Make sure that your brain doesn’t collect knowledge faster than your soul can wisely use it.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Wisdom is knowing what to do next; virtue is doing it.” author=”David Star Jordan”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Knowledge, a rude unprofitable mass, the mere materials with which wisdom builds, till smoothed and squared and fitted to its place, does but encumber whom it seems to enrich. Knowledge is proud that he has learned so much; wisdom is humble that he knows no more.” author=”William Cowper”/]
A wise man learns by the experience of others. An ordinary man learns by his own experience. A fool learns by nobody’s experience.
Wisdom is a concept of personal gaining of knowledge, understanding, experience, discretion, and intuitive understanding, along with a capacity to apply these qualities well towards finding solutions to problems. It is the judicious and purposeful application of knowledge that is valued in society. To some extent the terms wisdom and intelligence have similar and overlapping meanings. The status of wisdom or prudence as a virtue is recognized in cultural, philosophical and religious sources.
Automaker Henry Ford asked electrical genius Charlie Steinmetz to build the generators for his factory. One day the generators ground to a halt, and the repairmen couldn’t find the problem. So Ford called Steinmetz, who tinkered with the machines for a few hours and then threw the switch. The generators whirred to life–but Ford got a bill for $10,000 from Steinmetz. Flabbergasted, the rather tightfisted car maker inquired why the bill was so high. Steinmetz’s reply: For tinkering with the generators, $10. For knowing where to tinker, $9,990. Ford paid the bill.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Meditation brings wisdom; lack of mediation leaves ignorance. Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back, and choose the path that leads to wisdom.” author=”Buddha”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Wisdom is considered a sign of weakness by the powerful because a wise man can lead without power but only a powerful man can lead without wisdom.” author=”Mark B. Cohen”/]
Research on Wisdom
Researchers in positive psychology have defined wisdom as the coordination of “knowledge and experience” and “its deliberate use to improve well-being.” With this definition, wisdom can be measured using the following criteria.
- A wise person can discern the core of important problems.
- A wise person has self-knowledge.
- A wise person seems sincere and direct with others.
- Others ask wise people for advice.
- A wise person’s actions are consistent with his/her ethical beliefs.
In the Christian Bible and Jewish scripture, Wisdom is also represented by the sense of justice of the lawful and wise king Solomon, who asks God for wisdom in 1 Kings 3. Proverbs 9:10 says: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,”. Wisdom is one of the Seven gifts of the Holy Spirit according to Anglican, Catholic, and Lutheran belief.
In Islam, according to the Qur’an, all of the prophets of the Old Testament, Jesus, as well as the Prophet Muhammad were chosen by God, mostly in times of political or moral crisis, to represent his wisdom. The Prophet Muhammad said that: “Fearing God in your actions and intentions, and knowing that Almighty God is watching you wherever and whenever you are is the peak of wisdom”. In addition, Islam also mentions that a wise man with the name of Luqman once told his son to: “Sit with the learned men and keep close to them. Allah gives life to the hearts with the light of wisdom as Allah gives life to the dead earth with the abundant rain of the sky”.
Confucius stated that wisdom can be learned by three methods: Reflection (the noblest), imitation (the easiest) and experience (the bitterest). According to “Doctrine of the Mean,” Confucius also said, “Love of learning is akin to wisdom. To practice with vigor is akin to humanity.
Socrates Lesson on Wisdom
There’s a story about a proud young man who came to Socrates asking for wisdom. He walked up to the muscular philosopher and said, “O great Socrates, I come to you for wisdom.” Socrates recognized a pompous numbskull when he saw one. He led the young man through the streets, to the sea, and chest deep into water. Then he asked, “What do you want?” “Wisdom, O wise Socrates,” said the young man with a smile. Socrates put his strong hands on the man’s shoulders and pushed him under. Thirty seconds later Socrates let him up. “What do you want?” he asked again. “Wisdom,” the young man sputtered, “O great and wise Socrates.” Socrates crunched him under again. Thirty seconds passed, thirty-five. Forty. Socrates let him up. The man was gasping. “What do you want, young man?” Between heavy, heaving breaths the fellow wheezed, “Wisdom, O wise and wonderful…” Socrates jammed him under again Forty seconds passed. Fifty. “What do you want?” “Air!” the young man screeched. “I need air!” Socrates then whispered to the wet and visibly shaken young man…”When you want wisdom as you have just wanted air, then you will have wisdom.”[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Just as treasures are uncovered from the earth, so virtue appears from good deeds, and wisdom appears from a pure and peaceful mind. To walk safely through the maze of human life, one needs the light of wisdom and the guidance of virtue.” author=”Buddha”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” author=”Reinhold Niebuhr”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”To be satisfied with a little, is the greatest wisdom; and he that increaseth his riches, increaseth his cares; but a contented mind is a hidden treasure, and trouble findeth it not.” author=”Akhenaton”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Wisdom is the right use of knowledge. To know is not to be wise. Many men know a great deal, and are all the greater fools for it. There is no fool so great a fool as a knowing fool. But to know how to use knowledge is to have wisdom.” author=”Charles H. Spurgeon”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world — that is the myth of the atomic age — as in being able to remake ourselves.” author=”Mahatma Gandhi”/]
The Judgment of Solomon (Definition of Wisdom)
The Judgment of Solomon refers to a story from the Hebrew Bible in which Solomon ruled between two women both claiming to be the mother of a child. It has become a metaphor referring to a wise judge who uses a stratagem to determine the truth, tricking the parties into revealing their true feelings. Specifically, the judge pretends that he will destroy the subject matter of a dispute, rather than allowing either disputing party to win at the expense of the other.
