Sapere Aude

Dare to be wise, or Sapere Aude in Latin, is a favorite motto among philosophers and educational institutions.  It is easy to understand why this is the case.  Philosophers imagine themselves to be wise and so of course they are interested in promoting a view by which others might dare to be as wise as they themselves are.  Likewise, educational institutions, colleges and universities, generally view themselves as being in the business of passing along wisdom to new generations of learners, and so for them urging others to dare to be wise is urging others to become customers for their own particular business.  It is flattering to consider that wisdom requires daring, and also all too easy to conflate wisdom with the acquisition of book knowledge and head smarts.  Some of us acquire head smarts relatively easily and are an easy sell for authors and educators.  Others find there to be an unfortunate gap between wisdom and the sort of intellectual prowess that is taught at a university, especially when what is most useful at universities has long been the social connections that one makes at a university with professors, people in industry, and one’s fellow students.  To be wise can be being brainy in the eyes of some, while it can be being shrewd and well-connected in the eyes of others.  Yet in neither such case would we consider someone who was simply very learned and scholarly to necessarily be wise, nor do we consider those who are well-connected socially to be necessarily wise in the most praiseworthy aspect of that expression.

A somewhat opposite tendency was celebrated in the “Weird Al” Yankovic single “Dare To Be Stupid,” which somehow managed to be part of the 1980’s Transformer movie soundtrack (and an underrated gem in the soundtrack pop of Yankovoc), and serves as a style parody of the works of Devo.  The song, with its nonsense advice and general silliness is an effective portrayal of the rather dogmatic thoughts of Devo concerning de-evolution and the wellspring of stupidity that can be found in the contemporary world.  To be sure, daring to be stupid is certainly a tendency that we have seen often in our contemporary world.  To feign stupidity in order to be laughed at by others for profit is one of the driving aspects of reality television culture, by which people act in such a way that others think them so stupid as to be unworthy of surviving, while being clever enough to profit from the general contempt that they receive from others.  It is remarkable that daring to be wise and daring to be stupid both involve a fair amount of deception.  Daring to be stupid means pretending to be dumb in order to make others underestimate us, allowing us the advantage in our dealings with them at some cost to our pride and ego.  Daring to be wise by the world’s standards usually means conforming to the dictates of worldly wisdom, often at the price of considerable folly and treasure.

Why do we need to dare to be wise in the first place?  Wisdom is the skillful arrangement of words and behaviors to the best effect, knowing what is fit and proper to say and do to achieve the best purposes.  It is acting in the precise opposite way of entropy, increasing the information value within a given institution or being rather than suffering it to decline and decay as is the default option.  To act or speak wisely requires us to distinguish between options and to choose from among them that which is the best suited to the goals and ends we have in mind, and it of course requires us to have something in mind, some sort of plan that we are seeking to follow.  It requires audacity to act in hope contrary to the usual way of this world of decay and loss and incomprehension and fiction that we may do something more skilfully than is being done at present.  This daring is not always rewarded.  For the first year or so after having taken control of the Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee was able to skillfully interpose his army, at heavy cost, to prevent the advance of Union troops in Virginia.  Yet was it a wise thing to have staked a civil war in the defense of viewing other people as property that one could do anything with that one wished–similar to the way many contemporary women view their unborn children?  I would argue the opposite, with some vehemence.  It is all too easy to be daring and audacious, but to do so in seeking objects that are not proper or godly, making one’s behavior unwise, regardless of how daring it may be.

Yet even in, especially in, defense of godly goals, audacity is required.  It requires moral courage to stand up for what is right in a world that is fallen and evil.  And the world has always been fallen and evil so long as rebellious and corrupt human beings (and other fallen creatures) have lived on it.  It requires daring to speak out against popular evils–and there are always evils that have been popular–while remaining gracious in one’s own discourse and behavior.  It requires considerable skill to disagree without being disagreeable, to retain the moral high ground as well as the intellectual high ground in one’s dealings with others, and to refute others while not leading them to want to put you to death and make a martyr of you.  To be sure, even those who seek to avoid martyrdom in such circumstances are not always able to avoid it.  Sometimes simply being a godly example in a sufficiently evil age is enough to bring about one’s own death and the blowing out of one’s candle.  We may hope that it is not so for us, but it is impossible to be sure ahead of time, for God is sovereign and we do not know the times we are placed in or the purposes our lives and deaths will work out.  And we must have moral courage to act for what is right and what is good even when, especially when, it appears wrong and foolish to those around us, for wisdom is not something we always see clearly at the time but something which often requires a look with hindsight.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Sapere Aude

  1. Catharine E. Martin says:

    I found your insights on higher education and its view of challenging students to be wise to be spot on. My own experience, especially in the courses on religion and philosophy, depended on whether the student was a willing subject to the instructor’s own views or dared to question them. This type of daring to become wise was rejected and ridiculed if the latter saw himself as the purveyor of said wisdom. This class was a waste of time and, fortunately, an elective which I was able to drop at a 100% tuition refund. The philosophy instructor put his own feelings aside with regard to Plato (he thought that I was too harsh on the guy) because I was able to support my opinion. The same with the nun who taught our Catholic Tradition class. She enjoyed our lively discussions and my refutations of its religious beliefs and tenets. Because she, too, encouraged true daring to be wise through thinking for ourselves and supporting our stand on these subjects, she valued my contribution and graded me accordingly. I learned that such experiences are rare in the interactive environment. Great peer pressure is placed on going with the flow, even when the motto is “dare to be different.” Wisdom demands that one often must swim upstream. But it also means doing so in a harmless, nonconfrontational, inoffensive, peaceable way. A wise person often adopts a quiet, kind demeanor; listening rather than speaking. But wisdom requires that we never stray from righteousness. There will be times when we must speak, but wisdom will discern when and how. Much is said about wisdom in the book of Proverbs. It existed within the vast expanse of space, for by wisdom were the heavens and earth created and everything within them. Wisdom is what governs all spiritual and physical laws. It is immutable. We must dare to be wise for we must dare to fulfill our destiny. It is only through wisdom that this is possible.

    • Yes, we must dare to be wise, but it is far more common for people to think that they are already wise than it is for them to dare to be wise when there is a great deal of folly around them or to accept those who dare to be wise, unless those people who dare to be wise do so in a way that is, as you say, unconfrontational and gracious in nature. It is easy to be harsh when one is intellectual but not wise, but with wisdom comes a great deal of discernment in not only knowing what is right but how is the best way to go about living in a godly way, especially in an ungodly world.

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