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By Bruce Spittle in Sermons

discusses the value of human endeavour, thinking for ourselves and pursuing wisdom in the light of problems facing the world such as climate change

“Dare to be wise”, an English translation of the motto of the University of Otago, Sapere Aude, has featured prominently in the eventscelebrating our University’s sesquicentenary. The motto is also that of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada, which was founded 84 years before the University of Otago in 1785 and their website translates their motto as “Dare to know.” Another educational institution with the same motto is Wesley College, an independent, co- educational, open-entry school in Melbourne, Australia. Established in 1866, the school was the first registered school in Australia and resulted from a decision of the colonial government of Victoria, in the wake of the Victorian gold rush, to grant land and funds to four religious groups, including the Wesleyan Methodist Church, for the purpose of establishing colleges in Melbourne. In 1854, the government offered the Wesleyans 10 acres facing St Kilda Road. Major benefactor Walter Powell encouraged other Wesleyan Methodists to bridge the gap in funds between the government grant and that required to build the school which was officially opened on 11 January 1866, three years before the founding of the University of Otago in 1869 by an ordinance of the Otago Provincial Council.
Otago is New Zealand’s oldest university and the new University was given 100,000 acres of pastoral land as an endowment and authorised to grant degrees in Arts, Medicine, Law and Music. It opened in July 1871 with a staff of just three Professors, George Sale who taught Classics and English Language and Literature, John Shand who had responsibility for Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, and Duncan Macgregor who covered Mental and Moral Philosophy and Political Economy. They were joined in 1872 by James Gow Black as Professor of Natural Science. As well as “dare to be wise”, the University’s website gives and alternative translation of “have courage to be wise”.
The original use of the phrase Sapere aude appears in the First Book of Letters (20 years before the common era [BCE]), by the Roman poet Horace; in the second letter, addressed to Lolius, in line 40, the passage is: Dimidium facti, qui coepit, habet; sapere aude, incipe. (“He who has begun is half done; dare to know; begin!”). The phrase is the moral to a story in which a fool waits for a stream to cease flowing, before attempting to cross it. In saying, “He who begins is half done. Dare to know, begin!”, the Roman poet Horace suggests the value of human endeavour, of persistence in reaching a goal, and of the need for effort to overcome obstacles.
In his 1784 essay, “Answering the question: what Is enlightenment?”, Immanuel Kant, an influential German philosopher and an exponent of the idea that perpetual peace could be secured through universal democracy and international cooperation, described the Age of Enlightenment as “Man’s release from his self-incurred immaturity”; and, with the phrase sapere aude, he charged the reader to follow such a program of intellectual self-liberation, by means of reason. The essay by Kant was a shrewd, political challenge to men and women, suggesting that the mass of “domestic cattle” have been bred, by unfaithful stewards, to not question what they have been told about the world and its ways.
Thinking for yourself and determining what is a wise response is not always easy. Starting to cross a stream rather than waiting for the stream to stop flowing may, in retrospect, turn out to be the wrong decision. Drowning by crossing streams was known as the New Zealand way of death. Even today, drowning affects all New Zealanders irrespective of age, ethnicity, gender or social economic status, and is consistently the third highest cause of unintentional death in New Zealand, surpassed only by road vehicle crashes and accidental falls.
When apparently knowledgeable and sincere experts have widely different views about how best to respond to a complex problem, it is very difficult, if not impossible for a lay person to know what is wise.
A seminar was recently held at Otago University by the Wise Response Society on “Tackling our Climate Emergency Head-On!” The motivation for the Seminar was the chronic lack of effective progress in reducing the green house gas emissions (GHG) responsible for climate change by governments everywhere. A motion passed unanimously at the meeting was: “We, who care about preserving a life-supporting planet, stand with all young people, appealing for the avoidance of a global climate catastrophe by effective GHG emissions reduction. This will require: by all nation states together, an unequivocal commitment to a pathway that delivers safe global limits; by our government immediately incentivising, provisioning and enforcing climate mitigation ahead of short-term economic and political considerations; and by each of us, a willingness to assess and voluntarily step down the GHG emissions footprint that supports our current life and work”.
The Wise Response Society may be daring to be wise by passing their motion. Their view is supported by many eminent authorities. Speaking at the recent Convocation ceremony, the Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy noted that Otago students were already conscious of living at a critical junction in history, as climate change became more and more of an issue.
However, that a particular viewpoint is held by many eminent persons is no guarantee that it is correct. Galileo Galilei’s view that the earth was in orbit around the sun was investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1615, which concluded that heliocentrism was "foolish and absurd in philosophy, and formally heretical since it explicitly contradicts in many places the sense of Holy Scripture”. He was tried by the Inquisition, found "vehemently suspect of heresy", and forced to recant. He spent the rest of his life under house arrest. Galileo’s position turned out to be correct and the authorities were wrong.
The late Bob Carter, an Otago graduate in geology and a Professor at James Cook University, Queensland, considered that climate is a complex, dynamic, natural system that no one wholly comprehends and that there is no unambiguous evidence that dangerous or even measurable human-caused global warming is occurring. He considered that as climate has always changed and always will, all countries needed to have sensible policies to deal with their natural climate hazards such as typhoons in Japan and bush fires in California. The geological record indicates that a rise in the atmospheric carbon dioxide level occurs several hundred years after the temperature rises rather than increasing carbon dioxide causing a rise in temperature.
The historical records describe marked changes in the weather occurring before modern industrial times. In approximately 540 AD, Procopius described the weather in Constaninople as, “The sun gave forth its light without brightness, like the moon, during the whole year and it seemed exceedingly like the Sun in eclipse, for the beams it shed were not clear, nor such as it is accustomed to shed.” Similarly, further south, John of Ephesus recorded, “The sun became dark and its darkness lasted for 19 months. Each day it shone for about four hours, and still this light was only a feeble shadow ... the fruits did not ripen and the wine tasted like sour grapes. “Even further south, John, the Lydian, wrote, “The Sun became dim for nearly the whole year ... the fruits were killed at an unseasonable time.”
Unless we have a sufficient understanding of the factors that affect a complex situation, such as climate, our remedial efforts may be misguided. Natural climate change will continue to occur in New Zealand, as in other parts of the world, and we need to respond and adapt to the natural events that we may experience such as warmings, coolings, droughts, floods, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
In his book, Such is life: a close encounter with Ecclesiastes, Lloyd Geering notes that wisdom is not an immutable body of knowledge, and that it is vain to imagine that it is. We must personally walk the path of wisdom for ourselves rather than expect to receive it from others ready-made. So the role of the sage was not to provide instant wisdom for the foolish and unlearned; the words of the sage says the Book of Ecclesiastes, were to be like a sharp goad forcing hearers to shake off their complacency and to pursue wisdom for themselves. Daring to be wise is not easy.
Bruce Spittle