Essay #2: A Very Brief History of the Pursuit of Wisdom

If my suggestion in the first essay is valid—that we have a real and immediate need for the fulfillment of wisdom—then we would expect to find clear evidence of this throughout the history of humanity.  In fact, Homo sapiens as a species has needed deeper meaning and purpose almost from the beginning, with evidence suggesting that humans engaged in spiritual activity at least 100,000 years ago and possibly much earlier in the Middle Paleolithic period (

More recently, virtually all ancient indigenous societies cultivated a rich cultural legacy of myths and creation stories that gave meaning and purpose to individual lives.  In addition to the skills of hunting, gathering, fire building, crafting clothing and shelter, farming, protecting, bonding, and belonging, all indigenous people learned their wisdom stories because they needed those stories.  It was not sufficient for ancient humans to merely survive; they needed the fulfillment of cultivating deeper meaning and purpose.

As indigenous cultures began to congregate together into larger societies and then to interact with other larger societies, humans found themselves exposed to a wide variety of differing cultural myths, creation stories, and gods.  One result of this richness of meaning and purpose was a search for the correct way to believe and behave, and thus emerged religion.  From the perspective of pursuing wisdom, religion can be defined as an organized societal set of beliefs, symbols, and practices intended to bestow the correct way to achieve the fulfillment of deeper meaning and purpose.

It may not be an exaggeration to suggest that the nearly 4000-year-old set of beliefs, symbols, and practices of Judaism was the key factor that enabled a society of people to bond together and to survive and thrive through all manner of hardship with their cultural identity intact to this very day.  In a similar way, the religion of Hinduism contributed to the social cohesion of a larger society of different cultural groups that bonded together and created the ancient civilization of India.  This same general process occurred to allow other flourishing civilizations of antiquity such as Egypt, China, and Mesopotamia.  Our need is so strong for the fulfillment of wisdom that it became one of the driving forces behind the development of civilization.

Then starting toward the end of the second millennium BCE, when large societies were well established, something new began to emerge in the pursuit of wisdom.  Individuals like Zoroaster began to assert their own discoveries and insights, even when these conflicted with the official societal religion, and in doing so these individuals became reformers and founders of movements, schools, and new religions.  The best known among these innovators in the pursuit of wisdom are probably Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed; however, countless other individuals like Pythagoras founded wisdom movements that faded into relative obscurity or total oblivion.

This process has continued into our present time in two forms: philosophy and religion.  The great philosophers of Ancient Greece—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the earlier Presocratics—championed the philosophical approach to pursuing wisdom.  In fact, the word philosophy was created by the Ancient Greeks to mean “love of wisdom,” and they actively pursued their wisdom.  However, over time the philosophical approach evolved into mostly academic discourse, that is, an exercise of the intellect.  It was the religious approach to pursuing wisdom that maintained the vitality of a more immediate need for the fulfillment of deeper meaning and purpose in everyday life.

The religions founded by Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed, along with older religions including Judaism and Hinduism, became dominant societal forces of the Middle Ages, the period of time between antiquity and modernity, approximately 500 to 1500.  Being a member of almost any society in the world during this time meant being a member of a religion.  Meaning and purpose derived almost entirely from one’s religion, the organized set of beliefs, symbols, and practices that in no small measure held societies together.  Much older wisdom traditions, usually referred to as paganism, were also practiced but often in secret because the practitioner could be subject to persecution from the official societal religion.  How one pursued wisdom during this time was a potentially dangerous endeavor, as those poor souls discovered who were put to death by the Christian Church for heresy or witchcraft.

With the latter part of the European Renaissance and then the Scientific Revolution, roughly 1500 to 1700, arrived the notion that individuals should be free to decide what they want to believe and practice in order to pursue deeper meaning and purpose.  This ushered in the Age of Enlightenment, the entire 18th century that witnessed a flourishing of new ideas and societal experiments like democracy, all made possible by free-thinking individuals.  The 19th century in America continued this trend with new wisdom creations from Transcendentalism to Theosophy, along with numerous experiments in utopian communities where small groups of people could explore deeper meaning and purpose in new ways.  Traditional religion was no longer the arbiter of how individuals could pursue wisdom.

In 20th century America the pursuit of wisdom fully blossomed into an individual choice available to all, whether in the context of a religion, a spiritual path, a unique personal creation, or a collection of inspirational teachings from the New Age movement.  This blossoming revealed itself, in part, through the influx of gurus bringing ancient wisdom teachings from Hinduism and Buddhism, and applying these teachings without as much of the traditional religious and cultural baggage in what became known as “the spiritual path.”  Starting in 1893, Swami Vivekananda was the first guru from India to teach in America.  Then Swami Yogananda (later Paramahansa Yogananda) arrived in 1920 and became a permanent resident.  Yogananda’s surprising widespread success paved the way for a steady stream of others: Krishnamurti, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (the Transcendental Meditation movement), Swami Bhaktivedanta (the Hare Krishna movement), Yogi Bhajan, Swami Rama, Yogi Amrit Desai, Swami Satchidananada, Swami Muktananda, Chogyam Trunpa, Rajneesh, Ammachi, American teachers like Ram Dass and Swami Kriyananda, and countless lesser known gurus, some from other traditions such as Zen, Taoism, and Sufism, as well as some who created their own brand of spiritual path.

All of these 20th century teachers and movements played a vital role in popularizing the pursuit of wisdom, and unfortunately most of the prominent gurus displayed behaviors ranging from eyebrow-raising to criminally scandalous.  The next essay explores what might be learned from this for pursuing wisdom in the 21st century.

© 2015 Gary Stogsdill