Skip to content

In The Brothers Karamazov, the Elder Zossima, a revered monk, is known widely as a man of learning and spirituality, a man with insight into the human condition gained through years of ascetical and contemplative practices. People flock to him for advice on everything, from disputes over livestock to questions on virtue and vice.

Zossima, of course, is based on a phenomenon that has repeatedly occurred throughout history. The extraordinary men and women who lock themselves away found themselves in high demand by the rest of the world. In the Christian tradition, the examples of St. Antony, St. Symeon Stylites, and St. Catherine Siena come to mind.

It's fitting that these men and women have been sought out. They gained intense insight through years, often decades, of spiritual, contemplative effort and self-denial. Their efforts shunk the ego, with the result that they could see things without distorting them through the dense lens of self-interest. Their clear vision helped them give clear advice.

It doesn't seem to happen much these days. Instead of the ascetical and contemplative, we turn to the rich and famous for advice.

It's unfortunate. Whereas the contemplative men and women never sought to push their advice on others, the rich and famous want to be consulted–calling press conferences, issuing statements, inviting attention. Whereas the contemplative men and women cultivated wisdom by shrinking the ego, the rich and famous have devoted their lives to everything that inflates the ego.

Perhaps the most troubling thing is this: The tradition of seeking out ascetics and contemplatives for advice is based on a paradox: unworldliness produces worldly wisdom. If that paradox is true (and it is), what does that say about the advice being given today by the most worldly among us?