From Athens to Jerusalem to the ivory tower

Dore_Solomon_Proverbs“The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.” – Proverbs 4:7

I think it was Leo Strauss who quipped, “what has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” It’s not a sentiment that I agree with philosophically, but as a description of modern academia it feels quite apt. For it is a landscape roughly equivalent to that of 1000-500 B.C., and we all live in our own city states, viewing the nations around us as quaint at best. The notion of the scholar who can be expected to accumulate a general knowledge of things has given away to the specialist. And so you have theology students who have never studied logic, historians without a shred of poetry in them, English profs who can’t understand bible references, etc. Occasionally someone like Jacques Derrida will found a small empire over several disciplines, seeding them with his cultic practices.

Or perhaps things only look this way because I find myself increasingly centered in the ancient near east. I, as you know, have fallen into academic orbit around the Old Testament, and in particular the Wisdom literature, which in the Hebrew bible comprises Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Job, but which for us Catholics also includes the Wisdom of Solomon and Sirach.

Wisdom literature, Hebraic or not, rests on the assumption that the world makes sense, and that, by paying attention to the order behind it you can figure out at least some principles for a good life. It is a practical, inductive genre, neither particularly interested in the covenantal theology detailed in the rest of the Old Testament, nor in the speculative theories of the Greek philosophers.* That makes it good for exploring the apparent breakdown of order on the level of the individual – as in the case of Job, in a way that zooming out to examine the historico-eschatological significance of catastrophe (as in the case of the Prophets) cannot. It is slightly Socratic in its suggestion that Lady Wisdom is always more elusive than she seems.

The Chestertonian in me observes that I, whittling away the prime of my life in higher ed, have chosen to study sanity in an insane milieu. Oh well.

Scene from Josh W.'s future thesis defense

Scene from Josh W.’s future thesis defense

*Matters become a bit blurrier in the case of Wisdom of Solomon, which is arguably the exception that proves the rule.

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About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in Catholicism, fragments of culture, higher education and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to From Athens to Jerusalem to the ivory tower

  1. The Wisdom Books sound like a very fun field of study. I’m curious why you left out Psalms and The Song of Solomon from their number. Those two books also belong to that category, right?

    I suppose the specialization in academia mirrors the specialization we see in commerce. Division of labor is seen as the way to maximize production whether in academics or in industry. I suppose that some professors feel the same way, though such utter specialization does undermine the concept of a liberal education.

    • Josh W says:

      Wisdom literature, as an academic category, is more thematically narrow than the canonical grouping. The short answer is that those five books are seen as being close enough that they can be studied together, whereas Psalms and Song of Songs are different enough to be studied separately. Having said that, most scholars seem to agree that individual psalms like 1 and 19 are wisdom psalms even if the book as a whole doesn’t get classified as such.

      Because these distinctions are artificial, exactly where you draw the line (and whether the line is even worth drawing) is always debatable, but those five books always make it in.

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