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Where are the wise ones? And do we really need ’em anyhow?

Winter has already arrived here in the NorthWET, bringing days of steady rain and a desire to crawl back into bed, crank up the mattress warmer, and hibernate for the next seven months.

This was one of those years when we never really got a summer; those happen about every fifth year and turn the supposedly changing seasons into one endless, multi-year gloom. During the few rare pleasant days I was mostly hustling to get walls walled and plants planted and forgot to enjoy myself.

Still, the rain’s bound to make the newly planted grass happy, and it’s the price we pay for living in a green and blue wonderland. And I’m optimistic that I’ll feel alive, awake, and warm again sometime before next April. Briefly, perhaps. But that’ll be a day to look forward to.

Meanwhile, I think gloomy thoughts …


A friend and I were having a discussion about wise women and wise men — not just invividuals who’ve achieved personal wisdom (though thank heaven there are a fair number of those), but tribal elders, if you will. The sort of individuals who’ve lived long enough and learned enough to be valued by others for their cumulative life wisdom and ability to guide rising generations.

We tried to think whether we have any such people here in what’s left of Western civilization. My friend proposed Jordan Peterson as an acknowledged wise man. I came up with Camille Paglia as a wise woman. But given how much Peterson is loathed by the Twitterati and how Paglia has faded from view, not risen into greater prominence, I doubt either of us felt confident in our choice.

Of course, select tribes still have their wise elders. Orthodox Jews revere certain rabbis, living and dead, as wise ones. Some even view particular individuals as lamed vavniks, men of such rare holiness that they constitute the only reason G-d allows the world’s continued existence. Some Nobel Prize winners seem automatically rise to “elder” status. And plenty of professions have their equivalent of elders — men (nearly always men) so formidable, brilliant, experienced, and untouchable that their word is law. Until some rowdy group of youngsters overthrows them. Extended families may have the occasional wise woman.

But as a culture or a nation or association of nations, we of the West have no tribal elders.

In some ways, that’s good. Tribes tend to be not only insular, but static. Revered elders live amid tradition and enforce the status quo. They keep things churning along as they always have — same styles of art, same familial relationships, same hunting methods, same village governance, same foods, same methods of warfare, same social hierarchies.

Can you imagine many of us Westerners responding positively to somebody whose consistent message is, “That’s the way we’ve always done it, so that’s the way it should always be”?

Ha! We’d say, “Eff that, old man!” and storm off to invent something new or try some radically different way of living or thinking. The fact that many of our efforts culminate in personal disaster is a mere side-effect of living in a world that boils with creativity, innovation, and growth. A world alive with unprecedented freedom and opportunity.

Tribal elders? Who has time for ’em? Who has need?

Yet tribal elders also ensure that important principles and important learnings of a culture aren’t forgotten. In that sense, our lack of them is sad — and likely to become a cultural tragedy.

My friend pointed out that one (of many) damaging characteristics of the Roman Empire in the days of its fall was disregard for elders and their value in society. And with us, contempt for flawed Dead White Men as well as live ones — including revered elders from ancient Athens to the founding of the U.S. — goes hand-in-hand with contempt for the principles they promulgated and represented — principles without which civilization as we know it (or as we desire it) can’t long stand.

And then there is the simple, personal sadness of a culture that rejects the value of a large segment its population. (But on the other hand, who needs a bunch of old stuck-in-the-past bores feeling entitled to tell the rest of the population how things ought to be?)


Take my position apart here, readers. Name the contemporary wise men and women my friend and I missed. Or say why the entire concept of wise elders is bogus, unnecessary, or even harmful. Point out what we have that serves instead of elders (though please, not movie stars, sports figures, and 30-year-old tech billionaires). Assure your fellow Living Freedom readers that our world is better off without the backward drag of tradition and principle as expressed by wrinkled old folks. Tell me how all that old stuff just gets in the way of a society that’s designed to be dynamic and growing. Explain how the collective knowledge of the Internet is a more powerful force for good than the elitist understanding of the allegedly wise. Kick the concept of wisdom, or of elders, to the curb.

It would be a great comfort to be wrong.


