This blog is third in a series of three blogs which feature wisdom quotes and words of wisdom from the very capable author of Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience, Stephen S. Hall. He is a science writer for magazines like TNew York Magazine and Scientific American. In this dense yet fascinating book, Hall gives the reader a look into the origin, nature, and scientific findings about wisdom. It is an integrative and enlightening book. I researched it thoroughly, and pulled out many of the best and most succinct wisdom quotes it has to offer. As a proponent of the research ideal, philosophical thinker, and voracious reader, I found the book quite entertaining.
Note: unattributed quotations are those of the author, Stephen S. Hall, but when he quotes a scientist, philosopher, or historical figure saying something I feel is apt or adroit, I record those, too.
Without further ado, a wonderful selection of the wonderful words of wisdom from Stephen S. Hall‘s book, Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience.
To some modern psychologists, the humility that comes with limitations is the ultimate distillation and definition of wisdom. In an extended 1990 essay on this theme, John A. Meacham argued that “the essence of wisdom is to hold the attitude that knowledge is fallible and to strive for a balance between knowing and doubting.” Like many others, Meacham draws a sharp distinction between mere factual knowledge and true wisdom.
To be wise is not to know particular facts but to know without excessive confidence or excessive cautiousness. Wisdom is thus not a belief, a value, a set of facts, a corpus of knowledge or information in some specialized area, or a set of special abilities or skills. Wisdom is an attitude taken by persons toward the beliefs, values, knowledge, information, abilities, and skills that are held, a tendency to doubt that these are necessarily true or valid and to doubt that they are an exhaustive set of those things that could be known. ~ John A. Meacham
In a study published nearly twenty-five years ago, Sternberg noted that sagacity refers to a suite of behaviors we typically associate with humility: considering advice, learning from other people, admitting mistakes, reflecting often, being a good listener, and acknowledging multiple perspectives on an issue.
Like wisdom itself, genuine humility is seemingly so universal that we recognize it, both instantly and gratefully, whenever we see it — especially in the public arena, where its absence is so conspicuous. That is where the humility of Gandhi, and the enormous spiritual strength it subserves, silently reprimands all of us for the triviality of individual self-importance, “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency,” he wrote in 1929. “Man is a social being. Without inter-relation with society he cannot realize his oneness with the universe or suppress his egotism… Dependence on society teaches him the lesson of humanity.”
It isn’t that Lincoln humbly downplayed the significance of one of the greatest pieces of political oratory in history; there is nothing strategic about this remark, other than its artful redirection of attention, and gratitude, to where it belongs. The deceptively simple syntax of this complex sentence is other-centered, flowing from the egoless, nonroyal “we” (there’s no I, me, my, mine, or myself in this CEO’s vocabulary) to “they”: “what they did here.” The directional arrow of Lincoln’s regard is outward; the humility is genuine.
The genius of true humility, and its arterial attachment to wisdom, is in understanding the context of the moment, understanding one’s audience, and, at the same time, misunderstanding (perhaps deliberately) one’s own greatness.
Altruism is a distinctly social (and biologically paradoxical) aspect of wisdom. It is, as Gandhi suggests, personal morality writ large across a society, a selfless and at times self-sacrificing devotion to a greater good, whether the social unit is a crowd, a hive, a community, an institution, or a nation. It heeds the higher call of social justice…
In the book of life that is biblical literature, wisdom and social justice form their own double helix, passed down from generation to generation in self-replicating moral tales. Even though Solomon’s wisdom is divine and therefore ultimately derivative, it provides a kind of behavioral blueprint for clarity in social decision making.
Ernst Fehr, a Swiss economist and behavioral scientist at the Institute for Empirical Research in Economics at the University of Zurich, believes this innate discernment of what is fair, and how to enforce social justice within a group — the exercise of communal wisdom, if you will— must have evolved very early in the prehistory of the human race. In fact, he believes it is so central to social cooperation that it emerged earlier than language, and may have been even more important than language in shaping the earliest human expression of social wisdom.
Put crudely, this is the brain’s way of saying that social cooperation provides the same kind of neural kick as sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Who knew? What makes the dopamine connection to altruism truly fascinating is how intrinsically social, how “up close and personal,” cooperation needs to be to set off fireworks in the brain’s reward circuitry.
Altruism calls upon a diverse suite of cognitive and emotional skills: discerning the fundamental unfairness of a situation; understanding the value of cooperation; having the courage to defy one’s own immediate self-interest, with the aim of achieving a larger goal: and having the patience sot wait for the rewards of that larger goal to materialize. All those skills reflect neural processes in the brain…
In order for a society to function cooperatively, be it a hunter-gatherer tribe or a nation-state, its members or leaders must sanction those who break the rules. Fairness is the crucial litmus test.
A key element of the enforcement of many social norms, such as food-sharing norms in hunter-gatherer societies, is that people punish norm violators not for what they did to the punisher but for what they did to others. ~ Urs Fischbacher
When people engage in altruistic punishment, the same part of the brain that becomes aroused by cooperation (the reward center of the dorsal striatum) turns on as we’re being punitive. We get a neural kick from both cooperation andpunishment.