The story is recounted in 1Kings 3:16-28. Two young women who lived in the same house and who both had an infant son came to Solomon for a judgment. One of the women claimed that the other, after accidentally smothering her own son while sleeping, had exchanged the two children to make it appear that the living child was hers. The other woman denied this and so both women claimed to be the mother of the living son and said that the dead boy belonged to the other.
After some deliberation, King Solomon called for a sword to be brought before him. He declared that there is only one fair solution: the live son must be split in two, each woman receiving half of the child. Upon hearing this terrible verdict, the boy’s true mother cried out, “Please, My Lord, give her the live child—do not kill him!” However, the liar in her bitter jealousy, exclaimed, “It shall be neither mine nor yours—divide it!” Solomon instantly gave the live baby to the real mother, realizing that the true mother’s instincts were to protect her child, while the liar revealed that she did not truly love the child. The reputation of the king greatly increased when all the people of Israel heard of this wise judgment.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”The years teach much which the days never knew.” author=”Ralph Waldo Emerson”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”A wise man can see more from the bottom of a well than a fool can from a mountain top.” author=”Author Unknown”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”A single conversation with a wise man is better than ten years of study.” author=”Chinese Proverb”/]
Buddha on Wisdom
Buddha taught that a wise person is endowed with good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct & good mental conduct and a wise person does actions that are unpleasant to do but give good results and doesn’t do actions that are pleasant to do but give bad results. This is called karma. The Buddha has much to say on the subject of wisdom including:
- He who arbitrates a case by force does not thereby become just. But the wise man is he who carefully discriminates between right and wrong.
- He who leads others by nonviolence, righteously and equitably, is indeed a guardian of justice, wise and righteous.
- One is not wise merely because he talks much. But he who is calm, free from hatred and fear, is verily called a wise man.
- By quietude alone one does not become a sage (muni) if he is foolish and ignorant. But he who, as if holding a pair of scales, takes the good and shuns the evil, is a wise man; he is indeed a muni by that very reason. He who understands both good and evil as they really are, is called a true sage.
What is Wisdom?
Wisdom is not just one type of knowledge, but diverse. What a wise person needs to know and understand constitutes a varied list: the most important goals and values of life – the ultimate goal, if there is one; what means will reach these goals without too great a cost; what kinds of dangers threaten the achieving of these goals; how to recognize and avoid or minimize these dangers; what different types of human beings are like in their actions and motives (as this presents dangers or opportunities); what is not possible or feasible to achieve (or avoid); how to tell what is appropriate when; knowing when certain goals are sufficiently achieved; what limitations are unavoidable and how to accept them; how to improve oneself and one’s relationships with others or society; knowing what the true and unapparent value of various things is; when to take a long-term view; knowing the variety and obduracy of facts, institutions, and human nature; understanding what one’s real motives are; how to cope and deal with the major tragedies and dilemmas of life, and with the major good things too.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”We can be Knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we cannot be wise with other men’s wisdom.” author=”Michel de Montaigne”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Patience is the companion of wisdom.” author=”St. Augustine”/]
Wisdom for High School Students
By Charles Sykes
RULE 1. Life is not fair; get used to it.
RULE 2. The world doesn’t care about your self-esteem. The world will expect you to accomplish something BEFORE you feel good about yourself.
RULE 3. You will NOT make 50 thousand dollars a year right out of high school OR college. You won’t be a vice-president with a company car, until you earn them both.
RULE 4. If you think your teachers are tough, wait until you get a boss.
