By Linda Smith
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart is well known for his comment in a 1964 obscenity case that “hard-core pornography” may be hard to define “but I know it when I see it.” The same could be said about wisdom. It’s hard to define but I’m pretty sure I know it when I see it.
But does anybody care about wisdom anymore? If not, I’m wasting my time writing this column. But if you’re still with me, perhaps it’s because you have some kind of gut feeling that wisdom is something important – and worth trying to gain – even if you can’t quite define it either.
First and foremost, wisdom is NOT mere data, information, or facts. We can have all the facts in the world at our fingertips – in fact, we pretty much do with today’s computers and smart phones – but still not have an ounce of wisdom. More than just information, wisdom tells us something about how to live our lives, and in particular how to live them well. Facts and statistics may help with that, but only if we have the right facts, interpret them correctly, and apply them appropriately to what is important.
Wisdom is also more than common sense. Common sense keeps us alive and prevents us from doing harm to ourselves. It tells us to come in out of the rain and not to put our hands on the stove burner. It tells us not to drink and drive and to save some money for a rainy day. But we can preserve our lives and have plenty of money in the bank and still not have wisdom. Wisdom is much more than just surviving.
Wisdom is also not just about how to achieve happiness, enjoyment, and pleasure. While we may receive some of those when we gain wisdom, they are not, and should not be, the main goal of wisdom.
What is wisdom, then, and why should we want it?
Here is where the “I-know-it-when-I-see-it” part comes in. And really, how can you know wisdom when you see it unless you already have some wisdom to start with? Philosophers and theologians frequently debate, directly or indirectly, what it means to be wise, and sacred texts since the dawn of civilization have given forceful cautions about how to live wisely – and, often, what will happen if we don’t. We can surely learn something about wisdom by distilling the centuries of conclusions of those who have taken wisdom very seriously. Regardless of their worldview or religion, we see commonalities about some of the elements that make up wisdom.
First, it seems that all agree that wisdom is about what is truly, permanently, and perhaps universally important. The great classics, for example, are great precisely because we can read them hundreds, sometimes even thousands, of years later and they are still relevant to our lives. They aren’t just amusing or entertaining stories, although they may be amusing and entertaining. But more than that, they teach us about what is important to us as human beings. They teach us about wisdom. For example, Homer’s “The Odyssey,” over 2,500 years old, shows Odysseus learning difficult and painful lessons about what is truly important and how a wise man or woman should live his or her life. So wisdom is first about knowing what is important.
Second, wisdom means knowing that what is important is bigger than just yourself. The satisfaction that comes from being a part of something larger than yourself is a core realization and experience of being wise. This means that if we focus exclusively on ourselves – whether it be on our happiness, our survival, or our pleasure – we cannot achieve wisdom. The wise realize that they are merely a part of a much larger whole, and it is the well-being of the whole that they must seek, not just their own well-being.
Third, wisdom means knowing that being a part of the whole requires us to put aside our egos and care as much for others as we care for ourselves. Jesus said it well, but he was not alone in stressing that we must love others as we love ourselves. This is a radical notion and a difficult one to put into action. It tells us that we must care for others before ourselves because when isolated from the whole, we are nothing. In addition, “the whole” is much larger and broader than we are accustomed to thinking. It includes all of humanity and the natural world of which we are a part. Only discord and destruction can result from trying to live separately from that of which we are intrinsically a part.
Fourth, wisdom warns us that the tendencies of human nature are often the enemy of achieving wisdom. I don’t want to debate whether human nature – if there even is such a thing – is inherently good or bad. I suspect it is a mixture, but I’ll leave that to the theologians, philosophers, and psychologists. But we must agree that as a species we humans have a number of destructive tendencies that run rampant if they are not curbed, including selfishness, dishonesty, pride, and greed. And perhaps worst of all is the tendency to be dishonest with ourselves so we happily rationalize our bad motives and our bad behavior. Over the ancient Greek Temple of Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi was inscribed the admonition to “Know yourself.” This is easier said than done. But it could not be more important, for without knowledge of ourselves and our destructive human tendencies, we are at the mercy of our worst natures.
Knowing now a little about wisdom, we may have also arrived at why we should seek it: It is an effective inoculation against the destructive tendencies of being human. Without it, we are blissfully ignorant, but the bliss is short-lived, for it leads to separation, alienation, and loss of what is important. Rather than seeking the pleasure that comes from the foolishness of self-involvement, we should seek the satisfaction that comes from the knowledge of wisdom. As the author of the Proverbs wisely advises, “Wisdom is the principal thing. Therefore get wisdom. And in all your getting, get understanding.” Proverbs 4:7 (New King James Version).
If then we agree with the author of Proverbs that wisdom is worth getting (as I do), our next question is how to get it. In future columns we will look at whether wisdom always comes with age (I think we already know the answer to that question!), whether we can learn it from others or only from experience, whether we have to suffer to gain it, and other important questions. If Francis Bacon was right that “A prudent question is one-half of wisdom,” these questions may put us on the path to “knowing wisdom when we see it.”