Tag Archives: Love of Wisdom

What’s a PH.D.?

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Have you ever wondered why professors in so many disciplines of the arts and sciences are called Doctors of Philosophy? What does this have to do with chemistry, or even history? Is the title simply an anachronistic throwback to the Middle Ages? Or is there a richer meaning here?

It is well known that the word Philosophy comes from two Greek words that combine into φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means “love of wisdom.” Diogenes Laertius tells us that the word was coined by Pythagoras (582-500 BCE) who said that only the gods were wise. He was rather a lover of wisdom.

The contemporary usage of “Doctor,” of course, primarily refers to physicians. Ph.D.’s sometimes use this title, but most prefer Professor. (In Japan, the term “sensei” applies across the board to most professionals: dentists, physicians, and teachers from kindergarten to university–as well as to Zen masters like Mr. Miyagi).

Etymologically, however, Doctor comes from the Latin word “docere” to teach, and thus originally doctor meant “teacher.”

So to be a Doctor of Philosophy is to be a Teacher of the Love of Wisdom. Philosophy is therefore more a love, a system of values, than a body of knowledge. It is enlivened by wonder and entranced by mystery. It is, as Jacob Needleman says, a longing for awakening.  This love, according to Plato, should animate the Academy and invigorate every discipline throughout the arts and sciences.

I wonder how many university professors are wise–or even seem to care about wisdom? How many professors, how many people, recognize their own lack of self-knowledge and general ignorance of “what is truly good and beautiful?” Robert Pirsig laments the university professor who unwittingly kills the creative spirit of his students, which is something none of us wants to do.  It is so easy, however, given the pressures of modern education, to be caught in the vortex of a downward spiral.  Our youthful ideals can atrophy as we approach the shoals of burn-out.

I was blessed to be drawn to Philosophy.  The readings in my courses inspired me and most of my students as we encountered provocative questions, and were swept up in “the eternal conversation of things that truly matter.”

Clearly, the facts, the information and the skills necessary for one’s subject are important, even lovely, things. They have served to spark the interest and quicken the heart of every engaged teacher. But if they are not shared within the context of love, they are like sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, as St. Paul says.

One cannot teach love with words. The love of wisdom can only be taught by loving it–and living that love in and out of the classroom. The teacher must BE what she teaches.  She can only teach peace with a peaceful heart; he can only teach love with care and vulnerability.  What ultimately stays with our students, I believe, is the respect with which we listen to them, the attention with which we regard them, and our abiding faith in the power of our subject to enlarge the soul and thus to expand one’s world.

A Ph.D., therefore, worthy of the name, does not identify an “expert.”  It identifies a dedicated, passionate and skillful learner.   In every class she gives life to these words of e.e.cummings

I would rather learn from one bird how to sing

Than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance.

Songs Old and New

“When old words die out on the tongue, new melodies break forth from the heart”
Rabindranath Tagore

This blog has taken me in directions I could not have envisioned, and now it is asking for a new name. After much thought, I have settled on “Songs of Wisdom.”

Over the years, my teaching became less lecture, and more a creative dialogue between my students and me. It felt as though we were collaborating on a variation of the Aboriginal Dreamtime, where we entered a field beyond time and fixed ideas. Together we would trace the tracks and hints of our ancestors, and sing a world into being. We were in fact following the songlines sung by fellow travelers from Thales, through Lao Tzu, to Camus. We would embrace some touchstone ideas from a common reading, and follow the path they suggested in order to create a vision that was highly individual to each class, yet universal in the light it cast upon the human condition.

Every human being, I believe, sings A world, not The world, into being. In this regard, Robert Pirsig offers an illuminating analogy. In every instant, we are bombarded by myriad things vying for our awareness, and we simply cannot give our attention to everything. It is as though we are standing on a beach composed of millions of grains of sand. We reach down into that beach and pick up a handful of sand, and call that handful “the world.” The handful we choose is often determined by the cultural, familial, and religious conditioning of our early lives.

Here is where Philosophy comes in. Ben Zander says “It’s all invented anyway, so we might as well invent a story or a framework of meaning that enhances our quality of life and the life of those around us.” Violence and loss, sickness and death are inevitable, but by following the songlines of visionary women and men down through the ages, we have the possibility of clicking the kaleidoscope of our minds, and creating more ample and generous templates that frame an increasingly kind and compassionate world. These are songs of wisdom, living words given soul by the melodies of the heart.

Living the Love of Wisdom #1

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It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and honorably and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and honorably and justly without living pleasantly.
Epicurus (341-270 BCE)

The URL of this blog is “Love of Wisdom,” and in a previous essay, I lamented the fact that not many university professors live lives of wisdom lovers. But just what is this “wisdom” we philosophers are supposed to love? And what difference would this love make in the perspectives, attitudes and behavior a person realizes in each moment of every day? What does it mean to live a wise life?

