An Original Relation to the Universe

Our university has a bicameral nature, having two bodies or chambers: wisdom and tradition. We tend to think of “The Wisdom Tradition” as one, as if wisdom by definition is chambered within tradition. But twenty-five hundred years ago Heraclitus of Ephesus said, “Of all the accounts I have heard, none rises to this: that wisdom is separate from all things.” Heraclitus, who was known as “The Obscure” mistrusted tradition, considering most of its characteristics irrelevant to the needs of the present. This attitude made him unpopular with the leadership of Ephesus, those bent on maintaining tradition.

If Heraclitus was right in saying that wisdom is separate from all things, distinct from other human virtues, then wisdom must have characteristics of its separateness; it must be unique, eternal, elevated, and sacred. The Athenians worshiped Athena, goddess of Wisdom, who sprang fully formed from the forehead of Zeus, who in turn was known among the Greeks as The Great Consciousness. Wisdom then springs from a universal consciousness and since we participate in conscious awareness it is within our grasp.

The mission statement of our university states that we are dedicated to self-knowledge and its application to all fields of life, and we acquire self-knowledge through study of the great wisdom schools of the past. The key to this mission lies, therefore, in the conviction that the wisdom schools of the past are alive today, vibrant, relevant, timeless in their teaching. Hence, we can enter Plato’s Academy as a place still in existence, where we can sit at the feet of a master and learn.

According to its definition, a tradition is something handed down from one generation to another, presumably something of value to know and to have at hand. But what if in this process of handing down, something of the timeless wisdom is lost, mis-handled, worn down, no longer alive and relevant?

If the wisdom of the past still has life in it, it is revelation, not just a teaching. It was Ralph Waldo Emerson in the introduction to his very first piece of published writing who said, “The foregoing generations beheld God and nature face to face; we, through their eyes. Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe? Why should not we have a poetry and philosophy of insight and not of tradition, and a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?”

What Emerson does here is to set up an opposition to tradition by offering insight as more important. Can we say then that UPR is more properly a university of Wisdom and Insight, where insight is an attribute to be valued as the tool through which we “see” and understand? Insight by definition is immediate and personal and is, I believe, more attuned to the nature of wisdom than is tradition.

If you or I have an insight, what is its nature? Isn’t it first and foremost original in the moment? It may be original but it may also turn out to have been thought by someone in the past, but the important thing is that in the moment, it was ours and as Emerson says, “not a history of theirs.” Insight involves self-trust, which is a quality we have to cultivate through trial and error, an activity we call learning.

It is, therefore, through the insights of our time together that the study of wisdom remains vibrant and applicable to the lives we lead and is finally the true definition of higher education.


Richard Geldard, Ph.D. - UPR Dean of Undergraduate Studies. Dramatic Literature and Classics, Stanford University. Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Yeshiva University, Doctoral Faculty at Pacifica Graduate Institute, and Author of ten books on Early Greek philosophy and the thought of Ralph Waldo Emerson (see