This is an awesomely complex world. It seemed challenging and at times, overwhelming, to our distant ancestors who were trying to live life as bipedal social animals on the terra firma of the African savannah two million years ago. I don’t think life has gotten any easier or simpler since those stressful days. There have been many philosophies, belief systems, religious frameworks since, as humans have tried to understand what life is about, how to relate to each other, and what it all means. What is the one arrow humans have in their collective quiver that can possibly cut through all the noise and the clutter? Wisdom.
The following is the Introduction to a book on wisdom I am now in the process of writing:
It is late 2019 as I write this book. There are many things that go on in just one 24-hour period that can challenge, vex, flummox, confuse, frighten, anger, and discomfit me (and everyone else who is paying attention). You have heard the aphorism, “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” This is true, I think! Other feelings associated with life on planet Earth include envy, greed, heartache, sadness, regret, hurt, vengefulness, ambivalence, and disgust. Of course there is a panoply of positive emotion, too. But the point of this book is that there are many stimuli and institutions and events in this cold and dark universe that make us frightened as hell. We humans do things to deal with such negative emotion, from crying to killing.
As I watch Robert Mueller seem either demented or disinterested in front of Congress; as I watch Congress (in large part) have drastically different views of both Donald Trump and the various nefarious deeds chronicled in the lengthy Mueller Report; as I think about vaccines and how the concept is partially responsible for a huge rift between my mother and sister and me; as I think back on my deceased father – his life, his choices, what he was up against, his values, our relationship; as I navigate the often-challenging waters of a marriage; when I read philosophy; when I hear about a person who is either incensed or assuaged by formal religion; when all these things enter my mind, it can be anxiety-causing and often dispiriting.
I have a family history and personal experience with mental illness such as low-grade depression. I never got hooked by alcohol, or, as is alarmingly becoming common, opioids. I do, however, have trouble dealing with people, can feel pretty socially awkward and a bit agoraphobic, and have felt road rage like many have. In a nutshell, despite the flowers and the songs and puppies, the love and the hope and the wonder are interspersed with various existential crises, misfortunes, and pains.
My point is not that life is not worth living (at least not according to me, if you ask me as I write this). I am actually about to make a very positive pivot: the beauty and the hope that wisdom offers.
Wisdom is hard to define (and that will be much of the point of this book). Assume for the time being that, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of pornography: “It is difficult to define, but you know if when you see it”, wisdom can be recognized (at least).
If we can for the moment bypass exactly how to define it, I believe it can be shown that wisdom is not only one of humanity’s highest aspirations, it is our best hope. That is, this potent and bracing “skill” if you will (attribute, force, phenomenon?) can be helpful in all the challenging aspects of being human.
Instead of looking up at the stars and dreading the wrath of a god or gods that one’s tribe purports exists, one could doubt!
Rather than fret that this moment I (as an American) am experiencing politically, militarily, historically, I might just be able to find some solace in realizing some aspect that the modern philosopher Alain de Botton or the ancient one Anicius Boethius might term one of “the consolations of philosophy.”
Wisdom can be helpful in interpersonal relations, business matters, existential conundra, religious quandaries, ethical dilemmas, and even how to deal with drivers without wanting to put the pedal to the metal and ramming them from behind! The Buddhists are a great example of using wisdom and other “skills” such as compassion and insight to make the road we must walk easier. They are in this way similar to the Stoics of the ancient world.
Indeed, it is not that wisdom is not helpful, encouraging, and enlightening; it surely is. It is one of the greatest assets, phenomena, or characteristics that evolution has, astonishingly, amazingly, bequeathed to humankind. You either believe or will hopefully be convinced in the course of this book that wisdom is truly a treasure beyond measure (look at me; I’m a poet and I didn’t even know it!).
No, the issue here is not whether wisdom is a remarkable and potent thing; it absolutely is. Socrates, Confucius, Jesus, the Buddha, and countless others have known this and heralded this for centuries now. The rub is that it is very difficult to actualize. It is a skill or attribute, like creativity, self-discipline, courage, or love. That is, it is rife with glorious potential and merit, but it’s not easy to do. If you ask Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama if his ability to think and feel and act in wisdom is easy and consistent, he will tell you know. Some Buddhists require thousands of hours of practice to meditate, and if it weren’t for rare strenth of will, they would lapse out of the focus required to view the world and the self through the lens of wisdom (and, let’s face it, living in a monastery can help with the challenges and temptations of the real world).
