What does it mean to be wise in today’s world?

The night before, someone had asked me if I thought that life was primarily comedy or primarily tragedy. I said comedy, without really knowing why. Then, as sometimes happens in the most surprising way, I found myself sitting at our Ministerium lunch the very next day, listening as Rabbi Roger Klein supported my sense that life is more comic than sad. Rabbi Klein was talking about wisdom. He had just finished speaking about Richard Sewell’s book, The Vision of Tragedy, in which Sewell asserts that wisdom is a recognition of the tragedies and problems of life, with a corresponding refusal to avoid them, and, most importantly, refusal to submit to them. Now he was speaking about Socrates. Socratic wisdom, he told us, has two main aspects. The first is humility. The second is the sense that life is comedy.

Not, the Rabbi assured us, comedy in a “laugh out loud” mode, but comedy as an ordering principal. He described tragedy and comedy as two species from the same genus. Comedy reflects a fundamentally ordered universe. Tragedy reflects a fundamentally disordered universe. Tragedy reflects the unacceptable contradictions of life, comedy the acceptable contradictions of life. I’ve been taking improv classes for awhile now, and I instinctively understood what he meant. When an improv actor steps out onto the stage, she doesn’t know what prompts she’ll be given or what her scene partners will say or do. She steps out prepared to create a scene from whatever comes her way. She has dedicated herself to the task of finding order in the raw materials of words and emotions and movements, and when we find improv funny, it is not only because of the incidental jokes and ridiculous situations that arise. The true joy that we take in improv arises from the fact that we’re watching order take form out of chaos, and the form that order takes is surprising, sometimes even shocking, but also deeply reassuring, because we human beings can do this. We can, through the simplest actions, reflect a fundamentally ordered universe.

Before talking about Sewell, Rabbi Klein led us through an investigation of David Brooks’s thoughts on wisdom, and Robert Nozick’s. He described Brooks’s point of view as primarily theoretical, given that Brooks is more concerned with thinking through what wisdom is than what it does. There’s a need for the cultivation of factual information and knowledge as we grow to be wise, but also a powerful need for experience. Knowledge gives us the capacity to create and evaluate, but the cultivation of wisdom takes time – it emerges from experience, and, unlike knowledge, it can’t be taught or transferred simply from one person to another. Differing from Brooks, Nozick is more interested in the practical aspects of wisdom. It comes about when we make meaning out of the practical truths that we encounter in the world, and through doing so change our perspective on life. Some of these practical truths are revealed when we attempt to achieve certain goals. We craft means of doing so, become aware of lurking dangers, and eventually come to accept unavoidable limitations. Through this we gain glimmers of self-knowledge. But also through it, if we’re truly wise, we detect, and even participate in, a current of joy. The wise person takes delight in wisdom itself and loves to share it, so that wisdom becomes an overflow of love.

All of these aspects of wisdom are found in scripture. Scripture speaks of the cultivation of the virtues as part of wisdom – do good deeds over and over again until they become your disposition, part of your temperament, inseparable from who you are. Scripture speaks of the transformation of loss, which is part of wisdom. The right response to loss, scripture tells us, is holiness – the redemption of the bad by turning it into something sacred. But most appealingly to me was the idea of comedy. The Bible, Rabbi Klein told us, is comedy, not tragedy. Again and again in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the contradictions of life are reconciled and a necessary order is reasserted, even in the face of violence and horror. The Sinai event is a comedic act, an act of creating a new order out of a devastatingly destructive old order. Resurrection is a comedic act, the act of reconciling the contradictions of life and death. In all cases, these acts of God are an overflowing of love, and in the grand comedy, creation itself flows out from God’s wisdom, and we are invited to learn and imitate it.