A reader says
I totally didn’t get how any of the things you were talking about had to do with WISDOM. I got the making choices thing but I am not connecting the dots on how that is wisdom…
I thought that if there is one soul brave enough to ask, there must be others trying to puzzle out what in the cat’s fuzz I meant as well.
I see wisdom as a very practical kind of everyday thinking, a skill that you can develop rather than something you either have or don’t have. You need a little book learning, the capacity to read a situation and the ability to use that information to make a wise decision. It’s not all life and death and cutting babies in half. Perhaps wisdom is just a highfalutin way of saying common sense.
Anyway, in an attempt to clarify further, let’s start with the definition. According to dictionary.com, wisdom is
- knowledge of what is true or right coupled with just judgement as to action; and
- scholarly knowledge or learning
- there is other stuff too, but it’s not relevant to the discussion at hand
My original values formulation contained the notion of growth as a spiritual thing. It was a way of challenging my beliefs and assumptions, and I used the example of nasty brussel sprouts not actually being that nasty after all. It was a simple example, but the same kind of thought process can be applied to bigger, more controversial issues such as when it is okay to kill a person, and if you can kill one then why not another, and what makes a person a person anyway? These things are BIG things, things that you might imagine in the “Wisdom of Solomon” category.
The values formulation also contained the notion of developing my mind, but at that time,I expressed it in terms of decision making. I didn’t provide an example, so to drag a bit of beauty into the argument; I hope to renovate my bathroom at some point this year. In order to make wise purchase decisions, I need to do some research about what products are available, their features and benefits, practicality and attractiveness and compare across product lines. Or to draw on friendship, once I discovered that lilies are bad for dogs, I chose to start removing them from the garden. And the same when I found out that plums are noxious weeds here because they readily self-seed, and in the national park they crowd out native species with follow-on impacts on the creatures that depend on the native plants. These things are little things, wisdom that comes from learning.
If you were so inclined you might add another category for nous. It’s an Ancient Greek word commonly used in Philosophy to describe the mind and its capacity to understand what is real. In modern usage, it describes a kind of street smarts, or perhaps cunning. Or common sense… This covers the kinds of things you know without knowing how you know, arcane country knowledge passed down through the generations. Things like knowing when the milk is about to sour, and having the feeling that you shouldn’t walk down that dark alleyway.
And while we’re looking at our Ancient Philosophers again, let’s consider Plato’s Cardinal Virtues . They were originally a way of describing the citizen classes (on the assumption that the ruling class was the most complex kind of thinker) but they are also an interesting way of examining how a life can hang together without a religious foundation to guide it:
Prudence: making decisions based on critical thought and doing the right thing at the right time, e.g. telling the truth according to context.
Temperance: understanding and controlling yourself; temperance defends prudence from inner threats.
Fortitude: self-confidence and confronting challenges; fortitude guards prudence against outer attack.
Justice: obeying the law, treating others fairly, being motivated by concern for others.
I fear I may have just complicated the situation, so taking the above into account, let’s try a little thought experiment…
We’re in a thrift shop, and I’m trying on a dress to wear to a picnic with our friends. It doesn’t fit very well. You know I’m feeling fragile because I have been out of work for some time. You know I want something new, but can’t afford it, and would refuse your offer to buy something for me. You think I already have much nicer clothes in my wardrobe and don’t understand why I don’t want to wear them. You would be more than happy to lend me something to mix it up a bit, and you might even not ask for it back. You know our friends will gossip about what I am wearing and how I must have fallen on desperately hard times to turn up in that dress. You are utterly sick of thrift shopping and just want to sit down with a cold glass of nice wine somewhere pleasant that doesn’t smell musty. I turn to you and ask “does my bum look big in this?”
What do you reply?
 Plato, The Republic