Think of folks who get lost and trapped in a cult (or any cult-like religious institution, frankly); they forgo their own capability of finding wisdom within themselves in a free and agentic manner. The reason that charismatic leaders (from Hitler to Charlie Manson to Donald Trump) hold such sway over the minds of otherwise capable individuals is because those followers have failed to learn (to know, to remember?) that they are not only capable, but responsible, for charting their own path. Indeed, following such “leaders” blindly, intemperate use or mindless addiction to mind-altering substances, noxious religious sects such as Scientology or Wahabbism, and falling victim to the uniquely modern Siren song of taking an AK-47 into a crowd of innocent bystanders all signal that one is totally out of touch with the wisdom that lies within.
And I think it does lie within. I don’t even know if wisdom can effectively be taught – in the manner in which tennis, appreciation of literature, or driver education can be taught. I think if one can learn wisdom from another person in an educational setting, it is more akin to studying a Shakespearean play, or the highest levels of mathematics. When police officers are going through training, it is the hope of responsible instructors that the cadets will one day be able to use wisdom to determine if, when, how, why, and to what extent to use force. When we elect leaders to high office, we implore them to have the wisdom to make sound decisions on behalf of the members of society.
The “Serenity Prayer” popularized by Alcoholics Anonymous (based on a poem by Reinhold Niebuhr) explicitly refers to this Queen of the Virtues: “God, give me the grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to know distinguish the one from the other.” It is a scintillating example of how virtue #1 (serenity) can be useful to one if it can be successfully cultivated and harnessed and utilized; how virtue #2 (courage) can be useful to one if it can be successfully cultivated and harnessed and utilized; but that it is wisdom which can assist one to make a careful and prudent determination about which if the disparate situations one faces. Indeed, it would be folly to be serene in the face of some desperate situation or long-standing social ill or gross interpersonal misfortune; as well, it could be considered heedless or rash or foolish to call up heroic courage to fight or to change something which needn’t be changed, or cannot be.
That is the nature, the beauty, and the power of wisdom. Unless one is going to flip a coin, ask a parent or a preacher, or go through life like a spineless “prisoner of fate, a victim of circumstance” (Neil Peart), it is going to be up to the individual to access whatever wisdom they have been able to cultivate prior to the situation at hand in an effort to mollify, counteract, assuage, sublimate, alter, or accept said crisis/challenge/dilemma. It is not easy, but there is really no responsible and acceptable alternative, I don’t think.
It is not easy; some would say that nothing worth having is. “In seeking wisdom, thou art wise; in imagining that thou hast attained it, thou art a fool” noted Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai centuries ago. Little on this score has changed since. One of the most distinguished psychological researchers of the subject, Paul B. Baltes, didn’t seem to find a parsimony and elegance as he described it thusly: “…to counteract fragmentation of bodies of knowledge, the wisdom heuristic functions as an organizing selector and activator of otherwise more independent bodies of knowledge about the means and ends of a good life.” Complex and elusive as it may be, I believe it is one of humanity’s highest aspirations. From the Old Testament on, it has been rightly shown to be one of the most fruitful and valueable uses of humankind’s time, energy, and suffering. It is a good of unparalleled proportions.
Let me share one an example of how nuanced, multifaceted, and even paradoxical wisdom can be (or is). One can see, I think, why the following is true not only of ethics, but wisdom, too: “If moral behavior were simply following rules, we could program a computer to be moral” (Samuel P. Ginder). Take the two following quotations; you will probably see that they are both “correct” in one sense of the word. Just like courage andserenity are both valid, useful, and real values, it is only wisdom which can possibly lead us to a determination of which is ideal in a given situation, and to what extent. First example:
“We should hope that a wise person would have epistemic self-confidence, appreciate that she is wise, and share what she knows with the rest of us who could benefit from her wisdom. Thus, the belief that one is not wise is not necessary for wisdom.”There, Sharon Ryan is suggesting that in fact, a belief that one does not possess wisdom is not necessary to be wise. This flies in the face of the ancient Socratic idea exemplified by the following quote:
“Socrates, in a classic example of Socratic irony, had to admit that he did not know what wisdom was – which was precisely why the Oracle at Delphi pronounced him the wisest in all of Athens” (philosopher Gary E. Kessler).
