Wisdom

23 September 2011

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.   

Comments (16)


Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, September 24, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Listening to your program on

Listening to your program on knowledge. Very frustrating. I decided in my early 20s that PEOPLE were more important than THINGS. I learned about people mostly through fiction.
Another 60 years has just added and added to that idea. That and a built in aversion to the kind of nonsense constantly in front of us through adverstigin.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Saturday, September 24, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

MEDITATION AND PRAYER

MEDITATION AND PRAYER
Meditate every morning to have a beginning moment of consciousness with a cleared mental state. See what your mind looks like in its least active condition.
And pray every evening. Prayer is simply an acknowledgement that there is consciousness outside our own consciousness, to which one can refer in order to better understand stuff. It doesn?t matter, methodologically or epistemologically, if it is an outside consciousness we create or imagine.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, September 24, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Wisdom is one of those

Wisdom is one of those illusive quantities, similar in character to the metaphysical concepts of illumination and enlightenment; satori; nirvana and so on. Socrates was right on track in saying that he knew he was not a wise man because when we pretend to that throne; claim the virtues of knowingness, all such virtue vaporizes leaving us frustrated, confused, disappointed. I have written some things regarding life development, using my own OEO formula, mentioned in some comments left on this blog*.
My list of wisemen and women is short and includes Samuel L. Clemens, Ayn Rand and perhaps a dozen others.
The criteria I use are probably too generous, but, they work for me.
(OEO=Observations, Experiences and Opinions)

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, September 24, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

TRUTH

TRUTH
KNOWLEDGE IS THOUGHT
EDUCATION INCREASES THOUGHT
WISDOM IS TRUTH
ENLIGHTENMENT REDUCES THOUGHT
TO A SINGLE SIMPLE TRUTH
ONENESS OR EQUALITY
THE SINGLE SIMPLE
WISDOM OR
TRUTH
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, September 25, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

There is a formula Ken,

There is a formula Ken, wisdom can be written as well as spoken.
Unfortunately for most the truth cannot be read nor heard.
Here, I'll write it again:
=
MJA

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

There is practical reasoning

There is practical reasoning of the tangible, and perhaps practical wisdom is the practical reasoning of the intangible. And that practiced wisdom is also the balance of the two, and the action or pause required in balance.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

I just listened to this show

I just listened to this show on NPR in my car on my way home from class. I have to say that I am very disappointed, insulted, and astonished at the ending comments on Christians. You say that part of wisdom is humility, but you showed a lack of it. This topic also needs intelligent people speaking on it as well, which I discovered you were lacking in. A man called in and said it was wrong, if not crazy, for Christians to pray for wisdom. His lack of intelligence lead him to believe that Christians have God speaking to them constantly and we just do whatever some voice in our head say to do. (These were pretty much his words.) The hosts of the show just agreed with them. I can't remember exact words, but they were stating Christians were crazy and wrong to pray for wisdom. May I make a suggestion? If you are to comment on a topic that you have limited knowledge on and no experience with, it would be WISE to not comment at all. You should not make accusations or assume to know how another culture practices, or even how their practices work, unless you have verifiable knowledge on it. It would also be WISE to humble yourself to say you do not have a knowledge base in a subject instead of letting your prejudices run your mouth. I just began my Elementary Philosophy class this week and from what I've learned thus far has increased my wisdom base and knowledge about this study than it seems it has you in your whole career. I hope you take to heart what I am writing and know that I was so interested in what your response would be to that man's statement, but was completely disappointed in your inadequate response. Even more, you mentioned earlier in your show the significance of how the bible views wisdom. I suppose that makes you a bit hypocritical as well... I pray that God helps you to gain the wisdom to see the errors in this matter. Amen.

