Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Straight and Crooked Wisdom

From an amazon.com review of La Rochefoucauld's Maxims by someone usernamed "tepi", part of a longer essay:

The famous Indian classic, Kautilya's 'Arthasastra,' a treatise which deals with the attainment of worldly ends, distinguishes between two kinds of wisdom - Straight and Crooked. To the former belong (to use Western examples) such works as 'The Imitation of Christ' by Thomas a Kempis, a work which teaches how, ideally, the virtuous should live, while overlooking the fact that often it would be extremely impractical and socially disastrous to live in such a way.

The second class of books, those which teach the art of 'Crooked Wisdom,' is exemplified in the East by Kautilya's 'Arthasastra' itself, and in the West by such works as Balthasar Gracian's 'The Art of Worldly Wisdom,' Francesco Guicciardini's 'Maxims and Reflections of a Renaissance Statesman' (Ricordi), and by the present collection of Maxims by La Rochefoucauld.

These books are both highly realistic and extremely practical, for they depict, not man as he is supposed to be, but man as he is with all his selfishness, stupidity, ambition, arrogance, malice, laziness and other imperfections, and they teach the art of how, not merely to survive, but even to thrive in the midst of our far from perfect fellow men and women. And, certainly in the case of La Rochefoucauld, this teaching is done with great precision and wit.

'Crooked Wisdom,' then, should not be understood as the product of a crooked mind, but as the clear-sighted wisdom one needs to survive in a world teeming with such minds, a world, as Tancock says, involved in a "sordid struggle of self-interests, a scramble for power, position, and influence in which the foulest motives and methods [are] decked with labels such as duty, honor, patriotism, and glory."

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