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Craft of the Wise?

Author: Rhys Chisnall
Posted: October 31st. 2010
Times Viewed: 4,439

Witchcraft is sometimes called the Craft of the Wise, in fact there has been a book written with that very title by the English Witch Vikki Bramshaw. But what exactly does that mean, what do we mean by Wisdom? If an outsider were to take even a casual glance and what is promoted as Witchcraft in popular Wicca, would they consider what they see as wise? Is it wise to believe that fairies literally exist, or that crystals can heal people, or the greater the dilution of a substance then the more effective its healing powers? Is it wise to believe in pseudo-scientific theories of energy being able to heal people, or that distant planets can effect what happens in people’s lives long after the Newtonian revolution in physics? Is it wise to believe that an expensive stick with a bit of crystal stuck on the end is an effective tool to facilitate the realisation of your goals, or there exists completely unknown and undetectable to science (which has proved especially effective at detecting and manipulating it) spinning discs of energy in six location in the body? Is it really wise to believe that burning a blue candle on a Thursday at a specific time will bring you the job you want, or that misfortunes are the result of some previous deed committed in some former life? To my mind this looks more like credulity, delusion and wishful thinking than wisdom; or is it? So can Witchcraft really be the Craft of the Wise?

The answer to that question lies firstly in what we mean by Witchcraft and what is meant by Wisdom?

A shall keep the answer to the first question brief as it has been discussed in length elsewhere. Essentially we could suggest that Witchcraft as it is currently practiced today is a spectrum between two poles. On the one pole is Exoteric Popular Wicca, which tends towards religiosity and sees all the things listed above as literal truth. In other words it tends to locate the focus of experience onto externals. On the other pole you have esoteric initiatory Witchcraft, which is a mystical tradition. Its focus of experience is seen as from within. It uses metaphors to describe personal experiences, which are hard to put into everyday language. Controversially and I know this will upset some people and I am sorry about that, much of what passes as traditional Witchcraft especially if they have literal beliefs in fairies, gods, spirits etc, is towards the exoteric end of the spectrum. If however they see these things as metaphors for mystical experience then they are positioned towards the esoteric end. It seems to many that it makes little difference if you believe fairies or angels are nice or nasty, it is that you believe in such things literally in the first place that is important. This essay primarily concentrates upon the esoteric end of the Craft spectrum but also by necessity of contrast discusses the exoteric pole.

What is wisdom and how does it relate to the Craft? The answer to what wisdom is has been the topic of philosophy since its inception, and more recently the subject of a branch of humanistic psychology called positive psychology. The Oxford English Dictionary states that wisdom is, “the ability to make sensible decisions and give good advice because of the experience and knowledge that you have”.
Unlike the definition of spirituality this definition gives us a good place to begin, but it does raise some important questions. While we have already discussed experience and its importance to the Craft we know need to consider what knowledge is and what kind of knowledge is relevant to wisdom that it allows us to make sensible decisions and give good advice.

Clearly wisdom and knowledge are two different things. Wisdom also seems to be different from intelligence. I have met people who might be considered to be profoundly unintelligent, for example people with more sever learning difficulties, who have acted wisely and have said things that are very wise. Besides intelligence, as psychologist Dr. Susan Blackmore says, is something that is very hard to define, for example something that seems to require a great deal of intelligence such as playing chess, can be achieved with considerable amounts of success, beating even great chess masters by simple machines. In contrast the simplest of things such as doing the washing up, or even sitting on a chair pose major problems for the field of artificial intelligence. Be that as it may for our purposes we shall just have to settle for the somewhat unsatisfactory definition that intelligence has something to do with cognitive versatility. It is the cognitive ability to process and recall information and frame difficult concepts.

I am sure we have all met people who are very intelligent while at the same time seem particularly unwise. For example think about the research scientist who is extremely intelligent but has no ability to cope in the real world. Likewise consider the manager who may have a degree in management and be highly intelligent but hopeless in dealing in people or making wise decisions about their business. I often wonder if this current flirtation with the concept of professionalism leads to a deficiency in wisdom, relying on policies on how to deal with people and make decisions rather than by using experience and common sense. The point is that obviously intelligent people are often not very wise.

So what do we mean by knowledge. What knowledge is, and what counts as knowledge is a branch of philosophy called epistemology and is a huge subject. It would be impossible to review this vast topic in such a short essay and would take us too far from the point. Therefore we shall stick with the rather snappy and bite sized definition from The Philosopher’s Toolkit by Julian Baggini and Peter Fosl that knowledge comprises of a belief that is justified and true. As we have seen what counts as true is a problematic as we have both figurative truth which is subjective, which the religious historian Karen Armstrong called Mythos, and literal factual truth which is objective, which Karen Armstrong called Logos. Objective and Subjective as American Philosopher Thomas Nagel says are two points in a spectrum rather than a dualistic pair of opposites.

