Passion & Wisdom in the Modern Age: Musings on Proverbs 29:11 (LXX)

As Christians, we are called to think rightly; we are called to wisdom. But what are the characteristics of wisdom? What does it look like to think rightly, especially in our modern age? The Bible goes about answering these questions in various ways, but one particular passage I have been thinking about lately is Proverbs 29:11. My love for the Greek New Testament has ignited a love for the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX). So, wanting to deepen my reflections on this verse, I ran over to the LXX to read it: holon ton thymon autou ekpherei aphrōn, sophos de tamieuetai kata meros. I have loosely translated this as, “The foolish person lets out all of his passion, but the wise person does so reservedly, in a measured way.”

A simple first glance reveals that the “foolish person” (aphrōn) is set in direct contrast to the “wise” (sophos). Here, “foolish” (aphrōn) denotes wrong thinking. It is the opposite mindset of God and his people (cf. phronimos in Matt 7:24 and phroneō in Phil 2:5). There is, therefore, a way of thinking that is characteristic of God and his people—namely, a mindset based upon wisdom, insight, and prudence. Simply, aphrōn (“foolish”) in Prov 29:11 means “not wise” or “unwise.” Biblically, to call someone a “fool” is not to digress into name-calling, but rather to point out that someone is behaving, practically speaking, in a way that betrays their very human calling to a life of wisdom.

The “wise person,” sophos, behaves differently than the aphrōn. In what way? It all has to do with what each one does with thymos (passion, anger). The foolish person does not hold anything back; they have no filter. To be foolish, at least here, is to show no restraint in what one does with his or her passion. The wise person, by contrast, is not necessarily without anger (as the text of the LXX implies); rather, they are simply more reserved and careful with it. That is, they let it come out “in measure.” One gets the sense that the sophos lives a much more quiet life than the foolish person (cf. 1 Thess 4:11ff). The wise person, it seems, is less rambunctious and less imprudent with emotion than his or her counterpart.

What can we, people of the 21st century, learn from this verse? Ours, after all, is an age of passion, of hype and hysteria—a time when access to social media affords us a quick outlet for every little thought and every whim of passion that enters our mind and heart. People are—and always have been—passionate, whether over their religion, their non-religion, their entertainment, or their politics (I have written briefly about that last one here). In this way, the 21st century is no different than other times. But having been thrown into our modern, technological age, our passion has the unique ability to go public in an instant, sometimes to our detriment (not to mention others’). There is nothing wrong with going public with our passion. Sometimes it is necessary. But indiscreet passion is unbecoming for anyone, and unreasonable passion is dangerous to everyone. While anger and passion are never wrong in and of themselves (both have a place, as I say), each person is obligated to show measure and restraint. This is the essence of wisdom. Passion, of any sort, is never beneficial if it is allowed full reign without sound reason and self-control restraining it. I do not make an idol out of human reason (I do not buy into rationalism), but I do think wisdom and understanding, sophia kai phronēsis, are indispensable to the life that God requires. It is the wise person, after all, who shows constraint with emotion. How come? Because he or she, as a prudent thinker, understands the consequences that an overly-rash life tends to bring. 

As Christians, we are said to embody Christ in the world (1 Cor 12:27); if that is so, then may our fervent passion be the pursuit of wisdom and right thinking. May every passionate thing we say (or do not say) be founded upon sound reason. May we be a passionate people who think rightly, carefully, and wisely. 

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