On involves the tension between the greater food for the many (or utilitarianism, as articulated by John Stuart Mill), and the supreme rights of each person (or deontology, as the philosopher John Rawls argued). The other debate concerns whether our sense of justice is rooted in reason, as argued so exhaustively by Kant and Rawls, or in the kind of moral sentimentalism that the young Adam Smith proposed bore than two centuries ago (readers will recall from the chapter on moral judgement that this is the same difference as in the debate between reason and emotion in moral decisions.
More broadly, our results support the Kantian and Rawlsian intuition that justice is rooted in a sense of fairness; yet contrary to Kant and Rawls, such a sense is not the product of applying a rational deontological principle but rather results from emotional processing, providing suggestive evidence for moral sentimentalism. ~ Minh Hsu, Cedric Anen, Steven R. Quartz
The good news: There is a wisdom in this collective decision to choose a system rooted in altruistic cooperation (and punishment). The bad news: Greed and free riding essentially ruined on society (sound familiar?) until collective wisdom kicked in. The stakes could hardly be larger in the non-make-believe world in which we live. Anthropologist Joseph Henrich has pointed out that “the puzzle of cooperation in large groups” bears on everything from dealing with global climate change and valor in combat to voting in elections and donating blood.” “Such cooperative dilemmas, or ‘public goods’ problems, involve situations in which individuals incur a cost to create a benefit for the group… The dilemma arises from free-riders who enjoy the group benefits created by the contributions of others without paying the costs.” And, as he points out, social cooperation can collapse if the cheaters proliferate too much.
If we are evolutionarily endowed with the ability to discern fair from unfair, and derive deep biological satisfaction from both altruism and altruistic punishment, why don’t we see more evidence of altruistic wisdom around? Why don’t we leverage these basic biological impulses for fairness and for public goods into much greater and long-lasting acts of social and political cooperation? The story of Solomon’s wisdom offers a sobering valedictory on this point, too.
God decides to punish Solomon for behaviors that anyone (except perhaps a libertarian or neoclassical economist) would recognize as self-interest run amok: He has become an acquisitive, lustful, and arrogant tyrant who flouts the rules. Solomon the wise has become Solomon the free rider; God finally lowers the boom. And what form does the punishment take? It is not Solomon who suffers directly, but his kinshipgroup.
The Odysseypresents the original case study for a lot of modern psychological, and, surprisingly, microeconomic thinking about the nature of patience, impulse control, and the daily struggle inside the human mind to make the right and prudent choice about the future when immediate temptations threaten to divert us from our best destination.
“Self-control,” George Ainslie was saying, “is really the art of making the future bigger.” He was talking about how Odysseus had to frame the problem of the Sirens in the marketplace of the mind, where immediate and future interests vie for supremacy. The idea of getting home has to pull on his mind, and estimating the value of that future — a value that we conjure or cognitively coddle or simply make up — is what the will does to tip the balance against impulse. Ainslie describes this process as “constructing your idea of your character, your idea of heaven, your idea of simply the moral life, the kind of person you insist on being in the long run. And that entity, that interest, exists in the marketplace, and fights off the Sirens. Wisdom isn’t just an insight,” he said. “It is a budgetary skill. Ulysses’ wisdom is not just knowing he’s better off not sailing onto the rocks; it is his knowing what to do about the chance that he willsail onto the rocks.”
A clutch of familiar clichés flutters like moths around the flame of impatience: “the patient ant,” “bird in hand,” “haste makes waste,” “hold your horses.” All these expressions derive their moral justice from the tension inherent in decisions that force us to choose between a reward right in front of us (the bird in hand) and one that is larger, sometimes theoretical, and always in the future (two in the bush).
Their working hypothesis was that short-run impatience would be driven by the part of the brain rooted in emotion, which is more sensitive to immediate rewards and less sensitive to future rewards, while long-term patience would be controlled by the lateral prefrontal cortex and similar forebrain structures, which are better able to weigh the value of abstract rewards, including rewards in the future.
If you understand that, if you “bundle” the next cigarette or the next drink with the desire for who you want to be in the more distant future, you have a choice of overriding the immediate desire. Every time you forgive yourself by saying, Just this one time, you are sabotaging your future self. Every time you give in to impulse, you subtly erode your chances of becoming the person you hoped to be in the future. Every time you bet against your future self, you increase the odds of repeating the regrettable behavior again and again and again.
Wisdom as it applies to self-control is really the awareness that what you do now predicts your future. ~ George Ainslie
Whoever cannot seek the unforeseen sees nothing, for the known way is an impasse. ~ Heraclitus
When history repeats itself, in other words, the model-based neurological approach to processing information and dealing with a problem is superior — indeed, not only contributes to efficient and correct decision making that might be considered wise but, in certain situations of threat, is probably lifesaving. When historydoesn’t repeat itself, and you need to adapt to a different set of circumstances, the wise course of neural action is to be flexible, drop the embrace of old rules (and old habits), and reevaluate all the information.
A Grandmaster makes the best move because they are based on what he wants the board to look like ten or twenty moves in the future. This doesn’t require the calculation of countless twenty-move variations. He evaluates where his fortunes lie in the position and establishes objectives. Then he works out the step-by-step moves to accomplish those aims. ~ Gary Kasparov
Real life is not confined to a chess board; it is not symmetrical and neat; it does not always reward boldness and aggression; it does not forbid a new piece from flying in out of left field. Sometimes the rules change abruptly and without warning. Sometimes the situation looks deceptively similar to a previous scenario but isn’t. Sometimes you are absolutely certain about something, but you turn out to be absolutely wrong.
