The Wise Old Man or Sage is an archetype that is recognised by almost everyone, be it in stories, games, movies, or everyday life. In myth he is often shown as one living in isolation, meditating and living a simple life deep in a forest, in the mountains, or in other uninhabited places.
- The Symbolism of the Desert
- The Hermit and The Wandering Ascetic
- The Wise Old Man Archetype
- Senex and Puer Aeternus
- The Dark Side of The Wise Old Man
- The Wise Old Man and The Hero
- The Dangers of Identifying as The Sage
- The Hermit in Tarot
- The Hermit and The Madman Archetype
- Facing Death in Old Age
- The Forgotten Art of Solitude
- The Sage’s Journey: The Search for Truth
- The Eternal Inner Centre
- The Book of Ecclesiastes: Meaninglessness
- The Truth Shall Set You Free
- Recommended Reading
The Wise Old Man is a lover of wisdom, and uses his experience to guide others. He is portrayed as a mysterious person or a wizard, in contact with nature and the numinous and unseen forces that permeate our existence.
Like the mythical creature of the Sphinx, the Sage speaks oracularly in riddles. Zen masters present their students with a seemingly insoluble koan, and Christ spoke in parables to his disciples. This is not in order to obscure truth, but rather to awaken one to experience the truth. At the bottom of great doubt, lies great awakening. When the student is ready the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready the teacher will disappear. As Friedrich Nietzsche writes, “One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.”
Perhaps most importantly, the Sage is a hermit, a person that has removed himself from society in order to fulfill his spiritual quest. The word hermit derives from the ancient Greek erēmítēs, which in turn comes from erēmía (desert, or uninhabited region). Thus, a hermit is literally a person of the desert.
The Symbolism of the Desert
The desert is a frequent biblical motif and is synonymous with wilderness or wasteland. It is the place Adam and Eve (the first humans) had to go after being banished from the Garden of Eden for disobeying God. It is a place of exile, and sin, representing separation from God. The wilderness is surrounded by wild beasts. In Islamic folklore, deserts and unclean places are believed to be inhabited by djinn, malevolent spirits who take the form of animals, in order to lead others astray.
In the last four of the first five books of the Bible (the Torah), Moses and the people of Israel wandered in the desert for forty years before they could enter the promised land, though Moses was not allowed in. The desert is not just a place of punishment, but also a place of baptism or purification, of burning off all that is superfluous, all errors and lies, for only truth survives the fire. The desert is an invitation to reflect deeply on one’s spiritual life, which is done in solitude, removed from the material concerns of society.
The wilderness is also the place Jesus was led to by the Holy Spirit, and where he spent forty days and nights fasting. Here, he was engaged in spiritual warfare with Satan, who tried to tempt Him. After refusing each temptation, Jesus returns to Galilee and begins his public ministry. The Desert Fathers drew inspiration from this, and Saint Anthony the Great, known as the Father of All Monks, followed Christ’s footsteps isolating himself in the desert. Eventually, small communities with like-minded individuals were formed and the concept of monasticism was born. Thus, in imitation of Christ, monks retired into solitude to confront their own inner devils.
The Hermit and The Wandering Ascetic
In the East, wandering ascetics inspired a lifestyle dedicated to the spirit, such as in Buddhist monasticism. In Hinduism, there are four stages in human life: the student stage, the householder stage, the hermit stage, and the wandering ascetic stage. The third stage Vānaprastha (the way of the forest) is the transitional phase from pursuits related to wealth and pleasure, to one with greater emphasis on moksha (spiritual liberation), the final result of wisdom.
The hermit retires into a secluded place, or an ashram (spiritual hermitage) and gives advice to his family and community. In the final stage of life, usually when one is old, one renounces to all worldly things. The holy sadhus and yogis of India live a solitary life dedicated solely to meditation and prayer. Yoga is also practiced, which literally means union, that is, the union of all dualities, the material with the spiritual, the individual self with the supreme self.
The wise person who has performed good deeds, and lived a life of humility and piety, acquires good karma, and may either be reborn into a better life or be released from samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth into this world of suffering, wherein the Ātman (true self) merges with Brahman (ultimate reality), like a rain drop merging with the ocean.
