We live in the Information Age, surrounded by expertise and cutting-edge technology designed to solve our everyday problems. Yet do we really know about the basics of human life: how to stay happily married, raise children successfully or face illness and death with dignity?
The evidence suggests not. We have a soaring divorce rate, our courts are crammed with criminal and maladjusted youngsters, and our obsession with health fads indicates our growing belief that death can be infinitely postponed.
Two years ago, I invited 12 colleagues — mostly academics from Australia, Britain and the US — to investigate this troubling knowledge-gap for a new book. The results are worse than I feared.
On scientific and technological matters, our achievements continue to astonish. But when it comes to the basic wisdom that should be the very foundation of society, we have become intellectual paupers compared to our ancestors. In short, we have forgotten the best of what the past has to teach us about the present.
On matters of love, we are showered with technical advice: endless self-help books and videos instruct us how to find the right person, how to attract and seduce, how to start a relationship, how to keep our sex life varied.
Similarly, we are fascinated by every nuance of the love lives of those in the public eye. But there's precious little good knowledge being offered about the values and purpose of marriage.
We seem to forget the wisdom that marriage was "for the mutual society, help and comfort that the one ought to have for the other, both in prosperity and adversity" or that it was about honouring each other "in sickness and in health", "forsaking all others" — and it was to last until death.
Of course, these epithets come from the Christian Book of Common Prayer, but the wisdom they express was shared by almost all faiths and societies. Marriage was not, as seems to be the case today, about short-term infatuation. Nor was it a romantic possession. It was a state achieved by commitment. Indissolubility was the key.
In marriage, two people became one — there was no undoing that. And it was a sacred and public matter, not just an arrangement—a transaction — between two people.
Today's experts think they know better. The basic pattern of marriage, as understood by ancient wisdom, endured successfully for more than 1000 years. It took modern experts just 30 years to destroy it. They threw out indissolubility. They told us marriage was a private matter, and encouraged us to forget its role in society and its connection with faith or the fate of children.
It was the desires of the couple which counted. They erected love — not marriage — as the supreme good.
Thus, if a couple were no longer in love, they should separate. And if they were in love, there was little need for a marriage certificate to prove it. Then they unhooked sex from love. Sex was no longer to fulfil love, it was for fun. Fidelity was meaningless — what mattered was the right of the individual to his (or, more usually, her) "growth" and "self-esteem".
By then, nothing was left of the marriage as understood by wisdom. Not surprisingly, divorce rates soared. And then the same sort of experts who had destroyed marriage set about "modernising" child-raising.
For generations, there had been a treasury of accumulated wisdom about how to bring up children, in religious teachings and in folk wisdom handed down from grandmothers to mothers in stories and sayings. It centred on the belief that there is a human nature, and that it is wayward. Children had to be tamed and civilised.
Parents, precisely because they loved their children, should not indulge them but maintain parental authority, teach them right and wrong — and punish them when they erred.
Modern "expertise" had no time for this folk wisdom, and even less for religion.
One insight of ancient wisdom was that old age could be looked forward to because it offered freedom from youthful obsessions.
Nowadays, old age is seen only as a hated impediment. Every device of medical expertise must be enlisted to avoid it and try to postpone death for ever.
We have lost the insight that a life lived in fear of death is no life at all, and that illness is not an unmitigated evil. On the contrary, it shows us our true friends, and teaches us to be patient (indeed, that is what the word "patient" means). Also, it reminds us what is really important in life, and what is trivial. All this was known by the great writers of the past. It was Samuel Johnson who wrote:
"It matters not how a man dies, but how he lives."
Why, then, have we lost or repudiated such wisdom? The answer, I fear, is because wisdom is more demanding than expertise. With expertise, someone else gives us an instant solution to all the challenges of life. Wisdom, on the other hand, requires us to learn, to experience, to be humble and patient, to give up immediate satisfactions in the search for lasting ones, to respect old knowledge, and to be realistic about human nature.
Too many in today's generation would rather not be humble, patient or realistic. Certainly, it doesn't want to accept that some long-dead Greek philosopher or Hebrew prophet knew more than we do with our latest computers.
It does not realise — or, more to the point, doesn't care — that our present civilisation is built on past wisdom. Yet if we forget this, society itself will surely fall.