A.C. Grayling's The Good Book: A Humanist Bible is a compilation of Western and Eastern insight from thought and literature that's derived from over a thousand texts. It collects our best musings about what it means to be human from hundreds of authors who have come before us, down through the centuries.
As I've been reading, I've been particularly struck by the gap between the wisdom of the ages and the wisdom of the moment.
In the economic story -- a central story woven through our lives that passes for wisdom today -- each of us is an individual striving to surpass other individuals. We're not in it together; we're continually ranked against each other in a competitive hierarchy. The rankings tend to be based on definitions of success that are themselves derived from the economic story. The number one actor, for example, is the one with the highest box office draw. The number one blogger is the one with the most traffic. The number one artist is the one whose paintings get the highest bids. In this story, a higher ranking is, by definition, a better ranking. The number one actor is better than the number two actor. The number one artist is better than the number two artist.
Contrast this modern-day assumption with the wisdom of the past: "These reasonings are unconnected, though foolish people think them: 'I am richer than you, therefore I am better'; 'I am more eloquent than you, therefore I am better'. The true connection is this: 'I am richer than you, therefore my property is greater than yours'; 'I am more eloquent than you, therefore my style is better than yours'. But a human being, after all, is neither property nor style."
Rankings, in other words, are subject to proper and improper interpretations. The economic story, for its part, encourages us to interpret our own rankings as a sign of our significance in the scheme of things. Higher rankings in whatever we're part of mean we're more important, worth more respect, more attention.
Yet the wisdom of the ages says, "Do not allow such a consideration as this to distress you: 'I will be nobody anywhere.' Is it the meaning of life to get power, or to be admitted to the first rank?" This last, of course, is a rhetorical question, the meaning of which is supposed to be perfectly obvious; the meaning of life isn't about getting power, or being admitted to the first rank.
In the economic story though, low rankings in anything you're involved in are a cause for concern and a call to ameliorative action. We're told, for example, to reach out to each other -- not so we can connect in our humanity, but so that we can become known to others, and so that knowing can in turn be monetized. We're advised to endlessly monitor and manage our reputations -- increase our audience, enlarge our networks, and prove our usefulness and value to strangers. All of which is at odds with received wisdom: "If you turn your attention to externals, so as to please anyone, be assured that you will hinder your scheme of life."
Still, in the economic story, choosing a different wisdom seems naïve at best, foolish at worst. Traditional wisdom, being wise, has a preparatory word of advice about that too: "If you have an earnest desire of attaining wisdom, prepare yourself from the first to be laughed at by the multitude, to hear them say, 'He does not covet what we covet, or seek what we hasten after and pursue, but he stands apart.' Do not mind such rejection, but keep steadily to those things which appear best to you…"
Illustration: 'The Trailing Predecessor' by Harriet Warden
 The Good Book, Wisdom, Chapter 19, verses 5-8
 The Good Book, Wisdom, Chapter 14, verse 1
 The Good Book, Wisdom, Chapter 13, verse 9
 The Good Book, Wisdom, Chapter 13, verses 4-6