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The Mind That Matters Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 03 February 2014

King Solomon, we read in Scripture, possessed wisdom that “excelled the wisdom of all the children of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. For he was the wisest of all men.” In modern parlance, he was, “the smartest guy in the room.”

At least for a while – threatening to cut up the baby to discover the real mother, etc. He was big on government and public works projects as well, and good at them (not just the Temple, though back then you didn’t have to make the case that they were shovel-ready, since you could commandeer the wealth of the nation and had an inexhaustible supply of slave labor.) By the end of his reign, Israel had been transformed into a great nation, Jerusalem into a city of conspicuous wealth and, as a result, not a few problems.

Not least, the king himself. Later in life, he “had seven hundred wives, princesses, and three hundred concubines, and his wives turned his heart away. For when Solomon was old, his wives turned his heart away after other gods; and his heart was not wholly devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been.” From a purely human point of view, having 1000 women around, competing for your attention, isn’t the smartest move a guy can make.

David, Solomon’s father, got himself into hot water over only one, Solomon’s mother Bathsheba. When Matthew wrote Christ’s genealogy, he puts Solomon’s parentage delicately ex ea, quae fuit Uriae, as the Vulgate reads. Poor Uriah. If he had gone home when he was on leave instead of drinking with his army buddies and sleeping in barracks, things might have been different. (You have to wonder why he didn’t, if Bathsheba was such a looker that, even at a distance, she caught David’s eye.)

There are in these stories multiple opportunities for exegesis of a kind I rarely see. A commentary I just looked at speaks of the division into social classes during Solomon’s reign, as if growing income inequality in 10th-century B.C. Palestine were the worst thing to come out of this family soap opera. The Bible itself speaks of Israel’s unfaithfulness, division after Solomon – not into classes, but Northern Kingdom (Israel) and Southern (Judah) – leading to social chaos, foreign misadventures, captivity (Babylon), and dissolution.

Of course, in God’s Providence, Christ also lay at the end of the story, who was a very different kind of king.

All this might lead in multiple directions. But what does it mean to be, really, “the wisest of men”? Perhaps, not much, since even Solomon descended quickly into self-destructive luxury and infidelity. A sad commentary on human nature, and a useful lesson about humility. Still, what was the wisdom that made Solomon wise, so to speak, when he was at the top of his game?

Some saw it in the Song of Songs. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote a commentary on it still brilliant after 800 years. Thomas Aquinas was working on one when he died. They saw in that love poem that love of God – not only fear – is wisdom.


           Solomon meets the Queen of Sheba
         by Piero della Francesca, c. 1460

Modern scholars say that the Song of Songs, Proverbs, the Book of Wisdom, Ecclesiastes weren’t written until centuries after Solomon. Though they form part of the wisdom tradition – they have little to do with Solomon.

We’re on firmer ground in the first Book of Kings, when Solomon asked God for “a heart to understand how to discern between good and evil.” That’s what must have impressed the visiting Queen of Sheba, and many others.

And what makes his apostasy so disturbing. When he dedicates the Temple, he prays that God will forgive when the people sin – and turn back to Him – and that God will be with and uphold Israel “so that all the peoples of the earth may come to know Yahweh is God indeed, and that there is no other.”

Not much later, he turned to Astarte, the goddess of love, and Moloch, he who demanded the sacrifice of children. No doubt international opinion in his day praised him for his tolerance toward other cultures and openness to women’s perspectives, the wisdom of the world.

The title of Dostoyevsky’s novel The Idiot refers to the Christ-like character, Prince Myshkin, who puzzles the other Russians busy getting government posts, seeking money, arranging advantageous marriages. To them, Myshkin (and by implication Jesus) looks like an idiot because he isn’t in that business, though he understands it quite well.

Yet one of the beautiful women who’s being sought in marriage in his social circle says to him one day: “your real mind is far better than all theirs put together. Such a mind as they have never even DREAMED of; because really, there are TWO minds – the kind that matters, and the kind that doesn't matter.”

We, too, seem to think that the smartest guy in the room is also the best person. There’s a tremendous confusion in our world – fueled I think by the tremendous power modern technologies provide  – between smart and good. If you ask somebody whether some geek like Bill Gates or the late Steve Jobs would make a good president, they’d laugh. But for some reason we believe that highly credentialed technocrats – who often know little of human nature and certainly haven’t asked God humbly for wisdom – know what’s best.