Altruism lies at the heart of Confucian notions of goodness. Indeed, it lies at its semantic heart. D.C. Lau, a Chines scholar who has translated the writings of Mencius, a disciple of Confucius, makes the point thatgen— the central concept, the mother word of the Confucian Way — has multiple meanings in English: not just goodness, as it is usually translated, but also benevolence, human-heartedness, love, humanity, and, yes, altruism.
Throughout most of its history, mainstream economics has relied on the simplifying assumption that material self-interest is the solemotivation of all people, and terms such as “other-regarding preferences” were simply not part of economists’ vocabulary. ~ Ernst Fehr
Altruism, in its simplest rendering, is the antithesis of selfishness. It can be a form of selflessness in an interaction with another person, or it can reflect behavior that promotes the welfare of an entire group. Scientists concede that there are, in fact, many complicated motivations for altruistic behavior, and not all of them are flattering; they range from selflessness to heightened compassion to a desire to burnish one’s reputation. But there also seems to be an innate human desire to cooperate.
Solomon’s descent into terminal foolishness is also a story about the perishability of wisdom, the impermanence of altruism, the importance of humility in sustain both, and, ultimately, the constant, daily, life-long, almost inhuman effort required to muster goodness (gen) or, as economists put it, other-regarding behavior. We tend to regard wisdom as an armchair activity, but the ancient sages recognized how much relentless effort it requires.
A higher level of understanding, almost an intuition, of knowing when experience should guide decisions and when you have to throw out the experiential playbook and literally do a rethink. In this highly specialized form of understanding, you would have an intuitive feel for knowing which decision-making system served you best. In other words, wisdom is not simply a matter of knowing the best answer to a problem or dilemma; it is a matter of knowing the best approachfor finding the best answer.
On the brambled path to worldly wisdom, declarations of certainty often meet hidden patches of quicksand along the way, and even the most imposing intellects stumble into these traps.
Adjusting to the unbearable persistence of uncertainty may be one of the loftiest accomplishments of human wisdom
Repeatedly, dwell on the swiftness of the passage and departure of things that are and of things that come to be. For substance is like a river in perpetual flux, its activities are in continuous changes, and its causes in myriad varieties, and there is scarce anything which stands still, even what is near at hand; dwell, too, on the infinite gulf of the past and the future, in which all things vanish away. Then how is he not a fool who in all this is puffed up or distressed or takes it hard, as if he were in some lasting scene, which has troubled him for long. ~ Marcus Aurelius
“Meta-wisdom” is an idea that lies at the heart of complex judgment and decision making. How do we assess the information we’ve learned (from book learning, from work experience, from episodes of heartbreak and savvy), and how do we distinguish a novel, uncertain set of circumstances from a standard situation where resolution lies in past experience? Put simply, how do we deal with uncertainty and still make the right decision?
In One Minute to Midnight, a harrowing historical retelling of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Michal Dobbs documents a series of peripheral decision points that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. A general theme of recent popular accounts of neuroscience has been to extol the “wisdom” of the emotional brain, but my initial reaction after reading Dobbs’ account was, “Thank God for the prefrontal cortex.”
Balance is a persistent theme in the literature of wisdom. The Buddha counsels it, and Confucius made the point that too much is just as bad as not enough. One of the qualities Marcus Aurelius most admired about his father was his (appropriately enough) horsemanship — specifically ‘the experience that knew where to tighten the rein, where to relax.’ Is there a neurological version of balance, of an Aurelian feel for what to do?
…we need to be open-minded, in the metaphoric but also neural sense. Since emotions are instantaneous and automatic (for very good evolutionary reasons), they also tend to be closed; they sometimes foreclose potential routes of information acquisition. Emotion always assumes the amount of knowledge in hand is adequate to govern a decision, even when it may not be.
The one thing all these interventions have in common, however, is effort: to attend therapy, to meditate, to enlarge compassion, to change habit and outlook. Surely wisdom, of all strains of human excellence, does not come easily and without effort.
The idea of meta-wisdom is really an invitation to reframe, to step back and reassess a vexing situation from top to bottom. This process probably involves a reconsideration of our working knowledge and a commitment to acquire new information, however unsettling it might be, which thus implicates courage; it obliges us to mine different shafts of memory; it forces us to reevaluate all this intelligence and fact-finding and feeling in the face of uncertainty; and it encourages us to acknowledge the fact that context, the frame around the problem, is crucial. In short, meta-wisdom is an invitation, an imperative, to deliberate.
In any human dilemma worthy of the name, and worthy of wisdom, old knowledge or experience almost certainly needs to be reevaluated in light of a new situation. Our default neural setting is traditions and habit; our more adaptive responses probably lie in breaks from tradition and habit. Getting to that adaptive response requires new information, cultural clues, psychological flexibility, and yes, deliberation.