Unlike with intelligence it is harder to imagine people who are extremely knowledgeable but we would not consider wise, but it is not impossible. For example while I was doing my A levels many years ago I had a chemistry teacher who seemed to me to be an extremely knowledgeable man. However he would often have parties for pupils where he would get very drunk. This does not strike me as very wise or indeed very appropriate, and he paid the price by losing his job. Perhaps another example might be the behaviourist psychologist John Watson who despite being knowledgeable made some decidedly unwise decisions in his love life, not to mention German philosopher Martin Heidegger, a very knowledgeable man, who nonetheless was an enthusiastic supporter of the Nazi party. From the Occult we could look at Aleister Crowley who despite being a very knowledgeable we would still be hard pressed to call wise.

Connected to the concept of knowledge is understanding. Perhaps understanding could give us some insight into what we mean by wisdom. Understanding is different from knowledge. For example in Bloom’s taxonomy of higher order thinking, which trainees teachers learn about, understanding as considered to be a higher order than knowledge. To illustrate this difference consider this. I know about quantum entanglement. This is when two particles are put into agreement and then whatever happens to one particle happens to the other instantaneity no matter the distance between the two. I know this but I do not understand it. Perhaps another example would help. I teach teenagers with learning difficulties basic numeracy and literacy. My students know for example that one plus one equals two, but they do not understand why. As a result they are unable to apply this knowledge to other situations or contexts, such as two plus three equals five, or that two pence and two pence equals four pence. Understanding is when we get the concept; it is when we can apply that knowledge (the next level of Bloom’s taxonomy) to different contexts and situations. When we understand that two plus two equals four we can apply that knowledge to pence, peaches or piranhas.

The problem is that understanding still falls foul of the problems that we have highlighted with knowledge. People can still have an understanding, but make unwise choices, so understanding in general can’t be sufficient to be wise.
Perhaps it is a certain kind of understanding, an understanding of a specific kind of thing that leads to wisdom. This is where positive psychology can come to our aid. Positive psychology is a branch of humanistic psychology that has taken up the call of Abraham Maslow and is interested in what makes a mentally healthy person. In other words positive psychologists working in the hermeneutic tradition and within phenomenology, rather than the scientific tradition, are looking at what makes a good life. American Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman suggests in his co-authored book, “Character Strengths and Virtues”, that wisdom is the use of knowledge and experience to improve well-being. He suggests that in order to achieve this, a wise person must have knowledge and understanding of themselves.

This looks like a promising idea but is it sufficient for wisdom? Again we can think of people that have self-knowledge but still we would not consider them to be wise. In particular think of a stroppy teenager who knows that they have a bad temper, but still flies into a fit of rage when they don’t get what they want, prejudicing their own interests. What we need to do is to apply the concept of understanding, especially as it relates to the ability of applying our self-knowledge to various different contexts. In particular for it to count as wisdom it needs to be the consistent application of self-knowledge so that it leads to our own well-being and achievement of our aims.

To my mind this is related to emotional intelligence. According to the American psychologist and author Daniel Goleman this is the ability to be able to recognise and manage our emotions so that we can use them to our advantage, rather than letting them run away with us so that we end up in all kinds of predicaments. It is about being self aware of our emotions as emotions, which evolved long before rational thought, are extremely important in making decisions. Recent research highlighted by the New Scientist (9th October 2010) has demonstrated that emotional areas of the brain are involved in making decisions about morality. For example emotions let us know how we feel, and therefore what importance to us about places, situations and people. If we are self aware and use our experiences of emotions and situations, we can judge and react in a way more in accordance with what will work in achieving what we want, rather than allowing the emotion alone to dictate our behaviour which may be to our detriment. This is the understanding of our emotions and how to work with them appropriately.

It also goes beyond emotions to an understanding of ourselves at every level, our beliefs and why we hold them, our attitudes, our physical needs, our social needs and context, the people we are with, and our spirituality. It is our understanding of ourselves at all our occult levels. In everything all that makes us who we are.

Self-understanding that can be consistently applied to our well being in different contexts is necessary for wisdom but I would suggest that it is not sufficient. I am sure that intuitively we would all be loath to call a person who simply uses their self-knowledge to pursue their own interests as wise. Something more is required.

Again the positive psychologists come to our aid. Martin Seligman suggests that to be considered wise a person would also need to be able to pass on advice that is of benefit to others in their well being. In other words this works in two inter related ‘dimensions’. First the person would need to have the applicable self understanding and experience to pass on meaningful and useful advice in a way that was clear to their interlocutors. Secondly they need to be perceived as being able of doing that by those that seek their advice. In other words there is a social aspect to wisdom, in needs to be perceived by others.

This means that wisdom depends to some extent on social context, and this could be a problem. For example a person, who is considered wise by some, need not be considered wise by others. Imagine an evangelical Christian Pastor, he may be considered wise in his own context and by his congregation, but he may seem the epitome of folly (the opposite of wisdom or maybe the start of it) by a scientist or philosopher. Likewise going back to our example at the start of the essay, someone who believed in chakras would consider advice about clearing a blockage from their heart chakra, wise advice in obtaining love, while the rest of us would consider them credulous and gullible. However we are in danger of losing a meaningful definition. Somehow we need to slide wisdom along Nagel’s spectrum towards objectivity, and this is where the application of self-knowledge towards well being and achieving ones goals comes in. Is the perceived wise person also achieving this well-being and is the advice that they are giving others leading to theirs? With the chakra believer and the fundamentalist Christian pastor arguably they are not using self knowledge and experience to consistently achieve well being and neither are they facilitating it in others advice. Both the application of self knowledge leading to well being in self and others and being perceived as being able to achieve this by other people is required for wisdom.