I find these questions essential to the calling of Teacher of the Love of Wisdom. As with most seemingly simple and obvious questions, however, they open a doorway to a lifetime of wonder—and this, I think, is a beautiful thing. In this essay I would like to offer a provisional reflection on the nature of Wisdom and the implications it has for the character of one’s life, with the hope that we might gain some insight into the fascinating challenge of living a pleasant, honorable, and just life.

According to Aristotle, Wisdom is a Virtue. The virtues are qualities of excellence (arête) that invigorate the mind (wisdom) and the heart (courage), and engender wholeness (temperance and justice). These qualities empower us to be the people we long to be, and to lead fulfilling lives.

I cannot claim to be an expert on the living a virtuous life, but I am very familiar with living a life inhibited by their opposite qualities, called “vices” by the Greeks. I have been foolish far more often than wise. Instead of dealing with life’s challenges with a thoughtful and conscious mind, I have often labored under the veil of illusion and irrational beliefs (see Albert Ellis). Instead of courageously moving through fear, I have allowed it to paralyze me or to act defensively (see Charlie Brown’s failure to ever kiss the little red-haired girl). The opposite of temperance (to be “in tune”) is a lack of integrity, or wholeness, that manifests in a dithering mind and an ambivalent heart. Finally, the unjust life is one of selfish egocentricity.

The virtues are mutually interdependent and complementary, existing together or not at all, and serve to form a mature human character. Wisdom tells us what is truly worthy of fear, while courage gives us the strength to break out of the prison of illusion. Similarly, integrity allows us to focus our energies wisely and courageously, while justice urges us to go beyond the protective walls of ego.

Aristotle goes on to say that “Happiness (eudaimonia) is activity in accord with virtue.” The capstone of human flourishing (eudaimonia) is not simply being virtuous, but acting virtuously. This means setting a firm intention to live life from the very best in oneself: from one’s highest wisdom and most loving heart, from one’s harmonious integrity and a sense of empathetic fairness.

Wisdom, then, might be placed in a nexus of qualities whose pursuit gives value and direction to an entire lifetime. It therefore seems best to think of the Love of Wisdom as a longing for perspective and compassion, balance and fairness, that evolves through an authentic commitment, renewed daily, to pursue and nurture the most empowering dimensions of one’s mind and heart. This evolution takes the form of a widening spiral of growth that leads toward ever deeper Wisdom and ever more effective loving in the world.

In tomorrow’s post, I will reflect upon the Dynamics of Transformation.

Ph.D

Have you ever wondered why professors in so many disciplines of the arts and sciences are called Doctors of Philosophy?  What does this have to do with chemistry, or even history?  Is the title simply an anachronistic throwback to the Middle Ages?  Or is there a richer meaning here?

It is well known that the word Philosophy comes from two Greek words that combine into φιλοσοφία (philosophia), which literally means “love of wisdom.”  Diogenes Laertius tells us that the word was coined by Pythagoras (582-500 BCE) who said that only the gods were wise.  He was rather a lover of wisdom.

The contemporary usage of “Doctor” of course primarily refers to physicians.  Ph.D.’s sometime use the term in academic settings, but truth to tell I think most feel a bit fraudulent when they do so.    (In Japan, the term “sensei” applies across the board to most professionals: dentists, physicians, and teachers from kindergarten to university–as well as to Zen masters like Mr. Miyagi).

Etymologically, however, Doctor comes from the Latin word “docere” to teach, and thus originally doctor meant “teacher.”

So to be a Doctor of Philosophy is to be a Teacher of the Love of Wisdom.  Thus philosophy is more a love, a system of values, than a body of knowledge.  It is this love, according to Plato, that should animate the Academy and invigorate every discipline throughout the arts and sciences. It sets us on the road that leads beyond the confines of our illusions as he illustrates in his famous allegory of the cave.

But how many university professors are wise–or even seem to care about wisdom?  Robert Pirsig once suggested that many teachers are so smug and self-satisfied that wisdom is a threat to their ego-bound security.

One cannot teach love with words.  The love of wisdom can only be taught by loving it.  The teacher must BE what she teaches.  Sure, the facts and the information have an important place, but if they are not shared within the context of love, they are like sounding brass and tinkling cymbals, as St. Paul says.  As a teacher, I need to know my subject, but I believe that what ultimately stays with my students is the respect with which I listen to them, the attention with which I regard them, and the love I have for them and for the wonders and surprises of the subject I teach.  Ten years after the class is over, if they remember me at all, it will be for my love rather than for my knowledge.

So to be a Ph.D. is a humbling and challenging mantle.  It is also a beckoning aspiration for which I am eternally grateful.