Wisdom in an Age of Demagoguery

January 2, 2011

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Not long ago at a gathering of friends below the cream colored cliffs at the hot springs at Ojo Caliente, someone leaned across the dinner table and asked the question: “What is wisdom?” 

Eight life-tested veterans of courts and cabals, bent forward over coffee, chilies, and chocolates to try to put a label on a quality that they all admired.  

One said: wisdom is a quality of old age and experience. This might have been a bit self-serving since everyone at the table was both old and experienced. Another said wisdom is a quality of distance, that only those removed from conflict can be objective and fair.  All of those at the table were, however, themselves attempting to improve the world, building schools in Mississippi, or raising the standard for strong women, or administering philanthropic foundations and were by this definition not objective, were totally engaged, and therefore could not be wise. So wisdom could not be just distance and objectivity, they all agreed.   

By one definition everyone at the table was surely most wise; by the other definition no one could be wise at all.  With this conundrum—that there was not a wise head among the group—or on the other hand that everyone was equally wise, rendering the definition meaningless, they all strode out into the cold November night and went to bed.  

The underlying question, of course, was whether in times like these of chaos and confusion, would even wise people know what bedrock to stand upon? Who amongst us can read the entrails of our culture in an age of demagoguery and mistrust, fury and fulmination?  The hopes of progressives have been battered by elections dominated by exaggeration, contrived claims upon the Constitution wrapped up in dreams of life without government, surely not wise, and lower taxes for the rich who already pay less than half what they did under Eisenhower, surely also unwise.   

There is such a thing as wisdom, no doubt. And perhaps people all across America would be drawn to seek the comfort of wisdom if only they could find it. But here we are faced with a paradox: When, or if, someone tries to claim wisdom for himself or herself, the very claiming chases the quality away. Wisdom is a quality we see in others but were one of us to say of himself or herself, “I am wise,” the rest of us would say: “Oh, my, I thought so until now, but any person who is so bold is surely not so wise.”  

Wisdom is not, it seems, a quality that can be captured and self-bestowed. 

No quality would be more helpful in these times of self-indulgence and material greed than wisdom. No quality might lead us outside ourselves and to the greater picture of our future than wisdom. We are not talking pabulum here. If we know that the waters are drying up in the deserts of the Southwest, we also notice that wisdom is even scarcer than water, and without wisdom fear comes to dominate our politics and our culture.  So the search for wisdom is not an idle exercise.  Wisdom in these times may be more important even than rains or the rise of plutocracy. 

The Greeks told the story of Semele the earth queen who tried to see her lover the sky god Zeus, or that is, to see the is of what is of ultimate power. Zeus loved Semele quite a lot but when she looked him in the eye he incinerated her, boom! She went up in smoke. The mythological instruction—and this instruction was at the foundation of Western civilization—seemed to be: Look Reality straight in the eye and you will burn up in fire. Reality is beyond seeing directly or naming.  So the wise thing to do is not to look. Or, in another sense, and this may be most important for our purposes, to put a word on reality is to try to contain it, and some things cannot be contained.  

Wisdom may be akin to reality. Maybe we know it when we see it but don’t ever try to wrap it in a package.  

There are qualities of mind, or states of being, that we cannot name, or that make the difference between light or dark in a person, that illuminate a person, but that cannot be contained in words.  Buddhists may be pointing at this when they speak of enlightenment. The quality may exist, but any one who claims enlightenment for himself or herself runs the risk of quickly losing it.  Enlightenment is like wisdom or reality.  Look it in the eye and it evaporates.  

The paradox is that the madness and deceit in our world cry out for a response and it cannot be wise to simply turn our heads and pretend that we just don’t see.  “How many times,” cried out Bob Dylan in the 1960s, “can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?” That was the question for us all then and we said, “We will not; we won’t turn away from Vietnam, or lunch counters in Selma, or the glass ceiling for women and we will see.”  

So forty years ago we chose to trace back the smoke to find the fires of evil that caused our suffering.  Then we chose action against evil. But today there is something new that has deadened the spirit of our nation. Demagoguery hovers over the land, poisons reason, destroys generosity and inflames a kind of passionate intensity concerning matters most miniscule while turning a blind eye toward issues of most grave import.  

This then is the question for the new year and perhaps for the new decade.  How do the decent and the compassionate, the civil and the generous, respond to demagoguery? What would be the outcome of our expression of facts and fury? Would that also be the course of wisdom? 

If we go after Glen Beck and Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, or Karl Rove or Sarah Palin, and urge that what we know is wisdom, and we say that what demagogues claim to be wisdom is not wisdom, will that head-on assertion, the attack, the battle about what is truly wise, persuade the demagogues to stop being demagogues and start telling truth as we see the truth?   

Can we choose direct action against demagoguery like the action we chose in the 1960s?   

