Can Wisdom be found in Literature?

1.  Introduction

Yesterday I posted about Shakespeare:  the Invention of the Human, the book which Prof. Harold Bloom, Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University, wrote about the plays of Shakespeare.    Previously, I wrote about the Western Canon:  The Books and School of the Ages, a review and analysis of 26 canonical writers of Western Literature other than Shakespeare, who had been covered in his earlier book.

Today I wanted to write about the third book of Prof. Bloom’s I have read, Where Shall Wisdom be Found, which is a survey of wisdom literature.    Of the three major criteria that Prof. Bloom uses to choose those books which he himself reads and teaches about at Yale University, namely a) aesthetic splendor, b) intellectual power, and c) wisdom,  the first two criteria were adequately covered in the first two books I mentioned in the first paragraph.    The book Where Shall Wisdom be Found obviously covers wisdom, the last of these criteria.

2.  Wisdom Perspectives

The first part of his book covers the wisdom perspectives which our Western culture embodies:  those that come from Jerusalem and those that come from Greece.   They are not compatible–with Jerusalem, the relationship between man and God is different than the relationship between man and the gods in Greece.    As Joseph Campbell once memorably put it (I’m paraphrasing here):  “On Sunday, we pledge allegiance to the values of Jerusalem.   From Monday through Friday, we pledge allegiance to the values of Greece.   And then on Saturday, we visit the psychologist wondering why we’re always so ambivalent.”

Then he discusses Plato and his argument against Homer’s “immoral” influence on the education of Greek youth, a charge that was ironically leveled at Socrates.   The temptation of Plato to politicize literature is a perspective that continues to this day in what Prof. Bloom calls the School of Resentment, the various modern literary theories that attempt to have literature serve the ends of social justice.

The wisdom of Shakespeare and Cervantes are compared, with Shakespeare choosing the monologue as his mode of representing a character’s thoughts, and Cervantes opting for the dialogue instead.

3.  Great Ideas

The second part of the book deals not with perspectives, but with great ideas themselves, and the writers who have espoused them:  Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Emerson, Nietzsche, Freud and Proust.

4.  Christian Wisdom

The last part of the book deals with the wisdom from the Gospel of Thomas, the gnostic version of Christianity which is comparable in many ways to Buddhism.    It then ends with the pleasures of reading, a perspective gleaned from St. Augustine.

The pleasure of reading this book reminds me of the definition of Buddhism.   The Buddha does not teach Buddhism, but only the way to Buddhism, which is the state of enlightenment that each of us must experience for ourselves.

In a similar way, Prof. Bloom does not teach wisdom, but only the way to wisdom through reading the classics of wisdom literature that he introduces.    I’m grateful that, after reading his book, I went to the local library and found the Great Books series put out by the Encyclopedia Britannica company which contains within it all of the works that Prof. Bloom describes.

So the answer to the question is that wisdom can be found in literature, but you must actively look for it.   It helps, though, to have a great guide, and for that, I am very grateful to Prof. Bloom.

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