Wisdom literature

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Wisdom literature

Wisdom literature

From Muhammad and Siddhartha Gautama to Mohandas Gandhi and Constantine Cavafy, the acquisition and dissemination of wisdom has obsessed the authors of world literature. Among the treasures of empires, aphorisms, or wise sayings, accrued during the rise of powers and the inevitable corruption and grandiosity of ruling families, exemplified in such works as JEAN DE LA FONTAINE'S FABLES about the profligacy of Louis XIV of France. The range of wisdom literature encompasses ancient and modern languages from global empires, as demonstrated in the table.





VEDAS, anonymous

ca. 1700-1400 B.C.


Harappan; Indo-Gangetic

I CHING, anonymous

1144-206 B.C.


Ancient Chinese

Aesop's Fables

ca. 550 B.C.



Proverbs, Ahiqar

ca. 670 B.C.




ca. 300 B.C.


Chou dynasty

Proverbs, Callimachus

ca. 270 B.C.



ANALECTS, Confucius

ca. 210 B.C.



BHAGAVAD GITA, anonymous

ca. 200 B.C.




ca. 200 B.C.



Proverbs, Solomon et al.

ca. 180 B.C.



Ecclesiasticus, Sirach

ca. 180 B.C.



Wisdom of Solomon, anonymous

ca. 150 B.C.



DHAMMAPADA, Siddhartha Gautama

ca. 50 B.C.



PAUL'S epistles

A.D. 53-67



“The Pumpkinification of the Divine

Claudius,” SENECA

A.D. 54



Mishna, Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph and Rabbi Meir

ca. 135




ca. 180



Garland of Birth Stories, Aryasura

ca. 350



KOANS of Bodhidharma




Kalilah and Dimnah, Burzoe




KORAN, Muhammad




Kalilah and Dimnah, Ibn al-Muqaffa






ca. 942



The Ocean of the Stream of Stories, Somadeva




Blue Cliff Record, Yuanwu Keqin


Chinese; Japanese

Khitan; Heian


ca. 1189



The Proverbs of Alfred, ALFRED THE GREAT

ca. 1251



Rose Garden, Saadi








Selected Fables, Jean de La Fontaine

1668, 1678



Book of Fables, Rabbi Moses ben Eliezer




Holy Roman

Fables, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing



Holy Roman

Literary Fables, TOMAS DE IRIARTE








aphorisms of JOSE MARTI



American; Spanish

Poems by Constantine Cavafy

Early 20th century



An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth, Mohandas Gandhi




A Woman as Great as the World and Other

Fables, Jacquetta Hopkins Hawkes




Each work or collection offers advice and insight into probity or moral judgment, such as the sage Ahiqar’s advice on revenge to Sennacherib and Esarhaddon, Assyrian kings in the seventh century B.c., and the interpretations of the Torah by Rabbi Akiba ben Joseph and his pupil Rabbi Meir during the Roman rule of Jerusalem. In China, the antiquarian Laozi honored the sage for putting the self last and becoming a leader. In stave 15 of the Daodejing (Tao-Te Ching, Classic of the way of power, 300 B.c.), the philosopher pictures the thinker picking his way over thoughts like a pedestrian crossing a brook on stones in winter. In stave seven, he describes the advice of the sage, like the dao itself, as universal and never ending.

Scriptural Wisdom

A prized collection of maxims for the Judaeo- Christian world, the biblical book of 900 Proverbs (ca. 180 B.c.) alerts the wise to the pitfalls of life and to the need for character building, a theme reprised in AESOP’S FABLES and those of Ivan Andreyevich Krylov, a satirist of the Russian Empire. Credited to David’s son Solomon (ca. 1000-931 B.c.), the judge-king of Jerusalem, the anthology of proverbs exemplifies Hebraic and Arabic culture ranging some 800 years up to the second century B.c. The accretion of aphorisms attests to the steady rise of civilization. The tone is heavily patriarchal, that of a father imparting pearls of right thinking to an untried youth, perhaps a ruler in training. In Proverbs 10:1-22:16, the ordering of 375 maxims of Solomon suit the needs of petitioners at the royal court at Jerusalem; Proverbs 25:1-29:27 provide similar guidance for petitioners at the court of the Judean king Hezekiah (ca. 752-ca. 698 B.c.). Like the Davidic PSALMS (ca. 900 B.c.), the proverbs exhort the wise to embrace Yahweh (God) as the source of moral perspective and justice. To the wielder of power, the maxims advise sobriety, humility, and respect. Like the Greek philosophers, the text warns of hubris by observing that “Pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). The sage reassures subjects that wisdom is the foundation of empire: “The king by judgment establisheth the land” (Proverbs 29:4). An earlier axiom reminds the ruler that moderation should prevail over hasty anger: “The king’s wrath is as the roaring of a lion; but his favour is as dew upon the grass” (Proverbs 19:12).