The advice of the old is like the winter sun: it sheds light but does not warm us. ~ French proverb
Hindsight is easy, buy any decision we make — in the neurological as well as the wisdom sense — is only as good as what we ultimately value, what we understand to be most important. It’s hard to imagine how the brain finds a common scale to measure the relative value of time spent with loved ones versus that devoted to building a secure retirement account, and yet we are forced to make these judgments almost every day. It’s a reminder that, although Homo economicusinsists by definition on a narrow and material definition of “preference,” Homo sapiensultimately juggles a much more complicated set of values.
As George Ainslie wrote in Breakdown of Will, “The irony of smart people doing stupid things — or having to outsmart themselves in order not to — appears in literature again and again.” And the key to overcoming the pressing urgency of immediate gratification requires the strength of which Saint Augustine often spoke: willpower. As Ainslie puts it, “It usually takes some kind of effort (willpower again) to evaluate a smaller present satisfaction as less desirable than a greater one in the future.” When I spoke with Ainslie, he was not shy at all about linking the control of impulsivity to wisdom. “I would say the main purpose of wisdom,” he said, “is to govern the will.”
Happy are those who find wisdom, and those who get understanding, for her income is better than silver, and her revenue better than gold. ~ Proverbs 3:13-14
What I have learned from my own experiences is that the genetic and environmental factors that contribute to such talents as creativity are too complex for us to currently predict. In the absence of such wisdom, our only course is to provide all of our children with ample opportunity to pursue their passions and their dreams. ~ Mario Capecchi
A number of psychologists who have dared to tackle the subject have been struck by the connection between wisdom and adversity. The resulting resilience, this ability to persist in the face of emotional challenge, this capacity for coping with the inevitable upsets and sorrows that life throws at us….
Beginning in 1984, Paul Baltes and his colleagues at the Max Plank Institute for Human Development tried to identify common features in the backgrounds of people who had scored above-average ratings on the Berlin team’s various wisdom measurements. Two surprising insights emerged from this research. First, the seeds of wisdom appeared to be planted much earlier in life than during mature adulthood… Second, wisdom often grew out of an exposure to adversity early in life.
In his valedictory work on wisdom, Paul Baltes attributed the acquisition of wisdom to a variety of factors — general intelligence and education, early exposure to meaningful mentors, cultural influences, and the lifelong accumulation of experience, which is the centerpiece of developmental psychology. But he, too, acknowledged the central importance of emotional intelligence.
Adversity early in life is an apprenticeship for old age. There seems to be a seed of wisdom in people. The people who were wise in mid-life and old age, they were already other-centered in their youth. If you have that seed of wisdom, it’s easier for wisdom to bloom. But it doesn’t happen automatically. ~ Monika Ardelt and George Vaillant
This kind of research is not only important but indispensable, because ethical concerns and practical limitations obviously restrict opportunities to study stress exposure in human children. However, it is precisely these kinds of studies that may provide clues about the way our neural plumbing processes adversity at various stages in our physical and psychological development.
Emotional regulation — the ability to modulate emotional responses and stay even-keeled in the face of conflict or stress — has emerged as a key coping mechanism in older adults. That’s not to say that this capacity is inevitably and only shaped by early-life events; it does suggest, however, that the emotional circuitry of the primate brain can be re-engineered by early experience, so that this aspect of wisdom can, in some cases, legitimately claim very early roots.
A depressingly deep psychological literature makes clear that early stresses in human life can trigger a textbook’s worth of human pathology; resilience is a puzzle precisely because some people gain strength from these early challenges, while others seem permanently harmed by them. There is also good, but possibly conflicting, evidence that the quality of maternal care during early postnatal development can be an important buffer against early stress, too.
Some theorists argue, however, that natural selection might care about cultivating a neural mechanism that could modulate and, in a sense, master the emotional experience of risk. Whether this mastery is partly acquired early in life, as the stress-inoculation research suggests, or later in life, the end result is an enhanced form of emotional regulation that would clearly confer adaptive power on anyone who possesses it.
We’re a long, long way from prescriptive remedies like “The Ten-Week Wisdom Curriculum! Do it at home in your spare time!” but lurking just beneath the surface of this research — as well as beneath the work on compassion, attention, and delayed gratification — is the notion that some sort of practice, some kind of proactive and systematic mental training, has the potential to change the way our minds handle the challenges of adversity.
The suggestion that adversity early in life can vaccinate us from later stresses and help us become more emotionally resilient is a powerfully counterintuitive observation, one that may force us to rethink ideas about how wisdom develops, both in the abstract and in our own lives. And the provocative idea that wisdom might even be cultivated begins to change the cultural perception of the entire topic.
In Book I of the Meditation, Marcus Aurelius laid out the beautiful genealogy of his personal values, which the worlds of both literature and philosophy have rightly judged to be exceptionally wise: from his grandfather, “the lessons of noble character and even temper”; from his father, “modesty and manliness”; from his mother “piety and bountifulness.” His serial gratitude goes on for several pages, and subtly makes the point that whatever wisdom we manage to achieve derives from genes, nurture, mentorship, culture, and, perhaps most of all, an openness to the possibility of continual learning and self-improvement.
