This summary review of the wisdom tradition and literature of the old-world Middle East provides a fresh look at a way of reasoning about life and decision-making that has largely been lost to us today. It needs to be recovered and practiced, particularly in a world like ours, in which people of different races, cultures, faiths, and political persuasions, as well as those claiming no faith (the so-called “nones”), try to figure out how to live cooperatively and peaceable together.
Mutual cooperation in pluralist domestic and international life has never been more urgent than it is in our time, and the agency of wisdom can help us to find reasonable and responsible outcomes, if not human flourishing. But, mind you, we may find ourselves being challenged to lose some dearly-held assumptions and cookie-cutter solutions to make this possible.
Because this summary review looks with fresh eyes at the wisdom tradition, the ground it explores may surprise you, so I would love to hear from you (just use the “Comment” link). This article is meant to be used with two others, Wisdom Actors Part 1 and Wisdom Actors Part 2, both of which look deeply into the narratives of several prominent wisdom actors in the Old Testament. This article also pulls duty as background for Seeing International Relations and Foreign Policy through Different Eyes, which mulls over some ideas about wisdom-based decision making in the context of U.S. – Muslim Middle East relations. (Complete information for sources quoted below can be found in the bibliography.)
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An Alternative Way of Reasoning
The Historic Wisdom Tradition and Its Literature
A Summary Review in Two Parts
by Charles Strohmer
When our thoughts turn to wisdom, many of us have been taught to think: proverbs. As important as proverbs are to the wisdom literature, this summary review delves into much more than that. It gets under the skin, so to speak, of the tradition, so that we may be able to see and then participate in a wisdom-based way of reasoning about life and decision-making. Even after decades of work in this field, what never ceases to inspire me is wisdom’s deep commitment to human mutuality, to the basic and shared interests and concerns of all peoples everywhere. What never ceases to challenge me are the ways in which wisdom provides peoples from different backgrounds with an agency for cooperation, peace, and even flourishing in their domestic and international relations with one another. What never ceases to fascinate me is that, while inviting us in to this project, wisdom is not naive about ultimate religious differences or about the rough secular/religious intersection that so deeply troubles our world today. What never ceases to irk me is my lack of wisdom and the struggle to embody wisdom’s way of reasoning, for it often entails abandoning as unpromising an ideological or theological way of thinking about life, relations, and decision-making that has been second nature to me for a long time. One that I thought was wise. What never ceases to motivate me is that wisdom is a reasonable and responsible agency for handling all this.
the agency of wisdom is deeply committed to and specially suited for human mutuality Wisdom has a vital interest in all peoples everywhere working together for more cooperatively peaceable arrangements. Understanding the agency of wisdom in the old-world Middle East (Ancient Near East) provides clues for this, even for today’s cosmopolitan situations. Although this has become a lost way of engagement today, the sages lived, breathed, and taught it, and its recovery may be prophetic for a time such as ours – as a much needed alternative to sectarian political, social, and religious programs and the vested interests behind the shrill rants of the blogosphere and talk radio. Learning wisdom together (with others) is essential for advancing cooperative and peaceable approaches to issues and initiatives where human diversity is normative, cooperation essential, and human flourishing desired.
I want to dedicate this summary review to several groups of people. One includes the many diverse activists, academics, and other specialists who have carved out of their busy schedules time to offer valuable insights about various aspects of my work on wisdom-based domestic and international relations. Another group includes those who have asked for some discussion about the basic thinking behind this alternative approach. Another includes the generous people whose gifts support The Wisdom Project. And the last were first: those brave souls who brought me to their neck of the woods, often in the UK, to experiment with them to develop wisdom-based approaches in their fields. You know who you are. Some of you have run with this, tweaked it, and are still bearing some not inconsequential fruit today. Well done. And to all other readers, I hope this article inspires you. If it leaves you with more questions than answers, that may be a good thing. As Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “An answer without a question is devoid of life.”
(As supplements, interested readers will find an extensive bibliography, covering, in part, a variety of scholarship about the wisdom tradition, a crib sheet of wisdom words in their original languages, and two articles that explore narratives of prominent wisdom actors of the historic tradition.)