This is heady stuff! Such complexity echoes Ralph Willis astutely quipping, “When has justice ever been as simple as a rule book?”
One more example, painfully, frighteningly contemporary. Take this synopsis from The Week of a Washington Post story:
President Trump on Thursday stepped up his criticism of Baltimore and other diverse cities he said were run by Democrats who “deliver poverty for their constituents and privilege for themselves.” Trump, speaking at a rally in the swing state of Ohio, said federal funding sent to these cities was “stolen money and it’s wasted money, and it’s a shame.” Trump has previously singled out Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the African-American chair of a House committee investigating the Trump administration, and his majority-black Baltimore-area district, prompting allegations of racism from Democrats. This time he didn’t mention any lawmakers by name. “We can name one after another, but I won’t do that, because I don’t want to be controversial,” Trump said.
How can wisdom be brought to bear on this? Take it step by step.
First of all, you have to believe that the news is possibly, frequently, to some degree, true. Trump denies this.
Second, look at the phrase, We can name one after another, but I won’t do that, because I don’t want to be controversial. Ask yourself if that is true, or a lie. It’s a lie; facts indicate that he relishes being controversial. Daily.
So then, next, ask: Why he would lie in this case. What was the point of that lie? What does he seek to gain from doing so? How does this compare to the purposes of his previous lies?
Fourth, ask how often he lies. Some say well over 10,000 times. Wonder why a man would be so wantonly immoral, so utterly lacking in character. Think about human nature, and clinical psychology.
Then ask what it means if the president of the United States is a serial liar, a con man, a narcissist.
Ponder how Trump ascended to office; ask who knew about this, who assisted him; ask what vulnerabilities existed in our system that permitted this outrage – in the country founded by George Washington! Follow the money, think about the nature of a decaying Republic. Go to Rome in your head.
Theorize and conjecture about politics in general. Bring up some of what you know about Aristotle, Montaigne, La Rochefoucould, Cicero, Solon, Thomas Paine, and Jefferson. If you don’t know much about these important historical characters, set out to learn about them. Knowledge has much to do with setting the foundation solid on which wisdom can flourish.
Wonder about the future of the country. Ponder the nature of ethics. Consider the last time you lied, and why, and how it is going with that lie.
Ask what you can do about Trump, white nationalism, the decay of the institutions in this country (if American), such as the system of voting, the media, partisan politics, and civic engagement. Think about why some people are so ignorant and why many, lately, have been taking to violent means of acting out their isolation, their anger, their self-loathing, their dysfunctional childhoods.
Ask if there is a God, and if so, what his plan is in facilitating or allowing a man such as Trump to ascend to the throne, accompanied by his minions that make up the wanton GOP in Congress. You will either arrive at a soporific and sophomoric conclusion, or one that ushers in a sense of existential angst.
Finally, feel sad; feel deflated; feel confused; feel impotent. Miss the way you felt at times when you were growing up; lament where we are now. Feel someone isolated, dispirited. Then ask what you can do with those feelings that don’t lead to violence, hate, helplessness, and depression.
Reflect proudly upon yourself for not ignoring, distracting, or drinking yourself to the point that you are convinced that none of this makes any difference in your life.
No one said living life was easy. “There is only one philosophical question, and that is suicide” the noted existentialist Albert Camus pointed out almost a century ago. The question relevant to this book is how we can best cope with the awesome challenges this world and our wonderful and awful species homo sapiens is saddled with. If we aren’t going to commit suicide or shoot up a school, we will have to face the high challenges, the overwhelming feelings, the frightening nature of existence. But from there springs hope eternal. Existentialism is meant to usher in a mental freedom, a feeling of opportunity and unboundedness. We all have the freedom, and the responsibility, to choose how and why we will stay on the planet.
What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? ~ Mary Oliver
Sometimes, however, I read a story, watch a movie, listen to a song, or every once in a blue moon, I have an experience that I would consider deeply meaningful, perhaps bordering on sacred; I feel reverence, gratitude, or awe about it. Remember the awesome scene in that wonderful movie American Beauty, the one in which the boy showed his girl “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed?” Get a Kleenex and watch the three-minute-long clip HERE.