The Wise Old Man Archetype
According to Swiss psychiatrist and psychologist Carl Jung, the Wise Old Man is one of the archetypal images that repeat themselves most frequently, the so-called dominants. The others are the shadow, the child, the mother and her counterpart the maiden, and lastly the anima in man and the animus in woman. Archetypes or primordial images are the inherited patterns of behaviour of mankind and form part of the collective unconscious.
Jung also used the word senex (Latin for old man) to describe this archetype. In ancient Rome, this title was only awarded to elderly men with families who had a good standing in their village.
The senex is the archetypal image of meaning and wisdom, he symbolises the spiritual factor and is a personification of the masculine spirit. In a man’s psychology, the anima in man (the archetype of life) is related to the Wise Old Man as daughter to father. In a woman’s psychology, the Wise Old Man is an aspect of the animus in woman (the archetype of meaning). The feminine equivalent in both men and women is the Earth Mother or Great Mother.
Archetypes are frequently misunderstood as meaning certain mythological images or motifs, but these are nothing more than conscious representations. We cannot see the archetype in itself, for it is a form without content, but only the archetypal image which has become conscious and can be experienced in personified form. Thus, archetypal images can vary a great deal in detail across the world, but they all share the same basic pattern.
The Wise Old Man archetype is often presented as a teacher of wisdom, such as Abraham, Moses, Solomon, etc., in the Judeo-Christian tradition. King Solomon is most famous for his wisdom, and is the author of the Book of Proverbs. The theological foundation is that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. This is not a servile fear, but the fear of being in the presence of the infinitely great. Hineini is a powerful phrase in Hebrew meaning “Here I am”. It is the bearing of oneself either in the presence of God or another human being. Here I am, fully in your presence. The fear of the Lord is a fear of the numinous, the experience of a mysterious terror and awe in the presence of God, a fear that comes forth out of love for God.
Wisdom (Sophia) is praised for her role in creation; God acquired her before all else, she gives order to chaos, and since humans prosper by conforming to the order of creation, seeking wisdom is the essence and goal of life. If she is cherished, one is exalted; if she is embraced, one is honoured. But if you refuse to listen to her when she calls, when you pay no attention when she stretches out her hand, so too, will she ignore you when you most need her, in times of distress and trouble. How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver!
“The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”
In Hermeticism, Hermes Trismegistus is the fount of all wisdom, the teacher of the mystery of all ages, especially of alchemy. He teaches us that we are fundamentally no different from the Supreme, and that gnosis (mystical knowledge that is revealed) is the result of divine wisdom.
In China, the Sage is portrayed in the philosopher Laozi, the founder of Taoism. His name is actually an honorific title which means “old man” or “old master”. He taught that wisdom comes from the Tao or “The Way”, the natural order of the universe, which is not different from nature or ourselves, it is simply the way in which things are. Everything coexists, life is simply a happening. By forgetting oneself, one becomes the universe. The Tao cannot be understood as a concept, as it is eternally nameless, it can only be experienced in life, such as in states of flow or effortless action, whereby, without even trying, one achieves perfect harmony and perfect knowledge of the current situation.
In Arthurian legend the Sage appears as the wizard Merlin. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the Roman poet Virgil appears as a psychopomp or spiritual guide (a manifestation of the Sage) in Dante’s difficult but necessary descent into Hell. In Nietzsche’s work he appears as the prophet Zarathustra, who descends from the mountains to mankind in order to share his gifts of wisdom. And in Jung he appears as Philemon, his inner Wise Old Man whom he met during active imagination, taking over the role of a guru. He represents superior insight, a living personality to whom Jung was not identical, and who taught him psychic objectivity, the reality of the psyche.
The Sage can also be seen in the master shaman, who is responsible for the religious direction of a community, and guards its soul. He has access to a region of the sacred not accessible to other members of the community, and guides neophytes who must undergo the first trials to find their lost souls. For the shaman, the whole world is permeated by a life force or mana which connects all living beings to the Anima Mundi (World Soul).
In modern popular fiction, the Wise Old Man appears as Yoda from Star Wars, the Wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings and Professor Dumbledore in Harry Potter, among others.
The Wise Old Man appears in dreams in the guise of a king, magician, doctor, priest, professor, grandfather, or any other person possessing authority. The archetype of the spirit not only appears in the shape of a man, but also as a “real” spirit, namely the ghost of one dead, or, more rarely, as a creature such as a dwarf, gnome, goblin, or a talking animal.
