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Comment on the wise and the fool (wisdom of Solomon)

Below is an excerpt from a recent exchange that I reproduce with permission. My correspondent’s details remain private. The quote, which appears indented on my website, is the point I am responding to.

This is an example of how some bible translators translate the words of Solomon: https://biblehub.com/proverbs/14-33.htm

There is no agreement among translators, especially with the latter part.

My favourite translation (not in English) says:

Wisdom rests quietly in the heart of a man of understanding. but the fools can’t resist the temptation of showing it off.

What do you think about it? How would you paraphrase it?

Interpreting the Bible involves an understanding of its wider context. My comment here is on this statement alone.

Reading your favourite translation and the ones in the link, I gather these points:

  • A wise person does not need to show off their wisdom.
  • Fools cannot understand a wise person, due to that person’s subtlety.
  • To a fool, wisdom must be shown in order to be recognised.

I think here it is important to draw a distinction between “wise” and “smart”. The latter pertains to one’s mental prowess, while the former is a disposition. One can be super smart yet unwise. Just think about all the otherwise brilliant minds who committed horrific acts.

Wisdom consists in recognising one’s limits, in light of a broader understanding of phenomena. This means that the person tries to think of things in terms of the relations between the applicable factors. For example, we find a homeless man. The fool will be quick to remark how drugs can ruin a man. Whereas the wiser one will point out that we do not really know what caused this man’s homelessness and, perhaps, the situation is of a systemic sort such as an economic crisis.

Understanding events in terms of the interplay of factors involves an appreciation of how we think of relevance: which factors we consider pertinent to the case and which ones we leave out. In this example of the homeless man, the fool thinks that the only relevant factor is the man’s free will and the self-destructive decisions he made in life. Whereas the wiser person incorporates magnitudes that are beyond this homeless man which, nonetheless, contribute to the man’s actuality.

Notice that I described wisdom as a disposition. The wise person is not perfect. All humans are imperfect: we all err. The wise person simply has the honesty to admit to their mistakes and, more generally, to recognise that their humanity makes them fallible. The fools, especially the super smart ones, overestimate their abilities and end up obstinately committing to questionable causes, such as the pursuit of vanity projects.

The wise person thus remains open to the possibility of learning something new, which includes the possibility of revising one’s own views. As such, we have an attitude of not taking oneself too seriously by always retaining a kernel of doubt. We call this “dubitativeness”. The Greek-derived word is “aporetic”. It goes together with the quest of learning and re-learning, which we call “inquisitiveness” (“zetetic” for the Greek word). To not take oneself too seriously in this way is to be humble. This links to the point of not showing off.

To me, the word “fool” does not mean “unintelligent”. It rather describes a disposition of not thinking holistically. The fool does not try to understand the factors in their interplay and, generally, does not maintain a consistently honest approach to all matters in life. This is why fools do not recognise the limits of their humanity. It is also why fools have a propensity of showing off, but also of not perceiving subtlety.

The fool cannot discern that which is nuanced in a person because the fool is too self-centred and thus thinks that everyone must also be showing off what they have. Why is the fool self-centred? Because of not trying to think holistically. Fools will not recognise a wise person in their midst. Maybe they will understand that the person is different, but they will not have the disposition qua fools to appreciate what the person’s wisdom entails.

Two relevant presentations of mine: