The wisdom of “still deciding”

In my previous posts on “Still Deciding,” I tried to describe this virtue as a kind of intellectual courage to keep oneself from sheer indecision on one hand and shameless dogmatism on another. Still deciding, then, is actually a positive excellence, that helps to integrate and enrich the value of a person’s style of life.

Like moral courage, to which I suppose it is strongly related, still deciding is a form of practice—far more so than either indecision or dogmatism, which are both ways of ceding oneself to circumstance. Thus, still deciding takes practice. If we want its form to in-form the shape of our daily decisions, we must exercise ourselves, cultivate in ourselves a capacity to hold alternatives in contrast, entertain various ways in which we might resolve the alternatives, estimate the relative worths of each resolution, and then decide, attentive to both what we are choosing and what not.

Of course, there should be no expectation that such exercise will bring us perfect knowledge, let alone foreknowledge. We still might ignore real alternatives. We might misappraise the values of what we do envisage. We might fail entirely to see some promising resolution. No amount of practice in still deciding can expunge all risk from actual moments of decision. So, if it is not certainty we perfect by still deciding, what are we perfecting? What’s the goal? For the sake of what would one practice still deciding?

The penultimate answer is that still deciding is worth cultivating for love of life itself. The deep, deliberate engagement with the world, with ourselves and with others, which still deciding nurtures, means life abundant.

Maybe more than life itself, however, distinct traditions across many cultures claim a further, or a deeper, goal. Call it wisdom. For love of wisdom, for wisdom’s sake, we might be willing to set aside specious claims to know without a shadow of doubt, and specious dithering that disclaims any spark of insight, too. For wisdom’s sake we might admit knowing that we do not know the ultimate measures of an abundant life, at the same time accepting that we decide the true worth of our lives nonetheless under obligation to those measures.

Whatever is wisdom? Here is a modest and unsophisticated definition. Wisdom is a way of being attaining simplicity in the midst of—without sacrifice of—complexity. It is, we might say, a way of becoming one self. There have been, I suspect, some truly wise people in this sense, who have lived with insight despite uncertainty, and so lived decisively and without dogmatism. Yet, even were there truly no wise people to inspire us, the lure of wisdom would still draw men and women to change their lives for its sake.

Here are some major ways the desire for a wise simplicity has been understood during its long and ongoing history: as an investigation after a steady principle or principles which provide stability through the change of the world, or as the adoption of an attitude to one’s life that permits courage despite change, or as the cultivation of a sensitivity to change so that one can flow along with it. Biblical wisdom literature commends the “fear of the Lord,” for instance, and it has been elaborated in each of those major ways, by Jews, Christians and Muslims. The great conversation among Confucians, Daoists and Buddhists in the long course of Chinese history inspired similar paths. The classic yogas of India, jñana, karma, bhakti, bear comparison as ways to wisdom, too. I don’t doubt like explorations emerged in places as far afield as the ancient Ghana Empire of Wagadou and the great cities of Mesoamerica.

In the late 5th century among the ancient Greeks, Plato developed a very particular way of articulating the ideal of wisdom, adopting the word, euētheia, or “noble simplicity,” as its epitome.

At one point in his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides expresses dismay that the ancient simplicity of the nobility of a certain city had been perverted toward duplicity and double-dealing. His use is notable because it contrasts with more frequent appearances of the word where it connotes foolish naivete. Indeed, in Plato’s dialogues which are set around the same historical period, forms of the word euētheia are often used by speakers to derogate characters whom they view as rubes. In the Republic, the tyrannical Thrasymachus guys Socrates for being so simple (euēthestatos), for instance. But across the dialogues (as L.M.J. Coulson helps us see), via Socratic irony and also straightforward praise, Plato also recuperates euētheia as a name for that at which his philosophy aims.

The person who attains noble simplicity would be a truly good and beautiful soul, someone able to embrace great complexity in rich and justly balanced contrast, so as to want and will for oneself and others just the good things that are best for them. Perhaps there is no higher calling: Socrates in the Republic says, “Must not our young people pursue these [euētheia’s goods] everywhere if they are to do what is truly theirs to do?”

Whatever we do, though, of course in the end each and every one of us will be simplified. There is no question about that. For death is the great simplifier. There is question, though, of whether we shall die a little wisely or like fools. In his spare poem, “Simplify Me When I’m Dead,” Keith Douglas, a British poet killed in action in 1944 during the Normandy invasion, asks his reader to view him through “time’s wrong-way telescope” and “see if I seem / substance or nothing: of the world / deserving mention or charitable oblivion.”

In face of the difficulty of life, it’s easy to understand why we might fear that we will end our days undeserving of mention, that the fall into oblivion will be the kindest we should expect. And so it is tempting to be untrue to life’s complexity, and tempting then to arbitrarily—dogmatically—simplify ourselves: clinging to, say, a religious doctrine, or a political ideology, or an expectation about our professional identity.

The harsh irony of such untruth is that it leads us to intolerance not only of others but of our true selves as well. We suppress capacities for insight into, and appreciation of, the complexities that relate us, every one, to others. We might learn a thing or two, then, from Terry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s popular story, Good Omens. Its rather unheroic heroes, the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, together defy the destructive winner-takes-all over-simplification of the apocalyptically minded hosts of heaven and hell, in defense of the ambiguous and beautiful complexities of this world.

It’s easy to understand why college students might cling to simplistic notions already, as they undergo the momentous change from high school kids into adult citizens. In present social and economic circumstances, as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates long-standing inequities and inflicts lasting scars, it’s easy to understand why, then, the declaration of a religious identity or a political tribe or a major as a token of socioeconomic security might seem like a confident act of self-determination; but also easy to understand why this feeling of decisiveness might nevertheless be also a way of fooling ourselves.

But wisdom counsels patience: with these times, with ourselves, with the general and inevitable difficulty of life. Wisdom calls us to love and learn of the complexity of our world, still deciding that in time we may learn a richer and truer path to simplicity than that of impatiently sacrificing ourselves for simplistic ideals. Wisdom calls us to confidence in this one life-changing, world-enhancing quest we share, in which we shall each and all deserve mention.


Andrew Irvine is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Maryville College. He co-edited the volume Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion (Springer, 2009) and blogs from time to time at https://aioz.wordpress.com/. He is currently in rehearsals for a community theatre production of The Great Gatsby, playing Nick Carraway.

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