What Profit is Wisdom?

Posted May 14, 2012 by Jonathan Baron
With the wide popularity and prevalence of the internet, the wisdom of the ages and today is now glaringly available to us all.  What is wisdom? What makes something wise?  What's the difference between wisdom and intelligence?  Why do we value wisdom? Wisdom is the practical application of knowledge.  Many have argued that the truly wise are those that can act without being told to, that is, to solve a problem or even forego a problem entirely by acting.  Different cultures, societies, and religions have defined it uniquely in turn, but the overlap is startling.  In the Catholic tradition, wisdom is one of the four principal virtues, and Thomas Aquinas argued that it is the "father" virtue of all other virtues.  The Greeks believed it was something to be taught and valued.  In the United States, the school system was originally designed to teach morals and wisdom, which was undoubtedly influenced by the Greek tradition.  Regardless of the definition, the overlap seems to lay within a simple concept.  The degree of which wisdom has been valued by different peoples varies, but one thing remains constant: it is something viewed as positive and desirable.

Wisdom is also considered to be the defining trait of humanity.  That is, other animals may display intelligence, but humanity is the only one that seems to apply intelligence in a wide range of circumstances, with a wide range of results.  Even our very Latin designation, homo sapien, comes from the Latin "sapientia," meaning "wisdom."

Consider the ending to the Serenity Prayer, by Reinhold Niebuhr, "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference," (emphasis added).  Wisdom, then, is sometimes paring the sum of what we know, down into the things which will be to our benefit.  Consider also Lyn Yutang when he said, "Besides the noble art of getting things done, there is the noble art of leaving things undone. The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials."  Also, "The key to wisdom is knowing all the right questions."  Wisdom, while connected with knowledge and intelligence, is all about application, elimination, and self-realization.

Socrates, founder of Western Philosophy, said both, "As for me, all I know is that I know nothing," and the more powerful, "I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something, although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do. In this trifling particular, then, I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy I know what I do not know."

Repositories of wise sayings are often referenced as "Pearls of wisdom," that is, we as a culture value wisdom such that we attach a valued object (the pearl) to give the wisdom more weight.

Another commonality across cultures is the idea of "incorporation," that is, that wisdom is something to be used or incorporated in every life, and not just the legendary "wise man's," and that it typically comes with age, experience, and understanding.  In English speaking countries, the last teeth  to come in are referred to as the "wisdom teeth," as by that time one is much older than when the baby teeth came in.  "A man begins cutting his wisdom teeth the first time he bites off more than he can chew."

No matter where we are in life, we can always use a little bit of wisdom.  If we refuse this, then we must not be very wise (see above, with Socrates not knowing everything).  Wisdom isn't knowing the most, being the smartest, or memorizing a lot.  Wisdom is knowing the right things.  And remember: "Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit; Wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad."

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