Traditional wisdom is the cultural shorthand for easy, accessible, communicable, communally shared understanding of complex issues. It is commonly presented as short stories, often humorous, and phrased in a way that even the children of the community can learn them early on. Though they tackle fairly intellectually/philosophically heavy material, they are designed to bypass the intricacies and nuance of that complexity, and deliver actionable ideas to the masses.
Traditional wisdom matters, because it is the product of centuries of practical knowledge, distilled into easy to digest material. It also matters because it is a great source of complex ideas – once we learn to unpack it and see the nuance and complexity. Finally, it matters because traditional wisdom also tells us a lot about the cultures that produced it – in terms of context and their ethical values.
An interesting point is that traditional wisdom is also shared across cultures. Sometimes, this overlap is so strong that it becomes impossible to decipher which culture came up with the story, and who borrowed it. This too tells us something about the shared nature of human experience and a shared idea of morality and ethics across cultures – not to mention the similarity of problems those cultures faced.
We’ll look at three such stories here, and point out some of the many ideas that were encoded in them, and where they intersect with some major philosophical ideas.
- On Status Difference and Mortality: [This story has been claimed by the Buddhists and Muslims] There was once a tyrant king, whose reign was marked with severe oppression, especially of the lower social groups. The king believed himself above the peasants, and saw himself as having the kingly right to do whatever he wished with his subjects. One day, a monk came to see him, carrying a bag. When he was presented to the king, he said, “Oh Great King, I bring you a gift! It is the skull of your great predecessor so-and-so.” He then reached into the bag, and brought forth a bleached skull. But before presenting it to the King, he paused, and then drew another skull out of the bag, looked at it, and said to the King, “I had the skull of your illustrious predecessor in this bag, and a skull of a peasant. I’m not sure which is which now… can you tell?”
The story demonstrates two issues in one move: first, the inevitability of death is as present for the King as it is for a peasant; second, it presents death as the great equalizer – prompting the question, what was so different about them in life? Rather than a prolonged argument regarding the equality of people across social strata, the simple inability to tell apart the remains of the highest and the lowest members of society demonstrates the point far more effectively. A human is a human, and all humans are ultimately destined to be reduced to nothing. In that light, the hubris of the King certainly seems silly.
- On the Ephemeral Nature of Reality: [Several sources] A King (or wealthy man) once asked his advisors to find a simple, single method to keep him from becoming depressed at loss, or too joyous at success – essentially to keep him balanced in all things. After a little while, they came back with a ring, on which it was inscribed, “This too shall pass.”
The exact phrasing differs between cultures, but the general idea is the same. For example, the Arabic phrase (my personal favorite) translates as “not a single thing persists.” The phrase, though very short (3-5 words in any iteration), is loaded with meaning. Perhaps most importantly, the phrase is directed at more than life-events, and actually comments on the nature of life itself – it too shall pass. The question then becomes, what do you have to show for it? About half the works of Soren Kierkegaard (19th century Danish philosopher) revolve almost exclusively around this theme – and the implications it has when fully unpacked. In fact, one can argue that most of the existentialist movement follows the same trajectory, with different takes on the implications following the different contexts of various authors.
- On knowing others, free will, and equivocation: [Islamic Middle East] An atheist came to a well-known Islamic scholar, and said, “I will believe in God if you can address my three issues: First, I can only believe in things I can see, so show me God; Second, if God is all-knowing, then there is no free will – how can I be held responsible for my disbelief; Third, if Satan is made of fire, then how can hellfire hurt him?” (In Islamic theology, Satan is not a fallen angel, but a different class of creature called Jinn, whose basic make-up stems from fire – in the same way that the basic human make-up stems from earth) After thinking about it for a minute, the scholar went out, grabbed a brick, and smacked the atheist in the head. When the atheist took him to court, and the judge asked the scholar for an explanation, the scholar replied: “I merely answered his questions. First, he said that he can only believe in things he can see, so let him show me his pain and I’ll believe in it. Second, he said that if God is all-knowing then there is no free will, and he can’t be held responsible for his actions. If there is no free will, then how can he presume to hold me responsible for my action? Finally, if hellfire can’t hurt Satan, since they’re both made of fire, then the brick can’t hurt the plaintiff, since they’re both made of earth. So, since the plaintiff can’t show his supposed pain, and I can’t be held accountable for my actions, and by his argument it is impossible for the brick to have done any harm, I request that the case be dismissed.”
Though an amusing story, it touches on two crucial issues – namely basis of knowledge and belief, and the notion of free will and accountability. Rather than, say, Kant’s 100-page treatise on the antinomies of reason as found in his Critique of Pure Reason (antinomies are ideas where it is equally reasonable to hold either position, depending on where we start), the story sums up the idea that free will must be assumed, in a single line. This is all that’s necessary for anyone other than people deeply involved in issues like philosophy of mind, and has an added benefit of placing the problem in a legal context – which is precisely where the question of free will becomes crucial. The idea that “seeing is believing” is equally dismissed, and points us to the fact that most of our believing (on any issue) comes by inference. If we were to truly limit ourselves to believing only those things which we have experienced directly, then none of us could believe that we have a brain, or that we’ll die (we are incapable of seeing our own brains, and mortality is a thing only experienced in the actual moment of death – thus, believing in either requires a belief that our sensory experience can not verify). The last point made is on the issue of equivocation – the use of ambiguous terms to conceal reality. In this case, the idea that all fire or earth is alike, is an attempt at equivocation. The purpose is not some grand theological argument, but a sort of asinine position that would require a long and complex explanation – or a more simple smack over the head with a brick.
Another interesting element, as in the story of Abraham, is the idea that some issues are best dealt with by demonstration. The questions of basis of belief and free will have continued until the present day, and show no sign of slowing down. While the nuances of these arguments may be fun reading to some, the traditional wisdom was concerned with providing a clear and actionable solution, with an eye toward maintaining a stable and functional society. The fastest method of dealing with the problem of free will is to demonstrate the problems of denying it – hence the brick approach.
Finally, we do not need skulls, rings, or bricks to make traditional wisdom actionable in our own understanding of the world, or in the way we act. Faced with the problem of relativistic ethics (nothing is true, everyone can pick whatever path they prefer) we can either try to derive a complex solution to the problem, or we can imagine smacking the opposing side with a brick; if you expect that they would complain about getting smacked, there’s your proof that they don’t believe their own claims – because they’re clearly insisting that you follow their ethics, not your own. And here may lie the best part of drawing on traditional wisdom; the solutions it provided frequently centered on the ultimate inability of the opposing positions to be actionable. We may make all sorts of claims, but only the ones whose conclusions are not incoherent, are actually actionable.