In 1992, a close friend asked me to define the one quality I was seeking in a potential partner. I told him that I was looking for someone who was wise. He thought about my response for a few seconds and then looked at me straight in the eyes and replied, “If you are looking for wisdom, you will be searching forever.” At the time, my reaction was defensive and argumentative; but now I believe he was right.
Over the years, I’ve asked many people to define wisdom. A common response was, “Wisdom comes with age. The older you are, the more wisdom you have. It requires experience.” Another definition was, “Wisdom is knowledge. The more education you have, the more wisdom you have.” Others say that wisdom is the application of knowledge. None of these definitions seemed to answer the question for me. I knew many older people who weren’t wise. Wisdom didn’t seem to come naturally with age. It requires introspection, insight, and a willingness to think about issues and view situations from an entirely different perspective. Many people, regardless of their age, had stopped asking the difficult questions long ago. John F. Kennedy said, “I don’t think that youth is any presumption of vitality or old age any presumption of wisdom. It really depends on the competence of the individual.”
Wisdom is also very different from knowledge. I know many people who have spent years in universities but their “wisdom” is based only on textbook knowledge about other people’s viewpoints. Wisdom is much different from the memorization of information. T.S. Elliot once eloquently asked, “Where is the knowledge that is lost in information and where is the wisdom that is lost in knowledge? The application of knowledge may or may not be wisdom. It depends how the knowledge is used. Some people use knowledge as a way of gaining superiority over others, which clearly is not wisdom. Others use knowledge as a foundation for understanding life’s experiences, which may or may not translate to wisdom.
Correspondingly, some people told me that wisdom was knowledge combined with experience and for a long time, I believed they were right. However, I then met some wise people whose knowledge and experience were fairly limited. Since wisdom is a provocative perspective about life and human nature, it does not always require a specified combination of knowledge and experience (though both attributes may be correlated to the presence of wisdom).
After years of continual questioning, I was still left wondering about the definition of wisdom. Subsequently, I was reminded of the scene from Dead Poets Society when Robin Williams said, “Just when you think you know something, you need to look at it in a different way” and then he made all his students stand on their desks to look at the room from a different perspective. Maybe the symbolism of the scene most accurately depicts wisdom. It requires the ability to look at something familiar with the eyes of a child – the ability to keep an open mind about philosophies that seem indisputable and irrefutable. It forces you to explore issues that you thought were already resolved – to ponder questions that have already been answered.
The search for truth or wisdom rarely leads to concrete answers. Instead, the path towards wisdom becomes the “spark” that ignites a reflection of additional questions. With this realization, I felt that I had discovered a partial definition -- seeking wisdom is simply having the courage to ask another question. It is the strength that evolves from realizing that an “answer” evolves over time, rather than being the static conclusion that results from superficial examination.
As stated by Ally in Stephen Spielberg’s miniseries, Taken, “I don’t know what I’m going to be; what I’m going to learn. But what I do know is this – life, all life is about asking questions, not about knowing answers. It is wanting to see what’s over the next hill that keeps us all going. We have to keep asking questions; wanting to understand -- even when we know we’ll never find the answers. We just have to keep asking the questions.”
Wisdom in Ancient Greece
In Greek, a “lover of wisdom” is defined as a philosopher. The Sophists (ancient Greek philosophers) were traveling teachers of wisdom. In The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant explains that the Sophists “were all clever men and many of them profound; there is hardly a problem or a solution in our current philosophy of mind and conduct which they did not realize and discuss. They asked questions about anything; they stood unafraid in the presence of religious or political taboos; and boldly subpoenaed every creed and institution to appear before the judgment-seat of reason.” They believed that carefully chosen words and original ideas could change the world. Historically, the Sophists were criticized because they effectively trained their students how to win arguments through the clever use of logic and many opponents believed that the Sophists’ desire to win was greater than their desire to seek the truth (even though this was not their intention). Sophists were often accused of using fallacious arguments to make a point but this criticism usually came from the rivals who were forced to admit defeat. Through the use of irrefutable logic, Sophists could lead their opponents down a path where the opponents’ only option was to disagree with their original contention (which was also a common tactic used by Plato and Socrates).
Socrates is noted for saying that the more he knew, the more he realized how little he knew. His most famous quote was that “the only wisdom I possess is the knowledge of my own ignorance.” He did not claim to have wisdom but to seek it lovingly. A similar opinion to Socrates is expressed in the Chinese Tao-Te C.hing when it states, “He who thinks he knows, doesn’t know. He who knows that he doesn’t know, knows. For in this context, to know is not to know. And not to know is to know.” Lao Tzu also said, “True words aren’t eloquent; eloquent words aren’t true. Wise men don’t need to prove their point; men who need to prove their point aren’t wise.” An ancient Greek philosopher named Democritus also stated, “Do not try to know everything, or you may end up knowing nothing.”
