She reacheth from one end to the other mightily and sweetly ordereth all things
Strongly and sweetly. Fortiter et sauviter. Who is this ‘she’? In Chapel this week we read from the eighth chapter of the Book of the Wisdom of Solomon. It is a most famous passage. It is what I like to call a connector passage, writings which connect to many other cultures and patterns of thinking. Students and faculty, for the most part, have perhaps never heard this passage but that doesn’t make it any less famous. The ‘she’ here is wisdom; sophia in Greek, sapientia in Latin. The passage is a wonderful paean of praise to wisdom and as such speaks to the educational project of the School in terms of understanding and cultural literacy. Wisdom, not knowledge simply, and certainly not mere information is what is looked for and sought. Wisdom is about maturity of character, about a way of understanding that shapes a way of living ethically and responsibly.
Written in Greek probably in the first century BC, Wisdom connects directly to the forms of discourse and thinking that belong to Greek or Hellenistic philosophy. The created wisdom of God shows us that wisdom is to be sought above all other things. “If riches are a desirable possession in life, what is richer than wisdom who effects all things?” Wisdom teaches temperance, prudence, justice and courage, the four classical virtues of Greek and Latin antiquity which in turn contribute to the moral and ethical discourse of Christianity and Islam. Wisdom here is about an understanding of the created world and thus about ourselves. The influence of this text is altogether remarkable. It continues to speak to us even in the arrogance of our unwisdom.
Some seven centuries after the Book of Wisdom was written, Boethius wrote a most influential treatise known as the Consolation of Philosophy. Sometimes called the last of the Romans, Boethius was actually a Christian philosopher whose life ambition, largely unfulfilled, was to translate the works of Plato and Aristotle into Latin. The only explicit Scriptural reference in the Consolatio is this passage about wisdom strongly and sweetly ordering and moving all things. “O qui perpetua mundum ratione gubernas” – O thou who dost rule the world with everlasting reason, Boethius says. Wisdom is what is looked for in our lives.
The various works which he did write, such as his de Trinitate, Quomodo substantiae, etc., along with the Consolatio, play a major role in the development of medieval theology. They also contribute to early modernity.
Aelfred the Great in the ninth century would undertake a translation into Anglo-Saxon of the Consolatio. Chaucer in the fourteenth century would provide a translation into Middle English; Queen Elizabeth I would do the same into early modern English in the sixteenth century. Such things suggest something of the significance of the Consolatio and of the idea of wisdom strongly and sweetly moving all things. Wisdom and the Consolatio counter our modern arrogance and dis-ease about our relation to the natural world.
Sir Francis Bacon in the early seventeenth century undertook to interrogate nature and to force her to disclose her secrets, subjecting nature to experiment but he did so in an effort to better the human condition. We have become only too well aware of how that interrogation of nature has subsequently developed into the familiar tropes of the destruction and degradation of nature and of ourselves. Canadians shipping garbage to the Philippines and to Malaysia! The mind boggles. The heart weeps.
But George Herbert’s seventeenth century poem, Providence, explicitly invoking the passage from Wisdom, shows another understanding and one which speaks to the true vocation of our humanity. “Man is nature’s high priest” whose task is to offer the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. “Of all the creatures both in sea and land, only to Man hast Thou made known thy ways, and put the penne into his hand, and made him Secretarie of Thy praise.” This is a far remove from our manipulation and exploitation of nature. As another seventeenth poet, Thomas Traherne, beautifully puts it, “you never enjoy the world aright until you enjoy it in God.” It is really a sacramental understanding wherein the things of the world are also the instruments of grace and salvation.
Boethius wrote the Consolatio while in prison in Ravenna awaiting execution on trumped up charges. Lady Philosophy appears to him to recall him to himself in truth and wisdom. Her appearance is intriguing. Her gown has the Greek letter Pi embroidered on its lower fringe, and Theta on the upper fringe. Between them is a ladder. The idea is the connection between things practical and things theoretical. Such a connection is wisdom, the idea of living wisely through our thinking wisely. But her gown is torn; there is the fatal separation between the practical and the theoretical. Such is the constant struggle in our world. How to connect what has become disconnected and separated? How to be wise in an unwise world? Such questions belong to the role of Chapel in the School. It can only begin through our being open to the riches of wisdom.
(Rev’d) David Curry
Chaplain, English & ToK teacher
Chair of the Department of Religion and Philosophy