The Sage usually appears in a situation where good advice is needed but cannot be mustered on one’s own resources. He is the pre-existent meaning hidden in the chaos of life, and compensates this state of spiritual deficiency by insightful contents designed to fill the gap. This archetype has lain dormant in the collective unconscious since the dawn of history. It is awakened whenever the times are out of joint, for when people are lead astray, they feel the need of a guide or teacher.
In the individuation process (the lifelong journey towards psychic wholeness), the archetype of the Wise Old Man is late to emerge, and is therefore seen as an indication of the Self (the total personality). Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz writes:
“If an individual has wrestled enough and long enough with the anima (or animus) problem… the unconscious again changes its dominant character and appears in a new symbolic form… as a masculine initiator and guardian (an Indian guru), a wise old man, a spirit of nature, and so forth.”
M.L. von Franz, Man and His Symbols. Part III: The Process of Individuation
Senex and Puer Aeternus
As we grow older, we enter the world of the senex, the polar opposite of the puer aeternus (eternal boy), but nevertheless, the opposite side of the same coin. We recognise youth by knowing age; we become aware of ageing by remembering how we were when young. The purpose of adulthood is to return to childhood as a matured being, not to stay in the state of childhood and refuse to grow up (the Peter Pan syndrome). Many old people seem to return to a state of childlike innocence, and wonder.
The senex can be associated with the god Apollo – disciplined, controlled, responsible, rational and ordered. The puer, on the other hand, is related to Dionysus – unbounded, instinct, disorder, intoxication, and whimsy. Both of these archetypes are necessary for a psychologically healthy life.
With his authority, tradition, and structure, the senex consolidates, grounds and disciplines. The puer flashes with insight and thrives on immediacy, fantasy, and creativity. These two archetypes represent past and future, old and new. The senex-puer duality is a fundamental pattern of psychological life, always at work within us. This duality is represented in Mercurius, the Roman equivalent of the Greek Hermes. In alchemy, he is described as a young boy and an old man. He represents the union of opposites, and thus, the philosophers’ stone, or the Self.
Mercurius senex is identical with Saturn, which is associated with lead in alchemy, the prima materia or starting material required for the Great Work.In medieval astrology, Saturn is known as the maleficent god, in contrast to Jupiter, the beneficent god. Saturn is the dwelling place of the devil himself. In Gnosticism he appears as the lion-headed serpent god Yaldabaoth, the demiurge and highest archon who created the material world in order to imprison souls in physical bodies. He is the child of chaos and darkness.
The Dark Side of The Wise Old Man
All archetypes have a light and dark side. The dark side of the Wise Old Man is cut off from the world and others, and lives in his ivory tower. There are certain intellectuals who are excellent at giving lectures and understanding complicated philosophical or scientific concepts, but are unable to deal, for example, with emotional conflicts in relationships. Moreover, they become irritated at the thought of using any mode of perception other than the rational method.
Shadow Sages will only acknowledge the way that corresponds to their own learning style, and hence the one in which they excel. Knowledge then (whether subtly or blatantly) becomes a way of showing superiority to others. Whatever relative truth they have discovered is identified with absolute truth. For example, scientism occurs when science seems to regard its own scientific standpoint as a position of unquestionable truth from which it can assert itself in all directions so that things like religion, psychology, philosophy, and the arts appear as no more than subjective opinion. In this way, our existential problems and the human condition are completely ignored.
When the shadow Sage is active in our lives, we often get caught in obsessive thinking, attempting to figure everything out by rational processes. If we cannot figure it out in this way, we are paralysed. How can one act, he says, when it is impossible to know what is true? Such a person cannot commit to a lover, because he does not know if this is the right person for him. He cannot commit to work because he does not know if it is the right thing to do. Inevitably, such people tend toward cynicism because of a heightened awareness of their inability of knowing anything for sure and of the imperfection of all life.
The negative Sage is obsessed by nonattachment, and so cannot commit to people, projects, or ideas. He is deluded that this provides him with freedom, but he is not really free at all. He is simply too terrified of commitment to really attach to anyone or anything. One is often addicted to being perfect, truthful and right, and has no tolerance for normal human feelings or vulnerabilities. Such a person often tends toward ascetic practices and constantly derides himself or others for any sign of not being perfect. Nothing is ever really good enough.
