Looking over my previous post, it seems to me that lurking under the surface of my argument there is a deeper concern: how do we move beyond trying to feel that we’re right, and actually begin to become wise? In that, I think I might be moving a bit against the grain of Western culture; in this place and time, calling someone “wise” is still considered to be a compliment, but it’s not necessarily the sort of compliment that breeds emulation. We may recognize wisdom as a good thing in the abstract, but I don’t know that it’s something our culture really prizes all that much.
Indeed, I’m not at all sure that as a culture, we’re even all that clear on what wisdom is. We tend to get it mixed up with the other things that we think of as related to our minds, with knowledge and understanding and intelligence—which isn’t helpful, because wisdom isn’t any of those things. Granted, to exercise wisdom, it helps to have a lot of knowledge, but there are many people for whom great knowledge just means the chance to be greater fools. Similarly with intelligence; intelligence can amplify wisdom, but it can’t increase the number of wise options available. It can, however, allow for the invention of lots of new ways to be foolish. Understanding is good and necessary, but we can begin to take pride in our understanding, and when that starts to happen, it can lead us astray very quickly. As the saying goes, logic is often nothing more than a way to go wrong with confidence.
Wisdom, by contrast, is all about being able to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s about facing the questions, “Is this a good idea, or not? Is this the right thing to do, or not?” and being able to answer those questions correctly. It is the ability to perceive the best thing to do—and then to go and do it. If someone can tell you what they ought to be doing but doesn’t go out and do it, we don’t call them wise, we call them a very particular sort of fool. Wisdom isn’t wisdom until we put it into practice; it’s all about how we live. Wisdom is about doing truth, not just knowing truth.
(Partially excerpted from “True Wisdom”)