We are all happier in many ways when we are old than when we are young. The young sow wild oats. The old grow sage. ~ Winston Churchill
Even though older adults suffer those well-known cognitive declines as they enter their sixties and seventies, they nonetheless seem to balance these physiological losses with measurable gains in social knowledge and emotional judgment, which actually increases their problem-solving skills. Adults between the ages of sixty and eighty, according to her [Fredda Blanchard-Fields] research, think more strategically (and successfully) to solve problems, both impersonal intellectual problems and interpersonal social problems, than do young adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-seven.
Prior to the 1980s, the study of mental performance in the aged was a one-way street pointed toward pathology, with only one trajectory (downhill), one destination (senility), and one ending (unhappy). With the advent of life-span developmental psychology, which embraces the entire arc of an individual’s life and views it within the person’s social, cultural, and historical context, the picture became much more nuanced and complex. Pioneering psychologists like James Birren and Paul Baltes started looking for, and finding, mental and cognitive qualities that actually improve as we grow older. Indeed, modern empirical research on wisdom grew out of the realization that age conferred certain emotional and even cognitive advantages.
[Sherwin] Nuland held out modest hope about recent research suggesting that even in advanced age, the brain is able to generate new neurons in the cortical redoubts of greatest cognitive power; he even linked this to wisdom. “Neuroscientists may actually have discovered the source of the wisdom which we like to think we can accumulate with advancing age,” he wrote in 1994. Unfortunately, even more recent research is not quite so cheerful on this point. The part of the brain most vulnerable to the effects of aging happens to be the part most crucial to higher-level decision making, planning, resisting impulses, and exercising patience: the prefrontal cortex.
As far back as the 1980s, the Baltes group in Berlin conducted studies showing that, with some modest training, older people could improve their cognitive performance up to the level of untrainedyounger people (in other words, all things — including training — being equal, younger people, on average, will always outperform older people in certain cognitive task, but older people can significantly rejuvenate their cognitive chops through practice.
Indeed, a cottage industry has grown up around training programs for older adults to maintain their cognitive tone. These cognitive training programs, however, mask an even more fundamentally important message from the research community: Cognitive performance is not just about cognition. Emotion infiltrates and influences virtually every aspect of cognition, including memory, reasoning, and executive function.
Emotional coping mechanisms, Vaillant pointed out, evolve and change over the course of a lifetime, even though people don’t consciously “choose” them. He compiled a hierarchy of these strategies, from less to more successful, and associated some of the more sophisticated defense mechanism with increased emotional maturity and more positive life fulfillment. [George] Vaillant concluded that “a man’s adaptive devices are as important in determining the course of his life as are his heredity, his upbringing, his social position, or his access to psychiatric health.”
Freud realized that these mechanisms are attempts to control instinct and emotion… that they are often unconscious; and, most important, that these behaviors could be adaptive rather than being simply pathological, allowing a person to make healthy adjustments to a constantly changing and conflict-filled world.
There is, in fact, a difference between older and younger adults in their cognitive approach to solving problems — especially problems that are social and emotionally charged. These are precisely the kinds of situations that often demand (however loosely we define it) wise decisions — not in the Socratic sense of abstract ultimate truths, of course, but in the more modest, pragmatic Aristotelian sense of doing the right thing in order to live a good, meaningful life.
If the life-span psychologists are right, if older adults benefit from more sophisticated emotional strategies in their behavior, then older adults may well process decision-making information (and regulate the emotions that affect such decisions) in a significantly different way than young people do. This doesn’t necessarily mean that older is wiser. But it might mean that being older improves your chances of being wiser.
Erik Erikson located the origins of many of the traits we have been talking about — empathy, resilience, humor, humility, intuitive knowledge, altruism, generosity, an appreciation of limits — in earlier stages of life, from infancy through early childhood and adolescence and on through middle age. “What is real wisdom?” Joan Erikson asked at one point in the conversation. “It comes from life experience, well-digested. It’s not what comes from reading great books. When it comes to understanding life, experiential learning is the only worthwhile kind; everything else is hearsay.”
The only thing that can save us as a species is seeing how we’re not thinking about future generations in the way we live. What’s lacking is generativity, a generativity that will promote positive values in the lives of the next generation. Unfortunately, we set the example of greed, wanting a bigger and better everything, with no thought of what will make it a better world for our great-grandchildren. ~ Erik Erikson
If what most men admire, they would despise,/ ‘Twould look as if mankind were growing wise. ~ Benjamin Franklin
Several years ago, the office of undergraduate admissions at Tufts University, in Medford, Massachusetts, began to invite prospective students to submit an optional essay that, unbeknownst to the applicants, offered a window into their potential for creativity, practicality, critical thinking, and wisdom. The questions tend to be whimsical, but with lots of rhetorical room to roam. One year, the question was “What is more interesting: gorillas or guerillas?”
The student essays [for admission to Tufts University] reveal many of the qualities we have been talking about: the ability to put oneself in somebody else’s shoes, the ability to see social needs larger than oneself, the ability to see the big picture, the ability to understand that situations, and truths, change with the passage of time. These abilities, needless to say, are utterly opaque in standardized testing.
