“The Structure of Foolishness” – Dr. Steve Clements

February 20, 2017

Wisdom shouts in the streets.  She cries out in the public square.  She calls to the crowds along the main street, to those gathered in front of the city gate. ‘How long, you simpletons, will you insist on being simpleminded?  How long will you mockers relish your mocking?  How long will you fools hate knowledge?  Come and listen to my counsel.  I’ll share my heart with you and make you wise.’” – Proverbs 1:20-23

The author of the Proverbs boldly asserts the need for us to have wisdom.  Some sections of the book focus on wisdom as the possession of an individual.  Much of the book, in fact, resounds with instructions for sound living that an elderly sage would offer to a young pupil who comes for instruction.  Yet some passages treat wisdom as a public or collective good, the joint property of a community.  A challenge of reading and interpreting the Proverbs, it seems to me, is to understand which of its teachings about wisdom apply primarily to individuals, which apply to communities, and which can apply equally to both.

These verses from a later section of Proverbs chapter one seem to be one of the latter, applying at both the individual and communal level.  Here is a teaching about what we might call a structure of foolishness that can exist, involving simplemindedness, mockery, and the hatred of knowledge.  A simpleton can be thought of as someone who functions at the most basic level of existence, and who never seeks growth and development for a higher level of personhood.  A mocker denigrates the achievements of others.  And those who hate knowledge are described forthrightly in these verses as fools.  If one seeks to derive a lesson from this verse, then he or she should seek to be ever improving as a person, should learn to avoid mockery, and should pursue knowledge as much as possible.

But there is also a strong sense of the collective about this teaching as well.  The implication is that we should strive to help the communities of which we are a part resist this same structure of foolishness.  We should enable, and indeed encourage, everyone to grow in self-understanding and wholeness, and not simply make this an individual pursuit.  We should share in laughter but resist the tendency to slide into mockery of others—as should our organizations and institutions.  And we should beseech others to join us in the search for knowledge of ourselves and the world in which we are situated.  Thus will we as a community avoid the foolishness that can lead to ruin.

CORNERSTONE:   Stewardship

- Dr. Steve Clements, Dean of College of Arts & Sciences, Associate Professor of Political Science

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