What is wisdom?
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When people are asked what they’d like in life they typically respond that they want to be happy. Wisdom, which we might think of as a remote and highfalutin concept, is not such a popular answer. But, in practice, happiness is flimsy, relatively unpredictable and best thought of as something that may visit us if we create the right environment for it. A practical, everyday sort of wisdom – the ability to make good choices and judgments in life – is the stuff we need to negotiate life’s sharp bends.
There are many lists that attempt to reduce wisdom to its core ingredients. Perhaps it’s unwise to try and come up with the definitive recipe but some skills and attitudes seem especially crucial. Being wise is about knowing what’s important; having sufficient insight into how we and others tick; having a handle on negative moods and emotions instead of being controlled by them; having an attitude of curiosity and a love of learning; understanding we’re all in the same boat and therefore being compassionate towards ourselves and others.
One of the most important skills is captured in the serenity prayer, which says that wisdom is knowing the difference between what can and can’t be changed. This requires performing a balancing act between striving to maximise our potential and accepting our limitations. So we enjoy life while appreciating its fragility; we make decisions in an inescapable state of uncertainty, knowing we’ll often get it wrong; and we accept we’re the product of our circumstances and have limited but crucial opportunity for self-improvement.
Wisdom is not something that automatically comes with the passing years. While older people may be better able to put things in perspective than their younger counterparts, many never put their life experience to good use. Luckily, some of the skills that make us wise can be cultivated, so it’s up to us to make what effort we can to ensure that our experience bears fruit.
Not so long ago, it seemed to be the professional duty of philosophers to deny that they were beard-stroking sages engaged in the pursuit of wisdom. Instead they were rigorous, rational, logical problem-solvers who would no more give you advice on how to live than historians would tell you how to time travel.
Anglophone philosophy has since become a bit more comfortable expressing its sagacious side. But even when philosophy is not concerning itself with the good life, wisdom is still at the heart of the discipline.
The kind of wisdom I have in mind is an intellectual virtue that cannot be reduced to cleverness or raw IQ. Without it, philosophy becomes a kind of game, the solving of logical problems generated by other philosophers for no apparent reason other than that it gives them all something to do.
I remember realising that a lot of philosophy was like this when I came across an apparently important problem concerning the time of a killing. Fred shoots Barney, and Barney’s bodyguards shoot Fred dead. Barney hangs on in there for a while and dies later. Fred clearly killed him, but when? Not at the time of the shooting, because you can’t have been killed if you’re not even dead. But not when Barney died either, since you can’t kill someone when you’re dead yourself.
Although I am assured that this has serious ramifications for the metaphysics of events, I cannot believe it matters for anyone other than the philosophers who argue about it. After all, the absence of an agreed solution has not stopped murder cases being solved or quantum physics dealing with much more bizarre states of affairs.
For me this is an example of intelligence without wisdom. Intellectual wisdom is the capacity to not just solve problems but to see which problems matter and which of their aspects are crucial. In that sense it is a kind of good judgment, an ability to identify what is truly important. Cleverness by itself may be enough to get you a good career in philosophy but it is wisdom that gets you a legacy.
The Shrink & The Sage live together in southwest England
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Illustration by Laura Carlin
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