During the Seleucid Empire, which began in 323 B.c. and spread from Turkey to the Indus Valley, a Hebrew scribe, Yeshua ben Sirach of Jerusalem, compiled an apocryphal text, Ecclesiasticus (The preacher, ca. 180 B.c.), a two-volume liturgical work that varies from verse stanzas to individual proverbs, injunctions, and rhetorical questions. Sirach’s grandson, the Torah specialist Yeshua ben Eleazar, translated the book into Greek around 132 B.c. The pious Sirach, who claims God as the touchstone of wisdom, elaborates on the Mosaic law with praise for sobriety, charity, forgiveness, and compassion and warnings about envy, foolishness, greed, lust, pride, sin against God, and VIOLENCE. He glories in his residence in Zion and states that “in the beloved city [the Creator] gave me rest, and in Jeusalem was my power. And I took root in an honorable people” (Ecclesiasticus 24:11-12).

Unimpressed by political power, Sirach based his collection on the ethics of everyday life, including a pure conscience, respect for priests, and pity for the oppressed. The maxims in chapter 25 warn males of sexual license; in chapter 26:13-18, the preacher summarizes the best in womanhood by picturing the devoted family woman and housekeeper. As counsel to empire builders, chapter 10 values a prudent king, such as David of Judah; chapter 32 describes a good relationship between rulers and subjects as a necessary element in wise reigns. Chapter 38 salutes farmers and artisans as the power that drives the world. Chapter 49 includes a caution that Judah’s impious kings forsook God and lost their empires to invaders, the source of the Babylonian captivity of the Jews from Judah in 586 B.c. For its probity, Ecclesiasticus is part of the biblical Apocrypha.

Scriptural Collections

In this same period, the anonymous apocryphal book the Wisdom of Solomon (ca. 150 B.c.), probably composed in Greek in Alexandria, Egypt, recycled Hebrew poetic techniques. A more pointed commentary on the responsibilities of judge and ruler, the text, written under Roman influence, reflects the ethics of the Hellenes and Alexandrians, the most educated communities of the Mediterranean world. Like Ecclesiasticus, the Wisdom of Solomon praises understanding, “For in her is an understanding spirit, holy, one only, manifold, subtle, lively, clear, undefiled, plain, not subject to hurt, loving the thing that is good, … kind to man, steadfast, sure, free from care, having all power” (Wisdom of Solomon 7:22-23). In an era of unstable governments, the author credits wisdom for rescuing the Israelites from Egypt and for punishing unrighteous idolators.

The prophet Muhammad, author of the Koran (A.D. 633), regards wisdom as the reward of devotees of Islamic scripture. As in the Pauline epistles from the early Roman Empire, the responsibility of individuals for their own salvation echoes through Koranic passages. Muhammad accounts for the heroic traits of Abraham, Noah, Moses, Jonah, and Job. Surah six declares, “Thus do We make plain Our revelations, that they may say: ’You have studied deep' and that this may become clear to men of knowledge” (Koran 6:105). In a rebuttal of Christian New Testament doctrine, the prophet asserts, “Praise be to God who has never begotten a son; who has no partner in His Kingdom; who needs none to defend Him from humiliation” (Koran 17:111). The implications deny Jesus and the Holy Spirit the powers with which Christian scripture invests them.

Wisdom in the Second Millennium

A Persian sage and poet admired for his wise advice, Sheikh Saadi (1184-ca. 1291) of Shiraz, a disciple of FlRDAWSl's Shahnameh (The Book of Kings, ca. 1010), traveled Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Turkey and wrote consistently on the commonalities of human life. One prevalent theme, the abuse of power, dominates stories involving the interaction of Islamic rulers and their subjects. In one of the parables of Saadi's Gulistan (Rose Garden, 1258) in which a king seeks wisdom from a vizier, an aphorism summarizes the weakness of despotism. In the didactic style of Aesop's beast fables, the vizier insists, “A tyrant cannot govern a kingdom, as a wolf cannot perform the office of shepherd. The tyrannic prince saps the foundation of his own empire” (Saadi 2003, 123). From the perspective of political strength, the poet explains that a ruler who protects the peasantry wins allies to ward off enemies.

