read and Understand the World will help you to enrich your life and world!

Over the next several months, I will be releasing excerpts from the book along with questions to keep readers thinking after reading the posts. If you are intrigued by what you read, please share with a friend!

Perhaps alert readers will wonder why I restricted our expressions of wisdom in my Affirmations to first-person, present tense writing: after all, isn’t this just one of many ways to express wisdom?

Of course, and the above is only the first of what I call the Five Languages of Wisdom: it is the Subjective Language, special because it allows us to at once claim our power while also relinquishing responsibility for those things we can’t control. In the Subjective Language of Wisdom, we focus on our immediate sphere of control in order to outline what we can and cannot do within that sphere, a process which usually enables us to make empowering transitions in our lives. The “I” voice best facilitates this restriction of focus, and as in earlier exercises, the present tense makes the experience both potent and immediate. However, there are at least four other Languages which both precede and succeed this founding, Subjective Language.

The first is Objective-Superficial Wisdom, which is any expression of wisdom we have received through books, television, or verbal tradition, expressions which usually contain no subject and do not arrive tailored to the situation of our lives. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “Know thyself” are great examples. Who is speaking these examples? Why should we believe them? Objective-Superficial Wisdom’s benefits are that it’s easy to memorize, repeat, and seemingly universally applicable, but these are also its drawbacks: it can just as easily be abused for the purpose of appearing smart as it can be actually internalized, broken apart, and put into practice. For instance, if a friend came to me  struggling with mental health and I responded that Socrates gave the injunction to “Know thyself,” I highly doubt this exchange would help my friend; however, it would make me seem intelligent by virtue of the fact that I know an increasingly obscure referent.

After a time, Objective-Superficial Wisdom fails us, and we become convinced that all wisdom is hogwash. This is an impasse of skepticism, one we usually come to after Objective-Superficial Wisdom has landed us in a tricky situation. For instance, say we have followed the above injunction to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” and we realize this guarantees nothing by way of how other people will in turn treat us. For instance, we’ve been honest to someone only to find that this person lied to us. In response, we may develop a cynicism about wisdom in general, saying that it’s impossible to know anything useful about how to live, and even if it were possible, that certainly no one has bothered to tell us.

This is the terrain of the second Language of Wisdom, Self-Denying Wisdom. At first glance Self-Denying Wisdom appears to be in league with philosophical groups like the stoics and ascetics, but in fact it has more in line with so-called deadbeats or burnouts: these are people who have given up on leading a life free of pain, and say so in a language meant to draw attention to themselves. Such expressions are, “Why try? It won’t work anyway;” “This is what always happens to me;” and “That’s what they all say.” As with Objective-Superficial Wisdom, this Language might omit a subject, but it also might have one: if so, the subject will nearly always be the person emitting the Self-Denying Wisdom, usually in a self-castigating way.

Have you experimented with different ways of expressing wisdom? Have you seen or heard others do so? If so, do you have a framework of your own for the languages of wisdom? Do you think it is helpful to categorize wisdom in this way? How do you recognize wisdom when you see or hear it? For more on these topics, please follow my blog or grab a copy of the book for yourself.

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