Is there really such a thing as wisdom? (Part 1 of 2)

Is there really such a thing as wisdom? If so, can it be taught?

Featured Responses

  • Henry Alford

    You write about wisdom at your own peril: here is a topic as ineffable as a Rembrandt and as slippery as a bar of soap. Worse yet, one person’s wisdom is another person’s cliché — try explaining how, over the course of the last fifteen years, you’ve come to realize that your alcoholism has damaged both your liver and your soul, and the world will issue a tired chorus of “You only hurt the one you love.”

    And yet, some things must be said. As lightning bug-like as wisdom seems, it does indeed exist. It seems to reside most vividly in — and is most powerful to us when it is related by — those who have overcome adversity, be that adversity medical, historical, financial, romantic, or meteorological. I speak of blues singers. I speak of poets.

    Such an observation may be another person’s — i.e., your — cliché, but I make it because, as it turns out, the observation is not what many psychologists would have us believe. The preeminent study of wisdom is the Berlin Wisdom Project, started in 1984 by quantitative psychologist Paul Baltes. In it, respondents were asked to weigh in on hypothetical vignettes, such as, “A 15-year-old girl wants to get married right away. What should one/she consider and do?” According to Baltes and his colleagues, the wise answer to this question is a response that would strike most of us as both tentative and bet-hedging: “Marriage is typically not a good idea for 15-year-olds, but there are certain instances — if the girl is an orphan, say, or has a terminal illness, or lives in a different historical period or culture than our own — when marriage might work out, depending on the girl’s state.”

    I grant you, such painstaking and sensitive analysis is 100 percent on the money, but frankly it exhausts me. If I thought this way, I’d have to take August and September off. No, give me the wisdom that burns bright; give me the wisdom that whacks me across the face like a much-needed slap. The face-slappingest piece of wisdom I’ve ever come across is that of a Moken fisherman in his mid-sixties on the morning of the tsunami in 2003. The Moken are nomadic tribesmen and animists who live in the Andaman Sea of Indonesia. Their understanding of the ocean that rivals most oceanographers’. Almost amphibious, they learn to swim before they walk, and they can lower their heart rates to stay underwater twice as long as other humans. On that dire morning in 2003, the fisherman’s survival of other, smaller climatological disturbances during his lifetime prepared him for this more serious one. Noticing forebodings of trouble — the way in which the tide receded abnormally, the way in which the buzzing of the cicadas dropped off, the way in which the dolphins headed out for sea — he directed his fellow tribe members to climb a mountain. All of the tribe save for one member — a disabled man unable to run — made it to safety; the fisherman thus saved literally thousands of lives.

    Though the definitions of wisdom suggested by the Berlin Wisdom Project and the Moken fisherman would seem to be at odds — the former retreats into the cushions of the therapist’s couch while the latter burns a trail up a mountain — what unites them is a kind of omniscience and selflessness. To be wise, these two examples suggest, is to be able to turn off the noise of your own life and become a kind of hyper-empath — someone who can not only understand what the 15-year-old girl is feeling, but what those around her might be feeling, too; someone who is not only sensitive to the fluctuations in oceanic tide and fauna, but who can imagine what bearing these fluctuations might have on the world around them.

    William James once famously said that wisdom is knowing what to overlook. But it’s also knowing how to imagine.


    Thurber Prize recipient Henry Alford is the author of How to Live: A Search for Wisdom from Old People (While They Are Still on This Earth) (Twelve).

  • Rabbi Shmuley Boteach

    An old Jewish saying has it that the difference between the wise man and the clever man is that the clever man can extricate himself from a situation into which the wise man never would have got himself in the first place.

    Ours is a smart generation. We are the most educated and prosperous people of all time, capable of things so complex that they would have been seen as miraculous just a generation ago. We can send images and text across the world in the time it takes to blink an eye. Small devices in our cars can guide us perfectly from one address in New York to another in San Diego without error. We can even cure many forms of cancer. On the other hand, things that seemed so incredibly simple and intuitive not too long ago are now utterly beyond us. We don’t know how to stay married. Inspiring our kids to make positive, moral choices is challenging to us. Heck, with all our money and high standards of living, we don’t even know how to be happy. One out of three American women is on an anti-depressant, and the United States consumes three-quarters of all the world’s anti-anxiety medication.

    Why do difficult things come so easily to us while easy things are difficult to impossible? Because being smart involves mastering the world around us, while being wise involves mastering the world within. Smart is the ability to manipulate people, nature, and the elements and bend them to our will. But wise is the human capacity to find the one transcendent essence that underlies all things. King David was smart and used his cunning to conquer his enemies and build an empire. But King Solomon was wise and presided over a period of peace and prosperity.

    Being smart involves the ability to compare options and solve problems. But being wise involves an ability to intuit the options before they become problems. While smarts employ our higher cognitive faculties and human reason, wisdom taps into the human capacity for foresight and vision. Smarts comes from books and facts. Wisdom comes from experience and living. The smart man, through the process of marketing and manipulation, can conquer the world. But the wise man, by having values and discipline coupled with the benefit of hindsight, can conquer himself.

