No one has asked, but the topic fascinates me, so I will ruminate again briefly on the nature of wisdom. I have noted in a previous blog that it is not mere information or knowledge, but it is knowledge of what is appropriate in any given situation. In addition to a wealth of experience, either direct or vicarious, it requires a great deal of common sense and a willingness to proceed slowly. It demands the imagination to anticipate outcomes and consider alternatives. This, in turn, requires a sense of history and if not knowledge of human nature then certainly knowledge of human tendencies. It is more intuitive than discursive, though critical thinking is certainly involved: one does not simply stumble ahead blindly. But if we think of intuition in its primitive meaning of intellectual sympathy and acknowledge that the feminine aspect of the human psyche (the yin of Chinese philosophy) is where we usually find sympathy, it is not surprising that women are frequently wiser than men. I dare to use this sort of language despite the fact that we are told we must deny fundamental differences between men and women. In any event, as intellectual sympathy, intuition is contrasted with discursive thinking which regards the object of knowledge as standing over against the subject; intuitive knowledge is an immersion of the subject with the object. Herein lies the basic nature of wisdom: becoming one with the object. It is not knowledge, it is understanding and it requires a balance between intuition and discursive thought, with emphasis on the former.
Accordingly, if I were to list the wisest thinkers I have encountered in my intellectual travels I would certainly list George Eliot at the top (especially in Middlemarch and Felix Holt, Radical) — as mentioned in a previous blog. I would also list Edith Wharton (especially in The House of Mirth and Fruit of the Tree) who knew the people around her well and understood the flaws as well as the strengths of the age in which she lived and wrote. I would also add Jane Austen in all of her novels. Among the men who seem to have abundant common sense and are highly intuitive, but also exhibit the balance noted above, I would list Plato’s early “Socratic” dialogues (especially “Apology,” and “Euthyphro”), Dostoevsky (especially in his novels The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment), Hermann Hesse (especially Narcissus and Goldmund), Huxley in his Brave New World, Joseph Conrad (especially in Heart of Darkness), Cervantes, Swift, the Greek poets, and, of course, Shakespeare. I need to get to know him better, but it is quite possible that Ralph Waldo Emerson should be added to the list. Fewer women appear on this list than men, of course, because for so many years women were denied the opportunity to express themselves seriously in print. Indeed, for so many years they were not taken seriously at all. Now we would have them all turn into men in order to become “successful.”
As I said in that previous blog on the subject, J.D. Salinger’s fictional character Franny was absolutely right: we don’t talk much (if at all) about wisdom in our schools. Part of that may be the result of the academic gender attacks that have disallowed the distinctions between ways of thinking that I would regard as essential to an understanding of what wisdom is. Be that as it may, we teach to the tests, as the teachers say, and undervalue imagination, and the poets and writers who have so much to teach us. If this seems like an indictment of an academic culture that is mired in ideology and focuses on testing and outcomes, that preaches that “no child should be left behind” and which pushes young people into narrow “career” channels from which they emerge with a smattering of knowledge about a few things so they can make a living — if, I say, this seems like an indictment of that culture, then so be it.