What differentiates really great leaders from not so great ones? I looked at people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela — take your own pick — and if you compare them to Stalin and Hitler and Mao, they probably didn’t differ much in IQ. It seemed that what differentiated them was wisdom. ~ Robert J. Sternberg
Howyou use knowledge, of course, acknowledges the importance of paying attention to the greater public good — which, in a sense, is a very old idea, if you accept the evolutionary history of altruism. But [Robert] Sternberg also realized that wisdom represented a state of mind beyond standard metrics of intelligence, and this revelation forced him to see inherent failures in the educational system, in the philosophy of educational testing, and the degree to which narrow measures like IQ tests fail miserably at predicting lifetime satisfaction.
In the Tufts system, teachers are asked to do something that hearkens back to the original Academy of Plato and Lyceum of Aristotle: serve as role models of wisdom. In a Socratic, show-rather-than-tell approach, teachers try to elicit new habits of thoughts in their students: how to balance competing interests in everyday decision-making tasks, how to incorporate one’s moral and ethical values into one’s thought processes….
For me, to work with kids like this [using the “Teaching for Wisdom” curriculum developed by Robert J. Sternberg and colleagues], knowing so much beyond the usual academics, getting kids to think outside the box — it was fantastic. We took some of the basic philosophy of that pilot program and incorporated it into the general curriculum. ~ Marilyn Hamot Ryan
Why is there so little interest among professional educators in the cultivation of wisdom in the intellectual and emotional development of our children? Is it because it is much easier to test for algebra and grammar than for incisive, other-centered thought? Sternberg is adamant in his belief that cultivating wisdom with the public good in mind is critical to the future success of our society as we struggle to deal with issues like global warming, weapons of mass destruction, and social justice. “In the end, wisdom is the only thing that will save us,” he says. “It’s all about doing the right thing.”
To be wise about wisdom we need to accept that wisdom does — and wisdom does not — increase with age. ~ George E. Vaillant
Wisdom in the workplace typically implies two separate, and rather distinct areas of wise behavior. One is the wisdom of corporate decision making and all the things that go into skilled business judgment: knowing what information to use in decision making, creating a culture of knowledge in order to acquire that information in a timely fashion, assessing it in both short- and long-term frameworks, and, of course, reaping the financial rewards that come with such shrewd financial choices.
So the current edition of the business sage is coldly analytical, empirical, willing to learn from mistakes, and able to control — or, as a Buddhist might say, master — the emotions, right? Well, not so fast. The other, less appreciated aspect of corporate skill is social wisdom — a skill that is captured by the obligatory (and usually derisive) designation known as “human relations.”
As in a marriage, it’s not simply what you say in the office, but how you say it, and when, that determines whether the message gets through. And, in the kind of complex and contingent behavior that social wisdom so often demands, wisdom in the workplace sometimes requires the extra effort of treating people differently, as individuals, in order to keep the entire group unified around the greater common goal.
Confucius is the unsung sage of the locker room, the cubicle, anyplace where workers convene. Countless observations in the Analects can be read as a guide to wise, discreet, successful behavior in the workplace; indeed, in his attempts to create a code of proper conduct in a feudal society, Confucius produced a marvelous guide to bureaucratic survival, especially for those in the tiers of middle management. Part of his advice had to do with personal behavior, part with interpersonal relations, but all of it contributed to a sense of the meritocratic, occasionally self-denying, often humble, and always shrewd way of negotiating relations with both bosses and underlings in any hierarchical structure.
A gentleman takes as much trouble to discover what is right as lesser men take to discover what will pay. ~ Confucius
Is compassion compatible with good business? Recent studies suggest (at least prior to the financial crisis) that a bighearted, right-minded, other-centered business may, paradoxical though it might seem, be an excellent sign of a strong, healthy business. Researchers at New York University and the University of Texas recently published a study showing that companies with a higher commitment to charitable giving and philanthropy… consistently ran good businesses.
For most of us, domesticity is a series of unannounced pop quizzes on interpersonal wisdom and social grace — whether we are dealing with partners or soul mates, immediate or extended family; whether we live in a dorm suite or have three generations of kin under one roof. Regardless of the temperature settings on these various relationships, they all require cooperation, flexibility, and, in the jargon of our primate friends, social grooming. So much of wisdom hinges on decisions that involve our relationships with others that almost everything we’ve been talking about in terms of wisdom, neurologically and psychologically, eventually curls back to a discussion of social intelligence.
My little retreat to the garden forced me to call on three qualities crucial to domestic social grooming: emotional regulation, taking the point of view of another, and humility, which is the emotional lubricant necessary to squeeze out those difficult apologies. Keeping an even temper in moments of challenge — or at least retreating to a reliably calm place where it is easier to reset your emotional dial — is obviously key to maintaining emotions on an even keel.
But in a world of ongoing social interaction, as in the serial repetitions of games in game theory, people who insist on winning at all costs, whose self-interest trumps sociality, and whose greed (financial or emotional) exceeds the bounds of fairness end up playing solitaire. A famous Sicilian proverb holds that “the man who plays alone never loses,” but in the social reality most of us experience, it also means he never wins. Apologies are social and emotional loss leaders; they require capitulation, and capitulation is impossible without humility.
I sometimes ruefully admit that being a child is often akin to working for a meddling, demanding, and never-satisfied boss, and it’s very easy for the habit of the relationship to settle into a curt emotional shorthand. The mental discipline and strength required for patience is more wearying than an hour at the gym, yet nothing is more essential to the day-to-day health of a family.
