Daniel Kahneman – and the rest of us: a perspective informed by Ecclesiasticus.

A final postscript on Daniel Kahneman. Last week I had lunch with my economist friend of more than half a century (he of the  LOTRW previous post’s footnote in reference to Milton Friedman). We were discussing Kahneman and – in the same breath – our parents and grandparents, and their influence on us and the world. The juxtaposition of this renowned Nobel prizewinner and our obscure forebears prompted my friend to share, from memory, and with no little fervor, an excerpt from Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), also known as the Book of Sirach. The verses clearly meant a great deal to him; you’ll see why in a moment.

Ecclesiasticus? This was a new one to me. Looked into it a bit following our conversation. A Wikipedia article tells us this:

The Book of Sirach, also known as The Wisdom of Jesus the Son of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus is a Jewish work, originally written in Biblical Hebrew. The longest extant wisdom book from antiquity, it consists of ethical teachings, written approximately between 196 and 175 BCE by Yeshua ben Eleazar ben Sira (Ben Sira), a Hellenistic Jewish scribe of the Second Temple period.

Ben Sira’s grandson translated the text into Koine Greek and added a prologue sometime around 117 BCE. Although the Book of Sirach is not included in the Hebrew Bible, this prologue is generally considered to be the earliest witness to a tripartite canon of the books of the Old Testament, and thus the date of the text is the subject of intense scrutiny by biblical scholars. The ability to precisely date the composition of Sirach within a few years provides great insight into the historical development and evolution of the Jewish canon.

The passage my friend shared was from Ecclesiasticus 44: 1-15. I would like to think that Ben Sira, were he alive today, would have balanced his paean to women as well as men. Because this omission is so striking, I’ve inserted modifications to the text (with emphasis added). With those edits, the first eight verses go this way:

Praise of Famous Men and Women

Let us now praise famous men and women, and our fathers and mothers that begot us. The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning. Such as did bear rule in their kingdoms, men and women renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies: leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent in their instructions: such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing: rich men and women furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations: all these were honored in their generations, and were the glory of their times. There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported. 

That’s for the Daniel Kahnemans of the world. Ben Sira (and my friend) then goes on to remind us to accord equal honor to the obscure, the unrecognized:

And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them. But these were merciful men and women, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten. With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant. Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes. Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out. Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore. The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will show forth their praise.

Of course, many others have taken up this notion. For example, Gray’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard comes to mind. The poem merits a full read (and re-readings). Here’s one famous excerpt that provides metaphors for people, who, though special, die unrecognized by history:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
    The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
    And waste its sweetness on the desert air

For the meteorologists who are the bulk of the LOTRW readership, the notion of big influence of the small and un-named is well known. It’s embodied by Lorenz’s butterfly, whose merest fluttering can even cause/curb hurricanes down the road. Even the history behind the origins of this image reinforce Ben Sira’s message. Read the fine print of the Lorenz Wikipedia article, and you find that the metaphor that adds luster to his famous name probably should be attributed to Phil Merilees, another remarkable meteorologist in his own right, but one who lacks Lorenz’s renown (and any corresponding Wikipedia page).

All this by way of encouragement to each of us, to see and respect and acknowledge the worth and value of our personal ancestral lines. And we should do this often! The men and women, however great, however humble, who brought us into the world also achieved much more along the way, whether recorded or not. Some played their role in the great sweep of history. Others did their part to speak out against or slow or some of the excesses of that history. (The reality? Most probably did a bit of both.) By extension, we should also reflect on, and own, our own contributions to events and trends, and to all those who follow us. Ben Sira reminds us that all of that is praiseworthy. We should all be holding our heads high, walking tall – each and every day, good or bad.

Thanks, good friend, for forcefully bringing this point home last week – this just the latest way in which you’ve enriched my life and made me a better person over a sixty-year stretch. And thank you, Mom and Dad – and happy birthday, Dad! Today is your day. A thanks as well to my grandmother, who gave birth to you 106 years ago on this day – all 13 pounds and 27 inches of you – “the biggest baby,” the doctor told my grandmother in 1918, “I ever delivered, whose mother lived.”

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One Response to Daniel Kahneman – and the rest of us: a perspective informed by Ecclesiasticus.

  1. Mona Behl says:

    Happy Birthday to your dad, Bill! What a brilliant man!

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