Wisdom: The Art of Ordering Things Properly

Quoting Aristotle (“Now it belongs to wisdom to set things in order”) and citing St. Augustine (“Peace is the tranquility of order”), St. Thomas Aquinas explains that the proper ordering of life marks the height of human wisdom. Augustine writes, “Order is the distribution which allots things equal and unequal, each to its own place.” An intelligent person must order many affairs by careful arrangements that prioritize the essential and subordinate the unimportant or secondary considerations. This proper ordering applies to the management of money, to the control of the body, the use of the mind, the judgment to distinguish between first priorities and secondary matters, and the moral life of each human being.

To purchase things one does not need or can afford, to spend more money than the budget allows and go into excessive debt, or to indulge in luxuries at the expense of necessities violate all sense of due order. To overspend for items for the sake of style, fashion, brand name, or image also shows folly. To go to college with no idea of a profession or field of interest or with no passionate desire for learning or a love of truth, but merely for the sake of a hedonistic social life or a novel adventure in experimental living shows poor judgment, especially when many college graduates incur enormous debt without adequate skills or preparation for earning a living wage. Families, businesses, and governments that persistently remain in debt all show a lack of wisdom in the management of money.

christmas-1775511_640To set things in order also pertains to man’s desires, appetites, and pleasures. All the excessive, uncontrollable desires that result in avarice, gluttony, or lust and that violate the virtue of temperance or the Greek ideal of The Golden Mean form disordered acts that inflict harm on others or deprive a person of health and peace of mind. Loss of control in matters of the body reduces man to the level of animals as unruly, willful human desires reject all restraints. This lack of self-control breeds insatiable appetites and restless compulsions that prevent the repose that human happiness requires. In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates compares those who live by inordinate urges to a “leaky sieve” that is always being filled and emptied without retaining anything of benefit. According to Socrates, they resemble those who constantly scratch themselves without any moment of relief. Dante’s famous lovers guilty of lust, Paola and Francesca in the Inferno, are constantly tossed and driven by high winds that correspond to their unmanageable desires for pleasure. Without self-control, the body and soul exist in discord because, in Augustine’s words, “The peace of the body and soul is the well-ordered and harmonious life and health of the living creature.”

The mind also, prone to wandering, daydreaming, and fantasizing, needs its proper regulation. The mind is notorious for its cleverness in sophistry, making “the weaker argument appear the stronger.” Socrates taught his students to beware of masters of eloquence who teach oratory and rhetoric intended to deceive and manipulate audiences. In the Confessions, Augustine admits that he misused his intelligence to rationalize and justify his sinful life, falling prey to astrology that denied free will and moral responsibility and to Manichaeism that explained evil as the work of the god of darkness rather than man’s sinful choices and weakness before temptations. The mind too is subject to another form of intemperance in the form of curiosity or forbidden knowledge, the itch to probe into dangerous waters like alchemy, black magic, and the occult. The proper order of the mind lies in its conformity to the truth, to the structure of reality, to the nature of things, and to the world in its objectivity. As Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984 discovers, sanity is possible only when a person affirms that water is wet, rocks are hard, and 2+2=4 and admits, “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.”

The moral life, likewise, cannot invent its own laws, violate the self-evident truths of the Natural Law, ignore the Ten Commandments, or pretend an invincible ignorance about the meaning of right and wrong that is written on human “hearts” and on the “conscience” as St. Paul writes in Romans 2. The moral life depends on the acknowledgement of universal objective truths known to all cultures and in all ages. The moral life cannot submit to the doctrines of relative truth and political correctness that determine truth by the opinions of popular culture or the fashionable ideologies of the day that imagine truth as constantly progressing or “evolving” to the point of undermining the sacredness of human life, the meaning of marriage, and divine commandments.

The wisdom that orders human life properly also distinguishes between what C.S. Lewis calls “first things” and “second things.” He writes, “You can’t get second things by putting them first. You get second things only by putting first things first.” He cites as examples the woman who makes her dog the center of her life and a man who lives only for the pleasure of drinking alcohol. By making these secondary goods “first things,” they diminish these pleasures while sacrificing even higher forms of happiness. The woman loses her “human usefulness and dignity,” and the man loses “not only his job but his palate.” Christ explained this principle with the words, “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.” The story of Esau who sold his birthright for a mess of pottage provides another famous example of the importance of priority in seeking higher goods over lesser goods.

The wisdom of proper order places divine teaching above man’s law, the salvation of the soul above the gain of the world, the common good above one’s personal pleasure, family above career, a pure heart above a guilty conscience, love of God and love of neighbor above self-interest, forgiveness above revenge, magnanimity above pettiness, and suffering wrong rather than doing evil. In Sophocles’ play Antigone the heroine followed her conscience and heart to bury her brother rather than obey the king’s unjust decree that forbade a proper burial. In Virgil’s Aeneid the Roman hero who founded Rome put the future good of his family and the Trojan people above his desire to marry Dido and live in luxury in Carthage. Rather than accommodate the world and deny Christ, St. Paul suffered imprisonment, scourging, persecution, and death rather than confuse first things with second things.

St. Gianna Beretta Molla sacrificed her life rather than abort her child. St. Thomas More suffered a martyr’s death rather than compromise the truth and approve King Henry VIII’s divorce. St. Maximilian Kolbe embodied love of God and love of neighbor for volunteering to die in place of a father and husband in the concentration camp of Auschwitz. St. John Paul II visited his would-be assassin in prison to forgive him for the attempted murder. All these moral choices sought the things that are above, gave priority to justice, charity, and truth, and honored the highest moral ideals and principles to embrace, in St. Paul’s words, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious.”

Wisdom, then, orders all things to their proper end and prevents a person from misusing or abusing his wealth and material goods, his bodily health and desire for pleasure, his power of intelligence and capacity for knowledge, and his ability to live an honorable life ruled by integrity and uprightness. Money is not intended to be wasted extravagantly for useless things and harmful pursuits. The body is not designed for overindulgence in carnal pleasure that breeds disease or reduces human beings to animals. The purpose of the mind is to desire the truth, to seek the truth, to love the truth, and even to suffer or die for the truth as great philosophers like Socrates and Boethius and saints and martyrs testify—not to reinvent morality, doubt the existence of truth, or pretend that propaganda determines truth.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D. has completed fifty years of teaching beginning as a teaching assistant at the University of Kansas, continuing as a professor of English at Simpson College in Iowa for thirty-one years, and recently teaching part-time at various schools and college in New Hampshire. As well as contributing to a number of publications, he has published seven books: The Marvelous in Fielding’s Novels, The Mysteries of Life in Children’s Literature, The Lost Arts of Modern Civilization, An Armenian Family Reunion (a collection of short stories), Modern Manners: The Poetry of Conduct and The Virtue of Civility, and The Virtues We Need Again. He has designed homeschooling literature courses for Seton Home School, and he also teaches online courses for Queen of Heaven Academy and part-time for Northeast Catholic College.
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