RULE 5. Flipping burgers or picking berries is not beneath your dignity. Your grandparents had a different word for burger flipping and berry picking; they called it opportunity.
RULE 6. If you mess up, it’s not your parents’ fault, so don’t whine about your mistakes, learn from them.
RULE 7. Before you were born, your parents weren’t as boring as they are now. They got that way from paying your bills, cleaning your clothes and listening to you talk about how cool you are. So before you save the rain forest from the parasites of your parents’ generation, try “delousing” the closet in your own room.
RULE 8. Your school may have done away with winners and losers, but life has not. In some schools they have abolished failing grades; they’ll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn’t bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life.
RULE 9. Life is not divided into semesters. You don’t get summers off and very few employers are interested in helping you find yourself. Do that on your own time.
RULE 10. Facebook, the Internet and Television are NOT real life. In real life people actually have encounter each other face to face.
RULE 11. Be nice to the nerds in your school. Chances are you’ll end up working for one.
The well-known cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead had a surprising and yet illuminating experience when she was studying the life and habits of Canadian Eskimos in the far north.
She happened to bring with her two copies of one of her books. The Eskimos were utterly flabbergasted when they encountered for the first time in their lives, two things that were absolutely identical.
To the Eskimos, no two faces, personalities, sunsets or ice floes were ever the same. Being human, and therefore philosophically curious, they knew that there must be a third thing that explained how two separate objects could be utterly identical in appearance, page for page, word for word, letter for letter. Not having ever seen a printing press, they could only wonder what that third thing might be. But they knew, instinctively, that there must be a third thing.
Wisdom allows us to grasp that third factor. It offers a breadth of knowledge that science alone cannot provide.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.” author=”Doug Larson”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”He dares to be a fool, and that is the first step in the direction of wisdom.” author=”James Gibbons Huneker”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Wisdom comes by disillusionment.” author=”George Santayana”/]
Portrait of a Wise Person:
By Paul Wong
- They are able to penetrate the surface and see things as they really are.
- They are able to integrate and balance between opposites and contradictions.
- They are self-actualizing and able to transcend constraints.
- They are able to make the right decisions in the midst of confusions, tensions and competing interests.
- They understand the human heart and discern God’s will through the Holy Spirit.
- They are humble and open, willing to learn from everyone.
- They know and accept their own limitations, and then take steps to improve themselves.
- They know what really matters and what has enduring values.
- They have a heightened capacity for self-reflection and moral sensitivity.
- They have a large vision as if they can see the future.
- They have the courage to be true to their own convictions.
- They dare to do what is right in spite of oppositions and threats to their own lives.
- They keep the faith that eventually goodness and justice will prevail and that their decisions will be validated.
- They have the capacity to imagine what life could be and know how to realize their dreams.
- They have a sense of freedom and serenity whatever their situations, because they can live in their inner sanctuary and are connected with God.
- They respond to all the challenges and opportunities of life on a moment- to-moment basis.
- They understand the meaning of life: They have a clear sense of who they are, why they are here, what they are supposed to do, where they are going, and how to be happy in the face of suffering and death.
- They are willing to experiment and try innovative solutions in spite of stiff resistance and opposition.
- They surrender their self-interests to the common good.
- They submit to some higher principles and purposes.
- They have the purity of heart and clarity of mind, unencumbered by trivial, earthly concerns.
- They are attuned to the spiritual world and experience the harmony with the universe.
- They have an expanded sense of self that encompasses others and God.
- They avoid excesses and know how to act appropriately for each situation.
- They are very focused and disciplined in order to attain their higher calling.
Portrait of a Fool:
By Paul Wong
- They win the whole world but lose their own souls.
- They live as if they will never die.
- They want to play God, because they think that God either does not exist or he does not care.
- They are more concerned about looking good than acting right.
- Their conscience is seared by greed and arrogance.
- They have too much knowledge and information but very little human understanding.
- Their hubris prevents them from listening to words of wisdom from others.
- They are too busy defending and justifying their actions that they are not able to learn from their mistakes.
- They are unaware of their own blind spots and foolishness.
- Their judgments are often clouded and distorted by false assumptions, biases and self-interests.
- Their course of action is often dictated by how to win the turf-war rather than how to resolve the conflict.
- They like to hide behind their position of authority and overrule good decisions.
- They subscribe to dominant paradigms and conventional wisdoms and resent innovative solutions.
- They intellectualize everything and rarely consider the spiritual and humane dimensions of their actions.
- They are guided by expediency rather than principles.
- They often lose big by gaining small advantages.
