Wisdom of the Ancients BRSLI Proceedings (2006-2007) 10: 76-79 (2007)

Wisdom of the Ancients
Antiquity lecture convened & chaired by Lee Hooker

Dr Charles Stirton
Ouroboros Research & Education Trust 27 June 2006

Ancient wisdom is like a mysterious, closed door. Anyone can open it, but only a few will. It is ancient because it has always been there and leads to simple truths. What we see, hear and experience is what we are prepared for. The fact that you have come here tonight means you are a discoverer, a seeker, an explorer, or just plain curious. The phrase ancient wisdom evokes mystery. Over the centuries it has been captured into numerous schemes by our ancestors to help them make sense of themselves, their origin, their destiny, and their universe. Diahann Hughes and I will open the door and share with you a few of the treasures and wonders we have experienced in our own search for ancient wisdom - a little bit about our personal journeys and why we think the study of wisdom and ancient wisdom is so relevant to today and why we have created the Ouroboros Trust to help, promote a better appreciation of ancient wisdom. This report covers my half of the talk. We hope by the end that you will leave with more questions than you came with. How would you define wisdom? Who would you consider wise? Why? Is ancient wisdom different from modern notions of wisdom? Let us begin by contrasting and reflecting on two very different worlds: the city of Bath and an Egyptian desert environment out of which so much human creativity has emerged. The desert scenes are filled with various icons and symbols that at first glance seem to represent an immensely different world compared to Bath. Of course, we could have selected any number of other places around the globe for comparison. Bath is a place with which we are more familiar and so different from the desert. Yet behind the differences and traditions lie the same universal principles and basic human qualities that link us all today and back through to the past even if we do not recognise them anymore. All of us have superstitions of some sort or another and feel compelled to act them out even if we do not know why. Consider just three that many people in Bath practice regularly; they rarely walk under ladders, they feel compelled to throw coins into any water container, and they touch wood whenever they make a future observation. How many realise that these refer to an inherited fear of the Hangman's ladder, and a need to placate the spirits in water and trees? Much of our knowledge about the past and ancient

wisdom comes from ancient books and manuscripts scattered across the world, from engraved objects and materials, or survive as living oral transmissions. Most historical approaches to the study of ancient wisdom tend to focus on ancient literature to discover traditional meaning. They do not always separate propaganda from reality and often misinterpret or de-contextualize ancient wisdom in their translations. There is also a largely ignored esoteric knowledge embedded in art, architecture, sacred geometry, music and philosophical contexts. Defining wisdom Before we try to approach ancient wisdom we need to develop a definition of wisdom generally and ask a few more detailed questions about it. Do different peoples and cultures perceive wisdom in the same way? Is it a singular unified concept? Has the interpretation of wisdom changed over time? What do contemporary studies of wisdom say about wisdom in our own age? The word wisdom is derived from Wīs (wise) + dōm, dom, about 900, Middle English, fr. Old English Wīsdom. Here are three quite different definitions of wisdom that relate to mythos, Theos, and logos respectively. * Wisdom is the teachings of the ancient wise men relating to the art of living and sometimes philosophical problems concerning the universe, and or God, and forming a class of literature. * Wisdom is the effectual mediating principle or personification of God's will in the creation of the world. * Wisdom is the ability to discern inner qualities and essential relationships. We could also define wisdom academically or nonacademically, by asking each other what we understand wisdom to be. For comprehensive studies on the history of wisdom see Birren & Svensson (2005) and Trowbridge (2006). We will look first at academic approaches to the study of wisdom. I have chosen three definitions from Sternberg and Jordan (2005) to give a flavour. * Wisdom is a holistic cognitive process, a virtue or compelling guide for action, and, a good, desirable state of being. (Czikzentmihalyi & Rathunde). * Wisdom is the expertise in, the domain of fundamental life pragmatics (Baltes & Smith). * Wisdom is a smooth and balanced dialogue between two sets of attributes: outer, objective, logical forms of processing (logos) and inner, subjective organismic forces