We now have a working definition of wisdom. It is using self understanding (in the broad sense) and experience applied in numerous contexts to the well being of the individual. As wisdom is about self-understanding and experience it is more often associated with more mature and older people than it is with the young, although youngsters can certainly display great wisdom. We can define a wise person as someone who consistently shows the qualities of wisdom we have just defined and is able to communicate advice and experience from their own self-understanding that leads to well being in others. Now we have a clearer I idea of what we mean by wisdom we can now attempt to answer the question whether Witchcraft really is the Craft of the Wise?

The answer must surely be whether the Craft facilitates the growth of wisdom in its practitioners. This also is dependent on where the individual falls in the spectrum of the Craft, whether they are more towards to literalist exoteric pole or the figurative and esoteric pole. Let us take the exoteric end of the spectrum first.

I think it would be possible to argue that to some extent the literal and religious beliefs of the exoteric side of Witchcraft do contribute to well being. Jessica Hamzelou in the New Scientist (9th October 2010) reports that Bruce Headey of Melbourne University has discovered that along with other factors such as putting family first and having a non neurotic partner, participating in religion leads to an increase in happiness. But remember that well-being is not ‘the be all and end all ’ of Wisdom. That well-being needs to have been facilitated by consistent application of self-knowledge. The exoteric end of the Witchcraft spectrum places no emphasis on personal development and self-understanding with its external focus and in fact is critical of those who are towards the esoteric pole that they describe as indulging in self help. As such Exoteric Witchcraft does not facilitate self-understanding as what it values is seen as external to the participant and therefore it can’t facilitate wisdom.

A practitioner of Exoteric Witchcraft might argue that if Gods and fairies exist then it would be wise, based on an understanding of our own needs that we enter in religious contracts with them. However this is a big ‘if’ and is only likely to convince theists and literalists. It still does not directly promote self-understanding, which can be applied consistently towards making decisions that facilitate well-being. That is not to say that theists and literalists can’t be wise, clearly they can, but to my mind this is not directly caused by the religion they pursue but by the life experience and reflection they would have carried out religious or not.

At the extreme end of the exoteric spectrum are the new age practises of Popular Wicca. These are the people who hold literal belief in crystal healing, Reiki, homeopathy, burning a pink candle on a Friday for love, aura healing etc. There is a strong argument to suggest that these beliefs do not in any way of facilitate wisdom as the practitioners put more stock in their concepts of how they work rather than in facilitating the well being of their patients. Rigorous scientific testing based on evidence has shown that the new age concepts behind such treatments (not to mention their effectiveness beyond the powerful effect of placebo) have shown them to be false. Surely the wise thing to do would be to accept the evidence and attempt to improve on the active part of the treatment (i.e. Placebo) this in turn would facilitate the well being of the people seeking the therapies. Putting the New Age theory first rather than the well-being of the patient has led some homeopaths to recommend that people take homeopathic ineffective anti malaria treatment rather than effective medicine, with disastrous consequences. This and the fact that they encourage credulity put a great deal of doubt on whether they facilitate well-being let alone encourage self-understanding.

What about the esoteric Craft? Towards this pole of this end of the spectrum the Crafters agree with the assumption of the Sufi mystic Rumi, “to know yourself, is to know God”. From the perspective of the initiatory Craft this assumption is made on the belief that human beings are a part of nature and in the words of the 17th century Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza ‘Deus sive Natura’, or ‘God or Nature’, we choose to see nature as Divine. As such by understanding ourselves we understand (at least a part of) the Divine. Whether this assumption is true or not, it does lead to self understanding which can be applied to our lives facilitating our well being and the well being of others. But just because esoteric Craft has this propensity for facilitating self-understanding built into the very definition, it does not necessarily follow that all that practice it are successful at achieving Wisdom. However in Esoteric Craft self-understanding leading to wisdom it is definitely something to aspire to.

In conclusion the Craft of the Wise is an appropriate title for the practise of the Craft at the esoteric end of our spectrum. This is because this kind of Craft facilitates the qualities, which are necessary and sufficient for Wisdom within its participants. The exoteric end of the Craft spectrum does not facilitate or even encourage these qualities, looking to external ‘agents’ rather than the self-understanding. However this does not mean that those who practice theistic and popular Wicca are not wise or do not aspire to wisdom, rather their participants, if they become wise, do not become so because of the spiritual path they are following.


Rhys Chisnall

Location: Stowmarket, England


Author's Profile: To learn more about Rhys Chisnall - Click HERE

Bio: Rhys runs a pre-initiation out of coven training group on behalf of a long established rural coven in North Suffolk. He works as a lecturer where he teaches teenagers with learning difficulties. He is currently studying for a degree in philosophy and psychology and has a life long interest in nature.

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