A minority on the verge of extinction: the Sage

With Nizami on Ethics and Various Important Questions is the title of the conference dedicated to the national poet of Azerbaidjan, organizedby the "Nizami Ganjavi" International Centre.

The conference was structured in three panels, which tackled, in turn, topics such as ethical values and social justice, the status of women and the path towards wisdom. The latter theme is all the more interesting given that the poet Nizami Ganjavi was himself known as "Hakim" - "The Wise", in his time, 880 years ago.

Attending the panel dedicated to debating the attainment of wisdom, president Emil Constantinescu invited those present to undertake an exercise of the imagination and attempt to transpose Nizami Ganjavi into the 21st century.



A minority on the verge of extinction: the Sage

Around the mid-20th century, cognitive psychology identified a social phenomenon present predominantly in the mental universe of teenagers and fiction writers, taking the form of a character known as an “imaginary friend”.

Subjected to heightened stress caused by the isolation imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, many people, confronted with the absence of interpersonal relations lost in the external physical reality, felt the need for such an “imaginary friend”.

Such an “imaginary friend” could well have been Nizami Gandjavi, known almost nine centuries ago as Hakim the Wise; and I must confess that one of the driving motivations behind my participation in this conference was the fact that one entire session was dedicated to “Wisdom”.

It was only a few months ago that we met online for a discussion dedicated to the cultural legacy Nizami Ganjavi left behind, when I raised a thetorical question: “What would Nizami Ganjavi have thought of the year 2021?” In what follows, I propose an exercise of the imagination: let us transport Nizami into the 21st century.

I believe he would be very attentive to those around him. He would rejoice to see that so many people are literate, and that in the 21st century intelligent women – not necessarily named Leyla – have access to knowledge in equal measure to their male counterparts. He would, however, bemoan the fact that so few truly understand what they are reading… He would appreciate that people now enjoy many more material means of overcoming their condition, but would have also been shaken to see how easily individuals bereft of culture and morals can take the reins of power.

I do not know whether Nizami Ganjavi would have lead a university department, or taken up a decision-making position within public administration? Most likely not; yet I believe he would have happy to use Facebook, Instagram and Zoom.

I imagine he wopuld have had a YouTube channel that would have garnered millions of likes; I already saw that a Beethoven symphony uploaded several years ago has gathered no less than 34 million views, for with globalisation the elites – still in the minority - can become better-known. However, how many members of his audience would truly have followed Ganjavi’s ideas? Probably very few, those who could resist the temptations of power, fame and of petty egoes. Without a doubt, there would be some – even some colleagues – that would wish that Nizami lose credibility, and it is not beyond comprehension that slanderous stories would have surfaced around him, and false evidence fabricated in order to undermine his prestige.

In order to be understood, Nizami would likely have also spoken English, as we are all today; and if he were to be considered an “influencer”, his speeches would be translated into all of the world’s languages. A gifted PR team would advise him to only offer the world his wisdom little by little, in bite-sized morsels wrapped in attractive packaging, through short TikTok messages and brief pearls of wisdom posted daily on social networks. Many would probably fail to truly understand him, but, after skimming over his musings on ideals and on life itself, perhaps the hearts of some would blossom. In this illusion of absolute freedom amplified by his virtual life, Man today – and here I am not only referring to those in the Western world – has lost his bearing and roots, and lives as a creature of the skies, suspended between the heavens and the earth, most often incapable to define his true dreams and aspirations, but ever eager that the world around him change to be able to encompass him. In the Middle Ages, life conditions were much more precarious than they are today, and yet people better understood their purpose in life, and shared certain thought and behavioural patterns that kept them firmly anchored in their world. Today, darkness has not disappeared, but rather has merely hidden; the words of Nizami Ganjavi, uttered today, would show people how not to fear, while the story of Majnun and Leyla would teach us to look through eyes capable of seeing the beauty hidden in every individual.

In a world in which, from its very beginnings, interpersonal relations were predicated on power – whether in a political-military, religious or material sense – the Sage, although not always wielding it directly, has nevertheless always played an enlightened role. He counterbalances divine power which, in turn, counterbalances political power. His role is to offer a vision of an administration predicated on meritocracy, and a strategy for the coherent development of society at large.

Perhaps, terrified of the enormous expectations of 21st-century people, Nizami Ganjavi would have withdrawn from public life, accompanied only by a few chosen disciples; and would have begun to pen his works, in the hope that that, at some point, some other souls living centuries into the future would be just as thirsty for love, for peace and beauty as he was; for wisdom is not lost in the passing of any particular sage, but rather travels, like light, through the centuries.

Contemporary postmodern society is tackling the rescue of plant and animal species threatened with extinction, the conservation of our natural and immaterial heritage, and the safeguarding of the rights of minorities with laudable passion and abnegation. Unfortunately, I have yet to see much unease at the threat of the extinction of a global minority, once held in high esteem – namely, the Sages.

After all, why would we need “wisdom” and “sages” either during, prior to or after the consummation of a crisis, now that we have so many specialists, investigative and communications techniques, when we can quickly quantify academic performance based on the number of citations received?

My answer? We need the help of the wise, now more than ever.

The three crises that affected the world in the first two decades of the 21st century: the globalisation of terrorism, the global financial crisis and the recent health pandemic, have shattered confidence and trust in the capacity of the current political-administrative system, large banking conglomerates and of the military-industrial complex that gave rise and managed them.

Following the failure of proposed solutions predicated on the classical, trial-and-error method, in connecting to other similar problems, in creating a new context freed from the shackling experiences of the past, we might find a better answer than those attempting to repeat past mistakes for which nobody has yet claimed responsibility.

The message Nizami Ganjavi gave us is that “Wisdom lies within us”. Paradoxically, quick and easy access to an enormous body of knowledge has made people today unable to be the authors and directors of the script of their own lives – not even intelligent actors in its unfolding. From an early age, they are transformed into spectators of a world in which those that control the social networks, artificial intelligence and robotization know more about us than we do ourselves.

If we define wisdom as a means to use our knowledge to gain a superior understanding of things, we require that “capacity for interiorization” which postmodern society has lost as a result of dehumanization, and which can help us uncover a causal relationship in unexpected contexts such as that which the COVID-19 pandemic suddenly and brutally thrust us in.

One path for the deciphering of the inner nature of phenomena can lie in rediscovering the intuitive perspective the ancient Greeks dubbed “noesis”. An unexpected perception of the essence and significance of the world around us through the reconsecration of the sacred in the sphere of the profane can well be just the epiphany called for by the present times.

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