Kings have long Arms, but Misfortune longer: Let none think themselves out of her reach. ~ Benjamin Franklin
In 2008, [David] Brooks wrote a column called “How Voters Think.” This time around, he argued that voters in fact do not make “cold, rational decisions about who to vote for.” Rather, voters make “emotional, intuitive decisions about who we prefer, and then come up with post-hoc rationalizations to explain the choices that were already made beneath conscious awareness.”
Once upon a time, it was not an automatic oxymoron to put the words leader and wise in the same sentence. Solon, one of the Seven Sages of the ancient world, burnished his deserved reputation for political wisdom when he instituted massive reforms in the entire structure of Athenian law — and then shrewdly took a ten-year “leave of absence” (Plutarch’s phrase), so that the “special interests” in ancient Greece could not lobby him for changes. Even in that golden age, the folly of both legislators and voters was painfully apparent. Solon’s friend Anacharsis, Plutarch says, “was amazed to find that in Greece wise men spoke on public affairs, but fools decided them.”
Since liberal democracies are very much the grandchildren of philosophy, the histories of wisdom and politics are deeply intertwined. Indeed, in the view of some, the attainment of wisdom moved from an individual calling prior to the eighteenth century to a grand endeavor of nation-states, fueled by the ideals of both the French and the American revolutions. “The attainment of justice and happiness were to become the art of organizing a just society that delivers happiness to its members through collective justice,” Jean-Francios Revel said.
“Unwisdom” in leadership, in [Barbara] Tuchman’s view, often boils down to a failure of character, a personal estrangement from the virtues we associate with wisdom: a sense of fairness, humility, emotional regulation, deliberation. Hence “wise policy can only be made on the basis of informed, not automatic, judgments.” Lack of self-control is also a feature of unwisdom, with an added gender component: “Government remains the paramount field of unwisdom because it is there that men seek power over others — only to lose it over themselves.
Fitness of character is what government chiefly requires. How that can be discovered, encouraged, and brought into office, I have no idea. ~ Barbara Tuchman
If there is a single message that has emerged from recent cognitive neuroscience, it is that the lightning-quick, emotional response system, while it undoubtedly kept humans alive in the fullness of evolutionary time and plunges us into a bath of invigorating neurotransmitters, often preempts a more deliberative, rational decision-making process. Yet that slower, newer, more rational part of the brain… is essential to foresight, planning, and the kind of delayed emotional reward we associate with enlightened political leadership. If we believe deliberation is useful to wisdom, then just about every tactic in the modern political campaign playbook seems designed to short-circuit (neurologically!) political thoughtfulness.
In the fall of 2007, David M. Amodio of New York University and his colleagues gave us a neurological picture of a political brain steeped in ideology. In brain-scanning experiments, self-described conservatives proved to be more persistent and wedded to habit when confronted with conflict. By comparison, self-described liberals showed greater activity in their dorsal anterior cingulate, a part of the brain that monitors conflicting environmental information, suggesting they were more sensitive to cues in the environment that required a response other than habit.
How good a political guide are our emotions if they prevent us from discerning a politician’s deepening cognitive deficits (or any other serious flaw, for that matter)? Is it any wonder that there are no more statesmen, no more village elders in the world of politics? Not because voters don’t want it; people yearn for political wisdom and guidance. It’s just that a system devoted to honing emotionally charged catchphrases and code words essentially creates a political culture built on a foundation of fear.
So we crave wisdom in the world of business, yet manufacture an economic collapse out of self-interest (greed) and a galling lack of emotional regulation (panic). We understand how important wisdom is to our domestic peace and happiness, yet we can’t break the powerful neural rewards of habit, vanity, self-indulgence, and immediate gratification. We desperately need wise political leadership, yet the enormous economy of politics is bankrolling refinements in appeals to the oldest, most fearful, and most impatient part of our brains.
One of the most dispiriting messages buried in the literature of human wisdom is the observation that there have been times during the course of human civilization when a barbarous, or merely frivolous, historical culture simply made it unwise even to appear to be wise. Socrates died in such a time, Confucius recognized the danger of such times, and Montaigne lamented the implications of such historical moments. The theme common to all these moments is the withdrawal of wisdom.
Nowadays, whenever I pause long enough to step back and think about our frenetic, postmodern, quasi-apocalyptic, multitasking, dual-income, picking-up, dropping-off, stopping-by, hyphenated, bifurcated, emotionally hectic, intellectually overwhelming, economically challenging, and spiritually benumbed lives, I’m always left with a simple question. Is there a place, a realplace, for wisdom in our world?
How convenient, for example, that in Renaissance Italy, coincident with the rise of the great banking families of Florence in the fifteenth century, the most astute scholastic minds decided that a fundamental prerequisite for wisdom was wealth, just as those in our era accepted until recently that greed, in the form of economic self-interest, was a virtue.
