Wisdom Requires Embracing The Real

Wisdom Requires Embracing The Real June 29, 2016


People in our day assume we are different from all those who came before. We’ve been taught to believe that we’ve progressed beyond the backward ways, prejudicial outlooks and silly superstitions of our ancestors. They have, many of us are convinced, nothing to say to us. Should we somehow travel back in time and have the opportunity to meet them, we’re sure it is we, not they, who should do most of the talking.

This assumption is, like most things modern people tend to assume, rubbish. Modern people don’t see this because we’ve have been taught that while people in the past were slaves to their biases and unconscious assumptions, we have perfect sight. So, we go right on operating on our illusions about the past.


For a blogger whose tag line is “Old-Fashioned Wisdom for Modern Living,” this assumption presents something of a problem, or at least demands a bit of explanation.

You don’t need to tell me that the past was not perfect. I am aware. Human foolishness and iniquity are eternal. There was no golden age. The argument that people like me want to turn back to clock to some idyllic, now lost, period is just a strawman blowing about in the wind.

But, just as foolishness is permanent, so is wisdom. Over the centuries, our ancestors have discovered that some practices and habits work better than others. They realized that reality had a form and that conforming oneself to it insured one the best chance at security, prosperity and happiness.

It is wrong to assume that I mean people in the past were, by nature, better than they are now. It is equally wrong to assume I mean they were, by nature, worse. I don’t believe human nature changes. So, people 1000 years ago were, at their core, pretty much like us.


What then is the point of talking about “old-fashioned” wisdom?

Before I answer that, I need to talk about what wisdom is. Wisdom is the ability to perceive reality, especially moral and spiritual reality, and the habit of acting in accordance with it.

Let me unpack too what I mean when I say people weren’t “by nature” better in the past. The human being is a glorious ruin, a infinitely complex mess of the polite and the crude, the sublime and the diabolical. But, that doesn’t mean we are neutral as these opposing sides war within us. By our very nature, we tend toward the dark, toward narcissism, ease, greed and sloth.

The trouble is that these natural inclinations, when indulged, lead not to harmony with The Real, but to conflict with it. Reality outside of us demands that we not give into these more base impulses.

A couple of examples make this perfectly clear. A lazy farmer wakes up one spring morning and doesn’t feel like planting. Tilling the earth is a lot of work. Maybe he’ll do it tomorrow. He rolls over and goes back to sleep. But, The Real doesn’t sleep. Eventually, autumn rolls around and the lazy farmer has little to harvest and little to sustain him.

By contrast, the more industrious farmer gets up early. His land is tilled. He plants. When he is not in his fields, he is looking for somewhere to sell his goods. He maintains his equipment. He keeps an eye out for more valuable activities he can undertake. In the autumn, he is rewarded with bounty.

The second farmer is wiser than the first even though they share the same nature. Neither is better than the other by virtue of simply being. Getting out of bed and getting work is equally tough for both of them. The second farmer, however, flourishes because he disciplined his nature while the first indulged it.

The second farmer forced himself to act in accordance with reality. The first pretended reality was other than it is, as if we all live in the world of his dreams instead of in the actual world where we reside.


If human nature doesn’t change, why do we need to look to the past?

Two reasons. First, because reality and thus, wisdom, the habit of living in accordance with it, are timeless. Because we live within the same emotional, spiritual and, often, natural reality as our ancestors, we have them to teach us. From them, we can draw insights into how to mold ourselves to the demands of The Real and how to disabuse ourselves of the fantasies we use to justify our folly.

Second, even though people in the past weren’t “by nature” our superiors, they were more in touch with reality than we are. Since being in touch with reality is the precondition of wisdom, older societies tended to hand down and value wisdom even when individual members of those societies lived foolishly.


No age before us ever had the chance to cocoon themselves safely in digital bubbles. No previous generation could plot such foolish courses with so few consequences. No era of the past has been so free to disregard the inflexible responses of reality for so long as ours.

As a result, we live in a time a spectacular foolishness. The only cure for it is more reality. And, friends, do not be fooled, The Real is not mocked. It always comes roaring back. When it does, things won’t be pretty.

The best way to prepare is to embrace reality in your own lives as much as you can. To live according to its dictates, to cultivate wisdom. You can’t do that on your own. Fortunately there are teachers to help you. They aren’t hard to find.

All you have to do is look backward.


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  • Dave

    I had a professor in graduate school who believed that we were evolving into higher beings. He said we were becoming more intelligent, more refined (therefore not tangled up in moral issues), and more capable of doing greater and greater things. In a word, the past was a necessary part of his evolutionary belief in the magical goodness of humanity’s future! He, of course, did not subscribe to the beatific, Golden Age view of the past as a place where everyone was more intelligent, more moral, more capable of doing greater and greater things. From where I’m sitting, human nature hasn’t changed a bit. Nor will it change which is why redemption is a requirement and not an option. By all means, celebrate human achievement. We just need to it for what it is–imago dei and not Dei itself.

  • ajb

    One trick is to distinguish cases where people in the past got certain practices right, from the theories they used to justify the practices. This is the difference between ‘theory’ (why does such-and-such work?) and ‘phenomenology’ (or basic experience – what follows what in cause-and-effect?).

    The mistake (that many people make nowadays) is to believe that people in the past got the theory wrong, and *therefore* that they got the basic cause-and-effect or practices wrong.

    For example, an enlightened secularist might think there is no such thing as God, and so therefore there’s no reason to say grace (a prayer of gratitude, typically before a meal), and so removes any practice of cultivating gratitude from their life – probably a mistake.

  • Dean

    Good point.

  • Dean

    Well said.

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