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Framing the Wisdom of Humility: A Review of “A Time For Wisdom” by Paul McLaughlin and Mark McMinn
Paul T. McLaughlin and Mark R. McMinn. A Time for Wisdom. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2022.   In his 1943 poem cycle Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot presents a picture of “tumid apathy” that may sound familiar to those of us who frequent various locales of public life in 2022. Whether cities, social media platforms,… The post Framing the Wisdom of Humility: A Review of “A Time For Wisdom” by Paul McLaughlin and Mark McMinn appeared first on VoegelinView.

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Paul T. McLaughlin and Mark R. McMinn. A Time for Wisdom. West Conshohocken, PA: Templeton Press, 2022.

 

In his 1943 poem cycle Four Quartets, T.S. Eliot presents a picture of “tumid apathy” that may sound familiar to those of us who frequent various locales of public life in 2022. Whether cities, social media platforms, or modern universities, many of these locales are what Eliot calls “place[s] of disaffection,” filled with:
…Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Distracted from distraction by distraction
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind…
In these lines from the first quartet, “Burnt Norton,” Eliot recognizes the strain, emptiness, and distraction whirling in modern life, and he laments this lack of stability. Eliot sees virtue lost to a world of “vacant” prestige and progress where those named wise fear “belonging to another, or to others, or to God,” as in the second quartet of the work, “East Coker.” In the face of such fear – fear of being implicated in and known by a community or a Creator – Eliot advises: “The only wisdom we can hope to acquire/ Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.”
Eliot’s proposed antidote to modernity’s maladies in the 1940s gleams out in our day in A Time for Wisdom, a book by two psychologists that attempts to trace what wisdom is, how our culture struggles with wisdom, and how to seek wisdom contra the currents of our age. The arguments of this book circle around “the wisdom of humility.” As the book’s jacket notes, McLaughlin and McMinn desire to counter a time wherein “we lack all sense of proportion in our judgements. We are shortsighted, mired in the present, ignorant of history and blind to the past;” their concern for our a-historical state recalls Eliot’s words that “a people without history / is not redeemed from time.” To answer our culture’s dislocation from history and sense, McLaughlin and McMinn attempt to “commend a course of action towards the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, towards calm and clear moral reasoning.”
McLaughlin and McMinn believe that wisdom – elusive as it may be in our days of partisanship, pronounced confirmation biases, and ever-growing ideological fortresses – may, indeed, still be learned and practiced. They offer the “KDTT model” as a paradigm for pursuing wisdom, based on their research in social science, philosophy, theology, as well as their own professional and personal experiences.
The KDTT model proposes that pursuing wisdom requires rightly receiving knowledge, practicing detachment from self and therein tasting tranquility, and pursuing transcendence. In McLaughlin and McMinn’s definition, wisdom is an “embodied disposition or act” that connects knowledge and contemplation to practical implications.
Knowledge, the first step of their path towards wisdom, is likewise embodied: knowledge is not data or information. Rather, knowledge must be holistic. Properly enriched knowledge combines factual and procedural knowledge and stretches beyond the self. As the authors hold, this “enriched knowledge” seeks and integrates various perspectives while cultivating epistemic humility, thanks to human insufficiency. McLaughlin and McMinn flesh out their account of enriched knowledge through teleology, as well: knowledge “hold[s] the end in mind.” A proper telos, linked to the classical “transcendentals” of truth, beauty, and goodness, endows the pursuit of knowledge with order.
This classical account of telos as a principle orienting man towards eudaimonia accords with the virtue of detachment and result of tranquility which McLaughlin and McMinn place second and third along their path towards wisdom. Drawing from traditions and thinkers of Eastern mysticism, Buddhism, and Christianity, they propose that distance from one’s thoughts and feelings yields mental peace and freedom. They connect detachment to Keats’ idea of negative capability: the capability to “hold tension, mystery, and paradox, without having to cinch down certainty” helps man see clearly. Release of one’s self, McLaughlin and McMinn argue, allows a certain state of internal clarity and simplicity. Though this state does not resolve difficult situations, clarity via selflessness persists despite difficulty. Through humility, thus, we may experience tranquility regardless of circumstance.
Amid an individualistic culture that restlessly rushes after greatness, McLaughlin and McMinn – in accordance with Aristotle – propose goodness as a means of practicing this tranquility required for wisdom. Living in line with the Good grows tranquility, for tranquility is “an outgrowth of a virtuous life. It flows from the natural order of things. It is not just doing good but experiencing peace and rest in the good.” From this notion of a higher Good, McLaughlin and McMinn turn towards the concept of transcendence: wisdom requires a sense of something higher than oneself. Products of transcendence like awe and connection develop a wisdom deeper than many researchers have quantified, the authors argue.
Submission to an absolute and appreciation for a spiritual realm brings awe, and “awe brings ecstasy, which is ex stasis, a standing outside of ourselves. In this way, awe can serve to energize and elevate us toward the deeper call of wisdom.” Such awe accompanies a sense of connectedness that does not prosper in the individualistic units of modern American society but fosters a communal spirit more common in collectivistic cultures, the authors hold. The interpersonal connection that accords with a sense of the transcendent stands in contrast to the disconnection encouraged by a culture of what McLaughlin and McMinn term “vertical individualism” – a culture which prizes not only the individual above the community or family but the optimized, perfected individual above all else. Vertical individualism has to do with progress. A proper sense of transcendence, on the other hand, has to do with presence: as McLaughlin and McMinn maintain at the close of their book, “Now is the time to emerge from our fortresses and discover our neighbors, to sit at a common table, share good food, and truly listen to one another.” In following a pattern of humility through the KDTT model, we may behold “something bigger than ourselves, some benevolent presence of love in the cosmos that holds us together and calls us forward in wisdom.”
In mapping wisdom, McLaughlin and McMinn ground themselves within a framework of virtue ethics and teleology like that of the Greeks while weaving through various traditions across time, thereby richly situating their model in history while using a conversational yet academic style. Humility undergirds each aspect of their model and culminates in their final advice to humble one’s self under a sense of the Transcendent.
Mclaughlin and McMinn speak highly of religion and transcendence as the missing link in “wisdom science,” but they refuse specificity. Though appreciating and integrating multiple perspectives may be part of building wisdom, the pluralism of the book’s final posture only weakens wisdom: McLaughlin and McMinn’s pluralistic approach to transcendence leaves their reader in the shallows of subjectivity. If only one submits oneself to some spiritual realm, they insist, he will be wise.
Thus, although both claim some connection to Christianity, McLaughlin and McMinn fail to defend their own faith so much as faith in general. Faith in general certainly enlightens, but generalized faith is hardly the “fear of the Lord” that Solomon calls the “beginning” of wisdom in the book of Proverbs. While the authors’ wide-ranging allusions and examples are helpful, their final assessment that wisdom does not require a specific system of truth so much as a recognition of “transcendental truth” seems to fall short. To the Christian, wisdom – in its fullest sense – requires a relationship with the Christian God.
Eliot, for one, held that man may not achieve “the wisdom of humility” by merely seeking some vague higher form but by seeking to submit to Christ himself, the Word made flesh. A Time for Wisdom offers substantial hints regarding man’s path towards wisdom but ultimately misses that which Eliot deemed essential for “reconciliation” of history and fullness of wisdom – that is, the “hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation.”

The post Framing the Wisdom of Humility: A Review of “A Time For Wisdom” by Paul McLaughlin and Mark McMinn appeared first on VoegelinView.

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