Wisdom? Bleep That!

Wisdom: “the ability to judge what is true, right, or lasting; insight.” That’s the first definition from the online American Heritage Dictionary. 


The Indo-European root of the word “wisdom” is weid, to see. Which means that “wisdom” is related linguistically to “guide,” “wit,” “idea,” “history,” and of course all the English words derived from the Latin videre, “to see,” such as “vision” and “evident” and “clairvoyant.”


Now look at this Google graph showing the frequency of the word “wisdom” in books from 1800 to 2008:


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There’s a story here, don’t you think? Because look at a comparable graph for the word “information.”


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So here are a couple of questions:


  1. Does the average person ever think about wisdom? As, say, something to which he or she might aspire? Or value highly?
  2. To the extent that people today think about wisdom, what do they think it is? And how might it be acquired?


The Greek historian Herodotus tells the story of Croesus, who long ago had a great empire in what is now Turkey and vast wealth from it. A visitor from Athens arrived at his court. Croesus commanded that this man, Solon, who had a reputation for wisdom, be guided through Croesus’ treasuries. He then had Solon brought to him. “Of all the men you have seen,” Croesus asked, no doubt smiling broadly, “who do you judge the happiest?” Solon answered: “Oh, this guy I once knew named Tellus, who lived in Athens.” Croesus was flabbergasted: “How can you say that? Don’t you see how powerful and wealthy I am?” “Well, here’s the thing: while Tellus lived, his city was flourishing. His children were beautiful and good. He lived to see his grandchildren. And he died trying to help others, for which he was honored by his country.”


Much later, Croesus was himself defeated in war by Cyrus the Great and his vast empire taken from him. He was left with nothing. As he stood upon a pyre, about to be burned alive, he thought of Solon, and said to himself: “Solon was right. No one, during his lifetime, can be deemed happy. Just look at me.”


The moral of the story? Clearly, wisdom is not something you find in a book titled 8,789 Words of Wisdom, or Wisdom: 365 Thoughts from Indian Masters, or Wisdom of the Ages at Your Fingertips: 6,500 Quotes from Over 1,000 of History’s Greatest Minds. All of which I find on Amazon when I search on “wisdom” in book titles.


No, it’s something you have to come to yourself, through experience and reflection, if you come to it at all. Which means that you acquire it after the period in your life when it would have been of the greatest benefit to you.


And what’s worse, the wisdom that you acquire after a lifetime of flailing about, making mistakes, suffering the consequences, and drawing lessons from it all — that wisdom is largely wasted on other people. It’s not information, after all. It’s not even knowledge. It’s the “ability to judge what is true, right, or lasting.”


There’s no way to package that into a self-help book.


Or you can talk until you’re blue in the face: the young person you’re hectoring may listen respectfully, but she will have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s like trying to describe the color red to someone blind from birth. Or a Bach concerto to someone born without the ability to hear.


So it’s clear to me why that line in the first graph dives after the first couple of decades of the 19th century. If it takes the better part of a lifetime to acquire wisdom, and if it has little value to anyone beyond the person who’s acquired it, then it can’t be commodified.


And if it can’t be commodified — turned into something that can’t be bought and sold — then it might as well not exist, in our system.


So I suspect the answers to my questions are (1) most people in this age do not aspire to wisdom, and (2) to the extent that people think about it, it’s reducible to maxims, e.g., “act the part, and you will become the part.”


But if wisdom is in essence an ability to see, then it’s not so much a thing to be valued in itself, but for what it makes possible. Which, for an older person, might very well be (to take one of many possible examples) a commendable self-restraint, a holding back, which may allow a younger person (a child, friend, co-worker) to live her own life, to make her own mistakes — basically, to have the opportunity to acquire her own wisdom.


Or here’s another example. Wisdom may make it possible for the person in possession of it to love other people even when they’re doing everything they can to be unlovable. 


If that’s true, then we abandon the aspiration and search for wisdom at our own peril. Because the alternative to that, to loving our fellow human beings, is isolation, despair, nothingness.


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