Socrates felt it was necessary to create tension and conflict in people’s minds so that they could be freed from the bondage of ingrained myths and half-truths. In turn, he felt that a whole-hearted search for wisdom could create a liberated mental state through the process of continual creative analysis and objective appraisal. In essence, Socrates was a martyr to his incessant devotion for seeking the truth, which eventually led to his own demise.
According to legend, the enchanted priestesses in the Shrine of Delphi uttered Oracles in the name of the god Apollo. Chaerephon, a friend of Socrates, went to the temple and boldly asked whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates. In a trance, one of the priestesses proclaimed that Socrates was the wisest man in the land. When informed of this proclamation, Socrates was bewildered and began questioning the other men in the city. Although he believed that the gods would not lie, he thought that he could provide proof of their mistake. In search of the truth, he questioned many people but failed to find anyone wiser.
Socrates made many enemies during this process because he blatantly proved that his compatriots were not wise and he made others aware of this realization. Socrates was unaffected by his compatriots’ bruised egos because he strongly believed that the discovery of truth was much more important than ensuring that he was liked. Yet, not surprisingly, many people were insulted by his accusations and they refused to be subjected to this type of public embarrassment. Socrates’ enemies eventually brought him to trial and he was sentenced to death (by drinking hemlock) for corrupting the youth through his teachings and for denying the reality of the gods (he actually believed in one God). He could have saved himself at his trial by recounting his teachings or by agreeing to go into exile, but he then would have betrayed his own wisdom. He believed that he should never betray his insights and convictions simply because the majority of people judged them to be wrong. Socrates believed that if there is a true fallacy, a person should be corrected through education, instead of penalized through judgment. His close friends tried to arrange for his escape from jail (through bribery) but Socrates refused. If the courts of the land found him guilty, then he believed that he must accept their punishment (as a citizen of Athens he believed that he must live according to their rules – if one person breaks the rules, it sets a precedence for others to break the rules). Plus, Socrates was not afraid of death because he believed in the immortality of the soul. He said, “To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them; but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of all evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?”
The Socratic method (named after his inquisitive style) embodies the ultimate essence of wisdom. The discipline allows individuals to move closer to the truth through the process of discovery. By having an open mind and by believing that anything is possible, we can see the truth more clearly.
Many philosophers have said that the search for wisdom first requires a commitment to self-discovery. To understand humanity, we must first understand ourselves -- and our corresponding relationship to the rest of the world. How can we know about others without first understanding ourselves? In Apology, Plato wrote that, “the unexamined life is not worth living,” and the immortal words “Know Thyself” (that were carved on the Temple of Delphi) were considered sacred. Before psychiatrists can help patients understand their problems, they first must conduct their own self-analysis.
Lao Tzu says, “Knowing others is intelligence, knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” Kierkegaard also stressed the importance of knowing oneself. He stated, “A man may perform astonishing feats and comprehend a vast amount of knowledge, and yet have no understanding of himself. But suffering directs a man to look within. If he succeeds, then there, within him, is the beginning of his learning.”
Connecting to the Source
The search for wisdom is a natural path sought by anyone who seeks the truth. Socrates thought wisdom could be derived by connecting with the universal intelligence of the soul. In the same vein, Jung argued that wisdom could be obtained by connecting with the collective unconscious. Spiritual individuals may believe that wisdom is accessed by listening to our inner voice or by connecting to the universal consciousness through meditation.
The Kabbalah states that the search for wisdom is a path that allows us to connect with the Source of our creation and accordingly, they believe that wisdom emanates from the soul. In the book, Kabbalah, Kenneth Hanson says “There is a point where intellectual process will take us only so far, and after which we must come to rely on something higher, something greater than ourselves.”
Wisdom is often correlated with divine inspiration. Religious theologians, like Thomas Aquinas, thought wisdom was a connection to God. It seems reasonable to assume that obtaining wisdom requires a mystical, spiritual connection to an unknown source. This connection may explain why ancient wisdom from remote parts of the world appears similar even though these communities had no contact with one another.
The key to finding wisdom is the ability to think profoundly and to challenge the “truths” that are accepted by society. According to A History of Islamic Philosophy, Rasa’il says, “A seeker of truth must shun no science, scorn no book, nor cling fanatically to a single creed.” We must have the fortitude to tear down the foundations that created our assumptions and we need to seriously reevaluate the principles that have been ingrained in our psyches through religion, peer pressure or upbringing. In The Road Less Traveled and Beyond, Scott Peck says, “One of the major dilemmas we face both as individuals and as a society is simplistic thinking – or the failure to think at all. It isn’t just a problem, it is the problem… Thinking is difficult. Thinking is complex. And thinking is – more than anything else – a process… It is no surprise that many people resist the arduous efforts involved in continually monitoring and revising their thinking… When you make the choice for consciousness, learning, and growth, then you have also chosen the path of spiritual power.”