How do we oppose the Koch Brothers who helped finance the election of Susana Martinez in order, they hoped, to dismantle government, or Karl Rove or Rupert Murdoch whose goal has been to insure the emergence of a permanent plutocracy?  The demagoguery that they have financed, or organized, or broadcast, floods the stage with furious speech.  We might choose to respond in kind, urging an all out class war, and I admit the choice is tempting. But what if we were to respond with the soft power of wisdom?  

The 19th Century poet Goethe in his poem Faust, describes a path that belies science and leads toward a word that does not often occur in our modern parlance. It is not quite wisdom; the word describes more about what to do when wisdom is uncertain, or a course that might be wise when results are for a large part unknown.  If science is the pursuit of knowledge and truth, Goethe describes a path that is not that path, and, while he does not use the word wisdom, perhaps that is because we have already seen that wisdom is a quality that cannot be described directly. Goethe gets to wisdom through the back door of faith. 

Goethe’s Faust was a doctor, an advocate of reason and the new science who sought some relief from the existential meaningless of his being, and was drawn in his search to seek solace in the comfort of women. He famously and cavalierly used the innocent girl Margarete for his comfort and she, becoming pregnant and he being unwilling to marry, she goes through enormous suffering and then she dies.  Faust is evilly indifferent! 

Mephistopheles, the devil, now appears.  He tells Faust that he can have anything in the world if he will simply give to the devil his eternal soul. “It’s a deal,” agrees Faust; “I do not have much faith in the eternal soul and have more need to know the truth of what is, now.” The doctor signs the contract. “O.K. What do you want from me in return?” asks the Devil.   

“I want to hold the most beautiful woman in all of history in my arms,” replies Faust. “I want to love Helen.” He must have meant Helen of Troy whose face launched a thousand ships and changed western history.  

Now the devil agrees. He probably represents the opposite of wisdom. He—un-wisdom incarnate—forthwith leads Dr. Faust to the underworld where the doctor seeks the fulfillment that he has sought all his life, through science, through discovery, through reason and finally now, through experience. Helen waits for him. She is lovely beyond compare. He approaches, seeking the supreme experience that will replace knowledge and perhaps even lead to ultimate transcendence. Surely this will equate to enlightenment or wisdom. Helen appears to be as receptive and open to the experience as is he. Faust takes her, the wondrous goddess incarnate, in his arms and she explodes into a million pieces! 

Faust is very nearly mortally wounded, and awakes from this adventure a lost and desolate creature, having bargained away his immortal soul, having attempted to possess the one quality he wished for most in the world and it having exploded in his grasp.  The old man lies at last on his deathbed and is faced with the probability of a life in Mephistopheles’ fiery hell. The devil stands by rubbing his hands.  

In these last moments, however, Faust is visited by the ghostly spirit of Margarete, the sweet and innocent girl whom he has abused.  Margarete offers the old man forgiveness. The doctor has no cards left to play; he has no recourse to reason or further experience. Yet here is this offer that comes to him without earning. In that moment, when the search for truth, beauty and goodness is over, in that surrender, lies salvation.  

“Das ewig Weibliche zieht uns hinan.” writes the poet.  “The eternal feminine leads us on,” or “the eternal feminine draws us on, or pulls us on.” Importantly, the spirit leads us; we don’t command it.  

Goethe’s message was to avoid the clutches of evil by following an invitation, as if the right conduct in the face of evil is in the receiving of forgiveness for our own part rather than commanding or controlling or even attacking what is other, or different, or bad.  

In the same vein, the Buddha suggested detachment from the goal, however righteous, combined with constant attention to right speech and right action. Detachment rather than attack, and that is not the same as inaction.   

In this vein, too, Jesus counsels against resistance. “Resist not evil,” is the Biblical phrase, or “resist not the evil one.”  

We are beginning to get an accumulation of teachers from Goethe and going back to Buddha and Jesus, counseling a response to evil, or, if you will, to demagoguery, that is not direct action but is not inaction, either.  And all of these might be included under the heading of wisdom teachings.  In modern times we could add the counsel of Karl Jung who suggests that the supreme experience of wholeness comes through the reconciliation of opposites. That would not be the same, as the elimination of the other; or not the same as the attack on demagoguery outright. 

You who are here today have spent all your lives in fighting the good fight.  You have volunteered, donated, counseled, walked precincts, marched and written to everybody you can think of to write to. You have taken counsel of reason, gathered materials filled with hard facts, and sometimes hung your heads in dark despair.  There are times when it appears that nothing has been working. And it is at such times, when all else fails, that, as a last resort, we search ought to search back to these wisdom sources. Let us speak of one more. 

