Wisdom: Ten Great Moments

Posted on 09/01/09

961–922 BC: King Solomon solves the most famous custody battle in history without breaking a sweat: he threatens to slice the twice-claimed tot in two, causing the real mother to drop her suit and get the (whole) baby.

536 BC: In feudal China, K’ung-fu-tze, a young man of fifteen, makes a fateful decision: he will devote his life to studying the wisdom of the ancient sages. He will develop a philosophy based on tradition, love of virtue, and good manners. It would come down to us as Confucianism.

399 BC: Bowing to the verdict of Athens, Socrates rejects Crito’s offer of help in escaping his fate and drinks hemlock from the poisoned chalice. Though condemned unjustly, Socrates says that as a citizen, he is bound by Athens’s laws.

circa 29–33: Christ preaches the Sermon on the Mount.

1666: It’s probably not true about the apple, but this is the year in which Sir Isaac Newton begins thinking about what would become the Universal Law of Gravitation.

1796: After two terms as president of the United States, George Washington refuses to run again and goes home to his farm in Virginia.

1815: Hopeless in Latin, unable to pass his seminary entrance exam on the first try, and perilously close to the bottom of the class, Jean Vianney is nevertheless ordained a priest. Surprisingly, he will become famous for wise advice to penitents and will one day be canonized.

1851: Frederick Douglass, a former slave with no formal education but an avid reader able to sprinkle his prose with quotations from Cicero and other ancient thinkers, embraces the U.S. Constitution in a newspaper editorial, thus breaking with the Garrisonian abolitionists, who reject the Constitution.

1859: Florence Nightingale’s seminal Notes on Nursing is published, showing that in the squalor of a Crimean ward for wounded soldiers, this administrative genius could find a new way of looking at things that would lead to a new way of doing things. Her practical wisdom would transform the nursing profession.

1938: Amid the thunderous applause for Neville Chamberlain — returning from Munich holding a scrap of paper with Adolf Hitler’s signature — curmudgeonly Winston Churchill knows that there will not be peace in his time. He is booed at the welcome-home ceremony for Chamberlain.