A Comment on Proverbs 9

Proverbs 9 King James Version (KJV)

1 Wisdom hath builded her house, she hath hewn out her seven pillars:

2 She hath killed her beasts; she hath mingled her wine; she hath also furnished her table.

3 She hath sent forth her maidens: she crieth upon the highest places of the city,

4 Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him,

5 Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mingled.

6 Forsake the foolish, and live; and go in the way of understanding.

7 He that reproveth a scorner getteth to himself shame: and he that rebuketh a wicked man getteth himself a blot.

8 Reprove not a scorner, lest he hate thee: rebuke a wise man, and he will love thee.

9 Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning.

10 The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: and the knowledge of the holy is understanding.

11 For by me thy days shall be multiplied, and the years of thy life shall be increased.

12 If thou be wise, thou shalt be wise for thyself: but if thou scornest, thou alone shalt bear it.

13 A foolish woman is clamorous: she is simple, and knoweth nothing.

14 For she sitteth at the door of her house, on a seat in the high places of the city,

15 To call passengers who go right on their ways:

16 Whoso is simple, let him turn in hither: and as for him that wanteth understanding, she saith to him,

17 Stolen waters are sweet, and bread eaten in secret is pleasant.

18 But he knoweth not that the dead are there; and that her guests are in the depths of hell.

This is an interesting Proverb, because the place of the simple is unclear. Are they good or wicked or what? Both the goddess Wisdom and the temptress call to them, using the same words, and as simple men how are they to know which is which? This conundrum is reinforced in 7-9.

The opposite of the one who scorns is clear enough: it is the one who does not scorn. The opposite of the wicked, however, is twofold: the wise man and the just man.

We are told what wisdom is for and what lacking wisdom brings. Wisdom is for oneself and lacking wisdom is its own punishment, “thou alone shall bear it.”

It is difficult to imagine how a deficiency of this sort would not spill over into injustice towards others, but that seems to be the claim here. If you lack wisdom you suffer for it. But wouldn’t others suffer for it as well insofar as you affect them in any way?

Possibly what is meant is a denigration of justice. Maybe the simple man can also be a just man because he simply never harms others. He may not have the wisdom to benefit them, but at least he doesn’t harm them. Justice would be half or only need half, whereas wisdom would be whole, namely, the knowledge of what is good and bad. The wise man can not only avoid injuring others, he can benefit them as well because he knows what is good for them and what they should avoid.

This denigration of justice must be a concession to the simple. You can be a just man if you remain innocent in the eyes of others.

But can you remain innocent in the eyes of others if they think you’ve helped them but have indeed harmed them? Even with the best intentions, a simpleton or fool trying to help can do harm. Every son trying to help his father with some difficult task has, at some point or another, been the cause of some disaster, minor or otherwise. But there are other examples. Say you make a man rich who shouldn’t be rich.

“Well if they never know they’ve been harmed–you made them rich and this made them worse but they never realized it and therefore thanked you until their dying day.” Can men remain invincibly ignorant of their own deficiencies? The researches of Plato would suggest, yes, they can, but something as insignificant as a gadfly can rouse them. And everyone with eyes can see that Time herself is capable of revealing many deficiencies to people who did not feel the error at first or for a long time.

But this is, in a sense, beside the point. Certainly there are men who are both simple/unwise and completely powerless to bring harm to others.

Tolstoy longed to be such a man, but unlike his simpleton Platon Karyatev, he took it upon himself to write and give advice–he used the power in his tongue and pen to move others thereby negating his ideal. This might make you think of the philosopher who only pointed at things, forsaking speech, but that is another matter entirely.

So Proverbs 9 leaves room for the powerless simpleton. He too can avoid falling into wickedness if he chooses the goddess instead of the temptress and thereby count himself among the Just, though he won’t be of use to anyone.

“Oh but there is always a benefit in a just man!” That will be said. “Perhaps he smiles and warms the hearts of others. Gives hugs.” Well then, as you are keen on elevating him, you also show the rarity of Justice without wisdom, because even the simplest man will exercise some power over human beings.

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