More Pearls of Wisdom

Shortly after I started blogging, I stopped to capture some references to / reviews of the few books I’d read that had made an impression before I’d started the psybertron research quest (see header). T. E. Lawrence “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” was one of those. The review I posted then has never been more than a holding page, and the link to pictures of my TEL pilgrimage to Jordan has since died. (Must re-post the pictures to the live gallery location.)

From the previous post it will be apparent I’m re-reading “SPOW” and making some relevant notes. In fact, although it made a lasting impression, I’d never actually noticed any overtly philosophical content until this time around. Below are extracts from a passage in Chapter XXXIII that starts on p197 and runs through to p201. He is considering strategy and tactics and “immaterial factors”, planning what next, whilst recuperating on his sick-bed in Wejh. After a passage on the comparative merits of Napoleon, Clausewitz, Saxe and Guilbert, Cammerer and Moltke, Jomini and Willisen, Kuhne and Foch in which he concludes Clausewitz has all the generic bases for action covered, he continues …

My argument preened itself […]

The first confusion was the false antithesis between strategy, the aim in war, the synoptic regard seeing each part relative to the whole, and tactics, the means towards a strategic end, the particular steps of its staircase. They seemd only points of view from which to ponder the elements of war, the Algebraic element of things, a Biological element of lives, and the Psychological element of ideas.

The Algebraic element looked to me a pure science, subject to mathematical law, inhuman. It dealt with known variables, fixed conditions, space and time, inorganic things like hills and climates and railways, with mankind in type-masses too great for individual variety, with all artificial aids and the extensions given our faculties by mechanical invention. It was essentially formulable.

Here was a pompous professorial beginning. My wits, hostile to the abstract took refuge in Arabia again. Translated into Arabic, the algebraic factor would first take practical account of [….]

[….] This was enough of the concrete; so I sheered off “episteme”, the mathematical element, and plunged into the nature of the biological factor. Its crisis seemed to be the breaking point, life and death, or less finally, wear and tear. The war-philosophers had propertly made an art of it [….] A line of variability. Man, persisted like leaven through its estimates, making them irregular.

The components were sensitive and illogical, and generals guard themselves by the device of [margin for uncertainty ….]

The “felt” element in troops, not expressible in figures, had to be guessed at by the equivalent of Plato’s “doxa”, and the greatest commander of men was he whose intuitions most nearly happened. Nine-tenths of tactics were certain enough to be teachable in schools; but the irrational tenth was like the kingfisher flashing across the pool, and in it lay the test of generals. It could be ensued only by instinct (sharpened by thought practising the stroke) until at the crisis it came naturally, a reflex. There had been men whose “doxa” so nearly approached  perfection that by its road they reached the certainty of “episteme”. The Greeks might have called such genius for command “noesis” had they bothered to rationalise revolt.


I was getting through my subject. […. the algebraic …. the biological ….]

There remained the psychological element to build up an apt shape. I went to Xenophon and stole, to name it, his word “diathetics”, which had been the art of Cyrus before he struck.

Of this our propaganda was the stained and ignoble offspring. It was the “pathic”, almost the ethical, in war. [….]

There were so many humiliating material limits, but no moral impossibilities; so that the scope of our diathetical activities was unbounded. [….] The printing press, and each newly discovered method of communication favoured the intellectual above the physical, civilization paying the mind always from the body’s funds. We kindergarten soldiers …. without prejudice. The regular officer …. traditions of generations … the antique, the most honoured.

As we had seldom to concern ourselves with what men did, but always with what they thought, the “diathetic” for us would be half the command. In Europe it was set a little aside and entrusted to men outside the general staff. In Asia the regular elements were so weak that irregulars could not let the metaphysical weapon rust unused.

So, not just philosophical and metaphysical, but distinctly layered; intellect over the biological and phsyical, with an emphasis on the Asian distinction from the European.

Who’da thought it ?

Etymology of Wisdom

Re-reading T. E. Lawrence’s “Seven Pillars of Wisdom” for the umpteenth time, I was struck by something that I’m sure occurred to me before, but I’ve never followed-up.

In Chapter XXI (page 135 of my Cape 1940 edition) he is recounting arguments concerning different possible attacks and advances to progress their objectives.

“[He] took me up sharply, saying that it was in no wise proper for [the allies] to take [the town].”

Reading that I mentally summarised the opinion that the course of action was not “wise” in the adjectival “wisdom” sense, whereas in fact Lawrence had used “wise” in the “way of proceeding” noun manner. The relationship between the two forms seem obvious.

-wise / -weise must be closely related to wisdom / wise via the way

Wisdom is the way, in the Taoist sense of the way. Wisdom is about the way of knowing, not the known. Obvious. In fact this etymology of “wise” reinforces this with a Lao Tsu quote from the “Tao Te Ching” – “A wise man has no extensive knowledge; He who has extensive knowledge is not a wise man.” Also wisdom as seeing (in the knowing, wissen sense), as in “vision” – Latin “vid” Greek “eid”, and without even reference to the Taoist concept of “way”. Interestingly, not only the Old-English and Germanic derivations, but the Proto-Indo-European origins too. Only a small step back to common Sanskrit origins of the Buddhist Vedas as well as PIE surely ? Why can you never find an archaeologist when you need one Indie ?

Talking of seeing. He also makes endless generalisations of various national and cultural traits, which sound arrogant, chauvinistic and politically incorrect, but of course part of my interest here is in the east-west cultural differences in viewing reality. TEL provides plenty of Middle-East vs Western Europe examples, with a great deal of additional detail of the cultural history of the different specific peoples.

On page 136, after an iterview with Colonel Bremond he makes a reference to a trait

“Even in situations of poetry, the [French] remained incorrigible prose writers, seeing by the directly-thrown light of reason and understanding, not through the half-closed eye, mistily, by things essential radiance, in the manner of the imaginative [British]”

Whether that is a typical French vs British difference or not, it certainly, epitomises the dualistic, objective view distinct from the qualitative. I’ve used the metaphors of sneaking up on truth or squinting sideways to see the truth, and was certainly reminded of Rory Remer’s “Blinded by the Light” analogy of the pitfalls of purely objective thinking.

[Post Note May 2008 – from the “online etymology dictionary” entry
(The Whewell reference struck a chord ….
Whewell coined “consilience” if I recall correctly
…. what a tangled web.)

Usage: Wisdom, Prudence, Knowledge. Wisdom has been defined to be “the use of the best means for attaining the best ends.” “We conceive,” says Whewell, ” prudence as the virtue by which we select right means for given ends, while wisdom implies the selection of right ends as well as of right means.” Hence, wisdom implies the union of high mental and moral excellence. Prudence (that is, providence, or forecast) is of a more negative character; it rather consists in avoiding danger than in taking decisive measures for the accomplishment of an object. Sir Robert Walpole was in many respects a prudent statesman, but he was far from being a wise one. Burke has said that prudence, when carried too far, degenerates into a “reptile virtue,” which is the more dangerous for its plausible appearance. Knowledge, a more comprehensive term, signifies the simple apprehension of facts or relations. “In strictness of language,” says Paley, ” there is a difference between knowledge and wisdom; wisdom always supposing action, and action directed by it.”

Knowledge and wisdom, far from being one, have ofttimes no connection. Knowledge dwells In heads replete with thoughts of other men; Wisdom, in minds attentive to their own. Knowledge, a rude, unprofitable mass, The mere materials with which wisdom builds, Till smoothed, and squared, and fitted to its place, does but encumber whom it seems to enrich. Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much; Wisdom is humble that he knows no more. – Cowper.

(Very close to the Lao Tsu sense above) ]