Lord Griffiths: Wisdom is something practical, it is a manual for living


This is a transcript from a speech given at Clare College, Cambridge on Friday 11th of March, 2016.

It is a great pleasure and honour to be invited to address you today at this service to commemorate the benefactors of the College, and in particular its founder, Elizabeth de Burgh, Lady of Clare.

When the Master, Lord Grabiner, invited me to speak I was delighted to accept not least because of my own involvement in higher education. For the first 20 years of my career I first taught and did research in the field of monetary economics at the London School of Economics (LSE) and then moved to a chair at The City University where I was appointed Dean of the Business School.

One interesting aspect of this Commemoration is that we are celebrating it in a College chapel, using Christian liturgy, readings from Solomon’s Book of Wisdom, in the Apocrypha and the Gospel of Saint Mark and with prayers being said. Not all of us here today may be believers but the place we are in and the form of this service recognises that there is a mystery to be explored which goes beyond our academic pursuits. We recognise it in music, in paintings, in poetry, in the beauty of nature and we see it today in the readings we have heard. This is in complete contrast to the environment in which I studied and then later taught, namely the LSE. We had no chapel and in the whole of my sixteen years as a student and then member of staff I never attended a religious service in the School simply because to the best of my knowledge there were none to attend.

So I am delighted that this service provides an opportunity for us to recognise that in this country our understanding of benefaction is deeply rooted in our Judaeo-Christian heritage. Ever since I was an undergraduate I have been interested in the relevance of Christian social ethics to economic life and over the years one thing which has struck me is the Jewishness of Jesus. A question I have often found myself asking is whether there is any aspect of Christian-social ethics which is not found and rooted in Judaism?

Over the centuries the Judaeo-Christian understanding of human dignity, the rule of law, social justice, rights to the ownership of private property, the importance of the family and care for the disadvantaged have shaped our society. So it is with benefaction. Our heritage has placed great emphasis on charitable giving to help others in need and to promote the common good. And In this respect Jewish and Christian communities have over the centuries set an outstanding example.

Today we are remembering the former and current benefactors of this College and in this context I would like to explore three aspects of benefaction which I hope, given our common heritage, will resonate with people of all faiths and none.


One of these is the importance of gratitude.

Gratitude is recognised as a virtue in all major religions. Even for a humanist such as Cicero, gratitude was “not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others”.

For myself I owe a great debt to those who provided the means for my own education, first at a primary and then at a grammar school in Wales and later as an undergraduate and post-graduate student at the London School of Economics. I am sure that everyone attending this service today will have certain individuals and institutions to whom they will forever be grateful.

I should add that I am grateful not just for the financial support I received as a student but also for the encouragement of teachers who took a personal interest in my development. In this respect the benefaction of time can be just as important and demanding as the benefaction of money.

Incidentally gratitude has more recently been shown to have unintended benefits. Over the last fifteen years or so psychologists have undertaken research to explore the impact of gratitude. The evidence suggests that a correlation exists between gratitude and increased well-being. Gratitude is positively related to life satisfaction, hope, optimism, empathy and the willingness to provide support to other people. In the field of behavioural economics research has found that gratitude is correlated with generosity and increased monetary giving. In addition the evidence also suggests that grateful people are more likely to sacrifice individual gains for community well-being.

In the ‘me-centered’ spirit of modern society a life of gratitude does not come easily. A culture of consumerism alongside the relentless striving to be the best and win, in highly competitive global markets can so easily foster a constant state of dissatisfaction with our material well-being, with the result that we neglect to recognise gratitude as a virtue.


Gratitude is a great virtue. So is generosity.

Elizabeth de Burgh was an outstanding example of generosity. In the Commemoration address we heard how at a difficult time in the life of this county, following the Black Death, when I feel sure there would have been many requests for charitable giving she was generous and took a long term view. She gave money to ensure that the College would provide for the education of poor Scholars of ability. Not only that but in her will of 1335 she singled out that money be left to a number of other good causes: the poor religious, women who had fallen on hard times, poor householders and merchants, poor parish churches and poor prisoners.

A gift does not have to be large however to be worthy of being a genuine benefaction, because each gift however small is itself an expression of generosity.

Generosity was highlighted for us in the story from Mark’s gospel, which is an account of an occasion when Jesus and his disciples were in the Temple at Jerusalem sitting opposite the treasury and watching people making their donations. The rich put in a great deal of money. The poor widow puts in just two small copper coins worth very little. Yet she is praised by Jesus for contributing more than the wealthy, “this poor widow has put more money into the treasury than all the others. They gave of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything – all she had to live on”.

For me the greatest argument for generosity in the New Testament is that of St. Paul in his second letter to the church at Corinth, which extends to two whole chapters. Paul was highly intelligent, well educated, restless, argumentative but also a great campaigner for the cause of the poor. The first century church at Jerusalem had fallen on hard times and it is clear from his letters that wherever he went he not only proclaimed the Good News but encouraged generosity in giving in order to help the poor in Jerusalem. In doing so in his second letter to the Corinthian church he held up as an example the Macedonian church, which although extremely poor gave generously – in fact the words he used were that they gave “even beyond their ability”.

His clinching argument was “for you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9)


Gratitude, generosity and finally wisdom.

Before Elizabeth, Lady Clare, gave generously to establish this College she first showed very clearly in the Preface to the Statutes of the Foundation of 1359 the value she attached to learning: “experience plainly shows”, she wrote that “learning is no mean advantage in every rank of life”: she made it clear that she was concerned to “further the public good by promoting learning”: her purpose in founding the college was that “students should discover and acquire the precious pearl of learning”.

Learning in the Abrahamic faiths is invariably associated with a book, a body of sacred texts. We read this evening from The Book of Wisdom by Solomon. From this and more generally from the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament (Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiasties and the Songs of Songs), it is clear that wisdom is about more than acquiring knowledge and information.

Canon David Atkinson, former Canon, Chancellor and Missioner, Southwark Cathedral expresses it succinctly in his Commentary on Proverbs;

“wisdom is no abstract concept; wisdom is personified: she is described as a woman…This personification of wisdom is not a (mere) literary device; it reflects the essential nature of biblical wisdom. Wisdom is embodied. Wisdom is for living”

Wisdom is something practical. It relies on knowledge but is more than learning. It is based on experience and common sense. The lady Wisdom possesses widely respected qualities: honesty, fidelity, integrity, love, justice, modesty. Taken together they might well be regarded as the marks of a ‘person of character’. Wisdom is a manual for living.

Wisdom begins with awe, the recognition that there exists something greater than ourselves. However awe is also the beginning of wisdom, in that it is not acquired in a moment but grows throughout a lifetime.

In today’s highly competitive market place in higher education and certainly something I found as Dean of a Business School, is that it is far easier to provide knowledge and information than to grapple with fostering the development of those qualities which together characterise a wise person.

In the opening stanzas of his poem, Choruses from the Rock, T.E.Elliot after noting the constant innovation and unending 24/7 activity of an industrialised society poses challenging questions,

Where is the life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?

Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?

Let me conclude on a personal note.

When I was made a life Peer I was invited to put forward a design for a Coat of Arms and a motto, something I did some years later. I choose a pair of ospreys the symbol of Swansea where I was born and grew up, a brewin (a play on Brian) holding in his forepaw a leek and two red gryphons not unlike dragons to signify Wales, a stack of books because of my interest and commitment to learning, three trees representing my three children and a motto which read in Welsh:

Ofn yr Arglwydd yw dechrau doethineb

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom

I chose it because I believe it and I commend it to you.

Brian Griffiths (Color)

Lord Griffiths is the Chairman of CEME. For more information please click here.