  1. StevefromMA
    StevefromMA September 17, 2019 12:39 pm

    Well, he’s dead, but Mr. Rogers met my definition of a wise man. Right now, IDk, you’d like to trust the Dalai Lama but I’m not sure.😕, has gotten too involved with mainstream people,
    i think.

  2. Val E. Forge
    Val E. Forge September 17, 2019 1:11 pm

    Good blog Claire. Our technical society places great importance on “faster, better, cheaper” and unquestionably has given us many conveniences. The problem is, “faster, better, cheaper” doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with integrity, courage, persistence, and the way we deal with one another.

  3. brew
    brew September 17, 2019 2:00 pm

    With the disillusionment a lot of us feel any more, it’s harder to come up with trusted sources of wisdom and guidance. Plus experience and expertise is so often specialized… I’d seek out Einstein for help with my physics homework, but just because he’s a genius doesn’t mean he by default knows how to make a good chicken curry recipe. Part of wisdom is knowing to ‘stay with what you know’.

    I would seek out Gen. Mattis for strategic thought on defense and war… Dr. Thomas Sowell for Economics… my regular doctor’s wife, a nurse practitioner, for medical counsel.

    Reading your post made me think of the lyrics to Donovan’s song Atlantis…

    “Knowing her fate, Atlantis sent out ships to all corners of the Earth
    On board were the Twelve
    The poet, the physician, the farmer, the scientist
    The magician and the other so-called gods of our legends
    Though gods they were
    And as the elders of our time choose to remain blind”

  4. Pat
    Pat September 17, 2019 2:19 pm

    Sad, but true, that there aren’t enough people around to temember when “elders” were revered. What is the last generation from which an elder came that anyone can remember? The “Great Generation”?

    I don’t remember one person even then. I can remember individuals I admired who were wise and worthy of respect, but no universal elder. (Some believed Eleanor Roosevelt was, but — forget that.)

    “Yet tribal elders also ensure that important principles and important learnings of a culture aren’t forgotten.”

    What is America’s culture? It has always been changing, always looking ahead and moving forward, never giving itself time to establish a true culture.

    The striving for freedom, individual and “national”, was nipped in the bud at the Constitution. If it could have gotten off the ground, the culture we were “destined” for would have been beautiful to behold, backed up by the principles of free market and rule of law. But the Founding Fathers shot themselves (and us) in the foot, and so our “culture” was left to grow like Topsy without any real direction.

    No elder can function or last long in that atmosphere.

  5. jed
    jed September 17, 2019 2:41 pm

    I think there are contexts in which we, societally, could benefit from “wise men” in the sense of elders whose word carries weight, and is respected. But really, we’re too large and diverse a population for that now. And, even confining “we” to the U.S. population, a large portion of the population hasn’t the capacity to understand the value of wisdom. Nor will they simply accept it, as is traditional in tribal cultures.

    In smaller populations, people grow up knowing who the leaders are, often on a personal level. When the nation, tribe, whatever gets too large, the reaction to wisdom from on high is more likely to be, “Who the heck is that guy?”, and “Why should we care what she thinks?” (I actually know almost nothing about Jordan Peterson, or Camille Paglia.)

    And, we do still have these sorts of people, though often only within certain groups. Conservatives have Clarence Thomas, Progressives have … I dunno, Nancy Pelosi? Which goes to show that the value of such people is quite different, depending on where you stand.


  6. Terry
    Terry September 17, 2019 3:09 pm

    My nominee for wise man is John V. Fleming, Professor of Literature and Comparative Literature, emeritus, at Princeton University. “I’ll tell you that ‘social science data’ is merely anecdote made pompous with graph paper.” 🙂

  7. kentmcmanigal
    kentmcmanigal September 17, 2019 3:47 pm

    There are people I consider wise in limited areas, but not in all.

    All wise people seem to have blind spots– and that’s OK. Wise people don’t force me to follow them; they say “This is what I’ve learned” and they lay it out for others to taste and test. If it is right, we’ll know. If not– if it’s one of their blind spots– we’ll move along.

    People who pretend to be wise try to force you to follow (or they shove you ahead). They use “laws” and appeals to “culture”. No thanks. I don’t have time for that sort.