With similar emphasis on reason, the Norse bard SNORRI STURLUSON'S Prose Edda (1225) draws on the vernacular statecraft of Ari the Wise, the father of Icelandic historiography. The text differentiates types of speech and the value of sage admonition. Of one court adviser to the Allfather, the narrative lauds an archangel: “Michael, wise of understanding, weighs what seems done ill, and good things” (Sturluson 1916, 136). Of prudence, he notes: “Understanding is called wisdom, counsel, discernment … far sight, craft, word-wit, preeminence” (240). A second sentence warns of the down side of empty oratory, which he labels “subtlety, wiliness, falsehood, fickleness” (240), a general dismissal of fatuous speech. The distinction drawn between different types of counsel derives from Sturluson's lengthy experience as the lawspeaker of Iceland's assembly during a period of uncertainty between the collapse of the Viking threat and the rise of the Norwegian empire.

Modern Wisdom

Disseminators of healing and spiritual renewal have frequently provided solace and encouragement to refugees and victims of the collapse of empires. During World War I, the Egyptian poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933), composing in Greek, wrote “But the Wise Perceive Things about to Happen” (1915), in which he advocates respect for the poet-seer, who hears about chaos in the streets “the hidden sound of things approaching” (Cavafy 1992, 53). In “Envoys from Alexandria” (1918), the poet names the “things” that the peasants must expect, the postwar partitioning of conquered lands. In a dire reliving of Julius Caesar's assassination, “The Ides of March” (1915) offers a prayer for restraint and protection of the soul from self-adulation. To conquerors in general, the poem “Theodotos” (1915) states a universal truth: “Whatever honors / your admirers decree for you in Rome, / Your elation, your triumph will not last, / nor will you feel yourself superior” (54).

At the approach of World War II, the world was in even greater need of pacifist wisdom. The Lutheran evangelist DIETRICH BONHOEFFER (190645) wrote sermons and essays encouraging Christians to reject Adolf Hitler's persecution of non-Aryans. A contemporary, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (1869-1948), a proponent of passive resistance through civil disobedience, encouraged third-world nations in An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth (1927-29). Composed in Gujarati, the two-volume apologia recounts events from Gandhi's youth and young manhood that shaped his humanism. For his own day-to-day peace of mind, he reread the Bhagavad Gita and debated truth with the poet RABINDRANATH TAGORE (1861-1941). Rather than cast blame for India's poverty on British imperialism, the philosopher placed guilt on Hinduism, which created the untouchable class. He believed that “every man or woman, however weak in body, is the guardian of his or her self-respect” (Gandhi 2002, 274), but he alerted the affluent to a political truth: that the poor and hungry are likely to cede all hope of liberty in exchange for food, especially for their children. At a less charitable point, he reminded fellow Indians that all despots are temporary: “No empire intoxicated with the red wine of power and plunder of weaker races has yet lived long in this world” (151).

The juggling of class and religious differences brought out the best in Gandhi's egalitarian speeches and essays, which he aimed at oppression in South Africa as well as the British Raj on the Indian subcontinent. One of his most repeated maxims, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” found its way into the writings of the American civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. Other memorable aphorisms influenced the anticolonialism of the South African martyrs Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko and the Burmese freedom fighter Aung San Suu Kyi. Gandhi tempered his anticipation of liberty and democracy with a call to men to accept the help of women and to Christians, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Parsis, and Sikhs to rely on stoicism and brotherhood in the face of change. He defined courage as “freedom from all external fear—fear of disease, bodily injury and death” (299) and a reliance on the peace-loving peasantry rather than on police and the military. Among his responses to British racism and domination were refusals to accept military and civil service appointments and retreats to vegetarianism, drying salt from seawater, home laundry, and spinning yarn and weaving homespun cloth for garments. He issued a warning to the impatient: “Without suffering it is not possible to attain freedom” (135). As he predicted, after a three-decade crusade from 1916 to 1945, he saw the freeing of India from British control and the growth of respect and amity between Indians and their former masters.


The Apocrypha of the Old Testament. King James Version. New York: American Bible Society, 1972.

Cavafy, Constantine. Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1992.

Gandhi, Mohandas. An Autobiography, or the Story of My Experiments with Truth. Translated by Mahadev Desai. Ahmedabad, India: Navajvan Publishing, 1940.

----- . The Essential Gandhi: An Anthology of His Writings on His Life, Work, and Ideas. New York: Vintage: 2002.

The Koran. Translated by N. J. Dawood. London: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Proverbs. In the Holy Bible. Iowa Falls, Iowa: World Bible Publishers, 1986, 920-954.

Proverbs of Ahiqar. Translated by James M. Lindenberger. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.

Saadi, Musle-Huddeen Sheik. Gulistan, or Rose Garden. Translated by George Gentius. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2003.

Sturluson, Snorri. The Prose Edda. Translated by Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur. New York: American- Scandinavian Foundation, 1916.