Wednesday, June 05, 2002


One of the great literary characters in recent decades is Jack Aubrey, RN, Commander of HMS Surprise. Together with his great friend, Stephen Maturin, medical doctor, ship’s surgeon and sometime agent of Naval Intelligence, Jack fought dozens of single-ship and fleet actions in the Napoleonic wars in Patrick O’Brian’s masterful series of 20 novels. (The first, Master and Commander, can be found here. Give yourself 50 pages to get used to the old-fashioned way of writing, and you’ll be hooked. Soon enough, all your meals will come from this, and you’ll be listening to this.)

Aubrey is highly skilled at his profession, a virtuous man for his age, with great courage, and a piety that finds great comfort “in the sound of the Book of Common Prayer, if not quite in its full implications.” He possesses abiding loyalty to family and friends, a passionate sense of duty and chivalric honor. He is a bit weak in the chastity department, perhaps, but he is a sailor after all. Afloat, few men are Jack’s equal, and none his better.

Ashore, on the other hand, Jack is lost. Throughout the 20 novels, Jack is forever getting himself into trouble with women, speculators, crooks, con men, and the politics of the Admiralty. His native intelligence and professional training help him not at all on land.

For Jack, you see, lacks wisdom in the ways of men. Though he marries Sophia and his first command is the Sophie, Jack never fully possesses either his wife or his vessel. The latter is lost in battle and the former fights him to a standstill, possessing his heart but never quite his full attention. The same intelligence which allows him to see through the most delicate subterfuge by sea, cloaks him in self-satisfaction on land, and gives him no end of trouble.

The greek word for wisdom, of course, is Sophia, and I prefer it when thinking of wisdom as Virtue. Sophia is a female name and a feminine characteristic, just as intelligence is a masculine one. (Please don’t write to tell me women can be intelligent and men wise; I would never dispute it. I write here of gender, not sex.) Where “Wisdom” conjures up images of long, flowing beards on the faces of gray haired mountain dwellers, “Sophia” calls to mind a patient woman explaining to a precocious child that he has much to learn.

Sophia differs from Intelligence, the sort of “book-learning” that more worldly people distrust and even despise. “Intelligence” can often make me think of arrogance, of simple knowledge unmeasured by compassion or understanding. Intelligence brought about atomic weapons and ICBMs. Sophia has kept them in their silos. The beginning of Wisdom, as Plato recognized, lies in knowing the limits of intelligence.

And indeed, one need not be brilliant to be wise. In fact, Sophia is quite distinct from brilliance. Where Intelligence scorns the commonplace, the common knowledge, the platitudes of ages past, Sophia revels in them. Intelligence rejects them because they are old, because they are not in keeping with the current thinking, because they cannot make him shine. Sophia enjoys them because they are true.

Sophia does not come with an IQ score, nor a diploma, nor an important job, though all of those things impart the opportunity to receive her. She is as present at the local public high school as at Harvard—may even be easier to find there, in fact—but she must be wooed and welcomed. For she only visits in the shadow of her brother Humility. Only a man who recognizes his own limitations, the limits of his brains and his training and his education, can be open to Sophia.


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