    In my counseling of men and women I’ve often seen that the Talmudic adage of men being smart and women being wise is accurate. This is not to say that women are any less intelligent than men, only that they have what modern-day sociologists would call “emotional intelligence,” a wisdom born of insight and intuition. Men think they know women and use their cunning to conquer them. But women first know themselves and then extrapolate beyond their own experience to understand men. The smart man thinks he wants sex and is clever enough to know how to get a woman to acquiesce. But the wise woman knows she wants intimacy and waits until the man understands that as well. The smart man seeks recognition and therefore learns how to move markets and shake money from trees. But the wise woman knows that money should never become a currency by which to purchase self-esteem. Men talk about sports, things that involve conflict. Women talk about relationships, things that involve connection.

    When taken at face value, the Beatles’ statement, “I don’t care too much about money, ’cause money can’t buy me love” doesn’t seem very smart. It’s too simple and obvious. But given that most people have yet to learn its lesson, perhaps the longevity of the lyrics lies in the profound wisdom it contains.

    Smarts are showy and ostentatious. Wisdom is hidden and humble. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom,” the Psalmist declares. Where cleverness shouts (Look how clever I am!) wisdom whispers (I am inwardly confident with nothing to prove).

    Since it is outwardly focused and externally directed, being smart is no guarantee that you’ll be wise, especially when it comes to your personal life. Indeed, smart people are often the most complicated and the least serene. Paul Johnson’s 1990 book, Intellectuals, demonstrated just how monstrously warped the personal lives and values of some of the world’s leading intellectuals — Rousseau, Marx, Tolstoy — could be. But the same is true in more modern times. Albert Einstein was one of the smartest men who ever lived. With his intellect he could create universes. What he could not do was master the microcosm of his own family. When, in 1917, his son Eduard got sick with lung inflammation, Einstein wrote to his best friend Michelle Besso, “My little boy’s condition depresses me greatly. It is impossible that he will become a fully developed person. Who knows if it wouldn’t be better for him if he could depart before coming to know life properly.” As if this statement weren’t shocking enough, he then ruminated concerning Eduard to his friend Zanger about employing “the Spartan method” — leaving sickly children out on a mountain to die. One cowers in disbelief to witness a once-in-a-millennium intellect deliberating about whether to allow his own child to perish through starvation.

    Robert Oppenheimer, who built the atomic bomb, had an immensely troubled personal life that included trying to kill his Cambridge tutor with a poisoned apple, attempting to strangle a close friend, and carrying on a long affair with his mistress well into his marriage. His daughter Toni tragically committed suicide.

    In our nation today, we see that America is a country that is smart but not wise. The erosion of our economy is a manifestation of our short-sightedness. We all knew that rampant materialism and insatiable greed would force a collapse. Had we had wisdom we would have decided to replace material greed with spiritual hunger, choosing to grow vertically through enlightenment and increased stature rather than horizontally through greater consumption and increased possessions.

    Now, all we can do is pick up the pieces of our broken economy and our broken lives and discover once and for all that smarts without wisdom is just not that intelligent.


    Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s newest book is The Blessing of Enough (HarperOne). Follow him on twitter at RabbiShmuley.

  • Roger Scruton

    Wisdom is learned more easily than it is taught. But unless taught, it is learned too late — learned the “hard way,” through disaster. The Greeks counted wisdom among the virtues, and their philosophers wrestled with the question of how virtue might be taught. We still struggle with this question. We know how to teach scientific, legal, and historical knowledge — there are textbooks devoted to these things, and they can be studied, memorized, and put into practice. But there are no textbooks of moral knowledge, and no curricula which guarantee a virtuous student at the end of them. All that we have are stories, maxims, works of art, and dialogues, from which the student must somehow acquire by osmosis the virtues which they invoke.

    Wisdom is a part of character. A person may have a mind chock full of information and experience, but make only unwise use of them — as Lenin made unwise use of his historical and philosophical knowledge, and Hitler made unwise use of his experiences of war. Character is a matter of habit, and habits can be educated. Hence we try to instill in our children, at the age when they are receptive, the habits of mind that will make them lovable and trustworthy. These habits are what we mean by the virtues. They include courage — the habit of pursuing the good in the face of threat or danger; temperance — the habit of restraining appetite for the sake of the good; justice — the habit of respecting others when self-interest tempts us to abuse them. To teach such habits is difficult, since a child will understand the reason for acquiring them only when he has acquired them. You cannot give a selfish person a motive to cultivate justice, since he does not see the point of it, just as a gluttonous person does not see the point of temperance or a coward the point of “sticking your neck out.”