So what’s the mind that matters? Plato and the younger Solomon agree: “it is not the life of knowledge, not even if included all the sciences, that creates happiness and well-being, but a single branch of knowledge – the science of good and evil. If you exclude this from the other branches, medicine will be able to give health, and shoe-making shoes, and weaving clothes. Seamanship will still save life at sea and strategy win battles. But without the knowledge of good and evil, the use and excellence of these sciences will be found to have failed us.” (Charmides 174)

 
Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
 
 
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

 

 

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Comments (8)Add Comment
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written by Augustine Thomas, February 03, 2014
Fantastic!

(Please tell this to many of the American bishops--Archbishop-Gomez-EHEMMM--who constantly court "the smartest guy in the room" and completely ignore meaningful engagement with their flocks! Cause, you know, celebrating some nonsense with pro-abortion politicians is more important than fixing your modernist wasteland of am archdiocese!)
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written by Manfred, February 03, 2014
Thank you for filling us in on the problems in 10th century B.C.Palestine. On March 27th, in 21st century America, Nancy Pelosi, the minority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, a Catholic and weekly Communicant with a twenty year history of being pro abortion, will receive the Margaret Sanger Award from Planned Parenthood. This is P.P.'s highest award. Will you please assist your readership in locating a Mind that Matters anywhere in the Catholic Church starting with Pope Francis working down? What is the point of having Canon 915 when Catholics, and others, understand it will never be used?
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written by Brad Miner, February 03, 2014
Manfred: You should start your own website. Then you could write whatever you want, rather than sniping at others about what they should write on their websites. I'm sure there is somebody out there this morning in a snit because Robert Royal failed to make mention at all of the Denver Broncos loss is this wonderful column.
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written by Robert Royal, February 03, 2014
Manfred: If you kept a sense of humor in the midst of our present daffiness, you would have seen that I'm making the case that Solomon - even Solomon - turned into the Nancy Pelosi of his day in later years. There are lessons to be drawn from Scripture that are often not in technical academic studies. Or are we not supposed to read the Bible now because it's old?
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written by grump, February 03, 2014
It seems rather curious that the "wise" men and paragons of virtue of the Bible -- Solomon, David, Moses, Paul -- all were the worst of sinners. Solomon, with all those wives, money and a megalomaniac personality; David, an adulterer and murderer; Moses, killer of an Egyptian and basic coward God finally had to goad him to action; Paul, the self-described "worst of sinners" cheering on Stephen's brutal death and a bunch of other Israelite warlords responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of Hittites and other "pagan" men, women and children. Poor Judas simply ratted out Jesus and gets far the worst of it.

Maybe God favored those bad boys because they were such good writers; can any love poem match the beauty of the Song of Songs? And Paul's letters were masterpieces of contrition. David's wonderful psalms and proverbs likely were enough to redeem himself from his awful sins. Perhaps Moses got the biggest break of all by getting a pass for his capital crime. The lawbreaker gets to give out the law.

The worst thing I ever did was steal stuff from the candy store but somehow I don't think I'm going to be in the same august company of those biblical big shots in Heaven. After all, the OT says, God blesses Whom He blesses and Curses Whom he curses.

God sure works in mysterious ways.
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written by Avery Tödesuhl, February 03, 2014
Jesus made the point better than Plato in Luke 11:28:

He replied, “Rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it.”

Wisdom is active and involves doing; knowledge need not be active. And doing always involves moral choice in this world.

As for Nancy Pelosi and her life-style, I refer anyone to Matthew, Chapter 6, verse 5.
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written by gsk, February 03, 2014
All very good, except the swipe at Uriah. I have always understood his reticence to go home as principled. He didn't carouse or drink, but slept at David's gate, perhaps knowing that it was not virtuous to enjoy his wife's company when his companions were stationed at the front. That's where he knew he should be, even with the quick, unexpected furlough. Since David was irresponsible at that moment, he hoped Uriah would be also, to mask the crime. Uriah took the higher road--and paid with his life.
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written by Cole, February 06, 2014
For gsk---
Well said. Mr. Royal missed the lesson of Uriah.
He was a Hittite--not an Israelite by birth, married to an Israelite woman- fighting as a soldier in King David's Army. He was following the rules laid down by David himself for those in his Army. The lesson for me here is that with all these incredible faults--adultery and then ordering the death of the adultress' husband to cover his transgression(!)---God still loved David--"as a man after his own heart". Whew!
God loved David because David NEVER worshipped another god in the polyistic culture of his time. He knew he sinned and asked forgivness which was granted.
So, the lesson of the Uriah incident for me is, if a man such as David can be on God's A-list after what he did, I still have a chance

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