The Eight Qualities Of The Man Of Understanding

One of the first and greatest classics of Arabic prose is the Book of Kalila and Dimna.  It is a collection of fables told with an allegorical purpose, but it is presented with such wisdom, poetic eloquence, and engaging humor as to make it one of the treasures of world literature.  Its pedigree verifies its merit.  The stories it contains were originally derived from a Sanskrit classic called the Panchatantra, but a Persian scholar and translator named Ibn Muqaffa’ (ابن المقفع‎‎), writing around 740 A.D., reworked the stories into something that was entirely original.

In the book’s introduction, our author gives us the fanciful explanation of how Kalila and Dimna came to Persia.  Its wisdom was so valuable, we are told, that the Indian rulers guarded access to it jealously; eventually, however, the Persian Sasanid king Khosrow (also known as Chosroes Anushiruwan) sent a special envoy to the Indian principalities to see if he could procure a copy by stealth.  The emissary he sent was a man named Barzouyeh, who was acquainted with the Indian languages and customs:

Now Chosroes Nouschirewan, during the enquiries he made of the writings of the ancients, having received information of the book of Kalila and Dimna, became very impatient for its acquisition:  for this purpose he sent Barzouyeh the physician on a mission to India, who having got possession of a copy of it by his skill and address, brought it away with him, and deposited it amongst the treasures of the kings of Persia. [Trans. by W. Knatchbull]

My own marked copy of the Arabic text of “Kalila and Dimna,” from many years ago as a student

We may smile at the author’s idealism in placing literature the subject of international intrigue; but there can be no doubt as to the book’s brilliance.  In rereading it recently, I was astounded by the richness of the language, the poetic descriptions, the engaging Oriental hyperbole, and the practical reality of the counsel.  Consider the following passage, worthy of an aside in Cicero’s philosophical works, which appears in the opening chapters:

God has created man in his wisdom and mercy, has raised him to excellence and honor, and has put into his power the means of happiness in this world, and of avoiding punishment in the next:  but the best gift of God to man is understanding, the source of everything that is good and profitable, the key to his happiness on earth, and his anchor through the stormy sea of life to conduct him into the haven of a blissful eternity.  Understanding is the child of instruction and experience; its seeds lie hidden in the soul of man, and must be called into life by the nurturing hand of discipline and fortified by trial, as the sparks are struck out from the hard flint, before the fire, which lies concealed in the stone, can be produced.  [Trans. by W. Knatchbull]

The passage that is the subject of this essay is the following.  It describes the “eight different qualities” of a man of understanding:

A man of sound understanding is distinguished by eight different qualities; by courteous and affable behavior, by a knowledge of himself, united with a strict and impartial observation of his own heart; by submission to lawful authority, and an endeavor to conciliate the good will of those who are in power; by great circumspection in his confidential communications; by becoming language and irreproachable conduct at the courts of kings; by secrecy, where his own interest is at stake, and fidelity in his engagements with others; by moderation in his discourse, so that no unpleasant consequence may arise from any hasty or intemperate word; and, lastly, by a prudent reserve and modest diffidence in delivering his opinion.  And where these qualities are united in one person…they bring down blessings upon the head of him who possesses them.

These are Ibn Muqaffa’s eight qualities of the man of understanding.  Let us list them below for further discussion.

1.  Courteous and affable behavior, united with self-knowledge.

2.  Knowledge of one’s self, so that a man is aware of his strengths and weaknesses.

3.  Obedience to lawful authority, and the ability to use tact in the company of authority.

4.  Discretion, or the ability to keep one’s mouth shut, and one’s business private.

5.  Proper language and conduct in formal settings.

6.  Secrecy and fidelity when one is dealing with friends, clients, lovers, or confidants.

7.  Moderation, or the ability to keep a cool head.  This is also called temperance.

8.  Reserve, or the ability to conduct oneself in a way that is inoffensive to others.

The reader, in perusing this list, will be struck at how completely different this ethic is from what is currently taught in our schools.  Conduct and character are all-important, and the mainstays of society; yet we are today taught by the media to scream our opinions in each others’ faces, to disrespect tradition and authority, and to steamroll over anyone who looks at us crossways.  These realities help to explain why our society currently finds itself in its present state.  It seems to me that we should strive to cultivate the qualities listed above, and to unite them as far as possible within ourselves.  The way to do this is through constant discipline and practice.  We must disconnect ourselves from the modern media’s unrelenting messages of moral corruption, destructive selfishness, and lies; we must look back in time to the wisdom of those who came before us, and implement this wisdom; and we must remove ourselves from dealings with people whose minds are poisoned by the modern ethic.

At some point in every man’s life, after the fires of youth have somewhat cooled, he must decide whether he wishes to be counted among the men of understanding, or among the men of entertainment.  These are his two options.  The man of understanding seeks to refine his soul in the cultivation of the ethic described above; while the man of entertainment seeks nothing more than constant sensory stimulation from his controllers.  We must not delude ourselves, of course:  the vast majority will prefer entertainment.

But there will always be those who wish to penetrate to the heart of things, and to pursue the chalices of knowledge secreted from the unworthy.  They know, deep in their hearts, that there are no short-cuts in life; that no amount of “life hacks,” nootropics, pills, seminars, get-rich-quick schemes, and bombastic sleight of hand will help them.  And it is they who will answer the call:  so it has always been, and always will be.  A man rises to honor and renown through the merits of his personal character; and although the unworthy man may temporarily occupy a place of distinction, he will not long last in this office.  His fall is assured.  It will inevitably come as a natural consequence of his base character and innate lack of virtue.  The man of understanding can be assured he will eventually be rewarded for his labors.

We reject evil by refusing to participate in it.  We banish it by refusing to empower it.  And we must fortify our souls and intellects for the great trials that will inevitably be brought down upon us.


Read more in On Moral Ends: