A quest for wisdom across the ages and around the world…Book review by Vikas Datta about ‘Wisdom – A World History’, written by Trevor Curnow
Wisdom is elusive and doesn’t even have one accepted definition, but it still has been ceaseless pursuit of humans, who have been long enamoured of it, naming specific deities (especially goddesses) or even legendary forebears as its patrons, searching for it across a range of activities and occurrences — even in most unlikely ones — and trying to describe it.
Seeking to examine what it is about the prized quality that sets it apart from mere intelligence and the various attempts in various times to understand it, takes us on a search that spans divinities, ancient sages, Indian, Greek and Chinese, shadowy kings and royal counsellors in the Middle East and Central America, Sufis, legendary magicians, religious gurus, and fabulists, and a range of disciplines and arts from philosophy to dream-divining.
But Trevor Curnow, who aims to “provide an introduction to the world of wisdom in its many different forms as it has manifested itself over the course of human history”, cites “two fundamental problems” in his quest — the sheer volume of material to sift through and, secondly, the lack of an agreed definition.
The first, he tells us, he solved by presenting “as wide a variety of materials as possible” and while his selection was “limited by my own knowledge and guided by my own interests”, he has tried to represent as many periods, cultures and places as possible.
To the second, and more vital, problem the author, a professor of philosophy at (Britain’s) University of Cumbria, says he has combined the two “obvious” responses — picking and sticking to a particular definition though it may be far from universally accepted, and then to “accept at face value the claim of others that something is an example of wisdom”.
“What I have tried to do is achieve a balance between what wisdom means to me, and what it has meant to millions of people for thousands of years,” he says, stressing that for him, it is primarily and principally about people.
And Curnow also stresses that while it has been the wise that have been sought for advice, there are many situations where this may not be the “wisest” choice for, say, specialised or technical matters.
But even with these constraints, he has been most thorough and ecumenical, and there is a glorious parade of cerebral celebrities in the pages from King Solomon to Solon of Athens, Hermes Trimegistus to Maulana Rumi, Aesop to Ramana Maharishi, and more.
And as some of these names show, Curnow has been more than mindful of the Oriental contribution all across the board.
This is evident from the first chapter, dealing with wisdom’s links with deities, where he begins with his “colourful” introduction to the Hindu goddess of learning. He also devotes some space to the elephant-headed god (also using the opportunity to sketch a most apt analogy with modern Indian officialdom), and while there are the expected examples (Thoth and Isis, Athena and Odin), there is also the Buddhist Manjusri.
While dealing with myth and legend, it is the seven “apkallu” of Mesopotamia he begins with, and the Indian “saptrishi” get their due, as do the the Upanishads in literature (which here encompasses both religious and esoteric texts as well as fables and more prosaic and secular instruction — including by a Maharaja of Gwalior during the Raj days).
Then in a chapter of wise historical luminaries, Curnow, acquainting us with a range of sages from across the world, includes Debendranath Tagore among the Indians, as well as 10 monarchs termed wise (all Europeans).
Other chapters trace wisdom in divination, in philosophy, in mysticism and magic, in proverbs, and in our present day (Curnow makes a very intersting assessment of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh “Osho” here) before wrapping up his case and offering a “centenary” of wise sayings on diverse topics.
Concise but most comprehensive too, eclectic and accessible, Curnow’s account not only explains wisdom in all its manifestations but also why we need it and how we can find it.