  8. Thomas L. Knapp
    Thomas L. Knapp September 17, 2019 3:49 pm

    Bob Dylan.

  9. SamInOregon
    SamInOregon September 17, 2019 9:55 pm

    George Carlin.

  10. Steve Watt
    Steve Watt September 18, 2019 5:39 am

    There are wise ones all over, just not national ones. I see folks coming up with famous names and some of those I agree with but they pass over the quiet wisdom in our Grandmothers, Aunts and Uncles, the village barber, or sometimes the village drunk. There is wisdom in our children, if we open our eyes to it. And then, there is the folks who sit down at a keyboard and write about things for us to think about, such as yourself, Claire. We don’t have to always agree with everything they write, but the value of kickstarting our thoughts is incalculable.

  11. Mark Call
    Mark Call September 18, 2019 9:07 am

    Professor Walter Williams.

  12. Val E. Forge
    Val E. Forge September 18, 2019 9:42 am

    “… but the value of kick starting our thoughts is incalculable.” – You got that right, Steve!

  13. MP
    MP September 18, 2019 9:43 am

    I guess I would say that anyone who says, “That’s the way we’ve always done it, so that’s the way it should always be,” automatically disqualifies themselves from being considered wise. Old, maybe, but not wise. Wisdom born of age understands the why of the way things were done and can evaluate whether that why still makes it the best way or not. Wisdom understands the breadth of values of things, not just “tradition” or “new and improved” or “faster”. Old un-wisdom stands on tradition because it is tradition. Young un-wisdom tramples tradition because it is tradition. Neither has a lick of sense.

    I have long agreed with your friend (even when no one would have considered me old myself) that the lack of reverence or at least respect for age was a major sign of sickness in our society. (Which I distinguish from culture–I’m not sure a population as large and diverse–geographically, ethnically, many ways–could ever really be said to be a single culture.)

  14. Comrade X
    Comrade X September 18, 2019 10:19 am

    Is a wise person someone who learns from their mistakes? And thus the wiser they are the more mistakes they have made. Maybe being a wise elder is also being lucky enough to survive all the mistakes that made you wise.

    IMHO a wise person knows the limits of their wisdom and appreciates the knowledge of others.

    Methinks Thomas Jefferson was a wise man;

    “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

    I know this world is of the living and not the dead but the living still can learn from the dead methinks.

  15. Tahn
    Tahn September 18, 2019 10:43 am

    I would suggest Murray Rothbard and Dr,. Ron Paul, along with my Dear Departed Dad.

    I do not believe old age alone, can give wisdom but it can give one perspective.

  16. Pat
    Pat September 18, 2019 11:09 am

    “I do not believe old age alone, can give wisdom but it can give one perspective.”

    Amen. And sometimes perspective IS wisdom in the proper circumstance.

  17. S
    S September 18, 2019 11:16 am

    Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.

    Wisdom includes good judgement and much more.

    You are not wrong. We are living in the decline of the American Empire, and wisdom has been not only rejected, but is being actively ripped out of our culture and history. People long considered wise are now labeled with hateful names and shoved down the memory hole. Living knaves and fools are presented as wise.

  18. E. Garrett Perry
    E. Garrett Perry September 19, 2019 9:44 am

    William Norman Grigg, may he rest in peace.

  19. Saturday Links | 357 Magnum
    Saturday Links | 357 Magnum September 21, 2019 7:14 am

    […] Wolfe at Living Freedom – Where are the wise ones? And do we really need ’em anyhow? On the demise of the tribal […]

  20. A.C.
    A.C. September 21, 2019 9:44 am

    Einstein comes to mind for physics. I’d suggest Thomas Sowell for politics. Warren Buffett seems to have his shit together for economics. (Unlike Paul Krugman who got a Nobel prize and never misses a chance to be wrong.)

  21. A.C.
    A.C. September 21, 2019 9:53 am

    Also, Ben Stein for politics/economics. For authors, how about Terry Pratchett and Neal Stephenson? Probably the best “wise man from earlier times” analog might be woodwork Roy Underhill. Making a list like this makes one feel optimistic .

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