Finding Wisdom in a Fractured World

We need to discuss the nature of wisdom more than we do. If we can't articulate at least some measure of what it means to be wise, how can we justify any notion of the good life or of the good society? At this particularly-difficult time when our country seems fractured down the middle, how can we not focus on the nature of wisdom?

With these thoughts in mind, I recently attended a lecture on wisdom. Unfortunately, the talk seemed long on words and short on substance. Recognizing my own limitations as a possible source of the problem, I tried to ask a few questions after the talk. I got no real answers before the speaker bolted. The question that sent him running was whether children and animals could be wise. I'll come back to that question in a moment.

As I left the lecture disappointed, I wondered whether the speaker had merely aired some requisite number of words for the speak-or-perish world of academia. I also wondered whether his possible lack of real-world experience limited his ability to speak about real-world wisdom. As I pondered these things, it eventually occurred to me that his speech and flight might prove instructive after all. I could use counterexamples of wisdom from these events to back my way into a possible definition of wisdom.

Taking this approach, it seemed clear to me that a wise person does not dodge questions about wisdom, that she faces head on those and other obstacles in her quest to live a good and proper life, that she does not speak simply to speak, and that she does not speak authoritatively about things beyond her present abilities. These attributes of a wise person then seemed to me consistent with the following working definition: wisdom is the art of grasping and taking the journey most appropriate to one's station in life. Six implications of this definition then seemed (and seem) particularly important to me:

First, the wise person recognizes that life is a journey. As Cavafy sings in his Ithaca, the wise person savors the journey and does not miss life by focusing solely on the destination. I wish I had learned this lesson much earlier in life. The wise person also sees others in a similar light. He sees them in light of their over-all journeys, not merely in light of how their journeys go wrong from time to time or how they end. He also understands that good and ill fortune help direct each person's journey, that no one's journey is simply of his own making. I hope all this brings tolerance and respect for others.

Second, the wise person does not run from questions or other potential obstacles. He faces them head on and embraces their learning opportunities even when discomfort is involved. He understands along with Leonard Cohen that "Hallelujah" does indeed apply to times both good and bad.

Third, the wise person understands why we run from questions that we might not be able to answer, and why we wrongly avoid other obstacles or risks that we should face. Our default emotions have evolved to lament loss more than to celebrate gain. As Daniel Kahneman points out in his wonderful book Thinking Fast and Slow, we have evolved to avoid loss even at the cost of gain. This originally made good sense in the wild where risk of loss more often involved risk of losing life or limb. This makes much less sense in the modern world. Losing a debate over the nature of wisdom hardly equates to losing a leg. In fact, fear of loss in such a case results in loss of something precious -- possibly understanding the nature of wisdom. Understanding this primitive loss response can turn one's life around -- I also wish I had learned this lesson much earlier in life. (To put the point in more perspective, Kahneman believes our default response accords losses twice the weight of gains. Since losing a dollar has twice the emotional weight of making a dollar, we unnecessarily compound suffering and foolishly avoid sensible risk.)

Fourth, the wise person has a workable method to determine his appropriate journey. Nietzsche's advice seems a good place to begin when constructing such a method. Ask yourself "[w]hat have you up to now truly loved, what attracted your soul, what dominated it while simultaneously making it happy?" Examine these things in search of "the fundamental law of your authentic self." Then follow Nietzsche's additional advice: imagine an eternal return where you will have to take your same journey over and over again for eternity. Which journey would you have that be?

Fifth, the wise person has a workable method to determine whether he stays on his journey's course. This involves careful attention to experience, detail, and the willingness to accept criticism and advice from others. When experience does not play out as expected, the wise person without hesitation or loss of self-esteem adjusts his beliefs to avoid the disconnect. The wise person embraces with William James the " air and possibilities of nature, as against dogma, artificiality, and the pretense of finality in truth."

Finally, children and animals can of course be wise. The four-year-old child and her puppy who play in the yard and discover the flowers and birds both intuitively grasp and take the journeys appropriate to their early stages in life. Furthermore, as Walt Whitman notes, animals are not "demented with the mania of owning things," they don't kneel to one another or to others long dead, and they do not lie awake at night and "weep for their sins." Who can doubt that's wisdom?