Bishop Arthur J. Serratelli
Benjamin Franklin holds the great distinction of being not only one of America’s founding fathers, but also one of her most cherished sons. He was statesman, writer, inventor and philosopher. In our age of increasing specialization, the breadth of his contributions staggers the mind. The Franklin stove, the lightning rod, swim fins, the glass armonica, the flexible catheter and bifocal glasses, to name a few.
Franklin has also left behind a rich literary legacy. He wrote essays, books and newspaper articles. He penned letters and composed ballads. He wrote an illustrious autobiography. But, he is best known for Poor Richard’s Almanac.
In 1732, Franklin published it for the first time. The pamphlet contained a calendar, seasonal weather forecasts, practical household hints, puzzles, poems and astronomical information. Poor Richard’s Almanac quickly became a best seller in the American colonies. No doubt the many witty aphorisms sprinkled throughout the pamphlet made it so popular.
In many ways, Poor Richard’s Almanac was a repository of the wit and wisdom of Franklin himself. In fact, many of his wise sayings have become proverbial. “Well done is better than well said.” “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” “It is the working man who is the happy man. It is the idle man who is the miserable man.” “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” “God helps them that help themselves.”
Franklin’s wisdom sayings help us in our own search for living a good life. They are basically expressions of good common sense. They remain so timely, because “common sense is not so common” (Voltaire). Franklin understood the holistic connection between mind, body and spirit. His bits of advice aim to help others make that connection and have a happy life. In this regard, his sayings are close cousins to the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament.
In the biblical books of Proverbs, Psalms, Sirach, Qoheleth, Wisdom, Job and the Song of Solomon, wisdom (hokmah) includes both a practical and a speculative aspect. At times, it resembles in tone and purpose the advice of a Franklin, an Epicurus or a Marcus Aurelius. It passes on the accumulated knowledge of many generations on how to make the best of daily situations. At other times, biblical wisdom soars high above prosaic aphorisms to the poetic heights of lofty meditation on the very purpose of life and human suffering.
In the Old Testament, the wise person is the one who knows how to ply his craft (cf. Ex 35:25-26), the one who can make right judgments (cf. 1 Kgs 3:1-15); and, the one whose moral behavior is upright (cf. Prv 24:29). Wisdom gradually comes to be identified with the law (cf. Sirach 24; 23-24) that shows God’s plan for our happiness. And, ultimately, it is personified to the point of identifying it with God himself (cf. Prv 8: 1-31; Wis 6: 12-21). In fact, the New Testament sees wisdom as the plan “mysterious, hidden, which God predetermined before the ages for our glory” (1 Cor 2: 8). It identifies Jesus himself as the very Wisdom of God (cf. 1 Cor 1:24; Col 1: 15-18).
The Wisdom books of the Old Testament give witness to our natural desire to know and understand ourselves and the world in which we live. Endowed with an intellect, we are naturally inquisitive. We are constantly asking questions and searching for understanding and wisdom. Already in the fourth century before Christ, Aristotle said, “All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses…” (Metaphysics Book I, Par I).
Ultimately, all knowledge leads to God. Thomas Aquinas understood this. He taught that our natural desire for knowledge is a means to know God (cf. Summa Contra Gentiles, III. 57 n 2334). Thus, we can truly know ourselves and our world when we see all in the light of God’s existence and his purpose for creation. Some people say that there are many ways to come to know God. But, there is only one way that God himself has given us. And that way is Christ. We cannot properly know God or ourselves or creation except in Christ.
Moses spoke of God, but it is the Torah that he gave that leads to the knowledge and love of God. Buddha spoke of Enlightenment, but it is his Noble Path that guides the disciple to achieve it. Mohammed taught about complete submission to Allah, but it is the Koran that instructs the adherent to reach it. In each case, the teacher and the teaching are distinct. But, not with Jesus.
“In him has been revealed in a new and more wonderful way the fundamental truth concerning creation” (Pope St. John Paul II, Redemptor hominis, 8). He is the “New Adam [who]…fully reveals man to himself…” (Gaudium et Spes, 22). Thus, Jesus does more than teach us about the truth. He tells us, “I am the truth.” Jesus does not simply point out the way to God. No. He says, “I am the way.” He alone can say, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn 14: 6). And the reason is this: Jesus is the very Wisdom of God Incarnate.