(mythos) (Labouvie-Vief). The first thing we discover is that there is little consensus about what wisdom is. For example, there are over 20 academic definitions provided by psychologists and social scientists alone. They reflect the different world views adopted by each academic's approach to wisdom. All contain a bit of the truth but like the blind men and the elephant they do not quite complete the whole. Academics tend to divide wisdom theories into implicit and explicit theories. 1. Implicit wisdom theories (what we all think) are evoked when people are asked what they think wisdom is. These are the filters through which people view and judge cultures, individuals and themselves. We carry these models in our heads. 2. Explicit wisdom theories are theories deduced from experimental research. People's implicit theories of wisdom tend to correspond to an ideal self, which varies in different cultures. There are very few comparative modern studies of wisdom as seen by different peoples and cultures. Only six psychological and social science studies have been made on the historical roots of wisdom in east and west, philosophers and theologians have been studying these things for generations [see table below]. Recent studies on definitions of Wisdom
GROUP STUDIED 1. Hispanic Americans RESEARCHE RS Valdez 1994 FINDINGS Spiritual & interpersonal. Cognitive scored Iow. 2. Tibetan Levitt 1999 Buddhist monks 3. Japanese Takayama men and 2002 women (19-80) 4. Taiwanese Chinese Yang 2001 Religious.

criteria of control, replication and prediction. Most early social-psychological empirical studies avoided complex topics 'like ageing, love, creativity, and wisdom, which was for a very- long time embedded in philosophy and religion. * Wisdom is defined differently across populations, gender, age and occupational groups. * Research seems to show that wisdom is the capstone of behavioural complexity. It leads to explanations of behaviour from the top down, from purpose and intention to behavioural acts. What are the implications? If modern humans have such a diverse approach to wisdom then we will differ in our interpretations about ancient wisdom or maybe even as to what might be included in its study. Western and eastern wisdom traditions Each tradition has a long period of development. The western intellectual tradition overall tends towards precise definitions of any concept whereas eastern traditions keep definitions as vague as possible. They often leave the precise meaning of a concept open so it will enhance the potential flexibility of its interpretation. Western traditions offer a detailed description of the psychological nature of wisdom. However, its focus is relatively narrow. Wisdom is limited to mainly cognitive features such as having an extensive knowledge database and an ability to use it. The eastern wisdom tradition has a more diffuse approach to its past. It emphasises the transformative and integrative processes of the whole of wisdom. So it embraces a practical knowledge with an approach that has a sense of the whole rather than a sum of the parts. If we were to simplify the two extremes we could say that the West emphasises analytical cognitive skills, whereas the east emphasises social competence. Chinese people define wisdom less spiritually and less religiously than Hispanic Americans and Tibetan Buddhist monks but more pragmatically so daily life brings harmony to society as whole. Modesty and unobtrusiveness may be wisdom characteristics unique to Chinese originated culture. With this as background we can now approach ancient wisdom and explore a few examples. Ancient wisdom studies The best explanation of ancient wisdom that I have found is by Paul Devereux (2002). He explains it as follows: ‘When we visit the sacred mountains and temples of antiquity, or learn of the rituals and religious beliefs of ancient and traditional peoples, we are peering down into the deep well of the human mind and soul. We are encountering the remnants of the world-views and spiritual or

Practical and experience based competence linked to reasoning ability and general intelligenceCompetencies, knowledge, benevolence, openness, profundity & unobtrusiveness. Daily life pragmatism to bring harmony to society as a whole. Australian and Americans scored knowledgeable and wise. Japanese and Indians scored discreet, aged, & experienced.

5. American, Australian, Japanese, & Indian

Takahashi & Bordia 2000

Summary of recent studies on wisdom (extracted from Sternberg & Jordan (2005) We can draw a number of conclusions from the data: * Wisdom is a multidimensional construct. It is understood differently by different groups. * There are only a few modern empirical studies of Wisdom, because, as we have seen, the concept is difficult to define and it is hard to meet the scientific research

psychological insights of our ancestors. These ruins and remnants are sometimes referred to as an "ancient wisdom" or "lost knowledge". What we seek to access are the principles that underpinned some of the themes of ancient wisdom, and to readapt them for our own time and situation. Principles are perennial they do not age’. Geoffrey Farthing has described it as the: ‘Wisdom of understanding and compassion, of which all of us feel in need of in the depths of our being. To be wise we have to learn to apply the principles of Ancient Wisdom to the detailed circumstances of our lives. In this wisdom we sense our own strength, our own selfsufficiency. It gives us hope and the courage and determination to face life.’ Manly Hall (1928) suggests we can we can live two types of life. In the Unheeded life we struggle from womb to tomb - a span measured by our own creation - time. The other life derives from the notion that we are not the insignificant creature we appear to be. It is the Philosophic life from realization to infinity. It begins with understanding, endures forever, and it is consummated on the plane of eternity. He notes that throughout the ages the mysteries have stood at the threshold of reality - the space between substance and shadow. These gates stand open for those who will pass into the spacious domicile of the spirit. In the mystic the gate is the heart and through spiritualization of one's emotions one contacts the elevated plane which, once sensed, becomes the sum of the worth-while. For the philosopher, reason is the gate between the outer and the inner worlds, the illumined mind bridging the chasm between the corporeal and the incorporeal. Thus Godhead is born within the one who sees, and from the concerns of humanity one rises to the concerns of the Gods. Gregory Bateson reminds us that our perceived modern reality is not the only reality. . We can still be enriched by the insights, knowledge and cognitive tools developed by our ancestors. We can get glimpses of others ways of seeing ourselves and our environment. And here is one of the major reasons for studying ancient wisdom traditions. It can help us reconnect, synthesize and integrate our knowledge. Composite wisdom diagrams I have always been fascinated how our ancestors tried to integrate all knowledge into composite diagrams, of which I mention just three: * The Mesoamerican Fejervary-Mayer Codex. This diagram is a symbolic representation of how the universe, space, time, and the realms of heaven and earth are integrated into one whole. Priests used to read the codices to foretell the future, linking the

