Sage Advice – The Lives and Maxims of Some of History’s Wisest People
In Sage Advice, Richard K. Borden seeks to elucidate the commonalities within the maxims offered by some of history’s greatest minds as well as to explain the approach to life followed by today’s most successful people and cultures. In doing so, he aims to show how the lives of the great philosophers, scientists, artists, politicians, and saints of the past demonstrate the key virtues necessary to live a happy and productive life, even in the modern world.
Borden has selected eighteen individuals––ranging from Confucius to Marcus Aurelius, Elizabeth Tudor to Benjamin Franklin, Mahatma Gandhi to Winston Churchill––who are widely recognized to have been great thinkers to provide the wisdom dispensed and analyzed in Sage Advice. Serving as representatives of cultures and traditions from around the world, the eighteen are associated with valuable insights and examples that span over four thousand years of human history. Despite the clear differences between them, Borden contends that all eighteen have “perceived and transmitted natural laws that are universal and applicable to almost all successful people and societies.” While greater female representation would have been good (only two of the eighteen sages are women), that is arguably the fault of historical bias, not Borden.
In the first part of the book, Borden situates each of the eighteen individuals, or sages, in their historical and religious contexts, describing the societies in which they lived, setting out their views on the “divine,” and establishing the interrelationships (if any) among their philosophies. This interesting, albeit very brief, section leads nicely on to the second part of the book, which includes short biographies of the sages. Here, Borden focuses on each individual’s broad character and greatest achievements. While many of the included sages are very well known and frequently written about, especially those who lived most recently, the knowledge provided in this section is particularly useful in relation to the lesser-known figures, such as Ptah-Hotep, and those about whose maxims there is relatively little information available in English, such as Zhu Xi.
The longest part of Sage Advice, and the part most likely to appeal to readers based on the book’s title, contains over eight hundred maxims, which Borden groups into sixty-nine themes (although the final theme is the rather broad “Other Maxims”). On the theme of change, for instance, Marcus Aurelius suggests “The universe delights in change,” while Confucius asserts “It is only the most wise and the most foolish who cannot change” and Benjamin Franklin claims “When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” Turning to the theme of forgiveness, Seneca notes “How much better it is to heal a wrong than to avenge one,” while Gandhi reflects “An eye for an eye will only make the whole world blind.” The chosen themes run the gamut of daily, spiritual, and political life, meaning that the book contains snippets of wisdom applicable to almost all situations.
Packed with valuable maxims to ponder on, Sage Advice is a great book to dip in and out of depending on the subject and situation at hand. Borden concludes the book by offering ten rules for living a flourishing life, which has been distilled from the preceding maxims and serves to relate the deep philosophical insights to day-to-day life.
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