Philosophy is the love of wisdom – or is it? Is this traditional definition outmoded? Is wisdom an anachronism, an elitist concept deployed by old learned people with nothing of practical value
Our topic this week is wisdom. We hope to figure out both what it is and how we can cultivate it in ourselves and in others. And we’re also eager to think about where all the wise men and women have gone. After all, ours is an age of unparalleled scientific knowledge and technological expertise. But for all of our knowledge and expertise we don’t seem to have an excess of wisdom. Quite the contrary, in fact.
Now once upon a time, especially in the ancient world, philosophers thought a lot about the nature of wisdom. In fact, that was true almost by definition. The two Greek words ‘philo’ and ‘sophia’ from which our word ‘philosophy’ is derived literally mean love of wisdom. I think it would be fair to say that for many Greek philosophers, the pursuit of wisdom was the be all and end all of philosophy
Perhaps no ancient Greek philosopher was more assiduous in his pursuit of wisdom Socrates. He launched a life-long quest for wisdom after being told by the Oracle at Delphi that he was the wisest man in Athens. He couldn’t for the life of him see how the Oracle could be right since even though he hungered for wisdom, he knew he didn’t have it. Of course, there were lots of people in Athens who did regard themselves as wise. And Socrates thought to himself, “Surely, they must really be wise – at any rate, wiser than me.” So in the role of a student, eager to learn from his superiors, he set out to question the wise men of Athens. But he quickly discovered that despite the fact they all professed to be wise, none of them really were. Most of them didn’t actually know anything at all. And that helped Socrates to finally understand what the Oracle had meant. At least he, Socrates, knew one thing -- that he wasn’t wise. That alone gave him a leg up on the self-declared wise men.
To be sure, that’s a paradoxical kind of wisdom. It suggests that being wise is a matter of knowing what you don’t know. But look, I know that although I have my hopes and hunches, I don’t really know who will win the next presidential election. Surely that’s not enough to make me wise. I wouldn’t want to deny that knowing what you don’t know can be the beginning of wisdom. But I rather seriously doubt that any such thing could be the whole of wisdom.
In fact, I don’t think Socrates really intends to be equating wisdom with knowledge of what you don’t know. Not exactly. I think what he is really on about is a kind of epistemic humility. You can’t be wise if you arrogantly over-estimate the power of your own beliefs and judgments. You need to have the humility to listen and learn, to give other voices their due.
Am I 100% sure that that’s what Socrates has in mind? No, not at all. There is, by the way, is a long tradition in Christianity of thinking about wisdom in terms of humility. “When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom.” That’s Proverbs 11:2. According to Christianity, all wisdom ultimately flows from God. The way for a human to be wise is to be attuned to God’s will. Arrogance and pride make us want to substitute mere human wisdom for the real thing. That’s what Adam and Eve did.
Now in its place humility, including epistemic humility, is a certainly good thing. I don’t doubt that. But it seems to me that there’s more to wisdom than humility. Humility is a negative virtue; it tells you what not to do. Wisdom is a positive virtue; it tells you how to live, how to behave, how to feel about things. Think Aristotle, here. For Aristotle wisdom involved a kind know-how, an affirmative skill. Not a narrowly focused skill -- like skill at basketball or skill at marketing -- but a wide-ranging skill at living, at doing the things that are most characteristic of a distinctively human life – things like making decisions and choices, or like regulating your emotional responses. This is what Aristotle called practical wisdom or “Phronesis” to use a fancy Greek word.
Now there seems to me something right about Aristotle’s basic view. Wise people are people who know things -- things that matter -- and who can put that knowledge to good use in practice. But it isn’t entirely clear to me what exactly the wise know that the rest of us schmucks don’t. Is there a formula for becoming wise, the kind of thing that can be written down in a book and made the object of systematic study? If there is such a formula, I haven’t seen it and wish that somebody would just write it down, once and for all, so we can study it and be done with it. But if, as I suspect, there is no formula that can possibly encapsulate what wisdom consists in, then it’s a bit mysterious just what one has to do to become wise. Can we really educate people into wisdom in a systematic way? Or is it just the kind of thing that somehow or other comes with experience. But what kind of experiences? Can we say in advance what you need to do or experience to become wise?
These are, I think, all good questions all. And I very much hope our guest -- Valerie Tiberius, author of The Reflective Life: Living Wisely With Our Limits – can help us find some answers. It would be nice to have your help too. So why don’t you give us a listen, and then give us a call, or write us an e-mail or leave a comment at this blog.