And let’s face it: Who in his or her right mind would want the burden of apparent wisdom, given history’s long-running rap sheet against wise men? The role of sage, in any age, deserves hazardous-duty pay. They sentenced Socrates to death and crucified Jesus. Nobody would hire Confucius and nobody could protect Martin Luther King, Jr. They mocked Pericles and despised Churchill and assassinated Gandhi. Even Oprah’s ratings plunged (when she dared to promote the political fortunes of a relatively unknown young man named Barack Obama). If there were actually a wise person in our midst today, she would be dissected, eviscerated, macerated, and ridiculed on cable television and talk radio before we ever had a chance to figure out if she was truly wise or not….
If there is a truism that crosses all cultures, from the genof Confucius to the loving-kindness of Jesus, it is that wisdom does not come easily. To paraphrase Shakespeare’s famous maxim, some of us (a very few) are born wise, some become wise, and some have wisdom thrust upon them. Unlike greatness, however, the demand for wisdom is thrust upon us on a daily basis, in matters momentous and mundane, in settings as private as the bedroom or as public as a jury room.
So why do we hunger so much for something as insubstantial as wisdom? I think it is because humans, unlike all other creatures on Earth, have that second relentless cognitive clock ticking inside their heads, counting down in a covert yet unassailably certain way the hours and minutes of our remaining time on Earth. Just as we literally hunger for food and water to forestall physiological death, we figuratively hunger for wisdom to forestall spiritual and existential death.
It is no coincidence that the cultural stereotype of the sage has always been the old man or the wizened woman; it is precisely that wrinkled demographic that is actuarially “closer to death,” and whose observations and advice thus have the moral authority to command our attention and respect. It is no coincidence that Socrates again and again returned to the liberating effects of death, and to his profound conviction that wisdom flourished in the curious fertilizer of impending mortality, during the thirty days that he contemplated it. Montaigne sounded many variations on the same theme.
As a Stoic philosopher told the young Roman Tullius Marcellinus as he battled a terminal disease, “It is no great thing to live — your valets and animals live — but it is a great thing to die honorably, wisely, and with constancy.” “Wisely, and with constancy?”; What kind of death is that? And why does wisdom cohabit so chummily with death? The answer, of course, is that wisdom informs all the decision we make, momentous and trivial, early in life or late, personal and public, as we strive to conduct our lives in the most meaningful, virtuous, and fulfilling way. We usually don’t get around to that self-assessed scorecard on how we’ve done until, if fortune bestows the luxury of reflection, we are about to lose our lease on life (many, to whom death comes swiftly and unexpectedly, never even have the privilege or burden of conducting that review — all the more reason to keep a constant, running tab.
As we reviewed the event and values of his [Stephen Hall’s father] life, as families do when they lose a loved one, I realized that he embodied, in his typically quiet and modest way, many of the values that form the behavioral foundation of wisdom: immense patience, the fearless aggregation of knowledge, a principled compassion not only for humans but for animals, a moral judgment and sense of fairness that must have been cast in a foundry, and an other-centeredness that allowed all his intellectual energies and emotional resources to be poured into the single most important project in his life, his family. We are culturally conditioned to think of wisdom in Lincolnesque or Solomonic terms, but in terms of day-to-day, lifelong impact, it is hard to imagine a grander achievement on life’s stage than to have been a wise parent.
Death jostles the viewfinder through which we look at life most of the time. If we’re lucky, it slows the clock of our quotidian frenzies long enough for us to glimpse a more distant future, see a more worthy goal, imagine a better self. This pause, this form of framing, is harder than ever to achieve nowadays, because so many of our modern technologies produce “personal” devices that collapse time and manufacture urgency — faster computers, phones that make us perpetually reachable, twitters of constant thoughts, webs of interaction that vastly increase common knowledge, yet somehow deprive us of that apprenticed learning that leads to wisdom.
This digital haze obscures our view of the future and keeps our focus ever more relentlessly on the present, with ever more insistence on speed as a virtue in and of itself. Only the brave, the strong, the mindful, and perhaps the poor (who cannot afford this arsenal of self-absorption) have any chance of resisting the technological pressure to live faster, more in the present, less contemplatively. They at least can legitimately imagine a future that includes their own wisdom.
The earliest philosophers said it all before: Death — its inevitability, its serial visitations to all those around us, ultimately its patient or greedy circling of us — is what sharpens our eye for details about the well-lived life and whets the edges of our hearts and minds as we cleave to decisions and behaviors that aspire to be wise.
If, as the scholars who have studied it most intensely maintain, wisdom is essentially an unattainable ideal, it is one of those illusions — like the power of the human mind to imagine a hopeful future or the power of the human heart to surmount a traumatic past — in which even the residue of failure, which may be all we’re left with at the end of the day, will leave us better off than if we had not dared to be wise in the first place.
As long as there is a biological moment at which we cease to be, and the unique human capacity to ponder the ramifications of that moment, there will always be a hunger for wisdom. The future of wisdom, in that sense, is boundless and eternal.
A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at. ~ Oscar Wilde
Wisdom is too big, too diffuse, and too mysterious for such easy capture; it builds out of what Emerson called “secret currents of might and mind.” Even though those currents bear us to a single and inescapable destination in death, just as every river eventually finds the sea, we get there by an infinite number of different paths created by distinctly unique lives.
Here you will find another blog featuring Stephen S. Hall’s wisdom quotes from Wisdom: From Philosophy to Neuroscience