- They would not hesitate to lie to cover up their wrong doings.
- They never say what they mean and never mean what they say.
- They use people and exploit relationships for their own gains.
- They don’t have the courage to stand up for what is right and just.
- Their world is very small, because they only live for themselves.
- They think that they are smart enough to fool everyone including God.
- They don’t recognize their boundaries and limitations.
- They are always ready to make deals, without realizing that they may have dealt away their souls to the devil.
- When the house they built collapses, they even do not realize that it has been built on sand.
What is Wisdom and Why Follow its Path?
In the Biblical sense, wisdom is the “ability to judge correctly and to follow the best course of action, based on knowledge and understanding”. The Wisdom teachings of the Bible follow from the two great themes of the Ten Commandments and the Greatest Commandments of Jesus : reverence to God, our Creator, and respect for all persons, everywhere.
Customs are not Wisdom
Biblical-era life for the Jews and early Christians was harsh. Slavery was commonplace. Tyrannical rule by outside powers was the norm. Women’s status in society was distinctly second class. Children were disciplined with beatings.
These conditions were often accepted in the Bible as customary for society during those times, but they were not taught as being virtuous or wise. True wisdom is always consistent with the two great wisdom themes of the Bible: reverence to God, our Creator, and respect for all persons, everywhere.
Wisdom is More than Following the Rules
A set of commandments or rules can give us important examples of wisdom, but they are only examples. No set of rules can cover all situations, and it is up to us to generalize the commandments to all cases. Many times, as in this passage from Matthew, Jesus condemned the hypocrisy of those religious leaders who observed the law in its strict, literal sense, but violated its spirit: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness; but these are the things you should have done without neglecting the others.
Wisdom means understanding the consequences of our actions and words before we act or speak. Wisdom means having the knowledge and understanding to recognize the right course of action and having the will and courage to follow it.
Why Follow Wisdom’s Path?
The ways of Wisdom also bring us in harmony with other persons because respect for others is the very essence of living a virtuous life.
Acting with Wisdom also brings us into harmony with ourselves, giving us a sense of self-worth and inner peace. This inner peace is achieved because we are acting in accordance with our consciences and avoiding the shame and guilt of following our baser instincts.
How blessed is the man who finds wisdom, and the man who gains understanding. For its profit is better than the profit of silver, and its gain than fine gold. She is more precious than jewels; and nothing you desire compares with her. Long life is in her right hand; in her left hand are riches and honor. Her ways are pleasant ways, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to those who take hold of her, and happy are all who hold her fast.
We often fail in our daily struggle to act with wisdom — it does not come easily or naturally. Although it is easier to follow our less-than-wise impulses, the reward for acting with wisdom is great. When we give it our best effort, the payoff in self-esteem and inner peace will compensate us many times over.
What is wisdom?
We hear the word a lot these days—the need for wisdom, the wisdom traditions, wisdom schools. We each would like to have more wisdom, and for others to have it as well. Too much human hurt and suffering comes from lack of wisdom. There is something about wisdom that we all aspire to. But what is this quality we hold in such high regard?
Various people have pointed to the progression of data to information to knowledge. Variations in patterns of data gives rise to information. Information from different situations is generalized into knowledge. Continuing the progression suggests that something derived from knowledge leads to the emergence of a new level, what we call wisdom. But what is it that knowledge gives us that takes us beyond knowledge?
Through knowledge we learn how to act in our own better interests. Will this decision lead to greater well-being, or greater suffering? What is the kindest way to respond in this situation? Is it coming from love, or insecurity?
Wisdom reflects the values and criteria that we apply to our knowledge. Its essence is discernment. Discernment of right from wrong. Helpful from harmful. Truth from delusion.
The wise are able to discern their true interests from those of the ego mind. They are usually regarded as kind, content in themselves. They tend not to aspire to greater material wealth or fame. They have learnt what is important.
At present, humanity has vast amounts of knowledge, but still very little wisdom. Buckminster Fuller called this time our final evolutionary exam. Is our species fit to survive? Can we develop the wisdom that will allow us to use our prodigious powers for our own good, and for that of many generations to come?
The question then arises: What can we do to facilitate the development of wisdom? This is where the wisdom traditions—the spiritual traditions found throughout human culture—have their value. They are often seen as simply religions, but most of the great religions were seeded by wise people, people who had, in one way or another, awoken to the deeper truths of life and then sought to share their wisdom with others.
Today we need to re-discover for ourselves the wisdom that inspired so many of these traditions. And discover how to enliven that wisdom in ourselves.