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, September 28, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

"It's not what you don't know

"It's not what you don't know that gets you in the most trouble; it's what you know for sure, that isn't so."
People have a tremendous capacity to fool themselves. Those truth seekers who -- for whatever reasons -- have the ego strength to question their own motives and conclusions, usually are humbled by just how much they don't, or can't, know for sure. This can spur them to great heights of careful, more objective scholarship. Thus, we often find that scholars who succeed in probing beyond the obvious or superficial are often remarkably humble.
Tragically, wisdom born of being thus humbled, usually does not win the day politically. Especially in the face of a more visually energetic, manufactured certitude. Left or Right, the masses are drawn to certitude. Part of societal accumulated wisdom is to let a polarity develop among the masses, keep the sides in balance, and arrange for the pendulum to swing. This serves as instruction for the newest batch of would be wise people. The most the already wise people can hope to achieve, is to dampen the momentum a little as the pendulum swings.
Perhaps the biggest benefit of mass democracy is not that it produces good decisions, but that it saves us from larger pendulum swings that involve more bloodshed over generations.
Wisdom born of seeing our tendencies to fool ourselves, will always be a rare gift. Most people would find such an experience devastating and debilitating. What they want is enough certitude to face the day. "Still a man he hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest."

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, September 29, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Isn't wisdom a condition

Isn't wisdom a condition anyone can find themselves operating from at different times. I think we find the wisest to be people who often operate from this spot. I am sometimes acting, feeling and or thinking wisely. Sometimes not. As I age I think more of my positions become wiser. I also would say that arriving at ever greater wisdom is a function of the following. I have learned to operate as though I know what I am talking about with many different issues, but have also learned to temper the intensity of my belief in my own opinion with say, a 15% reservation in that degree of belief; due to the fact that I could just be wrong....................again. I think this technique or practice covers many areas and ways of thinking about things. It tends to include others opinions as a resource as well as looking for other sources of information than my standard ones. I think that it also tends show me that it is not my opinion as the gold standard in any situation that is most important although I feel free to argue that way; it is the process of defining and redefining issues and answers in an unending life of ideas. There is no stopping place, nothing is finally "answered". There is and should always be more to be said.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, September 29, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Kudos to all commenters!

Kudos to all commenters! Whether I agree or no, it is good to read OEOs*. Loved Mr. Wain's quotation of Simon and Garfunkle. And therein lies a large part of who we are---and who we want to BE. All of this keeps us on our toes. And that, is the important thing---seems to me.
(*Observations, Experiences and Opinions)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Saturday, October 1, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Well, well, well...the

Well, well, well...the cauldron has been stirred and the witches are all askew. Once again,gentlemen, you have chosen a topic that inflames both theologian and philosopher*.. As Van Pelt has noted, it does not matter what any of us believe, espouse and/or write. There are some rights and wrongs---of this I am fairly certain. Further, affiant sayeth not...Goin' back to university-when I die.
(*scientists are just amused---because they know better, but, do they? How fast is light anyway? If it were slower, would that help us cure cancer? Just a thought---those haunt me a lot these days.)

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, October 1, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

To me, wisdom means inner

To me, wisdom means inner guidance, inner knowledge and inner depth. Thanks for sharing.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, October 1, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

"... and the wisdom to know

"... and the wisdom to know the difference." Isn't it the sum of experience and past learning being applied to a new situation? Obviously not a question of "facts" which are always open to interpretation anyway; the term "life lessons" come to mind. And is it on a spectrum the opposite of which is "common sense," which could be defined as a cultural norm of reaction to a stimulus. Is wisdom cross-cultural? I know some wisdom can be said to spring from the mouths of many much younger and less experienced than I; their inter-personal intelligence is clearly higher and guides their interactions "wisely."

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, October 2, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

Insight

Insight
The fountain of wisdom springs from One's true self.
It can be found everywhere and in everything.
Have you not seen it in the light of a childs eyes?
What about a sparkle on a river that flows by?
Which Way does it go?
Which Way are you going?
Have you not gazed upon the ocean and saw the glimmer of your own self?
Have you never stood in a forest and swayed with the trees?
You've never looked at the stars and saw the trinkle of your own eyes?
Surely you can see,
Can you see?
Yourself?
=

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, October 12, 2011 -- 5:00 PM

John and Ken,

John and Ken,
I earned myself a D in philosophy at school! Funny how much I enjoy your show now, close to ten years later. I would like to say that my poor grade was the result of "bucking" the teachers point of view, but the truth is that I cared more about boos and girls at the time. Priorities-right?! Well, here is my point: in my life I have found that there is nothing that sets us apart in living a good life more than discipline. This is the foundation on which wisdom is built. I would apprciate your thoughts.
Sincerely,
D-

Guest's picture

Guest

Sunday, April 15, 2012 -- 5:00 PM

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