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Cultivating Wisdom

Classical Conversations Writer's Circle

Revisiting Some Archived Articles that Have Not Been Lost, but May Have Been Forgotten and Are Worth a Fresh Read

Among the five paths to great writing is the “literary path,” which shows that to become a great writer one must read great writings. However, one may be wrong in one’s assessment of great writing. It takes judgment to know whether something is great or not. That is why, when we are young, we often think something is wonderful enough to change the world only then to grow up to chuckle at our younger selves.

Judgment, in turn, requires a grasp of principles. In Philippians 4, Paul gives us those principles—the standards by which we should assess what we attend to:

Finally, brethren,
Whatever things are true,
Whatever things are noble,
Whatever things are just,
Whatever things are pure,
Whatever things are lovely,
Whatever things are of good report,
If there is any virtue,
And if there is anything praiseworthy,
Meditate on these things.
The things which you learned
And received
And heard
And saw in me,
These do,
And the God of peace will be with you.  
(Philippians 4:8-9, NKJV)

If something is just, noble, true, pure, lovely, and of good report, if it possesses something virtuous and praiseworthy, then we should meditate on it.

Of course, we still have to grow in our judgment in each of these areas and, as we mature, we become better at discerning the noble and just. But the starting point for Paul is the dogmatic recognition that truth and justice are real things to which we must submit our judgments.

We are not the lords of the true, the noble, nor the just.

If the starting point is the recognition that truth, nobility, justice, and so on really exist, the second step is to humble ourselves and listen to those who are wiser—i.e., more perceptive—than we are. If something is “of good report,” then we should listen to those who have reported on it, people able to report because they saw the thing on which they are reporting.

You may feel that you give up your autonomous power of judgment when you acknowledge the wisdom of others to be better than your own, and that is true. You do have to repent of your egotistical, self-centered, self-created standards if you are going to see what is actually lovely as opposed to what is merely pleasing to you.

But you have not abandoned your person-hood or your ability to perceive things yourself. You have simply acknowledged the rather obvious point that others have walked the path before. It may be that they are wrong. And as you go on to the third step, you may well become capable of pointing this out.

What is the third step? Having been shown by the wise what is true, noble, just, and so on you “meditate on these things.” There is a great deal to this little phrase, so let me try to unpack it if only a very little bit.

Does it intrigue you the way it does me that Paul does not say, “The True, the just, the noble, the lovely, the reputable,” and so on? Rather, he says, “Whatever is true, whatever is just,” and so forth.

In fact, the King James translators, to make this point even clearer, translated it with an additional word: “whatsoever things are true.”

The point, it seems to me, is that we do not meditate directly on truth itself, but on true things; we cannot meditate on justice itself, but on just things. It may be that the more mature are able to meditate directly on truth and justice, but for me and for others who are only starting this path, we need to meditate on just and true things.

We need to see justice embodied in an act or a story or an event or a work of art. We need to see nobility incarnated in noble actions, expressions, or productions. And Paul is telling us to look for these “things”—these “whatevers”—and when we find them to meditate on them.

So how do we meditate on them? I would suggest that at first we must learn simply to observe them. In verse 9, Paul writes, “The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do.”

The learning and receiving indicate that we are not left in a vacuum, that the God of peace provides a context for our meditations, but when he says “heard and saw in me,” I doubt that he means only what he lectured about with visual aids.

It is the “things” that we can see and hear that should draw our attention. Meditation begins with simple attention to things.

Note: not just “thing,” but “things.” We start by attending to one just or noble thing, but we go on to a second and third so that our souls can draw out the nobility and not be lost in the sensory details—the specifics of a specific—for their own sake.

When we compare Aeneas with George Washington, we are able to see what is common to both and what is noble in each. When we compare David with Solomon, we are able to view wisdom embodied. When we compare David’s actions before his triumphs and after, we can discern the things the wise know to fear.

That is why the Scriptures are full of stories and contain only a few theological texts and those in the context, always, of human relationships and ethical/spiritual matters.

God made us persons. As persons, we see the world as persons. As persons seeing the world, we see the true, the lovely, and the noble, not in abstractions, but as—and in—things.

Perhaps that confuses more than it clarifies, so let me be a little simpler.

To meditate on the true, just, noble, lovely, reputable, virtuous, and praiseworthy, we need to find instances of them and give them our attention. Geometry and memorizing help us with this. So do stories from history and literature.

But we need those who have walked the path farther than we have and have gained wisdom themselves to guide us.

So, believe what you know: that truth, justice, nobility, love, purity, and virtue exist. Look for others who have advanced farther on the path and do what you hear and see and learn and receive from them (i.e., imitate them). And, finally, meditate on the things that embody the virtues you want to develop.

How does this apply to writing?

Writing is always the product of thinking or meditating. Do you want to write well? Then escape from the analytical restrictions of modern writing programs (oriented toward processes, tests, and grades rather than thinking, wisdom, and virtue) and meditate on true, noble, just, pure, lovely, and reputable things.

That is why it is better to ask, “Should Scout have crawled under the neighbor’s fence?” than it is to analyze the structure of the plot of To Kill a Mockingbird.


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