Wise individuals do not let fear or laziness interfere with their search for the truth. Instead of believing the criticism that they “think too much,” they understand that most people simply do not think enough.
Henri Bergson (20th century philosopher) also believed that wisdom is generated by questioning the “truth.” He said, “When we ‘prove’ or ‘disprove’ a philosophy we are merely offering another one, which like the first, is a fallible compound of experience and hope. As experience widens and hope changes, we find more ‘truth’ in the ‘falsehoods’ we denounced, and perhaps more falsehood in our youth’s eternal truths.”
Searching for wisdom means that a person has the courage to question preconceived belief systems. To succeed in the quest, the perpetual student uses the teachings of religion, psychology, philosophy and history as a basis for further discovery, rather than as the ultimate answer to familiar questions. In many ways, wisdom is like perfection. A person can approach it, without ever reaching it.
The Recognition of Wisdom
Many believe that wisdom can be developed by learning something new from every person we encounter. Every human being can be a teacher for someone who is willing to listen. There is an old saying, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” Deepak Chopra argues that evolution will lead to the survival of the wisest and says, “in India, the definition of a wise man is a ‘knower of reality…’ Wisdom is knowing about life as a whole.”
Wisdom can come with age because as a person gets older, there is more time to ask additional questions. Wisdom can also come with knowledge because the more that is discovered, the more there is to question. However, a lingering dilemma remains. When do you know when you have found wisdom? What is the difference between a wise statement and an insightful observation?
Some statements are called wisdom because they have held true for generations and the statements appear to condense a complicated concept into something that is simple to understand. For example, “Give someone a fish and they will eat for a day. Teach someone to fish and they will eat forever.” Or other wise proverbs such as: don’t count your chickens before they hatch, actions speak louder than words, or the best things in life are free. Many of these wise statements are categorized as “trite” only because they continually ring true.
Wisdom appears to be stronger than an opinion that is subjected to interpretation or disagreement. Wisdom is the “aha” feeling that something of deeper substance has been discovered. It seems to apply to an infinite number of people and situations, regardless of particular circumstances, background, heritage or experience. Discovering wisdom is extremely difficult because it could take centuries before the statement is recognized as being wise.
Sometimes wisdom remains unrecognized because the interpreter does not have the education or perspective to understand why a particular statement is wise. For example, the theory of Yin and Yang took centuries to develop. Words could never completely describe the depth and magnitude of its wisdom. The symbol of Yin and Yang began to represent the beauty of the concept. Even today, many have simplified the concept to a recognition that opposites can coexist. Yet, Yin and Yang is about flow and movement and most importantly, about balance. To understand the wisdom, a person must be able to appreciate why balance is such a difficult concept to comprehend.
The Kaballah is esoteric wisdom that is also difficult to understand (many believe that the Kaballah is based on a book written by Abraham). Its sacred and mystical messages existed before organized religion. The Kabbalah is extremely profound and takes many years to fully comprehend. Actually, only a small percentage of people truly understand its message. It doesn’t speak to people through their intellect; it seems to speak directly to the soul. During a period when I was exposed to profound spiritual experiences, I locked myself in a room to listen to a course on the Kabbalah. I felt that its secret was my only consolation. Even if no one could relate to my spiritual “awakening” (including myself), the teachings of the Kabbalah seemed to explain what I had experienced. The Kabbalah is ancient and mystical, yet its wisdom is immortal. It transcends religion and may be more appropriate for a more evolved consciousness. It was as relevant in 2500 BC as it is now. The timelessness of its insights embodies the essence of wisdom because wisdom has no timeline. In other words, wise statements sustain the test of time.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the word wise, as “having the power of discerning and judging properly as what is true or right.” The dilemma of the definition is obtaining agreement about what is true or right. Typically, a statement that is “right” is called a fact and facts can be proven through controlled experimentation and repetition of the observed conclusion. Opinions are not right or wrong; they are based on judgment and perspective. Is wisdom an opinion that appears to have the characteristics of a fact?
If I am looking for wisdom, I have to accept the fact that I may never find it. I may have the potential to become wiser by listening to the words of Socrates and by being continually conscious of my own ignorance. Standing on the shoulders of great philosophers, religious leaders and introspective thinkers may also help move me closer to my goal. Yet after years of study, contemplation, profound thinking and continual questioning, I will have to accept that I may never be wise; I will only be wiser than I am right now.