The Wise Aren’t Prudes

Enlightenment is a false idol.

Posted May 14, 2019

We’ve been taught to think of wise people as reverent, sober, high minded, even humorless. I think that’s a mistake. Wisdom doesn’t make people prudish. The wise pursue the cardinal virtuesvirtue meaning efficient, cardinal originally meaning a door hinge but evolving to mean pivotal.

Pivotal can mean supreme – that upon which everything depends, but I think of the ability to pivot as what efficiency depends upon, a fundamental ability, while load-bearing to swing and swivel across the widest possible repertoire of human behaviors, depending upon what being efficient demands in any given situation.  

The wise can be vulgar, snarky, hypocritical, or deceptive if a situation calls for it. They are, in that respect the opposite of prudes. Prudes are superstitious and simplistic. They limit their repertoires based on half-witted notions of good and bad: Since this behavior sometimes proves efficient, you should engage in it always. Since that behavior sometimes proves inefficient you should never engage in it. Prudes are half-witted in that they’re terrible at noticing the other half – that behaviors that sometimes prove inefficient sometimes prove efficient and vice versa.

Prudes don’t walk the straight and narrow they claim to walk. They walk like the rest of us, though blinded to their wandering through their natural, inevitable human repertoire. Prudes are the kind of half-wits who say that since snarkiness is sometimes inefficient, one should never be snarky. They then continue to be snarky but deny it.

They’re superstitious like someone who heard that a guy once stepped on a crack and shortly thereafter, his mother broke her back. They come up with a half-witted rule, “step on a crack, break your mother’s back” and vow, therefore, to never step on cracks, which is impossible, so when they’re caught stepping on one, they simply deny that they did.

Being a prude is a recipe for hypocrisy. You limit the human repertoire in principle while in practice continuing to use the repertoire impulsively, haphazardly, and self-servingly never learning from your errors because you pledged your commitment to the straight and narrow you can’t, don’t and shouldn’t walk. That’s the opposite of wisdom.

A virtuoso at anything as has hinge-like, pivotal flexibility, a wide repertoire, and the agility to find what’s efficient across that repertoire. That’s the opposite of what we imagine when we think of wisdom as becoming “enlightened,” having found the One True Way. Rather, wisdom is the product of seeking the right way in every context, striving to discover and learn, by trial and error the positions that are most likely to be efficient depending on the situation.

One of the most popular definitions of wisdom almost identifies the source of wisdom but it stops just short for the sake of brevity. The serenity prayer identifies wisdom as knowing the difference between situations that call for one behavior or its opposite, the serenity to accept things and the courage to change things, in other words, wisdom to know the differences that make a difference.

But “wisdom to know” conflates wisdom with knowledge. If they’re the same thing why would they have such distinct names?

I think the wisdom is the prayer, or for a secularist like me, the quest to know, not the knowledge itself. Lifelong, the wise accumulate and refine knowledge of the differences that make a difference. They selectively pivot across the range in their human repertoire for maximum efficiency. They aren’t always kind, loving, tactful. Nor are they always aggressive, angry or tactless. Whatever’s clever, whatever the situation demands. Above all, they never stop learning, refining, questing for greater knowledge of the differences that make a difference. The wise are never finally and completely wise. They are lifelong learners.

Prudes, know-it-alls, absolutists, and fundamentalists are the opposite. They’re done learning. They claim their superstition-based One True Way is the pinnacle of wisdom, no need to ever hinge again, let alone learn how to hinge better.

Still, I am a fundamentalist. I’m a Questing Question Fundamentalist. I am most confident in the questions and tensions that bedevil us all lifelong all of which can be framed as variations on the serenity prayer.

My runner-up confidence is in what I consider better methods for shopping among interpretations for greater efficiency, the care one can take in one’s trial-and-error learning. I’m least confident in my answers, recipes, formulas, and solutions. In contrast, prudes and know-it-alls are Answer Fundamentalists. They think they’ve had their last revelation, their last epiphany – nothing left to learn.

I take my cue from evolutionary history. Surviving organisms accumulate adaptations, guesses at efficient responses to differences that make a difference.

Living is guesswork that gets refined and corrected across evolutionary history. If that’s my ancestry, nothing but hubris would make me think my life isn’t guesswork too. I pursue wisdom by questing for greater knowledge of the differences that make a difference.

Am I claiming to be wise? I’d be the last to know if I were and anyway the wise would never claim to be. They’re not interested in arriving at that static status. They’re too busy questing for greater knowledge, better bets, more experience-educated guesswork. Prudes are much more likely to pronounce themselves wise.