spiritual and material planes of existence. The sacred calendar of 260 days, known as Tonalpohualli, structured the time-space continuum. Like religious calendars from other cultures, the sacred calendars in these codices codified knowledge of the cycles of nature into a system that gave order and meaning to existence, with beginnings and endings, direction and goals. The material world was also structured by the four directions (north, south, east, and west), as well as by concepts of inner-outer and above-below. There was an overall theme of tension or balance between opposite or competing forces. * Mandalas. Mandalas are used for complex visualization practices during empowerments and inner journeys. They also form ground plan designs for Buddhist architecture. * Sephiroth or Kabbahlic Tree of Life. The Judaic Sephiroth tree is a multi-layered symbol. It represents the plan of creation of all upper and lower things and is a path to wisdom. There are numerous such diagrams from many different literate cultures. However, much work still needs to be done on diagrammatizing the oral cultures. A good example is the myth chart created by the anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss. Unearthing ancient wisdom There are so many topics that encompass ancient wisdom that any overview discussion on it could end up being superficial. I have chosen therefore just one aspect of my own interests to share with you - the night sky. Some things such as the night sky are enduring. Celestial bodies - the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars have provided a reference for measuring the passage of time throughout human existence. Ancient civilizations relied upon the apparent motion of these bodies through the" sky to determine seasons, months, and years. Jean Fernel (1538) explained it well. 'Contemplation of the stars and heavenly bodies excites such a wonder and charm in the human mind that once fascinated by it, we are caught in the toils of an enduring and delighted slavery, which holds us in bondage.' As a child growing up in the vast open spaces of Africa's dark night skies I was fascinated by the night sky. I was gripped by how it was interpreted or represented by different people living in my country. The Khoi San Bushmen, for example, view the stars as the campfires of their departed ancestors, whereas the Zulu depict the red dawn and dusk as a re-enactment of the bloody battles between the great black and white bulls of night and day as they fight for mastery of their domain. It is only now, far removed from my childhood and from Africa, that I realize how much I knew about the southern skies compared to the northern ones. Although the northern sky is less familiar to me it is the southern hemisphere that is my axis mundi. It is only recently that I have learned how

little I knew even of the night skies of Africa and how early Africans interpreted them. In this room we share a sense of the grandeur of the monumental megalithic sites of Stonehenge in Britain and Carnac in France and stand in awe of the ingenuity of these structures and what they may represent, but it is in Africa at five sites virtually unknown here that I have a deeper sense of connection. As Diahann Hughes will talk more about Stonehenge and modern work being done on megalithic sites and sacred geometry, I will not cover these aspects. Rather I would like to turn your gaze to Africa to a megalithic site at Nabta Playa in Egypt which is 2000 years older than Stonehenge. There are five known alignments of megaliths that stretch out from a group of central megalithic structures at the settlement at Nabta Playa in Egypt. The lines very closely match the direction of sunrise on the summer solstice, as well as the rising points of Sirius, Dubhe, and Orion's Belt. There are 25 stone alignments with seven positions in the sky. The huge stones are typically 1.5 to 2 metres high, but some are up to 5 metres tall and weigh 4 tons. We are still at the beginning of understanding the significance of these finds and much archaeological work remains. There are other rarely studied megalithic sites in Africa that are little known in the west. These include megaliths at Namoratunga, Borana, Senegambia, and Bouar. Another fascinating African puzzle is the ruin known as Great Zimbabwe. As a student I camped in these ruins for three nights in the late 1960's. It is an extraordinary set of ruins with very unusual stonework for Sub-Saharan Africa. It is still not clear who built it, or what its purpose was. Many scholars still find it hard to believe that Africans could have built it or that it could have been a celestial observatory. Yet if one looks at the placement of the Zimbabwean stone birds (no longer there), that were mounted on metre long poles, one has a parallel with Yezidi bird totems called sanjaks and other northern hemisphere sky-bird mythologies that relate to Cygnus and other stellar observatories. I have shown you these different megalithic and later astronomical sites from around Africa primarily because they are so little known and virtually unstudied. They are also a reminder to those of us who are interested in ancient wisdom to take a worldwide view of the past whenever we can to search for the universal principles that underlie our ancestor's attempts to understand and master time and space. I also mentioned these African sites, because the ancient peoples of Sub-Saharan Africa left so little monumental architecture behind. It is easy to forget or ignore Africa's wisdom as Africans focused much of their cosmology and wisdom within the oral tradition which is only now belatedly being recognised to be as rich and deep as anything else from around the world. I end my brief look at the night skies and its