That extraordinary positivity exists at the same time that I also have the doubt-filled, skeptical, agnostic, existential view of the world I characterized above. That duality, nuance, and complexity is part of the beauty of wisdom; it is as true of my mind as it is about the nature of the universe. The human mind is indeed amazing, just as an aside; consider that the brain is not synonymous with the mind; it is but a piece of meat. Philosophers and scientists have been marveling about this mind-brain relationship for ages.
I’m not going to go so far intellectually as to claim that it is “True” that there is a god or are gods who exist and know everything and make changes in the natural evolution of our species, the planets, etc. It’s just a bridge too far for me, personally.
I will say though that sometimes you get we feeling that something amazinghas happened to us; call it synchronicity (like both Carl Jung and Sting did); call it grace or startling, unlikely coincidence. The typical reaction is that of wonder. And “philosophy begins in wonder”, Plato discovered. So perhaps when we cry, when we love, when we are surprised, or when we celebrate, to name just a few experiences, something very special is indeed going on that transcends the existential and vacuous view of the nature of the universe. If so, that shines light on why wisdom is so special.
Wisdom recognizes things that can easily be overlooked; wisdom “sees” deeply into the nature of things and perceives values, significance, and wonder; wisdom is a rigorously efficient perception of reality. It transcends sense perception, routine cognition, and mere feelings.
Reality may indeed be marked by a godless universe in which human beings are alone and must try their best to survive, thrive, and find reasons daily to remain alive. Or, we may inhabit a world filled with subtle and amazing grace – and the awful outcomes that inevitably result from a god that can’t or won’t stop what humans perceive to be evil. Either would be amazing in and of themselves, and wisdom is the best apparatus (quality? character? perceptual ability? attribute? virtue?) to apprehend the true state of affairs. To sum up, either we are descended from single-celled organisms billions of years old that occurred by chance on a random planet in a vast, silent universe, or we have had the breath of God breathed into our souls and were created per se. Either possibility has the power to make one’s heart race with astonishment if one really, truly reflects on it.
However, the true beauty and power of wisdom can be glimpsed when one understands the fact that both possibilities can be perceived, and felt deep in our emotional brain, bringing a sense of paradox and an appreciation of a fierce complexity to the individual in touch with it. The questions we human beings ask are only multiplied in significance, merit, and profundity when one realizes that paradoxes, parallaxes¹, passion, and the power of perception all exist.
This is a deeply fascinating existence we human beings experience. Author Jan Phillips notes that “the ability to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously is not just a matter of true genius; it is a matter of true freedom.” As well, the noted physicist Wolfgang Pauli indicated that “the only acceptable point of view appears to be the one that recognizes both sides of reality – the quantitative and the qualitative, the physical and the psychical – as compatible with each other, and can embrace them simultaneously.” I believe that wisdom is as fair an interpretation of this view of genius as is intelligence. Each of us, at one time or another – and for some of us many times in life – glimpse the extremely complex nature of reality with/via/through one of humanity’s highest aspirations: wisdom.
Humans have come a long way since an apparent ancestor of human beings, “Lucy”, the world’s most famous specimen of Australopithecus afarensis, walked upright on the savannah in East Africa (3.2 million years ago). That is thirty-two thousand centuries humanity has been developing. Think about how long our hominid evolution has been occurring; Socrates was only theorizing and thinking and pestering his fellow Athenians twenty-five centuries ago. We Homo sapienshave certainly created a remarkable civilization – both for its discovery, invention, progress, and its depravity, absurdity, and horror. When one reflects on the fact that as I write, there were two mass shootings in 24 hours; on the other hand, the story of “Sixty-Six Garage” demonstrates (arguably) our unparalleled capacity to do good, be helpful, and care.
This book is an attempt to synthesize a few of the most pertinent modern books on the subject, to feather in a number of insights and opinions of mine, and to enlighten with an inspirational array of quotations about wisdom from many individuals throughout the ages. It is my hope that not only will I come to know this somewhat elusive and rarefied topic as I meld my research with my writing, but that you, too, will gain a greater appreciation for the potential, the power, and the payoff of wisdom.