The shadow Sage is unable to see reality as it is. For instance, he might be surrounded by a natural and beautiful environment, but only focus on the flaws of existence, being unable to partake in the beauty of life. William Blake writes:
“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way… As a man is so he sees.”
William Blake’s Letter to Dr. Trusler (23 August 1799)
The shadow Sage appears as an old man who is cynical, rigid, materialistic, reluctant to change, and lacks a sense of humour. He can be extremely cold-hearted, and may have deep regrets which represents his unlived life. Old age is not always correlated with wisdom. A man who has white hair and wrinkles has not necessarily lived long, just existed long. Fate leads the willing, and drags along the reluctant.
Most major decisions in life cannot be decided in a scientific and rational way, many times we require a leap of faith. Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards. Without answering the call to adventure and treading into unknown territory, we can never start the hero’s journey, without which there is no self-realisation at all.
The Wise Old Man and The Hero
In myths and fairy tales, whenever the hero in search of the treasure has lost his way, the Wise Old Man usually appears bearing new light and hope. In a similar way, such a figure can materialise in our own dreams. The Sage finds within himself what has been ignored or lost by society. He often takes the form of a mentor to the hero, playing a crucial role in the hero’s journey. He instructs the hero both with knowledge and with practical skills in order to equip him for the arduous tasks with which life confronts him, and presents the hero with magical items to later aid him in his quest.
The hero’s father is often a master carpenter, some kind of artisan, or a cosmic architect. In fairy tales, the hero’s father is, more modestly, the traditional woodcutter. Jung writes:
“The hero symbolises our unconscious self, and this manifests itself empirically as the sum total of all archetypes and therefore includes the archetype of the father and of the wise old man. To that extent the hero is his own father and his own begetter.”
Carl Jung, C.W. Vol. 5: Symbols of Transformation
The Dangers of Identifying as The Sage
One way to misunderstand the meaning of an archetypal personage is to view the figure literally rather than symbolically. In the case of the Sage, one might grow a beard, wear monk robes, and set forth perhaps to some distant land – in search of a guru on whom to project perfect wisdom and enlightenment. However, if one fails to find someone on whom to project the Sage, one may, in desperation, cast one’s young and inexperienced human self into the role of this archetype. To identify oneself with any archetype can have disastrous consequences. It can cause ego-inflation in which the seeker experiences a God complex or messiah complex. He may himself start a cult, attracting his own followers to worship him. On the other hand, one may be crushed by the burden of an archetypal role and retreat from life altogether, falling into a vegetable-like depression. In either case, one’s human beingness is distorted.
Unfortunately, disposing of our psychological burdens is not so easy. One can never become an archetypal figure. Any such attempt is hopeless – and has elements of tragedy. The plain fact is that an archetypal character is suprahuman.
The Hermit in Tarot
In Tarot, the archetype of the Wise Old Man is portrayed by the ninth card of the Major Arcana: The Hermit. In the Rider–Waite deck, we see in the card an old man with white hair and beard, wearing the robes of a friar or monk. He stands alone on a snowy mountain peak, carrying a staff in one hand and a lit lantern with a shining six-pointed star in the other. His eyes are closed, and he looks within himself, echoing Jung’s words, “Who looks outside dreams; who looks inside awakens.” It is a man who has gained all kinds of experiences in the world, and is spending time alone, contemplating and understanding the lessons he has learned. Those who find him and talk to him will be showered by these rich lessons, for he wants to shine the light of knowledge out into this world.
The friar pictured in the card embodies a wisdom not to be found in books. His gift is as elemental and ageless as the fire in his lamp. A man of few words, he lives in the silence of solitude. He brings us no sermons; no commandments, or berates us for wrongdoing. He offers us himself. By his simple presence he illumines fearful recesses of the human soul and warms hearts empty of hope and meaning. Jung writes:
“My friends, it is wise to nourish the soul, otherwise you will breed dragons and devils in your heart.”
Carl Jung, The Red Book
The flame which the Hermit holds could represent the quintessential spirit inherent in all life – that central core of meaning which is the elusive fifth element transcending the four elements of mundane reality. He offers us that inward light whose golden flame alone dispels spiritual chaos and darkness. His lamp seems an apt symbol for the individual insight of the mystic, the possibility of individual illumination as a universal human potential.
If the traveler is open to the old man’s message, he will follow his example by beginning to discover and nurture his own inner spark as the Hermit has done. If he is ready to observe and listen, the Wise Old Man can help him find a lamp of his own.
This old man no longer needs to consider what lies behind; he has assimilated the experiences of the past. Neither does he need to scan distant horizons, seeking out future potentials. His insight pierces through our arbitrary divisions of space and time to reveal the meaningful pattern of the eternal now. Like the figure of Merlin, who has both knowledge of the past and of the future, this wise man too possesses the magic power to master the riddle of time. The fullness of being that is the pleroma, the place where past, present and future exist simultaneously.
The Hermit’s mastery of time is further evidenced by the fact that in the 15th century tarot deck Visconti-Sforza, the Hermit is called Father Time, and does not hold a lamp, but rather an hourglass. Another interesting version is the Tabula Mundi deck, where the hermit is descending a stone stairway into the depths, into the unconscious. Behind him stands the three-headed dog, Cerberus, who guards the gates of the Underworld, which can also be seen in the hermit card of Aleister Crowley’s Thoth deck. The Hermit is able to access the treasures of his unconscious and bring it back into the light of consciousness.
The Hermit and The Madman Archetype
The Hermit archetype can also be seen as somewhat of a madman. Nietzsche evokes the figure of a madman who runs into the marketplace with a lit lantern in the bright morning hours, shouting that he is looking for God, while the crowd laugh at him. The madman mournfully declares, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” In a similar fashion, Diogenes the Cynic would walk around in the marketplace in full daylight with a lamp. When asked what he was doing, he would answer, “I am looking for a man.” Most people weren’t even worthy of the category “human”, for that demands virtue. The people who walk around worrying about money, power, and social conventions are the real “madmen”. Diogenes, who rejected all social conventions in favour of a simple life in conformity with nature, is the only reasonable human being in sight. Plato is supposed to have said of Diogenes that he was a “Socrates gone mad.”
In the parable of the cave, Plato depicts prisoners chained to a wall inside a cave, who are only able to see the shadow forms of objects being carried around, and mistake them for reality. When one of them is set free and leaves the cave, his eyes slowly adjust to the light until he can look at the people, animals, water, trees, stars, and eventually, the sun itself, which fills him with awe. Immediately, he returns to the cave to tell others, stumbling around in the darkness. When he reaches the prisoners and speaks of the wondrous things outside the cave, they call him a madman, and would kill him or anyone who attempted to drag them out.
The figure of Merlin was inspired by the bard Myrddin Wyllt (Myrddin the Wild) in Welsh legend. He is said to have gone mad after a particularly bloody battle and retreated in the woods. Featuring the wildman-in-the-woods motif, Myrddin became a half-savage living on the fringe of civilisation possessing great power and wisdom. Similarly, Merlin withdraws into the forest because he has gone mad and lives like a wild animal. When he is brought back into the world of men, his madness breaks out anew, unable to bear the superficial concerns of men. So, he remains in the forest and devotes himself to his astronomical observations, exploring the stars and singing about future happenings. It was only later that he became known as the counsellor of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, who set forth on the quest for the Holy Grail.
The madman can be seen as a doomsayer, or someone who brings gifts of enlightenment, but he is almost always misunderstood by others.
Facing Death in Old Age
The integration of the Sage archetype is, generally speaking, the task of the second half of life. When we are young, we have to learn to live; and when we are old, we have to learn to die. Death is psychologically as important as birth. Jung tells us that when we are threatened with complete death, the unconscious apparently disregards it, life behaves as if it were going on. This is merely a psychological fact. So, it is better for old people to live on, to look forward to the next day, as if one had to spend centuries, and look forward to the great adventure that lies ahead, then one lives according to nature, and one lives right into one’s death. When one is afraid of death and looks backwards, then one becomes petrified and dies before one’s time.
The Forgotten Art of Solitude
In a time when loneliness is rampant, when a person can be surrounded by a group of people and feel even more alienated than being alone, the Wise Old Man comes to teach us the forgotten art of solitude, the voluntary withdrawal from society and the ability to make a smooth transition back into the world again when it is time to return. Those who have neglected their inner self to the extent that they exist solely in relation to others, have failed to listen to this inner voice. Their self-identity relies exclusively on others, so they lose themselves in the crowd. There comes a time, however, when one is forced to turn inwards, when one realises that one must accept the lonely path to self-realisation, in order to attain peace. The misalignment between one’s outer world and one’s inner world is frequently the cause of a midlife crisis.
