Saint or Sage – That is the Question.

I once read the words of a man who explained how the saint differs from the sage.

The saint is revered because he displays the highest and most noble human qualities that a given society can conceive of in a person. He is therefore exemplary, and represents an ideal to which it is admirable, even desirable, to aspire. Furthermore, by virtue (oh, fortunate word!) of his sainthood, he is morally above reproach.

The sage, in contrast, is not defined by secular criteria. The sage embodies Truth, and his is the wisdom of life, which is independent of culture, politics and history. The sage sees through artifice, superficiality,and lack of authenticity of any kind, in the attitudes, behaviours, beliefs and actions of society and individuals (and therefore also himself). The sage is wise and discerning, and is an exceptional being not because of his morals, but because of the degree of his understanding. (Indeed, it may be precisely because of a certain disinterest in virtue, that the sage is able to speak the truth, at the risk of being unpopular and shunned by the masses.)

What of society today? True saints and sages may be pretty thin on the ground, but there are those who are seen as (or whose role, self-proclaimed or otherwise, is to represent) the righteous ones, those who selflessly embrace the “right thing”, for the “greater good” of all. But there is great responsibility in this. Let us remember that a saint need only meet the standards of the society of the time -and none higher – in order to secure his status. Virtue alone does not make a person wise, hence the existence of expressions (and people!) such as do-gooders.

Then, there are the genuinely wise ones, the visionaries, the great thinkers, the monumental minds. Their self-awareness is unquestionable, and their words demonstrate a genuine understanding of things. This role, too, is one of great responsibility, and neither truth nor wisdom have traditionally been fast tracks to popularity. On the contrary, they have often been a liability – Galileo died under house arrest for explaining that the earth revolves around the sun.

Good actions do not cause people to be sensible. And although sainthood is often earned through action, it is, in fact, not even necessarily earned through pious action : the merciless slaughter of enemies in war has frequently qualified people for canonization.

In the case of the sage, he is recognized less for ostentatious actions than for what he is, for his genuineness, his presence, attitudes and words.

What is the point of this analogy, you may ask, and where is this post heading? Not all those who are seen as exemplary today will enjoy the same privilege tomorrow. But the great truths humanity has always cherished, will remain the same – gravity will never pull an apple upwards.

We live in a complex time of transition. There can be a thin line between genuine integrity, and self-righteousness, or even convenient complacency. The image of the knight in shining armour may be more glamorous than that of the grizzled, wizened old hermit – but may we not lose sight of wisdom, for in the long run, I believe, it is a more valuable commodity than subjective moral superiority.

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