Wise as serpents

The injunction "Be wise as a serpent and innocent as a dove," is frequently interpreted, applied, and justified in the reverse. Wise as a dove and innocent as a serpent.
"The world, in its original connotation, included both the proper creation of man by God, AND the proper creation by man in his Right Mind. The latter required the endowment of man by God with free will, because all loving creation is freely given. Nothing in either of these statements implies any sort of level involvement, or, in fact, anything except one continuous line of creation, in which all aspects are of the same order. When the “lies of the serpent” were introduced, they were specifically called lies because they are not true. When man listened, all he heard was untruth. He does not have to continue to believe what is not true, unless he chooses to do so. All of his miscreations can disappear in the well known “twinkling of an eye”, because it is a visual misperception." — ACIM urtext
What, exactly, does it mean to be "wise as a serpent"?

The saying comes from Matthew 10:16, "I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves." — New International Version (©1984)

Commentary from The People's New Testament explains it like this:
  • As sheep in the midst of wolves. Defenseless by human means, among the fierce and cruel; among bitter enemies.
  • Wise as serpents. Prudent, discreet. Serpents are very cautious in avoiding danger.
  • Harmless as doves. Guileless and innocent as doves. The dove, peaceful, never preying on other birds, has always been a symbol of innocence.
And, from the Jamieson-Fausset-Brown Bible Commentary:
Alone, the wisdom of the serpent is mere cunning, and the harmlessness of the dove little better than weakness: but in combination, the wisdom of the serpent would save them from unnecessary exposure to danger; the harmlessness of the dove, from sinful expedients to escape it. In the apostolic age of Christianity, how harmoniously were these qualities displayed! Instead of the fanatical thirst for martyrdom, to which a later age gave birth, there was a manly combination of unflinching zeal and calm discretion, before which nothing was able to stand.
The symbolism of the serpent is dependent upon culture. In the Abrahamic religions, serpents are connected with deceit, and are used to symbolize deceitfulness. An example is the serpent in the Garden of Eden, who tricks Adam and Eve into partaking of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The symbolic connection between serpents and deceit may depend in part on the observation that snakes have forked tongues. A forked tongue is a tongue which has not one end, but two, pointing in different directions. In humans, the tongue is an essential tool in speech, and the presence of only one tip signifies the unity of truthful speech, and corresponds to the unity of the truth itself. There is only one truth, but there are many lies. The forked tongue represents the disunity of deceitful speech. Wikipedia

But, this is not the only symbolic meaning for serpents. Serpents are represented as potent guardians of temples and other sacred spaces. This connection may be grounded in the observation that when threatened, some snakes, such as rattlesnakes or cobras, frequently hold and defend their ground, first resorting to threatening display and then fighting, rather than retreat.

Serpents are also symbolicaly connected with poison and medicine. The snake's venom is associated with the chemicals of plants and fungi that have the power to either heal, poison or provide expanded consciousness, even the elixir of life and immortality, through divine intoxication. Because of its herbal knowledge and psychoactive religious association the snake was often considered one of the wisest animals, being close to the divine. The snake's divine aspect combined with its habitat in the earth between the roots of plants made it an animal with subterranean properties connected to the afterlife and immortality.

Serpents are connected with rebirth, renewal or regeneration. This trait is connected with the practice of snakes of shedding their old skin and growing a new one.

The Fourth Way teaching of Gurdjieff is sometimes called the way of the "sly man."  A man does not give up anything in his ordinary life to pursue awakening, rather, he uses what life has given him to further his progress.  The sly man is wise in the ways of the world, but not taken in by the world's allure and deceptions.  He stays in life and works with all  sides of himself. This re-aligns and balances him. As being and knowledge increase so does understanding. Seeing himself as he is, he begins to feel his contradictions, conscience is awakened, not the morality of personality, but conscience that is the same for all men. The way of the sly man may be to what "cunning as snakes and as harmless as doves" refers.

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Tom Fox
Louisville, Kentucky

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