After a long time, the hermit may become enlightened and transform into a Sage, and feel that he has a responsibility to share his wisdom with others. In Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the prophet Zarathustra leaves his home at the age of thirty and goes into the mountains, where he enjoys his spirit and solitude and for ten years he does not tire of it. But at last, a change comes over his heart, and one morning he steps before the sun, and speaks to it thus:
“You great star, what would your happiness be had you not those for whom you shine. For ten years you have climbed to my cave: you would have tired of your light and of the journey had it not been for me and my eagle and my serpent. But we waited for you every morning, took your overflow from you, and blessed you for it. Behold, I am weary of my wisdom, like a bee that has gathered too much honey; I need hands outstretched to receive it. I would give away and distribute, until the wise among men find joy again in their folly, and the poor in their riches. For that I must descend to the depths, as you do in the evening when you go behind the sea and still bring light to the underworld, you overrich star. Like you, I must go under—go down, as is said by man, to whom I want to descend. So bless me then you quiet eye that can look even upon all-too-great happiness without envy! Bless the cup that wants to overflow, that the water may flow from it golden and carry everywhere the reflection of your delight. Behold, this cup wants to become empty again, and Zarathustra wants to become man again. Thus began Zarathustra’s down-going.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
Zarathustra’s solitude was very fruitful, but there comes a moment when he grows weary of his wisdom. Solitude, then, seems only to be a temporary matter. Thus, he begins his descent into mankind. Upon reaching the marketplace with his gifts and teachings, he is met with indifference and laughter. Zarathustra grows sad and says, “They do not understand me: I am not the mouth for these ears.”
Nietzsche, who spent his later period in life almost in complete solitude, was acutely aware of his psychological isolation, and joked to one of his correspondents that he was the “hermit of Sils-Maria”, a cool place in Switzerland where he spent his summers at. He also stated, “I am solitude become man”. Nietzsche was a solitary wanderer, a “free spirit” in the wilderness, who would spend most of his time writing, and despite his frequent ailments, he would take long walks that could last several hours. In fact, he stated that no thoughts are worth anything, unless they are conceived of while walking. Solitude is a return to oneself, the breathing of fresh air. Nietzsche writes:
“When I am among the many I live as the many do, and I do not think as I really think; after a time it always seems as though they want to banish me from myself and rob me of my soul and I grow angry with everybody and fear everybody. I then require the desert, so as to grow good again.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, Daybreak, §491
While solitude is essential in order to know oneself, loneliness can be destructive. Introspective solitude is compatible with life in community, but it is also necessary to retreat into complete solitude once in a while, in order to receive its fruits.
Depression is the cry of the soul for growth. We all need to make many round trips to “the desert” at various points in our lives, in order to replenish our souls. That is why it is essential to have a spiritual hermitage one can go to.
The Sage’s Journey: The Search for Truth
The call of the Sage’s journey begins with confusion, doubt, and a deep desire to find the truth. The first problem we usually encounter in our quest for truth is disillusionment. We find that each individual has their own truth, which can be as good as anyone else’s, as long as one is virtuous. There are truths, but no absolute truth. How do we then choose what is objectively true? We will inevitably struggle with the problem of commitment in the context of relativism, the absence of objective truth.
One must first start by finding a way of life that fits best for oneself. In the midst of an existential crisis, Danish theologian and philosopher Søren Kierkegaard wrote in his journal:
“What I really want is to be clear in my mind what I am to do, not what I am to know, except in so far as a certain knowledge must precede every action. The thing is to understand myself, to see what God really wishes me to do: the thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die.”
Søren Kierkegaard, Papers and Journals
For Kierkegaard, truth is subjectivity; and subjectivity is truth. One must put one’s own existence before anything else, and accept responsibility for it. There is no point in “bracketing” one’s life in favour of abstract theories about human existence, or mindlessly following any system. For what is the use of having a world view which one does not live, but only holds up to the view of others?
To find one’s truth is certainly no easy task, because where there is a path, it is probably someone else’s path. We must walk alone where the forest is darkest, and where there is no path. When we experience the dark night of the soul, our truth may shatter and we realise how futile it is to us. The truth that truly matters to us, however, does not shatter in our moment of despair, it sustains us and keeps us afloat, even though we may still rebel against it.