    Wisdom is in rather a better position than the other virtues. Even the unwise see the point of it, for even they recognize that information and experience must be applied if they are to be useful. Wisdom is the virtue that enables us to make successful use of our store of knowledge. We may have a lot of knowledge and use it unwisely, like Hitler; or we may have a little knowledge but use it well, like Saint Joan. We use knowledge well when we direct it towards long-term satisfaction rather than short-term pleasure. The wise person is one who, through his thoughts, feelings, and emotions, directs his knowledge towards the good. He is the one who can look back on his actions without shame or self-reproach, and who adopts in all his projects the point of view of Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator.” He may be unfortunate, like Saint Joan — but his misfortunes will not be his own doing. In himself he is directed to the good — that which is good for himself, that which does good to others, on whose opinion he depends, and that which is good in the perspective of his own conscience.

    One sign of this frame of mind is deference. The wise person defers to the opinion of others, seeking guidance when others can reliably provide it, and criticism when his plans may be at fault. Wisdom is not a virtue of individuals only: institutions too may possess it or lack it, and succeed or fail accordingly. The English common law is an institution guided by wisdom. It seeks impartial justice from the clash of rival opinions and desires; its method is one of self-correction, and its goal is the long-term resolution of conflicts. The Soviet Communist Party was an institution without wisdom, which could accept no public criticism, and never mended its ways. And since institutions educate their members, a society of unwise institutions is prolific in the production of unwise people. Hence the institutionalized insanity that reigned for seventy years in the Soviet Union, and which required that its critics be locked away in psychiatric clinics.

    All across the world today we see the emergence of political institutions and political agents who do not have the elementary signs of wisdom — who are unable to take a critical view of their own conduct, and unable either to learn from opposition or to permit it for long. From the Iranian presidency to the European Commission, we encounter a new style of politics, in which temperate and judicious decisions are replaced by non-negotiable plans. This loss of wisdom has two major causes: the building of unwise institutions, in which top-down control encounters no bottom-up correction; and the saturation of the human brain by television. Thanks to television, knowledge is reduced to ephemeral flashes, short-term excitement is displayed as the ultimate goal of human life, and politicians begin to think only of how to make a splash on the screen. People wonder how Islam could have produced a character like President Ahmadinejad. It didn’t. He is a product of television, just like his critics. But he would have been marginally less grotesque had he not also been shaped by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, an institution that shares the top-down structure of the Communist and Nazi parties, and is therefore unable to criticize its own deeply flawed agenda.


    Philosopher Roger Scruton specializes in politics, aesthetics, and religious issues. He is author of numerous books and articles including most recently Beauty (Oxford University Press). He is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. 

  • Amitai Etzioni

    Wisdom is the capacity to make good judgments based on reflection, knowledge, and experience. Despite the fact that wisdom seems driven by information and intelligence, it is important not to overlook that it also has a normative foundation. A wise person chooses, or counsels others, to follow a morally appropriate course. Hence, we do not refer to wise thieves, let alone wise assassins or wise tyrants. While a wise person must be morally good, a good person need not be wise. Goodness can and often is based on other sources (such as character education) and other virtues (such as empathy and capacity for self control).

    Wisdom should not be confused with a high IQ, first of all, because intelligence can be used to ill purpose. A person with a high IQ may rob banks more efficiently than one with a low IQ. In contrast, wise people do not rob banks. Unlike IQ, wisdom benefits from experience. Experience, when properly distilled, protects our judgments from decisions based on abstractions or unrealistic models; it is essential to wisdom because there are severe limits on the extent to which we can understand the world by collecting and processing information. In that sense, wisdom bridges the gaps in our knowledge and protects us from its inherent shortcomings. As a result, wisdom is much harder to measure than either IQ or knowledge. Because one cannot test for wisdom, people often differ about who is wise. Also, regrettably, there are no ready ways to determine if previously imparted wisdom turned out indeed to be wise.

    Knowledge is a closer concept to wisdom than a high IQ or a command of great amounts of information. Knowledge entails distilling information, finding ways to digest it, and drawing conclusions from it. Gaining knowledge is a major step toward acquiring wisdom; however, one can command a great amount of knowledge, especially of the specialized kind (such as legal or medical), and not be wise. This is most likely to take place when knowledgeable people have not benefited from experience. Specialized knowledge by itself also does not wisdom make. We expect a wise person to have broad horizons, a sense of where his understandings and insights fit into more encompassing wholes.

    Wisdom is a source of authority. Many people in numerous situations look for guidance when they are faced with choices. They may seek it from traditional authorities, religious ones, or public leaders — or from people they consider wise (sometimes referred to as sages). Although, of course, traditional religious and public leaders may all be wise, wisdom is not the only or primary reason they are trusted for guidance. In contrast, when someone is known as a wise person, his authority is derived from his command of his experience and knowledge and the successful amalgamation of both.

    People find wisdom not only in persons they respect but also in books, proverbs, heuristics, and “rules of thumb.” Whether or not the latter lead to wise decisions or merely provide assurance is subject to controversy. Not all that sounds or seems wise contains wisdom. Hence, ultimately, each person must judge which course of action he will follow and take responsibility for it, rather than lay fault at the feet of those who counseled him to follow that particular course.


    Sociologist Amitai Etzioni was the first University Professor at The George Washington University, where he is also founder and director of The Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies.