All due respect to Tom Morris, who is an intellectual titan. He wrote this piece in a LinkedIn post. At first I was very excited to repost it as a blog. It had a decent length, and the title – wow! – I figured it had to be good. Well, it wasn’t, exactly. The issue with the post was not that it wasn’t fair for Morris to use that title to draw readers to his works of fiction. I am fully willing to grant that his books are about wisdom in the indirect sense, and like many fantastic and hallmark examples of literature throughout the ages – Tolstoy, Austen, Hemingway, Jong, and tens of thousands of others – we can find much in them to enlighten and move us. Topics and ideas and nuances that shed light on major questions in the philosophical and personal growth realm. Morals, existence, values, wisdom, etc. My issue was simply that he was pointing to his books as examples of art that extol and explore issues such as wisdom. In my blog of the exact same name (hat tip to Dr. Morris), I would like to explore the question in a much broader and deeper way.
If I had to find one, short quote to characterize my perspective and encapsulate what I think about this topic, it would be from the talented author Zora Neale Hurston: “Learning without wisdom is a load of books on a donkey’s back.”
Personal growth, wisdom studies, philosophy and critical thinking – these are my favorite areas in which to think. I believe the question, Can Wisdom Be Found in Books? is an apt and critical one to ask, discuss, and come to conclusions about. This blog is what I believe Tom Morris should have been writing about. I am happy to cut him slack, though, because I know he has written on this topic before, in books and in lectures and the like.
First, let me state that I am a big fan of book learning. I have more books than I can read, or have read. I love sets of books like The Harvard Classics and The Great Books Series because they just seem intrinsically valuable to me. Call me old-fashioned. And though one cannot lazily and unconsciously absorb meaning and wisdom from a remarkable book, literature and quotes are legitimate building blocks of a person’s storehouse of fundamental facts and essential understanding. We must beat back ignorance, custom, and bias whenever possible.
My friend Robert L. Lloyd said the following, and I think it is wonderful and true: “I teach my children that by reading just one book, you may gain 20 years of research and all the knowledge and wisdom that the author picked up along the way.” He also points out that “The eyes see what the mind believes”, which is where I want to turn in this blog. But first:
Below is a hallmark of wisdom I mull over in a different blog, “What is Wisdom?”
A psychologist I went to school with, Barbara Cunningham, responded to the Morris post in this concise and competent way: “Wisdom can be found in books. But it often takes life experience paralleling the insight for the wisdom to resonate in the reader.”
More artfully-worded things have been said throughout the ages, but her statement holds water, I think. She is pointing out that writers of books are people, too. People differ in the amount of wisdom they “possess”, for lack of a better word. At bottom, the wiser the author is, the likelier it is that wisdom will be a thread throughout their novel.
“Without integrity, motivation is dangerous; without motivation, capacity is impotent; without capacity, understanding is limited; without understanding, knowledge is meaningless; without knowledge, experience is blind.”
So, it’s in there. But you can’t create a computer program to determine what the main message of the author is that could be considered an attempt to impart wisdom to the reader. One, wisdom isn’t imparted as much as it is co-created between the author and each reader (an author who may be long-dead, or who might have been thinking of their message somewhat differently from how the reader interprets the message). To use an analogy, the author brings “two” to the table, and the reader brings whatever they bring, and it adds up to “four” or “five” or “six” in the mind of the reader. Thus, novels are more art than science.
Life experiences are the key to wisdom, Barbara claims. I think this is true. There are countless quotes about wisdom along the lines of: “A higher education is not necessarily a guarantee of higher virtue, or higher political wisdom” (Great knowledge sees all in one. Small knowledge breaks down into the many” (
Wisdom is context-dependent, meaning that it never takes place in a vacuum. It lies dead-silent in a book for centuries until a human eye lands upon it. The reason why wise quotes pop out at you when you read them in a book is not that they are obvious to one and all – a partially-developed 10-year-old and a dying, elderly individual alike; we recognize them as pithy and meaningful statements because of the experiences we have had up to that point which cause them to become illuminated as words would be in a 13th-century Christian manuscript.
“Of ten things that annoy us, nine would not be able to do so if we understood them thoroughly in their causes, and therefore knew their necessity and true nature…For what bridle and bit are to an unmanageable horse, the intellect is for the will in man.”
I believe a great quote is amazing not because the gods on high have declared it to be “true,” but because it is found particularly relevant to the way a particular individual at a particular time in a particular place perceives it to be. Thus, wisdom can be found in books, but not the way a dollar bill is found on the street; it is only truly present in the mind of the writer and of the reader. In this way, it is more akin to a gold nugget which is unearthed – only with great effort, care, cunning, and luck by a prospector.
The proverbial wise person is usually what? A very mature, white-haired, quiet type. Though research doesn’t really bear this out, it does illustrate that we think of the young as stumbling their way through life, lacking the wisdom that would be required to temper the steel or leaven the dough of one’s experiences. An older, more perceptive person can better make sense of the world, themselves, values, and so on than the unseasoned. This might also be part of the reason why crimes of passion and ones we consider “stupid” when they hit the newspapers are much more often perpetrated by the young. Unfortunately, age is also associated with cunning and cleverness, which is how you find a Bernie Madoff, a Bill Cosby, or a Donald Trump behaving so horribly, even in their advanced years.
Age simply allows for the foolish to find themselves dead in accidents and suicide, and the wise to reach the highest levels of mental achievement. “Wisdom is not a product of schooling,” Albert Einstein said, “but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.”
Below is an astute perspective on wisdom by famous psychological researchers and founders of the “positive psychology movement,” Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson:
“What distinguishes wisdom? It is a type of intelligence but not one synonymous with IQ, general intelligence, or academic honors. It is knowledge, yes, but not reducible to the mere sum of books read, lectures attended, or facts acquired. Perhaps it has something to do with living through hardship, emerging a better person, able to share what has been learned with others.”
One cannot easily glean wisdom from a quote, a short or long letter, an excellent or a weak novel, or a word of advice from another. The individual has to be prepared to see the wisdom in the stimulus. Show a rat the key to happiness and it will miss it; give a typical person a million dollars and they can’t use it wisely (as much research on lottery winners indicates); provide the setting for enlightenment in the Buddhist sense of the word and the untrained person cannot grasp it. Einstein’s insights would be inaccessible to all but the most dedicated and prepared; existentialism and theology only yield their insights to persons who are experienced and dedicated enough to crack the code.
So I would agree that wisdom can be found in books, but if you cannot program a computer to “find” it, then it’s not really sitting there the way that the words are, or the diction the author possessed, or the plot can be apprehended. Just as a teenage driver is not ready to face the multifarious and random perils of driving on the streets and highways with thousands of other (some distracted, some stupid, some drunk, some angry drivers), a relatively ignorant individual or unmotivated sod cannot grasp the wisdom that is “in” books.
“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. When the student is truly ready, the teacher will disappear” ~ Lao Tzu
I was recently reading something by Dee Hock, the Founder and CEO of Visa, Inc. His books Autobiography of a Restless Mind, Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 are remarkable compilations of wisdom. He subtitles it Reflections on the Human Condition. The quotes within the books are certainly novel, insightful, reflective, incisive, and trenchant. Here are some of the ones most related to finding (creating?) wisdom in one’s life. You can’t get apter than this:
“Poets have only themselves to put into their verses; we have only ourselves to discover in them.”
One can see that these are the almost indescribable kinds of principles and insights that cannot be gained by reading per se, but which are either present in human beings naturally, or which must involve a certain amount of readiness or enlightenment or maturity on the part of the individual before these things become clear to one. One of Hock’s main points in his remarkable books is that technology, society, the mass media, and capitalism have only hampered the search for wisdom, while ironically they may have made knowledge and scientific discovery more attainable. Here is a wonderful example of the kind of quote he really excels at: “In the crucible of commercial corporatism, all sharp-edged people are soon smoothed and rounded into uniformity, or broken apart and ground into dust.”
When it comes to wisdom in books, the Dee Hock quotes that exemplify the subtle and precious nature of wisdom are most insightful and cogent:
“Do not seek to grasp such things as beauty, pleasure, and love. Enjoy them when they come and kiss them as they fly by.”
Science is ever concerned with teaching us to deny in our minds what we feel in our hearts.
“Books are seductive things. All are worth a look and a touch; some, a kiss; others, an affair; the best: marriage and lifelong devotion.”
That which we seek is always within but we spend so much time looking for it elsewhere that it is rarely discovered.
“When we examine our consciousness, it changes. The act of introspection sets everything dancing, and the music is never quite the same.”
We stand on a tiny filament in the web of billions of years of evolution and greedily tear it asunder.
“Science is a machine of unlimited speed and power with no governor or steering mechanism.”
Truth and error are not opposites. The opposite of one truth is often another truth, and the opposite of one error is usually another.
“Man is forever condemned to wander between the true and the false, never fully penetrating either. The best that can be done is to avoid the violence that so often arises from messianic belief in anything.”
The great ideas of past centuries continue to titillate our minds but they no longer touch our hearts. They have become intellectual toys rather than fundamental beliefs. We reason about them but do not live them.
“Knowledge by itself is a means without an end, a sentence without a subject. Knowledge alone can no more produce an equitable, just, peaceful society than a trumpet can compose a symphony or a violin play a musician.”
Dogma has this to recommend it: the believer is isolated from the constant struggle to obtain knowledge, understanding, and wisdom.
“Science asks, What can we know? Practicality asks, What can we do? Morality asks, How shall we behave? Religion asks, What ought we to believe? Wisdom alone is silent.” Ω