Sir William Henry Bragg, together with his son, William Lawrence Bragg, won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1915. Sir William was displaying considerable wisdom when he once remarked that “religion and science are indeed opposed to each other, but as the thumb and forefinger are opposed, so together they can grasp.”
Wisdom I learned from a dog:
- Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joy ride.
- Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy.
- When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
- When it’s in your best interest, always practice obedience.
- Let others know when they’ve invaded your territory.
- Take naps and always stretch before rising.
- Run, romp, and play daily.
- Eat with gusto and enthusiasm.
- Be loyal.
- Never pretend to be something you’re not.
- If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
- When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by and nuzzle them gently.
- Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.
- Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
- Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
- On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree.
- When you are happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
- No matter how often you are criticized, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout. Run right back and make friends.
THE SCIENCE OF WISDOM
In recent years, psychologists have begun to explore the rare and elusive human quality of wisdom. The challenges they face are many: wisdom is difficult to conceptualize, expensive and time-consuming to study, and no generally agreed definition of wisdom has yet emerged. Rather, researchers have defined it according to their own philosophical orientation and particular work focus. Although debate on the nature of wisdom has an extensive history amongst philosophers, theologians, poets, and writers its exploration by psychologists is relatively recent. Some attribute this reticence to the early.
The Berlin Wisdom Paradigm (BWP)
Baltes and colleagues (collectively, the Berlin Group) are renowned for their leading work in the study of wisdom and for their development of the Berlin Wisdom Paradigm. Their conception of wisdom adheres closely to historical and philosophical analyses in the Western tradition, which views wisdom as the pinnacle of human thought and judgment about the personal and common good. As such, they define wisdom as “an expert knowledge system in the fundamental pragmatics of life”. Their term ‘fundamental pragmatics of life’ refers to knowledge about important and uncertain aspects of life meaning and conduct, including life planning, management, and review. From this perspective, wisdom is a collectively-anchored product; its true nature exists independently of its manifestation within people who are but partial and imperfect carriers of wisdom-related knowledge. As such, the Berlin Group has argued that the study of wise persons can only reveal an approximation of wisdom. They maintain that higher forms of wisdom, which go beyond the personal qualities of wise persons, are found in collective cultural artifacts such as proverbs, religious tomes, and scientific discourses, and it is from such expert sources that an explicit theory of wisdom must be deduced. For the Berlin group, wisdom involves both specific knowledge about the meaning and conduct of life and general knowledge about human nature that transcends given cultural contexts and historical periods.
Hypothetical vignettes about challenging and uncertain life problems were presented to subjects who were asked to think aloud as they worked through the issues involved. Responses were evaluated on a seven-point scale using five criteria considered to define wisdom-related knowledge:
- rich factual knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics of life
- rich procedural knowledge in the fundamental pragmatics of life
- lifespan contextualism (consideration of the historical and social context of development)
- value relativism (acknowledgement and tolerance for value differences)
- awareness and management of the uncertainty and limitation inherent in the human condition.
A response was considered ‘wise’ only if it is rated greater than five on all criteria. Over several years the Berlin Group has applied its think-aloud technique to the assessment of wisdom-related knowledge and judgment capacity, producing an impressive body of work.
First among their findings is confirmation that high levels of wisdom are rare. Less anticipated is the finding that the primary age window for the emergence of wisdom-related knowledge is late adolescence and early adulthood, there being no advance in the average level of wisdom evident in older samples. For the highest levels of wisdom-related knowledge to develop, it was found that a complex coalition of enhancing factors must coalesce (e.g., having a motivation toward excellence, mastery of critical life experiences, and access to guidance by mentors). However, when such personal characteristics and facilitative experiential contexts coincide, more older than younger adults are in the top 20% of performers.
Further research found that personality-related factors such as openness, generativity, creativity, or a judicial cognitive style were more predictive of wisdom-related knowledge than is intelligence. In addition, specific experiences such as expertise in a field dealing with difficult life problems (as in the helping professions) or exposure to certain idiographic events and mastery of these experiences, contributed to acquisition of wisdom. In an important finding for the Berlin group, public figures nominated as wise by independent experts scored higher on BWP tasks than comparison groups of similarly aged and educated adults, providing support for the ecological validity of their construct of wisdom through their public interactions. In sum, the Berlin findings suggest wisdom is not simply a function of personality or intelligence. Rather, it involves “an orchestration of mind and virtue toward excellence”. In addition, the acquisition of high levels of wisdom-related knowledge, beyond an average level available to many, is dependent on a coalition of multiple experiential factors.
