Wisdom Revisited

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.


7 thoughts on “Wisdom Revisited

  1. Walt Whitman is the wisest writer and thinker I have ever encountered. A lot of his wisdom seems intuitive, as if he emerged from the earth knowing a great deal about the earth and its people — as if he were of the earth itself. Yet, he is clearly also a man who spent a great amount of time observing and interacting with the world, with people of all social and artistic strata, art, politics (he was an intense political activist in 1840s New York), athletics, and more. In other words, he had something innate, but also developed and evolved because he was so curious and empathetic — and then had the intellect to process all that he saw, heard and did in a way that continued to compound, expand what he knew, and how he applied it. That’s wisdom!

  2. (nice comment from dana, above!)

    welcome back! as i read your post, i read slowly and absorbed each sentence as you described the nature of wisdom. many of the traits that you listed are also traits of an artist, but two stood out. : becoming one with the subject. any artist who becomes totally focused on the subject will most likely agree – we become that subject, we absorb its essence, and yes, we have “…a willingness to proceed slowly.” maybe because some artists proceed slowly, we become the subject!

    most days i do not speak a word during those first awakening hours of each day, so ‘willingness to proceed slowly’ stood out more than the rest. it stood out, also, because i reflected on people i have known who ‘were’ not wise, who fall apart during crisis, who are easily angered, and they all seem to lack that ‘willingness to proceed slowly’ trait.

    every wise man (and woman!) who has touched my life has had that trait of proceeding slowly. thank you for great food for thought this morning!


    • I don’t know about artists in general (some of whom seem to work VERY fast!), but I am happy to give you the credit you deserve!


      • ha! yes, some artists are hurried, but when one learns to slow down and absorb/study what’s there, it’s an amazing facet.

        i still ponder your post/query that addressed the times when people have little feedback, and this morning i read both yours and btg’s and was not ready to reply to either – i did not want to break the ‘incoming’ thoughts with any outgoing ones. does that make any sense?

        i’ve been trying to figure out why i sometimes have immediate feedback and other times it has to incubate for a while before i respond..

        like my science teacher from long long ago, you have a way of injecting a new angle, one that hangs around for quite a while!


      • I take it as a compliment when you want to take more time to think about what I wrote!! Some things strike a chord and demand an immediate response, others not so much.


  3. Great post and welcome back. Two things – (1) I love Z’s comments about taking your time to digest. An old boss said “you have two ears and one mouth, use them in that proportion.” (2) A wise women that does not get as much acclaim as she should is Diane Rehm. If people do not know who she is, here is a glimpse: http://thedianerehmshow.org/diane. Her show is one of the more informative ones you will ever hear. Why? She is informed, but she probes and lets the guests speak. Take care, BTG

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