measurement to describe the puzzling and fascinating stone spheres of Costa Rica. The spheres are found on the Diquis River delta, near the Pacific coast of southern Costa Rica. Their sizes range from an inch to 8 feet in diameter. Over 186 spheres have been recorded in the literature but many more have been destroyed and others remain undiscovered. No local source exists for the granite; and no stoneworking tools have been found near the spheres. The best spheres are perhaps the finest examples of precision stone carving in the ancient world. The maximum circumference error in a 6ft 7in diameter sphere is only 0.5 inch, or 0.2%. The spheres are often grouped, but no general system or alignment mode seems to exist. Who manufactured them and for what purpose? One theory is that they accurately represent the planets of the night sky millennia ago. Scope of ancient wisdom studies The breadth and scope of ancient wisdom studies is very wide. I have touched very briefly on only one aspect. This brings me to one of the most challenging aspects of ancient wisdom studies. Firstly, the field is very broad, as we have already seen just in the problems of defining wisdom itself. It embraces so many aspects of human endeavour. What sets it apart is its synthesising, connecting and integrating ability. Many of the exciting key discoveries in the field are being made by independent academic researchers outside the mainstream of scholarship. Their work ranges from the sometimes incredible to the scientifically accurate and rigorous. They usually work outside the purview of fashionable research areas. They challenge prevailing accepted wisdom about so many topics: the age of human civilization; lost flooded civilizations; the intelligence of our Palaeolithic and Neolithic ancestors; and the timing, extent and scale of worldwide trade and navigation. They are a difficult challenge to many prevailing worldviews. In the Ouroboros Trust we believe that independent researchers have much to offer. However, most of these researchers are poorly financed. Our aim is to be a synthesising force and to build bridges between academia and the independent research sector across all disciplines that link to ancient wisdom and applying rigorous standards of scholarship, referencing and scientific analysis as appropriate. But time is not on our side. One of the greatest challenges facing ancient wisdom studies is that there is a huge loss of antiquities, structures and sites around the world. Roger Atwood in his book Stealing historytomb raiders, smugglers, & the looting of the ancient world writes: ‘The biggest obstacle to stopping the looting of the ancient world is overcoming the feeling that it is inevitable. That as long as there are rich buyers, there will always be poor looters willing to supply them. The day is not far off, he warns, when an 'archaeologist

can go an entire career without seeing a single unpillaged site’. Consider a single example. During the 1991 Gulf War, looters broke into nine of Iraq's regional museums, stealing more than 4,000 objects from statues to clay tablets and pottery. Less than a handful of those artefacts have been recovered. I began my part of this talk by introducing the complexity of defining wisdom, went on to hint at the breadth of the topic of ancient wisdom studies, and finally briefly mentioned some of the problems associated with it. In conclusion, the time for wisdom studies generally has come. We believe that ancient wisdom has much to offer modern societies.
Further reading
M P Hall. The Secret Teachings of all Ages (NY, Tarcher, Penguin, 1928). J E Birren & C M Svensson. 'Cultural foundations of wisdom: an integrated developmental approach.' R J Sternberg & J Jordan. A
Handbook of Wisdom (CUP, 2005).

P Devereux. Living Ancient Wisdom: understanding & using its principles today. (London, Rider, 2002). R J Sternberg & J Jordan. A Handbook of Wisdom: psychological
perspectives (CUP, 2005).

RH Trowbridge. Wisdom as Skill: forming & living by a wisdom perspective
(Rochester, Richard Trowbridge. 2006).

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