Armchair philosophy

The third part in our series on biblical eco-warriors of the faith looks at Solomon, and living well on planet earth.

God gave Solomon wisdom – the broadest of minds and the largest of hearts – like the grains of sand upon the seashore. 1 Kings 4:29

Solomon was the wisest person who has ever lived. 1 Kings 4 tells us that he was a king whose very words brought ‘men of all nations’ to listen to him, whose learning surpassed all of the other Einsteins of his era, and even the vast accumulated knowledge of ancient Egypt. He was a wordsmith, a poet and a minstrel. And Solomon was also a keen observer of the world around him, effectively a botanist and a zoologist: ‘He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the wall. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish’.

But what does an Iron Age monarch from the first millennia before Christ have to teach us about living well in the third millennia A.D.? And does Solomon have anything specific to impart to us in the face of global inter-connected socio-environmental challenges – like poverty and inequality, climate change and biodiversity loss, and human and animal rights abuses – whose scale he could never have imagined? Well, yes he does, to answer both questions, and rather a lot at that. The greatest significance of the wisdom of Solomon is that it teaches us what wisdom is. Armed with that, we can face anything. And according to Solomon wisdom is this: humility, knowledge and love.

The first thing to note about Solomon’s wisdom is that it was God-given. It was a great gift given in trust, by the author of life itself. We read elsewhere that ‘the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom’ (Psalm 111:10), and that ‘with humility comes wisdom’ (Proverbs 11:2). Humility is an appropriate response when faced with the vastness of the universe, and the majesty of its creator. Confronted with all of that we are really rather small. Our entire species – seven billion people and counting – could fit into a cubic mile; just the volume of the ocean on our tiny planet in our tiny solar system in our tiny galaxy is 338 million cubic miles. And the more we know about all of this, whether individually or communally, the more we know we do not know. Anthrozoologist Paul Waldau writes, ‘the human species is at its best not when we claim superiority but when we humbly work at community’. Living well on planet earth begins with living humbly.

The second component of Solomon’s wisdom is knowledge, ‘the broadest of minds’. Knowledge is a valuable commodity. It is power, as Francis Bacon suggested, and it is more precious than gold, as Proverbs 8:10 suggests. ‘It is a great sweetness to go wandering and discoursing together amid truths’, remarked Galileo eloquently. But knowledge takes more forms than just knowing words, numbers and facts, as we may usually think. In fact, if we define intelligence as the effective use of information (or knowledge) then everyone – and everything – is intelligent in their own unique way. Human intelligence can take the form of spatial, musical, kinaesthetic, inter- and intra-personal smartness, as well as with words, numbers and nature. And even ants, as Solomon himself pointed out, were no slouches, organising and storing their food without ‘commander…overseer or ruler’ (Proverbs 6:6-8). Living well on planet earth continues with living informatively.

The final and most important aspect of Solomonic wisdom is love. The ‘largest of hearts – like the grains of sand upon the seashore’, as The Message beautifully puts it. Indeed, love is the glue that holds the universe together, that makes the world go round. It surpasses gifting, knowledge, sacrifice, faith and even hope (1 Corinthians 13). And love is a verb more than a feeling, a powerful compulsion to act: ‘For God so loved the cosmos that He gave His only Son’ (John 3:16). Love also knows no boundaries. Coleridge, famous for his Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, wrote, ‘He prayeth best who loveth best // All things both great and small // For the dear God who loveth us // He made and loveth all.’ Living well on planet earth culminates in living lovingly.

The word philosophy comes from two Greek words, philos, meaning love, and sophia, meaning wisdom. If we want to live well in our world that makes us all armchair philosophers, for living well means living wisely and living wisely means loving wisdom. The life of Solomon shows us that wisdom has three parts: humility, knowledge and love. That unlocks the key to 21st century A.D. life, just as it did to 10th century B.C. life. And whether we feel overwhelmed by the challenges of our own daily lives, or by global threats to the fabric and diversity of all life, or both, Solomon’s wisdom is a steady guide in an unsteady world. Living well on planet earth means living humbly, living informatively and living lovingly.

Gloria in excelsis Deo.

A cedar of Lebanon, favoured tree of Solomon the Wise.  © Michelle Walz and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

A cedar of Lebanon, favoured tree of Solomon the Wise.
© Michelle Walz and licensed for reuse under a Creative Commons Licence.

One thought on “Armchair philosophy

  1. So we can all be armchair philosophers…even if we don’t have an armchair? Humility, knowledge and love…three great attributes to pursue in serving Christ. Thanks and blessings.

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