Reflections From the Far East on the Role of the Sage Vs. The Modern-Day Scholar

I realize this post doesn’t have a lot to do with lessons learned directly from Indonesian culture. However, as I have spent the last week working on the manuscript for my Wisdom Based Business book, I have had a lot of time to reflect on the overlap between ancient sages of the East and the modern day scholar.

In the ancient East, sages were hired by the courts of kings to contribute toward the wisdom of the nation. Sages not only captured census information and inventory records, they also transcribed and composed wisdom literature. Sages in the Ancient Near East (i.e. Egypt, Babylon, and Israel) and in the Far East (i.e. China) composed wisdom literature that informed the national cultural and religious practices around 1000 B.C.E. Wisdom literature contained multiple forms of instruction, including life experience examples (case studies – Ecclesiastes and Amenemope), debates (Job and Theodicy), and short proverbial sayings (Proverbs and the Analects).

The writings of the sages were both divine and pragmatic and captured reflections on every human experience, including:

– the temple
– the family
– the marketplace
– the political and legal spheres

Sages wrote on all spheres of life, describing how to live skillfully in each of these contexts. The goal and task of the sage was focused on learning – learning and providing insights into wisdom, instruction, understanding, righteousness, justice, equity, prudence, discretion, hearing, and all necessary skills for life. Sages were among the first to study the good life and how wisdom enables its attainment. Specifically, ancient sages studied the human experience aimed at a single target: to secure God’s gift of life.[1]

In modern times, the scholar serves a similar role to the sage. No longer focused on a deity and no longer commissioned by kings (in most contexts), the modern day scholar is commissioned by research universities, governments, corporations, and many other institutions to explore the natural world and the human experience aimed at proposing antecedents to beneficial outcomes. With the enlightenment came the development of the modern philosophy of science; science and research today leans away from a foundation in faith and religion and looks instead to objective observations of the natural world that can be measured and replicated. While the scholar utilizes different methods from the ancient sage, some goals of the scholar remain the same – to learn, to provide insights, to disseminate those insights to others through writing, teaching, and integration of multiple perspectives into unique contexts of life.

The Boyer model of scholarship[2] reflects the role of the scholar in integration (learner and connector of ideas across disciplines), discovery (advancement of knowledge through research), application (engagement with the translating knowledge into solutions to problems), and teaching (educating future scholars and transforming the world view of students).

Just as scholarship requires application in context; there is growing recognition that the human experience is not separate from the influence of religion and faith. This is in tension with the objective baseline for discovery created by the philosophy of science that draws from pragmatic wisdom alone. However, ethics in the last 50 years seem to have proven that pragmatic wisdom alone has not translated into long term beneficial outcomes. Despite a resurgence of phronesis (practical wisdom or prudence) in management theory and practice, corporate scandals in recent history may indicate that phronesis removed from sophia (theoretical or divine wisdom) may not be as effective in the long-term.

While the focus of the modern-day scholar primarily engages pragmatic wisdom (phronesis), the focus of the sage was wisdom drawn from both pragmatic insights and deistic (sophia) revelation.  In fact, concepts of pragmatic and deistic wisdom carried forward in history from the Ancient Near East into the Greek and Roman times and provided the intellectual foundations for what we know today as philosophy. Philosophy is literally translated as the love of wisdom (philo – love of, sophy – wisdom).

Statue of Sophia in the personification of “The Wisdom”
at the Library of Celsus, in Ephesus, Turkey

Sophia was worshiped in Greece as the goddess of wisdom.  Thus, when you go to graduate school to receive a PhD you are literally receiving a doctorate in the love of wisdom. Graduate schools don’t really teach wisdom though, they teach prudence. Perhaps true wisdom can only be attained at the intersection of faith and practice. It seems as though both sophia and phronesis, morality AND practice are required to attain the outcomes promised by wisdom: blessing, knowledge, justice, and mercy.

For today, just thoughts from Indonesia…

[1] Crenshaw, J.L., 1977. In search of divine presence: some remarks preliminary to a theology of Wisdom. Review & Expositor, 74(3), pp.353-369.

[2] Boyer, E. L. 1990. Scholarship revisited. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University: Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

It should be noted that is my own work, representing my ideas only. This is not an official site of Wheaton College, the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, nor any other entity other than me. The views expressed on this site are entirely those of me, Hannah J Stolze, and do not represent the views of any partner or any of my other affiliated organizations.

Share Post:

Share on facebook
Share on linkedin
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on email


Industries Throughout History: Why Does Wisdom Make Clothes?

Consider this, the Noble Woman in Proverbs 31:10-31 is arguably Lady Wisdom personified as an entrepreneur in the marketplace. This noble woman who makes history as the exemplification of wisdom has a profitable business in the textile industry. She manufactures and sells sashes and garments.

Read More »