What is wisdom? Where is it to be found? Who is wise? The answers, of course, are varied.
William James observed that the art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook. The Talmud states that a wise person is one who learns from everyone. Elbert Hubbard wrote, “A wise man is a damn fool for at least five minutes every day; wisdom consists in not exceeding that limit.” Alfred Tennyson asserted that knowledge comes but wisdom lingers.
Psychologist Joan Erikson maintained that wisdom must come from life experience. It must be 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.
Over the centuries, thoughtful minds have recognized the gap between formal education and wisdom. Five centuries ago, Montaigne made this distinction while ridiculing a student of Dionysius: “His Latin and Greek have made him more conceited and arrogant than when he left home. He should have brought back his soul full. He brings it back only swollen; he has only inflated it instead of enlarging it.”
Robert Sternberg, a professor of psychology at Yale University for 40 years, developed a comprehensive theory of human intelligence.
He wrote, “When I looked at people like Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. and Mother Theresa 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. What matters is not only how much knowledge but how you use that knowledge.”
Sternberg is distressed that we are culturally conditioned to think of wisdom in Lincolnesque or Solomonic terms. “Actually,” he writes, “it is hard to imagine a greater achievement on life’s stage than to have been a wise parent.”
Does wisdom increase with age? Most investigators fail to find any convincing evidence that wisdom increases much from the age of 20 to the age of 90. However, there is good news. Many older people can significantly rejuvenate their cognitive skills through practice.
In his book From Philosophy to Neuroscience, Stephen Hall wonders whether wisdom is really desirable. “Lets face it: Who in his or her right mind would want the burden of apparent wisdom? The role of sage in any age deserves hazardous-duty pay. They sentenced Socrates to death. Nobody would hire Confucius, and nobody could protect Martin Luther King Jr. They mocked Pericles and despised Churchill and assassinated Ghandi.”
He is certain that if there actually were wise people in our midst today, they would be dissected, eviscerated, macerated and ridiculed on cable television and talk radio before we ever had a chance to figure out if they were truly wise.
Thinking about wisdom almost inevitably inspires us to think about ourselves and our relationships with the larger world. With diligence (and luck) it might even make us think how both can be made better.