It’s not rocket science, as they say. The more one thinks about it, and tries to implement in one’s life, like any skill or virtue, the easier it will be. Aristotle noted that character is built by repetitive approximations in real time; make a habit out of it, essentially. The more one practices and internalizes it, the easier it will be to actualize it. This may be why we have memories (or have heard of the proverbial) grandpa or grandma, rabbi or priest, sage or mystic, cutting through the fog to the very essence of a problem, dilemma, or challenge. They were, to a greater or lesser degree, pursuing and attempting to actualize wisdom in dealing with life.
Each and every of us have much to learn from “the wise.” They have been teaching and sacrificing and suffering for, arguably, 2,500 years; let us try to make gains in how we hear them during this tumultuous and pivotal time in humanity’s existence. “Goodness can be taught. And it can be conveyed. Any culture that wants to survive and thrive had better get the message”, noted philosopher and author Tom V. Morris counsels.The wise have much to teach, but just as the citizens of Athens voted to execute Socrates in 379 B.C.E., today we seem to suffer from an appalling lack of wise individuals – or at least, there is a paucity of wise persons who have their voices heard above the din and the distraction and the depravity. We seem to do so little nowadays to cultivate wisdom in the young, and as the acclaimed poet Alexander Pope noted, “As the twig is bent, the tree is inclined.” Too many children are growing up to be largely selfish, ignorant, socially isolated, incompetent, and unwise.
Philosophy has been likened to looking for a purple bullfinch in a lilac tree by poet T. S. Eliot; that is, looking for something lavender in a sea of lavender. True to form, an equally impressive thinker says much the opposite: “Philosophy will clip an angel’s wings/ Conquer all mysteries by rule and line/ Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine/ Unweave a rainbow.” Indeed, most people either don’t know what they think about philosophy, or they don’t much like it. It is usually the butt of jokes capitalists make when they jest about the least worthwhile college majors for students to declare.
It has been a challenge since before the time of Confucius to try to figure out what this place is, why we are here, and how to live. The problems of existence, of knowledge, of conduct are challenging even for professional philosophers. Be that as it may, philosophy – the love of wisdom– is the best-suited discipline/process/tool we have – I would argue far and away more potent than either theology or the hard sciences. It can form a powerful braid with the social sciences to enlighten us from our otherwise benighted existence (especially, I think, psychology – from the ancient Greek for “the study of the soul”). None of this is for the faint of heart, I admit. But do not despair! I believe there is no truer, better method of apprehending ourselves and the world around us than to think about it in a persistent, insightful, disciplined way. That is what “loving wisdom” is about, and as they say, “the Truth shall set you free.” Ω
I will end with a few of the most wonderful quotations about wisdom I have come across in my 25 years of appreciating them.
“Great is wisdom; infinite is the value of wisdom. It cannot be exaggerated; it is the highest achievement of man.” ~ Thomas Carlyle
“As both Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas insisted, wisdom is to be contrasted with cleverness because cleverness is the ability to take right steps to any end, whereas wisdom is related only to good ends.”
“Those who are virtuous are wise; those who are wise are good; and those who are good are happy.” ~ Anicius
“Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt– particularly one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas, one’s axioms.” ~ Will Durant
“You have no choice about the necessity to integrate your observations, your experiences, your knowledge into abstract ideas, i.e., into principles. Your only choice is whether these principles are true or false, whether they represent your conscious, rational conviction — or a grab-bag of notions snatched at random, whose sources, validity, context and consequences you do not know….”
“I have learned silence from the talkative, toleration from the intolerant, and kindness from the unkind; yet strange, I am ungrateful to these teachers.”
“I will be the first to confess that I have not always lived a life that incorporates the values that Socrates recommended. Nor have I been as compassionate as I should, and have too often turned away from the demands justice requires. These are the values for which I strive. [But, that relative failure]…is an opportunity for exercising my freedom to choose, my ability to rationally and critically examine cherished beliefs, and my capacity for self-transcendence.”
“Wisdom is the reward you get for a lifetime of listening when you’d have preferred to talk.”
“…the human brain is certainly the most complicated organ in the body, and it may be the most complicated device on earth, or perhaps even in the universe. Only during the past ten to twenty years has it begun to give up some of the secrets about its near-miraculous activities and abilities.”
“Think not of your cherished memories as a sunset, now long-faded; know that your special experiences from decades ago are words etched deep in an immovable piece of granite, permanent, and always within sight.”
¹ Look on this page, scroll down to the section entitled “As a Metaphor”