People who read the books but fail to understand the wisdom of the sages are slaves of the letter. This is a paraphrase of some pithy wisdom taught during a Dharma lecture by one of my gurus a decade ago. He had stated that to abide by the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law requires a fair amount of wisdom by a magistrate and a citizen. One must be judicious when implementing such a policy, otherwise villains and felons could more easily skirt punishments. Yet an ethically wise person does not need the law in order to be discouraged from harming the well-being of others.
We are offered many opportunities to glean our wisdom each day. We might discover it written in the form of pithy sayings and quotations served up as memes on social media, or we may stumble upon wisdom by paying attention to our own actions, mistakes, and successes at the “school of hard knocks”. We eventually learn that wisdom encompasses knowledge but knowledge does not necessarily encompass wisdom. Of course, wisdom includes knowing when and when not to implement knowledge.
So, what is wisdom? One risks being labeled as an elitist or pretender when attempting to address this question, especially in today’s climate of anti-intellectualism. Many people form the idea of wisdom as something philosophers from ages past learned and taught in ancient times by and from bearded elders; the arcane wisdom was then passed down through the ages and can now, only be found in dusty books buried in the dark recesses of libraries. Wisdom is thought to be unfashionable in this age of instant information, pseudo-science, and impulsiveness.
When we delve into the etymology of the word “wisdom”, we discover that it is derived from the root “weid-” which is a Proto-Indo-European term which means “to see”. We have been plucky enough to name our own species “Homo sapiens”, which indicates “wise man”. In my opinion, this is a misnomer given our frequent lack of wisdom as a whole. Wisdom is one of those words that is best defined in negative terms–that is by saying what it is not. Shakyamuni Buddha stated that a fool who sees his own ignorance is thereby, by default, a wise individual. Socrates is considered wise because he knew the limits of the little knowledge he possessed.
Yet, we cannot limit wisdom to just spouting off that we don’t know everything. Being ignorant, cynical of knowledge, or contrarian does not create a wise person. Looking deeper, we search for non-negative standards with which to define wisdom. We might say that wisdom encompasses the possession of discerning standards and methodology to believe data. Aristotle taught that according to his concept of wisdom that it is “the understanding of causes”. It is akin to intuition but is fortified with experience and proven knowledge. We approach wisdom by acquiring and knowing the what, how, and why of the relations between things or between people. There is a measure of a lack of attachment to views and opinions. This includes the willingness and ability to envision paradigm shifts or to understand the nature of life from different perspectives.
In my opinion, wisdom is a kind of acquired knowledge that prepares us for life’s surprises and pitfalls. It includes hard scientific data, yet understands the limitations of such data. Wisdom seems to be a combination of empirical knowledge and perspective that can be applied to practical life circumstances and discussions. Oftentimes, wisdom is revealed by epiphanies about the “bigger picture”. There are catalysts that help in the development of wisdom. They include: objectivity, open-mindedness, intelligence, the ability to reflect and contemplate, along with a healthy dose of courage.
The Blue Jay of Happiness loves the twisted wisdom of the Major League Baseball legend, Yogi Berra. “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”