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Towards a New Wisdom Literature

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

Reflections on the Artful Scaling of the Religion that's Not a Religion

A lot of fruitful questions came up for me from my first discussion with John Vervaeke and Layman Pascal on the topic of “artfully scaling” the religion that is not a religion. Since then, I’ve been wrestling with a cluster of these issues, including the challenge of pedagogic pluralism (teaching wisdom will need to take different forms depending on the audience) and concerns about the con vs. conveyor belt question (if our minds can be “hacked” by others, how do we know if this is being done, shall we say, "malevolently" or "benevolently," with my own interests and growth in mind, or someone else's?).

One area where these issues come to a head is in what we might call the “narrativization problem.” Narratives are an incredibly powerful tool by which people make sense and meaning of the world—but, precisely for that reason, they can also be dangerous and misleading. Because of their efficacy, moreover, they’re a perfect instance of a psychotechnology that others can use to “hack” our minds. They are also prone to confusion and ambivalence, such that people come to confuse the narrative about reality for reality itself, leading them to reify stories as absolutely true, mistaking pedagogical tools for indispensable metaphysical Truths. As John put it, stories might be good for “training” but not “explaining.” How do we avoid these being conflated?

In continuing to ponder these issues, one solution presented itself: What if we narrativize the very dynamics of wisdom cultivation itself?

What if the training narratives we crafted were simply artful explanations of how one actually avoids bullshitting, self-deception, reciprocal narrowing, etc.? Here, the characters don’t need to be gods or mythological creatures rife for reification and confusion, but simply the classic sage and fool, the wise applier of counter-active dynamical systems and the one who falls victim to the perennial problems.

It then dawned on me that this is actually precisely what ancient “wisdom literature” did (according to understandings of wisdom at the time). Scriptural texts like Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, the Book of Wisdom, and the Wisdom of Sirach, or instance, attempted to relate wisdom practices within a loose narrative framing device of “the wise man vs. the foolish man,” where “the righteous do X, the unrighteous Y,” etc. Of course, after 2,000 years, these ancient texts have since been rendered highly problematic, incomplete, and imperfect for inculcating the sort of wisdom needed in today’s highly complex world. Indeed, it’s precisely the sort of findings from 4E cognitive science and other fields that can now offer the basis for an updated and more fully integrated understanding of wisdom today. So what if we took our narratological cue from ancient wisdom literature and presented John et al.’s ideas in this form?

I took a crack at it. Here are two examples:

The Wise Fool

(cf. the reflectiveness gap)

The mind of the wise fool is beset by confusion about what matters to him, and so confused about why he matters. He has the means of wisdom, but not the wisdom how to use it.

And so, for instance, he asks, “What am I?” stepping back from himself to consider himself . But the wise fool does not know when to stop stepping back. He keeps going. He walks clear out of his house, and down the street, and into the hills, asking all the while, “What am I? What am I?” In the mountains he asks again, but is now so far away, he cannot even see himself anymore. And so he concludes, “Ah, alas. I see the truth plainly now. I am nothing! My life is less than a dust mote, even less than a speck; it is miniscule, it is meaningless. What am I to do? How shall I proceed? Oh, how my wisdom has brought me to knowledge of my self, and made me lament it!” So is the wise fool deluded by his “wisdom,” knowing neither himself nor his worth.

But the mind of the sage is not so fooled. The sage also asks, “What am I?” and steps back. One, two, three steps. “But should I go further,” she thinks, “I would leave the house in which I live, the family who share it with me, and the world in which my being finds its home. Can a fish be known apart from the water? Can a plant be grasped out of its soil? What I am is to be found here, in the arena in which I act. Here I am a friend, a partner, a parent, a teacher, a person of significance to her world and those who share it. Amen, I see the truth plainly now. I am of great worth. My life is a mighty pillar, holding up the world.” So does the sage apply their wisdom wisely, and act accordingly.

The Foolish Wisdom

(cf. serious play and internalizing the sage)

The mind of the fooled man is set in its ways, and stuck. “I would like to be wise,” he says, “But I do not know how! I see many sages, how they live and act. I would be as they are. But I do not live and act as they do, and know not how to become better.” One day, the fooled man saw a sage, and was so taken by his grace, his goodness and his confidence, that he asked him, “Sage, how do I become wise, as you are?” And the man replied, “Here, take my tunic and sandals. Put them on, and be as a sage.” But the fooled man balked at this, saying, “One does not become wise simply by wearing a sage’s garb!” “Indeed, that is true,” answered the man, “But how will you ever become a sage if you never take up their mantle?” But still, the fooled man resisted. “Ha! One does not grow to be wise by regressing to childlike play! Wisdom is of the sure and the dignified, not to be found in the sporting and make-believe of jesters and fools!” So the fooled man parted from him, and continued to pine after wisdom. But the other man continued on his way, until he came to the house of a wise sage. There he took off his tunic and robe, and handed them to the sage, “Many thanks, sir, for letting me borrow these. I think they are beginning to have some effect. Today it even happened that I was mistaken for a sage!” And the sage answered the man, “Spend long enough in these, living convincingly in deed and true to character, and a man would not be mistaken for mistaking you so. For doing is becoming, and that which you do not attempt will never be realized.”

Could something like this be more or less effective at translating sets of practices into narrative form, thereby drawing people in through aesthetic attraction? What about a book of these? Could this work as a means to convey the material of a religion that’s not a religion, and still doing so within “the sacred style” (as Layman calls it) without falling into bad mythologization? Could texts like this help shape the mythos, lending modern wisdom a flavor of the timeless, as an instantiation of "serious play"?

What if we blended this approach with others in an effort to grapple with the issue of pedagogical pluralism? For instance, what if each of these little parables—“scriptures that aren’t scriptures”?—had a Commentary section beneath it (such as have always been appended by exegetes to scriptural texts) that offered the deeper, more rational dive into evidence, explanation, etc.? Here one could find the sort of material that John himself presents in his series, with references to the work of other cognitive scientists and researchers, etc., in the discursive style appropriate for a less poetic and more rational handling of the material. In this way, no clarity is sacrificed. The parables are like holographic representations—lower resolution versions of the whole, but (ideally) containing all the same crucial information, though doing so in ways that still sing to the symbolic heart. Readers will self-select, choosing which translation resonates best for them. But at least the artful articulation is there to “draw in” the interested. If their appreciation deepens beyond what the parable offers, they can turn to the rational commentarial text for more. In short, a true conveyor belt.

In summary, this sort of project basically entails nothing less than the generation of a new form of wisdom literature—a corpus informed by the latest advances in cognitive science, and shorn of all the undue metaphysical baggage and overly-exotic mythological material so typically rife for confusion and conflation. That is, a translation of counter-active dynamical processes for the perennial problems into a more timeless and evocative format. We have the blueprint already, but it exists in the language of science—not symbols but abstractions, not story but theory.

Isn’t it high time we translated wisdom back into its mother tongue?

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