Phi Beta Kappa (ΦΒΚ) stands for Φιλοσοφία Βίου Κυβερνήτης or in Latin letters Philosophia Biou Cybernētēs.
The modern Phi Beta Kappa Society translates this motto of the society as “Love of learning is the guide of life.”
Any student of ancient Greek (or philosophy, for that matter) might well wonder at what is being lost in this translation, since “Sophia” means “wisdom” and therefore “Philosophia”, a term that may have been coined by Pythagoras, literally means “love of wisdom.”
Some would perhaps argue that wisdom and learning are the same, but most might agree that where learning can imply the mere acquisition of information, wisdom (or the Latin equivalent “sapience”) must refer to something much broader and subtler. Certainly, we all know learned persons who seem less than wise in their words and actions.
What then is wisdom?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines wisdom as “1. Capacity of judging rightly in matters relating to life and conduct; soundness of judgment in the choice of means and ends; 2. Knowledge (esp. of a high or abstruse kind); enlightenment, learning, erudition.”
Certainly, “learning” appears as a secondary meaning, but how has “philosophy” come to mean “love of learning” in the motto of our society?
Perhaps it is symptomatic of a change in our institutions of higher learning, where the acquisition of knowledge has become the primary focus, supplanting an older tradition of educating character and providing training in virtue.
Where wisdom was once the aim of a “liberal education” and a goal to be sought by those who would lead societies, this pursuit of the “Form of the Good” (Plato) or of the “understanding of causes” (Aristotle) or of the “father of all virtues” (Thomas Aquinas) may now seem impractical or even treacherous in our secular and utilitarian world, where a discussion of values can risk offending those who do not share them and any mention of the subtle and unseen is bait to the literal-minded.
Indeed, wisdom is no longer the focus of even academic philosophy, and yet works of wisdom from many ancient scriptures and philosophies are among the most preserved texts of humanity, a testament to their perceived value over centuries and millennia.
Aristotle took Plato to task for being vague about the definition of the “Form of the Good” but Plato perhaps understood that words inevitably fall short in attempting to capture something that transcends all limited and created things and therefore even language.
Nonetheless, as the Book of Proverbs (The Wisdom of Solomon) has it in the King James Version:
20 Wisdom crieth without; she uttereth her voice in the streets:
21 She crieth in the chief place of concourse, in the openings of the gates: in the city she uttereth her words, saying,
22 How long, ye simple ones, will ye love simplicity? and the scorners delight in their scorning, and fools hate knowledge?
If we are deaf to her cries and settle for mere learning, we may risk missing the real aim of human life, the point of it all.