Wisdom was found to be a more important predictor of life satisfaction than several more objective indicators (physical health, socio-economic status, finances, physical environment, and social involvement) and, with the exception of physical health, wisdom was unrelated to these measures. This implies that, irrespective of their particular circumstances, wise elders were more likely to be satisfied with life because they were better able to deal with the vicissitudes of life. A supportive social environment during early adulthood had a significant impact on wisdom more than 40 years later, whereas personality characteristics in early adulthood and quality of childhood had no lasting effects. This finding suggests the capacity for wisdom is not simply a variant of personality. It was also found among those who experienced economic hardship (the Great Depression): relatively wiser adults experienced improvement in their psychological health during and after this event, while less wise adults experienced a decline in well-being. However, crisis and hardships in a person’s life did not automatically result in wisdom. Rather, development of wisdom required a willingness to learn from life’s lessons and to be transformed in the process; without this commitment, such challenges may lead to psychological disintegration rather than wisdom.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Experience comes from what we have done. Wisdom comes from what we have done badly.” author=”Theodore Levitt”/]
Wisdom or Money?
An angel appears at a faculty meeting and tells the dean that in return for his unselfish and exemplary behavior, the Lord will reward him with his choice of infinite wealth, wisdom or beauty. Without hesitating, the dean selects infinite wisdom. “Done!” says the angel, and disappears in a cloud of smoke and a bolt of lightning. Now, all heads turn toward the dean, who sits surrounded by a faint halo of light. At length, one of his colleagues whispers, “Say something.” The dean looks at them and says, “I should have taken the money.”[do action=”vfquote” quote=”Wisdom is the power to see and the inclination to choose the best and highest goal, together with the surest means of attaining it.” author=”J.I. Packer”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you would have preferred to talk.” author=”Doug Larson”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”A wise man learns from the mistakes of others. Nobody lives long enough to make them all himself.” author=””/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”You don’t have to be listed in Who’s Who to know what’s what.” author=””/]
What is Wisdom?
By Will Durant
To the philosopher, all things are friendly and sacred, all events profitable, all days holy, all men divine. – Emerson What is wisdom? I feel like a droplet of spray which proudly poised for a moment on the crest of a wave, undertakes to analyze the sea.
Ideally, wisdom is total perspective — seeing an object, event, or idea in all its pertinent relationships. Spinoza defined wisdom as seeing things sub specie eternitatis, in view of eternity; I suggest defining it as seeing things sub specie totius, in view of the whole.
Obviously we can only approach such total perspective; to possess it would be to be God. The first lesson of philosophy is that philosophy is the study of any part of experience in the light of our whole experience; the second lesson is that the philosopher is a very small part in a very large whole. Just as philosopher means not a “possessor” but a “lover” of wisdom, so we can only seek wisdom devotedly, like a lover fated, as on Keats’ Grecian urn, never to possess, but only to desire. Perhaps it is more blessed to desire than to possess.
Shall we have examples? Rain falls; you mourn that your baseball game must be postponed; you are not a philosopher. But you console yourself with the thought, “How grateful the parched earth will be for the rain!” You have seen the event in a larger perspective, and you are beginning to approach wisdom.
You may be a young radical, or an old businessman crying out for limitless liberty, and as such you may be a useful ferment in a lethargic mass; but if you think of yourself as part of a group, and recognize morality as the cooperation of the part with the whole, you are approaching perspective and wisdom. You may be a politician just elected to Congress for a term of two years; you spend half your time planning re-election; the situation encourages a myopic perspective, contracepting wisdom. Or you may be a secretary of state, or a president, seeking a policy that will protect and improve your country for generations; this is the larger perspective that distinguishes the statesmen.
Or you may be an Ashoka, a Marcus Aurelius, or a Charlemagne planning to help humanity rather than merely your own country; you will then be a philosopher-king.
I have in my home a picture of the Virgin nursing her Child with St. Bernard looking at the Child. Your first thought may be that he is looking in the wrong direction; you are not a philosopher. Or you may remember Bernard as the persecutor who hounded Abelard from trial to tribulation until only the philosopher’s bones were handed to Heloise; and you vision for a moment the long struggle of the human mind for freedom; you are seeing the picture in a larger perspective; you touch the skirts of wisdom.
Or, again, you see the mother and her child as a symbol of that vast Amazon of births and deaths and births that is the engulfing river of history; you see woman as the main stream of life, the male as a minor commissary tributary; you see the family as far more basic than the state, and love as wiser than wisdom; perhaps then you are wise.
In a total perspective, all evil is seen as subjective, the misfortune of one self or part; we cannot say whether it is evil for the group, or for humanity, or for life. After all, the mosquito does not think it a tragedy that you should be bitten by a mosquito. It may be painful for a man to die for his country, but Horace, safe on his Sabine farm, thought it very dulce et decorum — that is, very fitting and beautiful.
Even death may be a boon to life, replacing the old and exhausted form with one young and fresh; who knows but death may be the greatest invention that life has ever made? The death of the part is the life of the whole, as in the changing cells of our flesh. We cannot sit in judgment upon the world by asking how well it conforms to the pleasure of a moment, or to the good of one individual, or one species, or one star. How small our categories of pessimism and optimism seem when placed against the perspective of the sky!
Are there any special ways of acquiring a large perspective? Yes. First, by living perceptively; so the farmer, faced with a fateful immensity day after day, may become patient and wise. Secondly, by studying things in space through science; partly in this way Einstein became wise. Thirdly, by studying events in time through history. “May my son study history,” said Napoleon, “for it is the only true philosophy, the only true psychology;” thereby we learn both the nature and the possibilities of man. The past is not dead; it is the sum of the factors operating in the present. The present is the past rolled up into a moment for action; the past is the present unraveled in history for our understanding.
Therefore invite the great men of the past into your homes. Put their works or lives on your shelves as books, their architecture, sculpture, and painting on your walls as pictures; let them play their music for you. Attune your ears to Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Berlioz, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Brahms, Debussy. Make room in your rooms for Confucius, Buddha, Plato, Euripides, Lucretius, Christ, Seneca, Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Heloise, Shakespeare, Bacon, Spinoza, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Gibbon, Goethe, Shelley, Keats, Heine, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Spengler, Anatole France, Albert Schweitzer. Let these men be your comrades, your bedfellows; give them half an hour each day; slowly they will share in remaking you to perspective, tolerance, wisdom, and a more avid love of a deepened life.
Don’t think of these men as dead; they will be alive hundreds of years after I shall be dead. They live in a magic City of God, peopled by all the geniuses — the great statesmen, poets, artists, philosophers, women, lovers, saints — whom humanity keeps alive in its memory.
Plato is there, leading his students through geometry to philosophy; Spinoza is there, polishing his lenses, inhaling dust and exhaling wisdom; Goethe is there, thirsting like Faust for knowledge and loveliness, and falling in love at seventy-three; Mendelssohn is there, teaching Goethe to savor Beethoven; Shelley is there, with peanuts in one pocket and raisins in the other and content with them as a well-balanced meal; they are all there in that amazing treasure house of our race, that veritable Fort Knox of wisdom and beauty; patiently there they wait for you.[do action=”vfquote” quote=”The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” author=”William Shakespeare”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”Knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification.” author=”Martin H. Fischer”/] [do action=”vfquote” quote=”A man begins cutting his wisdom teeth the first time he bites off more than he can chew.” author=”Herb Caen”/]
The Wise Old Woodcutter
Once there was an old man who lived in a tiny village. Although poor, he was envied by all, for he owned a beautiful white horse. Even the king coveted his treasure. A horse like this had never been seen before—such was its splendor, its majesty, its strength.
People offered fabulous prices for the steed, but the old man always refused. “This horse is not a horse to me,” he would tell them. “It is a person. How could you sell a person? He is a friend, not a possession. How could you sell a friend?” The man was poor and the temptation was great. But he never sold the horse.
One morning he found that the horse was not in the stable. All the village came to see him. “You old fool,” they scoffed, “we told you that someone would steal your horse. We warned you that you would be robbed. You are so poor. How could you ever hope to protect such a valuable animal? It would have been better to have sold him. You could have gotten whatever price you wanted. No amount would have been too high. Now the horse is gone, and you’ve been cursed with misfortune.”
The old man responded, “Don’t speak too quickly. Say only that the horse is not in the stable. That is all we know; the rest is judgment. If I’ve been cursed or not, how can you know? How can you judge?”
The people contested, “Don’t make us out to be fools! We may not be philosophers, but great philosophy is not needed. The simple fact that your horse is gone is a curse.”
The old man spoke again. “All I know is that the stable is empty, and the horse is gone. The rest I don’t know. Whether it be a curse or a blessing, I can’t say. All we can see is a fragment. Who can say what will come next?”
The people of the village laughed. They thought that the man was crazy. They had always thought he was fool; if he wasn’t, he would have sold the horse and lived off the money. But instead, he was a poor woodcutter, an old man still cutting firewood and dragging it out of the forest and selling it. He lived hand to mouth in the misery of poverty. Now he had proven that he was, indeed, a fool.
After fifteen days, the horse returned. He hadn’t been stolen; he had run away into the forest. Not only had he returned, he had brought a dozen wild horses with him.
Once again the village people gathered around the woodcutter and spoke. “Old man, you were right and we were wrong. What we thought was a curse was a blessing. Please forgive us.” The man responded, “Once again, you go too far. Say only that the horse is back. State only that a dozen horses returned with him, but don’t judge. How do you know if this is a blessing or not?
You see only a fragment. Unless you know the whole story, how can you judge? You read only one page of a book. Can you judge the whole book? You read only one word of a phrase. Can you understand the entire phrase?
“Life is so vast, yet you judge all of life with one page or one word. All you have is a fragment! Don’t say that this is a blessing. No one knows. I am content with what I know. I am not perturbed by what I don’t.”
“Maybe the old man is right,” they said to one another. So they said little. But down deep, they knew he was wrong. They knew it was a blessing. Twelve wild horses had returned with one horse. With a little bit of work, the animals could be broken and trained and sold for much money.
The old man had a son, an only son. The young man began to break the wild horses. After a few days, he fell from one of the horses and broke both legs. Once again the villagers gathered around the old man and cast their judgments. “You were right,” they said. “You proved you were right. The dozen horses were not a blessing. They were a curse. Your only son has broken his legs, and now in your old age you have no one to help you. Now you are poorer than ever.”
The old man spoke again. “You people are obsessed with judging. Don’t go so far. Say only that my son broke his legs. Who knows if it is a blessing or a curse? No one knows. We only have a fragment. Life comes in fragments.”
It so happened that a few weeks later the country engaged in war against a neighboring country. All the young men of the village were required to join the army. Only the son of the old man was excluded, because he was injured. Once again the people gathered around the old man, crying and screaming because their sons had been taken. There was little chance that they would return. The enemy was strong, and the war would be a losing struggle. They would never see their sons again.
“You were right, old man,” they wept. “God knows you were right. This proves it. Yours son’s accident was a blessing. His legs may be broken, but at least he is with you. Our sons are gone forever.”
The old man spoke again. “It is impossible to talk with you. You always draw conclusions. No one knows. Say only this: Your sons had to go to war, and mine did not. No one knows if it is a blessing or a curse. No one is wise enough to know. Only God knows.”
The Two Rabbits – A Story About Wisdom
There were once two rabbits, Wanda the Wise and Frederick the Foolish, who were walking through a field. They were good friends and enjoyed their strolls together. On this walk, they came upon two carrots. One of the carrots had large leaves sprouting out of the top and the other looked much smaller from the surface.
Frederick was excited and ran up to the carrot with the larger leaves. “I’ll have this one,” he proudly exclaimed and proceeded to extract it from the ground. Wanda shrugged her shoulders and pulled out the other carrot, which turned out to be much bigger. Frederick was surprised and asked how this could possibly be. Wanda looked at her friend and replied, “You can’t always judge a carrot by its leaves.”
They kept on walking and came across another pair of carrots, again with differing sized leaves. This time Frederick allowed his friend the first pick. Wanda hopped to each carrot, inspected and sniffed them carefully and, to Frederick’s surprise, chose the carrot with the larger leaves. As they each extracted their carrots from the ground, Frederick was bemused to see that his carrot was smaller than Wanda’s. “I thought that you said that small leaves meant it would be a larger carrot.” He said. “No,” replied Wanda, “I said don’t judge a carrot by its leaves. It’s also important to remember to think before you choose.” Frederick nodded and they ate their carrots before continuing their stroll.
For a third time, they found two carrots, again with different sized leaves. Frederick looked confused and didn’t know what to do. Wanda indicated that he could choose which carrot to eat. The poor foolish rabbit, pretended to inspect each carrot, but he didn’t really know what to do. He knew that he wasn’t as smart as his friend and he looked to Wanda with a confused expression on his face. Wanda smiled warmly and hopped over to the carrots. She inspected them and pulled out one of the carrots. Frederick shrugged his shoulders and went to the other one before he was interrupted by his wise friend.
“No Frederick, this one’s your carrot,” she said. “But you made the choice and I’m sure it’s the bigger one of the two. I don’t know how you do it, but I guess you’re just smarter than me.” “Frederick, there’s no point in having wisdom if you’re not willing to share the benefits of it with others. You’re my friend and I want you to have this carrot. A smart rabbit with a full stomach but no friends isn’t really wise is she?”
“I guess you’re right,” said Frederick with a full mouth, “As usual.”