A thousand years ago, in an age when the heel of oppression was heavier and more brutal than it is today, when women were traded as chattel and peasants were hounded and indentured to the lords of the land, when the only pacifist the Western world had ever heard of was Jesus, and the prominent saints were monks and nuns, many of those oppressed sought solace in the tale of the Holy Grail.  Like Faust’s eternal feminine, the Grail, also, could not be possessed, but like the eternal feminine it could nevertheless lead a seeker on a journey of self-discovery and regeneration. The Grail, too, was ineffable and indescribable to such a degree that the tale never quite revealed where the Grail was to be found, or what it looked like, or even what it meant for a seeker who found it. 

That tale nevertheless swept the 11th Century European continent and caught the public imagination. The story offered a path, or a way, toward transformation. Those times were not better than these. Knights and kings pillaged and raped their way back and forth across France and down into Italy; Frenchmen plundered England; the English plundered the Irish; Italian Popes plundered the treasuries of the French, English, Irish and Spanish all together and sought to suppress any authority but that of God and, by the way, they would reserve to themselves the right to tell you what God wanted you to do. Kings traded daughters as physical reward for temporary alliance and lower class daughters who were barren were apt to be accused of witchcraft and burned. Maybe the cause of our chaos, argued the priests, was apostasy and heresy among the Moslems who occupied so much of Spain. Maybe the problem was Jews who had crucified Jesus. The solution must be to strike at the heart of Islam and retake the Holy Land, and drive out the Jews expunging all evil. The Crusades were launched, not only, of course, to drive away apostasy but, usefully to round up the unemployed poor and sweep them off to die among the barbarians.  

During these times the tale was passed along from mouth to mouth that the Holy Grail was a cup with powers of renewal for anyone who might drink from it, or perhaps it was a quality within a cup, a quality of regeneration for anyone who could see what life and death really were.  Perhaps some truth lay within the cup that was beyond the material. Some said it held the promise of eternal life in a place more decent and kind than this world. Times were harsh and everybody wanted a future and better life. So King Arthur’s knights, so the tale went, left the king and the Round Table to go out to find the Holy Grail.  

A dozen of the boldest, most daring and most handsome, saddled up. Lancelot and Gawain and all the rest armored up, mounted their strongest steeds, and set out to overcome evil. They were a bit like progressives getting ready to take on John Boehner and Mitch McConnell. One by one, each of them engaged demons of the forest and dangers of the darkness, battles of the sword, and riddles for the mind. One by one, unfortunately, the best and brightest, most courageous and strongest, all failed.  They were unsaddled and un-horsed, defeated and disappointed. 

The aggressive mind of these stalwarts would have been similar to a certain brand of progressives today, maybe like Chris Hedges the unforgiving critic of Obama, or Keith Olberman who remorselessly mocks Fox News, or Mike Malloy the obscene-talking radio host. These heroes of the left today are, with justification, searching for the right man or woman to be president or the right law code to control global corporations, or the right solution to all aspects of global warming.   

But in the end, in the Eleventh Century version, the way through to the Grail, to wisdom, or enlightenment, was discovered by no such warriors. The only ones to get all the way to the Grail Castle were, quite improbably, a simpleton (Parsifal), a good man, (Bors), and a pure man, (Galahad).  These three alone made it past evils and demons, dangers and despair all the way to the Grail Castle to see the Grail itself.  The storytellers never describe to us exactly what they saw.  Their experience, as it turns out, in the last analysis, is in them, not out in front of them or for us to see.  It is no object. It is an internal awareness after all, not a thing, not even a cup, rather more a quality of being which somehow promises regeneration.   

The storytellers concluded that the quality that leads through the dark forest of brutality and deceit towards regeneration is not of strength, or knowing, or cleverness, or even love for the feminine.  In a time of horror and drought, rape and hierarchy, plutocracy and landed oppressors, the power of regeneration—and what could be more valuable today than this— arises from a quality that can in no way be named.  

This was troubling news for the dynasties and the Catholic Church, the plutocrats of their day. For the rich and the fortunate, then as today, success should only come from action, or conviction, or raw courage, or persistence in battle, strength in arms, or, put bluntly, the conquest of evil. Which, today, in the mind of the plutocracy advocates like Boehner and McConnell, means control of people like those of you who are here today. And for most of us, on the other hand, success means control of plutocrats like them. 

But the Grail story says that success comes from a quality of being, not control of anything. This appears to be a quality that allows one to go a few steps forward into the dark forest of unknowing, without any certainty at all about what outcomes lie ahead.  Naming evil would mean naming Boehner and McConnell, yes, but the naming act is itself an effort to control them.  The quality approved by the wisdom teachers is rather different.  The three successful knights controlled nothing, not even the power to name evil.  They embodied, rather, a state of being, a faith, that allowed them to take steps into the darkest world without the certainty of knowing at all whether they would succeed, or be victorious, or even live.  

