Corporate training booklets are great sources of interesting quotes. I came upon this one from Greek philosopher Socrates (470 to 399 B.C.) in a training session on presentations: “The beginning of wisdom is the definition of terms.” This makes a lot of intuitive sense because if people can’t agree on something as basic as definitions, it’s difficult to move forward.
However, I think there’s something even more fundamental – closer to the real beginning of wisdom -than the “definition of terms,” and that is: who gets to define the terms? Doing that requires wisdom, so we can’t really be wise until we find someone worthy to define the terms. Socrates probably considered himself a good candidate to provide it! For most of us, in moments of honesty, we might admit that most of the time we are either trusting our own judgment, or maybe just improvising.
There’s another necessary factor. If we find someone we can trust to define wisdom for us, but when it comes time to act we go against their advice, their definitions do us no good. Therefore, we don’t begin to be wise without having the will to choose rightly. Although we say we trust someone’s wisdom, by not acting on it we disrespect them, and perhaps Wisdom itself, by not following through. We might have more knowledge, but not more wisdom.
So, I’ll suggest a better quote (there were no Bible verses in my training booklet). In the Old Testament book of Proverbs, Solomon – another historical figure (like Socrates) famous for wisdom – wrote that:
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,
and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” – Proverbs 9:10
Solomon neatly fills in what the earlier quote is missing, because:
- There is a Holy One, whose very character of holiness is the definition of terms we need. His decision making has no flaw and is trustworthy.
- He is the LORD, who has authority, and uses it to lovingly advise His people on how to live wisely.
- Fear of the LORD means that respect for Him is required for us to not just go off on our own, but to follow His perfect advice. This fear turns the abstract knowledge into useful wisdom.
Wisdom ignored isn’t wisdom. As I’ve written earlier, “Wisdom is about taking the right action, not about accumulating facts.” The verses leading up to Solomon’s above saying are Proverbs 9:7-9, which say:
“Whoever corrects a scoffer gets himself abuse,
and he who reproves a wicked man incurs injury.
Do not reprove a scoffer, or he will hate you;
reprove a wise man, and he will love you.
Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser;
teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning.”
We cultivate wisdom by considering God’s works and His will for our lives (through the law and the Holy Spirit). We cultivate wisdom by allowing Him to define our terms as only He can. It is the presence of the fear of God – respect for His wisdom – that determines whether we scoff at correction (verses 7-8 above) or increase in learning (last verse).
Tomorrow I will re-post an old article on the definition of love, but today close with an echo of today’s idea from the Psalms:
“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever!” – Psalm 111:10