After finding one’s subjective truth and expressing it in the world, the Sage must align it with the truth beyond himself. Truth must necessarily go beyond our subjectivity, for it is the objective truth that grounds us in the eternal, and this is only possible if one has a relationship with God, a higher self that overwhelms one’s self, so that, paradoxically, one truly becomes oneself. In other words, one’s individual will is aligned with objective truth.
The Eternal Inner Centre
In a medieval manuscript, a king lives on the rim of a wheel, which we may call our subjective and temporal truths: money, pleasure, fame, power, etc. The king moves in a never-ending process of: “I am reigning”, “I have reigned”, “I have lost my kingdom”, and “I shall reign”. He spends all his life worrying about what he is going to lose, because of his attachment to things that are temporal. In the centre, however, is the objective and eternal truth, represented as Christ (a symbol of the Self), which stays eternally firm no matter what happens in life. This is God, an infinite sphere, the centre of which is everywhere, the circumference nowhere. The Sage seeks to align himself to this infinite centre, and attain inner calm. The Self is a God-image. He who knows himself knows God. We reach God through the Self, but God is not the Self, for he is behind and above it.
The ancient Greek philosophers used the word apatheia(not to be confused with apathetic), to describe the state of wisdom and tranquillity one finds oneself in when aligned with this eternal centre. One ceases to be disturbed by one’s wild emotional fluctuations, and goes along with whatever life throws at one. Unlike the undisciplined person, the Sage is able to contemplate and be quiet without constantly being assaulted by his own defects and negative thoughts. He is at peace with life and himself, as he has accepted his flaws, and is focused on his spiritual duty. In the heart of every human being there dwells a Sage.
The highest achievement of the Sage is freedom from attachment of temporary things. This does not mean that he has to become an ascetic, but rather that he knows deep within that material concerns are of secondary importance in life, and so he does not fear losing them. The only thing he fears is the loss of his soul.
The Book of Ecclesiastes: Meaninglessness
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.”
Thus begins the Book of Ecclesiastes. The Hebrew word used is hevel (vapour), which figuratively can be translated as meaningless, vain, insubstantial, or futile. It is the story of Kohelet. He had become the king of Israel and had all the power, wealth, and pleasure one could get: all gifts from the God who loved him. Yet despite those gifts, he began to drift away from God’s commands. He experienced much knowledge and wisdom, but with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief. He realises that everything he did was meaningless, a chasing after the wind. He wrote this book at the end of his life, and concludes that all the things we pour our lives into – our projects, our hard work, our rivalries, alliances, and successes – will vanish into thin air. His wisdom is summed up in his final words:
“Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.”
The Truth Shall Set You Free
Unlike the Magician archetype who wants to transform reality by changing consciousness, the Wise Old Man has little or no need to control or change the world; he just wants to understand it. The Sage’s path is the journey to find out the truth – about ourselves, our world, and the universe,
Perhaps the most liberating and freeing moment in life is the “moment of truth” that illuminates our lives, disperses confusion, and clarifies what must be done. As it is stated in the Gospel of John, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
When we are on our spiritual quest, the part of us that wants to experience absolute truth directly is frequently discouraged. Various spiritual practices around the world encourage people to progress slowly. Care is taken so that unprepared minds do not crack when experiencing the ecstasy associated with the eternal truth. There’s no shortcut to enlightenment.
At some point, the Sage stops pursuing knowledge and gains wisdom. Wisdom is not just knowing the right thing to do, but also doing the right thing. Real wisdom does not merely cause us to know: it makes us “be” in a different way. Those who practice wisdom are excellent contemplators of nature. The Sage is content with reality as it is, and has a crystal-clear view on how to spend the remaining years of his life. He who has a why can bear almost any how. His whole life has led him to this very moment, where struggle and conflict finally turn into peace. And he delights in the beauty of the world, and the simple things in life. Whereas the average person has lost touch with the world, and does not see reality as it is, the Sage sees himself as part of a cosmic consciousness, and he experiences ecstasy, standing outside of himself, without ceasing to be himself.
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.”
William Blake, Auguries of Innocence
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The Psychology of The Wise Old Man (Sage)
The Wise Old Man is a lover of wisdom, and uses his experience to guide others. He is portrayed as a mysterious person or a wizard, in contact with nature and the numinous and unseen forces that permeate our existence.