As applied by the wisdom stories, faith implies a state of mind that, like wisdom, disappears with the looking at it, and that, like beauty, cannot be grasped as the glorious Helen could not be grasped, and that is nevertheless a quality that makes a man or woman to shine out in the darkness.  It is a quality at once attractive and illusive, tangible and intangible, inspirational and, withal, contradicted by reason.  

No one of us knows what any day will bring. But we get up and move into the unknown every morning.  In history, some such willingness was present when Spanish conquistadores spread out to find the seven golden cities.  When Galileo focused his telescope on the skies he pressed willingly into the unknown, and when Darwin published his Origin of Species he waded into a war with theology and hierarchy and power and he waded in nonetheless. Such confidence to move into the dark is sometimes delusional, of course. Not every thing that we think will be found, is found. But all of us, not just the Conquistadores or Galileo or Darwin, keep getting up in the morning, each of us looking for our own equivalent of the seven cities of gold, our own jig saw puzzle of identity, and our own Grail.  

It was this confidence in the search that drew northern Europeans across the wide Missouri toward the prairie lands and river canyons of the West. They spread out in spite of almost complete ignorance of what they would face from hostile Indians, dust storms, drought and disease. In 1848 and again in the 1870s, they, too, like the Spaniards before them, went for gold and they too were substantially disappointed. But when those gold seekers climbed out of their ferryboats and headed out west from St. Louis to make new lives and build new dreams they followed more than information. They followed a genetically implanted impulse to make the try, to go for it. 

It wasn’t just the saints.  In Detroit, Michigan, Henry Ford was drawn to experiment into the unknown of economics, to pay a $5/hour wage to assembly line workers because he believed (without certainly knowing) that he would have to pay more than was the usual wage if any of his workers were to be able to afford to buy one of his automobiles. Those $5/hour wages were far above the normal worker’s wage at the time and earned Ford the opprobrium of his wealthy associates and even resulted in his being expelled from the country club. Ford went forward anyway, acting with faith but without any certain information. Likewise, in Silicon Valley, Hewlett and Packard started out with faith in their garage, and Steve Jobs, in faith, designed a computer that was user friendly and then revolutionized the music world with the Ipod.  

Whether it is simply getting up into the morning to go to work, or whether it is risking all on the success of the Ipod, something about moving forward into the forest of unknowing is in the very nature of being human.   

This instinct may be suppressed by ideology or doctrine, and may for a whole culture lie quiet beneath the surface, unstirred or un-awakened, because of religious or political doctrine or stories generated by the powerful that tend to romanticize suffering and pain of the powerless.  Many would even say that, as 2011 opens, this quality of faith or our own self-confidence as a people, lies silent in America buried under the propagandized story of the free market and the grandeur of individualism and self interest. 

The dark forest into which progressives venture today is a thicket of hatred and fear, greed, materialism, and militarism. It is a thicket of profligate disregard for the web of nature, or child hunger, or abuse of the less advantaged.  Those who are most capable of moving into this darkness may well be those who seem least threatening, like the Dalai Lama, or Vaclav Havel, or even Barack Obama. This breed of leaders with a simple faith in their ability to move through the forest may be of more use now, and more encouragement, than those who are the most aggressive and most hurtful, or even most self-assured. “Yes, we can!” is after all a statement of faith and it doesn’t come just from Obama; before him it came out of the faith of the migrant workers who were up against insurmountable odds. That faith rang a chord, however, throughout the land from coast to coast in 2008 because it spoke to a deeply embedded fabric of American culture. 

In 2011, we in this country are faced with demagoguery and exaggeration, with propaganda for freedom and the free market vilifying the evils of socialism and big government. The fury spills over and sweeps over Islam, and same sex unions, and labor and liberals.  But the fury is not all on one side. Progressives have generated their own intolerance of corporations and banks the rich as a class. Responding to the temptation to stamp out evil wherever it may be found, ultimately we are all tempted to stamp out each other.   

We progressives might be like Lancelot and the Knights of the Round Table setting out to do battle with demons and dragons and to joust and to pillage on the way to the Holy Grail, which they did not reach because the means they had chosen were not the right means. And that would be to ignore the medieval messengers that the way to the Grail is through simplicity and a quality of faith, and not aggression, and not through capture or control.  

And so here we are in 2011, at the start of a new year, seeking to find our way in a troubled world, thrown back on a Sunday morning into contemplation of our story and our direction, wondering where to fight, or at last, whether it is the fight that makes us human, or the capture of knowledge that makes us human. Or perhaps it is the willingness to move forward in a good spirit, uncertain and at the same time unafraid that willingness is the singular characteristic that we as humans have had all along.  

In the end, that sublime human characteristic, something the sages call faith, leads us toward another quality that can be known but cannot be claimed, can be seen but cannot be commanded, can inflame the spirit but never incinerate the enemy, and that quality may be wisdom, after all. 

Thank you.